Welcome to The Next American Revolution, coming soon to your neighborhood. Or so we can hope. Because the revolution we need will have to come neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, congressional district by congressional district.
Nothing is more depressing, given the corrupted state of our politics, than to hear responsible and perceptive critics of business as usual calling for greater efforts to secure federal funds to solve local problems, as we did this morning on our local public radio station. Of course we need all the help we can get, especially in rural counties like ours, where unemployment is high and underemployment higher, where poverty levels are growing and state services shrinking. Of course we could benefit from help from any source.
But all those federal funds out there — for small business development, for green enterprise, for strengthening local food systems, for creating jobs — come at some price. One price is the procrustean bed of Congressional micro-management on which all proposals must stretch and the limited reach, consequently, of such funding. “Small business,” if I’m not mistaken, is currently defined as any business employing fewer than 500 employees, and much of what the Small Business Administration does caters to businesses at the larger end of the spectrum. Local start-ups need not apply.
Another, in reality steeper price is the political one. While federal rules mandate a merit-based application procedure, everyone with experience knows that good relations with the local Congress person helps. Staffers will call the relevant agency to let them know the member’s interest in the application. They’ll help out with leaping bureaucratic barriers. They’ll let you know in advance if you qualify. Support from local officials helps too. All of which not only indebts you to public officials, but encourages them to do what it takes to nurture the good-will of federal agencies, build local funding into federal budgets, and, ultimately, do what it takes in Congressional give-and-take to get local priorities recognized. The upshot is that every Congress critter who is successful at tending to local needs is simultaneously beholden to Congressional leaders who are the lapdogs of corporate power.
Our Mike Thompson (D., CA, 1st District) seems to be an honest man. The corporations have no big stake in his campaign war chest. But he has had to carve out a negotiating space for himself that has put him (and us, his constituents) in good favor with Nancy Pelosi and other congressional power brokers. And there is where the system is broken. That’s why Mike can’t oppose war funding — though he would sincerely like to. That’s why he can’t stand for a single-payers health care plan — though his constituents have made clear their preference for just such. That’s why he’ll stand up with the Blue Dogs against health care reform but not against the bailout of the bankers or on behalf of reining in the war machine.
Michael Shuman has long advocated that non-profits and community organizations find ways to be self-sustaining as part of an effort to create what he calls the Small-Mart Revolution. Recently, others have advocated breaking the power of big finance by boycotting their products, credit cards and bank accounts. Maybe more powerful is the idea of Slow Money, developed by Woody Tasch, who is devoted to building an Slow Money Alliance of investors, small and large, to provide local funding for local farm, food and other enterprises. Small returns, long horizons, but big social pay-offs are the watchwords of the group.
So here’s a New Year’s Resolution for all community activists:
We will avoid the federal teat. We will raise local money for local needs. We will find new ways to encourage local entrepreneurs and build local wealth and create opportunity for all our neighbors. And we will insist that Congress find ways to share federal funds equitably, across regions and states and localities, without strings attached.