Capitalism

Capitalism

“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Are you a capitalist? When I first started traveling the world, I told my family and friends I was spreading capitalism – particularly the “miracle of securitization”. This was in the early aughts prior to the Lehman Crash and I was an evangelist for residential mortgage bundling, selling off and pumping the money back into the system. Surely the finance, insurance and real estate sector could lift more people out of poverty and put them on the ladder to success if only other countries replicated the U.S. system.

Today when I ask my students if they are capitalists, they get a puzzled look on their faces. They are Master’s of Real Estate students, so I probe further to see if they understand how a capitalist system is supposed to work. “Make as much money as you can, right?” Wrong. Capital must be directed toward its most productive use. Profit is essential, but part of that profit must be reinvested in the means of production.

The quote above is from Martin Luther King’s 1964 march on DC for jobs and freedom. In the ensuing years the distortion of our economy continued apace until even the privileged few felt the effects of their excessive greed and the deliberate starving the system that includes workers, small businesses and essential infrastructure. Rather than learn from the crash, our oligarchs merely took at time out, got triage from the government and reemerged stronger and ready to make sure they get theirs before the music stops again.

Six Democratic Socialist were recently elected to the Chicago City Council. They were elected because pragmatic Chicagoans were fed up with the shills for free market capitalism who time after time failed to deliver affordable housing, economic opportunity or an effective counter to the corrupt machine that continues to line the pockets of pin-striped insiders. The day of reckoning has arrived and whatever we label it, we must remember our power and take back our right to control our economic destiny.

Myth

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
– William Blake

Africa is not what you think. Our Colonial Masters have taught us that it is a backward, threatening place. Arabs are not our enemy. China was done with empires long ago. The myths continue. Our problems derive from our ever narrower world views.

Over the last year, I traveled to three continents and boiled in the soup of humanity. I ate Nasi lemak in KL, kebab in Dubai and goat soup in Lagos. Everywhere I saw how closely we are all connected and countless beautiful human interactions.

At the same time, many reduced their vision to a smaller and smaller screen. Where do we start to change the world? We start by building community. For every disruption, there must be a powerful counter. The purpose of the monster in the myth is to spur you to overcome your fears and inaction.

Stop feeding the chaos. Change your point of view. Take back your narrative.

Inclusion

“Home is a place we all must find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.” Glenda the Good Witch of the South, The Whiz

Today’s cyclone of hate has blown us to a new Oz. Dorothy found herself in a foreign land through no fault of her own; Alice through her own volition. Do they each deserve a place at the table?

FIABCI, the International Real Estate Federation recently published the third Volume of The City We Need is Affordable. Working on this collection of solutions for our affordable housing crisis, I found there are real estate professionals around the world with humanitarian goals. Medair, a Christian relief group continues to help remote villagers in Nepal rebuild their homes after the 2015 earthquake. The government of South Africa has new subsistence housing programs for migrant mining workers who have long been exploited for diamonds. The Russian State Corporation for Reforming Housing and Community Services has a computer game that teaches young children the importance of conserving energy, recycling and community service.

Oz can be a frightening place. People markedly different from us. Wounded charlatans flying around on Twitter brooms. The key is to create a coalition of the marginalized and keep moving through the dark forest. Toward this end FIABCI will be celebrating UN World Habitat Day at locations all around the world on October 1st to share the positive momentum of changing our mindset from can’t to can.

Cars

“In this new age, freedom had a very particular character. It was not the freedom to move as one pleased. It was the freedom for cars, and only cars alone, to move very quickly, unhindered by all of the other things that used to happen on streets.” Charles Montgomery, Happy City

“The overall reconstruction project at the Jane Byrne Interchange will improve safety and traffic flow for the more than 400,000 motorists who use it each day, while also enhancing mobility for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users in the surrounding neighborhoods.” Illinois Department of Transportation

The photo is of the demolition of the Monroe Street Bridge over the expressway outside my condo. I haven’t driven since I left Memphis in 1988. Although the bridge will be rebuilt, I take great pleasure in the momentary disruption of the American way of cars before people.

I frequently walk into traffic. Near one of my friend’s apartment next to a university campus, there is a market crosswalk including large yellow signs. As a pedestrian I have the right of way when I am in a marked crosswalk but not unless I take the initiative and demand “enhanced mobility”. Rolling stops at stop signs and turning cars violating the cross walk is the norm not the exception. When a car has penetrated the crosswalk at a red light, I stand and wait for the car to back up and clear the crosswalk. But in most instances, the car can’t back up, so into traffic we all march.

