Archive for June, 2009


WATCH: Bold New Ad for Public Option—Get Involved!

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Republicans are never going to get on board for a public health insurance option. Like Chris Rock said, “They say ‘never say never’? I’m saying ‘never.’” The only chance we have for real comprehensive healthcare reform is to flip the Senate Democrats who are wobbly on the issue: the, ahem, “centrists.”

Ah yes, centrists. I believe Webster’s Dictionary defines “centrist” as “someone who takes millions in contributions from insurance company lobbyists to kill healthcare reform and spit in the faces of the people who got them elected.” Someone who, in other words, conveniently ignores the will of the people they’re supposed to represent in order to give a nice gift-wrapped pile of dead legislation to their corporate paymasters. (And by the way, if these few stunningly crooked Senate Democrats manage to derail real reform, you can bet the party is going to lose seats in Congress next election. And we can kiss healthcare-for-all goodbye for at least another decade.)

So it’s up to us to get our voices heard, and let those conservative-leaning Dems know they can’t just ignore the will of 76% of the American people and expect to hold onto their seats. If we don’t like our Democratic representatives, we’ll get better Democrats.

Watch now (h/t Crooks and Liars):

BoldProgressives.org has sent out the following letter to their membership:

People are outraged that Senate Democrats are lining up against a public health insurance option supported by 76% of Americans — all while taking $80 million of health and insurance industry money.

So we decided to do something about it. We made a TV ad calling them out. And now we’re inviting you (and your friends) to put your name in the ad before we air it in Washington DC!

This ad will air on CNN, MSNBC, The Daily Show, and other places that these senators and their staffers will be sure to notice. We’ll continually rotate new names in. Please help this idea grow by passing this email on to anyone you think would like to add their name.

Together, we’ll make the Senate listen to the vast majority of Americans who say: “We want the public option!” Thanks for being a bold progressive.

If you’re interested in putting your name–literally–on this ad, please go to WeWantThePublicOption.com and add your name to the list. The people need all the voices we can get on the public option and I applaud BoldProgressives for making this great ad and allowing citizens to get involved.

To me it is unconscionable that we have to push Democrats to vote for an issue that SHOULD be a staple of their party. If they let us down, we’ll have to fight them at the ballot box and replace them with people who will do the right thing for their constituents.

Hear, hear!

This Is Not the Climate Bill You Need to Fear

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Cross-posted from the Air America blog.

This Is Not the Climate Bill You Need to Fear
by Beau Friedlander

Whatever happened, it was bad. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road envisioned an apocalypse that didn’t kill civilization so much as render it insane. It was literary hyperbole for the sake of allegory. So is this.

Lawmakers in Washington: Please for just one moment pretend that the above scenario is possible, that you are characters in the prequel, and do the right thing on this climate bill that you’re about to vote on.

You’ve heard it all before. We are in the middle of one of the largest mass extinctions this planet has seen thus far, and still people have the audacity to hope for profit over salvation.

I wonder–perhaps with Cormac McCarthy, perhaps alone–if this audacity will cease to govern the choices we make as a society when bands of erstwhile parishioners and plumbers and bankers and bowling alley attendants and suitcase salepeople and itinerant bachelors wander the streets looking for anyone who isn’t “one of them” to bonk on the head and eat. I tend to doubt it these days.

The Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill—a.k.a. the American Clean Energy and Security Act, ACES, H.R. 2454—will likely get voted up or down today unless it’s looking really bad and Pelosi decides to put it off for a while. It needs to garner 218 votes in the House of Representatives to pass. As it stands, there are a lot of scared politicians out there who are none too sure. Nancy Pelosi is doing a good job under trying circumstances. The whips are out in full force. David Axelrod has been clear.

President Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, delivering a stern warning on Thursday to members attending the Democratic whip meeting.

“If this goes down, it shows we can’t govern,” Axelrod­­­ said, according to one person in attendance.

