Saturday, September 28, 2013

ANS -- Is religion broken?

This is a really provocative idea.  I don't know how useful it is though.  Given that it's from UU World, the comments are well-thought out and non-combative. 
It's about the purpose of religion and how it can fulfill that purpose without insisting you believe something you aren't comfortable with. 
Find it here:   

abandoned rural church in Oregon US

Is religion broken?

There's a movement that attracts millions of people and encourages them to become their best selves­but it's not a church.
By Doug Muder

It provides awe-inducing experiences for its participants and creates environments in which they can "become the best version of [themselves], the most likely to help at a moment's notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get back up after failure and try again." It encourages them to reorient "toward intrinsic reward" rather than the "global hedonic treadmill" of "money, fame, and beauty," and provides them opportunities to meet and form relationships with others who share these values in order to cooperate on projects of enormous scale.

If only my church could do all that!

And if we're talking salvation-by-character, again I feel outshone. Those who pursue this path diligently­and tens of millions do, clocking more than 20 hours of participation a week­become "super-empowered hopeful individuals" by developing these four "superpowers":
  • Urgent optimism, "the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success."
  • Tight social fabric. The group activities promote trust "that [other participants] will spend their time with us, they will play by the same rules, value the same goals" with the result that participants "build up bonds and trust and cooperation."
  • Blissful productivity. "We know . . . that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work."
  • Epic meaning. "[We] love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions, to planetary-scale stories."

If you're not envious yet, consider who this movement is attracting: predominantly (but not exclusively) the young, precisely that "none-of-the-above" generation that every religion seems to have a problem with. The teens and 20-somethings you're not seeing in your pews may well be participating in this movement on Sunday mornings, and many of the children in your religious education programs­maybe even your own children­are wishing they could be.

If you can't imagine what I might be talking about, and you're wondering how you missed such a widespread faith that generates so much participation, you're looking in the wrong direction. I'm quoting game designer Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken, whose TED talks have been viewed by millions. She's not promoting a church, she's describing the culture of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, Halo, or Guild Wars, and detailing what lessons physical institutions can learn from their popularity.

Computer-generated virtual worlds are so attractive, McGonigal explains, because reality is broken.

The truth is this: in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

Fulfilling human needs, teaching, inspiring, engaging, bringing people together­that's what churches are supposed to do, isn't it?

Religion is conspicuously absent from Reality is Broken­it has no index entry, and I don't remember seeing the word at all. But as religion and popular culture scholar Rachel Wagner put it:

[McGonigal] refers only occasionally to religion, but the main interest here is how she suggests, without saying so directly, that gaming can work like religion today, and may already be doing so.

In the chapter "Becoming Part of Something Bigger Than Ourselves," McGonigal discusses meaning ("the belief that our actions matter beyond our own individual lives"), awe ("what we feel when we recognize that we're in the presence of something bigger than ourselves"; such an emotion "doesn't just feel good, it inspiresus to do good" and is "a call to collective action"), service ("every effort by one player must ultimately benefit all the other players"), and reverence ("the expression of profound awe, respect and love, or veneration").

In her 2012 TED talk, she tells a personal story of healing from the lingering effects of a concussion. The constant headaches and fogginess left her unable to do any of the things that had made her life enjoyable, until she bottomed out with the thought: "I am either going to kill myself, or I'm going to turn this into a game." The result was SuperBetter, a simple game to create a context for recovery and to engage herself and her loved ones in a narrative of progress.

Within a few days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished. It felt like a miracle. Now, it wasn't a miracle cure for the headaches, for the cognitive symptoms; that lasted more than a year and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering.

Again, the language of religion: miracle, and the sermon-worthy distinction between pain and suffering.

Reality is Broken may not have been written as an overt critique of contemporary religion, but the dots are easy to connect. If large numbers of young people (and many of their elders) are going to virtual worlds to find meaning, awe, service, reverence, and miracles, and if the corresponding online communities are where they feel most empowered to become the best versions of themselves, then religion is broken.

Scattered through McGonigal's book are fourteen "fixes"­lessons that real institutions and organizations can learn from games. They are easy to find and not hard to translate into a church context. Fix #1 builds on a definition of game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" and says, "Compared to games, reality is too easy." This corresponds to the frequently-cited observation that churches can gain loyalty by demanding more of their members rather than less.

Rather than go through McGonigal's fixes one-by-one, I'll take a step back and ask a larger question. On the surface it may seem absurd that online gaming could rival religion, because the two don't even belong to the same category. But if online gaming actually does compete with religion, have we misconceived what religion is and does?

Traditional religion presents itself as a description of an objective reality invisible to the five senses. Particularly in fundamentalism, the actuality of the teachings is paramount: God is real, Heaven is real, and something objectively real is happening in rituals and sacraments. Believing in this unseen reality is the core of the faith. Conversely, disbelieving that unseen reality is the core message of fundamentalism's most vociferous enemies, militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They agree that the debate is about reality, and that religion is done for if its reality claims can be defeated.

By contrast, everyone knows that World of Warcraft is made up. The avatars you meet there may represent real people, and the adventures you have with those people are intersubjective­they have reality within the game and to the people who were "there," in other words­but no such place as Azeroth exists, and whatever treasures you gain or wounds you suffer there don't follow you back to your real life.

You could imagine meeting a Warcraft fundamentalist, who believes the game provides a window into an alternate dimension as real as this one. Perhaps that belief would make his experience of the game more intense, but it seems like unnecessary baggage; for the vast majority, the game works fine without it. The fundamentalist's opposite, a Dawkins-style unbeliever, would convince no one to leave the game, because the reality of Azeroth has never been the point. Azeroth functions quite well as a virtual world, a setting for groups of people to test their abilities and have memorable experiences together. Its reality is irrelevant.

If games can rival religions, then you have to wonder to what extent heaven and hell have been functioning as virtual worlds all along. Perhaps they are best understood as the setting for Christianity's backstory, the cosmic war for souls that gives the quests of present-day believers their epic scope. If that's so, then arguments against their reality are not going to convince anyone to stop playing the game.

Those who find such comparisons offensive may imagine that I am being flippant or unserious. So let me apply these ideas to the most serious subject I can think of: death.

In the past four years, I have seen both of my parents decline and die, and my wife has survived a life-threatening illness. Both my parents believed in heaven. After Mom died, Dad took comfort in the belief that they would be together again someday, and was correspondingly disturbed at the idea that, given my lack of belief, I might not join them.

During this time I have been highly motivated to re-examine my beliefs about death and an afterlife. The longer I considered the topic (some of which has played out in previous essays for UU World) the more my attention flowed away from questions of the reality of an afterlife (where there is so little evidence there's not much to think about) and towards the human needs that visions of the afterlife serve. What was terrifying about death, I realized, wasn't the possibility that I might cease to exist. Instead, the terror came from the possibility that the looming presence of death might suck all the meaning out of the stories that animate my life here and now.

In other words, what I missed from the belief system my parents had taught me as a child wasn't the reality of heaven, but the virtuality of it. I needed to replace the role it had played in the stories I tell about my life. (I've discussed that re-narration process in detail elsewhere.)

So in addition to all the specific fixes our religious institutions can borrow from game designers, competition from computer games can help us reframe what religion does: we are not competing with science (or other religions) to describe reality. We are trying to give our members the best possible platforms on which to construct the stories of their lives. We "win" when members envision their lives in ways that are fulfilling, meaningful, and engaging. Everyone wins when our members are challenged and inspired to become their best selves.

