Polycentric Wanderings

Keith's random and sundry thoughts on the challenges of working together.

Faustian Bargains & Extractive ‘Mutual Aid’

I want more social programs for those in poverty and in the working class. The features of such programs should include elements of

  • policy align to the social problem
  • individual and collective empowerment
  • economic opportunity (ideally through forms of equity)

Imagine my dismay around the recent reporting around the profiteering from California’s Medicaid expansion, Medi-Cal:

some insurance companies are reaping spectacular profits off the taxpayer-funded program in California, even when the state finds their patient care is subpar.

A unit of Centene Corp., the largest Medicaid insurer nationwide, raked in $1.1 billion in profits from 2014 to 2016, according to state data obtained and analyzed by Kaiser Health News. Anthem, another industry giant, turned a profit of $549 million from California’s Medicaid program in the same period.

Overall, Medicaid insurers in the Golden State made $5.4 billion in profits from 2014 to 2016, in part because the state paid higher rates during the inaugural years of the nation’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Last year, they made more money than all Medicaid insurers combined in 34 other states with managed care plans.

It would seem that no matter who is in power, when government programs for the marginalized are expanded we are forced into a Faustian Bargain demanding the rich get richer. Billions of taxpayer dollars, diverted from programming that could empower marginalized Californians. This is serious money that -from a health access perspective- could have

  • Increased quality of patient care
  • Provided health care at cheaper rate
  • Created new, cost-competitive health insurers owned by the consumer

Instead, policymakers used the same tried-and-true model that persistently fails to elevate the marginalized while enriching the already rich. We clearly need a welfare system that looks more like mutual aid instead, as opposed to extractive models leeching off of the poorest and most vulnerable.


Contextualizing Contempt: On Being A Midwestern Transplant To California

Want a study in food accessibility, choice, and health? And want to know why it may be one facet of the divide and contempt we see between the Midwest and the Coastal regions?

Be born, raised, and work in a rust belt community for most of your life, where people complain about $1 a dozen eggs as too pricey, and organics as for-the-rich. Then, move out to an area with utter abundance (Costco, food co-ops, multiple farmers markets in numerous places) of fresh organic foods.

Oh sure, it’s definitely nice. A savvy shopper in these parts can eat incredibly healthy for very low prices. But there is no doubt that rust belt rural America is being left behind. Food is limited, not as healthy, and marked up in price. And I can attest to the dereliction  of the Midwest from two events in my own life.

First, from 18 to 21, I worked at a multinational retailer in the produce department. The treatments that corporate district managers demanded we apply to leafy greens made us all suspicious of the company’s concern for consumer exposure. We would regularly fill the shelves with half moldy produce. the company clearly did not care about the dignity of local consumers, many who had few is any alternatives due to local competitors being driven out. By the way, this same retailer recently closed almost two hundred rural stores because they weren’t profitable enough. Their shareholders made bank, and supposedly that’s all that matters.

Second, when we moved to Muncie, Indiana, I was well aware of the health epidemics that would frequently mention Muncie as being front and center facing these challenges, challenges of opioid addiction, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. But it’s something else to get immersed in the epidemics. Myself, I gained over thirty pounds in the two years we lived there, and for the first time my blood pressure registered a “high.” I had an acquaintance whoo visited the university hospital’s pain clinic for chronic neck pains. Within three minutes of seeing the doctor, she was prescribed opioids; mind you there were no x-rays taken nor alternatives suggested. It’s not difficult to see how the Midwest falls victim to these epidemics.

I’ll toss in a third event.

My car means a lot to me. I, like many others in my age cohort, carry a large student debt burden. While I now have a great job, the Great Recession and the massive shift in how U.S. industry and government invests in upward mobility had its impact on me. Because of this and being a late-in-life career starter, I’m frugal. My 2001 Honda Civic with 320,000 miles is both a closely held store of value (it’s THE thing that gets me from point a to point b) and a proud mark of my working class thriftiness. Indiana -where then Governor Pence was proud of the rainy day fund and reduced state funding in infrastructure- underinvests in its highways, odd considering how committed it is to car culture. Since my car had endured so well, I intended to drive it to 400,000 miles. Well, that is until I hit a poorly graded stretch of highway that bottomed my car out, puncturing my radiator, resulting in a $400 repair bill. It’s bad enough for this to happen once; it happened a second time, reopening the radiator while fracturing the frame of my car. That bill was $600. This happened while driving at state sanctioned speed limit of 55.

The abdication of the basics (they can’t even build the damn roads in car country!) has real consequences for everyday people. The people of the Midwest are forgotten. Treated as if providing them with basic dignity is a burden.