Chicago has added dedicated bus lanes, bike lanes and even returning a section of Argyle Street to a “shared street” where pedestrians and shop keepers take precedence over cars. Next time you are behind the wheel, look out.

Happy

“What is moral is what you feel good after.” Ernest Hemingway

What makes a happy city? The tallest building? A sports championship? A hometown President?

Chicago has had all of those, also a devastating tragedy and rebirth. Chicago is the city that works, “hog butcher to the world.” Chicago is a happy city. Try and restrain your exuberance on the first warm day in May.

In The Geography of Human Life, Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Mackiguchi notes that the place where we were born is a highly significant factor in our happiness. Not because one coordinate is superior to another. Our home town is where we learned to understand how the world works – nature, planets, tribes.

“Happy Cities” was the theme of the 69th FIABCI World Congress in Dubai. I arrived in the desert oasis somewhat skeptical. How could Happy Cities be more than just a feel good theme? The opening Key Note by Charles Montgomery author of Happy City helped Change my mind. Through extensive research including psychological research measuring people’s emotional states as they moved through cityscapes, he proved that green space, plazas, varied streetscapes (as opposed to long, blank, uniform facades) make people feel better, more likely to stop, even help a stranger.

Surveys by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that drivers such as openness, aesthetics and social offerings ranked higher on residential attachment than economic and educational opportunities and safety. While real estate professionals intuitively know what makes a great neighborhood, science is catching up to prove it’s way more than location. We must move away from the vogue of luxury and exclusion and work toward communities that are inclusive, walkable and filled with opportunities to interact with our neighbors.

Broccoli

“I think it’s great if you find a new flavor of ice cream and you are ready to eat your broccoli for it.” Aanchal Anand, Land Specialist and Blockchain Expert, World Bank

Blockchain was the flavor of the day at the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty. I spent a week mingling with African government officials and European service providers. Together with IHC Global, we presented a paper and Side Event on “Using Data to Support Women’s Rights: Property Markets and Housing Rights through a Gender Equity Lens” based on a pilot project in Uganda to help women claim their constitutionally protected property rights. The photo above is from my visit to Ambassador Hector Posset of the Republic of Benin. My new consulting partner Gedeon Dansou is from Benin and we are planning a visit to Cotonou to provide training programs using the International Property Markets Scorecard Methodology later this year as an entré into African francophone countries.

Another Side Event presented by New America, a DC Think Tank, titled “Blockchain & Title Registries: The End of the Beginning” changed my mindset. Prior to the event, I was skeptical of the frenzy around Bitcoin and blockchain as the latest deus ex machina to save the world’s poor. But Aanchal’s presentation and others from tech companies already working on solutions in Georgia, Dubai and Sweden made it clear that blockchain will disrupt the real estate industry just like Uber, AirBnB and Amazon have taxis, hotels and shopping malls. Shockingly even the Cook County Illinois Recorder of Deeds has a blockchain pilot program!

Without the enabling environment of clear laws, transparent and equitable policies, and a cadre of educated and progressive property professionals, then the private sector will direct their investment to other countries. Pink Floyd had it right. “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”

Chickens

“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.” Lyric from song by Louis Jordan

Each day at noon and 4 pm, Bambu Stage, a performance art collective from Cambodia performed “Angkor Roo” in the Exhibit Hall just across from the FIABCI Booth at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Roneat Aek (wooden xylophone) would fill the hall with music and the play about reducing plastic use would start. Each time Hen eats plastic waste and dies. Roo prays for her to be brought back to life. The Goddess promises to do so if the people will reduce their plastic use.

One afternoon the women of SDI (Shack Dwellers International) began to sing at 4 pm and the hall filled with competing rhythms and sounds – African and Indian women, a Cambodian Ensemble. Standing in the FIABCI booth promoting affordable housing solutions from the Netherlands, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brazil and Nigeria, I was truly a world citizen.

Outside the Exhibit Hall, I heard about Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs) where the government drafts their Master Plan for development, decides what they want to build, where they want it and then asks the private sector to come in and fund the projects. Too late. Involve the private sector more from the start and you’ll get more than a polite handshake and “we’ve got other priorities” from the developers.

I also heard about how a NGOs has developed a clever tool for mapping 25% of the slums in Bangladesh – right down to every single person, shack, toilet and unauthorized shop. They were eager to share this data with other NGOs, but not the people they exploited for their colorful maps. The maps reminded me of the Redlining Maps of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation of the 1930s that continue to define where the bullets fly in Chicago.