Maybe that's what religion has been about (or should have been about) all along.


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  • Share Avatar   getz 5 days ago
    It hinges on people actually believing what they're told. While the literal beliefs of individuals may differ, the only people who don't literally believe any religious claims are the ones who literally aren't religious.
    You can promote a philosophy of helping people envision fulfilling, meaningful and engaging lives, but if it disregards the connection to reality, the only association it has to religion is equivocal. If the literal beliefs are kept with the notion that they help provide meaningful and engaging lives, then it's just rationalizing deception. The only people who would give credit to any religious phenomena would be those who were deceived.

    Anyways, religion doesn't leave gaming. People just come up with new in game superstitions that established religious organizations can't capitalize on. Kind of like how religions haven't capitalized on the repeated underwear use of athletes, so they settled for convincing people to pray before, during and after games. Which custom is older? The sacred article of clothing, or the gestures to sacred beings? Which will last longer? Chances are both have outlived plenty of religions and will still be around once the modern ones have been warped beyond recognition. The beliefs are still there, and in the same way the modern religions have outlived their old competition, in the future we might find people have traded strong feelings about visiting a certain place after death with strong feelings about who should enter a building before a raid. Maybe a new real world sect will emerge around that time, and the gamers will get to lament the fact that the silly beliefs that colored their entertainment experience are spilling out into the "real" world. see more
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  • Avatar   vinsb 5 days ago
    I focus upon "We are trying to give our members the best possible platforms on which to construct the stories of [our lives]" I wonder whether "best possible platforms" does the job of describing our task. I am now close to 83 years old. I do not think that it was a platform that saved me from nihilism and atheism.
    I think that it was a model of Divinity whose purpose I could strive to be in harmony with. That model was provided by Alfred North Whitehead's process vision of Divinity. Here is a living God. A God who provides a lure for an embryonic event to shape its becoming and who - once the event has reached completion - prehends the best of that event to make it part of God's becoming.
    With this faith I know that my salvation is to be a co-creator with the best in the universe. Herbert F. Vetter - Minister at Large, 'Emeritus', First Parish in Cambridge, MA - ends the chapter on Whitehead in his 2007 book "Is God Necessary ?" with these words from Whitehead :
    ""God is in the the universe, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether ,water, earth, human hearts.......In so far as we partake of this creative process do we partake of the divine, of God and that participation is our immortality ........Our true destiny as cocreator in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur ,"
    A number of times each day I pray that my becoming may be open to the Spirit. In addition after giving thanks at the end of the day, I pray that my children and again myself may be open to that Spirit.

    Vinson Bronson
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  • Avatar   DanielNoel 5 days ago
    Do not forget the possibility that playing the game may have a spiritual meaning. After all, most religions, unlike Christianity, teach that non-human entities have spiritual connections to their souls. Many religions invite their adherents to adopt specific body positions or mindsets to establish some spiritual connection. It stands to reason that intensely playing some game may do that too. Maybe the 21st century is initiating a spiritual revival through machines. Go figure... Love,
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  • Avatar   Caleb Ewing 2 days ago
    I agree. i can see how online-gaming supplies interest and meaning. I think it has to do with the scale of the created worlds and the significance of one's actions within them. I recently abandoned my UU congregation because it wasn't meeting these important was way too inward-focused and parochial. Not what I signed up for as a Unitarian.
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  • Avatar   shaktinah 2 days ago
    As someone who plays online games I think the author is right in his characterization of how players behave online, but I don't know how applicable it is to the real world. The reason why I like these games is precisely because they're limited. It's a small world, only as big as the game developers have created, where I have the illusion of control. So even if the monster defeats you and/or you fail at a quest, you can get up and try again *knowing* full well that it *is* possible to triumph eventually, because the game is designed to allow you to do that. You know that it's possible for "good to overcome evil" if you only try. There are no such guarantees in the real world. That in itself will discourage "urgent optimism," I think. (Unless you believe in an omnipotent God who is playing the part of game developer, which most of us do not.)
    I believe the limited nature of online gaming also helps to promote "tight social fabric" and "blissful productivity." I real life I often get overwhelmed with the number of obligations impinging on me. So I retreat to a game where there are only a limited number of goals to achieve at any given time. In-world, the identities that separate us in this life - race, class, gender, nationality, religion, etc - do not matter. What matters is that players are the "good guys" and we're fighting the "bad guys." That shared identity bonds players so that they behave more selflessly. But it's not at all unusual to behave selflessly *for members within your perceived group.* And that feeling of unity only exists because of a common enemy provided by the game developers. Moreover, in the real world the "good guys" aren't always totally good and the "bad guys" aren't always totally bad. In the game, I do not stop to ponder whether the bad guys are really just "misunderstood" or how it is that they got to be how they are - monsters are just monsters to be slain - whereas that is something that I think about a lot in this world. Such moral ambiguities tend to dampen "epic meaning."
    We can try to reframe religion to more of a gamer's mentality, and I'm actually not against that - it might be a good thing to do - but there will always be these huge differences between the in-world of games and this world.
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  • Avatar   James A. Hobart 2 days ago
    Emerson writes, "There is a crack in all that God has made." Yes, reality is broken. the religious community and all its people are broken, too. Nothing ever was without cracks.
    The purpose of games is to provide a virtual alternative reality in place of the cracked world. Is it too harsh to call this a life distraction?
    The purpose of the religious community is to bring people together to address the cracks in the world, including their own and their community's cracks.Its purpose again and yet again is to seek to re-create, re-form, and trans-form the cracked world, its cracked peoples, and their own cracked community toward serving deeper loving relationships, greater justice, and more compassion. James Luther Adams calls this "the holy thing in life."
    As a religious community this is our common covenant, discovered in our promises to one another, to others in the world, to our entire inter-related Earth community, and to the Fount from which all being arises and flows. This is no game!
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  • Share › Avatar Guest James A. Hobart 2 days ago
    James, you comment makes the most sense to me of all the comments. Thank you. Linda
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  • Avatar   Linda Hoffecker James A. Hobart 2 days ago
    James, your comment makes the most sense to me of all the comments. Thank you. Linda


Book to note: 'Muhammad: The Story of a Prophet and Reformer' New book for children shares stories from the life of Islam's founder. By Michelle Richards 9.16.13

Belief is the enemy of faith A new interfaith, multifaith spirituality is struggling to be born. By Peter Morales 9.16.13

Resources for exploring your animal contradictions An annotated guide to books and other resources. By Kimberly French 9.9.13
Recently I've been reading about a movement that, as a church member, I envy.

Photograph (above): Abandoned rural church in Oregon, USA (© See sidebar for links to related resources.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

ANS -- Finland’s People Make the Government Reconsider Same-Sex Marriage

Here is the latest news in same-sex marriage.  the People are for it.  Enjoy. 
Find it here:    

Finland's People Make the Government Reconsider Same-Sex Marriage

Finland’s People Make the Government Reconsider Same-Sex  

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Finland's lawmakers will reconsider the issue of marriage equality after a public campaign garnered the highest number of petition signatures for a citizen's initiative in the country's history.

The petition needed only 50,000 signatures to prompt parliament to consider the initiative. It in fact secured more than 100,000 on its first day when it debuted in March, and as of writing has more than 164,000 signatures in favor of marriage equality.

This grassroots effort to have parliament reconsider marriage equality comes after the Finish Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee decided in February and by a narrow majority vote of 9-8 that it would not advance a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Europhiles may remember this apparently prompted Finland's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, singer Krista Siegfrids, to sing a song called "Marry Me" at the broadcast event and stage a same-sex kiss protest.

