Thursday, December 8, 2016

Musings About Economics

I was surprised to discover that in the last decade economics has become increasingly interesting to me as a social change agent.

My surprise is not so much that economics should have a seat at the table when discussing the elements of sustainable culture—that made eminent sense to me right away. The shock is that I might be sitting at the table, helping to articulate the economic elements of the better world we're all aspiring to manifest. I never saw it coming. 

Today's offering is a collection of 10 interestingly-shaped pieces of the economic puzzle. While I cannot promise that they can be assembled into a compete picture they suggest a different relationship to economics. See what you think.

1. The Big Canvas
For more than half my life I've identified cooperative culture as my lode star. As someone who wants to make a positive difference in the world, I screen all of my work through the fundamental question, Is this in service to building a more cooperative world? Mostly I've devoted myself to pursuing this through promoting and understanding community, and how individuals relate to it.

That's a plenty large enough field to play in, and there's no danger of running out of meaningful work. For decades it was compelling to focus strictly on how people functioned in a community context. Where did they fall into the ditch, what skills were essential to getting out of the ditch, how to work conflict constructively, how to balance "I" and "we," how to work non-rationally—stuff like that was my milieu and the bulk of my consulting work has fallen within those lines of inquiry. I've even been around long enough to help shape what the questions are.

Gradually, however, I became aware of larger questions. In particular, what is right relationship between social interactions (the heart of community) and resource consumption (ecology) and how we make a living (economics)? What does an integrated package of sustainability look like?

As I became aware of the three-legged stool of sustainability—ecological social, and economic—it was immediately apparent that all three legs were not equally robust. The ecological thrust has been most prominent (the first Earth Day was 46 years ago, and I can even recall a conversation with my high school science teacher in the late '60s about the pros and cons of a new text book that approached biology through an ecological overview—a radical concept at the time). For many today, sustainability is tantamount to ecology. The first and only images they hold are of solar panels, spotted owls, and recycling barrels.

In recent decades though, there has been quite a bit of progress made in bringing into wider awareness my leg of the stool: social sustainability. I've invested heavily in understanding the nuts and bolts of cooperation. I've learned how it breaks down and how it can be salvaged or repaired. I've traveled all across the continent offering everything from workshops in cooperative theory to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Satisfyingly, over the span of my professional lifetime I've witnessed a decided uptick in awareness of social sustainability.

That brings us to the poor stepchild that is the third leg: economics. It's the one that's least written about and least well understood. In contemplating this, I believe a huge factor is that the progressive elements most inspired by a sustainable future have a marked tendency to suffer from arrested development. In particular, they have not gotten past the biblical admonition that "money is the root of all evil."

Sustainable economics necessarily requires one to get comfortable with the concept of fair exchange, but it's damn hard to navigate that territory if you find money—the primary medium of exchange—to be inherently grubby and soul crushing. To be clear, I'm not offering paeans to money; I'm saying it is what we make of it, and it's not going to work if all economic exchange is smeared with the oleaginous face cream of prostitution and exploitation.

2. The Big Canvass
Terry O'Keefe and I are going to be delivering a workshop at next May's National Cohousing Conference (May 19-21 in Nashville TN) entitled "Community as Economic Engine." In preparation for it we're working with the Coho Association of the US on an economic survey. 

We'll be finding out how many communities currently partner with their members to enhance their economic situation. Overwhelmingly, non-income-sharing groups (about 90% of the total) wash their hands when it comes to helping members meet their economic nut. Terry and I think they can—and should—do better. In addition to banging the drum, we'll roll up our sleeves and suggest ways to do it.

3. Carrier as Belwether
Last week President-elect Trump did some serious jawboning with Carrier, the huge HVAC company in Indiana. They were poised to close down gas furnace manufacturing operations in Indianapolis and move nearly 1000 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico, where Carrier could pay workers $3/hour instead of $25/hour—realizing a neat $65 million in annual savings. It would have been a no brainer except for the fact that Trump had made a big deal out how he was going to put a stop to this very thing—outsourcing US jobs to foreign countries.

Given that Indiana is a very red state (and the home of Vice President-elect Pence), Carrier's proposed move would have left a very red President-elect (take your pick between embarrassed or angry, though the latter seems easier to access from what I've seen).

In the end, Trump succeeded in getting Carrier to rescind their move. But what really happened? No new jobs were created; rather, Indiana Governor Pence saved jobs (in his state) by offering Carrier unspecified "major concessions" that compensated them enough to forego their putative labor savings. And it does not take an MBA from Wharton to connect the dots between this deal and the sensitivity of United Technologies (Carrier's parent company) to retaining its favorable position at the trough regarding lucrative contracts for jet engines and other defense-related equipment.

