WARM SOUP


I am going to tell you a story. My donstairsiker, Joe, does not know how to cook. He’s Japanese American, and although his Central Valley grandparents could farm and garden and cook almost professionally in their sleep, Joe just never developed an interest. My Chinese American landlord, Ben, once sniggered (good-naturedly – no malice intended) that Joe was – in his opinion – the most non-domestic man on the planet. Still, Joe loves to barbecue in a very man-cave sort of way, and when I finally turned the drab yard of our squat, walk-up rowhouse into an ever-more-serious urban garden, the tone of the place changed completely and he began barbecuing there every day it was not raining too hard. I fashioned a small, sandy area for his little grill and I arranged salvaged brickwork right next to it, so he had a place to lay plates and implements.

He has his whole routine down: He takes out that little aluminum chimney-thing used to prime the charcoal, lights it and waits for the billows of acrid smoke to fade into a warm glow of red coals. Then he dumps the coals into the cheap tripod grill and lays his chicken, which he has marinated overnight in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, on the grate. He sits back in his rubber clogs and gray sweatpants, swaddled in a coat if it’s chilly, and pokes it every so often. Before long it’s done and dinner is served. He keeps his hot pad and weatherproof clogs down in the yard on the broken concrete patio, so they are at the ready to do it again the next day.

If I am working in the garden at dinnertime, I and the plants will be doused in smoke. I usually stay weeding or tying up young legumes till I can’t take it anymore, though, and I try to talk to Joe about wine and movies, both of which he is quite fond and about which he knows a lot. I planted rosemary, of course – how can you not plant rosemary in a Mediterranean climate? – and told him where it was, where the variegated thyme and oregano were, and told him to help himself.

When winter weather is inclement, Joe cooks his chicken inside. I am not quite sure how he does it, only that when we come home, the stairway smells like fried chicken, fried burnt chicken. I have peered though the window on more than one occasion to try to catch him in the act. I can see he has a rice-cooker, but the rest of his kitchen is a jumbled mess of vinegar bottles, pots and plates and cheap, nondescript items, so I’ve yet to observe his indoor chicken methodology. What I can say is that it smells like he has submerged a wet chicken in smoking hot fryer oil. It smells – dangerous; and it usually instigates a conversation between me and Country Girl as to when are we going to get renter’s insurance already.

But the other day, climbing the stairwell through the familiar, lightly fatty reek, I felt grateful to be part of Joe’s culinary indiscretions, even if I am – at these moments – just an olfactory participant. I thought of the old brick apartments and SROs in Chinatown, where the old, mostly poor, people share one savorous kitchen per residential floor, yellowish paint peeling, coated with rancid oil, but kept neat and tidy by neighbors who congregate to cook their provincial dishes. They live so closely in tiny rooms, sleep on bunk beds, know in part by smell what their neighbors are doing. At the door to my flat, I took out my keys and felt wordlessly close to Joe and his endless fried chicken; we were a part of each other’s lives through our daily senses, our little activities.

I lived in Oakland, which I think of as ‘the suburbs,’ for a few years and could not wait to get back to San Francisco. It felt creepy having so much room between houses; the dark would fill in the gaps, the wind would blow between garages, and once I stepped away from my neighbor’s property and on to my driveway, it felt like I had entered another little country where lawn edgings were like national borders. It got quiet at night; my neighbors were out of the sightlines, there was no knocking on the walls or bustling about to hear in order to gauge where they were at or what was happening. And because owning one’s own home makes people think about their property values and neighborhood quality of life in a more proprietary way, people would make a special effort not to be too disruptive, which though it was sometimes appreciated, also felt oddly impersonal and unnerving. I rather like looking out across the city, watching the action to at least three blocks deep, seeing the brown-haired man futzing around in his aqua-painted apartment like a fish in an aquarium. I like knowing there are people below me, other pairs of eyes and ears, other monitors of trouble. I like watching couples make dinner, hipsters walk around on their roofs; I like spying satisfied house cats dozing at window panes, seeing the lights blink out, one after the other, between midnight and two a.m. and wondering who is that guy who stays up so late? The sleeping city is like a little black bear taking a short nap, monitored by crows, until the whole business starts again about five or five-thirty the next morn.

Urbanites understand well that feeling of lonely closeness, velvet anonymity. It’s hard for your busy-person self to get to know your busy-people neighbors, but that has become increasingly true everywhere. I have never felt more alienation than one year when I visited for a few days with friends of the Ex at a suburban neighborhood in Maryland. The house, though sterile, was large, nice enough, and the lawns, the side streets, the driveways were eerily the same; it appeared there was a code governing how they could be presented. The lawns were green green green crayons in a box and perfectly trimmed, the superficial quasi-Georgian detail of the home models looked glued on. There were no sidewalks! And people would leave their homes for work by getting into their cars while still in the attached garage – accessed via a doorway in the house, then open the garage door with a remote controller and roll out of the subdivision. They came home the same way – their feet never once touched the street! It made me feel like I had been wrapped in some kind of fire-retardant lace calico prairie-revival fantasy dress and left in a well-appointed living room alone to perish.

In cities, we have at least the anonymous “each other” as we stare across the night sky at tiny figures silhouetted and listen to each other pound nails into the wall. I get a kick eavesdropping through my old gas wall heater to the people in the building next door – the steel box amplifies their voices. I don’t know what they are saying most of the time, but the hum is amusing, except when they have their occasional raucous party and even then I feel a little bit like I am in on the fun, too. And since we share walls, we share heat, waste less of it and pay less on heating bills. Perhaps it’s more a function of the regional culture, but I will nod to neighbors on my street, even those I don’t know. And we like to feed people and throw our doors open on occasion to those we do get to know.

I have had profound consciousness-expanding experiences in wild areas surrounded by tall trees and wide skies; I mean really tall trees – ancient redwoods and huge mountain pines; and really wide skies in the Great Basin. I know in my heart there is something needful in the human encounter with wilderness or even just a temporary aloneness within the integrated framework of an earth-bent ecosystem. This can only be had in sparsely populated landscapes where humans are on an even playing field with cougars, snowstorms, lightning, swollen creeks and fungi. I know from my experience that if aware I would shortly die, I’d most want to be wheeled out under a clear black sky free from light pollution, somewhere in the high desert where the Milky Way is a thickly painted white strip glowing along the celestial roof, and scores of meteors flash by every hour. It is in that sort of place that embodiment best meets dissolution, that we can thoroughly give ourselves up to the ever-recreating molecules that formed in the galaxies, will fly from us and go make something else under the sky.

But in the everyday, we need each other. We were meant to be and live together. When you come to a traditional human settlement in a vast, rural space, it’s not spread out over miles; the people pitch their tents or huts or houses close – they make a settlement, a town, then they fan their fields or pastures around the hub. It was the garden I planted that made it pleasant in the yard, gave my neighbors and I an excuse to talk to each other, brought them out to barbecue, brought them down to sit and read the paper, brought their cats to chase moths and lie in the sun under the lush potato plants. It’s the bread we bake and food we cook to share that make us a community; it’s the stories and gossip we stop on the street to tell to one another – stories that inevitably make us late for something – that make our streets into neighborhoods, neighborhoods in the old sense, and not simply places we live in while we happen to own or rent them.

Anyone really looking knows that non-humans are a part of our communities too: not just our dogs and cats, but the wild birds that live in trees directly outside our windows and the trees themselves, the sowbugs that chew dead leaves into soil, the bumblebees that pollinate our garden-center flowers, the maddening raccoons. The other day, we ran to get the binoculars and peered from our back stairway: a merlin falcon had caught and torn the head off a songbird and was perched on the back stair rail of a neighboring building, zestily defeathering and eating lunch. We watched the scene for quite a while, and the next day, when I went down to weed the garden, I discovered a circular blast of feathers right on top of my greens-bed – the kill site right in my backyard!