No one wants to say it in the mainstream coverage, but truly, what is at stake here is an environmental Armageddon. If you haven’t seen the movies and the interactive maps, you should. The information is out there, and it is clear. Estimates of the number of people who will be displaced by natural disasters or rising sea levels vary from 50 million by 2010 to hundreds of millions or even one billion by 2050. The number of deaths caused by starvation due to changing weather patterns and the inability of the world’s farmers to keep up with demand is unknowable, but it is certainly in the hundreds of millions if not billions.

We are looking down the barrel of unfettered expansionism, and it is our own desire for more of everything that will pull the trigger if we can’t break this carbon-coughing obsession with an obsolete and dangerous way of life.

Now to climb down from the soapbox and look at this flimsy reed of a bill everyone is fretting over like a nervous laboratory chimpanzee trying to please an implacable lab attendant. Egad. Farmers this week said they needed special exemptions. There was talk of trapping cow farts and such—all of which is fine and good—but much more talk about how the Department of Agriculture (famously backward-thinking and reckless about environmental issues) would have to oversee carbon offsets for farmers. Really? By the same token, I would like oversight on Waxman-Markey.

Few who are “serious” about saving us from ourselves as regards the wholesale destruction of the planet have a high opinion of this bill. This bill is not worth a damn when it comes to the problems we face. Sure it’s great that some semblance of clean energy and “solution”-oriented thinking has hit the political mainstream. But again, are we really arguing about this? You want to make a difference, it’s going to hurt people.

Sure money is tight. A solution will make money all the more scarce for families barely making ends meet. Everyone needs to swallow hard, and grow up a little. It is what it is.

What do we get for the expenditure? Not so much with the present bill. Maybe not enough. But still: Waxman-Markey requires that 6 percent of electricity come from renewables by 2012, and 20 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020. There would be a 3 percent cut in carbon emission by 2012, a 17 percent cut by 2020, a 42 percent cut by 2030, and more than an 80 percent cut by 2050. 

All of this cutting will create a huge number of green enterprise jobs. Energy costs will actually decrease in the long run, but as mentioned already and mumbled over and over by Blue Dog Democrats who remain on the fence, there will be associated costs in the short-term.

Whether it is farm lobbies moaning about the cost of diesel and electricity—note they get a complete pass on the off-gassing catastrophe that is rising from their feedlots—or whether we’re talking about lawmakers nervous about passing the expense on to voting citizens, we’re concerned here mainly with a quagmire of self-interest and self-serving bias that truly endangers life on the planet.

George Lakoff rarely rises to the level of Luntz-like poetry, but here no poetry is required: Pay a lot now, or pay much more later.

The bleak landscapes of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book are not that far off in the future if we don’t get a handle on this problem. And while Waxman-Markey is weak medicine for a very sick planet, it’s a whole lot better than taking the poor orb behind the Milky Way and shooting it.

Pass the Waxman-Markey bill please, so we can get a foothold in the mountain of a problem rising up before us.

Mortgage-Free: The “Build It As You Can Afford It” Approach

Friday, June 26th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Mortgage-Free!: Innovative Strategies for Debt-Free Home Ownership by Rob Roy.

One of the most popular and successful strategies open to you is to build a small, affordable core—typically in the 500- to 700-square-foot range—and then to build affordable additions as they become truly necessary. Several of our neighbors on The Hill have employed this strategy successfully.

Sometimes the temporary shelter will serve as the core for the completed house, either by plan or by evolution. However, get one part of the house completely finished before moving on to the next part. Living in a house under construction puts tremendous strain on a relationship. If you can retreat to a clean and uncluttered living area, this “refuge” may prove invaluable on all living fronts.

There are two schools of thought with regard to add-on houses. One is to have some specific expansion plan in mind at the initial design stage. The other says to let the house grow organically as such needs arise. My observation is that both plans will work, and therefore you should tailor your strategy to your personality. If you have an organized, analytical mind, you may be happier knowing that you’re working toward some specific end or goal, while a more spontaneous individual might feel cramped by such a plan, preferring creative freedom throughout. My own approach is a kind of hybrid of these two ideas. I allow myself to be locked into certain structural requirements, largely because I lean toward the use of massive timber-framing, cordwood masonry, and heavy earth roofs, but I give my spontaneous creativity its outlet by using special design features within the structural framework. Rather than feeling restricted, the use of stone and wood masonry gives me the freedom to create special textures, alcoves, and designs.