Because Carrier has annual gross profits of $4 billion, the Mexico move only represented a gain of 1.6%, which they were willing to put on the table in exchange for concessions and public relations credit (it's interesting to speculate on what value Carrier assigns to not being in Trump's cross hairs).

When the smoke clears what have we got? We can be sure that Carrier protected its primary mission: making money for its shareholders. And Trump came through on a campaign promise to stop outsourcing. But what does protectivism have to do with "making America great again"? Are manufacturing start-ups now more likely to site plants in Indiana than Mexico? I don't think so. How long will it be before another major company gets the bright idea to announce plans to move operations out of country, trolling for another round of "major concessions" because Trump needs to avoid the embarrassment of failing to keep an uneconomic campaign promise?

Trump held up the hands of time for 1000 jobs in America's heartland, but it is hardly a blueprint for a robust economy. Progressives need to stop ceding economic territory to an energetic vampire like Trump.

4. Intersection of Economic and Social
In our efforts to articulate a better world (not just complain about the injustices of the one we've got) little attention has been focused on how the social and economic can, and should, be allies. Fortunately, there is considerable overlap between the two. The skills needed to resolve differences creatively in consensus are essentially the same ones needed to sort out thorny issues in economic diversity.

We need to be doing a better job of integrating the various parts of our lives into a cohesive whole, not straining the seams. Suppose you have a dream job in the city that pays top dollar, coupled with an idyllic house in the burbs with a great school for your kids—but there's just one problem: these two gems are interconnected by a brutal, bumper-to-bumper 90-minute commute twice a day, five days a week. How integrated is that (and how's your blood pressure these days)?

5. Intersection of Work and Value
When people complain about their struggles to find work, I've learned that what they really mean is their struggles to find good work. And "good," I've learned, distills down to values match. Though salary, flex-time, security, benefits, and a boss who respects you all come into the conversation, the bottom line is whether the inherent nature of the work—the actual good or service produced—is consonant with what you value in life. 

Thus, the fundamental economic challenge can be boiled down to this: how can I be paid a decent wage for doing work that I believe in? Once you understand this, life becomes simpler. Yes, it's more difficult if you are risk averse and non-entrepreneurial (because it can be too scary to try living on less income in order to have a better values match, and there are fewer options if you have to depend on others to create a job that will work for you) but everyone has choices.

We are not raised to think this way. For that matter, we are not raised to contemplate what are values are, much less how to assess job opportunities for a match with them. Instead, we are taught to prioritize income and marketable skills, and then use the money to buy what we want. The model we are offered is that if each person maximizes their potential (makes as much money as possible) all boats will rise on the flood. But that's way too simplistic. Income in a vacuum is too often vacuous (read spirit killing, which can be very expensive).

To be fair, jobs are available in a spectrum; not just sorted into categories of good and evil. And there can be a world of difference between jobs that are value-neutral (perhaps domestic cleaning) and those that are value-negative (say, marketing inferior products). The power in this analysis is appreciating the full value of a good match—where work is life affirming, rather than a necessary evil that allows you to pay the rent and buy groceries. Once you taste work that is value-aligned it spoils you for settling again for something less. When your heart is in it, it doesn't feel like "work." Your battery doesn't drain as fast. You recover more quickly and you're a joy to be around. It's addictive (in a good way).

6. Disassociation of Money from Security
One of the biggest lessons I learned from community living was how to get a better handle on the concept of security. As a young adult I didn't think much about it. I focused more on opportunity and how to be a positive influence in the world. In an effort to recapitulate the combination of stimulation and support that I experienced in dormitory living as an undergraduate (at Carleton College, 1967-71), I stumbled onto community living at age 24 and never looked back.

When, through a combination of intimate misadventures, I would up leaving intentional community 40 years later, I looked up and discovered that a lifetime of being economically generative had left me with very little money in the bank. I had been living in income-sharing situations since 1974 and had not been accumulating anything in my name. While I was safely under the economic umbrella of partnerships (first my intentional community, Sandhill Farm, and later my marriage) I lost that protection when those associations ended.

My initial response was to simply go out and make more money. While that started off well, my vulnerability caught up with me when I got sick last winter and discovered I had cancer. While my bank account was starting to swell, I hadn't gotten very far before work was derailed and I was facing horrific medical bills—a complete financial reversal. Fortunately I was already on Medicare and had purchased a strong supplemental policy that provided a substantial cushion. 

For all of that however, I was still financially exposed and completely without the protection of my prior partnerships. As someone who had been active in the Communities Movement, I had been writing and presenting for years about the advantages of group living, especially if you redefined security in terms of relationships rather than bank accounts. Well, my cancer inadvertently afforded me the occasion to field test that theory.