I am pretty sure that one day we will have to leave this place. Eventually our building will be sold to be fixed up for resale or lived in by new owners, and eviction may follow. Or we will be ready to change our digs on our own; and it’s near certain we’ll end up in a more affordable but slightly less urban environment where I can plant a larger yard more intensively and we can warm up a little more, a couple miles inland from the cool Pacific fog. No matter where we live though, we’ll want to get to know our neighbors, visit each other, eat, drink and make plans together. And when we do that, we’ll make soup.

NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS, BE AN URBAN HOMESTEAD


To paraphrase one blogger: This is my urban homestead, but you can have your own.

When I was fourteen or fifteen and growing up in the Long Island suburbs of Manhattan, we were barely thirty miles from the great city, yet it felt eons away. When the Sex Pistols came to New York in the late seventies, there was barely a countercultural ripple amongst my peers; we just kept our enormous vinyl headphones glued on our still-soft heads and pounded Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd at peak volume. I may have been the only person in my high school class who read the Village Voice with any regularity, so I at least knew about the Sex Pistols, though as a nice Jewish girl I was unsure what to make of their violent yet inane profanity. And I was also – I am sure of this – the only person in my six-hundred member high school class who had a subscription to Mother Earth News.

“Mother” – as the hoary (founded, 1970) magazine was and is still known – was the primary organ for motivating strong, young, and usually poor counter-culturalists to fan across rural America and make a go of it, like the pioneers of yore. It gave advice on herbal medicines, organic gardening, livestock farming, raising a post-and-beam barn with your neighbors, making your clothes by hand, and otherwise turning American consumerist culture on its head. But it had plenty of room for those readers who were unable or unwilling to consider radical lifestyle changes. Not everyone could sell all they had and follow this Jesus; not everyone could tie on a flowing flannel skirt, go off-grid, grind her own baby food next to the fond, lambent light of a kerosene lamp in a woodstove-heated cabin, while her man, stroking his newly sprouted beard, puzzled out how to repair the primitive solar system out by the woodshed and tried to befriend the elderly, fifth generation farmer on the land next door without getting his hippie ass shot off.

Now, everyone in my family line – well, everyone that I know of, anyway – is from the wildlands of Brooklyn, New York City. And if my Russian Jewish grandmothers ever canned anything in their lifetimes, they damn sure didn’t brag about it. Yet even in concrete dominated Brooklyn, my father was taught to Victory garden by his father during World War II, when – like coming out to cheer the Dodgers – it was what loyal community patriots did. My father in turn taught me: I gardened with him from age eight or nine, and was always intimate with our lush neighborhood plants and trees in the eye-level, sensuous way children are close with nature. When I became a teenager, I extended the project by pressing old fish tanks into service to plant lettuce and radishes in my bedroom during the winter.

It wasn’t enough for me, though. Minus the hippie boyfriend, I really, really wanted to live like Homestead Woman; and in my fantasy, when I had done with college, somehow I would find my way out west to grow and can all my food, have a herd of chickens and goats, and — I don’t know — something. But it turned out differently and I became an urban babe, who, in part because I never really got enthusiastic about driving cars, had to do my homesteading in the city. I started college in Manhattan, and when I left New York, never made it to Alaska or rural New Mexico. Yet I did over the years travel west, living in urbanized parts of Colorado and then California, where I have lived nearly twenty-three years, still in a city, and one of the most beautiful in the world, San Francisco.

And in all those intervening years, even during a short stint in a tenement walk-up on the Lower East Side, I heeded hippie mama cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen as if it were religious script, read early permaculture texts like Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution”, made my own yogurt and granola, herbal shampoo and conditioner, grew a double-dug French biodynamic intensive method organic garden whenever I had space to plant one, baked bread, learned how to cook and can my own conserves and pickles, treated myself and my family with medicinal herbs, sawed down a chokecherry sapling to make a bow and made the arrows from cattail stalks, gathered my own fiber from pounded yucca leaves, experimented with soap plant lathers, learned how to rebuild a carburetor and rewired the top half of my girlfriend’s 1970 VW microbus, brewed a variety of fruit wines in my bedroom, and set up a hydroponic system in my apartment kitchen to grow fresh salads year round. In short, I became an abbreviated, perhaps primitive version of what today we’d recognize as an urban homesteader.

So no one can tell me in 2011 that the term ‘urban homesteading’ somehow has been newly coined (1). Many urbanites – like me – have been practicing some form of it for years, from a little here and there to an utterly comprehensive lifestyle. A recent tempest on a farm-lot has erupted, however, in reference to the seemingly unlikely event that someone would try to own and trademark what most understand to be a general term, and the resulting compost-slinging is an interesting study in what can happen when an American culture movement hits a critical mass of adherents. The controversy originates with the Dervaes family, a dad and his three grown kids (the mother has vanished: divorce), who have lived together in a suburban Pasadena house since the early 1990s and there have microfarmed the tenth-acre of their front and backyards so intensively that they produce at least three tons of produce annually, feeding themselves and earning their living by selling excess vegetables and edible flowers to Los Angeles area restaurants. Father Jules Dervaes, a conservative evangelical Protestant associated with Herbert Armstrong’s charismatic but controversial Seventh-Day Adventist spin-off, the Worldwide Church of God, home schooled his kids and sees his homestead, like many Mother Earth News adherents over the years, as a facet of ‘creation care,’ an environmental ethic with its roots in the Christian idea of a loving human dominion over Nature. From dad Dervaes’ early years using tips from that selfsame Mother Earth News, among other places, to practice country-style self-sufficiency skills wherever he was living, the family has expanded into chicken farming, greywater recycling, biofuel brewing, and all manner of home-based sustainability projects that they hope will lead them as close to ‘net-zero’ living as possible. In 2001, they set up a website and non-profit venture called “Path to Freedom,” its function to spread the good news and how-tos of living simply, abundantly and sustainably on small, urban and suburban lots. They use the term “urban homestead” liberally on their website to describe their micro-farm, and indeed, that’s what it is.

The urban sustainability community is large, various and decentralized. Some folks no doubt visit the Dervaes website frequently; some, like myself, have come across it here or there but have little interest in or need for it, and some are simply unaware of its existence. Intensive gardeners old and new have applauded the Dervaes’ radical self-sufficiency, but few imagined that they would get it in their heads to apply to the US Patent Office to trademark the terms “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading,” (among others), as if they’d invented them. But not only were they – astonishingly – granted said trademarks three years after initial federal refusal, they then proceeded to send legal notices to a number of bloggers, organizations, non-profits and small business people – even a public library – for using these terms without “crediting” them (here’s one blogger’s good rundown on the legal history).

Naturally, those letter recipients who did not fall off their chairs laughing, or perhaps after they had fallen off their chairs, were rightly bruised and outraged and began to take the news – like torch to newspaper – abroad the net. The backlash is such that social media groups were puffed into existence overnight to oppose the action and a petition is now being circulated to withdraw the trademark. I won’t go into detail about the entire history of the story as it’s been repeated skillfully and often enough; (here’s a good place to get the core details); but I want to address some of the issues we might see at work here.

