My million-dollar idea

by Eric Ginsburg

Greensboro is offering $1 million to the person who generates the top economic-development idea, and while I can’t take full credit for dreaming this idea up, I’m here to claim my prize.

See, the problem is that Greensboro is used to thinking of economic development within the very narrow confines of attracting an outside business to locate here. Even with ideas that are marketed as visionary, like the downtown performing-arts center, the discussion returns to the idea that the project will draw in newcomers. Other times it’s more explicit, like Zack Matheny’s touting of a shovel-ready economic-development program.

It’s good to see that we’re moving away from an economy centralized around a single industry, and it’s exhilarating to observe the growth of downtown, but it strikes me that we’re missing the point. We’re going to be playing catch-up with job losses, wage reductions, hiring freezes and state assaults on teachers and other workers for a while — maybe forever — if we keep playing this game.

Enticing outside corporations with the ability to hire masses of people is a losing proposition: They’re on the hunt to save money which is why big companies historically relocated to the South; they can lay off hundreds of people at once and there’s a pretty good chance local unemployed people aren’t going to be the ones filling job openings.

Let’s get down to the real talk: Most working people are screwed. We can try and stop legislators from slashing the safety net, ridicule the county for ignoring the health needs of low-income residents and deride the General Assembly’s brazen assaults on human dignity. We can argue about funding for the performingarts center or the International Civil Rights Museum, about water rates or who gets city contracts, but most people in Greensboro will only be marginally affected by these decisions.

The real issue is that we are living through a major downturn, one created by an economic system that rises and falls as surely as the tide. Regardless which decisions are made, or how juicy the carrot that we dangle for investors, the equation still doesn’t add up. Most people will still have almost no legitimate agency over their lives.

Instead of turning to the dynamics that brought us to this point — a top-down approach, austerity, capitalism, the race to the bottom, however you want to think about it — the “visionary” ideas, the out-of-the-box solutions that some city council members like to talk about, need to go one step further.

Here’s the plan (and the reason I deserve the massive payoff): Let’s get out of the way. I don’t mean eliminating environmental regulations or reducing taxes, I mean let’s really step back. For starters, the feedback loop for ideas is far too small (as evidenced by the speakers at council’s last meeting in favor of the performing-arts center who were on a task force subcommittee or the opponents who were overwhelmingly grandstanding candidates).

It’s much bigger than giving people the space to talk though, or providing seats at the table (though participatory budgeting and similar models wouldn’t hurt). The real solution comes when people start taking direct action to meet their needs, and when we get out of the damn way.

What does this look like? It looks like Take Back the Land in Florida or the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Chicago, where (as the saying goes) homeless people are occupying people-less homes. The result benefits the community by dealing with blight and homelessness is concretely addressed.

Revolutionary Emma Goldman is credited with saying: “Ask for work. If they don’t give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.”

I bet you have a problem with that, but I challenge you to spend some time thinking about why.

It probably seems wrong on some level, unfair maybe, but the alternative isn’t that unemployed, starving people just wait for your goodwill or for enough jobs to materialize.

The “take bread” model can take a variety of formats, from “Robin Hood” supermarket raids in Spain to the Renaissance Grocery Co-op, but the point is that people need to organize to build, demand or take what they need to survive.

Maybe a similar concept articulated by Frederick Douglass is more palatable: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

If we’re waiting on wealthy benefactors to step in and save disappearing social services, or if we’re only counting on the city council to create economic opportunities for our survival, we might as well give up now.

People, on an individual level, routinely follow the “take bread” model out of necessity, but it doesn’t generate systemic change and it will (likely) lead to a stay in Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes’ “bed & breakfast.”

The “economic development” model (seriously, what does economic development mean anyway and who does it benefit?) that we need most sorely is one where marginalized people are empowered to meet their basic needs.

Don’t like the idea of a movement of the unemployed and bottom-rung workers figuring out how to fix their own problems? Then let’s figure out “visionary” ways to actually help.

I’ll be out of the way, redistributing my $1 million of new wealth.

I’ll take cash or check, please.