Perhaps the most humbling experience of my life was the unabashed outpouring of love and support I received once word got out about my battle with cancer. I was completely bathed in caring energy—even from people I didn't know but whose lives had been touched by a workshop I once gave. This, I came to appreciate at a visceral level, was what it meant to redefine security in terms of relationships. No amount of money in the bank could substitute for what that meant to me, or the role it played in my being able to push the cancer into remission. It has been a team effort.

The cherry on top was that when I put out a discrete call for help with medical bills (through this blog last July), 30 friends responded and the gap was closed. Yes, money made a difference. But that was the medium; friends and relationships were the foundation.

If you are able to make this transition, it is incredibly freeing when it comes to how you budget. You need less income when you are not salting it away against a rainy day. If you can afford to work for less it widens the horizon in your search for work with an excellent values match. Depending on your circumstances you can even consider volunteer work. This is a quality of life issue, where bedrock is happiness.

7. Marriage of Entrepreneur and Non-entrepreneur
Although it took me about three decades to see this, it's useful to absorb the following reality about a typical cooperative group: in almost all cases there will be a significant minority of members who identify as entrepreneurial, and a clear majority who identify as not. This is an important insight because the profiles of these two groups don't align easily.

Entrepreneurs are risk tolerant and tend to not depend on the approbation of others to feel good about themselves. They are comfortable in their own company and tend to prefer low structure (read minimal red tape).

The majority are the reverse, and one of the main challenges  achieving group health is figuring out how these two disparate groups can play well with one another. It can be a bitch.

To add to the joy, community founders, almost by definition, tend to be entrepreneurial as pioneers. It takes a certain kind of craziness and audacity to envision a successful intentional community—much less attempt one—and no small amount of chutzpah to pull it off. That said, once a community is established it depends on a steady diet of settlers joining the experiment in order to sustain it, and settler qualities tend to be non-entrepreneurial. Talk about fun. (Did anyone promise that community was easy?)

Why hasn't more attention been given to this? Both are always going to exist and we need models for how they can be allies instead of irritants.

8. Integration of Entrepreneur and Community
Another angle on this same dynamic has to do with how the group relates to its risk-takers. Ironically, even though intentional communities are radical social experiments, they tend to be obsessed with their own stability, which leads to the development of a generally conservative atmosphere—not so much regarding politics as internal experimentation.

The upshot of this is that groups tend to view their entrepreneurs with a jaundiced eye (while we love them as our very own, we wish they wouldn't come up with so many boat-rocking ideas). Precious few communities have directly addressed this issue—perhaps because they don't understand that it's happening; perhaps because they're afraid it will lead to a witch hunt. 

As we know, however, that we resist persists. By failing to tackle the issue of risk management head on, the result is that it's decided in the trenches. Entrepreneurs adapt by either conducting end runs (under the theory that it's easier to get forgiven than to get permission) or by taking their energy elsewhere.

9. Difference Between a Good Idea and a Good Business
A lot of folks fail to understand that having good product sense is not the same as having good business sense. While having a superior product or service is a definite advantage, it doesn't guarantee black ink at the end of the year. The business world is full of cautionary tales about how the better product lost because it was outmarketed (think Beta versus VHS; or FireWire versus USB). 

To what extent are cooperative groups helping their members with business advice? Answer: not nearly enough. This problem needs to be worked from both ends. Entrepreneurs need to swallow their pride and ask for help (what do you mean it doesn't count if you get assistance?); cooperative groups need to get over thinking that helping to develop values-based business plans as contamination with filthy lucre (who, after all, is pure in this vale of tears?). The point of this is to help everyone. Not only will the entrepreneurs be rewarded, but as their businesses succeed they'll be better able to employ non-entrepreneurs, who want good jobs.

10. Local Answers not Federal
Circling back to my third point about Carrier, I believe that economics—just like politics—start at home; not with government subsidies. While markets can be as wide as make sense (and with today's information-based products that can be as far as broadband ethernet can reach, which is just about everywhere), the foundation of right exchange is local. Instead of doing everything myself (or doing without), I trade to you what I'm good at or have in surplus and get in exchange something that you're better at than I or can afford to share. If we both give good value we're in integrity and both of our lives have been enhanced. Everyone sleeps well at night. It's that simple.

Small towns die when they lose their economic base. When local stores are franchises and not locally owned (think Walmart), profits are siphoned off to out-of-town shareholders and wages drop to legal minimums. People are no longer working for Uncle Fred, Grandma Gutierrez, or Ole Johansson—all of whom care about whether your daughter is sick or your dog just had triplets; they're working for Lord Farquaad or his moral equivalent. The good news is that this trend can be reversed. Buy locally. Give a damn.

