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Noel Ortega is Coordinator of the New Economy Working Group at the Institute for Policy Studies. As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Noel about putting new economy ideas and principles into practice, a new model for Econ 101, and more:
Interview with Noel Ortega (edited transcript).
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
We spent three years trying to identify what the new economy would look like and what main pillars would be, and reflecting on the old system. We spent a lot of time writing on this, built a website and starting engaging folks who were actively building the new economy from different levels. For example:
- alternative economic indicators,
- moving money from Wall St to community banks,
- building local economy (e.g. BALLE)
I was emailing with lots of people active in this work, reading their manuscripts, talking over the phone, organizing webinars & writing reports together. But it wasn’t until NEI had their conference at Bard last year that it became real to me that there truly was "a new economy" that we’ve been trying to identify. Lots of pieces already existed, but independent of each other. At Bard, we created a narrative that they were building a new economy that would lead to systemic transformation.
All the people I’d been in contact with over the years and reading their books–I finally met them, saw them as real people and heard their stories of what they’re doing on the ground. I felt like a groupie. I would say "hey, my name is Noel and I’ve read everything you’ve written," and they would say "yes, I know who you are!" I felt even more inspired to go back and tell more people about this movement, and that people are talking about systemic transformation. Many people were feeling the economic, social, and ecological crises, but here were people coming together to build the solutions for systemic transformation.
Putting faces to names made it real.
Did anything shift in your sense of the movement at Bard?
The systemic critique and analysis we’d been trying to move forward was resonating with people, people were moving forward with it independently. Also hearing from others about their approach and how they view systemic transformation and what are their pillars for the new economy/next system.
Also, that there are multiple versions of what the next system will look like. It still does vary, although there’s also a lot of overlap. [One concern I had was that] this could morph into anything could be ‘new economy’ or ‘system transformation.’" So then we needed to identify what the new economy looks like. What are the principles? What is the rubric?
The other thing that was needed was a narrative. "What does it mean to live in a new economy?" Of course, the new economy doesn’t exist yet…. So, what may be needed is… a novel that perhaps tells the story of how one family lives in a new economy future, identifying the failures of current money and financial system and what needs to be changed or created to support a new system. What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? What does it mean to live in the new economy? How to put it all in place in a small town?
What is most alive in your work right now?
Two overlapping pieces that are most alive: webinars/conversations and Jamaica Plain
as a "test lab."
We’re hosting webinars every 6 weeks on what a transition to a new economy would be: identifying different themes/systems pressure points where enough work in those target areas would bring around systemic transformation. In each area we’ve opened conversation and encouraged them to start thinking about the work around that narrative or building efforts around those specific topics.
New Economy Transition Discussion Sessions:
- Alternative economic school/economics for the new economy with professors giving critique of current economic profession and presenting an alternative. How we should start thinking about economics and how that can change economic policy?
- What does a new money/financial system look like? Identify challenges & failures of new money & financial system. Give examples of where those pieces already exist and what needs to be created/changed to support this new economy. Featuring grassroots activists, economists, etc.
- Five minute presentations and then open conversation. Doing this for two years. People are very engaged in these conversations.
And we are now starting to implement some of the solutions in Jamaica Plain. This is where "the rubber meets the road," a test lab where we are building the new economy from the bottom up. Praxis of bringing in concepts and then applying them at local level. Experimenting with:
- Worker ownership models,
- New ways of measuring economic progress in the community,
- Local currency, etc.
We can see how these ideas take root, which ones are easiest to implement, and how people respond. Then we can begin taking these ideas to scale and building a model community. Also drawing from Transition model and adapting with new economy themes. The intersection of dialogue/ideas and applying them at the local level in Jamaica Plain is most exciting.
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
a) What has been catalyzed in the world?
The way we talk about the economy has changed. We now integrate the environment, so we have a healthy place to live. We now have public banks, which are accountable and support local economies. The way we measure progress has changed, so we measure what we value. New economics graduates are now trained in ecology as well. That started with change in the curriculum from early childhood on, where we teach economics as the management of our home. And, we’ve become more egalitarian as well.
The way we speak about the economy has drastically shifted. Economics is defined as the management of "home," thus ecology is seen as intertwined. So now we can’t speak about economy without ecology. And as we focus on local economies, we’re also reducing greenhouse gases so our planet has a future!
We’re restructuring how money is created. State owned banks supporting community banks, democratically run that are supporting new economy projects across the country, Wall Street is no longer controlling politics, international trade policies have been rewritten to support local economies, and the way we measure economic progress has shifted so we don’t have a constant desire to grow the economy because we know now that’s what was causing the climate crisis. We’ve changed what we value in terms of an economic future.
Now for the first time, new economics graduates are graduating with an understanding of the importance of ecology and society, economics is not dogmatic. The two fields (economics and ecology) have merged. They started at the early age of elementary school with teachers teaching kids about home economics. Complete revolution in how we think about economics. It has changed a lot of things!
Everyone is engaged at every single level of decision-making in communities, so we have become much more egalitarian.
These are my wildest dreams!
b) Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
The NEC gathered a lot of groups and built it to a scale that involved almost everyone. The most exciting thing was a system/mechanism to share information rapidly throughout the network. The more that happened the more real it became. People built stronger relationships and connected, building the foundation for a stronger movement. People were very dynamic, able to respond quickly to different issues but at the same time very focused. As things progressively got worse, the NE was there as a solution – the system the NEC has been building. So, when the country was ready, NEC had already built the system to transition to, and we were able to do that without society collapsing.
It was a model for other countries who had their own NECs, and they built a global coalition to build the new economy. It wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t come together 5 years ago to identify problems and solutions.
Ken: is this theory of change (that we are building a new system that people will shift to when there is a crisis) specific to IPS or broader across the movement? (Because PCI also identifies with this.)
This is broadly understood in IPS, who works closely with grassroots movements. If we look throughout history at other social movements, they were brought into existence by grassroots movements.
Marissa: did we cover all the key pillars of the NE?
Different from "action clusters" like alternative economic measures, worker ownership, etc. Pillars:
- Ecological balance
- Equitable distribution – we need to raise the bottom to meet basic human needs, but also bring down the top (by restructuring the monetary system, worker ownership, and new forms of ownership)
- Deep-rooted democracy. Needs to go beyond one person, one vote – need participatory democracy with people engaged at every level of the decision-making process, and democratizing wealth through democratic financial institutions (credit unions) and democratizing the workplace.
More Weaving the Movement essays at Resilience.org.
Get the Weaving the Movement report.