EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL # 6 The Commons as a Source of Renewal

This from Jerry Kurtyka:



# 6 The Commons as a Source of Renewal

To paraphrase Voltaire, a good test for the validity of a statement is how much it offends people, like Charlie Hebdo offended Islamists in Paris. Of course, Charlie Hebdo would never have made it past the diversity gestapo on any university campus in the USA. Similarly, remember when Obama said during the 2012 campaign, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” He took a lot of heat for that statement. Of course the President did not mean that you didn’t work hard to build your business; he meant that your business exists in a social and economic context that makes its existence possible, and you did not build that context.

That context is what I term, “the Commons.”

I wrote in the last post that, in my view, ideas are the spiritual life blood of an organization. So, when I say spiritual renewal that is what I mean; I don’t mean inviting some oily televangelist to town for a gospel crusade. Ideas are spirit taking mental form before they take physical form, which should come as no surprise to anyone who ever had to suffer through Plato in Phil 101. I also detailed how it is that ideas follow this path in El Paso from the Borderplex et al to city hall to downtown to your tax bill, a trickle-up economy, and that ideas which fit this pattern and its beneficiaries get into physical form here, lubricated with campaign contributions. This is not an entirely bad thing, it just ignores the best source of ideas and is not sustainable long-term. It is a kind of Ponzi scheme played with the tax base. We’re already seeing financial stress signs in the QoL projects. Of course, the entire world is a Ponzi scheme, so why are we surprised when it surfaces here?

The Commons is a social matrix – law, education, moral norms, family relations, social capital, government, finance, physical infrastructure, care for children, the aged and ill – in which a business economy is embedded and without which, there is little productive activity other than barter. If you can think of the city as a Maslow Pyramid, then the business you think you built by yourself is sandwiched a couple of layers up from the bottom and a couple of layers down from the top. It is that sandwich that contains the “Commons” and I want to discuss its importance here and how we can tap into as a source of renewal.

The official trickle-up economy will give us a stadium, arena, maybe a soccer stadium, new (subsidized) hotels, a trolley, remodeled plaza (if it ever gets done), etc. It won’t give us jobs that educated young people will stay here for nor will it fix our broken public schools nor even give us the cosmopolitan ambience that Richard Florida advised us to cultivate. The trickle-up economy is about brick-and-mortar and the people who benefit from selling it. It requires that the city go out and recruit employers rather than foster organic, sustainable employment growth here. It also perpetuates a welfare culture because it is tax-based and saps wealth from the community, not business-based in that projects are financially sustainable or even tax-neutral. HACEP tax-credit projects built by Hunt and others exemplify the current narrative; the trickle-up economy in its essence is a permanent poverty plantation whose main beneficiaries are investors and builders.

The Commons promotes a different narrative. I see the Commons as being more about caretaking, conserving, renewing, recirculating and capacity-building than about trickle-up. The Commons thrives on plugging economic leaks, closing loops and deepening social capital more than it does on growth measured by square feet of new buildings. The Commons seeks to create niches for opportunity-seekers, promotes dialog rather than diatribe, resiliency and sustainability rather than uniformity. The Commons invests in people more than in brick-and-mortar; it is about building capacity for the ladders of upward social mobility. If the bricks-and-mortar thing is Yang, the Commons is Yin. Both are needed, but don’t expect any one on Council to get it; they are too focused on getting debt-fueled construction dollars into Jordan-Foster’s pocket.

Well, first of all, who is in the Commons? At its base are organizations like La Fe (education, healthcare, citizenship, culture) and Volar (independent living), Project Arriba (workforce development), Parks, Boys and Girls Club, the Library (literacy) and the Rescue Mission (homeless shelter)…dozens of such organizations without which there is little context for business to prosper. Then there are the school districts when they are not scamming test scores and taking bribes, EPCC and UTEP. These organizations are about moving people up the Maslow Pyramid, not moving money up Woody and Paul’s pyramid. There are many others, but we need more to add to the supply of social capital here that, IMO, is very low.

Environmental groups like Sierra Club and the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition seek to assure that access to Nature (and water) is available to future generations before everything is paved over. Want to attract educated young people here? Did you know that the most livable and prosperous cities in the USA cultivate environmental quality, walkways and bike paths as a conscious policy?

We need more Commons people who will show us how to convert our industrial-style, water-intensive agriculture to local high-value, low water use, organic permaculture. Need a market for this local food? How about the 60,000 plus meals prepared daily for local school students. Get them off of their slurpies and nachos.

Note to the Chamber: visit Israel, not Nashville.

We need more Commons people to build the public sector bank I outlined in a previous post so our financial wealth recirculates here rather than going into the global derivative casino. Also, to tell city hall to keep the bonds HOT and not to raid the general fund to bail out the stadium’s operating deficit.

We need more Commons people to establish an independent and adversarial local English language paper to counter the Times that has become the de facto PIO for city hall. We need something to question the debt-spend-and-tax narrative coming at us daily, a local Charlie Hebdo (Chuy Hecho?) to show us what is really going on with pointed and politically-incorrect satire, as well as investigative journalism.

We need more Commons people to work at infill for the hundreds of vacant lots here that are future homes waiting to be built.

In short, we need an actively-defended Commons while there is still time and before it is sequestered into private hands like the stadium has already done to us. Can we give a voice to our “Commons people” and what they might tell us versus the official Field of Dreams narrative? What would that voice look like?

NEXT – # 7 A Voice for the Commons

3 Responses to EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL # 6 The Commons as a Source of Renewal

  1. Jim Tolbert says:

    Homerun, Brutus!


  2. Tim Holt says:

    Here is a book that probably the entire leadership of El Paso should read: Smart Cities by Tom Vander Ark. http://gettingsmart.com/publication/smartcities/

    It essentially is a blueprint for how cities should work in the 21st century. There are 7 essential conditions that have to be met for a city to become a “smart City:”

    ● Innovation Mindset

    ● Sustained Leadership

    ● Talent Development

    ● Collective Impact

    ● Aligned Investment

    ● New Tools and Schools, and

    ● Advocacy and Policy

    El Paso is way behind on a bunch of these. However, if we could turn mindset around and collectively work towards these seven goals…


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