Why Some Progress Is Slow for Accessibility

“What’s with that?” a student asked me. Our classroom this semester was on the third floor of Barker Hall at the University of Kentucky. The flights are tall and there is no elevator. “How is that allowed?”

The young woman was asking about accessibility. It’s 2016. Don’t campus buildings have to be accessible?

This is a photo of a modern staircase designed with ramps running zig zag up the diagonals of the staircase.

New construction can incorporate accessibility features beautifully, as part of the design, and while not making accommodations around back by the trash can. You can walk or roll with your loved ones to the other floor.

A sidewalk that ends in grass.Before moving to Lexington, I advocated for certain accessibility issues at the University of Mississippi. In the process, I learned a lot about what people say when you push on such issues. There were many disappointing responses at times, the most upsetting of which was being ignored for nearly a year. That’s another story.

The experience in Mississippi revealed to me some interesting challenges to consider even when an organization means to do its best to make a social space maximally accessible.

If you want to advocate for change, critical thinking textbooks will tell you, you have to understand your opposition and address it head on. Finding the weakest arguments that oppose your mission and laughing at them won’t convince people who disagree with you. Identifying the smartest things people say in their defense and responding to those might.

How many buildings are on a university campus? It will vary significantly, but let’s imagine that there are 200 at a major research university. If the campus has been around a long time, many of the buildings will have been built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some will be historic buildings. Others in need of repair. Some will be priorities and others won’t.

Classroom space tends to be at a premium in most institutions. When all of the most commonly used spaces have been taken up, you look for further spots not yet in use. My courses were added far later than is usual this past summer, so they were located in classroom space still available. It so happens that that means Barker Hall.

Barker hall today.Barker Hall is historic, built in 1901. The first photo of it is how it looks now, although it is actually surrounded by construction of the new student center at present. The next photo showcases what we mean when we call it historic.

So why isn’t it accessible?

  1. Making spaces accessible as you build them is cheaper than retroactively. So, it’s more expensive than making other, perhaps more spacious new buildings accessible.
  2. Historic photo of Barker Hall.Making historic buildings accessible generally adds cost, because it is desirable to preserve the beauty of historic buildings, while retrofitting. It’s harder, so it costs more.
  3. It probably is not the only remaining space that needs retrofitting.
  4. Money is always limited and judgments are made all-things-considered about where to spend it.
  5. Without many people calling for Barker to change, it won’t any time soon. Though, there may be plans in the works to update it at some point.

But wait, “Isn’t it the law?!”

  1. No, it’s not technically the law that every space has to be accessible to every person. The law says that institutions like mine have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people who need them. That means that if any of us had a broken ankle or if a student who uses a mobility device were to have added the course, the university would have had to find some solution to move the class meetings.

This last point is delicate, though. How would it make you feel if 30 other people had a change to their meeting location for a semester because of you? It’s something that couldn’t help but make someone feel singled out. Maybe the first classroom was conveniently located for certain people. Barker Hall is a hop away from Patterson Office Tower, where my office is. So, in the end, this answer is not terribly satisfying.

My point here is not that I think it’s fine to have inaccessible buildings. Hell, the window unit air conditioners made it hard to hear each other in August, a problem for people with hearing impairments, not to mention anyone trying to engage in a classroom discussion.

Man holding his ear because he can't hear the speaker.

No, this professional baseball team executive has nothing to do with the story here, except that he’s struggling to hear someone, as I often did this semester.

So, at some point I’ll gently start to ask questions about what the structure is here for decisions and initiatives regarding accessibility. It was refreshing, I must say, to hear disdain in the student’s voice. I heard passion and initiative in it. You can’t change much for the better without high expectations. At the same time, the challenges are real even when good people are trying to do many things right with limited resources.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching on the second floor of a building with several elevators. And central air.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Mary Mellor’s “Debt or Democracy”: Why Not Quantitative Easing for People?

Although it is widely assumed that governments are the source of all new money – through “printing it” – the so-called private sector is the source of most new money put into circulation.  In one of the most successful enclosures of the commons in our time, commercial finance institutions have captured the power to create most new money through their discretionary lending.  This power has become so normalized and pervasive that hardly anyone acknowledges the startling fact that commercial lending accounts for more than 95% of “new money” created.  Government has in effect surrendered its enormous power to use its money-creating authority for the public good.

Perhaps the leading champion for reforming the current money system is Mary Mellor, emeritus professor at Northumbria University in the UK and author of the recently published, eye-opening book Debt or Democracy:  Public Money for Sustainability and Social Justice (Pluto Press, 2015, distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press Books). 

