Cities Take Back Power

Power to the City

VPRO (2014)

Film Review

This documentary argues for shifting major political power away from countries to cities, in part due to the current paralysis national governments face in enacting legislation and in part to the greater likelihood of bottom-up democratic participation in decisions that are made locally.

The filmmakers interview various political scientists who argue for a return to the system of city-state governance that was prevalent prior to the era of colonization.

They give three recent examples in which cities have collaborated with grassroots citizens movements to enact reforms which went on to have major national and global influence:

1. Seattle (Washington) – which in 2014 voted to enact a mandatory $15/hr living wage.

2. Eindhoven (Netherlands) – where citizens collaborated with business leaders and elected officials to create a high tech hub to replace 36,000 jobs that were lost overseas.

3. Hamburg (Germany) – which has  retained its pre-1871 city-state governance structure as a federal state within the German federation. As such, it takes on numerous functions normally performed by a national or state government – such as collecting taxes and running schools and universities. It allows its citizens to enact legislation by binding referendum, and in 2014 they voted to buy back the energy grid from a private Swedish company (to hasten its transformation to renewable energy).


Why Nearly 1% of New Zealanders Are Homeless

Who Owns New Zealand Now?

Bryan Bruce (2017)

Film Review

At present, New Zealand has the worst rate of homelessness in the OECD. In 2016, 41,000 Kiwis (nearly 1%) were homeless. Half of this number were families with children. This documentary examines the forces behind New Zealand’s homeless epidemic and potential solutions.

The film is highly critical of the neoliberal reforms in the 1980s that transformed New Zealand from a regulated economy to a so-called “market” economy, leading to low wages and soaring inequality. However it focuses mainly on the role of foreign investors, who have driven up housing costs by speculating in New Zealand real estate. Because the government no longer keeps data on the New Zealand property sold to overseas buyers, filmmakers had to go to researchers at the University of British Columbia to get a rough idea about the extent of foreign investment in New Zealand real estate.

As for potential solutions, Who Owns New Zealand Now suggests bringing back the State Advances loan program, (operating in New Zealand from the the early 1930s to the late 1960s), in which the government issued money directly (rather than borrowing it from banks) that Kiwis could borrow to purchase homes. It also examines measures other countries have adopted to discourage foreign speculators from driving up housing costs.

First and foremost the government needs to keep good data on New Zealand real estate being sold offshore. Secondly they need to discourage foreign real estate sales either by implementing a foreign buyers surtax, as Hong Kong and British Columbia do, or charging all buyers a stamp duty tax, as Australia, Canada and the UK do, and/or a capital gains tax when real estate is sold.

Among other reforms advocated in the documentary are a greater restriction in immigration levels, a return to state-funded mortgages and increased government support for cooperative housing, long term lease rentals, construction of smaller, more affordable, family friendly homes and most importantly a living wage for all Kiwis.

Owing to the failure of “the market” to accommodate their housing needs, at present approximately 1/3 of the New Zealand population requires state supported housing.

Unemployed? Broke? How to Start a Co-op

Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker at a Time

GritTV (2015)

Film Review

Own the Change is a documentary about how to start a worker cooperative. The inability of the global economy to provide a living wage for millions of Americans has prompted a surge in the formation of cooperatives, where workers own and run their own business and share equally in the profits. I expect this will be an extremely inspiring film for people of any age who are unemployed or earning a wage that is too low to survive on. The biggest problem in starting a coop, as with any small business is start-up funding. Most new coops rely on individual members’ savings for capital, as major banks no longer offer small business loans. Members with no upfront cash can contribute their buy-in as a payroll deduction. Sometimes new coops can access grants and low interest loans from non-profit groups and government agencies. Crowdsourcing* is another increasingly common option. The second most difficult aspect of coop formation is learning to make decisions collectively. Democracy is a foreign concept to most people. Many are more comfortable with someone in authority telling them what to do. It takes practice to learn how to make decisions by consensus. As one coop member explains in the film, a good coop uses horizontal (equal) decision making at the board level to make basic operating decisions. Vertical decision making works better in the field, where people with technical knowledge and skill need to be in charge of how the work product is delivered. The most inspiring coop depicted in the documentary is a Bellingham Washington cooperative started by caregivers fed up with their extremely low pay and lack of input into working conditions. For people thinking of starting a coop, the best place to start is the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a national grassroots organization for worker cooperative businesses. Their website is a fantastic source of legal and business advice, including funding options: *Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.