If the viability of our businesses was rooted in our home communities—instead of leveraged off of investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation allowances—we'd be inflation proof and wouldn't give a hoot what the wage rate was in Guadalajara.

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Pause that Refreshes

I borrowed the title for today's blog from the long-time advertising slogan of Coca Cola. It's one they first introduced in 1929. 

I had taken a break from blogging after giving thanks the Friday after Turkey Day and haven't posted anything since… until today—an occurrence notable enough that it seemed worth commenting on. That 10-day publishing hiatus has been by far my longest period of epistolary interruptus. So what's been happening, you ask? My health has continued its mostly unremarkable improvement , Susan and I are getting along just fine, and I've been unusually busy crafting proposals and assembling reports (not necessarily to determine who's been naughty or nice, but you get the idea).

Lest readers worry that my fount of creative composition is drying up, I was so a-bubble with ideas last Saturday that I arose to jot down notes at 5:30 am, before they dissipated like the brilliancies of dreams that evaporate as the sun peeks over the horizon. (To be sure, it was a confusing moment for Lucie—our eight-year-old rescue dog who enjoys nocturnal squatter's rights on our bedspread; she didn't understand why the light was on—but she soldiered on, putting her head back down as I scribbled away.)

o  I want to explore cooperative economics more comprehensively. Increasingly, I suspect the literature is missing key elements.

o  I want to examine more closely the art of teaching and the tarantella of dancing between being a practitioner (out of town gun) and an instructor (disassembling the parts so that students can discern the sleight of hand of the artful facilitator).

o  I want to delve more deeply into how we understand cooperative culture, and why the shift away from our competitive overculture is so urgently needed. 

o  Why are people so poor at listening? And so reticent to write?

o  I want to celebrate the miracle of how much good we humans are able to do in the world despite our feet of clay, our fumbling awareness, and the myriad excuses we have to be fucked up beyond functionality.

o   What is the right way to apportion attention among practicing the craft of facilitation, reading about facilitation, teaching facilitation, and writing about facilitation? Ai-yi-yi!

So there is a lot to write about. Whether Lucie thinks so or not.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Giving Thanks 2016

Today is a day of rest and reflection. After a full day yesterday, Susan and I have a gloriously unscheduled Friday with her son, Jamie (up from St Paul). Family time.  

This stands in sharp contrast with yesterday, which was completely orchestrated. I had infusion therapy in the morning followed by a full-court press in the kitchen as soon as I got home, to continue prepping a Thanksgiving feast for eight, the cooking for which started Wed night. Don't get me wrong: I love cooking in general, and celebration cooking in particular. Even better, it's something on which Susan and I are totally sympatico. 

Our biggest challenge is dancing gracefully through the choreography of two busy chefs in the kitchen at the same time. The prime prep spot is a bit too close to the sink, putting wayward arms and hips at risk when the rhythm of wielding sharp knives and sweeping away detritus are executed in the vicinity of quick rinses and sudden tool extractions. But we're figuring it out.

I find 6-8 is the perfect size for a dinner party. It's hardly any more trouble than cooking for two, gives you more latitude to try out dishes (while at the same time honoring de rigueur menu items such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry relish), is easy to divide between two accomplished cooks, affords us a suitable opportunity to bring out the fancy dishes and linen, and you can fit everyone around one table, holding a single conversation. What's not to like? Talk about slow food, dinner yesterday stretched from 4-9. All the way from hot-out-of-oven crab-stuffed mushroom caps to coffee accompanied by pecan pie topped with whipped cream.

• • •
As I happened to be at Susan's for Thanksgiving last year, this is a great time to take a snapshot of all that's unfolded for me in the past year, enumerating the wealth of things that I have to be thankful for.

o  Last Thanksgiving I was experiencing steady back pain, but the worst was still ahead. I was three weeks away from it deteriorating to the muscle spasming hell that would make it almost impossible to travel or even get out of bed for six weeks, ultimately leading to hospitalization and the discovery of my multiple myeloma. I almost died.

o  While contracting cancer would never be on anyone's wish list, from that grave nadir many wonderful things have emerged. By incredible good fortune, my breakdown occurred in Duluth. Not only did I receive irreplaceable emotional and logistical support when I most needed them, but it turned out that I received superb medical attention once I got over the hump of accepting that I seriously needed help.

