May 1 , 2000

Putin's Promises
Will Russia's new president launch a revolution from above?

Union Nyet
The decline of Russian unions

Dullest Lights
Moldova makes a strange poster child for reform

Steering the Global Economy
Ingredients for an alternative

News & Views

Rudy plays the race card


A Terry Laban Cartoon

Mexico's Thought Police
FBI-trained forces allegedly tortured political dissidents

Dirty Deeds
Spain wants to extradite Argentina's former dictators

Party Palace
George W. Bush's lucrative sleepovers

Errol Morris, the interrogator

The Flanders Files
Arianna's change of heart

Spring Books

Mother Night
Slavenka Draculic's S.

Coming to America
Aleksandar Hemon's short fiction

Take a Hike
Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Corporate Ideals
John B. Judis, a real Progressive

Up, Up and Away
Frances Fitzgerald goes Way Out There in the Blue

Curtain Call
Susan Sontag gets lost In America

Constant Craving
The obsessions of Thom Gunn




Interview with Errol Louis,
NYC City Council candidate, co-Founder, Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, Executive Director, Bogolan Merchants' Association

By David Dyssegaard Kallick

What's the role of globalization in your work?

The way I think about this is:

Where I see globalization in my face is a place like 125th street in Harlem. It's very different than when I lived there as a boy. Until a few months ago, there were failing shops, mom & pop stores, a lack of consumer choice. There was just enough economic activity to keep people at subsistance or just above. And a lot of money flowing out.

If you were trying to ignore globalization, you can't miss it. The Disney mouse is there, The Gap is there, Body Shop is there, the Magic Johnson Theater - it's all happening. And the people in the neighborhood who own small businesses aren't benefiting.

On the other hand, Pathmark is the first supermarket in that neighbhorhood in decades. After 30 years of the way things were, you have other concerns. Shouldn't your friends, family and neighbors be able to get the same prices as everyone else in the country for groceries, instead of paying premium prices at convenience stores? If people in the neighborhood want to buy The Mouse, shouldn't they be able to do it in their neighborhood?

No doubt [this kind of globalization] makes the streetscape much less interesting to move through. Still, consumers are benefiting. There's not much in it for small-scale entrepreneurs. But big boxes are always helpful for entry-level and low-wage jobs. It's not ideal, but let's face it, low-wage jobs is part of what we need.

You and your partner started one of New York's better-known credit unions - don't you think there should be neighborhood co-ops, local stores, people who have their own businesses?

The standard progressive response would be: we should be able to form neighborhood co-ops, local stores, etc. That seems to me more and more outdated. Some of our response should be: How do we negotiate employment contracts, training contracts, work closely with unions and unionize people, develop a public consciousness and support for union activity. Handle it that way.

This doesn't seem very optimistic.

We have what could be considered the beginnings of an infrastructure that should be there. Trying to block market activity has created dead zones in the economy. The price of living with a dead zone is a very high one, politically and morally. Real families need real jobs and real consumer choices. The seductive part of globalization is [globalizing corporations] can fit the bill; they can deliver.

I'm an agnostic on this question of whether we let the global corporations into the neighborhood. For years I would have said no way. Now I'm not so sure.

What do you think the federal government should be doing?

One place I think there needs to be a massive intervention is in the question of the maximum wage. When you hear that Bill Gates is worth $100 billion - it would take a person making $50,000 two million years to make that much - you've got a situation that is out of control.

The state is the only entity large and powerful enough to intervene on those kind of questions. There's got to be some kind of question of redistribution.

And I think everyone knows this at this point: We need job sharing, job rationing, and a shorter workweek.

On a maximum wage, you probably would wind up with something like a tax, since most of Gates' money doesn't come from wages. But wouldn't corporations just relocate to avoid a tax or regulation of that kind?

I don't think they would. We should test them. But If people are going to defect so radically from the social contract, get rid of them [laughs]. Don't have them hanging around like parasites. I'll go down to the docks at Ellis Island and wave goodbye to them.

Markets, loosely or tightly regulated, provide a lot of benefits that we who say we want change have to be better at mastering and encountering instead of a having knee-jerk reaction against them.

Is there still a place for credit unions and community economic activity?

I'm also working to start a credit union in Harlem. But I don't think we can aggregate enough capital in anybody's lifetime to make anything big enough happen there. So it's necessary but not sufficient. I think we owe it to people to work out what would actually be sufficient.

We need something larger than and probably not as democratic as a community credit union. And we should lead the discussion about what it should be, we shouldn't be reactively shaped by others who probably don't share our values.

One of the thing people never factor into worker ownership or cooperative schemes is the tremendous amount of time spent in meetings. The governance structure adds a great number of person-hours to the cost of doing anything. It also imposes an expense that never seems to find its way onto the balance sheets.

Yet you still support credit unions?

Credit unions are excellent ways of building power. Excellent ways of building power for people who are on the margins of economy.

For the marginal players - for people who require a kind of social blanket to wrap themselves in to get their crucial economic activity accomplished - who need to be supported by family, friends, a community that understands where you come from, where small transactions are the whole point of the enterprise - you need that.

But let me give an example of what's going on with credit unions. A Santa Cruz credit union helped some young progressive people go from selling juice out of the back of their vans to be a substantial company.

But now when the company nees a loan, they've priced themselves out of the range that the credit unions can help people.

Where do you send them? You're back to Well's Fargo, or some other horrible bank that's wrecking the economy.

I met with a guy yestereday who's a small fabric manufacturer, he needs a short-term line of credit of a quarter million bucks.

My credit union can't do anything for him. Most can't. He's a sole proprietorship. He's not a co-op and he's not going to become one. Do we eliminate him now? Is it OK as long as he doesn't succeed? There are some real questions about this.

I asked before, but don't you see other alternatives?

If the biggest foundation in the world, Ford, was down the street from Harlem for all these years... Harlem is still a watchword for poverty and social problems, and they came up with nothing after 25 years. After a lot of dispair, people said let's throw some money at the problem.

The people who get the homogenized global culture are at the lower end of the economic scale. But people are choosing it.

We fight all the time over whether there should be a Sears over there. The consumer usually decides they want a little bit of both small stores and big chains.

If your end-point is to have an intelligent public discourse about this; if we actually throw the Chamber of Commerce into it instead of just the local churches, probably we would do OK.



In These Times © 2000
Vol. 24, No. 11