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Guest Column: Step into the garden dedicated to common good

September 21, 2011

By Dan Kenney

Last week was a troubling week.

Tuesday, Sept. 13, what many thought was confirmed — that the federal government actually spends more when it outsources services to the private sector.

A report completed by the Project on Government Oversight found that 33 out of 35 occupations the government turned over to the private sector actually cost the taxpayer billions of dollars more to hire contractors than it would have cost to have government employees perform the same services.

Wednesday, Sept. 14, the U.S. Census Bureau reported another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty. 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line is the highest since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” Also, median household incomes fell last year to the lowest point in 14 years.

Another report from the U.S. Census Bureau reported Sept. 15 that, as we had always thought, the poor are still getting poorer. We now have 45 million people using food stamp assistance, one in eight adults and one in four children. We were also informed that one out of every five veterans is homeless.

Then, Thursday, Sept. 15, during the Republican debate, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) a hypothetical question about a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance and suddenly found himself facing six months of intensive care, Paul replied: “That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” Blitzer pressed him again, asking whether “society should just let him die.” The crowd cheered and shouted “Yeah!”

How far we have fallen from the ideals of the revolutionary radicals, as described by Gordon Wood in his The Radicals of the American Revolution. Wood argues that many of the revolutionary leaders were first-generation gentlemen, and for them, part of being a gentleman was, as Wood writes, “dedicating himself to the public good.”

The atmosphere of the country can sometimes seem very ugly depending upon which way you are turned.

When I turn one direction, I see the lines at area food pantries are three times as long as last year. When I turn another direction, I see our private sector plundering our common wealth to the tune of billions of dollars monthly. When I look another direction, I see we have come to the point where we are spending nearly $1 billion daily to maintain wars, and to run 900 military bases in 130 countries around the world. When I turn another direction, I see our unemployed are becoming more desperate as they see more of their lives slip away from them. And yet, in still another direction, multi-national corporations and banks are sitting on huge surpluses of cash.

With all this suffering, we can be thankful the public debate of our elected officials has finally turned to jobs. However, we are far from seeing them agree to anything that will bring relief. As Charles Blow pointed out in The New York Times: “three out of four of those below the poverty line work: half have full-time jobs, a quarter work part-time. Only a quarter do not work at all.” So, it is not just jobs that is the issue, it is that we must create good jobs that pay a wage a family of four can live on.

When I feel surrounded with bad news, I go into the garden. I reach deep into the patchy sunlight that filters through the thick tomato vines to pick a bright, red cherry tomato, my nose breathing in the strong green aroma of the vines. I harvest the garden and give the produce away to neighbors at area food pantries. I walk out into an open field with the woman who shares my life, and we fly a kite together, talk with a neighbor, and lie back on the green grass and watch our kites dance against the soft, white clouds that drift through a deep, light blue sky.

It is as clear to me as the sky I looked up into this afternoon: we will not see the condition of those who are unemployed, under-employed, homeless, living on food stamps, etc., get better while our policy-makers are trying to fill their pockets with campaign cash from the elites. As Frederick Douglass said, and is often quoted: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” Now, however, it seems the people of this nation, a nation tottering on the brink of its own demise, still have not been able to muster the will to create that demand. (Although I think we can consider the strong message that was sent to representatives at town hall meetings this summer with finally lighting a fire under them to move toward a jobs bill.) However, we have had plenty of good jobs bills just sitting in committees for months; only time will tell if the tardy Obama bill moves or dries up to a mere speck that is cast about by the strong wind of need that is moving across our country to the capital.

While we are organizing and growing the will of the people to reach the demanding stage, we can also be building the new economy that will sustain us, regardless of what the “too-big-to-fail” banks do with all of their cash. We can create a slow-money local economy that will see us through, regardless of how many jobs Caterpillar and other corporations create in foreign countries while shutting down plants in the U.S. This “new economy” will be what will see us through the ever-rising energy costs, and provide us shelter from the next financial storm caused by what David Korten refers to as “Wall Street phantom-wealth.” The alternative that we will need to create to be sustainable through this changing world is a real economy based on people engaged in the production and exchange of real goods and services to meet the real needs of their children, families and communities. “The solution to a failed capitalist economy is a real-market economy, much in line with the true vision of Adam Smith,” Korten writes in Agenda for A New Economy.

And this revolution is already taking place in counties, cities and towns all across the country. It is a silent movement that is growing daily. So, like stepping into the garden, real security and hope comes with raising your own food and sharing your harvest with neighbors and friends. As Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, “… local economies equal community, which in turn equals a better shot at deep satisfaction.” He goes on to say that the changes ahead may be scary, but they are also appealing. If we lean on one another, create sustainable communities with our neighbors, then the world we want can be handmade right now where we stand. If we create the garden, then we can step into it and live the lives we were meant to live. Lives of mutual dependency, lives dedicated to the public or common good.

Shall I look for you in the garden?

Dan Kenney of DeKalb, Ill., is a fourth-grade union teacher and co-coordinator of both the DeKalb Interfaith Network and No Private Armies.

From the Sept. 21-27, 2011, issue

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