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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Durable Economic Prosperity: Part 2 An Agenda for a New America

Durable Economic Prosperity:

Any plan for sustainability must insure that everyone in the United States has fundamental needs met as a non-negotiable condition of attaining a robust economy based on sustainability. At a minimum, these needs include nutritious food; shelter; healthcare; education; and ecosystem services – all provided affordably and reliably.
In order to achieve a sustainable or durable economic prosperity we must promote a diverse national economy as well as local economies that provide a wide range of employment opportunities; build assets that broadly distribute wealth; and encourages human-scale communities that provide shelter; and opportunity for all. Economic prosperity also requires that we work towards a tax shift that fully values social benefits and takes into account the externalized cost of pollution, and other negatives.

Over the mid-term, we must decrease economic dependence on activities that deplete natural resources or social capital . In the shorter-term investments must be made that have a triple bottom line, one that includes, economic, social, and environmental - returns. And we must begin to harness both market forces and changes in laws, taxes, and policies that favor a sustainable economy.

A sustainable or durable economy requires the development of programs, policies, and implementable initiatives that encourage activities that will empower communities and conservation of resources; promote environmental justice; preserve ways-of-life; and promote by example and through discourse the ideas of ecological and participatory democracy and its real world implications.

“Sustained growth is a cruel falsehood if it just means increasing production and consumption: on a finite planet, ultimately such growth is a physical impossibility. Talking about growth with no context is meaningless: growth can be good or bad or irrelevant; it must be judged in terms of its effects on people and nature, not in terms of the cash value of goods and services. Increased spending on nuclear weapons and increased spending on preventive health care services both contribute to the Gross National Product (GPN), but only one is of any value in a society concerned with human welfare.” Roy Morrison Ecological Democracy
Sustainable development is a process of continuous improvement by design, of natural, built, economic and social systems. Meaning__

 Nurturing diversity and productivity in natural systems;
 Using renewable resources and eliminating waste in built systems;
 Fulfilling social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems;
 And helping citizens to understand the whole in order to improve social systems.

Sustainable development means dynamic abundance, not static scarcity . If we apply our collective ingenuity, creativity, and know-how in a comprehensive planning process, it is possible for our social and environmental goals to be transformed into ecological improvement and economic opportunities. For example, environmentalists and businesses need no longer be opponents as long as those businesses get that environmental compliance is in their bottom line interest. A vision of a durable or sustainable future includes a market for creative entrepreneurs motivated by enlightened self-interest. The future is not something to be feared or fought over – it is something we have to guide creatively and cooperatively. We can work together, live better, and waste less.

Local Economies:

The wealth of our nation depends in large measure on the economic health of its cities, towns, and bio-regions. Strong local economies are the foundation of strong communities that can withstand the pressures created by an increasingly urbanized society – one in which many live far from their roots, have less direct social contact, friends and support.
Strong communities require an approach that not only provides the traditional deliverables of economic development—jobs, income, wealth, security—but also protects the environment, improves community infrastructure, increases and develops local skills and capacity, strengthens the social fabric, and respects heritage and cultural identity. This systematic approach assures that the whole is examined rather than simply its individual components.

While individual actions and lifestyle choices, such as buying organic produce, participating in local politics, or supporting the work of a regional environmental organization are important personal contributions. Strengthening local economies requires a cooperative shift in individual actions and choices. The cooperative economy of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and other micro banking initiatives, Vancity Credit Union in Vancouver, the Women’s International Sewing Cooperatives of Nueva Vida, the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, urban farms in Burlington VT, Brooklyn NY, and Detroit, “eco-villages, and the campaigns for local trade across North America are all examples of the potential of community mobilization to help strengthen local economies.

The migrations from central cities during the 1950’s and 1960’s and the decentralization of urban centers have created “centerless” communities where suburbanites commute from the outer suburbs and formerly rural areas along highway corridors and rail lines that slice through the inner ring suburbs. Big box stores, the mortgage crisis, and the disconnection of eating and our food supply have all led to the loss of local communities.

Even in our most rural areas, people drive from their farms miles to the local “gigantomart” to buy “ organic” fruits and vegetables flown and trucked from all over to the world, and inexpensive tools, clothing, and toys, made in many cases in sweatshops in third world countries to the detriment of the local economy.

Strong local economies give communities the capacity and resources to address specific and immediate problems such as the provision of health care, adequate housing, clean water and sanitation, and disaster prevention and response. Human settlements—large and small, rich and poor—need strong local economies to withstand the pressures created by an increasingly urbanized and isolating world.

A tax shift:

The traditional relationship between the environment and the economy usually pits the environment against the economy. Instead of pursuing economic activities and distribution as primary and looking at the consumption of natural resources and the impacts on the environment as incidental, we must begin to put the environment first. This means committing ourselves to conserving resources, including habitat resources. It also means including the environmental “costs” of an economic activity as integral to the overall costs of that activity, not treating those costs as incidental or an afterthought – not as clean-up or “mitigation. Economics and the environment must be completely integrated in the decision making and lawmaking process – not just to protect the environment and human health, but also to protect and promote sustainable development

Economics tells us that when you tax something, you get less of it. Our problem is that we tax things we want more of, such as income and enterprise, instead of things we want less of, such as toxic waste and resource depletion. The logical outcome is that we get less money and more messes. Tax Shift is about doing the opposite--removing taxes from "goods" and putting them on "bads." Whether you think government is too big, too small, or just right, tax shifting appears to make sense.

A tax shift would allow us to reduce or eliminate many existing taxes: regressive property, payroll, and sales taxes that are hardest on the lower and middle classes; enterprise-killing business taxes; perhaps even personal income tax. Instead we could tax actions that corrode the public good. We could tax emissions of deadly fine particles, greenhouse gases, and other air pollutants; discharges of toxic metals and other water pollutants; and the manufacture and use of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals. We could tax away most traffic jams, by charging drivers for use of major routes at rush hour. We could protect natural ecosystems by taxing the pumping of fresh water, the impounding of rivers behind dams, and the felling of virgin timber. Finally, by moving the weight of the property tax off buildings and onto urban land values, we could promote the growth of compact, walk able neighborhoods and slow the creep of our suburbs into farms and forests.

Shifting the tax burden would send out powerful signals--signals that would reorient consumption and production in our homes and businesses. Tax shifting would harness the profit motive for environmental ends and wring out the waste of resources. Governments would still get their money, and--because taxes on "bads" do not bog down the economy as much as many existing taxes on "goods"--employment levels and incomes would rise.
In economic terms, a tax shift would take taxes off labor and capital and put them on the third factor of production--resources, the gifts of nature.