Duluth is not a large city (pop 86,000), and has only two hospitals (St Luke's and Essentia). Yet they both have invested in their oncology departments and I could hardly have picked a better place to have discovered my cancer. I was morbidly sick and went to the St Luke's emergency room Jan 31. Within hours I was accurately diagnosed (in contrast with the cancer being missed when I was tested for it in Missouri in December 2014), admitted to the hospital, and started on treatment—my kidneys were barely functioning at 20% capacity, I had been leaching calcium from my skeleton to the point where I was in imminent danger of fracturing something, I had three collapsed vertebrae, and my bone marrow was producing a plethora of unwanted plasma cells. I was one sick puppy. I was thankful for excellent medical care and a loving partner—as the reincarnation of Florence Nightingale who unstintingly jumped into the role without any clarity about their being a future for our relationship beyond nurse/patient.

o  Since bottoming out last winter, I have steadily responded to the protocols laid out by Dr Alkaied, my oncologist. It turns out that multiple myeloma is a variety of cancer for which there there has been tremendous recent progress made in understanding the disease and how to treat it. Not only is Alkaied current with the literature and research, he was able to consult with the rest of his cancer team (seven in all) and he had immediate ideas about how to proceed. I was thankful that of all the cancers I could have had, it was one for which there was hope for containment.

After some judicious experimenting with various protocols, we hit on a chemotherapy mix that my body responded to well and that drove down the cancer. I was thankful for having a strong enough heart and lungs to handle the strain of my recovery. (All those years of healthy living and good diet at Sandhill Farm were coming into play).

o  My gradual recovery was in service to a master plan that called for an autologous stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic this summer. It's a procedure in which they are world experts, and my case was overseen by Dr Buadi, a hematologist who specializes in treating multiple myeloma. I was thankful to have access to top-drawer treatment in state. (As Alkaeid necessarily treats all kinds of cancer, he only occasionally sees my disease; Buadi sees patients with my illness day in and day out.) I was also thankful for Ceilee, Jo, Alison, Annie, and (of course) Susan who comprised my indispensable on-site support team during my five weeks in Rochester.

o  Happily, the stem cell transplant was a full success. My cancer is currently in total remission, I have been given the green light to resume my consulting/teaching career (within reason), and I am starting a maintenance course of chemotherapy where I receive a lower dosage of Kyprolis, one of the drugs that was effective in containing the cancer last spring. I am thankful that there is a drug that works well for me and that I tolerate well (which is not everyone's experience).

To be clear, the cancer is dormant (good) but not gone. It is inappropriate to see myself as "cured." The cancer may return at any time, or it may not. Meanwhile, I am fully aware of living in a state of grace. I am thankful that I get to enjoy these days (years?) of "extended play," with sufficient recovery to do the work I love (cooperative group process) with as deft a touch as I've ever had, and to have a surfeit of friends and loved ones with which to celebrate life and smell the roses (as opposed to interacting with people more or less in passing, on my way to the next thing).

o  While my choice to live in an income-sharing community left me rich in relationships and experiences—for which I'll be eternally grateful and don't expect to ever second guess—it did not lead to financial security. Thus, I was scrambling to handle the staggering health bills I ran up this year. I am thankful that this crisis did not bloom until I was 66 and already on Medicare, and that I had the foresight (and good advice) to buy a generous supplemental insurance policy. 

While that protection meant that I was insulated from the vast majority of my bills, I still had thousands of dollars of liability and was facing the double whammy of not being able to work while I focused on my recovery. I am thankful to the 30 some people who generously responded to my June blog appeal for financial support, effectively bridging the gap between what I had and what I owed. Whew!

o  My bedrock in all his has been Susan (how do people make it through life without a loving partner?). Of all the many things that I have to be thankful for today, none is more precious to me than Susan and the unprecedented opportunity that was opened up from behind the clouds of my health crisis for the two of us to enjoy our latter years in curiosity, in laughter, and in the exuberant exploration of love.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Defining Cooperative Culture

Back in 1974, when a group of four of us started Sandhill Farm, I started down a path that ultimately added up to my dedicating my life to building community. While that commitment has never wavered (the need for community today as more urgent than ever), I've frequently adjusted the lens through which I see what I'm doing.

One of the most potent and enduring ways to frame my life's work is that I am promoting cooperative culture—as an alternative to the competitive culture that dominates mainstream society. But what does that mean, cooperative culture?

