Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House does not signify a new beginning or a new era. Quite the opposite. Trump and his band of reactionaries symbolize the last gasps of a greed-inspired economic system that is crumbling into obsolescence. The ungraceful staggering of a falling empire. But as with so many instances of imperial decline in history, this can also signal a time of regeneration. Like the yin and the yang, disintegration and renewal are both aspects of the same process of change.
Climate change, financial system instability, and global resource depletion remain unchanged as the most profound crises of the 21st century, and they cut across all national boundaries and cultural identities. As we look to the future and at our current circumstances, it seems clear that societies everywhere will have no choice but to completely rethink how to address these major problems in our economies. Particularly in the United States.
If we have learned anything from this election year, it is that relying on national politics for real progressive economic change remains largely futile—at least for now. Getting to the other side of major global crises will require much more than ballot box voting or making demands on politicians. All of us need to be much more engaged in building new ways of organizing economic activity in our communities. Beyond protest marching and organizing petitions, people need to be actively building new “shadow” economies structured around values and ideas that stand aside from business as usual. In other words, we need to be ready to change how we approach change. I believe our survival depends on it.
Even before the presidential election, the futility of relying on federal government politicians for economic justice was made clear as we watched its response to yet another banking scandal involving Wells Fargo. Wells tried to boost its revenues and share prices by creating sham bank accounts and filching millions from its customers. After it was caught, the bank was vilified in the media and its share prices began to fall. Wells scrambled to cover its tracks by sacking over five thousand employees who were involved in the scandal. It eventually pressed for the resignation of key executives such as CEO, John Stumpf, and the head of community banking division, Carrie Tolstedt; both of whom seemed to have scurried off in one of those Wells Fargo wagons loaded with tens of millions in cash and stock options.
Meanwhile federal government officials were expressing their usual indignation before the CSPAN cameras. Most notably was Elizabeth Warren of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who bashed at Stumpf for his personal greed and demanded that new laws be made so that banking executives like him be made criminally liable for things done at their companies. Warren’s tirade was gratifying, but the shows were quickly over and nothing really changed.
Away from the cameras the approach taken by banking industry regulators remains remarkably tepid. President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, William Dudley, recently commented that, “There is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions” as if he had just now stumbled across this idea for the first time. And Thomas Curry, the Comptroller of the Currency—the principal banking regulatory body within the US Treasury—demurred from taking a hard stance on regulating the banking industry because, “It is not going to work if we approach it from a lawyerly standpoint,” he said while suggesting that the role of government, “is more a priest-penitent relationship.” Federal Reserve and Treasury regulators would prefer to be more like moral counselors to bankers rather than genuine regulators pressing hard for corporate accountability. Given the intimate relationships between Wall Street, Treasury, and the Fed, that means basically nothing.
Trump is something of a loose cannon and it is hard to know for sure what his administration will do. But based on what they have said and done so far, there is no reason to think that they are planning to do anything to make banks or corporations more democratically accountable.
So then what?
In my new book, From Greed to Well Being, I urge people to begin creating new and alternative financial institutions in their own communities. With the shock of Trumpism and the failures of the Democratic Party, suddenly millions of people everywhere are galvanized, mobilized, and looking for new alternatives. This resurgence of energy is palpable and the movements that are forming around it could very well be the dynamic force needed to finally break from business as usual. In this book and others I have contended that getting involved in creating new, local, and values-based financial institutions could be the most empowering thing any of us can do right now. By values-based institutions I mean economic models that are democratically accountable, responsive to the needs of people and communities, stable, and ecologically sound.
Borrowing from the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood,” which means pursuing economic activity without causing undue harm, I call this approach Right Livelihood Banking. With any measure of success in this sort of grassroots institution building communities can be much more empowered, and with that empowerment be in a better position to push upward for genuine reform at the national and international levels. Not the least of which would be to revisit the charters of our central banks and make demands that these charters be rewritten to establish a new set of priorities.
Examples of grassroots economic alternatives abound. People everywhere are creating models that are creative and genuinely directed at progressive change. A new bakery here, an affordable health clinic there, or a new bank established on the values of permaculture. Most of these are small steps that are unlikely to be heralded as something that will shake the world. But that is less important than the fact that these initiatives are being fostered out of genuine care. The more we take this kind of action, the more we change our perceptions of the world around us, and the more our perceptions of the world around us change, the more our actions will shift creatively toward a spirit of renewal.