earth_sheltered_add_on.png

Although I have not used the add-on strategy myself, I offer one strong caution, and it may be that my not using the strategy is a direct result of not having been so cautioned myself. All four houses that Jaki and I have built would be quite difficult to add on to, both structurally and aesthetically. They were all designed to be complete in themselves, and therefore no thought was given to expansion potential. When Log End Cottage became too small, thanks to a small new member to the family, we had two choices: attempt a difficult addition or build a new house. Our decision was influenced by other factors, especially a desire to greatly reduce our firewood requirements and my new interest in earth sheltering. We decided on the new house option. Not always one to learn from my first mistakes, I went and designed Log End Cave—also without expansion potential. In fact, the Cave was even more locked in to its size and shape than the Cottage! While it is true that the Cave’s 910 square feet of useful living area is quite sufficient for a young family of three or four, it is a little disappointing to know that this size is pretty much what one is stuck with. Small is beautiful, yes, but have a care for the future.

If you’re planning an earth shelter, be aware that, unless expansion is specifically addressed at the design stage, it is very difficult to add on to an underground house.

A young couple with several small children once visited us to discuss earth-sheltered housing. They insisted that they absolutely had to have 1,600 square feet of living area, minimum. The trouble was that they could only afford 800 square feet. I advised them—I always give better advice than I take—to build the 800 square feet that they could afford, leaving the east wall of concrete block externally insulated, but not backfilled. Because they were both making good money as truck drivers, they could afford to complete the other 800-square-foot module two or three years down the road. This could be accomplished by reusing the rigid foam insulation (possible if it is protected from the sun’s ultraviolet rays) and using the internal masonry wall as a thermal flywheel and effective noise buffer between one side of the house and the other. The result: an energy-efficient, debt-free home. The trade-off: two or three years of less than the desired living space.

I have heard of people using the add-on strategy to get around building permit problems. In New York, for example, any house over 1,500 square feet requires an architect or engineer to stamp the plans that are a part of the permit application. Here, building the house in increments can save a lot of money in professional fees. I’ve also heard of municipalities that have come up with creative ways to discourage or even prohibit the add-on strategy, so be wary. Sometimes zoning regulations will stipulate a minimum house size, maybe 2,000 square feet or more in posh neighborhoods, to “protect the property values in the neighborhood.” The reader will have a pretty good idea by now of how I feel about such regulations. Taxes are based on valuations, and valuations are based on square footage first and foremost. So such regulations could be seen as rather self-serving on the part of the municipality.

Keep Cool Without AC (Because It’s Making You Broke)

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Baby, it’s hot outside. And like every other summer, people all over are getting back into popsicles and running into movie theatres just to cool off. With this hot weather—which by the way can be delicious, if you take advantage of swimming holes, beaches or public pools—comes a renewed addiction to the air conditioner. But you may want to reconsider blasting your AC in the cars, in your house, and in your workplace (unless you’re working outside, ’cause that breeze is free). It raises your electricity costs by fifty percent.

If you really want to save money this summer, you should unplug your AC. This doesn’t mean you’re going to melt into a steaming puddle of unhappiness. You just need to know the other—cheaper—ways to cool off. We’ll start with your office.

The following is an excerpt from Greening Your Office by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert.

Don’t switch it on; reduce the need for air conditioning by:

Reducing internal heat sources
Most of the energy consumed by conventional light bulbs is released as heat, which is very inefficient. Change your light bulbs to low-energy ones—remove this heat source and reduce your energy bill at the same time.

Most conventional office equipment, from computers to photocopiers, also produces heat when operating, further warming your office air. Switch machines off when not needed, or put them on standby. Consider using the “traffic light system” for your office equipment: red—do not turn off; amber—put on standby; green—turn off.

Shading your windows
Preventing the sun’s rays from entering your office will help prevent the air in your office from warming up. Curtains and blinds inside the office help considerably. However, it is most effective to shade the windows externally by fitting shutters or awnings, which can be put away when not required.