While it's analogous to asking a fish to define water, I can at least nibble around the edges.

o  Caring about how as much as what
While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don't break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there's no question but that the bottom line is king. In cooperative culture you're just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product.

o  Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)
Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mind set than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life.

o  Going to the heart (rather than being nice)
Done well, cooperative culture is about plumbing the emotional and psychic depths of topics, not just the best thinking. Wherever there is tension we work to resolve it, not paper it over.

o  Placing relationships in the center
The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave.

o  Being open to disagreement and critical feedback
In healthy cooperative groups there is an awareness of how vital it is to establish and utilize clear channels of  communication among members whenever anyone is having a critical reaction to the statements or behavior of another member in the group context. Failing to attend to this leads to the erosion of trust and is damaging to relationship.

o  Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)
A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that "things" take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life.

o  Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others 
Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn't work well unless it's working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one's activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one's person's advancement is predicated on another person's loss.

It's much easier to expand one's consciousness to hold all species once you accept that we need to hold all of humanity (no just those living in blue states, those promoting white culture, or those embracing green politics). Once there, it is that much harder to be at peace with people throwing trash out the window of their car (essentially fouling our one nest), or with company CEOs who decide to pay fines because it's cheaper than eliminating pollution from their waste stream.

When seen through the lens of cooperative culture private ownership entails the responsibility to conserve, enhance, and extend—more than the right to hoard, misuse, and exhaust.

What do I mean by cooperative culture? All of the above.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Facilitating by Intuition

Today I'm traveling to Durham NC where I'll be working with a cohousing community (my 61st if you're keeping score at home). I'll be using one of my favorite approaches: a four-day intensive immersion. After arriving Wed evening I'll get a good night's sleep and then begin work in earnest in the morning. 

My time with the client group will divide into two distinct parts:

Segment I: Interviews
From Thursday morning through Friday afternoon I'll make myself available to meet with group members in ones, twos, and in teams. I'll ask questions, but mostly I'll listen.

They'll tell me what they think I should know about the group, or about their relationship to the group. They'll tell me what's precious about the group and what's challenging. They'll share their opinions about how we should focus the plenaries on the weekend. They'll tell me what the objectives should be for our time together.

Taken all together, I'll form opinions about how the group has lost its way and where the points of leverage lay for getting unstuck.

Segment II: Plenary Work
Everything shifts at Friday dinner. Afterwards we'll be gathering in plenary, in meetings that my partner and I will facilitate.

We'll start with my giving the group a summary of Findings: the themes I've distilled from Segment I. This, hopefully, will accomplish a number of things:

o  That I have listened well.
o  That I have a solid grasp of where the group stands, including a concise articulation of its issues.
o  That I have a road map for how to use the weekend plenaries productively.
o  That I have digested the complexities of the group dynamics and am not overwhelmed.
[Aside: This last may not seem like much, but it's common for members of intentional communities to experience what's happened in community as a singularity in their life, and it's therefore natural to project that it will be difficult (if not impossible) for an outsider to grok the sophistication of their reality in a single pass. What they often fail to take into account is that what's unique to them—living in community—is the (rarefied) air that I've been breathing for the last 40 years, and that fact is a prime reason why I was hired in the first place.]

From this starting point the weekend can unfold in a wide variety of ways but I can confidently predict that the elements will be an interwoven mix of:

—establishing heartfelt connections among members
—offering the principles of good process (generally this is slanted more toward introducing new ideas, rather than dismantling practices that are dysfunctional)
—demonstrating how to apply the principles while simultaneously tackling one or more pressing issues that the group needs to address anyway (this yields a double benefit: product on a specific issue and a workable model for how to tackle things more effectively in the future)
—laying out a sequence for tackling topics that emerged in the course of our examination but that we didn't have time to adequately address while I was on campus

Along the way I expect the energy to be up-tempo, I expect to have fun, and I expect relationships among members to be enhanced. What's not to like?

• • •
Having laid all this out, it's only fair to confess that I developed this approach because it plays to my strengths: both in intensity and spontaneity. For those who prefer a much more detailed battle plan my approach comes across as frightfully cavalier and unprepared. While I've been in this situation frequently enough over a 30-year career that I thoroughly trust my ability to "see" what needs to happen in the dynamic moment, I have peers—whose abilities I have great respect for—who would sooner go into a consulting weekend with no pants on than so little clarity about the arc of the weekend on the eve of the first interview. What I see as luxurious, they see as borderline irresponsible.

When I train facilitators I emphasize the importance of developing one's instincts—learning to trust their gut.

Nowhere is this more valuable than when working with a group that's hemorrhaging in multiple planes. Cursory prep work will reveal that there are several legitimate points of entrée and the question emerges, "Where to start?"

In a situation like this experience has taught me that all roads lead to Rome and it doesn't matter that much where we start. So my preference is to follow the juice. That is, find out where the heat and passion are most concentrated and begin there. My absolute favorite way to accomplish this is through on-site interviews.