From the parliamentary vote there also sprung the "I Do 2013 project, designed to exploit an only recently minted citizen's initiative process and have parliament reconsider equal marriage rights.

The citizen's initiative process was only added to Finland's Constitution in March of 2012, and so marriage equality will be among the first crop of motions brought about by public mandate. In fact, the only other initiative to make it before lawmakers was a ban on fur farming, which was rejected by the legislature in early 2013 despite having 70,000 signatures.

Other initiatives currently making their way to parliament include a call for what is described as a "more reasonable" application of copyright law, and a vote of EU membership, though the latter bid appears to have floundered as it failed to reach the required signature total within the necessary time frame.

None of the above mentioned initiatives seem to have even close to the level of support demonstrated by the marriage equality citizen initiative, however.

Finland is the only Nordic country to not recognize marriage equality, with Norway and Sweden enacting equal marriage laws in 2009, Iceland in 2010, and Denmark in 2012. Still, Finland does provide some rights for its same-sex couples in the form of its 2002 registered partnerships law.

While the registered partnership law affords same-sex couples many of the important legal rights of marriage, including inheritance and tax rights and, as of 2009, the right to IVF for lesbian couples, several rights are still denied same-sex couples in Finland simply because they cannot access the legal definition of marriage.

These include being excluded from being able to jointly adopt and not automatically having the right to share family names for legal purposes. Moreover, the current partnership registry does not allow for gender change recognition despite Finland allowing for and legally recognizing the legitimacy of gender realignment in most other areas.

While parliament may have resisted marriage equality efforts in their most recent incarnation, it will be difficult to ignore the strength of public opinion this time around. While the citizen's initiative alone stands as a strong expression of backing, national polls have recently demonstrated strong majority support for marriage equality.

A January YouGov poll found support at 57%, with only 32% outright opposed, while a March survey by Taloustukimus logged that 58% of Finns support marriage equality. A poll reportedly released just last week by the "I Do 2013 campaign also found that 58% of Finns support the measure. While support for same-sex adoption is weaker, for instance at only 51% in the YouGov poll, it still regularly polls around the majority mark.

This is the first time in marriage equality's modern history that a country's lawmakers have been petitioned by such a sizable proportion of the national electorate and urged through a public initiative to (again) consider making marriage equality law.

The measure is now expected to be taken up by lawmakers in the next few months.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

ANS -- Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Watchdog Forces JPMorgan to Pay $329 Million

Here is a short article about fining one of the big banks that screwed up and screwed the people.  It's finally happening.  No arrests, though.  No corporate breakups either.  But, it's a start.....
Find it here:|+MoJoBlog%29    

Political MoJo

Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Watchdog Forces JPMorgan to Pay $329 Million

­By Erika Eichelberger
| Thu Sep. 19, 2013 1:10 PM PDT []   mdfriendofhillary/Flickr

During last year's Massachusetts Senate race, the banking giant JPMorgan Chase heaped more than $80,000 on Sen. Elizabeth Warren's opponent Scott Brown. And for good reason. The consumer watch dog agency that she conceived of and helped get running announced Thursday that it has ordered JPMorgan Chase to pay $309 million to more than 2.1 million Americans it scammed, plus a penalty of $20 million.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that between 2005 and 2012, Chase charged customers monthly fees ranging from $8 to $12 for services they didn't ask for and didn't receive. The bank collected money from customers for credit card products such as "identity theft protection" and "fraud monitoring," even when the consumer hadn't given consent.

The refund the CFPB ordered the bank to issue includes the total fraudulent fees charged, plus interest, and amounts to about $147 a person.

"At the core of our mission is a duty to identify and root out unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices in financial markets that harm consumers," CFPB director Richard Cordray said Thursday.

The bureau is also forcing the bank to send out the refund checks in a simple, convenient way, so that consumers don't have to take any additional action to get their money, and to submit to an independent audit of the refund process.

Thursday was not a good day for for JPMorgan. In a rare admission of fault, the bank was also fined some $920 million for a bad trade out of its London office last year that resulted in a $6.2 billion loss.


Erika Eichelberger

Reporting Fellow

Erika Eichelberger is a reporting fellow in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The Nation, The Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. RSS | Twitter

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

ANS -- It's not the morphine, it's the size of the cage: Rat Park experiment upturns conventional wisdom about addiction

This is a really interesting article about addiction.  Maybe it's just a result of a poverty-ridden life. 
Find it here:{%2210100610983032145%22%3A711601315520870}&action_type_map={%2210100610983032145%22%3A%22og.likes%22}&action_ref_map =   


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Garry Tan

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Posted 5 days ago

It's not the morphine, it's the size of the cage: Rat Park experiment upturns conventional wisdom about addiction


We all learned this in DARE class. About the rats in a cage who can self-administer morphine who get addicted to the stuff, and then just hit that lever until they die. A seemingly keystone argument in the war against drugs. Professor Avram Goldstein, the creator of that study, has said: "A rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin (actually morphine, to which heroin is converted in the body) on its brain." So, it's the drug, and its addictive control. Surely we must eradicate drugs as a result!

But there's another model out there by researcher Bruce Alexander of Simon Fraser University called Rat Park. From that wikipedia page:

Alexander's hypothesis was that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to it is attributable to their living conditions, and not to any addictive property of the drug itself. He told the Canadian Senate in 2001 that prior experiments in which laboratory rats were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus, show only that "severely distressed animals, like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can."

To test his hypothesis, Alexander built Rat Park, an 8.8 m2 (95 sq ft) housing colony, 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters. The results of the experiment appeared to support his hypothesis. Rats who had been forced to consume morphine hydrochloride for 57 consecutive days were brought to Rat Park and given a choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. For the most part, they chose the plain water. "Nothing that we tried," Alexander wrote, "... produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment." Control groups of rats isolated in small cages consumed much more morphine in this and several subsequent experiments.

And so rats that are born into extreme conditions in small cages are clearly more likely to self-medicate. Tom Stafford of the BBC writes:

The results are catastrophic for the simplistic idea that one use of a drug inevitably hooks the user by rewiring their brain. When Alexander's rats were given something better to do than sit in a bare cage they turned their noses up at morphine because they preferred playing with their friends and exploring their surroundings to getting high.

Further support for his emphasis on living conditions came from another set of tests his team carried out in which rats brought up in ordinary cages were forced to consume morphine for 57 days in a row. If anything should create the conditions for chemical rewiring of their brains, this should be it. But once these rats were moved to Rat Park they chose water over morphine when given the choice, although they did exhibit some minor withdrawal symptoms.

You can read more about Rat Park in the original scientific report. A good summary is in this comic by Stuart McMillen.

So, if Rat Park is to be believed, drug addiction is a situation that arises from poor socioeconomic conditions. From literally being a rat in a cage. If you're a rat in a park, you'd rather hang out with your friends and explore the world around you.

Perhaps it's time the war on drugs becomes a war on the existence of poverty? (edit: Poverty of our relationships to family, community, and nation too, not merely monetary. As commenters have pointed out, there are plenty of people who have plenty of money who may well be the most poverty-ridden in other respects.)