If your office is on the ground floor, consider creating shade by growing plants around, above, and over your windows. There are many fast-growing beautiful plants that will add a new dimension to your office space and be a pleasure to watch throughout the seasons.

Ventilating naturally—open the windows!
Experiment with opening various windows to produce a pleasant cooling breeze; on all but the stillest day it is possible to generate natural ventilation.

A World Without Oil

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Imagine a world where citizens could live within biking distance of one another, in a village built upon complete self-sufficiency, with agriculture modeled on a small and localized scale. A modern village that is neither sustained by, nor relies on the supply and demand of oil. Where food costs are chosen according to their value, not political subsidies or government regulation and big business self-interest. Where people make their own clothes, weld their own tools, bake their own bread, weave their own baskets, and do for themselves what the industrial revolution of the 1800s converted into work for machines. Oil, in other words, need not apply.

This is not just an imaginary flower child village somewhere south of Burlington, VT. Not only does the above scenario exist, it’s blossoming in many states. And there’s a movement behind it: The Transition Movement.

Let’s take a trip to Northern California.

From Bohemian.com:

Three years ago, David Fridley purchased two and a half acres of land in rural Sonoma County. He planted drought-resistant blue Zuni corn, fruit trees and basic vegetables while leaving a full acre of extant forest for firewood collection. Today, Fridley and several friends and family subsist almost entirely off this small plot of land, with the surplus going to public charity.

But Fridley is hardly a homegrown hippie who spends his leisure time gardening. He spent 12 years consulting for the oil industry in Asia. He is now a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, where members discuss the problems inherent to fossil-fuel dependency.

Fridley has his doubts about renewable energies, and he has grave doubts about the future of crude oil. In fact, he believes to a certainty that society is literally running out of gas and that, perhaps within years, the trucks will stop rolling into Safeway and the only reliable food available will be that grown in our backyards.

Fridley, like a few other thinkers, activists and pessimists, could talk all night about “peak oil.” This catch phrase describes a scenario, perhaps already unfurling, in which the easy days of oil-based society are over, a scenario in which global oil production has peaked and in which every barrel of crude oil drawn from the earth from that point forth is more difficult to extract than the barrel before it. According to peak oil theory, the time is approaching when the effort and cost of extraction will no longer be worth the oil itself, leaving us without the fuel to power our transportation, factories, farms, society and the very essence of our oil-dependent lives. Fridley believes the change will be very unpleasant for many people.

“If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, nondiscretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider ‘doom,’” he says soberly, “because your life is going to fall apart.” […]

But is it the end of the world?

Fridley and other supporters of the Transition movement don’t believe it is. First sparked in 2007 in Totnes, England, Transition was launched when one Rob Hopkins recognized that modern Western society cannot continue at its current pace of life as fast access to oil begins to dwindle. Global warming and economic meltdown are the two other principle drivers of the Transition movement, but in an ideal “Transition Town,” society would be ready for such changes.

Read the entire article here.

Former Health Exec Testifies: Insurers “confuse their customers and dump the sick”

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

This will come as a great shock to you, I’m sure, but private for-profit health insurance companies have bilked their customers out of billions of dollars in medical bills the insurance companies themselves should have paid. That’s “billions” with a “b.”

While saying they want reform, they’ve been fighting tooth-and-nail to kill a public option, because—and this is the argument they’re using as I understand it—in a capitalist, free market system, they shouldn’t have to compete for customers. That’s socialism! And the really scary thing is, the insurance companies are even richer and more powerful than they were the last time they killed a serious attempt at reform in 1993.

From the Washington Post:

Health insurers have forced consumers to pay billions of dollars in medical bills that the insurers themselves should have paid, according to a report released yesterday by the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The report was part of a multi-pronged assault on the credibility of private insurers by Commerce Committee Chairman  John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). It came at a time when Rockefeller, President Obama and others are seeking to offer a public alternative to private health plans as part of broad health-care reform legislation. Health insurers are doing everything they can to block the public option.

At a committee hearing yesterday, three health-care specialists testified that insurers go to great lengths to avoid responsibility for sick people, use deliberately incomprehensible documents to mislead consumers about their benefits, and sell “junk” policies that do not cover needed care. Rockefeller said he was exploring “why consumers get such a raw deal from their insurance companies.”