While it doubles my time on the job (four days instead of two), I know that if I listen carefully I'll learn all I need to know about where people are stuck and what matters to them. I firmly believe that people almost always know the answers to their own problems; they just get temporarily blinded from time to time. My job is not to perform magic (pulling a rabbit out of a hat); it's to pull away the curtains that have been obscuring the answers that were always there. Think of me as a community optician—the guy who's full of options and opticals, though hopefully few illusions.

This weekend I'll be working with María Silvia from Chapel Hill. In addition to being a close friend, for the last seven months of 2015 I lived on the third floor of the house she owns with her partner, Joe Cole. I'd happily still be there today excepting I fell in love with Susan and moved to Duluth to follow my heart, about which I have no regrets. María is highly talented and it's a treat for me to mentor her in group dynamic work. (Joe, by the way, is also talented and I'll be partnering with him to offer an all-day facilitation training as a pre-conference offering at the national cohousing conference in Nashville, May 18.)

As much as María loves me—and I know she does—it drives her nuts how little I map out before arriving on site. To be sure, she knows that plans need to be adaptable in the face of emerging conditions and is not a slave to them; she just doesn't like to arrive on site with nothing up her sleeve. The irony here is that María is a passionate Latina and there is nothing she needs to learn from me about following the energy. She just needs to increase her confidence that the ground will be where she needs it be when she commits her weight forward before the ground is in sight.

It's a dance.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Democracy Does Not Have to Be Majority Voting

In response to my most recent post, The Mourning After, Frands Frydendal wrote:

Can democracy be wrong?

I think it can, meaning it has its weaknesses, and the recent election—in the nation that is supposed to be the vanguard of democracy—shows that a serious update is long overdue. Fortunately new knowledge to create updates has recently become available. 


The election of Trump as the President of the United States is only part of the evidence that democracy as we know it is obsolete. Clinton as the final counter-candidate and the whole process has denounced democracy's claim of being the final solution to the questions of state. 


Versions of democracy differ a lot, but they all rotate around majority decisions, and all the possible ways to influence the majority, including ways that allow for manipulation and collective folly. Of course majority voting is not used for decisions about scientific evidence, neither is it used (much) for business. 


The recent US election is only one out of many democratic decisions leading to questionable, inferior, or even disastrous consequences. Think of the democratic triumphs of Hitler, Brexit, Putin, Assad, Erdogan, and other examples of democratically re-re-elected despots.

Why is it that so many believe that democracy with majority vote is the best decision-making system for a nation or state? It all comes down to the lack of a better alternative. Winston Churchill said:  “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Maybe it is time to try something new. Otherwise democracy will indeed be the end of that chapter of history. 


I think it is an important task for community workers to locate and inspire communities that have the wish and potential to develop better, alternate versions of democracy, to a point where we can say it has been tried at least on a local scale. 


The bits and pieces to replace majority voting are evolving fast in the circles of sociocracy.

[As English is not Frands' first language, I have lightly edited his statement—hopefully without altering its meaning.]

In the face of our recent US Presidential election, Frands has made an impassioned plea to expand our thinking about what's possible with democracy. In particular, he questions how much practicing democracies have relied on majority vote to make decisions—offering up the recent US election as prima facie evidence of the folly of relying on the current system to yield reasonable results—and makes a plea for experimenting with other forms of democracy to liberate it from the manipulation we just witnessed.

By definition democracy means "rule by the people"; where every eligible citizen has a say in how things will go, and there is no presumption that some people have superior wisdom to others. At larger levels (nation, state, or even municipal) this generally translates into some form of representative government where decisions are made by a majority of elected officials or delegates. This adaptation is typically done to reduce to manageable levels the time it takes to hear from everyone. In a direct democracy—where everyone who cares to is given the chance to speak to the issues at hand—there just isn't enough air time to get it done.

Of particular interest to me, Frands hints at the direction he'd like to see experimentation take: some version of consensus, which stands in sharp contrast with majority voting. From this point forward I want to respond in two parts: a) consensus in contrast with voting; and b) sociocracy in particular.

Contrasting Consensus with Majority Voting
Consensus has two major historical threads that I'm aware of: 1) The Religious Society of Friends; and 2) Native American cultures. In the case of the former, Quakers developed consensus (which they style "sense of the meeting") as a way to conduct religious meetings. By creating a contemplative meeting environment with plenty of spaciousness in which members of the congregation can speak as moved, Quakers believe that they are nearer to God and that that is the best way to evince God's intentions.

This version of consensus was adapted to secular groups in the '60s and '70s, with the Movement for a New Society leading the way in the context of anti-nuclear protest groups making decisions at action sites. From there it blossomed into the most commonly used decision-making process among intentional communities—a position it's held for at least the last half century.