It's not about the drugs. It's about the social environment in which we live.
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Saturday, September 14, 2013

ANS -- The Woman Behind the New GMO-Free Meat Label

Here is some of what's happening in the new field of mindful foods.  Great stuff.  Make sure to read down to where they talk about dairy cows. 
Find it here: 

Civil Eats

About the Writer


Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based writer and editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times,, The Guardian, TakePart, and on Grist, where she served as the food editor from 2011-2012. More at and @twyspy
Other Articles by Twilight

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Missing the Story on Golden Rice GMOs Civil Eats Mindful Meats CH Headshot_wider

The Woman Behind the New GMO-Free Meat Label

By Twilight Greenaway on September 10, 2013
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In June, Claire Herminjard, a purveyor of organic grassfed beef, received some great news. After nearly a year of making her way through red tape and government paperwork, and collaborating with several other food companies, the news broke that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had approved a new label for GMO-free meat. As a result, the owner of Northern California-based Mindful Meats could finally use the Non-GMO Project Verified label on her beef.

And while the news likely flew under consumers' radars, Herminjard was not alone in her rejoicing. Mary's Free Range Chicken and Hidden Villa Ranch, which distributes eggs nationally under the Horizon brand, are also be among the first round of producers to also carry the label.

"It was a huge win for meat producers, in general, because now there is a way to say that you're working outside the  genetically modified organism (GMO) system," Herminjard told Civil Eats recently. "It also allows us to make the connection between meat and GMOs."

What exactly is that connection? Well, on the surface, some might argue that organic brands don't technically need a second label, since the National Organic Standards do not allow genetically engineered ingredients in any food that is certified organic.

mindful_meats_beef_package But the Non-GMO Project (and the resulting label) came about because not all organic products are tested for genetic contamination. The Non-GMO Project requires "ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients, or any ingredient being grown commercially in GMO form."

In other words, the label serves as a way to inform eaters who either 1) want to be extra sure of the absence of genetically engineered food in their meals or 2) don't want to buy organic but still care about GMOs.

In the case of most meat, there are quite a few of those at-risk ingredients in play. Herminjard explains: "This way, all the animal's feed is known. If it contains a material that is at high risk for GMO contamination–say corn, soy, alfalfa or sugar beet pulp–every lot is tested to provide certificate analysis to ensure it is compliant with the non-GMO standards."

She believes the new label is best seen as a complement to organic, or "added security for people who want to know there is that extra check-and-balance in the supply chain."

In considering the best meat to sell, Herminjard–who left the tech sector to start a food business just a few years ago–prioritized a GMO-free, pasture-based product. But she also stumbled on an opportunity no one else had seized: A population of organic, grassfed dairy cows being sold as conventional meat once the animals stopped producing an adequate supply of milk.

"I looked at where I could create value," she says. Indeed, part of her goal to pay the local dairy farmers in Northern California, where the company is based, for a premium product.

When Herminjard started doing research about the possibility of selling milk cows for meat, she was told, repeatedly, it couldn't be done. "It just doesn't taste good enough," many seasoned ranchers told her.

"It still just seemed like a gigantic waste that cows raised so well were being sent into the conventional stream," she recalls. So, she decided she's sell it ground as hamburger meat. Soon, however, Herminjard was experimenting with other cuts of meat from cows that had been treated well, and raised on pasture. She took it to several Bay Area chefs and they loved it.

"If you have dairy cows coming out of a conventional, confined situation where they're over-milked and not living under very good conditions, then it goes without saying that they'll be pretty unfit to eat," she says. But if they've been treated well, and have what ranchers call "good body condition," that might not be the case.

Today, Herminjard has relationships with a number of organic, pasture-based dairies in the area, and her suppliers  alert her to cows they think will be good for her purposes. She then examines the animals and chooses them on a case-by case basis, harvesting around 10-15 a month.

This number, however, is soon likely to increase, as Mindful Meats just rolled out a 1-lb package of ground beef, adding 15 new grocery stores to the four retailer that had carried a range of cuts behind their counters to date. Herminjard says the goal is to work with more organic dairy farms in California and beyond, in hopes of taking advantage of their place as first to carry the non-GMO label. "But ultimately," she adds, "The more companies to come into this space the better."

In addition to her entrepreneurial goals, Herminjard is clearly building a business with the big picture in mind. Before launching Mindful Meats, she volunteered at a small-scale farm and in a Berkeley restaurant, where she learned to butcher whole animals. "I really encourage others to get their hands in the process. It will change your interaction with the meat on your plate," she says.

Herminjard says she's thankful for the life force that comes from the animals (and will ultimately go back into feeding the grass they eat one day). She hopes this awareness of the cycle of life comes through in the product: "We're trying to appreciate them fully and bring back a lot of the intention and care to the animal itself. "

- See more at:

Saturday, September 07, 2013

ANS -- Can Union Co-ops Help Save Democracy?

This gives some more information about how many worker-owned cooperatives we have to have before they raise the wages for all of us. It gives some idea of what's happening in the thinking of at least one Union who is in favor of co-ops.  This is how we will save, and improve, our democracy.
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Can Union Co-ops Help Save Democracy?

Thursday, 04 July 2013 09:17 By John Clay, Democratic Promise | News Analysis

United Steelworkers Building (Photo: makzhou)A new wave of cooperatives is emerging in the US, and a big part of the inspiration is coming from what might seem an unlikely source: the United Steelworkers International Union (USW), which describes itself as North America's largest industrial union, with 1.2 million active and retired members.

In 2009 the USW joined with Mondragon Inc. of Spain and Kent State University's Ohio Employee-Ownership Center (OEOC) to start a discussion on bringing the successful Mondragon model of employee-owned cooperatives to the US. Mondragon was founded in 1956 and today includes some 260 enterprises, many of them cooperatives, in more than forty countries, with annual sales of 24 billion dollars. OEOC brings to the effort 25 years of institutional expertise in the development of employee-owned businesses. The collaboration with the USW was announced in the national media in 2009, and in 2012 the three organizations followed up with the release of a how-to guide called "Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model."

The core goal of any employee-owned cooperative, a model dating back to the 18th century, is to organize business democratically. The people who do the work jointly run the business, all have a say, one-person one-vote, and all share in the profits. Mondragon has spent decades perfecting the model in Europe, and the addition of collective bargaining through a union committee is a new twist that can bolster democracy and garner additional resources for launching and sustaining cooperatives.

Union partnership with employee-owned co-ops is part of a philosophical ebb and flow within the US labor movement, as the tide turns alternately toward negotiating the status quo of the corporate economy or toward reforming it.

In the 1860s, National Labor Union leader William Sylvis boldly declared "The time has come when we should abandon the whole system of strikes and make cooperation the foundation of our organization and the prime object of all our efforts."

The Knights of Labor made employee-owned co-ops a priority in the 1870s, and union leader Terrence Powderly later wrote "My belief that cooperation shall one day take the place of the wage system remains unshaken."

Proponents of today's union co-ops may not be seeking to overthrow the wage system, but they do believe the model will help people to create more employee-owned co-ops, and more profoundly democratic ones. And they promote union co-ops as a solution to several deficiencies of the US workplace at the micro level of the single company: lack of democracy, wage disparity between highest- and lowest-paid employees, and job insecurity.

Some also hope these micro-level solutions might someday transform the US political economy at the macro level, helping solve problems like the growing wealth disparity between the 1 percent and the 99 percent and its strain on democracy, stagnant for the US workforce, and the community instability and drag on net job growth caused by downsizing and by off-shoring of jobs.

The prospects for these micro and macro goals are worth examining more closely. But first, just what is the Union-Co-op initiative?

