The Last Three Years (2019-22): A new chapter in my autobiography
August 9, 2022
It’s now August 2022 and it’s been three years since I added any new information to my autobiography, which I published in July 2019. As the title suggests — The Money Question, the Democracy Answer — this version of my life story is told through my lifelong confusions and research around money, prices, income, and the promise of participatory democracy, which has never been effectively implemented in the U.S.
In those three years, I have
— run out of savings
— still not been able to find any kind of income that fits the work that I do
— tapped into my networks for help — friends, neighbors, colleagues, family. The initial response (in late 2020) was very generous and enabled me to make it through Feb. 2022 (with additional gifts along the way).
Of course, those three years saw the world turned upside-down by COVID, by Donald Trump’s presidency, by more frequent extreme weather events, and a growing awareness by U.S. voters that what little democracy we had was (a) being actively destroyed, and (b) in danger of disappearing without active caretaking, etc.
We in Evanston first heard about COVID in February 2020 when a long-time Evanstonian wrote two long articles from China, where he and his wife were stuck, following a regular visit to her family:
— Feb. 6, 2020 Love in the Time of Coronavirus
— Feb. 20, 2022 A Small Matter of Stupidity
To this day I don’t know if or when they returned to Evanston, but I assume that they did at some point.
Most people probably remember that on Friday, March 13, 2020, the Governor of Illinois closed all schools and other public places so that we could get a handle on the pandemic. The quarantine already fit my lifestyle as an aging loner, but life for most people — families with schoolchildren, working people, teens and young adults, small businesses, etc. — became very stressful and puzzling, without the usual outlets and with very few answers.
The pandemic and officials’ handling of it exposed even more institutional disfunction, including around money and banking, exacerbated by the presence of Donald Trump in the White House until he lost the 2020 election and left on Jan. 20, 2022 — but not before he instigated an insurrection on the Capitol on January 6, attempting to stop Congress from certifying the election. “Disaster capitalism” became more and more common as we learned who was being helped by the government and who wasn’t being helped — especially compared to other countries in the developed world.
I have not yet added this blog — this chapter — to the PDF of my autobiography, wanting to take a few days to continue wordsmithing, filling in blanks, etc. But nothing of substance is likely to be changed. Here’s the webpage, with links, to my complete autobiography, organized as follows:
A. PROLOGUE: Why isn’t money more like arithmetic?
B. 1951-present: Money & Governance: Biographical context
C. 2007-present: Money & Governance: Resources for a professional activist
D. EPILOGUE: All the information is needed, by everyone, all the time
E. APPENDIX: Recommended Resources
The CONTENTS of this chapter are as follows:
A. The Money Question, the Democracy Answer: How it started — an updated recap of the Prologue
B. The Money Question, the Democracy Answer: My work continues
C. Personal Level: The Great Composting
A. The Money Question, the Democracy Answer:
How it started — an updated recap of the Prologue
In my mid-50s I made a major career change, from owning a successful sole proprietorship (gardening business) to being a leader in the Illinois “local foods” movement, a world primarily of nonprofits, academics, and grassroots organizing. The change was extremely satisfying in many ways, but in other ways—finance-wise especially—it was a bust. It was a bust because during the years 2007-10 numerous food “justice” colleagues cheated me of income. The cheating occurred by so many different people in such a variety of ways that finally I was forced to make a choice between losing my mind or taking a sabbatical to regroup. Conservatively, I estimate that I was cheated out of $30,000-50,000 over those three years. For someone who had always kept very clean financial records and relationships, this was an insanity-inducing situation.
Astute readers will have already noticed that the years during which I was cheated — 2007-10 — coincided with the first and the worst of the U.S. financial crash now called the Great Recession. The world of food-and-farm nonprofits was hit extra hard and extra early because many groups were funded by a Midwestern foundation that was 95% funded by Bernie Madoff. When Madoff went pfft in late 2008, so did the foundation. Many of my colleagues, who had been in the food-and-farm world longer than I had, were directly impacted.
This, however, does not excuse or fully explain their bad behavior. Nor does it explain why there was so little money for small food-and-farm programs and so much money to bail out Wall St. banks. Nor did it explain, among my food justice and food policy colleagues, (a) the almost universal absence of skills in “doing” democracy, (b) the almost universal absence of interest in public process, and (c) the almost universal avoidance in discussing betrayed agreements — i.e., personal integrity.
