Rethinking Prosperity: Ideas For ‘Fixing The Future’
In the NPR documentary Fixing the Future, reporter David Brancaccio traveled across America to talk to people who are working to reinvent the American economy. Through innovative approaches to creating jobs and wealth—like time banking, worker cooperatives, local currencies and community banking—Americans are rethinking how we measure prosperity and calculate GDP.
NPR’s Jennifer Ludden talks with Brancaccio about new experiments in the economy of the future.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Jennifer Ludden.
What really makes a community prosperous? Longtime economics reporter David Brancaccio traveled across the U.S. asking this and talking to people taking a grassroots approach to job creation and wealth. His documentary “Fixing the Future” begins screening tonight at theaters throughout the country. David joins us in a moment to talk about not just creating prosperity but redefining it.
We’d like to hear from you. Are there ways you are thinking – you are rethinking wealth in your community? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And David Brancaccio joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.
DAVID BRANCACCIO, BYLINE: Hello, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: Familiar voice. You’re supposed to be sitting here.
BRANCACCIO: Well, between the two of us, we’ll get the job done, right?
LUDDEN: So let’s start with – I found a very revealing example that you used in your documentary of a simple trip to the grocery store and the different ways that that trip could have an impact on the community. Can you explain this?
BRANCACCIO: Yeah. It echoes some of the coverage I’ve been doing over the past couple of years for Marketplace that included alternative measures of our economy. Now, if you just measure the traditional thing, gross domestic product, GDP, you know, it tends to rise over the years. But if you try to look at, well, but are people actually better off, sometimes the data shows something quite different.
So the example that you mentioned that we play with in the film a little bit; one way to go get a little snack is for me to get into a fancy car and burn some fossil fuel, go to the supermarket and buy some kiwis that have been imported from, let’s say, New Zealand and then buy some bottled water, OK? That’s actually pretty good for GDP because I use the gas – I get account for that – a little bit of depreciation on the car and then, of course, the fossil fuel used to get the kiwis to the supermarket from New Zealand, right?
BRANCACCIO: So the other way to do it is for me to jump on the bike and just maybe go to the store and get some locally grown apples and bring some tap water. Now, there is a cost to the tap water but it’s negligible. And the second trip isn’t as good for GDP, but the second one may be better for us. I got some exercise. I don’t put any pollution in the atmosphere with the…
LUDDEN: Saved a little money.
BRANCACCIO: Exactly. And then if you actually spin out this example, right, maybe the best thing for GDP on that trip of mine in the car is for me to crash into a tree on the way home because then, right, I would have to get the car repaired.
BRANCACCIO: That would add to GDP. And maybe I would bang up my knee and have to go to the emergency room, some health care dollars.
LUDDEN: Shell out some more dollars.
BRANCACCIO: So we often measure the wrong thing. And it’s been pointed out that in the first three months after the BP oil spill in the Gulf there that that might have been net positive to GDP because people got jobs cleaning up the mess, and there was no cost to the fish. The actual natural resources don’t figure in to the traditional GDP figure. So you see the problem.
LUDDEN: Ha. So are there any experts or officials seriously proposing, though, to redefine GDP?
BRANCACCIO: Yes, actually. It’s interesting. It’s not just sort of the province of hippies. It’s – there are some serious economists, including a group at Yale, that have looked at this. They’ve set up parallel accounts, in other words, side accounts to the GDP that might account for some of this, but getting it actually into the headline figures is going to take a while because old habits die hard.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Now, you go around and you find – you start from your hometown in Maine and kind of travel across the country there, finding local groups acting on their own to basically keep jobs and sustainable jobs in their community. Tell me a bit about the hour exchange in Portland, Maine.
BRANCACCIO: Oh, I love that example. And actually, after some of my initial reporting on this, that idea took off even further. People saw what I had done with the reporting. And so I was going on in Portland and wanted to try it at home. But here’s how it works. You know, we have heard of barter. That’s not something new. That would be maybe you would swap a used bicycle for a used 1957 Chevy bumper. OK, that’s barter. The Portland Hour Exchange is you swap skills, and you don’t denominate it by the dollar. You denominate it by the hour. So I tried this thing out, went down to Portland, and I weatherized a nice woman’s house. Her name is also Jennifer. You know, squirted some insulation into her basement and put up some weather stripping for an hour. And so then I had a credit of an hour on the ledgers there. And then a few weeks later, I was able to draw out something from that time bank. And what I got was an hour – sailing lesson on Casco Bay.
BRANCACCIO: So it’s actually a pretty good deal. But why this is very interesting to me, because it’s really a social capital generation machine. It draws the community together. You forge connections with people instead of being isolated. One of the biggest things that people withdraw from this time bank up in Portland is getting a ride to their doctor’s appointment. Often infirmed people or elderly people need a ride. That used to just happen when communities were more closely knit. Maybe a nephew took you or a friend or a neighbor. These days, who’s going to take you? So you can actually do it via the system.
LUDDEN: Well, I believe that was the woman named Jennifer who is a therapist in Maine, who told you she likes this system because she said we’ve lost the sense of community in this country.
BRANCACCIO: Yes, she called it a new kind of community. And what struck a lot of folks is that she has her doctor who gets paid in these time dollars. And she says it’s a very good doctor. It’s not like a doctor low on the list. So it’s actually quite exciting. The doctor does not offer that to anybody. But if you don’t have insurance, apparently that doctor considered it.
LUDDEN: Let’s bring a caller into the conversation here. Michael is in Nevada City, California. Hi, Michael.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
MICHAEL: Yeah. I’m working in the foothills up above Nevada City, and we’re developing the concept of capital as a common, as opposed to privatized resource. Where we can managed capital as a community resource with checks and balances on power and separation of powers and elected accountable leadership. And we’re actually going be writing a constitution for this new common company.
LUDDEN: Wow. So what do you mean capital? What kind of capital?
MICHAEL: You know, capital assets, traditionally, you know, what an accountant would call capital, you know, money, lands, equipment.
LUDDEN: So how – give me a concrete example.
MICHAEL: Well, the capital that a corporation normally has on its balance sheet, instead of it being individual shares and privatized, it’s managed as a community, based on the work of Elinor Ostrom and the “Governing the Commons.” She won the Nobel Prize for it.
BRANCACCIO: It was actually – well, it’s really, really interesting. And, Jennifer, another way to think of something like that are related ideas in “Fixing the Future,” the film. There are, for instance, in North Dakota, there’s a Bank of North Dakota. It’s been there for about a century. And this is a bank. And it’s run by the state of North Dakota, and elected officials decide where the money is going to be lent that’s on deposit there. It’s like a mini Federal Reserve. So it doesn’t just disappear out into the fate with capital markets, but people have decided we want to support student loans, want to support agriculture and local business. And so that’s where the bank does its lending. So instead of just money goes, wherever, it’s something that has a kind of – people have fought through what its best use is according to them. And it’s a different version of that.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Michael, thanks so much for the call.
MICHAEL: You’re welcome.
LUDDEN: David, you talked about – or someone tells you in your documentary what difference it makes when a dollar stays in the community, versus – or if you spend a dollar, say, at a locally owned mom-and-pop store versus your local national chain store, what – what’s the difference?
BRANCACCIO: Well, it’s interesting. I was talking in the film – there’s a conversation I have with a woman named Michelle Long. And she’s with this outfit. It’s kind of like a groovy chamber of commerce, if I can call it that. It’s The Business Alliance for Local Living Economy.
LUDDEN: You know what, we have a little bit of her. Can we play her…
LUDDEN: …while – before you talk. She is with BALLE. This national network of business alliances out in Bellingham, Washington. Let’s listen to what she told you.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “FIXING THE FUTURE”)
MICHELLE LONG: (As herself) What we’re building is a relationship economy, the accountability that comes from a relationship with another person, as opposed to a one-night stand economy, where we are – when we don’t have the accountability. If you think about it, today, we don’t know where our food comes from when it ends up on our plate and what kind of impact it’s had along the way. We don’t know where our waste goes when we’re done with that meal. When you put your money in a mutual fund, you don’t know the impact of that money circulating where it’s going, so we want to reconnect farmers with eaters, investors with entrepreneurs. And businesses with the communities, with the ecosystems that they serve have a relationship.
LUDDEN: A relationship, Dave, not a one-night stand.
BRANCACCIO: Yeah. And relationships are always better than one-night stands, or so I’m told. But here, you know, so if you’re hearing her say this, it all sounds very nice. And I’m a reporter. You know, I have some skepticism going into these things, as I think is appropriate. So how did that actually play out? How did it bring a job somebody, you know, people may well ask. Well, in – I spoke with Michelle, in that case in Bellingham, Washington, and there was a business owner. He’s got an interesting business. He makes industrial-sized pizza ovens for restaurants, and he had a low bid on some parts he needed to create it. And it was from Asia. So the logical thing for him to do is just get those cheaper parts in from Asia, and that could be a loss of jobs.
But because he’s part of this new thinking – let’s go for the relationship economy, not the one-night stand economy – he realizes that he’s part of Bellingham. He lives there. It’s not just in his interest to have an increase in profit, which he is very much pursuing, but it’s also in his interest to be sure that the town that he lives in is doing OK and people have jobs there. So instead, he does something different. He imports some technology, some robots, and he then is able hire 45 people he didn’t have before to staff that technology and make the parts for the pizza oven. So 45 more jobs.
LUDDEN: Ahhh. Turned it all in its head.
BRANCACCIO: Yes, exactly. You know, it’s interesting because the idea – the reason I went on this whole journey really is because, you know, in this polarized country where everyone – no one agrees on anything, there is one thing – the Democrats, centrists, Republicans will agree on – that the economy can do a whole lot better, right? That’s not a controversial statement. We got to make it work better for more people. So who’s doing something now – right now who might be interesting that I could learn from to fix some of the stuff? So instead of going to Wall Street looking for answers, it didn’t seem the right moment in history to go to Wall Street looking for answers. They have their own problems now. You may have noticed. And I don’t really go to Washington. Ultimately, policy at the national level will very much play into an economic shift.
But I don’t want to start there. So I go to Main Street, and I find every way – where I look, any compass point, there was somebody cool trying something different to nurture the economy in a nontraditional way. And so it was really, I thought, exhilarating. And what I didn’t understand when I started this voyage about two years ago is that it is starting to add up. It’s almost a movement. It’s like the environmental movement before the environmental movement had a name, and it’s in keeping with the environmental movement. You talk about sustainability. You don’t want an economy that goes bust every seven years like we currently have. But it doesn’t really have a name yet. Some people call it the new economy. Maybe we could, you know, our listeners could do better.
LUDDEN: All right. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let’s get a caller in. Joe in Denver, hi there.
JOE: Hi. Yeah, just kind of building on what Mr. Brancaccio is talking about. I think, you know, perhaps, a name that would be apropos is localism. I think that’s really what this is all about, building that sense of community like he talked about. And one example, you know, I’ve done a bit of research on this. I (unintelligible) my master’s in urban planning. And what I found is that walkable communities really nurture that sense of community. And just a good example of that, recently last month, there was an event here in Denver called Better Block, and what they did, they found a kind of a neighborhood commercial node that was run down.
And what they did is they put some pedestrian amenities out there. They embraced local entrepreneurs. There is vegetation on the sidewalk. There are places of shade, and it drew people in. And what they’re finding is that once entrepreneurs discover that these places can be a functioning part of the local economy, they’re willing to take that extra step, and it’s not so much of a risk for them anymore. And it draws interest to these places. And the – I think the important factor here is that it creates a third place for people to come together, and it’s in those third places where ideas can be shared. And that really nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit. So I think that that’s something that really speaks to Mr. Brancaccio’s – the point about building community.
BRANCACCIO: It’s very cool. Actually, a friend of mine is buying a house right now, and when he looked up houses online, some came with a walkability(ph) index.
BRANCACCIO: So you could tell right away how walkable(ph) the community was. And I remember talking to some economists about maybe a month ago. They put a number on how much increase in real estate value you get the more walkable things are.
LUDDEN: I did see that.
JOE: Yeah, absolutely. And people are finding that they have more money in their pocket when they can walk to places for errands than having to get into their car, rather than being dictated to have to drive everywhere to get everything.
LUDDEN: All right. Joe, thanks so much for that phone call.
LUDDEN: Let’s see if we can squeeze in that last quick phone call here. Leonardo, we just got a minute left. You’re on Long Island. What’s going on there?
LEONARDO: Hey, how are you guys doing?
LEONARDO: What’s going on is, I was telling your screener that I’ve been – I’m an artist, and I also do some custom writing. And for years, I’ve been bartering. I barter my services as an artist, and I was even – unfortunately, did a little time in federal prison. I did a tremendous amount of bartering in there. And currently, I’m doing some lighting in a custom olive oil shop. And we’re going to do a combination of money and olive oil for my services. So I’m definitely a big proponent of this kind of job.
LUDDEN: All right. Leonardo, thank you so much. David Brancaccio, you talked about this as sort of taking off. It’s a movement without a name, but at what point is there wider impact do you think?
BRANCACCIO: That’s the question I had as I went on this journey for this film. You know, does it scale? And I think that if ultimately what is needed and smarter people than myself can suggest what the agenda would be, do we have to rethink the banking system, it has to start with people engaging these issues in their local community. And then it attaches to policy at the national level. It’s happening so pervasively, and in every direction, that I think it’s sort of scaling up already and starting to have a national impact. It just needs, I think, a name for it. And we’ll see if someone can volunteer that at some point.
LUDDEN: All right. David Brancaccio joined us from our bureau in New York. His documentary “Fixing the Future” begins screening tonight at theaters throughout the country, and you can find a list of screenings at fixingthefuture.org. David Brancaccio, thank you so much.
BRANCACCIO: Jennifer, thanks for having me.
LUDDEN: Tomorrow, after George Zimmerman’s legal team has twice requested new judges, we’ll take a look at judicial bias. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Jennifer Ludden in Washington.
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