The star witness at the hearing was a former public relations executive for major health insurers whose testimony boiled down to this: Don’t trust the insurers.

“The industry and its backers are using fear tactics, as they did in 1994, to tar a transparent and accountable — publicly accountable — health-care option,” said Wendell Potter, who until early last year was vice president for corporate communications at the big insurer Cigna. […]

(Mr. Potter’s entire testimony to Congress can be downloaded here (h/t Jamie Court at the Huffington Post). I highly recommend it.)

Many Americans pay higher premiums for the freedom to go outside an insurer’s network of doctors and hospitals. When they do, insurers typically pay a percentage of what they call the “usual and customary” rates for the services. How insurers determine the usual rates had long been opaque to consumers and difficult if not impossible for them to challenge.

As it turns out, insurers typically used numbers from Ingenix, a wholly owned subsidiary of the big insurer UnitedHealth Group. Ingenix had an incentive to produce benchmarks that low-balled usual and customary rates and shifted costs from insurers to their customers, the report said.

Ingenix got its data from the same insurers that bought its benchmark information, the report said. Insurers that contributed information to Ingenix often “scrubbed” their data to remove high charges, and Ingenix further manipulated the numbers, removing valid high charges from its calculations, the report said.

Read the whole article here.

Roundup—the American Weed-Killer—Is Likely Killing American People, Too

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto. Is it simply a scary coincidence that nearly every time bad news hits, they’re involved? (Hint: No.) This time, new research has intensified the debate that Roundup, the popular weed killer created by Monsanto, also kills human cells. The research posits that the inert ingredients in Roundup, or inactive ones, are not quite so inactive. And by that I mean they may be deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

Those are cells we use to make babies, ya’ll.

According to Environmental Health News:

Used in yards, farms and parks throughout the world, Roundup has long been a top-selling weed killer. But now researchers have found that one of Roundup’s inert ingredients can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. The new findings intensify a debate about so-called “inerts” — the solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides. Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. […]

The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages. […]

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself — a finding the researchers call “astonishing.”

“This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” wrote the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.

Think about it: Roundup has been around since the early 1970s. And if 100 million pounds of Roundup are used per year, that’s about forty billion pounds of Roundup we’ve been exposed to since its inception. And if you didn’t know this, prepare to cry. Monsanto is not only the world’s leading producer of weed-killer that also kills human cells—they’re also the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds (GMOs), which means somewhere between 70 and 100 percent market share for a variety of crops—namely corn and soy—which makes up the diet of factory-farmed cows and chickens, which are then eaten by humans.

Read the entire article here, on Environmental Health news.

Change the World: Support a New Kind of Capitalism

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

The way the U.S. economy works is not very down to earth. Indeed, this country was founded on the backs of slaves, but that doesn’t mean our future must be that of enslavement. The economy has been based on a top-down model that favors fat cats, but this does not mean it will be top-down forever. Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, puts forth a different vision—a meta-economic vision—that looks above the top line and below the bottom line, a new way of seeing what is going on in the soil of the economy. So this 4th of July, let’s declare our freedom from our fixation on money, money, money, and seek a different route to feeling human.

From The Green Fork’s review of the book:

In fact, our fixation on making a killing, as opposed to making a living, is what’s brought our economy to the brink of collapse, as venture capitalist/eco-preneur Woody Tasch argues brilliantly in his new book. The title, Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered may be a mouthful, but it’s one I’d love to see on everyone’s lips, because this book gets right to the heart of everything that’s ailing our economy and corroding our culture.

Tasch’s book is, in part, about how bad business decisions keep us from having good food. But it’s not your (organic) garden variety indictment of industrial agriculture. Yes, his “Slow Money” concept borrows freely from Italy’s Slow Food movement—which famously began as a revolt against a McDonalds in Rome—and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini wrote the forward to Tasch’s book. But Slow Money is not some kind of simplistic, anti-corporate, socialist rant.

