Notes from the Festival of Grassroots Economics

Panel at the Festival of Grassroots Economics

The Festival of Grassroots Economics was last Saturday in Oakland, organized by JASecon. I think it was a big success and so I congratulate Bernard Marszalek, Rick Simon, Heather Young and many others who worked hard at making this event a reality.

There were several remarkable things to this event. First, it was truly completely grassroots, organized by activists, non-profit workers, coop workers and related professional, and with them presenting. Second, it was free for all, which is sadly rare for an event dedicated to change. Last, it was organized in the beautiful setting of the Humanist Hall in Oakland with colorful decor and quotes on the walls such as “The world is my country, to do good is my religion” – Thomas Paine.

Many interesting ideas were discussed but I think the most interesting and realistic one related to small business local investing: how can small business, even coops can open their capital without spending a fortune and staying true to their values, instead of getting in debt, and ultimately how do we realize the vision of a small business local stock exchange. How can people take Warren Buffet “invest in what you understand” literally, and sell their mutual funds invested in large corporations such as McDonald’s and instead invest in funds that invest in businesses they know and shop at.

Behind all the discussions, I think the main theme was: how do we give small businesses and ultimately worker-owners the same tools that large corporations enjoy? how do we use the system to change the system?

The panel on the various styles of coops was particularly enlightening to me: some coops do not allocate shares democratically, but are run democratically, others provide each employee with the same number of shares when they start working, some others (big ones) hire professional managers with a separate compensation package, etc. The common thread though is that responsibility and decision-making is shared equally between all employees.

In a later fun discussion on leveraging legal loophole (which one may call “legal hacks”), a lawyer discussed how a coop can use preferred shares to open the capital, while keeping all voting rights. Another good legal hack is for a non-profit to create a for-profit subsidiary to reap the solar panel tax benefits reserved for for-profit companies.

One thing I missed at this event: art/play as an engine of economic renewal.