Starving the Beast: Ten Things You Can Do To Take America Back
November 11, 2010 - 9:47am ET
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If last Tuesday showed us anything, it's this: We are not going to get America back on the right road -- the one that leads to a progressive, just, carbon-free, equal-opportunity future -- by political means alone.
That was an illusion, and it's time to give it up. We are up against powers so massive that their leaders rightly describe themselves as Masters of the Universe (MOTUs, for short). They've got so much money that they can buy off any politician in the world; and so much clout that they maintain branch offices right inside the West Wing. Because of their influence, our courts and our Congress no longer work for us. Our media no longer tells us the truth. Our votes are the prizes in corporate bidding wars. Our jobs are mere chips in a global poker game. Our doctors can only give us the health care corporate insurers willing to pay for, even when better choices exist.
Everything from the food on our table to the content of our kids' education is chosen for us on the basis of what will put the most money in the pockets of people who are already rich beyond the imagination of a Caesar. Increasingly, we have no say about anything that happens to us. Every choice we make is predetermined to deliver our money, time, and life energy into the service of this increasingly remote and amoral aristocracy.
It goes way beyond Washington. It's the whole rotten system. And if we really want that system to change, forget taking to the streets. (The MOTUs long ago learned to tune out public protests.) It's time to take our non-compliance to the next level. It's time to get serious about not participating in this system at all, until it either breaks or changes.
It will not be easy. The overblown corporate-driven economy exists because we allow it to -- and we allow it to because there's so much that passively cheap and easy and comfortable about being part of it. Compared to a lot of the world, we don't have it so bad; and the MOTUs are counting on that inertia to keep the money and power flowing their way. But it's beyond obvious now that we cannot change things unless we're willing to give up those comforts, and take matters into our own hands.
The good news is that if we're willing to do that, there are plenty of high leverage points in this system, places we can jam in a hard stick and whang on it and actually hope to create some change. And since we know now that Washington will be totally gridlocked for the next two years, this is as good a time as any to start.
A starting place
The ten suggestions below are just a starting place. (I'm thinking of turning them into a book, and would love your additions to the list.) But they all turn on two basic assumptions about where our leverage lies.
The first assumption is: Big national corporations and the MOTUs who profit from them only have money in the first place because we give it to them. So stop giving it to them.
The second is: People in government only have power because we give it to them. So, wherever possible and appropriate, pull that power away from the federal level, and bring it back to the local level, where we can keep an eye on it -- and where the best solutions to our most pressing problems are already being worked out.
With those two core assumptions in mind, here's what we need to do to defund the Masters of the Universe and get our country back.
1 Live within your means
Taking apart the systems that sustain our comfort is a risky business. The first task, then, is to insulate ourselves from those risks to the extent we can. And the first step is living within our means.
It's not that big a reach, though it feels like that at first. We just need to resurrect the values of our Depression-era grandparents, who gauged someone's status on the basis of their thrift and prudence rather than their extravagance. For them, it wasn't about what you drove or what you wore on your back; it was about what you had in the bank, and what you could give back to your community.
Buy a car you can pay for outright, or hang on to the one that's already paid off. Let go of the things you don't use -- the toys and trinkets that are just taking up space. Give up junk food and start a garden. Ask if you could get by with a smaller, cheaper house. And consider the possibility that, after you've pruned your life down to something more manageable, you might just be happier (and healthier) for it.
Having enough surplus salted away, plus some to share with others, gives you personal resilience in the face of hard times. It means you can lose a job or get sick, and still have a margin to fall back on. It also means that nobody owns you: America's bosses would treat us a lot better if more of us had a take-this-job-and-shove-it fund in the bank that enabled us to walk away from bad conditions or abusive treatment.
Living with less also means fewer expenses, fewer distractions, and more time and energy for the things that matter. Which is good, because some of the other things we need to do will take a little more time, energy, and money than we've been used to spending.
Read more about this: Your Money Or Your Life
2 Stop using credit cards
Conservatives howl that sales taxes are a huge drag on the economy, since they take a little bite out of the value of every transaction. But you never hear them howling about the 3% sales tax we pay to the banks for every credit card transaction. There's a whole lot to be said about the perverse economics of this; but the short summary is that if we're going to defund the powers that are choking the life out of our democracy, the first thing we need to do is stop handing over 3% of almost every transaction we make.
The second is to stop paying out an even larger percentage of our annual income in interest. The average American household pays $1500 a year in credit card interest; in some households, it's much more than that. Bet you can find a better use for that money than the bank can.