The link between Native American cultures (think Iroquois Confederacy in particular) and secular consensus is less direct yet nonetheless helps to establish that the roots of alternative forms of democracy (by which I mean something different than majority vote) are much more deep-rooted than Frands knows. While I am not aware of any instances where consensus in intentional communities has inspired municipalities to adopt it as their form of government, there are plenty of examples of schools, neighborhood associations, congregations, and nonprofits that have been moved to work with consensus. So there is a growing body of work along the lines for which Frands has advocated.

As a long-time consensus advocate and instructor (I've been at this for more than four decades) the main factor limiting the expansion of consensus is that it requires a commitment to culture change and personal work to consistently achieve stellar results. Without it, you're essentially importing competitive conditioning into attempts at cooperative culture, and it's a train wreck. Culture shift takes time and investment, and it's way more sophisticated than memorizing a new instructional manual and organizational chart.

That does not mean I'm giving up on the potential of consensus to be a viable alternative to majority voting, but I'm not sanguine about seeing consensus take over as a popular form of large-scale democracy. It just takes too long to hear from everyone, and requires that too many participants become self-aware about appropriate ways to participate.

Sociocracy as a Strain of Consensus
This particular form of consensus has be around since Gerard Endenburg adapted consensus to apply to his Dutch engineering firm in the '70s and was then imported into the US by John Buck in his book We the People, published in 2007.

While I appreciate that Frands is excited about sociocracy's potential as a robust form of consensus, I've looked at this fairly closely and believe it's substantially oversold. For a more thorough treatment of my reservations, see Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

While there is nothing peculiar to sociocracy that I consider a best practice (and thus, I don't see it as a panacea in response the failings of democracy), I think it's a mistake to get hung up on which form of consensus is best. It is huge when a group makes a commitment to functioning cooperatively and attempts direct democracy.

That represents radical change, and, like Frands, I'm behind it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Mourning After

Progressives face an important choice today. 

In the aftermath of Trump's triumph Tuesday there is considerable soul-searching and despair among progressives. That's understandable, but it behooves us to not just sit in the corner wringing our hands. The issues haven't changed and neither has their urgency—I'm talking about climate change, LGBTQ rights, universal health insurance, education subsidies, and anti-racism programs. But our tactics will have to undergo some serious revision because the Republicans are about to have their way with us. 

They control the Presidency, the Senate, the House, and a majority of state governor slots. So we're in for a bumpy time.

And you can't blame it all on the Republicans or the bungling of the FBI. Of the 231 million registered voters in this country, a whopping 43.2% did not vote!

The question before us is how will we respond. Will we retire from the field to lick our wounds? Will we become bitter and cynical, talking only among ourselves and reinforcing the us/them dynamics that dominated the political rhetoric of the Presidential campaign? 

Or will we rise above it? Divisiveness and vilification of Other cannot be the answer. It cannot possibly "make America great again." Can we be gracious losers? Can we be the loyal opposition that steadfastly continues to state our concerns and to voice our objections to the suppression of minorities, the gutting of environmental law, and the repeal of Roe v Wade.

Our task is not to overthrow or to monkey wrench the government; it's to change it from within. And that means dialog. It means reaching out to the 63% of white men and 52% of white women (yes, you read that correctly: a majority of white women spurned Hillary and voted for Donald) who put Trump in the White House. We need to know why a majority of white women felt they could support Trump even after the awful misogynistic statements he'd made in the Billy Bush tapes were revealed, and after a plethora of women stepped forward to give personal testimony about his reprehensible womanizing.

It is our challenge to try to find ways to bridge between the fair, just, and sustainable world we crave and the land of dignity and opportunity they feel has been denied them. There is only one lifeboat and we're all in it. As progressives it's our job to initiate these conversations, reaching out to people we ordinarily don't talk with, hungry for the ways in which we're all human and can make common cause. This is not about the homogenization of our culture or bending others to our will; it's about getting along with our neighbors, people with whom we don't always agree or see things the same way.

Though the room just go darker, guess what? We have a light. And the preciousness of its illumination only increases as the darkness grows.

For me, this moment is highly evocative of the aftermath of 9/11. While Bush was immediately intent on revenge (striking back at terrorists with deadly force), there was a significant minority that was more focused on the question: why are some Arabs so angry with us that they bombed our buildings, killing more than 5000 all together?

Fifteen years later, I don't want to fuel the anguish and despair; I want to channel the energy of this election into a wake-up call for progressives. There is work to do. As activist and songwriter Joe Hill wrote in a telegram right before being executed in 101 years ago: "Don't mourn, organize!"