So I thought to give myself some time to think things through. I removed myself from what had become the toxic turf wars of Illinois local foods. I later came to understand that owning a service business (gardening) is a very different financial proposition than doing grassroots organizing, policy research, etc. Looking for income for creative intellectual work on an independent basis is very different than money that goes looking for a material service. And the nature of intellectual work that makes it easy to share makes it easy to steal. Hence the nastiness of academia, journalism, policy work, etc. But this understanding came later, not until 2021 when I got cheated and disrespected one more time.
But in 2008, I decided to dedicate a year to studying and thinking about economics and democracy—what I now label as money plus governance.
My starting point was the apparent disconnect between me and the people who cheated me; clearly, we had different ideas about money, solidarity, justice, and personal integrity. It turns out that there were deeper disconnects involving fear, trust, and the logic of numbers. My journey started with money, prices, and my 7th grade U.S. history class and led me to two terms that I had never heard of before: the money power and the money question, both of which were directly connected to governance.
What was originally a 1-year soul-searching and research plan turned into seven, through June 2019. During that time I officially retired, sold my house, and started receiving Social Security. I knew I was facing my last 1-2 years of income (savings + Social Security) sufficient to remain in my neighborhood of 41 years. I was 68 years old.
The good news, at the time (June 2019), was that during the last seven years, I had discovered what I was looking for — the money question and the democracy answer. Especially heartening was stumbling across many people who are also trying to straighten out the global and species-wide confusion about (a) what money is (who creates it, how does it enter the economy, what makes money legal), and (b) what democracy really is (who has standing, what are the rules for group decision-making, etc.)
In truth my own confusion about money and democracy dates back to my childhood. In hindsight there were many signposts along the way — of our collective confusions and the collective solutions about both money and governance.
Assuming that other Americans are also confused, this document began as an attempt to list those signposts chronologically, as they unfolded in my own life. I still look forward to comparing signposts with anyone who cares to share, especially as I continue to find other signposts of confusion that has made life with my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and other fellow human beings difficult at times. In the last section of this chapter I will describe some of those current difficulties. But first, a continuation of my work on money and democracy.
B. The Money Question, the Democracy Answer:
My work continues
As every new public disaster exposes structural corruption and confusion, my work on money and democracy reform has deepened and expanded.
1. COVID CASH
In April 2020, as the economy came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, I drafted a suggestion for a local pilot project by the only entity I knew that had access to unlimited cash (by virtue of fractional reserve lending) — a local commercial bank. I called the project COVID Cash: COVID CASH Part 2: “Evanston, IL Helicopter Money” — pilot project cover letter.
2. WILD ONION MARKET (food co-op)
In late Nov. 2020, I became a member of the Wild Onion Market, a food co-op that was still in process at that time. It had started as the Rogers Park Food Co-op, but re-branded and expanded its territory in order to attract more members. This was my first real experience with the co-op model, largely because Illinois has not had a robust tradition of food co-ops.
When Blind Faith Cafe first opened c.1982 — the first vegetarian restaurant in Evanston — a new activist community was formed and for a short time some of us were members of an informal food co-op 2-3 doors down from Blind Faith (in a back storeroom). It was very short-lived (probably less than a year). Reba Place (a faith-based community in south Evanston) has had a co-op for a long time. They don’t advertise, but it seems to be open to non-members and its purpose seems to be providing food at the lowest cost possible in an area with a high cost of living.
The Chicago co-op scene got active, with Dill Pickle (Logan Square), the Sugar Beet (Oak Park), the Rogers Park initiative, and others. Everything I’ve seen so far — as a food & farm activist, food consumer, co-op member, and public policy strategist — suggests that the co-op model in a capitalist economy is very complicated. On the other hand, it does create real community, and I’ve been grateful to be part of WOM. Up until this last newsletter, I’ve enjoyed contributing a monthly Food Politics Corner — three timely items (local, state/regional, national/global) that I hoped were interesting and educational.
The good news is that the WOM Board found a site early in 2022 and we hope to open late this year or early 2023.