The union co-op initiative

The first thing to understand is that the initiative is not a centrally-directed program one just plugs into. There is no central hub. The initiative is better understood as an agreement among the USW, Mondragon, and OEOC to develop and share out a model which strengthens the traditional employee-owned cooperative through a new partnership with labor unions. And, in equal share, the initiative consists in the response of interested workers, business owners, unions, non-profits, and local communities who have heard of the model and are now talking with each other, and with the USW, Mondragon, and OEOC, about starting new co-ops.

"The response to the initial press release in 2009 was overwhelming," says Rob Witherell of the USW, "and people keep coming to us to learn more."

The "Union Co-op Model" how-to guide (available at explains the Mondragon model and how the union co-op improves on it. It lays out the vision and principles that are the moral foundation for the model and also describes the mechanics of governance, ownership, financing, compensation, and collective bargaining. There are even a couple of short case studies. Even as thorough as the document is, it is a guide, not an instruction manual, and there are many specifics which, as Chris Cooper of OEOC explains, "employee-owners will have to decide for themselves."

And employee-owners are doing just that. The Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI) and local partners are already putting the union co-op model into practice. A local food growing, distribution, and retail cooperative called Our Harvest, whose workers are organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, was launched in 2012 and is preparing to expand. CUCI is now helping lay the groundwork for another union co-op, organized by the Greater Cincinnati Building and Construction Trade Council, to improve the energy-efficiency of aging commercial buildings. There is also a project to recruit a Mondragon cooperative, the Danobat Group, to open a union co-op railway manufacturing plant in Cincinnati organized by the USW.

"Today there are projects underway in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York, Seattle, Denver, and new ones starting all the time," says Michael Peck of Mondragon USA.

Some employee-owned cooperatives which developed independently of the union co-op model have nonetheless helped inform the new model. A few recent examples:

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio are not organized as union co-ops but are demonstrating the viability of the Mondragon model in the US. Evergreen currently operates three employee-owned enterprises: Evergreen Energy Solutions, started in 2008, installs solar panels and provides energy efficiency services; Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, started in 2009, is an industrial laundry serving institutional customers; and Green City Growers Cooperative, started in 2013, is an urban organic farm.

In New York City, Cooperative Home Care Associates evolved gradually into a union-organized cooperative. Launched as an employee-owned cooperative in 1986, CHCA invited the Service Employees International Union to organize its worker-owners in 2003, and finally established a labor-management council in 2007 which, though not identical to the union committee of the union co-op model, can be seen as a precursor.

Creating more employee-owned cooperatives

Out of 5.7 million firms the Census Bureau finds in the US, fewer than 300 are employee-owned cooperatives, according to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) in San Francisco. Phrased optimistically, that's a lot of room for growth.

Proponents say the union co-op model can help worker-owners fill the gap. That's because pairing a start-up cooperative with a labor union instantly adds financial resources and community support. A unionized workforce typically can access more affordable group health insurance or retirement plans through the labor union, allowing the new business to affordably offer the benefits that attract high quality employees. And a labor union serves as a community ally who can advocate to local civic leaders on behalf of the start-up cooperative as it seeks funding or other support.

In fact starting up, rather than surviving, seems to be the challenge for employee-owned co-ops, because surprisingly, indirect evidence suggests that sustaining an employee-owned co-op is no more challenging than sustaining any business. They might even have better survival rates.

"Worker-owned co-ops have to accomplish everything any business does­a good product, a viable market, the right pricing," says Michael Peck of Mondragon USA. "And we do all that better by giving people ownership of the work they do."

There are anecdotal examples of decades-old employee-owned co-ops still running today. The USFWC points to the examples of Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco, founded in the mid-1970s; Alvarado Street Bakery, Petaluna, California, founded in the mid-1980s; Equal Exchange, Boston, founded in the early 1980s; and Isthmus Manufacturing, Madison, Wisconsin, founded in 1980. Anecdotes are not statistical data, though, and a few stories of success tell us no more than would a few stories of failure.

But survival rates for US cooperatives, employee-owned or otherwise, are hard to come by. The US Department of Commerce does not distinguish co-ops from other businesses, so its voluminous statistics shed no light. "We've been aware for a while of this gap in the data," said Anne Reynolds, assistant director of the Center on Cooperatives at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The center is preparing a five-year longitudinal study to track the longevity of US co-ops, including employee-owned co-ops, in a range of economic sectors. And the USFWC started this year to track the longevity and number of worker-owners of every known US employee-owned cooperative.

Until direct data is available, indirect evidence can be gathered from two sources: studies of Canadian cooperative longevity, and studies of the longevity of US employee-owned companies, mostly those with Employee Stock Ownership Programs or ESOPs.

Canada finds that cooperatives can be less risky than conventional business start-ups. The data does not distinguish between types of cooperatives­employee-owned, consumer, or producer­but can serve as a starting point for understanding cooperative viability in general.

A study called "Co-op Survival Rates in British Columbia" published in 2011 by the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal found a 5-year survival rate of 66 percent for cooperatives, compared to 38 percent for British Columbia's conventional businesses and 43 percent for all of Canada's conventional businesses.

Similarly a 2008 study by Québec's Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export found Québec cooperatives had a 10-year survival rate of 44 percent compared to 20 percent for conventional businesses.

For reference, the 5-year survival rate of all US private sector businesses established in 2007 is 46 percent, and the 10-year survival rate of those established in 2002 is 34 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that US cooperatives could score nearly 20 points below Canadian cooperatives' 5-year survival rate and 10 points below their 10-year rate and still score equal in survival to US businesses as a whole.

Meanwhile the paper "Effects of ESOP Adoption and Employee Ownership," by Steven Freeman of the University of Pennsylvania, surveys 30 years of research and finds "not only that employee-owned firms are more profitable and productive, but that they also survive longer." The paper looks at US companies with employee stock ownership programs, not employee-owned cooperatives, but the relevant finding is a correlation between employee ownership and enhanced company longevity.

The paper cites, for example, a study by Blasi and Kruse (2007) which shows a 70 percent survival rate over 11 years for privately held employee-owned companies, compared to a rate of only 55 percent for similar non-employee-owned companies.

Regardless of whether the survival of employee-owned co-ops is better than or equal to that of conventional businesses, the added resources and support which the union co-op model brings to start-ups could be expected to enhance longterm survival as well, helping to increase the number of US employee-owned co-ops over time.

Micro-level goals for a more balanced workplace

Proponents suggest that the union co-op model can create cooperatives which are more profoundly democratic. Although by definition the employee-owned cooperative already is governed democratically­one worker, one vote­some argue that democracy requires more than just a chance to vote at the annual meeting. Especially in larger co-ops, the exercise of power by worker-owners in management roles can overrun the general body of worker-owners, according to Chris Cooper of OEOC. "As the cooperative grows in size," Cooper says, "democratic participation can suffer."

Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and author of a new book "What Then Must We Do?" echoes the concern: "Everything I've seen suggests that without [special] mechanisms in place, a worker-owned firm can fall apart or become indistinguishable from a traditional capitalist enterprise."

Mondragon found a solution. Just as America's founders developed a system which, beyond voting, also relies on a separation of powers among the branches of government, so Mondragon found that creating a social council of worker-owners to serve as a voice for the general body of workers helps to restore balance between workers and managers. "In a democracy, redundant protections are good," notes Kristen Barker, director of CUCI.

The union co-op model starts from Mondragon's innovations and then further protects the balance between workers and management first by allowing all non-supervisory workers to organize as labor union members and second by transforming Mondragon's social council, which has power to advise but not enforce, into a union committee with the power to negotiate and enforce collective bargaining agreements. As Alperovitz puts it, the union committee is "tasked with making sure the cooperative lives up to its ideals."

