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"The Commonwealth Institute,"

by S. M. Miller March/April 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

The Commonwealth Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts was founded in 1987 to move progressive thinking into action and policy. Its first project was the publication of Commonwealth Report, edited by Guy Molyneux, which analyzed public opinion data bearing on progressive issues; it also offered articles that debated progressive political strategy. It was discontinued after several interesting issues.

Since then, the Institute has pursued three lines of activity: the development and acceptance of a less threatening and more effective alternative military policy (PDA – the Project on Defense Alternatives); work with progressive organizations, especially those operating as state electoral coalitions; and promotion of research and action to reduce poverty and inequality (PIP – the Project on Inequality and Poverty), my activity.

Project on Defense Alternatives

The co-directors of PDA, Charles Knight (the Institute’s president) and Carl Connetta, seek to expand progressives’ criticism of military spending by proposing defense policies that make sense of threats and expenditures. Its initiating focus, building on European thinking, was development of a non-offensive defense: military spending and postures that do not threaten other nations while insuring a nation’s security. In addition to producing dozens of papers exploring this issue, PDA has been involved in meetings on this theme in Southern Africa and Eastern Europe.

More recently, PDA has been recognized as an important analytical counterweight to current American military thinking. It has criticized interpretations of Gulf War operations and continues to offer alternative ways of building military security. An outsider organization in its beginning days, it is now a player in military thinking, funded by the Ford Foundation and other mainstream foundations and cited by military analysts. Its very active web site is www.comw.org/pda.

Progressive State Electoral Coalitions

Northeast Action (NE), a coalition of unions, civil rights, women’s, gay and lesbian, environmentalist and community organizations in the six New England states, has been instrumental in electing progressives to state and local offices. Notably, it was a key force in placing and winning the ballot initiative to provide public financing of candidates in Maine and Massachusetts. Cynthia Ward, then NE’s co-director, was a member of the Commonwealth Institute staff, and her office and colleagues were located at the Institute. A project evaluating the impact of state tax benefits to firms locating in a locality was jointly undertaken by the Institute and Northeast Action. With NE’s expansion, it has recently moved to larger space, and a formal connection no longer exists between the Institute and Northeast Action.

Project on Inequality and Poverty

PIP connects directly to the work of PRRAC. An academic-activist sociologist trained in economics, I mainly operate through writing, consultation and organizational help. PIP started as the Joint Project on Equality, initiated by David Hunter, the revered figure of progressive philanthropy, to bring attention in the mid-nineties to the mounting but neglected issue of inequality. David asked me to launch the organization, and we sought small funding from foundations and individuals to bring attention to the inequality issue. Rather than seeking to establish a stand-alone organization, the Joint Project reached out to similar activities. A close relationship developed with Share the Wealth, also a new organization concerned about issues of inequality. In contrast to Hunter and me, Share the Wealth was initiated by young people, some of whom were of wealthy families. Chuck Collins, the energetic and imaginative co-founder of Share the Wealth, also became the associate director of the Joint Project, which devoted some of its funds to keeping Share the Wealth financially afloat. I became a member of the board of directors of Share the Wealth. After a short period, we decided to merge the two organizations and establish United for a Fair Economy (UFE). I am a member of the board of directors.

UFE has become an important voice in raising issues of inequality, frequently in a dramatic or amusing manner. UFE has performed skits lampooning leading actors in the promotion of inequality. A notable recent achievement by Responsible Wealth, a unit of United for a Fair Economy, was getting Bill Gates, Sr. and other wealthy persons to go public in their attack on elimination of the estate tax. Contact information is www.ufe-faireconomy.org

I have long been associated with the international poverty organization, ATD-The Fourth World Movement, based in France but with a presence in many countries. It concentrates on the poorest of the poor and has non-governmental status at the United Nations. I worked closely with the Boston Fourth World Team in the late nineties. An important lesson I learned from the Fourth World Movement successes is that symbolic and solidarity acts can make a difference, that influence and effectiveness do not rest alone on “power.” They are reachable at 7600 Willow Hill Dr., Landover, MD 20785, 301/336-9489, fourthworld@erols.com, www.atd-fourthworld.org.