Alternately I heard about how women in Uganda were trained to collect and use their own data. IHC Global presented the initial findings of “Using Data to Support Women’s Rights: Property Markets and Housing Rights through a Gender Equity Lens”, a pilot project that we are working on together. “Women can’t be in real estate because it’s a man’s job and they don’t have access to the informal places where business transactions typically happen, such as bars or clubs,” was one opinion expressed in the field research.

Goal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030. To make this happen add another “P” to PPPs – People. Stop thinking of the poor and marginalized groups as the problem. They are the solution. Stop extracting the new gold of data from marginalized groups and draw fewer maps. Pay attention to the chickens.

Homesick

Sitting on a bar stool at BNA (Berry Field Nashville) on my way back to ORD (Orchard Field – Chicago), I chatted up the young man next to me. He was headed back to Milwaukee from Middle Tennessee on the same flight. After small talk, he said that he came back because he was homesick. Homesick. When he said the word, my heart exploded.

I had just spent the last three days traversing the backroads of my childhood. My niece took this photo of my New Year’s Declaration from the Berlin Pulpit Rock. Jacksonian U.S. President’s James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson made campaign speeches from this stone next to Big Cave Spring. Land a few hundred yards from the Spring still belongs to my uncle and was where my mother suffered with polio. I remember the scars on her legs. We also visited two other now abandoned family farms.

The Marshall County Historical Museum takes the place of the elementary school auditorium where I learned to say the Pledge and “Yes, Sir.” “No, Sir.” “Thank you, Ma’am.” I walked past my kindergarten and first grade classrooms now given over to other civic duty. With the curator, I corrected the false assumption that I was now an Asian art appraiser.

As we slip further and further into mediated reality, we lose more and more physical connections with each other and with the environment. We become homesick. Our current crises – opioid epidemic, obsessions with imaginary enemies, economic segregation – are clear symptoms of longing for a time that was. The limestone and cedar of my hometown were a great tonic. I’m proud of where I came from. There is no going back. Everyone is better served if we forge ahead.

Respect

“If you realize what the real problem is – losing yourself, giving yourself to some higher end, or to another – you realize that this itself is the ultimate trial. When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.” Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, The Hero’s Adventure Chapter

We live in a pluralistic society. We have become so diverse we are quite literally bursting at the seams. When Buddhists are committing genocide, then we have a much larger problem than one dysfunctional government or the ravings of one impotent leader. Technology has distributed power to the many and the few are desperate to hold on to their privilege.

When power – money, access, influence – is centralized, respect is demanded by the leaders and given enthusiastically by the toadies and reluctantly by the fringe. The privileged power party runs along with excess. Respect for laws, women, honor, the natural world and wisdom falls away as the core rots from the inside. Corruption soon becomes the norm and the truth must be distorted, suppressed or redefined to preserve perverted power.

Into this bacchanal a hero is born. The hero does not attack the old potentate or bang on the walls of the crumbling establishment. The heroine founds the new. With the power available to each of us today, whether through instant global communication, the sharing economy, or myriad opportunities to respect our disparate neighbors and lift them up; we all have the choice: to stay on the current vicious path and relate only to our coterie and concentrate on our own protection or to take up the hero’s path and open the way to better more respectful world through dialog and engagement.

Change

“Change is the only constant.” Heraclitus

During a fitful sleep on my recent Asia trip, this quote surfaced in my dream. I had delivered my lecture in Kuala Lumpur and was in Busan, Korea preparing for a presentation at the FIABCI Asia Pacific Real Estate Congress. I also had another lecture planned in Honolulu on the way stateside. Many real estate professionals remain remarkably resistant to change in spite of clear evidence that the world is leaving them behind.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Darwin

Developers glom on to the latest trend and brokers hustle to sell yet another luxury condo tower to foreign investors to sit empty while the affordable housing crisis continues apace. I look outside my window and see the eighth construction crane erected while a man shuffles to his shared living space under the highway bridge. Another man comes out and gets on his bike to make his way in the city. Periodically the state highway department arrives to clear out their debris.

“Dire things are happening. Plague? Funny weather? Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news? Only to enforce our fancy – probably a necessary lie – that these are crucial times, and we are in on them. Newly revealed, and I am in the know: crazy people, bunches of them! New diseases, sways in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?” Annie Dillard

We need to take a step back and realize that the fall of this dynasty is no more or less important, disgusting, savage, putrid or frightening than the ones that came before. We only feel it more because it’s ours.