If you can't manage life without plastic, there are still better options than sending your wages to Citi or Chase. Move your credit card to a local bank, which will invest its earnings in your town's economy. Use a debit card (which takes lower fees) for online transactions, and start doing everything else possible with cash. (As an added bonus: using cash gets your personal business out of the data stream, increasing your personal privacy as well.)
Credit cards are the single biggest hook the MOTUs have into us after our mortgages, student loans, and car payments. It's also one we have the most control over, so let's stop sending them that money.
Watch here: In Debt We Trust
3 Move your money to a local bank
Arianna Huffington deserves credit for putting the "slow money" movement on the progressive map. It's a powerful concept, because it directly defunds the people who are trying to buy our government.
The idea is simple: take your banking -- your savings, checking, mortgage, car payment, 401K and other retirement funds, and credit cards -- away from the bankasaurs, and give it to a local or regional bank or a credit union. These banks are often safer these days than the big boys, since they're less likely to get caught up in big finance scams. And, even better: they're far more likely to put your money to work financing local homeowners, businesses, and farms.
Keeping that money in the hometown economy is an investment in resilience for the long haul. It ensures that your neighbors will have good jobs, that house prices will remain stable, and that small entrepreneurs can find the capital to start companies that are far less likely to relocate. These small businesses usually return far more in spending, jobs, and taxes to the local economy than big out-of-town businesses do, so keeping your money close to home is one way to invest in a stronger community.
Read more: Move Your Money
4 Eat local. Eat organic. Cook your own.
More and more of us are aware that the processed foods that fill the center aisles of the supermarket aren't particularly good for us. They're full of sugar, salt, fake fat, fake flavorings, preservatives, and GMO frankenstuff. They come from factories thousands of miles away. And we're sometimes suspicious that the food safety isn't all it should be.
This is why farmer's markets, community-supported farms, and food co-ops can now be found in almost every corner of the country, with more coming on line each year. People want alternatives -- preferably fresh, organic fare produced by farmers who are close enough to get to know.
I love the fact that my food dollar isn't going to Cargill or ADM. It's not adding tons of petroleum-based fertilizers (those damned oil companies again) to the soil and the watershed. It's not paying to truck food two thousand miles to my store. Instead, it's going to Mike Finger, my CSA farmer, who lives five miles from my house. It's keeping our town's outrageous Saturday farmer's market alive and lively. It's providing hundreds of jobs for dairymen and women, cheese and butter makers, bakers, farmers, small meat operations, co-op workers, chicken ranchers, and all kinds of other talented folks in my community. And it's creating an alternative food stream that banishes the big corporations (and the big banks that fund them) out of my kitchen and off of my family's plates.
Read more: La Vida Locavore
5 Don't shop in big-box stores; support local merchants instead
We all know how Wal-Mart bleeds small town Main Streets dry, kills mom-and-pop merchants, decimates local tax bases, and replaces good-paying jobs with non-union McJobs that pay so low that people holding them still qualify for welfare and food stamps.
But it's not just Wal-Mart. Every dollar you spend at any big box store or chain restaurant is doing pretty much the same thing. The money you give them doesn't stay in town, creating decent jobs and supporting prosperous middle-class families. It's going to some corporate HQ in Far Yonder. And from there, in this new post-Citizens United world, a lot of it will be going to lobbyists, who will be using it to more fully corporatize our government.
Cut them off at the knees. Find and use local options wherever you can. Local merchants often carry a wider and more interesting selection (and can order anything they don't have in stock). They pay higher wages. They know their merchandise -- and special tastes of the local clientele. And they pay into the local tax base, supporting your own teachers and firefighters and cops.
And don't even assume that you'll be charged more. In some areas, you may pay 5-10% more in a local shop; in others, you may be surprised to find prices comparable to what you'll find over at the big box. A local restaurant may have better food at better prices, and pay their staff better as well. Not all of the mom-and-pops are good enough to deserve our support; but the great ones are irreplaceable assets in our local economies, and deserve all the support we can give them.
Read more: The Small-Mart Revolution
6 Make your own energy
In our economy, energy is money -- which is why the big energy producers have more money than anybody else. If we want them to have less power over us, we need to stop buying their product. And that goes for the big private energy utilities, too, which are the biggest coal users in the country.
Adding solar panels or geothermal pumps to your house isn't cheap (or even easy); but if you plan to be in the house for many years, it's an investment that's worth making. If that's not feasible, look into community power solutions, and encourage your town to invest in clean, local sources of power. At the very least, the odds are overwhelmingly good that your energy company offers a green power option where you can pay a bit more per month to subsidize the development of clean power sources for your region.
Whatever you can do to replace coal, oil, and gas as your household and community power sources adds a bit more leverage to the effort to remove Big Fossil from its powerful political perch.
Read more: The Renewable Energy Handbook
7 Buy used whenever possible
The Big Consumer Machine runs on our constant appetite for new stuff. One of the best ways to jam it is to simply stop buying what they're selling. It's better for our wallets, better for the Earth, and it takes money directly out of the pockets of people who are (literally) banking on our poor impulse control.
Over the past century, our massive consumer engine has manufactured so much stuff that odds are the perfect item you're looking for -- a sturdy winter coat for your kid, extra plates for Thanksgiving dinner -- already exists out there somewhere. And it's increasingly easy to find it, thanks to eBay and Craigslist and Freecycle. Why go to K-Mart when there's undoubtedly someone local looking to unload something that's one-of-a-kind (and probably better quality) for a fraction of the price -- and will help you raise the finger to the corporate consumer machine while you're at it?
8 Buy American. Buy union.
If you've got to buy it new, and there's no choice but to buy it from a big chain retailer, at least make sure your money is going to support another American worker's family. Living without imported Chinese goods is almost impossible (as this woman found out); but again, going out of our way to make better choices is an important way we can shift the leverage in the entire system that's killing our democracy.
Buying American is good. Buying union is even better. Unions have always been our biggest, strongest, best bulwark against creeping corporatocracy. The more support we can give them -- and the more unionized workers we have -- the more leverage we have against the big money interests, and the more likely we'll be able to take our country back in the long run. If we want to restore the middle class, we need to be deadly serious about buying union-made stuff.
Read more: UNITE's guide to buying union-made goods
9 Cut your use of fossil fuels
There are a hundred good reasons to do this, but the big four are:
1) It reduces our dependence on foreign oil, which also reduces our need to spend 58% of our federal budget on defense. Since defense contractors are among the biggest lobbyists in Washington, defunding the military-industrial complex is an important strategic objective in taking our country back.
2) It cuts the profits of Big Fossil -- the oil and coal industries -- who are the biggest and most influential donors in Congress, period.
3) Your choices and investments will spur the market for clean technology options, which will accelerate our progress in moving toward a greener future -- again, at the expense of Big Fossil.
4) Over time, moving to non-fossil alternatives in food, transit, manufacturing, and so on will make your household and community far more resilient in the face of energy price shocks and climate change itself -- an important step toward empowering local governments over higher-level ones.
There are a thousand books and ten thousand websites full of suggestions for how to move beyond the basics like changing out your light bulbs and recycling. But now you have another reason to do it: it's one of the best things we can do to defund the MOTUs who own our country.
10 Hire a better employer
Our choices as consumers matter, no doubt. But the biggest contribution we make to this system isn't in our spending; it's in our earning. The fact is that the best jobs in America in terms of salary and benefits are also too often the same ones that are most deeply involved in the corporatization of our government. And we need to confront and deal with the truth: when we give 40 or 50 hours of our lives to these enterprises, week in and week out, we are contributing far more to the problem than we can ever make up for by anything we do on our own time.
Of course, it's too much to ask people to walk away from a good-paying, stable job in the teeth of devastating recession. But as a long-term goal, we might be thinking about how to arrange our lives and our communities so that we can stop giving our time, energy, talents, and best efforts to the same aristocrats who want to enslave us. If we get out of debt and off credit cards, build up local businesses and create resilient economies, and learn to live a little smaller, we may in time, also be freer to make career choices that are better aligned with our values, and put our labor beyond the reach of the system that oppresses us.
As I said: none of this will be easy. But we've tried to create change while staying within our circle of comfort; and it hasn't worked. It's time to move outside that circle, and get on with the work of creating the future we want our children to have -- even if that means changing our most familiar and intimate habits and routines.
Still, you're probably already doing at least a few of these things, for all kinds of good reasons -- as economizing measures in hard times, as an effort to reduce your carbon footprint, or out of solidarity with your local community. But there's added motivation -- and even some sweet revenge -- if we bear in mind that the things that we're already doing to protect ourselves in the present and prepare for the next future are also some of the best things we can do to take our money, our lives, and our broken democracy back from the MOTU bastards as well.
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