Adding collective bargaining to the mix is all the more important because sometimes not all workers at employee-owned co-ops are owners. "There is typically a candidacy period of six months to two years for new employees," says Melissa Hoover, USFWC executive director. During this waiting period an employee prepares for membership through trainings in finance and cooperative decision-making.

Moreover, some workers simply choose not to join. "Some are satisfied with decent wages and don't want to share the risk, or don't want to attend meetings and trainings," says Hoover, who points out that only 50 percent of workers must be owners to meet "sub-chapter T" federal tax requirements for cooperatives, though many employee-owned co-ops set higher ownership goals.

Whatever the reasons and however small in number, non-owner employees are a reality, and collective bargaining under the union co-op model ensures that all workers have a voice, even those who are not owners.

Proponents of union co-ops, like proponents of employee-owned cooperatives generally, also hope that bringing more democracy to the workplace will lead to fairer pay and better job security.

In a conventional corporation officers wield authoritarian control over employees and are accountable only to shareholders. These shareholders are investors who might reside anywhere in the world and whose stake in the corporation is simple: a high return on their investment. They can reap profit from the "cost savings" of employee pay-cuts and layoffs without ever feeling the human consequences.

And although some employees might own shares in the conventional corporation, shareholder voting power is not the democratic one person, one vote. Instead it is one share, one vote, so that those who can afford to buy the most shares­high-paid executives, wealthy external investors­always win.

The result in the conventional corporation is a circle of ever-increasing consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a few. It is little surprise then that CEOs of conventional corporations in the US earned 231 times more than typical employees in 2011, according to the report "CEO Pay and the Top 1 Percent" by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, DC.

In the employee-owned co-op, the employees all hold equal voting power­one worker-owner, one vote­in selecting board members and making decisions at the annual meeting. And these voters tend to be socially and emotionally invested in the company's fairness, success, and stability because typically they are the very workers whose lives will be affected by the decisions. And in the union co-op, even workers who are not owners have a voice through union representation.

The result ideally is a workplace where employees enjoy working democracy: They can vote to diminish disparity in pay between top and bottom, and during hard times they can vote for practical alternatives to layoffs, such as temporarily reduced hours, thus improving job security.

And although the roles of the manager and the managed still occur in employee-owned co-ops, especially larger ones, the very fact of shared ownership mitigates against a strong top-down culture and leaves more room for, yes, cooperation.

Macro-level goals for a more balanced society

Some proponents also hope that employee-owned cooperatives, and especially union co-ops, might someday transform the US at the macro-level, helping solve problems like the growing wealth disparity between the 1 percent and the 99 percent and its strain on democracy, stagnant wages for the US workforce, and the community instability and drag on net job growth caused by downsizing and by off-shoring of jobs.

Recognizing that a balance in decision-making power and wealth holding in the economy is crucial to sustaining a balance in political power among the people, some scholars call these macro-level reforms "economic democracy."

Thad Williamson, a political scientist at the University of Richmond, defined the term in his paper "The Relationship Between Workplace Democracy and Economic Democracy" as the idea that "meaningful self-governance over the conditions and institutions which shape our lives­the core ideal of political democracy­requires not just democratic control over political institutions, but also extending norms of democratic self-governance to economic life."

Alperovitz, Williamson, and others identify a range of institutional forms which could help build economic democracy, and employee-owned cooperatives, including today's union co-ops, are one of them.

If at the micro level cooperatives restore democracy through the governance structure of one worker, one vote, what are the mechanisms by which they would restore democracy at the macro level?

One mechanism is simply habit. The anthropologist Mary Douglas observed that people often think and act by analogy. People can of course invent new ideas and practices, but for efficiency as well as for coordination, they typically look to existing ideas and practices and develop new ones by analogy with the old. If more Americans are practicing daily democracy by working at employee-owned co-ops, instead of practicing toeing the line at conventional, authoritarian corporations, then perhaps more Americans will be acquiring the habits and skills needed for effective participation in civic and national democracy.

"We do not learn to read or write, ride or swim, by being merely told how to do it, but by doing it," wrote the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill, cited in Alperovitz's recent book, "so it is only by practicing popular government on a limited scale, that the people will ever learn how to exercise it on a larger."

Tim Huet, co-founder of the Arizmendi Cooperatives, declared in a 2004 manifesto: "You cannot say that a society is truly democratic if its adults spend the majority of their waking hours in undemocratic workplaces."

Another mechanism by which cooperatives can strengthen democracy is by rebalancing raw power and influence in society, resulting in more balanced election funding and policymaking. Today the 1 percent hold far more wealth and more ability to influence politicians than the 99 percent.

Two strategies which conventional corporations have used to boost profits have also led to the growing disparity in wealth and power. These are downsizing employment by replacing people with machines or making fewer people work harder and faster, and sending jobs overseas where wages are lower. The lower the wage bill, the greater the profit left over for executives and shareholders.

Under these strategies, the US economy has not created enough jobs. From one job seeker for every one job in 2000, the ratio of job seekers to job openings rose in 2003 to 3-to-1, where it remains today after spiking to 7-to-1 during the Great Recession, according to EPI's "The State of Working America."

Beyond downsizing, the US job market has been gutted by the offshoring of jobs due to the high value of the US dollar, which makes US labor and products relatively expensive, thus discouraging US exports and encouraging imports. EPI's briefing paper "The China Toll" reports that trade with China alone cost US workers more than 2.7 million jobs between 2001 and 2011. The high dollar is largely a result of policy choices, says Dean Baker, economist and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC, and is favored by powerful corporations in finance, manufacturing, and retail.

When job seekers outnumber job openings due to downsizing and offshoring, it's a buyers' market in which employers can bargain down the wages they offer for labor. It is not surprising then that real wages for most American workers have remained essentially flat since the 1970s even as pay at the top has risen. According to "The State of Working America," between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent of US households received more income growth than the bottom 90 percent combined.

Meanwhile, US corporate profits nearly doubled from $434 billion in 1990, to $819 billion in 2000, and doubled again to $1.6 trillion in 2010, according to the April 2011 "Survey of Current Business."

The imbalance in wealth and power generated by shareholder corporations throws American democracy out of balance because one community­large corporate shareholders­has the clout to overwhelmingly influence public affairs. In 2010 corporate interests spent more than a billion dollars on political contributions in the US, nineteen times more than labor unions spent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Promoting a company governance structure like that of union co-ops, which carries incentives for sustaining jobs and broadly sharing profits rather than cutting jobs and funneling profits to the top, would help balance wealth and, with it, political influence.

Employee-owners who have a one-person one-vote say in how a successful cooperative is run, and especially those bolstered by a union co-op's collective bargaining agreement, can be expected to see fairer wages and more job security than workers in a conventional company. Employee-owners simply don't have the same incentives as conventional shareholders to cut wages or cut jobs. And they certainly don't have the same incentive to close plants and move to Asia or Latin America for the sake of cheaper labor and higher profits.

"Cooperatives are more rooted in the local community," says Chris Cooper. "They are not going to be offshoring their own jobs."

"We see union cooperatives as a way to stabilize wages and benefits by taking them out of competition with lower-paid workers in China," adds Rob Witherell.

If union co-ops can increase as a share of all US employers, then the effects would be multiplied throughout the economy. Even employees of conventional companies could eventually benefit from what economists call the "spillover effect" in which other employers raise median and low-end wages to compete for hires.

So the question becomes a matter of proportion: Assuming employee-owned co-op wages are more fairly balanced than wages in conventional corporations, what share of the US workforce would have to be employed in these co-ops in order to have a measurable impact on US wage disparity?