Imagine for a moment Neil Young singing “old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you werrrrrrrrrrrrre” to some quiet, wise old guy down the road in his childhood Ontario town. Now imagine him dressing up like the old guy – (this may be the true origin of Young’s distinctive proto-grunge couture) – and then suing the geezer for stealing young Neil’s likeness. This may give you an idea of how the urban homesteading community sees the self-aggrandizing posture of Dervaes, Inc. In fact, we know the term ‘urban homesteading’ along with terms like it have been used since at least the mid-1970s, and we also know that the ideas and practices embodied in the broad term are becoming widely accepted by middle-class Americans far outside the original rim of first adopters. Spurred by a dispiriting and stubborn quasi-depression, backyard chicken farming, dooryard gardens and home canning seem to be spreading wildly; if not actually practiced, they are being discussed nearly everywhere. It’s suddenly become de rigueur even for the rich to make strawberry jam, or if not make it (it’s messy work), then at least to leave breathtaking jam-porn out on the artisan, reclaimed oak coffee table.

When a cultural meme reaches this critical mass point, when the disinterested majority becomes dimly aware that a once-marginal phenomenon has acquired a sheen of respect or a meaning that newly resonates with their lives, the inevitable happens: it’s bought – or stolen – by the big guys; it’s commercialized; it’s co-opted. It’s on the brink of wide social adoption, thus within seconds you should hear the competitive clatter of professional ad men sharpening their steak knives. Think for a moment about Madonna’s song, “Vogue.” It was huge; it went multiplatinum upon its 1990 release, and its video and imagery were ubiquitous, inspiring pre-teens to freeze their bodies into Yves St. Laurent runway contortions in suburban basements everywhere. It happens that what inspired Madonna was a dance, the vogue, that was invented and practiced at drag balls by groups of deeply marginalized Black and Latina drag queens, who gathered themselves into family-like ‘fashion-houses’ in New York’s Harlem. There were certainly “mainstream” people that saw Paris is Burning, the independent film about these brave girls, many of whom – despite an overflow of star-quality talent and fabulousness – were desperately poor, otherwise unskilled in the labor force, and too often rejected by their families. The film was ten years in the making and, unfortunately, released after the famous Madonna single; but no matter what the release date, the inventors of the vogue earned no money from it. Co-optation is well illustrated in the music world because therein it has been widely and creatively practiced, often ruining lives. Black rhythm and blues musicians from the 1940s-60s were routinely exploited, paid a flat fee to record, then swindled out of royalties for their compositions, many of them dying penniless well into our era while the record companies kept their masters (2). Disco, rap, punk rock – all began as bright rebellious arts fashioned in the underground by urban gay men, black, and white working class youth respectively, and all ended up as sanitized, plastic versions of their former selves. Countercultural movements are likewise co-opted at such moments. Remember the grassroots womens’ consciousness-raising movement of the 1970s? Hundreds of thousands of American women came together in living rooms and coffeehouses and gave voice to elements of their lives they had never before shared because they had either been kept from talking to each other by the isolating structure of the nuclear family or because of unspoken taboos on women who dared complain about “their lot.” When the cat was out of the proverbial bag, the entire culture moved a resounding step forward (in most people’s opinions, anyway), but forty years later, it’s more likely you’ll have to pay for an expensive self-empowerment seminar sponsored by one of many expressive arts or therapy groups than actually to meet with a surprised, terrified or emboldened group of regular folks who found each other to speak their truths over mugs of herbal tea. Parasitism by the economically powerful can be beneficial in that it moves the overall culture forward: The edges define a center, after all, and as the edges move, the center must creep in the same direction. Assimilation is the bitter price minority movements pay for larger acceptance. What’s interesting is that Dervaes and company have charitably offered that they trademarked these terms in order to prevent them being co-opted or ‘greenwashed’ by someone far worse, say, Whole Foods or Monsanto (3). Inexplicably, the urban homesteading community has not responded with gushing gratitude.

In fact, were the Dervaes’ truly trademarking “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading” for the reasons they present, I – and thousands of others – could understand it. It would be a guerilla move to shortcut the big corporations. However poorly executed the move, it would have been a use of the system ostensibly to protect a movement by and for the people. Such anxiety about hostile takeover is not too farfetched in this day and age when we have to worry about the possibility of “CORN®, by Monsanto.”

But that is not what they did. After having trademarked the terms, they launched what is in effect a legal ‘cease and desist’ instrument stating that any use of these terms for any for-profit purpose, including an amateur blog with a merchandise section, even, apparently, a lecture offered for a entrance fee, would violate their trademark and could incite legal action. In fact, even when used by a not for profit or personal venture, they instruct that the term be capitalized, have the Trademark ‘®’ following and that the individual “note in close proximity that the term is a protected trademark of Dervaes Institute”. This means that up to this point in the article you are reading, I have not yet been using the term
 URBAN HOMESTEADING® (as owned by the Dervaes family) correctly.

In the early 1940s, J.I. Rodale founded Rodale Press in order to spread information about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating at a time when industrial-chemical farming practices were on a stratospheric rise. In 1947, he began to publish Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, now Organic Gardening, which has become one of the most circulated and influential gardening magazines in the world. The history of Rodale’s thought and press operations is fascinating and tied up with the promulgation of organic farming practices in the 1930s and 40s in Europe. I won’t go into more detail here, but it’s hard to deny the incalculable positive effect that Organic Gardening and Rodale Press had on American sustainable farms and citizen gardens alike. If there is one organization that could plausibly have done what the Dervaes’ are trying to do, my money would be on Rodale and “ORGANIC GARDENING.” Thousands of people practice organic gardening; two-hundred and fifty thousand subscribe to the Rodale magazine. But Rodale never did try to trademark what was and is incontestably a general term. “Organic farming” – meaning farming without chemical fertilizers and pesticides – had been in rare use as early as the late 19th century and by 1940, popularized by Rodale and his authors, (some of whom were important but obscure innovators from the twenties and thirties), the term, although it was neither well-known nor widespread, got purchase in the counterculture.

One could argue that had Rodale lived in a more bloodthirsty time, had he experienced the Orwellian chills of our era, he might have done the same thing as the Dervaeses and under a similar rubric. But there have always been ‘evil businessmen’ who would happily do wheelies on the heads of little guys, whether in their horse-drawn carriages or their brand new Range Rovers. The Gilded Age, (which I discussed briefly in an earlier article), still may dwarf our own age for sheer, uncontrolled corporate exploitation. There have been and will be these dangers through time; Americans have lived through worse. Though one must refer to Organic Gardening, the magazine, in italics, or cite it as published source, that’s only common sense. It’s also only common sense to refer to URBAN HOMESTEAD ® website or the “PATH TO FREEDOM ®” businesses owned by the Dervaeses when one is quoting their work or materials. But it’s just as nonsensical to have to cite the Dervaes clan when referring to urban homesteading as it would be to mention J.I. Rodale every time one discussed organic gardening, perhaps more so. In light of this premise, which ought to seem completely logical to anyone who has not yet been kidnapped by a cult, it seems reasonable for the urban homesteading community to assume – as they are in fact assuming – that the Dervaes clan are taking these actions primarily to force anyone using these terms to drive business to the URBAN HOMESTEAD ® website. This would have the desired effect of setting them up as the figureheads of urban homesteading in the same way that most see Rodale as the founding daddy of organic gardening. I think the Dervaeses have big plans, and this is the first move in trying to do what they say they fear a larger company would do if they did not do it first. It’s a volley over the bow of a ship they hope they will pilot to bring everyone into utopian waters.