And what do you do if you live at the poverty line, in a region being hollowed out by powerful forces? You soldier on. These problems feel like a damp blanket wrapped around you on a cold fall evening. You hope you can overcome it yourself, that your body heat warms the blanket. So you suffer through it with a short-sighted optimism. Despite it all, you continue to wake up in a state of misery.

Now that I live in Davis, California, I am floored at how well things work out here compared to the Rust Belt. At how remarkably well the health system works, everything from billing to the patient experience is miles above anything I experienced in rural Illinois and Indiana. The food is affordable, abundant, and fresh. Oh, and I don’t have to worry about the roads causing costly repairs to my clunker Honda Civic. And my new job clears me some runway to buy a new car. …er, well, a 2012 with slightly under 100k on the odometer is new to me.

Talk about a culture shift and absolute class awareness. I read about this wealth, but I didn’t really know the depth of resources that existed in this country until I saw it firsthand. And I wasn’t so acutely aware of how little of those stocks flowed to rural Sacrifice Zones.

I can understand the contempt.

Romancing Bezos. Ignoring Your Neighbor.

Imagine being such a powerful company, whose aspirations for growth have been almost universally lauded as the next evolutionary phase of business. And imagine if you have ambitious plans for expanding a corporate HQ. What if you released an open-ended, noncommittal statement asking for communities to compete for your affection?

It might play out like this…

Amazon is the Belle of the Ball, distracting public officials from pressing local community economic development pursuits, in the hopes they might just catch a unicorn. So alluring is Amazon, that they don’t even need to ask for handouts; they’re simply offered.

A sampling.

How about reconfiguring your entire community to accommodate Amazon?

For Jeff Cheney, the mayor of Frisco, Tex., a city of 160,000 about a half-hour drive from Dallas, the courtship includes offering to build his city around Amazon.

“Our city’s only about 60 percent built out, so we’ve got a lot of available land where we can build to suit,” Mr. Cheney said. “We play to win. We’re innovators. We’re forward thinkers, and we’re serious.”

Or pleading fealty while unintentionally undermining the local businesses you represent?

Mark D. Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, Conn., posted a video on Sept. 14 calling himself a “proud Amazon customer”

Or spending an inordinate amount of internal labor hours on “research?”

Mr. Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, has also built an Amazon war room, where more than 40 people are trying to analyze what the online retailer “likes and doesn’t like.” They are also trying to read Mr. Bezos’ psyche. “He’s got hundreds of hours of videos on YouTube you can watch,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Gilbert is so enamored with the idea of Amazon, he is willing to put his own client-base on the chopping block to win Amazon’s hand.

Mr. Gilbert is the largest private property owner in downtown Detroit, and he said he would move his tenants to temporary locations to make room for Amazon so the company did not have to wait for new offices to be built.

These anecdotes signal that a great deal of public and private dollars will be put toward wooing Bezos and Amazon to resettle in their community. These scarce dollars could be put to better use helping start new enterprise, or growing community-based businesses, who appear to provide greater economic development spillovers into their host communities.

Instead, it looks like a gold rush, where everyone is stampeding over each other in the hopes they’ll strike it rich. All from a company lacking a credible commitment toward creating quality jobs, a competitive market economy, or even a viable business model based on strong fundamentals.

When Taxpayer Subsidy Harms Rural Consumer Access & Choice

Rural America cannot catch a break. While there’s numerous examples of Rural America being treated as a collective Sacrifice Zone, let’s focus on the hollowing out of consumer access and choice for the benefit of narrowly-defined shareholder interest.

Fortune 500 companies have made it a strategy to saturate rural markets as part of a larger growth strategy (Walmart is poster child). Big money invests in these firms, and these firms “disrupt” incumbent enterprise. All too often, the incumbents are independents who are fixtures of the local economy. While locally-owned incumbent businesses are not always angels or competent (the same holds with major corporations), there does exist a body of rural sociology literature finding that such enterprise offers an enhanced local economic multiplier, even increasing civic capacity. These are important players in an era of government ineptitude at state and federal levels. Unfortunately, some of the biggest global economic players are actively destroying locally-owned incumbents, defending themselves as champions of the consumer.

There is good reason to question these motives.

Take for example the recent announcement by Verizon to boot thousands of rural consumers from their plans. Verizon has been gobbling up regional mobile markets, pushing out non-national players, again under the banner of abundant consumer choice (the recent ad campaign is “Verizon Unlimited for All – Now w/ More Unlimited Choices”). What many aren’t aware of is that Verizon has also received signifiant government subsidy to penetrate rural markets in the name of public safety. In states such as Illinois, Verizon is the government’s preferred mobile provider across the state, specifically for emergency disaster preparation infrastructure. The unspoken understanding is that Verizon, through generous state subsidy, will also piggyback rural mobile services.

Despite Verizon’s extreme profitability propped up on the backs rural taxpayers, Verizon has decided to take a narrow look at its balance sheet, deeming thousands of rural Americans as “unprofitable” and “subsidized” by other Verizon subscribers.