Rather, Tasch offers a formula for a new kind of capitalism in which farmers’ markets and stock markets both flourish. Tasch’s economic agenda is founded on the heretical notion that we need to think about the long term consequences of how we invest our natural resources and our human capital, instead of dwelling on quarterly profits and worshipping the false gods of convenience and consumption.

If we weren’t so shortsighted, and so enamored of easy money, we’d be less vulnerable to scummy scammers like Bernie Madoff, the sleazy money lenders, and all the other charlatans who helped create this recession. We might learn to think of our housing as shelter, first and foremost, and long-term investment—not an asset to be flipped, or an ATM. We might also be more willing to confront the serious problems that plague our industrialized food system, as documented in Food, Inc.

Read the entire review here.

Martin Melaver: A Response to the MBA Oath

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

The following post was written by author Martin Melaver (Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community) in response to an NPR story about two Harvard Business School graduates who, in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown and the ensuing financial collapse, created their own version of the Hippocratic Oath: it’s called the “MBA Oath”—and it aims to rein in the excess and greed endemic in the system. (The NPR story can be heard here.)

On Nov. 29, 1961, NASA launched its first attempt to have a capsule orbit the earth. John Glenn wasn’t on board. That wouldn’t happen for another three months. No, the astronaut was a chimp named Enos.

Enos had undergone a year of intensive conditioning prior to the launch. He was rewarded with banana pellets when he got the flight tasks correct, electric shocks when he was mistaken. By the time the Atlas rocket took off, Enos was ready.

But something went badly amiss with the mission, and the ship began to wobble erratically. To make matters worse, every time Enos performed the flight tasks he knew would correct things, the malfunctioning system administered shocks rather than banana pellets. Scientists assumed Enos would change his trained behavior, thereby responding incorrectly to the situation up in space in order to avoid pain and receive the pellets. The scientists were wrong. Enos continued to perform the flight tasks he knew were right, even though he got an electric shock every time he did so.

This story of Enos is largely a story about knowing the right thing to do, despite social conditioning and incentives sending you in the wrong direction.

I’m reminded of Enos’ story in light of a recent news item about a new MBA oath emanating from the Harvard Business School. The Oath calls for (among other things) ethical behavior, accountability to a broad range of stakeholders, and commitment to triple bottom line prosperity (see http://mbaoath.org/take-the-oath/). The oath is very cool. The timing impeccable. And it deserves traction. I’d like to bless it with viral marketing success. Seriously. I do, however, want to pose a few questions and comments surrounding this “Got Ethics?” campaign.

Question #1. What does it say about our MBA programs that we actually need to spell out the need to behave ethically? Enos knew what his job was — even though electric shocks to the system were telling him otherwise.

To put this in a more personal context, I grew up in a small town (Savannah, Georgia), where there were always “eyes on the street,” Jane Jacobs’ well-known phrase that accurately conveyed the sense that if you were up to no good, the whole community was watching. In 1992, when I stepped in to manage my (now) third-generation family business, I could feel the eyes and ears and hearts of the neighborhood pressed against what I would do and not do. My dad’s entire managerial practice manual, one that he handed down to me? “Do the right thing.” That was it. It simply never occurred to me as I took the reins of my real estate company almost 20 years ago that I would conduct business in any other way. That was what everyone in the community expected. As they should. I never realized I had a choice in the matter — and events like Valdez and Bhopal, and Enron, and Madoff simply confirmed basically that father knew best. Business has to do the right thing . . . or it should lose its license to practice.

Question #2. What does it mean for a business to be accountable to a world of stakeholders beyond its immediate shareholders? Don’t get me wrong. I have spent my entire professional career shaping a business that is focused on creating value for an entire community. Living Above the Store, my recently published book, is devoted almost entirely to the proposition that a business separated from the interests of community (and the environment) cannot long endure.

But here’s the rub: at a certain point, a business will always come to these forks in the road where you can enhance value for the community, but you will diminish returns for stockholders. As a privately-held, values-centric business, my colleagues at Melaver, Inc. have few doubts about these forks in the road. We will keep investing and investing up to a point that a minimum return threshold is reached, a return we feel comfortable with as a business. And I believe that for a business to survive over the long haul, such an approach is not only viable but necessary. I wonder, though, if the signatories to the MBA oath realize just what they are signing on to. It’s a wonderful journey, but certainly not the journey many biz graduates are idyllically imagining.