3. GPI ACT
In July 2021, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced the GPI Act, precipitating my commitment to GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) as an alternative to GDP as a high-impact tool for rewriting the rules of our economy. My messaging on GPI includes the observation that it is also a relatively low-cost tool, when compared with other monetary reforms, especially at the state level. GPI compared to GDP: A more honest, inclusive, & healthier economic metric
4. ALLIANCE FOR JUST MONEY
In August 2021, I joined the Legislative Action Committee of AFJM. They had been updating the NEED Act, especially the findings which had changed (and worsened) radically in ten years. The name was also changed, to American Monetary Reform Act (AMRA).
5. INTERNATIONAL MOVEMENT FOR MONETARY REFORM
In January 2022, a new synergy appeared between my food & farm work and monetary reform. It turned out that there was a working group of IMMR that was drafting a human rights complaint to the UN about how the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was difficult to implement because the reduced money supply and governments’ commitment to bank money as the source of money creation. Attorney Edgar Wortmann drafted this thesis as the core of the complaint:
The present money system subjects people’s right of self-determination to limitations, and hampers free pursuit of their economic, social and cultural development. By supporting this money system, States do not enable the peoples to flourish to their full potential. They fail to sufficiently provide and maintain circulation of “State issued debt- and interest-free money” (hereafter: “sovereign money”). To the detriment of peoples they actively promote general use of “commercial debt money” (hereafter: “bank money”) instead. — Edgar Wortmann, for IMMR
6. MATERNAL GIFT ECONOMY MOVEMENT
Also early in 2022, I introduced some women of AFJM to the Maternal Gift Economy Movement. I think there was some great mutual regard but we eventually got sidetracked by MGEM’s disdain for money and exchange and our (AFJM’s) inability to explain The Money Question as distinct from market economics. We were finally invited to make a formal presentation, but the timing turned out to be unworkable. For the moment, it’s on the back burner. MGEM’s bi-weekly salons are a video treasure store.
7. BOOK: The Legacy of Mothers: Matriarchies and the Gift Economy as Post-Capitalist Alternatives
Related to MGEM is this 2021 international anthology edited by Israeli feminist & crimonologist Erella Shadmi. Some of my favorite authors are included, including Barbara Alice Mann. Published by Inanna Publications, a small feminist press in Canada.
8. BLOG: Funded Sovereignty
In April 2022, I finally drafted a blog on funded sovereignty, which I’d been promoting for a while: FUNDED SOVEREIGNTY: Universal basic income for participatory democracies. It’s such a simple concept (and no-brainer once explained from the perspective of the Haudenosaunee League), that it’s probably my shortest blog.
9. BLOG: Participatory Budgeting
Also in April, as the City of Evanston was beginning a participatory budgeting process, I wrote a blog summarizing my experiences with PB since 2009. Participatory Budgeting in Evanston, IL: The 2022 Version. I no longer advocate for PB as a type of monetary reform, although individuals and even whole communities may come away with a new understanding of public budgets, public pricing, etc. Here’s what I wrote in my recent blog about the benefits of PB:
“…let me say up front that the most game-changing benefit of the PB process is that it provides a meaningful experience of REAL democracy in action. Most U.S. voters don’t know that the U.S. version of democracy is, at best, stunted, at worst a dried-up, desiccated fossil. Self-governing can and should be much more satisfying, fun, educational, and rewarding than our current system. Going through a PB process shows what we’ve been missing for 233 years.”
10. BLOG: My legacy list
A few weeks ago (July 2022), I was moved to draft a “legacy list” — a list of high-impact truths, actions, frameworks, etc., that are not widely known but which I think would be the structural game-changers that some of us have been looking for — if only other people recognized them as such. I addressed my blog to a journalist because they’re paid to be curious, but it’s really written for everyone—voters, officials, activists, etc. Dear Annie Lowrey (and other practical journalists): FWIW, my Legacy List contents:
Introduction: Our dead constitution
A. Political economy removed from U.S. high schools (1892)
B. Give People Money: Funded Sovereignty — the most logical version of Universal Basic Income
C. Follow the money? Better to follow the LACK of money!
The money supply, The Money Question, the science of money, democratizing money
D. Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI): Alternative to GDP
E. Parity agriculture, par economy, steady state economics, stable purchasing power
F. Women’s Public Authority
G. Worsening interlocking crises in 2022: What’s really going on?
H. Connection between LIBERTY and RENEWABILITY OF LIFE
I was moved to draft my legacy list partly out of a frustration that, even though I’ve been writing about these items for years, I can’t see that my outreach has had much impact on anyone. The most frustrating issue has been trying to explain The Money Question to people — money creation, money supply, etc., — as opposed to prices, income, markets, etc. Even the experts — AFJM, AMI, etc. — don’t have a good origin story for money creation. I keep trying to imagine Day #1 of a new nation. How would they issue money, how much, etc. — what would the moment of money creation look like? But it seems apparent that it’s very hard to wipe the existing money & wealth from the slate, in order to start everyone on a level playing field.
On the other hand, my legacy list does document some successes and progress on a few fronts. The success and progress is not due to my own personal efforts but to the commitment and activism of some other individuals and groups (groups that I am also a part of), most notably the following items from my list:
Section C. The updating and renaming of the American Monetary Reform Act and the engagement of the national League of Women Voters (through the work of John Howell and the Athens County, Ohio LWV chapter.
Section D. Both national and state bills advocating for the Genuine Progress Indicator as an alternative metric to GDP. This is largely thanks to Ken Pentel (Ecology Democracy Network, MN) and his networking. My own State Rep. said she would look into it for Illinois.
11. ISSUE: Time
Also, it’s very likely that people have less and less time for learning about and incorporating new ways of activism in their ever-busier lives. The time issue is being discussed more and more by women, who are being worked to a frazzle on multiple fronts. The issue of time as a way to measure parity and disparity, however, is still a new one, which I have not had time to explore or incorporate in detail in my work. Marilyn Waring, the author of the 1988 book If Women Counted, has been experimenting with time-use surveys. I think it’s clear that pairing money and time will be a powerful talking point, once we get the framework right. Solidarity Economy folks advocate for 32-hour work weeks. Obviously my Funded Sovereignty would affect our work weeks in a different, very positive way.
C. PERSONAL LEVEL:
The Great Composting
Meanwhile on a personal level, I have nothing but time, but I’m feeling at the end of my rope, re energy, money, and access to a computer. The computer and my work is what really keeps me going, being able to follow the events of the day, add my input, and just stay connected. In this section I muse on some personal observations and experiences re people’s awareness of the U.S. political economy.
1. For some people, the cruelty does seem to be “the point”
It’s losing my daily computer connection, along with the idea of disrupting my work, that makes me angry about the possibility of becoming homeless. It’s what made me really angry when a good friend of mine (who’s been generous in many ways) wrote (in Jan. 2022): “As horrible as it sounds, I think you might have to become homeless in order to get housing as a low resource senior citizen.”
She went on to relay a story from many years ago about a tenant of her husband’s who was deteriorating. Her husband tried to get help for him, but was told “that the only way to trigger help from the city [Chicago] or the county was for him to be homeless. The longer we were helping him by giving him lodging, he did not meet the criteria for getting help. We were told to empty his belongings on the curb and then to call senior services because he was homeless. That was just so horrible. However, he got picked up and got the help he needed including a place to live with more care, etc.”
This is the same friend who told me, many years ago, that I lived my values more than most people she knew. Obviously, our friendship isn’t based on a 1-1 coincidence of values. The cruelty that she recommends is exactly the kind of unnecessary suffering I’ve been working to alleviate, especially at a system level. To her credit, she recognized her suggestion as “horrible”, but she didn’t acknowledge that my life work has been aimed at alleviating that kind of cruelty, or that anyone could even imagine spending time on that kind of systemic activism — and that such time would be economically valuable to the society as a whole.
Thanks to Adam Serwer, journalist with The Atlantic, for the now well-entrenched phrase, “the cruelty is the point”.
2. Emergency Alert: Who else is hearing the sirens, seeing the signs?
Sharing of values and perspectives with other people seems to be one of the major gaps in my life. Even my activist colleagues don’t understand my prioritizing my activism on behalf of the earth over and above my own lifestyle. But someone has to go upstream to stop the source of the destruction. That’s what an emergency is all about. And, in Evanston, our City Council has recently declared a climate emergency. Unfortunately, no one in Evanston is actually behaving as if we’re in a climate emergency.
In May 2021, my own cousin made it sound like my activism (and by extension others’ activism?) is a hobby, not an emergency. I had reached out to a small group of sympatico family & friends for some financial support — knowing that many of them are politically aware and/or generous to various causes, nonprofits, etc. My cousin — a 60-some year old peer — sent a knee-jerk critical reaction that seemed to invite a complete dressing-down, which I promptly supplied. She apologized, but I still wonder about our lack of shared awareness about our current emergencies and our individual places in the world.