Capitalism is hard; the competition, you know? Whether you are a Christian conservative primitivist, like the Dervaeses; a middle of the roader into truly simple living, or a radical faerie pagan living on a communal farm, you will receive no compassion or support from the beautiful people in the global elite unless you are making money for them and furthering their high-stakes ways of life and simply brilliant ideas (like credit default swaps!). In place of the modest, individualist system described by Adam Smith, we’ve evolved a global, corporatist, allegiance and ethics-free, government-purchasing, unsustainable behemoth. It is not interested in saving or even improving a single life, much less the planet, unless there is money to be made doing so. The method by which it values goods and services is anachronistic and unsynchronized with how things truly work on the ground. It routinely externalizes the costs of destroying the limited natural capital of our earth – fouled air, water, food and soil; species extinction and ruined human health – to governments and charitable entities while it mouths platitudes of progress to the self-same governments and demands subsidies and tax breaks for its devastation. The global elite has no interest in or compassion for individuals and families that choose to live a different way. You’re either on the bus, or off the bus. Choosing to live a different way simply means any way unattuned to the de-ethicized, depersonalized, techno-consumerist directive of contemporary life in developed, or soon-to-be-developed, economies.

So if one is trying to make a decent living, having chosen to live in a way that – let’s face it – makes it difficult to make a decent living, one might feel short-shrifted for one’s trouble. Though I very much doubt the Dervaeses are consciously trying to make the big bucks and ‘get over’ on the community that has given them their primary support, I do think they are trying to find a way to aggrandize their personal and economic power in that community. Dad might feel that the lifelong, passionate project in urban sustainability to and for which he has sacrificed much, deserves more recognition than it is getting. Using the system, even in a way widely perceived to be unethical and exploitative by his fellows, might give him an opportunity to squeak by in the capitalist game just enough to take his project further. It’s not so much about the money as it is about the influence (which might also lead to some needed cash).

Dervaes may also be intellectually isolated enough in a heartfelt religious ideology to have developed a savior complex. In certain circles, the idea of “Father” runs a system of living harmonic hierarchies – (God > Jesus > Church > Male Heads of Household > Other Adult Males > Child-bearing Females > Other Females > Children > Animals > And So On) – that have deep emotional resonance with believers. If one thinks one has a natural warrant, or the moral authority to, like Noah or Moses, lead a remnant to a new paradise on a new land that will be shown to us, it might conveniently make one the Father of the First Family of URBAN HOMESTEADING. This would not be the first time someone had such inklings: American soil is littered with the magnificent bodies of utopian experiments in natural and “right” living, most of which were buckled directly to religious ideologies. Some survived for a time but eventually died out (the Shakers), some survived for a time and then turned into companies (The Oneida Community), some integrated into larger denominations (the MIllerites), some nosedived near as soon as they got off the ground (Brook Farm, Fruitlands), and some survived (the Mormons). Some, such as the Fundamentalist Mormon Churches that practice plural marriage, the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate, exploded based on internal and external pressures stemming from, well, their insanity. The entire English Puritan excursion in the American colonies was itself a macro-experiment in religious utopia of right living.

I think it’s germane that Dervaes has incorporated his business as a church, for the family certainly understands its work as a ministry. And I mean no disrespect; ministry can be canted toward the simply helpful and only tangentially religious, such as the ‘ministry’ of a food bank volunteer or of one who lends an ear to distressed friends or strangers. Ministry can also be a complete, profession-al way of life, paid or unpaid. The Dervaes web ministry, despite its tiresome self-congratulatory presentation, is on balance a beneficial one practiced with much less prejudice than if it were run by less self-aware zealots, and with a cautious open hand to the public. The homesteading and back-to-the-land movements, after all, have been great examples of gentle anarchism in the broadest sense: I may not agree with your personal beliefs, but we’ll hold a space open to discuss recipes and seedlings, composting and goats and solar power; we’ll cooperate, teach and learn as neighbors, survivors, allies. From the beginning of this movement, there has been plenty of room for tyros, freaks and motley fanatics, so other urban farmers not so inclined probably can forgive the Dervaeses for unspoken assumptions or quirky dreams of sanctification. What they will not forgive is the use of those assumptions, or the desire for gain or special recognition, to beat up on other urban homesteaders who have been pioneering these practices and ideas for decades. Dervaes may feel he deserves this perk: He’s the ark-steering patriarch, and we’ll eventually ‘get it’ and thank him later. I think – in the immortal words of George W. Bush, that he’s misunderestimated his fellows. Please, don’t do us any favors.

If such hubris – whatever its genesis (no pun intended, really) – has kicked up a bustle in your hedgegrow, it’s probably occurred to you that there is at least one old-school ignoramus with poor research skills working at the US Patent and Trademark Office. The blogosphere concurs this request never should have been approved. ‘Urban homesteading’ as used by the Dervaeses plainly does not constitute a distinctive nor a first use of the term. We understand that it’s critical to maintain our integrity through this process; the Dervaeses have the right to practice their business appropriately. We must not morph into a movement that eats the young it spawned, but it’s also unacceptable to for the children to eat the old. With my allies and fellow urban sustainability advocates, I suggest you go on with your bad self, keep urban (and suburban) homesteading, keep the grassroots alive, use the term when it suits, resist co-optation by big players and upstarts alike. In other words, never mind the bollocks, be an urban homesteader.
——————-

Please sign the petition to revoke the trademark on these two terms.

NOTE: The following blog post is interesting and draws attention to the word ‘homestead’ as a carrier of a racist history in the U.S., linked to the destruction of indigenous peoples and minorities. It is an interesting angle and worth reading, though I would argue that nineteenth century historical associations and terms have been largely recycled and re-meaninged with conscious and wildly different usage in our own era. I have no trouble using the term itself in this day and age. It is, however, worth looking at the pervasive whiteness of some of the movement and its whiteness in the media. It’s also a wake up call for bloggers and journalists to heed and include contributions of people and communities of color to the vital urban homesteading developments going on in many cities.

(1) Here are three early articles using the terms in Mother Earth News:

(2)

http://books.google.com/books?id=1SYEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA116&lr=&rview=1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

(3)
http://urbanhomestead.org/faq#n180

“Economic Hitmen”

A follow on to February’s article, “You feeling lucky, captain of industry, punk”: Here’s a wonderful little animation dramatizing a two-minute “elevator speech” about the exponential damage inflicted by transnational, corporate capitalism from John Perkins, a former consulting economist for big boys the World Bank, IMF and others.

Perkins is now working for global sustainability and economic justice. He’s the author of NYT bestseller, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” which reports the workings of said system in ‘insider detail.’ There have been criticisms that the book is short on supporting data, or paints with a broad and misleading brush. In the interest of fairness, Settle Down Radio must disclose that we have not read said book (merely liked and appreciated the candor of the video), but that we find it amusing that one of the more vituperative criticisms, from UK columnist Sebastian Mallaby (biographer of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn), notes that Perkins is a “frothing conspiracy theorist, a vainglorious peddler of nonsense,” citing alternative data and “disput[ing] Perkins’ claim that 51 of the top 100 world economies belong to companies. A value-added comparison done by the UN, he says, shows the number to be 29.”

[See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessions_of_an_Economic_Hit_Man].

So, nearly one-third but not one-half of the top 100 world economies are essentially in the pocket of global corporate businesses? Oh, well, we guess that’s OK then.

YOU FEELING LUCKY, CAPTAIN OF INDUSTRY, PUNK?


Fantasize with me for a moment that you are part of a very special group of peers. You and your friends have a special deal with your employers. Here’s the deal:

  • If you do a good job, you get paid spectacularly well.
  • If no one is sure whether or not you, personally, did a good job, you get paid equally handsomely.
  • If you do not do such a good job, that’s fine! Gracious hands slide your multi-million dollar compensation package to you across a conference room table.

