Fixing financial systems and transforming economic systems

A month ago a colleague sent me the New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/opinion/07cohanWEB.html
“The Economy Is Still at the Brink” by Sandy B. Lewis and William D. Cohan
with a note saying it was one of the best articles he had read on the economic crisis. It provides many insights into fixing our financial system.

 For that very reason, however, it also provides some important object lessons. Because a financial system is only one aspect of a larger ECONOMIC system. And above and beyond FIXING a system is TRANSFORMING it so it better supports all of life.

 With this perspective in mind, I found myself jotting down comments and questions as I read the article, poking around questions where it might be worth it to dig a little deeper…

 * Sure, the people at the top who create messes like this shouldn’t be rewarded, and should be punished appropriately. But where did they come from? How did those who created the current economic tsunami get their positions in the first place — and why are so many of them still involved? What were the assumptions, interests, and dynamics underlying their hiring, their presumed success, their promotions, their continued roles? What institutions might we build to help a concerned citizenry answer such questions and make effective use of the answers?

 * How do we set up the economy so that it thrives when people hardly ever need to buy cars — to say nothing of buying a new car every 2-10 years? How do we restructure the auto industry to create green transportation and energy systems like they restructured — in months — to create munitions at the start of WWII?

 * The authors say “Why isn’t Mr. Obama talking more about the importance of living within our means and not spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need?” Indeed! But they don’t note that doing that would require a redefinition of economic health far beyond “GDP” and even “employment”. Our current monetary- and growth-oriented economy is set up to succeed only if people DO buy things they don’t need or which need constant replacement.

 * Where in our government and mainstream public conversation are the brilliant voices for alternative economic arrangements at all levels — international, national, community, personal — like Hazel Henderson, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Vicki Robin, Bernard Lietaer, and Herman Daly, to name but a few? (If you aren’t familiar with these folks, check them out on Google or Wikipedia, or look up “green economics”.) What would have to happen for activists to push these people into public view and policy influence during this time of economic shake-up and restructuring?

 * The demands for transparency — and the lack of it on the Treasury Department’s own website supposedly designed for that purpose, as pointed out by the article’s authors — are a poignant example of what’s behind the critiques of the Obama administration’s purported Open Government Initiative. Critics fear that creating quasi-transparency in some realms may distract the public from the total lack of transparency in far more important realms. What forms of transparency truly meet the needs of a vibrant democracy, and how do we put them in place?

 * What does this situation say about our dedicated adherence to trusted mortal leaders — charismatic and powerful individuals like Barack Obama — instead of investing our resources in changing the systems in which such leaders operate, so that our collective wisdom is structured into our governing institutions and our leaders’ answerability to us is effectively guaranteed?

 * Finally, dare we ask why the New York Times publishes this brilliant editorial that demands rights, above all, for stockholders and investors, rather than op eds that demand restructuring of all our systems so they support healthy human and natural communities? Is not the media system, itself, in urgent need of revolutionary renewal so that it more adequately serves the needs of democracy and life on this planet?

 As the systems in which we are embedded generate more situations we must struggle to handle, hopefully we will learn to put more attention on transforming the systems, themselves, rather than merely solving the problems they create or ameliorating the harms they cause. We might even ask what societal response systems we can put in place so that serious transformational work begins whenever it becomes clear that problem-solving, alone, is not doing the job.

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