According to Dean Baker of CEPR, "If you could get 4 to 5 percent of the workforce in real co-ops, then it would make a difference, especially if they act politically self-conscientious."

The report "Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives," published by the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives in 2009, shows that US co-ops maintain about 856,000 full-time equivalent employees. This is less than one percent (0.65 percent) of all US non-farm employees, according to Current Employment Statistics. So cooperative employment needs to increase by seven times to start having a measurable effect on US wage inequality.

Baker's qualifier "real co-ops" intensifies the challenge, if this means co-ops that actively pursue shared prosperity and family-supporting wages. The only type of cooperative that, by definition, demands shared prosperity for workers is the employee-owned coop, and the number of persons employed in these co-ops is just 2,380, or 0.002 percent of all US non-farm employees.

And what share of US jobs would have to be employee-owned co-op jobs in order to stem offshoring enough to measurably reduce the drag on US net job growth?

Baker suggests that if cooperative employees do not act politically, then their employment as a share of all US employment would need to be even larger than 4 to 5 percent to measurably stem the offshoring of US jobs. "You will need some really huge share to affect outsourcing, because this is a function of economic incentives driven by policy like the high dollar," Baker explains. "If we get all our steelworkers in co-ops, but you can get steel for half the price from the developing world, then no one will buy the steel from the US co-ops."

And what about that curious booster effect which Baker calls "politically self-conscientious" action?

A matter of culture

Culture could ultimately be the factor that decides the power and fate of employee-owned cooperatives, both at the micro and macro levels.

People create a culture of shared practices and beliefs as a simple effect of each one seeking to meet their own need for effective social and economic transactions and a coherent worldview. So argued Mary Douglas in her 1986 treatise "How Institutions Think." Humans are driven toward shared culture for the simple reason that working with someone is easier if you see and do things the same way, harder of you don't. Getting in sync typically is not a conscious process. It is a result of gradual poking and prodding, urging us toward the path of least resistance.

Of course our practices don't always match our beliefs. But according to Douglas, when they do match, then ad hoc associations and arrangements are transformed into lasting and effective institutions.

At the micro-level, that tells us that putting some deliberate effort into understanding worker cooperatives and grasping the deeply held beliefs that bring people together to form one can be very important. When the internal culture is strong, members have the will to say no, for example, to conventional pressures to use excessive executive pay as a recruiting technique or pressures to solicit investment from venture capitalists at odds with cooperative values.

"When starting a new employee-owned coop, taking time to study together is invaluable," says Kristen Barker. She and the other co-founders of CUCI functioned as a highly-focused book club for about two years, reading about worker coops, watching documentaries, and discussing it all together. Although Barker and her partners were putting together an advisory organization rather than a cooperative per se, their studious method is an example to anyone starting a cooperative. "Especially when a project is embracing new norms and building a new kind of social institution, it's important to make sure to get things right," notes Gar Alperovitz.

The catch is that overlapping communities may have differing cultures. Members of an employee-owned co-op can build a strong internal culture. But they simultaneously are members of, or need to coordinate with, other socio-economic communities which might have different cultural tendencies­conventional business culture, for example.

In an era when shareholder corporations dominate not only the American economy but culture as well, an employee-owned co-op, as it seeks to build relationships with suppliers, retailers, and investors, can start feeling its internal culture poked and prodded toward the anti-democratic beliefs of larger, more powerful cultures. Beliefs that democracy is too inefficient, that discipline is the best motivator for those at the bottom and money for those at the top, that the people at the bottom can't be trusted and the people at the top can, that government is a burden not an aid­might start to seep in.

That tells us that it may be crucial for cooperative proponents to begin identifying and investing in large political-economic communities whose cultures are decisively supportive of cooperatives' democratic ideals. To be effective, these communities themselves must show a strong mesh of economic transactions and worldview; they must be politically well-organized, share a sense of who they are and what kind of world they want, and hold considerable economic power. Labor unions are one such community who, as Witherell observes, "already share a lot of ideals in common with cooperatives, a sense of fairness and solidarity."

If employee-owned cooperatives can band together and build culture and wealth, and continue to build alliances like the budding alliance with labor unions, then they might just beat Baker's daunting odds and help America build democracy in the workplace and in the broader economy.
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

John Clay

John Clay is director of policy and communications for Jobs Now Coalition in St. Paul, Minn. and is founder of He has been published in Truthout, Science & Society, and Workday Minnesota.


ANS -- 10 Ways America Has Come to Resemble a Banana Republic

Here is a summary of what is going on in the U.S.  Scary.  Notice at the end there is a list of what we need to do to reverse it, but no hint as to how we might get those things done when we have lost control of the government.  No, we can't reverse it, it is too late to go back: we must go forward into something new.  (ask me if you want to know more about that.)
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AlterNet / By Alex Henderson
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10 Ways America Has Come to Resemble a Banana Republic

What will it take for America to reverse its dramatic decline?
September 5, 2013 |  

In the post-New Deal America of the 1950s and '60s, the idea of the United States becoming a banana republic would have seemed absurd to most Americans. Problems and all, the U.S. had a lot going for it: a robust middle-class, an abundance of jobs that paid a living wage, a strong manufacturing base, a heavily unionized work force, and upward mobility for both white-collar workers with college degrees and blue-collar workers who attended trade school. To a large degree, the nation worked well for cardiologists, accountants, attorneys and computer programmers as well as electricians, machinists, plumbers and construction workers.

In contrast, developing countries that were considered banana republics­the Dominican Republic under the brutal Rafael Trujillo regime, Nicaragua under the Somoza dynasty­lacked upward mobility for most of the population and were plagued by blatant income equality, a corrupt alliance of government and corporate interests, rampant human rights abuses, police corruption and extensive use of torture on political dissidents.

Saying that the U.S. had a robust middle-class in the 1950s and '60s is not to say it was devoid of poverty, which was one of the things Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was vehemently outspoken about. King realized that the economic gains of the post-World War II era need to be expanded to those who were still on the outside of the American Dream looking in. But 50 years after King's "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963, poverty has become much more widespread in the U.S.­and the country has seriously declined not only economically, but also in terms of civil liberties and constitutional rights.

Here are 10 ways in which the United States has gone from bad to worse, and is looking more and more like a banana republic in 2013.

1. Rising Income Inequality and Shrinking Middle Class

In a stereotypical banana republic, income inequality is dramatic: one finds an ultra-rich minority, a poor majority, a small or nonexistent middle class, and a lack of upward mobility for most of the population. And according to a recent study on income inequality conducted by four researchers (Emmanuel Saez, Facundo Alvaredo, Thomas Piketty and Anthony B. Atkinson), the U.S. is clearly moving in that direction in 2013.

Their report asserted that the U.S. now has the highest income inequality and lowest upward mobility of any country in the developed world. They found that while the picture grows increasingly bleak for American's embattled middle-class, "the share of total annual income received by the top 1% has more than doubled from 9% in 1976 to 20% in 2011." And earlier this year, a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD also found that the U.S. now leads the developed industrialized world in income inequality.

2. Unchecked Police Corruption and an Ever-Expanding Police State

Journalist Chris Hedges made an excellent point when he said that brutality committed on the outer reaches of empire eventually migrates back to the heart of empire. Hedges asserted that with the increased militarization of American police, drug raids in the U.S. are now looking like military actions taken by American soldiers in Fallujah, Iraq. And, to be sure, there have been numerous examples of militarized narcotics officers killing innocent people in botched drug raids or sting operations gone wrong.