Another long association is with Social Policy Magazine where I have been a board member and its most frequent article writer. Social Policy recently moved its operations to the Bay Area under the editorship of “the other Mike Miller,” and will emphasize community organizing themes; it is reachable at 508 Johnson Ave., Pacifica, CA 94044, 650/557-9720, MikeOTC@aol.com.

As a member of the Scientific Board of CROP, the Comparative Research Program on Poverty, sponsored by the International Social Science Council of UNESCO, I have made a small contribution to CROP’s opening up of a number of lines of thinking about support for anti-poverty action, in both rich and poor nations. I was a co-editor of the CROP volume, Poverty – A Global Review, and participated in CROP conferences in several countries.

I continue to write on poverty and inequality (an extension of my first-year college paper on “Income Distribution in the U.S., 1929-36” -- I don’t give up issues easily). Currently, I hope to bring attention to the inadequacies of American poverty line conceptualizations by contrasting it with the wider perspectives of “social exclusion,” the term used by the European Union. I am also indulging myself in drawing policy and political lessons from various personal experiences. I published two pieces in Tikkun Magazine drawing on such experiences: "No Permanent Abode" (1999) describes the life-long disturbing effect of living without a regular place to call home; "My Meritocratic Career" (2001) describes how friends and contacts eased my way "up the greasy pole" to academic success. As yet unpublished are "My Economic Education,” which contrasts my own economic experiences with graduate economics work at Columbia and Princeton; "The New York State Regents Exam vs. Education" shows how I got a much higher mark on the state physics exam without knowing much physics than my friend who knew much more physics.

With Anthony J. Savoie, a graduate student at Boston College, where I am a research professor of sociology, I have completed a book titled Respect and Rights: Class, Gender and Race Challenges Today. (Poverty and Race published an article on this theme in the January/February 1996 issue.) The emphasis is on group rather than individual respect. One contention is that concern about disrespect underlies much of the discontent that appears in many outsider groups despite the advances that have occurred in lowering barriers of discrimination. The action argument is that group respect can be the issue to bring together those concerned about the often separated and competing concerns of class, race and gender. I hope it will be published later this year (the publisher is Rowman and Littlefield).

With Jeanette Markel, a senior at Brown University, I have just completed a long chapter on “Workfare and the American Low-Wage Labor Market” that will be published this fall in a Policy Press (Bristol, UK) book on European and American social policy, World Poverty: New Policies to Defeat an Old Enemy, edited by British social policy experts Peter Townsend and David Gordon.

The respect book was originally a chapter of a manuscript of a book on the implications for progressive political action of economic and social changes in the U.S.;
I made the mistake of thinking that the respect chapter could be expanded easily into a broader book, tentatively titled Unillusioned, but I am now back to that broader book. With this book, I am likely to lose some friends, for it raises questions about a number of pet ideas of many progressive writers and activists. It contests the popular progressive argument that the U.S. is becoming polarized economically so that the overwhelming majority of Americans share a similar class outlook. In my view, the country is increasingly differentiated -- economically, culturally and politically. Another disturbing view is that governmental performance must be improved if needed funding is to be attained. More money does not solve all performance problems. The book also throws into doubt the left view, abetted by the media, that the U.S. is tightly integrated economically and politically into the upper 5% of extremely wealthy Americans and the rest of us. My view is that, compared to many other countries, the U.S. is loosely integrated. That is why it is easy to upset but difficult to change our society.

The book also asserts that progressives do not do enough to win people over on issues of values, on changing hearts and minds, hoping instead to gain support on narrow economic grounds. The compartmentalization of values (remember Jefferson, the slave-owning apostle of freedom) makes value change difficult; data on inequalities are not sufficient. A value argument is needed. (I hope in this book to write on entertainment, broadly defined, as a crucial influence on American outlooks. That is a new obsession, still unformed.)

In this book, or perhaps a separate work, I want to write about progressive organizing strategies. I also play with the notion of doing a book on “Poverty Lessons,” drawing on my many articles on poverty and policy and some new writing.

My great hope/longing is that the peoples of color overcome competing interests and work together to deal with poverties and inequalities: PRRAC’s race/ethnic-poverty intersections.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors. FIVEGOOD@aol.com
 

Notes:

S.M. (Mike) Miller (fivegood@aol.com) is author or co-author of The Future of Inequality; The Dynamics of the American Economy; Recapitalizing America; Comparative Social Mobility; Social Class and Social Policy and other books.

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