It’s in your contract. I forgot to mention you and your friends have contracts, like all executives of American publicly traded corporations.

What has accounted for the contemporary business rules and historical developments that have lead to stratospheric growth in American executive pay? Between 1980 and 2009, the average CEO to worker pay ratio in the United States increased from 42 to 263 times, peaking at 525 times in 2000 and leveling off since the end of what I’ll call the ‘tech-housing boom-bubble.’ (1)

And not only is the average difference in pay between the top tier and the everyday worker two hundred and sixty three times apart, but these very rich fall into a plutocratic class that perches far above the ‘lower upper class’ of lawyers, physicians, and some media and financial professionals that make up what most other Americans describe in homespun terms as “the rich.” Such ‘lower upper’ professionals earn sums that afford a lifestyle almost everyone else on earth would describe as princely, but they tend to regard themselves as “merely” middle class, or upper middle class, and sometimes with resentment. CEOs, and others at the uppermost level of American economic life, earn so much more than they do, that even they – rich as they are (and they are) – feel dwarfed.(2)

James Suroweicki in a 2010 New Yorker column pointed out that “at the same time that the rich have been pulling away from the middle class, the very rich have been pulling away from the pretty rich, and the very, very rich have been pulling away from the very rich”:

“Between 2002 and 2007….the bottom ninety-nine percent of incomes grew 1.3 percent a year in real terms, while the incomes of the top one per cent grew ten percent a year. …Even within the top one per cent, income is getting more concentrated: The top 0.1 per cent of earners have seen their shares of national income triple over the same period. All by themselves, they earn as much as the bottom hundred and twenty million people.”(3)

The plutocratic class to which you and your friends belong – remember, we’re fantasizing here – not only commands salaries inconceivable to most of the planet’s inhabitants, it also benefits from the premiums that its wealth attracts in the way of dividends from and growth in equities and other financial instruments; these are the capital gains that the investing classes enjoy.

But you deserve it, don’t you? You’re experienced “talent” after all. It took a long executive search and tens of difficult interviews with lots of smart, crafty people to land you in your position. They had to battle you like a glittering prize trout from your previous employer, where you were being paid handsomely too. It was so inconvenient, losing the company jet, for instance. That’s why you insisted on a “make whole” clause in your new contract to replace the perks you left behind. No need for anyone to get miffed about it; such clauses are now standard in CEO hiring contracts. Of course, it didn’t hurt that some of your golfing pals were on the board of Widget Corp., your new employer. You worked with some of them back in the day. A few had become equally successful as CEOs of related firms. They would not dream of paying you less than the last guy at Widget, or even much less than they themselves got. And what would it say to the public about your new employer if – in its annual 10-K report – it noted that your total compensation was actually at or below the average for an executive of your class, (as reported by this year’s eagerly awaited Towers-Watson annual executive compensation survey)? It would look bad – really – it might make shareholders think we were not doing so well, like, we were just cheap, or that Widget did not have the cash on hand, or, heaven forbid, there was some doubt in the inner circle about the ongoing profitability of the firm. No, they had to pay you as much as Bob Thrum, the CEO of Widget’s nearest competitor. Hell, they had to pay you more.

After all, Talent is a scare commodity, traded on a tight market, right? We go out there: We roll up our sleeves, and we compete for the best guy – (or gal, no sexism at Widget!) – for the job. OK, so the last executive, Zelda Moore, was discovered having a clandestine affair with the Director of Operations, both married (at the time!), but that’s so beside the point. Zelda was a team player, an inspirational leader. She began those daily motivation meetings every morning at 7:30 am; she had the balls to innovate, to tighten the ship, to take the market by storm with bold new ideas, to cut expenses, et cetera, you know? And there’s just not much CEO material like that to go around. They chose you, by gosh; you were handed that gold baton and you ran and will run. You will run for the money, partner, because, as the global business world now understands, the primary bullseye for us is wealth. Oh, not just our personal wealth, but the wealth of the shareholders! The shareholders are primary in every decision. Clients, customers, employees, suppliers – yes, they’re important too, but only insofar as they help enrich the shareholders – the real owners of Widget Corporation. And Mr. Shareholder – you’ll want to say that to him - Mr. Shareholder, I want to say to you that if you hold Widget Corp for only a week, nay, a day, I want you to get the return on investment you deserve! As the CEO is enriched, thus are the shareholders are enriched – it demonstrates that we’re all coming up together. So relax, pat yourself on the back, have a sip of this rare, single-malt scotch sent over last Christmas by Bob Thrum. You deserve it, cowboy.

FANTASY OVER!

In the spring of 2010, Harvard Business School professors Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana published an article unpacking the history of and assumptions behind contemporary executive compensation. (4) What most normal people intuit as excessive CEO compensation they explained by a series of faulty and unexamined assumptions about and structural changes in American business practice. More importantly, the authors examine what these trends say about the relation of business to and its purpose in our society. For example, most Americans are at least concerned about and at most horrified by the 2010 Supreme Court “Citizen’s United” decision that gave corporations almost unlimited ability to donate money to influence public elections. (5) The decision is simply the most recent in the high court’s long history of serially affording ever more ‘individual personal rights’ to corporations. So we and they want to know: What kind of guy are you, Mr. Corporation?

Lorsch and Khurana identify several trends that have helped to smack executive compensation out of the ballpark in the last twenty-five years. The widespread use of compensation consultants for executive searches and public executive compensation surveys published by high profile consulting firms annually have crafted a mini-industry around the ‘pay game’ in high-stake business. Compensation consultants, standing on ceremonial ‘scientific management’ canards often stand to gain from the lucrative packages they help secure for the CEO pool in the form of further business awarded to them in the network of relationships they help create, This is analogous to how ratings agencies, neutral in theory, stood to gain from the genteel, mindlessly high bond ratings awarded to the mortgage-backed securities that helped crash the housing market in 2008. Consultants with complex networks of patronage often see the CEO as part of their client network and are happy to secure him or her with the highest pay possible else risk future contracts in the same patronage network. Too, boards of directors hiring a CEO are often current or former CEOs themselves, and the entire process approaches a class-insulated, backslap operation. After all, business is nothing if not a network of carefully cultivated relationships and personas that follow the businessperson throughout his or her professional life. Each work-related activity can be understood as inevitably influencing the next. “Never burn your bridges behind you,” the saying goes, “as you never know whose help you might need down the line.” In this way, cultivated roles and hierarchies take the place of actual ethical and even sometimes practical directives. Business executives will come to think of themselves as doing their “best by the business” even though what might actually be happening is that they are doing their best for the network of peers, superiors, consultants and patronage networks they’ve developed over time and which they hope might play a role in their future successes. (6)

And so personal gain becomes a convincing proxy for corporate success: “If I am being paid well, the company is successful,” when what might more likely be happening is that “What I am being paid is simply being withheld from the larger pool of my reports and their workers below me.” My hefty slice of the pie simply reduces the remaining portions for other stakeholders – employees, investors and clients. Yet the board has no choice but to pay me my stated gambit, else be seen as endangering themselves in the leadership “marketplace.”

