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David Brancaccio

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The Social Capital Generation Machine

Posted: 07/13/2012 5:50 pm

I adore the small mill town in Maine where I grew up, but not a soul there would deny its economic challenges. Stand one direction on a gently swaying footbridge over the Kennebec River and you can see the ghostly face of what was once one of Waterville's largest employers, the Hathaway Shirt Company. Those jobs went south, then further south. Rotate your view northeast and another idled factory dominates the view, the Kimberly-Clarke/Scott Paper mill.

We complain about our broken economy still only feebly creating jobs deep into what was supposed to be a recovery. But who is doing something right now to fix it? To answer that question, it didn't make sense to go to Wall Street looking for answers. Those folks have their own problems, you may have noticed. So I started my search right there on that footbridge.

That journey has turned into a documentary that is coming to theaters around the country for one day next week. My film is called Fixing the Future, a project produced independently, but in keeping with some of the reporting I have done over the years for NOW on PBS and American Public Media's Marketplace. It turned out that in every direction I faced, I found Main Streets with people working on projects to shake up and renew the American economy. Loads of innovations from Bellingham, Washington to Austin, Texas to Chester, Pennsylvania. Big stuff, like a project in Cleveland that brings enduring jobs to inner city neighborhoods that the present economy has simply abandoned. And, just down the road from my hometown, I discovered a high-tech device to generate valuable social capital.

It is called the Hour Exchange of Portland, Maine. What I found was not a barter system, but something much more fascinating. It's a bank but you can't deposit money. You deposit hours of your time. Everyone has a skill, from brain surgery to making lentil soup. People in Portland community sign up and agree to donate an hour or two of what they like to do. In return, they can draw an hour or two of services from the system. It's all tracked by software (the sort of high-tech part).

I took the system for a spin. I have been told I'm good with my hands so I donated an hour of my time to the bank by putting up weather stripping and squirting in insulation into the basement of a nice person's vintage Maine home. What did I later withdraw from the bank? Here is the excellent part. I got a sailing lesson at the edge of the Maine's Casco Bay. The lesson wasn't free, even though no money changed hands. I paid for it with my DIY weatherization job in that basement.

The owner of that basement is named Jennifer Lunden. Unfortunately, Lunden has no health insurance but she was able to get her doctor to accept time bank hours. He was just any physician, but her first choice, "the doctor I'd want to see if I had money to pay or if I, (had) insurance," she said. Lunden is a drug and alcohol abuse counselor who donates that skill into the Hour Exchange system, which she calls it a new kind of community. Stephen Beckett, a sailor who deposited an hour in the time bank by giving me the lesson on the high seas, put it this way: "We just have this arbitrary economic system that we all have grown up in and believe in and contribute to and work in. If it's not working anymore, then let's do something different."

That is one of the findings of my little odyssey. A better economy may start with the relationships that are forged within communities. It is these kinds of links that can lead to wider policy changes that are also necessary to create a new kind of economy that lifts up the well being of more people. Some experts argue that changes should be considered to the banking system to encourage investment capital to stay within a region. The Bank of North Dakota, which acts as a kind of mini-Federal Reserve for that state, is one model. There are also successful efforts to encourage businesses to take a longer-term view and to encourage consumers to favor companies that do.

In the film Michelle Long, the director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies talks about building a "relationship economy," with the accountability that comes when you know who you are dealing with, where they come from and what they do with the money you give them. What we have now, Long ruefully observes, "is a one-night stand economy."

After I first reported on the Portland Hour Exchange, people in Essex County, New Jersey started up a time bank of their own. That was handy because the main street where I live now is in that very county. I look forward to swinging a hammer and wielding a wrench to make my deposit, which should be a lot more fun then sticking checks in the slot at my regular ATM, where my money then flows away into the far off capital markets.

As for my hometown of Waterville, Maine, there are signs of improvement. While parts of the old Hathaway Shirt factory remain vacant, some of it has been converted into loft apartments of the sort that would delight any big-city hipster. And just off Main Street, city planners have pedestrianized a stretch of pavement. If you squint, the sidewalk café dining there seems almost, but not quite, like Paris.



Journalist David Brancaccio explores the economy of the future in the documentary film Fixing the Future. Details on screenings on July 18th and 19th can be found at fixingthefuture.org

 
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