The irony here is that Verizon may -at least should– be opening a debate on the role of corporate subsidy and public benefit, particularly to hard-hit Rural America. It would appear that Verizon is the one being subsidized by the same rural people who are now being denied mobile services. If governments had worked to shore up regional providers, perhaps rural mobile service would have been enhanced. Instead, public officials have thrown their own citizens to the wolves of Wall Street.


Video abstract – ‘Food Co-ops and the Paradox of Exclusivity’

Excellent analyses and commentary on the paradox of exclusivity in the supposedly open-membership co-operative institutional model.


Forthcoming in Antipode 47(3) in 2015, and available online now, Andrew Zitcer’s ‘Food Co-ops and the Paradox of Exclusivity‘ is a great contribution to the journal’s growing stock of papers on cooperatives, ethical consumption, alternative food movements, and diverse economies.*

Consumer food cooperatives constitute a vital part of the alternative food movement in the United States, alongside farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and community gardens, among other initiatives. Like these efforts, food co-ops seek to counter the dominance of industrial agriculture and the decimation of local economies. Yet food co-ops wrestle with a “paradox of exclusivity”, whereby some practices and people are inadvertently left out in order to create conditions for a strong identification among others with particular ways of being and doing. ‘Food Co-ops and the Paradox of Exclusivity‘ explores the paradox of exclusivity through an in-depth study of two food co-ops in Philadelphia, PA…

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Acknowledging the Fragility of Democratic Institutions (and embracing the challenge)

“What Happened to the Berkeley Co-op” is a fantastic complement to Lin Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons,” particularly complementing Chapter 5 on institutional failure.  Ralph Nader’s comment in the prologue points at the tension -and dare I say the danger- of using deep participatory democratic processes as the primary guidepost for turnaround:

“A cooperative has to wrestle with the paradoxes of its principles when it is in economic difficulties. There are calls, not for centralization,” [as we might see in governmental or nonprofit bodies] “but for greater democratic control and participation by the members to save or revive the cooperatives. There are demands by competing factions…” “If there is too much member voice and rights, the community, that is the cooperative, becomes subordinated, anemic and paralyzed.”

These two books point to the need to create structure and channels to keep the chatter laser focused (lest they become white noise), so as to process the diversity of voices into productive outcomes. Democracy is not the problem! But democracy without a vision, planning, and structure is not a solution either (and is pure naïveté), and may pave the way for a tyranny by the few.

Berk Co-op Gov The Com

Glenn Greenwald on Privacy

The ever-brillian Glenn Greenwald on the obvious virtues of respect and support for individual privacy.

Naomi Klein’s Latest (Or the Ironic, Stagnant Ideas of “This Changes Everything”)

A recent interview with prominent activist Naomi Klein featured on On Point with Tom Ashbrook (podcast it, please!) left a surprisingly bad taste in my mouth. I’ve been excited about Klein’s latest book having long been an admirer of her work. But after listening to the interview, I found Klein to be devoid of any real vision outside of the standard left-of-center perspectives that have proven inadequate and obsolete.

A few of my critiques…

-Klein continues a stereotypical exoticizing of center-left Scandinavian governments (Naomi, Norway’s surplus is built on OIL wealth…).

-Klein has no clear definition of capitalism. She seems to be for Germany’s solar economy (which is propped up on shoddy foundations; she’s blind to that) which would seem to be capitalist by her “definition.”  Plus, she doesn’t seem to see the aforementioned Scandinavian systems as capitalist, which is strange considering the Norwegian oil surplus is built upon international oil sales.

-Klein also seems to want to apply a one-size-fits-all model to the problem. Her solution? State socialism. It’s pretty obvious that’s her end game, but she doesn’t go as far as to call it that.

-Klein says the problem is out of touch government and corporate power. Her solution? MORE GOVERNMENT. …and here I thought government was the problem.

-Klein’s worst offense is in “speaking truth to power.” She claims rightfully that the current economic system is irrational. She then proceeds to state how her vision is better for the wealthy and they must come around. Wow… just wow… it’s this entire crock that fits into this empirically false narrative of “if we tell the truth and provide reason, reason will overcome.” …really? How’s that worked for humanity? I think Socrates might have something to say to Klein about this.

Also, there is an emphasis on creating jobs. I reject the notion that jobs are taken as a necessity for society. Can we not create a vision beyond jobs as a primary policy outcome?

We need more institutional diversity, and new policy ideas.  Klein clearly falls short of this.


Love this. I went to a Starbucks. Two major marketing pushes on their “green” products. Yet look at their trash bins. No recycle bins either. Staff told me they dump AT LEAST 12 trash bags a day, most of it recyclable. Good reason why people continue to be cynical of the motives of big business.