Question #3. This comes from my 15-year-old daughter Dana, who wants to know: “Are MBA grads who sign the oath willing to be dis-barred’ for violating the oath, much like doctors who violate the Hippocratic Oath?”

It’s not an idle question. My company’s reputation, built painstakingly over 70 years, is one that has to do with the nurturing of nature and community. If our talk about our commitment to sustainability exceeds our walk, we can watch a 70-year reputation go up in smoke in a matter of moments. How about these graduates who sign on to the oath? Are they similarly invested? Is there substance beneath the symbolism of the act? Inquiring 15-year-old minds want to know. The Atlantic just came out with a story of a long-term psychological study of 286 Harvard men from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Perhaps we need to begin a similar study of this most recent Harvard Business School class, looking at how their decision to sign (or not sign) the Oath today plays out in the course of their lives for the next 50 years.

I’ve never signed an ethical pledge in my life — at least as it pertains to business practices. And yet for my entire professional career running a real estate business aspiring to sustainable principles and practices, I have felt the expectations of an entire community looking on as my colleagues and I have shaped the way we’ve done business: the pace at which we have grown, the folks we have chosen to partner with, the ways in which we have leveraged particular projects to reform legislation at the local or even state level. Our business is shaped by a sense of deep intimacy with nature and community, a sense of living directly above the store where we ply our trade. It may not be a beautifully-articulated oath — but it is most definitely a bond that links us morally, ethically, and financially to the land we are bound to.

When the chips were down, Enos knew what he needed to do to right his ship, despite all the social conditioning to the contrary. I believe my own colleagues at work have a similar moral compass. And I would hope the same applies to business graduates as well.

 

Martin Melaver is CEO of Melaver, Inc., a third-generation family-owned business devoted to sustainable principles and practices. He is also the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business that Creates Values, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community (Chelsea Green, 2009).

WATCH: Dr. Howard Dean to Dems: Show Some Spine!

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

A healthcare bill without a public health insurance option is not real healthcare reform at all, says former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, author of the soon-to-be-released Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform: How We Can Achieve Affordable Medical Care for Every American and Make Our Jobs Safer.

A new poll just released by the New York Times and CBS News shows overwhelming support for a public option—72% of Americans want it. And when you look at only Republican respondents, you find that an astonishing 50% of them want the option to choose between a government-run health insurance plan and private insurers. That is real bipartisanship!

With overwhelming public support—and even taking into account the Republicans in Congress trying to kill meaningful healthcare reform—it should be no problem for the Democrats to pass a bill with a robust public option. And yet Sen. Dianne Feinstein says they may not have the votes. What’s the deal? Are they spineless, or just crooked?

This week on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Dr. Howard Dean gives Democrats the benefit of the doubt: the “moderates” and “centrists” who oppose the majority of their party—and, more importantly, the vast majority of the American people—are good folks. But they need to find their spines…pronto.

Watch:

KO: Even in terms of party loyalty, not that you want a bunch of obsequious yes-men in every political party a hundred percent of the time, but maybe ten percent of the time? Is that OK? Is there no party discipline? Is—I mean, the Republicans seem to be fairly good at that. Where is a little touch of that when the Democrats need it?

HD: It’s not so much the party discipline, it’s the spine to stand up to people when they’re really being obstructionist. The Republicans just appear to be tougher and more disciplined, and we have got to stand up and do what’s right. Seventy-two percent of the American people want the choice—including in places like Indiana and Delaware, and states where folks are not, can’t make up their mind—we need a choice. The American people want—they don’t necessarily want everybody in Medicare. They just want to choose for themselves. And I think it’s time that the American people get to make that choice—and not the insurance lobby, and not the Senate, and not the Congress, and not the President, and not insurance company bureaucrats. Let the American people choose. That is the message. Three to one. And we’ve just, the people in Washington have got to make sure—we worked so hard to get this big majority—they’ve got to use it, and they’ve got to pass a public health insurance option. Real health reform.


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