As Lorsch and Khurana note, the near-totalistic transfer of corporate success predicated on “shareholder value” in the last twenty years has helped to bolster the illusion of “I win – we win.” For example, since corporations report executive compensation in the annual “Compensation Discussion and Analysis” (CDA) section of the annual 10-K report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), should it be shown hovering in a lower quartile, it might imply to the shareholders and public at large that the company cannot compete on salary and might not be doing so well. “As a result,” they write, “American senior executives are like the children of Lake Wobegon – all above average.” (7)

It was not always this way. The Gilded Age, obscene for its class ostentation, established the mythos and practice of mahogany-and-leather-chair capitalism that led to the mistakes of the Great Depression. Following it, a vast expansion of the American middle class was built on a massive scale-up of a new economy brought to you by plentiful and easily accessible fossil fuels wedded to World War II’s hefty economic stimulus. Whereas the Gilded Age was ruled by the legend of the ‘Millionaire’, the nineteen-forties through the sixties evolved newish, haute bourgeoise concepts of “traditional values” wherein ‘citizenship’ began to trump ‘wealth.’ The flourishing middle class congratulated itself on its broad desire for the equalization of fellows, all aiming for a sweet future – including a home, car, appliances, the good life – and it was all nearly in view. Paranoid anticommunism, jingoism, pervasive racism – these remained firmly in place but the society was rapidly on the move with new social and economic realities, and many really were more egalitarian.

In keeping with the new esprit de temps, in the fifties and sixties so-called “captains of business and industry” were routinely profiled as “Regular Joes,” responsible, predictable and loyal to employer and customers. Even top dog executives longed to be seen as everyday guys; the American dream – they seemed to say – could be yours, just as it has been mine. Executives in this era were not paid audaciously for their services or to sign up with a new firm. They were, one might say, first among equals.(8)

Malcom Gladwell in a 2010 New Yorker article on paying for talent quotes a 1959 Ladies’ Home Journal article:

“In 1959, the Ladies’ Home Journal dispatched a writer to the suburban Chicago home of “Mr O’Rourke,” one of the country’s “most successful executives.” …(T)he country had undergone extraordinary growth. But Mr. O’Rourke’s life was no more extravagant than that of his counterpart a dozen years earlier. He lived in an ivy-covered Georgian, with ten rooms. Mrs. O’Rourke, “a slim blonde in a tweed suit and loafers,” gave the writer a tour. “For our neighborhood this is not a large place,” she said. “You can see that we’ve made do with rugs from our old home and that this room has never seen the services of an interior decorator…”…”I’m president of one of the larger companies in the U.S.,” Mr. O’Rourke said, “yet chances are I’ll never become a millionaire.”(9)

Now, say Lorsch and Khurana, “the existing approach to compensation offers a poignant commentary are the kind of society we have become.” (10) That is, a society in which the means and ends are not related; one in which business, rather than a societal sub-system shot through with meaningful relationships both commercial and personal, has become a mansion of self-referential cabals controlled by greed and poorly disguised fantasies of self-importance. A simple contract or wage still governs the relationship between employee and employer but many are ‘at will’ and can be voided at any time. The contract between the executive and the corporate board is a more rarified instrument that affords this special employee and stockholder orders of magnitude more, but not necessarily for good reason. In my small businessman father’s day, a handshake and a personal pledge were all that was needed to engender trust among gentlemen in commerce, and in everyday practice, people working at corporations will behave as if within family-like societies, forming meaningful relationships with their co-workers and forming loyalties, sometimes ambivalent, to the employer. It often does not take all that much to make them happy. And yet though the corporate office will go to great lengths to generate this employee loyalty to the firm’s “persona,” it’s common knowledge now that this is a marketing message crafted to be sold to employees, its promise abandoned as soon as it is no longer in the corporate “person’s” interest. Employees, cognizant of this decades-in-the-making shift, regard themselves increasingly as free agents and some have gradually abandoned the loyalty they once reserved for employers. They understand the game as it applies to high-level people is not the same game being played with them, and they are trying to equal the playing field by withdrawing their services until or unless the game is fairer. In reality, their withdrawal has only cheapened their labor by creating a class of contractors and consultants, free agents regarded as easily secured, plentiful and cheaply gotten – even if the corporation has to find them in poorly paid developing countries, while the “free agency” of high level executives is overvalued and recompensed.

Free agency, in fact, is an apt metaphor for how executives see their roles in companies, and also how they expect to be paid. The underlying fiction is that there is a ‘market’ in which talent circulates. Boards of directors must make their packages attractive to competing ‘wannabe’ CEOs. This market assumption underlies many of the practices driving the increase in executive pay. Note a competing opinion that this is not a true market driven by a limited pool of resources/buyers, but rather a series of practices and negotiations on behalf of a group of powerful individuals driven to maximize their own personal profit. The only real restraints on the system in practice have been those required by the so-called “outrage constraint,” the predictable public firestorm generated when someone’s colossal compensation package goes public.

The compensation negotiation between the ‘free agent’ CEO, the compensation consultants and the board is supposed to be driven only by considering the company’s need to compete for marketplace talent for the good of the shareholders, as mentioned above. But the actual negotiation of egos goes something like this:

The board does not want to piss off the potential CEO or make her look bad in front of her peers. If she gets pissed off, a director might end up kicked off the board in the sort of hissy-fit drama that we see in Silicon Valley from time to time. Board directors can receive fabulous perks, and no one wants to give those up. CEOs and boards often have intertwined relationships, and in that manner alone, the “market” is certainly not “free.” Neither does the board want to make itself look bad or unprofitable to shareholders, so although boards must mind their ethics and reputations, this does not generally get in the way of a salary negotiation that will favor highly the CEO with little heed to what may happen to shareholders. In fact, certain pay-for-performance perks have led to disastrous results in CEO risk-taking. This has been especially evident in shenanigans of large financial firms that, by underestimating risk and overestimating their own brilliance, managed to created a profound mess in US financial markets. To put it mildly, this did not maximize shareholder value. (11)

So, senior executives think of themselves as free agents because they think of themselves as rare talent in a marketplace, but this would not have become axiomatic except for the development in the nineteen-seventies of the practice of paying for talent rather than for role. Lawyers, unions, agents and consultants had to apply threat to an insular managerial and often heredity elite that contractually exploited and routinely hoodwinked its talent professionals. This was a good thing and it began to secure for writers, singers, actors, musicians and athletes – all ‘talent professionals’, a fair share of pay and rewards from their ex-masters. Malcom Gladwell asks if it has since gone too far:

“A negotiation in which a man can get paid twenty-two million dollars for hitting a baseball is not really a negotiation. It is a capitulation, and the lingering question…is whether the scales ended up being tilted too far in the direction of Talent — whether what Talent did with its newfound power was simply create a new authority ranking, this time with itself at the top. A few years ago, a group of economists looked at more than a hundred Fortune 500 firms, trying to figure out what predicted how much money the C.E.O. made. Compensation, it turned out, was only weakly related to the size and profitability of the company. What really mattered was how much money the members of the compensation committee of the board of directors made in their job. Pay is…determined horizontally, according to the characteristics of the executive’s peers. They decide, amongst themselves, what the right amount is. This is not a market.”(12)

In fact, there is little indication that executive pay has anything to do with corporate performance, which depends on complex systems and not on one VIP. There is little truth to the notion that most CEOs are marvelously talented. One cannot compare the average CEO, talented in business though he may be, to a first violinist in a crack orchestra, a Cy Young award-winning pitcher, a star quarterback or even an author or actor. In these cases, there really is some consensual/critical yardstick for individual talent beside even cultural popularity or crowd appeal. An actor might shine above the performances of his fellows in a mediocre movie, but the success of senior executives always depends on the talent in the trenches below them as much as it depends on their own ‘vision.’ Vision is carried out by committees and delegated throughout an organization. Moreover, when an organization gets large enough, the vision of the senior executives is frequently nipped, tucked, undermined or ignored in practice by departmental or division heads when it seems to contradict their own successful but divergent practices. This is well camouflaged but hardly uncommon. In the end, who can say who or what actually created the conditions for success? Of course we also know by now – if we did not know before 2008 – that market forces beyond anyone’s control are as critical in a company’s success as is any bright idea offered by a single executive.(13)

