Equal Exchange and unequal exchanges

Yesterday, I presented to some of the staff at Equal Exchange, a worker co-op that distributes Fair Trade products, most famously coffee. They have since expanded into chocolate, teas, and are even expanding the Fair Trade concept to domestically produced cranberries, pecans and almonds. They do really good work. I am especially excited by the ways that they are supporting the development of an integrated cooperative economy from producer to consumer, and engaging faith communities at both ends of the chain.

One of the big flaws of my book is that I didn’t discuss their interfaith program. This great project makes Fair Trade coffee available to congregations at wholesale prices while educating faith communities about the importance of a just way of sourcing our imports.

Books are funny things, which get locked into place and don’t evolve as my understanding does. I was trying to steer clear of co-ops that merely have a lot of religion in the motivational mix of their founders, and focus on those that are clearly created as faith-based projects. I’m still learning about this, but apparently EE is right on the line. There was a strong social Justice component coming from a specifically Christian perspective, via the Cooperative Fund of New England, which has many religious groups among its funders (and also some banks, but I’m going to let that slide).

It was a good visit with EE, where I have a couple of friends and several contacts from various conferences. They have 87 worker-owners in a humongous warehouse on the outskirts of Boston (which they chose through a democratic process for which I’m secretly glad I was not present). I had a couple of great meetings and a tour, and made some really neat connections, including meeting the daughter of the founder of Interfaith Business Builders, one of the projects mentioned in my book (see p. 104). Then I caught the vanpool back into town before connecting with the subway; on that ride I had a really great talk with one of the members, which I hope was the start of an ongoing dialogue.

I’m staying with the Millstone Co-op, which has been a really nice little tangle of synchronicity that has (among other things) introduced me to Dan McKanan, who seems to know gobs about early Christian communities. We had a particularly good lunch today (across the street from the Harvard/MIT Cooperative Society, which is the main bookstore for both of these institution chock-full of smart people) and I look forward to reading his work, including Touching the World.

Being a lecturer at Harvard, he pointed me towards the Divinity School library, and I was excited to gain access to some really obscure journals, including the Phalanx and Harbinger, which were put out by some Christian communalist movements. Alas, I had a very weird experience. I was overwhelmed by the information available, and the extent to which it is available only to a chosen few. The divinity library is the “most friendly” on campus, meaning that it is the only one that non-students can even enter. They have an electronic turnstile at the door, which makes a weird hydraulic noise every time someone arrives or leaves (very distracting and creepy). Because I’m a well-groomed white guy with glasses they didn’t follow their policy of checking ID before letting guests in, but I’m sure that courtesy isn’t extended to everyone. In contrast, the security guard at the Cleveland bus station checked to make sure that I had a ticket even though I didn’t look like the “type” of person who would be hanging out at Greyhound because I was not going anywhere (Andrew’s justice scorecard: Greyhound 1 – Harvard 0). The knowledge base of Harvard is locked down, and it is worth noting that they are simultaneously locking down properties as a more traditional form of wealth. Harvard is really big business, and I suspect that Obama’s connections here have been a part of his ability to penetrate the previously all-white President’s Club.

In my last post, I observed that there are huge numbers of people in the Bronx and Brooklyn living within miles of one of the world’s great information centers (i.e. Manhattan) but lacking in even access to the internet. Without information it is extremely difficult to get anything done (even incorporating a cooperative so our collective efforts are less likely to be thwarted by legal issues).

I’m in grad school and thereby have access to a lot of fancy databases through all the various cooperative networks that academia and business have created (for example Lexis Nexis – good luck even finding pricing information on their web site if you are a mere peasant). Even so, I am very ambivalent about it. During our orientation, we were warned that Google is this vast wasteland of unreliable information that could be inaccurate or simply made up. Even so, this is the information layer that I choose to inhabit, because my work is meant to be a starting point.

I have the privilege to use exclusive academic sources to produce writing that is more accurate or complete or robust or whatever. But I am not very interested. You may notice that I use lots of links in this blog, and there’s a reason for that. I want you to be able to find out more.

If I quote an article that is only available if you can penetrate the Harvard datasphere, or afford a database subscription or individual article purchase, that isn’t very helpful. I’ve been getting good responses to my presentations, but people aren’t buying the book very much. I’m pretty sure that part of this is the economic uncertainty. The more relevant my work becomes, the fewer people will be able to afford to pay me for it. Tricky. And if people can’t come up with $15-20 for a book, they sure can’t come up with hundreds for some fancy data access.

I see a three-tier system: On the bottom are the masses of people who most need information to address their situations but can’t have it in any meaningful way; people couldn’t find free wireless internet even if they did have a laptop; at best they can go to the library if it happens to be open and not too crowded to get a computer. In the middle are the people who have regular access to the internet, which is a great thing even if it is unreliable. At the top is an elite that can basically get any information they want.

This is almost exactly like the way money is concentrated and leads me to conclude that we really do live in an “information economy.” And unlike cash, which requires scarcity to function, there’s no excuse for this. Information needs to be free. It’s in everyone’s interest except for those in the business of treating knowledge as a commodity so they can get even more rich.


PS: I mentioned this blog entry to someone who works in IT at Harvard, and came to my talk tonight. He told me about the Harvard-Google Project, which seeks to digitize out-of-copyright books in Harvard’s collection and make them available online through Google. I stand slightly corrected.

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