Gar Alporovitz, activist, author, and political economist at the University of Maryland gave the Keynote Address.
He told us we were witnessing a transformative time, that he, and we, must take seriously, difficult, yet open with possibilities, and that we should not be afraid to try and fail, and try again. He said the mid 20th Century was an aberration, not normal, with a push from a post-WWII bailing out of the economy, and the convenient self-destruction of international competitors. The strong labor movement also helped the growing middle class. Alporovitz said that period is now over and that we are now in a period of stagnation, with ripples but no long-term growth. Public Banking is just one of the movements gaining traction in such a time, he said. Like other analysts, he pointed to the impossibility of supporting 400 Americans who are richer than the bottom 160 million.
However, Alporovitz expects no Great Depression II, because the government is now 34% of the economy - triple the amount it was in the last Great Depression - though perhaps many in the audience believed that would not be enough of a guarantee, with services and the safety net being cut so much.
We are beginning to realize the need to rebuild society from the bottom-up instead of relying on elected officials and then urging them to deliver the necessary changes for us. Our elected bodies are stuffed with mis-representatives. For example, there are over 5,000 neighborhood-owned corporations, Alporovitz tells us, many under conservative ownership. (The historic Right-Left dichotomy is itself breaking down, as I was to discover throughout the weekend). Alporovitz gave the example of steel workers who lost their jobs in Youngstown, Ohio, and attempted to set up a cooperative community, but that Big Labor -- as distinct from the rank and file -- let it fail, unsupportive of the idea of worker-owned companies.
That was then.
Now, 30 years later, there are more worker-owned coops on the ground in Ohio than anywhere else in the country, and Big Labor has come out in favor of that which they used to oppose. This flattening restructuring is being done, Alporovitz says, in green energy, small businesses and so on, all over the country. Over time, knowledge will build up through experimentation, allowing for democratizing ownership. We are actors in history, he says, impelled to act because every system we've grown up with is no longer tenable. No financial experts he's talked to, believes there will not be another financial crisis (we will examine solutions later in this article). Yes, break up the Big Guys, he says, but they will reassemble and we'll be back where we started. Instead, we have to re-examine the entire basis for the financial system -- a theme that would be repeated throughout the conference. Alporovitz referred favorably to Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" thesis, but cautioned that the attendees could not have come by plane, train, or automobile, without large-scale factories and businesses to create those. He, like Schumacher, is favor of appropriate technology.
Questions Alporovitz leaves us with are: How do we know what is the appropriate size of an institution? How do we break them up when they get too big? What do we mean by "changing things?" Are we part of a growing movement, or do we mean to just "tend to our own garden?"
Rozanne Junker, Ph.D. gave a thorough and inspiring talk about the history of the Bank of North Dakota, making it clear how close the bank came to not being at all. First, it was created by socialists in a deep farming state in 1919, then taken over by its enemies after they routed the socialists in the following elections, then, through a series of reforms, it slowly became the powerful institution it is today. Without such dedication 100 years ago, and a good bit of luck, there would probably be no public banking movement in America today. Junker has a half hour video (http://www.prairiepublic.org/shop) out on the history of the BND, well worth purchasing by any serious student of public banking. It's not only a history lesson, but also a set of warnings and advice for anyone contemplating a new public bank.
Some of the conference participants have been working for monetary reform for decades, and there was a heavy demographic tilt towards the grey-head set. It can take many years to really understand what is going on. On the other hand, some, like 12-year old Victoria Grant, there with her father, have only just started, and are our future. She gave a well-rehearsed speech that brought a standing ovation, also available on Youtube here (~111,000 views so far, but soon to be released in high-def from the PBI's own taping of the entire event, for a whole new set of viewers) on how Canada prospered under a Public Bank from 1935 to 1974. Victoria shyly told me later that yes, she had to memorize a lot to make the video. She showed us how the right spokesperson can reach multitudes.
But it was left to some of the elders like Paul Hellyer, former Canadian Minister, to document more specifics of the late, great Canadian Public banking system -- and veteran reformer Will Abram, not present at the conference, but whose booklet: "Money: The Canadian Experience" is also a must read for any serious student of Public Banking. He too, has a video, though it falls far short of the viral viewership of Victoria's video. Abram documents the vast public works, post WWII G.I. bill that graduated 54,000 college students in record time, and other projects that the Bank of Canada funded in those years, while ringing up debt of only $18 billion. Since privatization in 1974, the debt has exploded to nearly $500 billion, and now the Austerians are engaged in cutting everything, from public education to Canada's world-renowned Health Care System. None of this would be necessary without such a debt burden, imposed by the completely unnecessary private Central banking system. Our own experience with exploding debt is, of course, similar since the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. We should pay as much attention to the negative examples as we do to the positive ones.