Mellor recently published an oped piece in The Independent, the British newspaper, that summarizes some of the key themes in her book. Her essay focuses on the “myth of handbag economics” – the idea that government budgets are comparable to household budgets.  This distorts our understanding of how the money supply works, says Mellor, and inexorably leads governments to adopt fiscal austerity policies. 

The critical political question that is rarely asked, said Mellor at a policy workshop last September, is: Who controls the creation and circulation of money?

She notes that the government, as the sovereign, has the authority to issue new money – an ancient authority known as seignorage.  But in practice, governments have surrendered this authority to the commercial banking sector, whose lending creates nearly all of the money in circulation as debt. 

Banks create money out of thin air by issuing new loans.  They need not have those specific sums of money on hand, in a vault. They need have only a small fraction of reserves of the total sum lent, as required by “reserve banking” standards. In this way, bank lending quite literally introduces new supplies of money into the economy based on strictly private, commercial standards – i.e., banks' assessments of borrowers’ ability to repay the debt with interest.

Mellor believes that we need to recover the power of public currency to meet public needs.   By “public currency,” she means “the generally recognized and authorized public currency created through a public money circuit that originates in central banks and government spending.”  Privately created currency is money designated as public currency that is issued through the banking sector as loans.  It is the fact that bankers are creating the public currency when they make loans that makes the state liable to honor that money when banks go into crisis.

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Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons

One of the more complicated, mostly unresolved issues facing most commons is how to assure the independence of commons when the dominant systems of finance, banking and money are so hostile to commoning. How can commoners meet their needs without replicating (perhaps in only modestly less harmful ways) the structural problems of the dominant money system?

Fortunately, there are a number of fascinating, creative initiatives around the world that can help illuminate answers to this question – from co-operative finance and crowdequity schemes to alternative currencies and the blockchain ledger used in Bitcoin, to reclaiming public control over money-creation to enable “quantitative easing for people” (and not just banks). 

To help start a new conversation on these issues, the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, co-organized a Deep Dive strategy workshop in Berlin, Germany, last September.  We brought together 24 activists and experts on such topics as public money, complementary currencies, community development finance institutions, public banks, social and ethical lending, commons-based virtual banking, and new organizational forms to enable “co-operative accumulation” (the ability of collectives to secure equity ownership and control over assets that matter to them).

I’m happy to report that a report synthesizing the key themes and cross-currents of dialogue at that workshop is now available.  The report is called “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons:  Strategies for Transforming Neoliberal Finance Through Commons-Based Alternatives,” (pdf file) by David Bollier and Pat Conaty.

You could consider the 54-page report an opening gambit for commoners to discuss how money, banking and finance could better serve their interests as commoners.  There are no quick and easy answers if only because so much of the existing money system is oriented towards servicing the conventional capitalist economy.  Even basic financial terms often have an embedded logic that skews toward promoting relentless economic growth, the extractivist economy and its pathologies, and the notion that money itself IS wealth. 

That said, commoners have many important reasons for engaging with this topic.  As we put it in the Introduction to the report, “The logic of neoliberal capitalism is responsible for at least three interrelated, systemic problems that urgently need to be addressed – the destruction of ecosystems, market enclosures of commons, and assaults on equality, social justice and the capacity of society to provide social care to its citizens. None of these problems is likely to be overcome unless we can find ways to develop innovative co-operative finance and money systems that can address all three problems in integrated ways.”

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Faircoin as the First Global Commons Currency?

It’s hard to find many co-operatives with the kind of practical sophistication and visionary ambitions as CIC – the Catalan Integral Cooperative -- in Spain.  CIC describes itself as a “transitional initiative for social transformation from below, through self-management, self-organization, and networking.”  It considers the state unable to advance the public good because of its deep entanglements with market capitalism -- so it has set about building its own working alternatives to the banking system and state. 

Since its founding in May 2010, CIC has developed some 300 cooperative projects with 30 local nodes, involving some 4,000 to 5,000 participants.  You can get an idea of the impressive scope of CIC’s work through this interview with Enric Duran by Shareable magazine in March 2014. It’s fairly clear that CIC is serious about building a new global economic system – and not just as a rhetorical statement.  CIC builds real, working alternatives, showing great sophistication about politics, law, economics and digital platforms. 

CIC has now started Fair.Coop to help build a set of free economic tools that will “promote cooperation, ethics, solidarity and justice in our economic relations.” A key element of the Fair-Coop vision is a cryptocurrency, Faircoin, which has been designed to adapt the block-chain technology of Bitcoin with a more socially constructive design. (Faircoin relies less on "mining" new coins than on "minting" them in a more ecologically responsible, equitable ways.)