To make matters worse, narcotics officers who kill innocent people rarely face either civil or criminal prosecution; they essentially operate with impunity. And in addition to the abuses of the war on drugs, the U.S. government has far-reaching powers it did not have prior to 9/11. Between the drug war, the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and warrantless wiretapping, the United States is employing the sorts of tactics that are common in dictatorships.

3. Torture

During the Cold War, the U.S. supported many fascist regimes and banana republics that engaged in torture. But it didn't openly flaunt such tactics itself. That changed after 9/11. Post-9/11, the U.S. crossed a dangerous line when the CIA used waterboarding on political detainees with the blessing of the George W. Bush administration. Waterboarding and other forms of torture are not only bad interrogation methods that do nothing to decrease or prevent terrorism, they are a blatant violation of the rules of the Geneva Convention. As Amnesty International observed, "In the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the name of fighting terrorism."

4. Highest Incarceration Rate in the World

According to the London-based International Center for Prison Studies, the U.S. has 716 prisoners per 100,000 residents compared to 114 per 100,000 in Canada, 79 per 100,000 in Germany, 106 per 100,000 in Italy, 82 per 100,000 in the Netherlands or 67 per 100,000 in Sweden. Even Saudi Arabia, which has an incarceration rate of 162 per 100,000, doesn't imprison nearly as many of its residents as the United States. One of the main reasons the U.S. has such a high incarceration rate is its failed war on drugs, which has emphasized draconian sentences for nonviolent offenses.

The prison industrial complex has become quite a racket. From prison labor to construction companies to companies specializing in surveillance technology, imprisoning people is big business in the United States­and the sizable prison lobby has a major stake in keeping draconian drug laws on the books. Further, the drug war has included harsh asset forfeiture laws that, in essence, place the burden of proof not on the courts, but on people whose assets have been seized.

5. Corrupt Alliance of Big Business and Big Government

Trends forecaster Gerald Celente has asserted that the U.S. has become a "fascist banana republic" and now lives up to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's definition of fascism: the merger of state and corporate power. Celente, a frequent guest on the cable news network RT, has repeatedly said that systemic corruption in the banking sector has not decreased since the financial crash of September 2008 and the bailouts that came after it, it has gotten worse, and too-big-to-fail banks now operate with impunity.

That union of corporate and state power fits Mussolini's definition of fascism, which was followed by a long list of dictators in banana republics. In a democratic republic, banks and corporations are not above the law; in a banana republic, they are­and with the legislation and reforms of Roosevelt's New Deal (which did a lot to prevent banks and corporations from enjoying unchecked power) having been undermined considerably (most notably, by the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), the U.S. is looking more and more like a banana republic.

6. High Unemployment

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the U.S. decreased to 7.4% in July 2013. But that figure is misleading because it fails to take into account the millions of Americans who have given up looking for work (that is, they have been unemployed for so long the BLS no longer counts them as part of the work force) or workers who have only been able to find temp work.

And according to economist/researcher John Williams, the unemployment crisis in the U.S. is much more dire than the BLS' 7.4% figure. Williams' research counts the millions of Americans the BLS excludes, and his newsletter, Shadow Statistics, reported that in June 2013, the U.S.' actual unemployment rate was a disturbing 23.3% (which is only slightly less than the unemployment rate in 1932). Also, BLS figures don't take into the account the fact that most of the new jobs created in 2013 have been low-paying service jobs. Clearly, much of the American population is growing poorer while the 1% are doing better than ever.

7. Inadequate Access to Healthcare

The United States continues to be the only developed country that lacks universal healthcare. And since the economic meltdown of September 2008, the number of Americans who lack health insurance has increased. According to a study the Commonwealth Fund conducted in 2012, 55 million Americans lacked health insurance at some point last year­and that 55 million doesn't even count all of the Americans who are underinsured, meaning that they have gaps in their coverage that could easily result in bankruptcy in the event of a major illness. Americans have some of the highest healthcare expenses in the world but are plagued with much worse outcomes than residents of Canada, Australia, New Zealand or any country in Western Europe. From medical bankruptcies and sky-high premiums to a lack of preventative care, the American healthcare system is a disaster on many levels.

The U.S. took a small step in the direction of universal healthcare with the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, but many proponents of health insurance reform have been quick to point out that it doesn't go far enough. According to Robert Reich, "Obamacare is an important step, but it still leaves 20 million Americans without coverage."

8. Dramatic Gaps in Life Expectancy

In many banana republics, it is common knowledge that the poor die much younger than the wealthy minority. The disparity in life expectancy rates dramatically illustrates the severity of the growing rich/poor divide in the United States. Life expectancy for males is 63.9 years in McDowell County, West Virginia compared to 81.6 years in affluent Fairfax County, Virginia or 81.4 in upscale Marin County, Calif. That is especially alarming when one considers that life expectancy for males was 68.2 in Bangladesh in 2012 and 64.3 for males in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, in 2011.

The news for many American women isn't very good either. According to the United Nations, American women on the whole fell from #14 worldwide in life expectancy in 1985 to #41 in 2010. And in September 2012, the New York Times reported that nationally, life expectancy was down to 67.5 years for the least educated white males compared to 80.4 for more educated white males. The Times also reported that life expectancy was 73.5 years for less educated white females compared to 83.9 for more educated white females.

9. Hunger and Malnutrition

In the 1950s and '60s, hunger was a word one associated with developing countries rather than the United States. But with millions of Americans having slipped into poverty during the current economic downturn, the number of people who are now poor enough to qualify for food stamps has increased from 17 million in 2000 to 47 million in 2013. Only one in 50 Americans received food stamps in the 1970s; now, the number is one in seven.

According to Share Our Strength, 48.8 million Americans now suffer from food insecurity. In 2010, Ariana Huffington came out with a book titled Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. That title was no exaggeration; the U.S. is, as Huffington said, "on a trajectory to become a Third World country," and the fact that food stamp use has more than doubled since 2000 bears that out.

10. High Infant Mortality

Earlier this year, the organization Save the Children released the results of its 14th annual State of the World's Mothers Report. The report found that "the United States has the highest first-day death rate in the industrialized world" (babies dying the day they are born) and that the European Union has "only about half as many first-day deaths as the United States: 11,300 in the U.S. vs. 5,800 in EU member countries."

"Poverty, racism and stress are likely to be important contributing factors to first-day deaths in the United States," said the report. Save the Children also reported that the U.S. had a rate of three first-day deaths per 1,000 births, the same rate the organization reported for developing countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Peru and Libya. Meanwhile, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Costa Rica were among the Latin American countries that had only two first-day deaths per 1,000 births. So, a baby born in El Salvador or Mexico has a better chance of living to its second day than a baby born in the United States.


What will it take for the United States to reverse its dramatic decline? Robert Reich, in a video released on Labor Day 2013, called for six things: 1) a living wage for more American workers; 2) an earned income tax credit; 3) better childcare for working parents; 4) easier access to good schools and a quality education; 5) universal health insurance; and 6) union rights.

Those are all excellent ideas. The U.S. also should replace the war on drugs with a sane drug policy (something Attorney General Eric Holder recently addressed), abolish the prison industrial complex, rebuild the U.S.' decaying infrastructure, abolish the Patriot Act and the NDAA, restore the Glass-Steagall Act and break up too-big-to-fail banks. Obviously, accomplishing even a third of these would be an uphill climb. But unless most or all of those steps are taken, the U.S. can look forward to a grim future as a banana republic.

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications.