This Simple Idea is the Reactor at the Heart of the Conservative Death Star…


From Valerie Tarico

Many conservative priorities flow from an ancient narrative built around one planet-busting idea—and progressives sometimes fuel it.  

Human beings are story tellers. We make sense of our lives and the world around us by weaving tales—typically with ourselves and people like us as protagonists and heroes or—when things don’t go our way—victims. Narrative organizes our thinking so that a single concept or sentence can evoke a bigger set of ideas and related emotions. That is why the title of this article invokes an epic story.

Political movements, like other groups, organize themselves around stories—grand narratives scripted to answer questions such as these: What is the plot of history? Who matters? Who are the heroes and villains, and who do they protect or hurt? What is our quest, our promised land, and how do we get there? Sometimes this might be better phrased in more selfish terms—Who is in our tribe, and how do we come out on top? Often though, idealism and self-interest get mixed together, and because we humans are so centered in our own experience and so good at self-deception, it can be difficult to tell the difference. Within the stories that organize our thinking, we all see ourselves as good guys, even if history will later disagree.

Conservatives—including otherwise fair-minded and decent people–often have priorities that defy my sense of reality and morality. As conditions evolve and these priorities don’t, I believe they put at risk not only the future of American democracy but also the future of our planetary life support system. When I try to wrap my brain around what’s going on, I find myself bumping up against an ancient story, one that imbeds an idea so bad and yet so appealing that it may ultimately prove to be a planet buster.

The word conservative doesn’t mean the same thing to all who describe themselves that way. For example, libertarian conservatism has different roots from cultural conservatism. But deep in the minds of many self-described conservatives lies an ancient, archetypal narrative that has shaped human societies for millennia. The basic story can be told in religious or secular language, but these two have been woven together for most of history, so I will tell the Western theistic version believed by my parents and our conservative Evangelical community:

The Ancestral Story  

With God in his heaven and his appointed authorities in their appointed positions, all is well with the world. Hierarchy provides order and stability, and each of us has his or her place in the proper order of things. From the beginning, this has meant men over women over children, bosses or masters over workers, “chosen” bloodlines over others, powerful tribes and civilizations over weak, and humans over other animals. Creation is man’s for the taking because it was made for us, who were made in the image of God, though some more so than others. Heaven on earth is when everyone recognizes and lives properly in accordance with divinely-appointed roles and rules. Wealth and military victories accrue to the righteous.

I call this narrative the Ancestral Story because it is the story believed by our ancestors and because it is the ancestor of most modern political theories, which split off as either reactions against it or reactions against reactions. In one form or another, with one god or many or none, it has been the dominant paradigm for millennia. It can be traced as far back as the Iron Age, where it underlies the familiar stories and laws of the Hebrew Bible and Quran; and in some parts of the world today, roles it defined then have changed little in the intervening centuries. What liberals may think of as a genetic lottery, much of humanity has been seen as part of a divine plan that properly confers power on chosen men, bloodlines, or tribes.

Since the Ancestral Story stretches back in time, which makes it the story of the past and the present, people who believe this story are fundamentally change-averse—in a word, conservative. Many harken back to golden ages, real or imagined, when this model was ascendant and provided social order, stability, and prosperity to those who most mattered.

Because this script for how society should work is hierarchical and male-centric, cognitive linguist George Lakoff called it the strict father theory of politics. It should be noted, though, that the organizing principle of the story is more primal than the words “strict father” might imply. Human relationships—and our relationships to other species—in this narrative, largely trace back to one simple concept: might makes right. At its biological root, the strict father model of the family derives from the same underlying principle. Men ruled and protected women and children because they were physically stronger; masters ruled slaves because they could.

Since winners write history, we see historical events through a lens that further binds together might and right. We tend to think that good guys win and, conversely, that guys who win are good—because that’s how winners tell the story. Strength and virtue end up closely paired, and hierarchies that evolved eons ago from might makes right end up seeming intuitive and natural.  

Modeling an individual life or a political system on the Ancestral Story doesn’t necessarily lead to a dog-eat-dog way of life. It can.  But within the overarching structure, exceptions and nuance abound, and through the ages, humanity has developed words for these exceptions like grace, mercy, charity, pardons, or noblesse oblige. Religions that sanctify the traditional power hierarchy also encourage people to temper their use of power, and people who are religiously or culturally conservative often care deeply about those they perceive as weak—women, children, the poor and ill— those that Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew calls “the least of these.”

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. –Matthew 25:40 NIV

But aspiring to a benevolent hierarchy, one that treats the weak with kindness, is different from thinking the weak have a right to band together and insist on equality. And voluntary self-restraint on the use of power feels very different from external restraints imposed by law and regulation.

One Theme to Bind Them

Today, defenders of traditional hierarchy and derivative priorities often deploy reasoning that doesn’t invoke theology and most wouldn’t explicitly endorse the idea that might makes right. Even so, the lineage of their thinking can be traced back through cultural institutions and sacred texts to the Ancestral Story and the human tendency to confound power with virtue Some, of course, make no bones about the fact that their priorities derive from Iron Age texts.

Once you superimpose the Ancestral Story, seemingly unrelated or contradictory conservative priorities cohere: strong military, gun rights, nationalism, the sanctity of the patriarchal family (including opposition to child protections and female-controlled contraception), racial favoritism, the ambivalent courtship of church and state, oligarchic government, low taxes for the wealthy, unfettered capitalism, resistance to worker rights, minimal safety net programs, freedom to pollute or use up natural resources, and a deep wariness of outside tribes that might compete for power.

Liberal social policies benefit many conservative voters, especially those who are struggling to get by, but they almost all, to some degree, threaten the conservative cultural narrative. To people who have internalized that narrative and played by its rules, expecting specific perks from society in return, that threat can feel personal and visceral.

As we all have read or heard many times, the Tea Party and the Trump voting base include people whose lives haven’t played out as they hoped or whose wellbeing feels fragile. That alone is a hard burden to bear, but on top of that stress, many feel their social contract has been violated. The give and get promised by the Ancestral Story relies on assumptions of stability and continuity. But that is not what we’ve got. Familiar extraction and manufacturing jobs have become obsolete; many main streets are boarded up; young people move away and abandon the church; a young man often can’t afford to support a wife and children on a single income like his father did; some families are downwardly mobile; and change is accelerating with no end in sight.

These cultural and economic trends have many causes—globalization, consolidation, automation, resource depletion, and—not the least—policy decisions. But rather than finding explanations in some objective set of data (which is really hard for any of us), we humans tend to interpret our experiences through the lens of the script we have trusted all along. And for believers, the Ancestral Story points to a set of culprits. Women are claiming their own bodies, poor blacks are challenging authority, marriage is being reshaped, atheists are scorning the sacred, and immigrants who sneak across the border are receiving scholarships to colleges that working class white kids can’t afford. By the conservative book, it’s all very wrong. And from any point of view, the consequences for both individuals and our culture at large are enormous. Small wonder these violations of the old order generate anxiety, alienation, and, sometimes, rage. Small wonder conservatives deploy the power they have in an effort to set things right.

The Lure for Progressives

Conservative efforts to live and legislate the Ancestral Story seem obvious to many progressives. What may be less obvious is this: When progressives don’t notice that might makes right is the reactor at the heart of the conservative death star, we sometimes fuel it—usually by sending double messages—even though it is fundamentally at odds with liberal or progressive aspirations.

It’s easiest to see this, perhaps, in some of the fantasy stories that we love. Consider two recent movies that have shattered barriers by upending the traditional power hierarchy, Wonder Woman and Black Panther. Both movies broke through iconic blockages; they were literally block-busters, and I hope Black Panther wins Oscars next year. But both, in a way that is deeply satisfying to conservatives and progressives alike, also underscore the linkage between physical strength and moral strength and so send mixed signals.

In Black Panther, the scene where the two prospective kings wrestle at the side of a cliff takes might makes right back to its most primal roots in human history: May the best man win, where strongest fighter and best suited to rule are synonymous. At an archetypal level, the epic battles in both movies—or Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—fit the NRA playbook: the only way to stop a bad guy with a big bad weapon is a good guy, or now woman, with an even bigger, badder weapon. (These well-loved epics also reinforce a second dimension of the Ancestral Story—that some bloodlines are special and should rule others—but that is a different article.)

I point this out not because I think that these two movies could or should have been different, given what they set out to do and the genre. Nobody can tackle everything at once, and the satisfaction we get from stories that fuse right with might help draw crowds to the theaters to experience the novel ideas on offer. (It helped draw you to this article, too.) Also, Black Panther pivots the heroes from winning power to sharing it. It repudiates the human pattern of power-hoarding, while in Wonder Woman, metaphorically, truth and peace defeat war. I have no desire to challenge the movie writers; but I do want to challenge fellow progressives to be self-aware.

Sometimes, perhaps, the only effective challenge to brute force is brute force. Sometimes, perhaps, only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. But we must never forget that is what we are using, because what those tools can’t do is build something radically different. Beating force with greater force can flip a dominance hierarchy, but unless something truly novel happens afterwards, that is just a new variation on an old storyline.

Worse still, reality being what it is, might-makes-right storylines inevitably in the long run advantage those who traditionally have held power: the men with the biggest weapons. Men will always, on average, be physically stronger and more aggressive than women. Wealth will always be stronger than poverty. Humanity is unlikely, any time soon, to abandon a global arms race that traces all the way back to sticks and stones.

Ultimately, then, the only way to create real and durable change is not to flip who is on top—the future is female, brown is the new white—but to flip our gut reaction to the fundamental premise underlying most of human history, to restructure our thinking and emotions to the point that we no longer find might-makes-right stories intuitive and satisfying.

Permanently Affordable Housing: Challenges and Potential Paths Forward…


From Resilience

Julie Gilgoff: While billion dollar development companies eat up affordable housing units throughout the Bay Area, dedicated teams of organizers, nonprofit service providers, community development corporations, and others fight a relentless battle along side and on behalf of those at threat of displacement. Some are seeking to transform the current system of land ownership, removing profit incentives, and assuring that the land is used for the benefit of longtime community residents.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations that acquire land with the goal of creating permanently affordable housing. There are various regional CLTs whose purpose is to acquire land for low-income residents, and keep it out of the speculative market indefinitely. These CLTs would be able to do their job more effectively, however, if there were adequate funding sources and legal mechanisms to enable them to compete with private developers. As it is now, few private banks are willing to offer loans to housing cooperatives and other CLT projects. California law entitles nonprofits to intervene on tax-defaulted properties after five years of delinquency and before a private developer is given the opportunity to bid (CAL. REV. & TAX. CODE § 3791.4), but this law is rarely enforced. In a world where the poor, elderly, and disabled are being thrown to the streets without relocation fees because of loopholes in rent control laws (such as Costa Hawkins and the Golden Duplex Rule), CLTs must be adequately funded so that they can intervene when property becomes available.

In San Francisco, supportive legislation called the Small Sites Acquisition Fund was recently passed to help enable nonprofit developers to acquire properties before tenants are evicted through the Ellis Act. But the amount allocated by the fund per unit is still not enough to keep the property affordable to low-income tenants. Many CLTs are stuck waiting for land to be donated or sold to them below market rate in order to accomplish their mission.

Other housing models in the Bay have also challenged the status quo of property ownership. The Sustainable Economies Law Center and the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network have teamed up to create the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EBPREC), which combines features of CLTs, limited equity housing cooperatives, and self-organizing social movements. In addition to residents, members of EBPREC will include neighbors who want to support the initiative by investing what they are able (up to $1000) to empower the community to take ownership of their neighborhoods. Although this model has a broad base of support in its incipient phase, start-up funding is still necessary to acquire land and begin its first project.

Many private banks and lending institutions hesitate to fund projects that benefit local communities because they determine that it is too risky, or not profitable enough. The federal statute, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), was supposed to require banks to address the needs of low and moderate income communities where they do business. The CRA is currently under attack by the Trump Administration, and even without changes in the law, there is still inadequate oversight to require banks to live up to this standard. At least 97% of banks receive outstanding or satisfactory ratings under CRA standards, despite evidence that many have engaged in discriminatory practices, including but not limited to the predatory lending that took place during the 2008 foreclosure crisis. There are examples of banks doing the right thing, however. For example, OneUnited Bank in Boston created a loan fund specifically for Community Land Trusts. More banks must follow their example to invest in the communities and projects that need capital the most.

Instead of waiting for more banks to do the right thing though, we must take matters of capital investment into our own hands. Public banks have been proposed in the cities of Oakland and San Francisco. We must demand not only that they are created, and that these banking institutions refrain from investing in pipelines, prisons, and other destructive institutions, but also that these banks invest in enterprises and organizations that benefit the community directly, and that they be governed by the community, with adequate oversight that they stay true to their mission. (See this essay by the Defenders of Mother Earth – Huichin coalition for a discussion of how to create accountability over public banks.) The creation of permanently affordable and community controlled housing, the kind created by CLTs and the PREC model, must be prioritized and funded to benefit local residents at risk of being displaced.

Here are a number of ways you can get involved:

Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the doughnut…


'Billions still live in the hole in the middle'

From George Monbiot
The Guardian

Instead of growth at all costs, a new economic model allows us to thrive while saving the planet

So what are we going to do about it? This is the only question worth asking. But the answers appear elusive. Faced with a multifaceted crisis – the capture of governments by billionaires and their lobbyists, extreme inequality, the rise of demagogues, above all the collapse of the living world – those to whom we look for leadership appear stunned, voiceless, clueless. Even if they had the courage to act, they have no idea what to do.

The most they tend to offer is more economic growth: the fairy dust supposed to make all the bad stuff disappear. Never mind that it drives ecological destruction; that it has failed to relieve structural unemployment or soaring inequality; that, in some recent years, almost all the increment in incomes has been harvested by the top 1%. As values, principles and moral purpose are lost, the promise of growth is all that’s left.

You can see the effects in a leaked memo from the UK’s Foreign Office: “Trade and growth are now priorities for all posts … work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down.” All that counts is the rate at which we turn natural wealth into cash. If this destroys our prosperity and the wonders that surround us, who cares?

We cannot hope to address our predicament without a new worldview. We cannot use the models that caused our crises to solve them. We need to reframe the problem. This is what the most inspiring book published so far this year has done.

In Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute reminds us that economic growth was not, at first, intended to signify wellbeing. Simon Kuznets, who standardised the measurement of growth, warned: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” Economic growth, he pointed out, measured only annual flow, rather than stocks of wealth and their distribution.

Raworth points out that economics in the 20th century “lost the desire to articulate its goals”. It aspired to be a science of human behaviour: a science based on a deeply flawed portrait of humanity. The dominant model – “rational economic man”, self-interested, isolated, calculating – says more about the nature of economists than it does about other humans. The loss of an explicit objective allowed the discipline to be captured by a proxy goal: endless growth.

The aim of economic activity, she argues, should be “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet”. Instead of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow”. This means changing our picture of what the economy is and how it works.

The central image in mainstream economics is the circular flow diagram. It depicts a closed flow of income cycling between households, businesses, banks, government and trade, operating in a social and ecological vacuum. Energy, materials, the natural world, human society, power, the wealth we hold in common … all are missing from the model. The unpaid work of carers – principally women – is ignored, though no economy could function without them. Like rational economic man, this representation of economic activity bears little relationship to reality.

So Raworth begins by redrawing the economy. She embeds it in the Earth’s systems and in society, showing how it depends on the flow of materials and energy, and reminding us that we are more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital.

The embedded economy ‘reminds us that we are more than just workers and consumers’. Source: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

This recognition of inconvenient realities then leads to her breakthrough: a graphic representation of the world we want to create. Like all the best ideas, her doughnut model seems so simple and obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. But achieving this clarity and concision requires years of thought: a great decluttering of the myths and misrepresentations in which we have been schooled.

The area between the two rings – the doughnut itself – is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live. The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there.

As well as describing a better world, this model allows us to see, in immediate and comprehensible terms, the state in which we now find ourselves. At the moment we transgress both lines. Billions of people still live in the hole in the middle. We have breached the outer boundary in several places.

This model ‘allows us to see the state in which we now find ourselves’. Source: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health

An economics that helps us to live within the doughnut would seek to reduce inequalities in wealth and income. Wealth arising from the gifts of nature would be widely shared. Money, markets, taxation and public investment would be designed to conserve and regenerate resources rather than squander them. State-owned banks would invest in projects that transform our relationship with the living world, such as zero-carbon public transport and community energy schemes. New metrics would measure genuine prosperity, rather than the speed with which we degrade our long-term prospects.

Such proposals are familiar; but without a new framework of thought, piecemeal solutions are unlikely to succeed. By rethinking economics from first principles, Raworth allows us to integrate our specific propositions into a coherent programme, and then to measure the extent to which it is realised.

I see her as the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st century: by reframing the economy, she allows us to change our view of who we are, where we stand, and what we want to be.

Now we need to turn her ideas into policy. Read her book, then demand that those who wield power start working towards its objectives: human prosperity within a thriving living world.