For what it’s worth, here’s our email conversation, with some analysis: THE MONEY QUESTION: When “friends, family, colleagues” pile on — AKA dignity is another word for justice.
3. Hearing the sirens: Is the “first-ever moral generation” deaf and blind?
In retrospect, another learning that I haven’t fully unpacked yet is the realization that my family and friends never seemed to believe that I got cheated in the ways that I did. They didn’t even want to hear about it. So far as I remember, no one ever really asked for details, details which still amaze me in their blatantness and variety. The cherry on top was when a good friend told me twice that she didn’t believe I’d been cheated. She volunteered the opinion out of the blue last year, when we were having a catch-up conversation in her backyard on Memorial Day. I was so shocked at what I heard that I asked her for confirmation — did I hear right? She said yes.
I guess I should have pursued it then and there, but I just lived with it for a month or two. When I confronted her with it, she denied that she’d ever said it or that it had even come up in our long conversation on Memorial Day. We tried to talk it out over the phone for an hour, but she acknowledged nothing and protested that she would even think such a thing since she knew it was a painful period of my life. I couldn’t disbelieve her, but I couldn’t disbelieve my own original hearing.
Leaving aside this incident, the fact remains that no one else seems to have believed me or wanted to deal with it. Either they just couldn’t handle anything so difficult or they must have felt that I’d done something to deserve it, etc., etc. Over the years, my initial thought has been that they blamed me. Only recently have I started wondering that they swept it under the rug because they just couldn’t incorporate such behavior in their rosy, innocent American lives.
Just yesterday, I saw a Tweet about a Milan Kundera book, a re-release of Life Elsewhere, about modern people’s self-conception as the “first-ever moral generation” of humanity. If I understand that description correctly, it’s a very ignorant and stupid perspective, one that’s been part of the advertising and marketing of extractive economics, insidiously packaged with democracy and eternal innocence. It also describes our Evanston, IL bubble.
4. The Majesty of Decay
Recently I tweeted a short thread (3) in response to someone’s chronic sadness about all the suffering and institutional breakdowns going on right now. It’s a short section from my legacy list:
WORSENING INTERLOCKING CRISES IN 2022: What’s really going on?
I find these terms useful to convey awareness of the historical inevitability and seriousness of our current existential crises — climate chaos, growing inequality (economic, political, social), loss of biodiversity, chronic personal and community trauma.
—The Great Composting: My term for the collapse of our current confused institutions (misogyny, capitalism, violence)
—Dismemberment: Term used by shamans, e.g., Sandra Ingerman
—The Majesty of Decay (Martin Prechtel): the sacredness of decay and decomposition (as part of renewing life)
—The Time of the Vulture (Kay Cordell Whitaker): cleaning up the carrion, garbage, etc.
For some reason, this thread really resonated with people in the moment. I picked up 5-6 new followers overnight, the most I’ve ever gotten at once.
Even as I struggle to solve my own issues, every time I connect — e.g., with The ARK, with Council for Jewish Elderly — I see more and more of the big picture which confirms my work on monetary and democracy reform. Even the organizations who are scrambling around to meet the growing needs don’t see the issues, the root causes. As the book Forces for Good pointed out, there are very few nonprofits who work on programs and policy. But that’s where the breakthroughs will come.
I did a major housecleaning and consolidating of my stuff a few weeks ago, but for the moment I seem to be just riding out my creditors’ patience, whatever new ideas I come up with re income, my limited funds (as inflation inflates), the last of my underwear, etc.
Maybe I will get evicted. Maybe that will be my final gift, to demonstrate my willingness to risk everything for the truth, for real democracy, for women’s authority. I’ve never viewed myself as a martyr and I’ve always suspected martyrdom as being a narrow perspective on life. But my imagination is failing me at the moment. Maybe the news of my eviction might shine some light on my work, my suggestions. Maybe it won’t even be news, anywhere, except among some few friends, neighbors, etc.
On the other hand, this is all part of the Great Composting, dismemberment, majesty of decay, and time of the vulture. If I’ve learned anything about myself over the years and in comparison to other people, I have a passion for composting and soil building, and I love throwing out the garbage.