Many skeptics might scoff at the brash, utopian feel of this initiative.  But in many respects, Faircoin is the ultimate realism. CIC correctly recognizes that the existing monetary system and private banks pose insuperable barriers to reducing inequality and ensuring productive work and wealth for all. The only "realistic" alternative to existing fiat currencies and foreign exchange is to invent a new monetary system!  Fortunately, thanks to the pioneering examples of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and the evolving powers of software, that idea is actually within reach these days.

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Will Bitcoin and Other Insurgent Currencies Reinvent Commerce?

This and other questions are addressed in “The Weightless Marketplace:  Coming to Terms with Innovative Payment Systems, Digital Currencies and Online Labor Markets,” a just-released report that I wrote for the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program. The report distills the more salient points raised at a three-day conference last August that brought together leading players in banking, financial services and online labor platforms.   

Most of the conference participants are in the business of inventing or adapting to new types of digital payment systems or data-based services. They include major players like JP Morgan Chase, Intuit and VISA as well as upstarts such as Bitcoin, ID3 and the identity-management service Personal.

The basic story in digital markets is the ongoing elimination of “friction” in making transactions – reducing the barriers of geography, time and transaction costs. Hence the title “the weightless marketplace.”  “Reducing economic friction” has been the story of the World Wide Web from its beginnings, of course, but the trend is now reaching new levels of intensity and disruption.  My role, as rapporteur, was to represent the diverse points of view while providing my own interpretive synthesis. 

Perhaps the most fascinating points of discussion revolved around Bitcoin.  Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding it, Bitcoin’s basic functionality and soaring popularity have some serious implications for banks, credit card companies, PayPal and other payment systems. Peter Vessenes of the Bitcoin Foundation noted that digital technology can move value to anywhere in the world, at any time, using just 100 bytes of data.  And it can do it at very little cost – much less than the per-transaction charges levied by credit cards, for example.

Critics charge that Bitcoin facilitates illicit transactions, money laundering and terrorist activity, not to mention tax evasion.  Vessenes replied that Bitcoin is “way less anonymous than cash” – because the permanent global ledger of transactions for each Bitcoin is accessible and can be used to help identify buyers and sellers.  Another reason that Bitcoin is controversial is that it represents a potential threat to the sovereignty of nation-states, because it could undermine their monetary and fiscal policies.  That’s why regulation of Bitcoin is inevitable, many agreed.

But apart from Bitcoin’s fate, the larger question may be how existing banks and financial companies will respond to the coming “democratization of money.”  Several factors are fueling this trend, according to Gartner, the consulting firm:  individual access to massive, high-speed flows of information, the proliferation of mobile computing (smartphones, tablets, etc.), the rise of the cloud, and the social commons of highly specialized communities of interest.

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British Green Party Calls for Public Control of the Money Supply

The Green Party of England and Wales really knows how to stake out some fresh territory in their national politics!  At the autumn conference, the Greens adopted a resolution calling for “a programme of reform to remove the power to create money from private banks, and to fully restore the supply of our national currency to democratic and public control so that it can be issued free of debt and directed to environmentally and socially beneficial areas.” 

Bold thinking!  The Greens explain why the existing banking system is so pernicious: 

"The existing banking system is undemocratic, unfair and highly damaging.  Banks not only create money, they also decide how it is first used – and have used this power to fund financial speculation and reckless mortgage lending, rather than to finance investment in productive businesses.  Through the interest charged on the loans on which all credit is based, the current banking system increases inequality.  It also regularly causes economic crises:  banks create and lend more and more money until the level of debt becomes unsustainable, boom turns to bust, and the taxpayer bails out banks that are ‘too big to fail.’  Finally, the need to service the growing mountain of debt on which our money is based is a key driver of unsustainable economic growth that is destroying the environment."

The right to create money and profit from it is known as seignorage.  Banks currently enjoy this right and exercise it through their lending, which creates most of the money in circulation.  Governments have effectively let banks privatize control of the money supply.  In so doing, governments have forfeited the opportunity to provide debt-free lending to support productive enterprises and public needs as opposed to fueling boom-and-bust speculation and relentless economic growth that destroys the environment.

Reclaiming seignorage for public benefit has been a serious idea among many progressive economists for years.  A notable figure in this regard is James Robertson, the founder of the new economic foundation in Great Britain, in 1986, who has championed this issue for years.  Robertson’s most recent book Future Money explains how re-gaining public control over how new money is created and circulated could result in “an annual savings to all citizens of the UK of £75bn, and second in a one-off benefit to the public purse totalling £1.5bn over a three-year transition period.”

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