Let’s return to our reverie for a moment, a place where we can be blessedly sure – based on the data – that our executive compensation will be plentiful no matter what sort of job we do. We have trust in our own abilities, in our vision for where we can take the company. We will not undersell ourselves; we know that we deserve as much as we can negotiate from our sympathetic and trusted peers on the board and in the widget industry at large; I mean, these guys know each other and are keeping tabs. Perhaps then we feel some – sympathy? – with the University of California top executives that recently threatened to sue the state unless it “agrees to spend tens of millions of dollars to dramatically increase retirement benefits for employees earning more than $245,000″ in accordance with an agreement made in better economic times. (14)

Here’s a good example of how an insular perception of self-importance among a managerial class can deflect any shot at cooperation or community enterprise. The gist is that, in 1994, the IRS created a rule that pensions can be calculated only on the first $245,000 of someone’s earnings. That means that if you take home, say, a million bucks a year, your employer can’t calculate your pension using that million; there’s a cap of $245,000 that you can be awarded for your annual pension. In 1999, high-level University of California executives requested that UC make a special request to the IRS to lift the cap and calculate pensions based on their total salaries. This was likely thought to incentivize the retention of executives, who could easily make more in the private sector, and lifting such caps is occasionally done by the Feds for non-profit or educational institutions like UC. Still, it took almost eight years for a waiver to be granted (2007), though no action was ever taken and the waiver ‘just sat there’, if you will. When UC Chancellor Mark Yudof along with the UC Regents began to mention revoking these caps in order to help save UC’s core mission (educating students and doing research, in case we’d forgotten), the executives fired off their portentous missive.

With federal and state funding at record lows, California’s budget in dire straits, pervasive layoffs at UC, pay cuts and freezes literally piled upon staff for years and years, large tuition increases for students now making it impossible for many to attend college, this bomb threat by UC execs finally struck the public’s “outrage constraint” button and created a very vocal backlash. Such citizen anger, apparent in op-eds, letters to the editor, blog posts, etc (and I did not see one in favor of the increases), may have been made more bitter by other recent disclosures of large secret “perks” and extra pay awarded “under the table” to UC executives in violation of policy that led to the resignation of University President Robert Dynes in 2007 (and figured in the suicide of Denise Denton, a UC Chancellor, in 2006).(15) In fact, in January, 2011, the California Assembly heeded the torch-toting mob and introduced a bill that would limit pension benefits paid to any highly paid workers in publicly funded retirement programs.(16)

In a case like this, it’s hard not to visualize the “lower upper” UC executives doing symbolic battle with their class betters at the top of the University administration and in the private sector: No one is more important than the executive is to himself in times like this because personal reputation and interpersonal power are at stake. Is this group preparing a lawsuit because it might be truly underpaid when retiring on “only” $245,000, quite apart from any defined contribution (401K, 403b) and/or private savings and investments? Or is it more likely that it feels cheated and devalued, ready to go to battle over the letter of the law and its sense of self-importance or wounded honor, with no thought for anyone else in the fabric of the educational-medical system it is part of: Students, professors, doctors, researchers, or the army of support staff? How would you handle that, Widget Corp. executive? Do you know how lucky you are, punk?

I’d warrant that there are talented people in the pipeline right now who could be groomed to do the jobs these executives are doing and would do them not only well, but would be untroubled by existing IRS pension caps. To paraphrase one peeved newspaper letter-writer, if remuneration equivalent to the private sector – which unlike the public system no longer offers old school pension plans – is more important to them than the overall health and public educational mission of their employers, then why don’t they go work there? As New Yorkers would say, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”

There are executives that are truly talented Renaissance individuals, über-competent visionaries that fundamentally changed the cultural game. There are also storied CEOs, who, like celebrities, become American legends. And like celebrities, they are sometimes paid out of proportion to the societal value they really create, if one does not define water cooler gossip as societal value. But this is not to disparage the great laurels placed on those that have added value – in incalculable ways – to the culture and the economy. Andrew Carnegie, Mary Kay Ash, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, the Google guys – all these people and hundreds more have helped construct legends in American business. Some hundreds are legitimately venerated, while some rather resemble celebutantes: Like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian they were merely lovely and lucky at the right time. Many geniuses, scientists, engineers, systematicians and artists, have done much more than they to create and maintain the things we value, yet remain unrecognized and are paid much less. As long as we consent to pay people for playing a role, or in deference to an imaginary market that traffics more in hearsay than substance, we devalue the millions of everyday working Americans whose phenomenal growth in productivity over the last twenty five years is the number one contributor to our fast-slipping affluence.

Perhaps spurred by the grievous missteps of the recent financial meltdown and severe recession, legislative and regulatory agencies are catching on: Just this month, the SEC introduced new “say on pay” rules that give institutional investors an opportunity to scrutinize, and a non-binding vote on, executive compensation and “golden parachutes,” contractual agreements that guarantee a package of benefits, such as cash payments, stock options or other perks, to the executive upon severance.(17) Rules like this are a step towards greater scrutiny of executive pay norms by a wider circle of stakeholders. Involving more interested parties can move the debate from its solipsistic closet out into the sunlight. Such corrections notwithstanding, there are other ways to do good business: Not all companies are run as linear, hierarchical inheritances, for instance; some are run as worker-owned collectives. Some recognize the creative fluidity of a flatter hierarchy, where the people on the ground have more input and can contribute innovative ideas. A participatory organization that recognizes input from and rewards all its stakeholders, like a flexible organism, is more likely to survive, thrive, and – when hurt – heal to live another day. Come to think of it, creative fluidity, flexibility, responsibility, relatedness, openness – those sound just generally like good qualities for people to have, don’t they? Those are the kind of friends I want.

(1) Figures from AFL-CIO: http://www.aflcio.org/corporatewatch/paywatch/pay/
A more comprehensive article can be found at the US Santa Cruz sociology website: http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

(2) Journalist Matt Miller on the “lower upper class”: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/21/AR2010042102508.html

(3) James Surowiecki, “Soak The Very, Very Rich,” The New Yorker, 16-23 August 2010, 33.

(4) Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana, “The Pay Problem,” Harvard Magazine, May-June 2010, 30-35. (Online access at: http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/05/the-pay-problem)

(5) For more information about the “Citizens United” decision, see Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._Federal_Election_Commission

(6) Such self-interest acting as proxy, consciously or unconsciously, for the public interest may have been a workable ideal in 1776, when social philosopher Adam’s Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” was published and most commerce was made between single person or family proprietorships or chartered companies in a much smaller and more intimate world. But that world and its power balance has changed radically and the abuses once merely inherently potential and that Smith himself warned against have become everywhere apparent. Such a discussion is relevant but beyond the scope of this article. You don’t want to have to read one hundred pages of this, do you?

(7) Lorsch and Khurana, 33.

(8) For a wonderful period portrait of America’s self-image in business and corporate matters, see Frederick Lewis Allen, “What Have We Got Here?,” Life, 5 Jan 1953, 46-57. (This can be accessed at the Life Magazine archives at Google Books:
http://books.google.com/books?id=QUIEAAAAMBAJ&source=gbs_all_issues_r&cad=1

(9) Malcom Gladwell, “Talent Grab – Why do we pay our stars so much money?,” The New Yorker, 11 October 2010, 84-93.

(10) Lorsch and Khurana, 34.

(11) There is an interesting discussion on boards and pay in Michael S. Weisbach, “Optimal Executive Compensation vs. Managerial Power: A Review of Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried’s Pay without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation.” Unpublished paper, 21 Nov 2006, available from http://fisher.osu.edu/fin/faculty/weisbach/bebchukfried.pdf; Internet, accessed 10 Feb 2011.

(12) Gladwell, 93.

(13) One of the foundational texts on pay and executive performance is widely quoted as: Lucian Bebchuck and Jesse Fried, Pay Without Performance. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2004.

(14) Nanette Asimov, “Highest-paid UC execs demand millions in benefits.” San Francisco Chronicle, 29 Dec 2010, 1.

(15) For information about the Denton suicide, see: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-06-24-chancellors-death_x.htm

(16) Laurel Rosenhall, “Assembly bill would limit pension benefits for UC executives — and others .” Sacramento Bee, 8 Jan 2011, 3A.

(17) See discussion in the Reuters blog article: http://blogs.reuters.com/financial-regulatory-forum/2011/02/02/u-s-corporate-shareholders-gain-more-frequent-say-on-pay-westlaw-business/.

Pool Rules

Right where you are, what do you notice? Who do you know? With whom and what do you interact? Neighbors, family, co-workers and friends? Beetles, grasses, crows, cats or raccoons? Flowers, vegetables and fruits? Gadgets and machines? Which of these resonates with you? Which seem important? Answering that question to yourself tells you a bit about your world – its size, its scope, and how it has changed over time.

So much has been lost in technically advanced societies as our cultures, bit by byte by inch by dollar, erode and shrink. Our status as persons, humans, and citizens is replaced slowly with a single, global status as consumers. Anything that does not serve the ends of global corporatism, anything that fails to bolster our status as effective micro-sites of production and consumption, has been relegated to the status of ‘unnecessary.’ Most of us no longer “need” good schools, because we don’t need to know overmuch to do the kind of work the corporate world desires. Most of us no longer “need” good health care, because only some of us really matter to make sure the business cycle turns over, and most of us are expendable: we can be easily replaced if we become disabled, sick or die. Each of us needs only to have enough – skills, money, time – to get and spend, and get and spend more, on endless commodities that can be manufactured for us wherever it’s most profitable for governments and their global corporate funders to manufacture them. The fact that the planetary population has grown exponentially larger, beyond the carrying capacity of most environments, makes outmoded geopolitical and economic structures that much more problematic and you – yes, even you – less necessary.

Often without conscious awareness, helped along by a pervasive background of marketing-advertising that leaves no blank space unbranded, we have increasingly ignored and insulted our birthrights: Ancient systems of knowing that located people and communities in a comprehensible – perhaps, say “settled” – time and space. And historically, many indigenous traditions have been consciously and systematically destroyed by imperial ambitions, racism, political greed, religious anxiety, or global corporatism. Certain of the widespread spiritual and ideological systems that remain – either because they are resilient or because they favor history’s winners – have developed paranoid, embattled fundamentalist wings. Their soldiers simply may be unable to adapt to an increasingly frenetic, networked, diverse and heterogenous world, or they arise as offense against perceived threat. Such systems become totalisms obsessed with purity; they develop monstrous and misshapen ego forms whose violence threatens the very existence of earth’s living communities.

Caught between the Western technological paradigms of endless growth and the reactionary demand that we bend the knee to absolutist ways of life, it would help us to clear out a space in our lives – a space that existed not too long ago – in order to question what is happening in and to our world and ourselves. We need a little oasis of sane consideration in a world that most people intuitively understand is becoming mad, but few have the strength or know how to challenge without creating more suffering and turbulence.

To restore does not mean to go backwards, to “take back America,” to “take back” anything. Interiorly, we already know that nothing belongs to us, and no matter what we do desperate to fight it, all things that move along at a quantum clip can neither be squeezed to a stop nor dragged backwards.

To restore means to encourage reconnection with the most somatically obvious things – the work of one’s hands; gut feelings of fear, joy and anger; a glimpse of the charming eight-eyed face of a jumping spider; wordless delight in the vortical twirl of a rose blossom.

To restore is to challenge the paradigms that have got our matter, mind and spirit tangled into an unsustainable mess. Such paradigms include, but certainly are not limited to:

- The religion of “markets” as a solution for everything.
– The alienation of people from household and community life and labor.
– The alienation of people from creativity and the work of their hands.
– Neglect of quality, universal public education, and poor to absent knowledge of science, leading to ignorance of the wonders and wisdom of the wider world, of science and the scientific method.
– The alienation of people from the earth, with its ecosystems and its other nations, all the animals and plants (among other living things) that make human life possible.
– The dominance of the global corporatist-statist complex which has reduced the status of humans and citizens to mere “consumers.”
– The creeping dominance of totalist systems, now as in the past, that promise easy, catechistic but false solutions to conundrums that have stumped even the best minds of history.

To restore is also to call out the ridiculously obvious, because though it barely needs saying that we really do seem to be approaching an Orwellian state of affairs, we really do seem to be approaching an Orwellian state of affairs. To challenge pervasive ignorance, growing illiteracy, non-sequiturs in argument, and the conflation of fact and opinion that we routinely field from the mainstream market-media machine and the populace that buys it would seem so obvious as to be unnecessary. But it appears to be necessary.

To restore also means to draw attention to the non-obvious but likely true. There are many wondrous things of and in the world but we humans seem to limit ourselves to only the most obvious. When something is ignored or shunned by the media, by pundits, by demagogues, by herd-mind, even though it is widely supported by data or evidence, restoration of its truth to common discourse is not only useful, it is necessary in order to restore respect and dignity to the whole creation/appearance as phenomenon and as mystery.

Hence, this blog begins as a little drop in a larger wave of others addressing the same things.

Here are the “House Guides” I will try to follow for the blog and that I’ll appreciate commenters following too.

I) NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY
Appeals to authority are not adequate to qualify opinion. Any authority, whether personal, systematic or textual, derives its own legitimacy from empirical data. We’ll define “empiricism” broadly here – it may be sensate, radical experiential or scientific; still, qualify what you state or believe, understanding that there is rarely one “answer.” Let’s think for ourselves – we didn’t have enough cash to rent a special brain-check room.

II) PAY ATTENTION (WATCH WHERE YOU WALK)
Where and when we can, let’s do it ourselves: DIY. When we don’t know it, let’s open to learning and training. When we don’t know how, let’s ask for help. Be creative, take care of the materials, work with absorption and love. Settle down. Pay attention.

III) PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR NEIGHBORS (NO GLASS BY THE POOL)
Who are you without an ‘other’ to define your very self against? Without others, none of us could exist. Our others are other people beloved of us, but they are also other people we do not know or that are assuredly not beloved of us; they are other species and creatures, beings, objects, elements and particles. Others are all things that are “not-me.” Since there is no self without other, and no subject without object in our evolutionarily bicameral consciousness, minding your neighbor person, your neighbor sparrow, rat, spider, dog, oat grass, tomato plant, woodshed or chain link fence leads to a state of integration. Be kind, be aware: Everything is personal to each of us, because we identify with it and project our feelings and meanings onto it. Remember that your neighbor does this just like you do. On the other hand, nothing is personal, because everything really just happens yet it’s our own mistake of consciousness that it’s happening “to us.” The Golden Rule was invented independently in many cultures because of these silly little concerns.

Thank you!