Living in this World

Thursday, May 17, 2012

#110 The Little Bank that Could

Dear all, I'm acutely aware these days of the contradictions involved in living in this world. On the one hand, we're in the midst of a stunningly beautiful spring, all my family is flourishing, I have good work and time to call my own. On the other hand, the things that are wrong in our city, nation and world are too great to number, too deep to fully feel. So I grope forward, testing for solid places to put my feet, with an intention to be as present to both as I can. I'm glad you're on this journey with me. The story I'm sharing this month is one of contradiction and hope as well--and a challenge to imagine a new thing. Love, Pamela The Little Bank that Could Once upon a time, in 1919, a populist farmers movement in North Dakota swept the elections and, among other things, established a state bank to loosen the hold of outside financial interests on the local population. Neither those outside interests nor the private banks in the state were happy with this development, and they bankrolled two years of intensive opposition. Just as the state bank was opening its doors, despite the boycott by local moneyed interests, and thanks to progressives across the nation who bought their start-up bonds, the populists were swept from office. Thus the conservatives ended up in charge of a bank they had fought against for two years. It was a dilemma. But when they looked at the situation from all sides and realized the uses such a bank could serve, they decided to keep it. They liked having a place in the state to keep the state’s money. They liked having a bank that could borrow—bank-to-bank—at a fraction of the interest rate that their government would have to pay a private bank. It made good, conservative fiscal sense. So the bank prospered, decade after decade, under Republicans, under Democrats, prudently investing the state’s money in state infrastructure and state enterprises. And when the great recession hit in 2008, and every one of the other forty-nine states, whose money was tied up in Wall Street, faced a swath of destruction and misery in the wake of that storm, North Dakota sailed through virtually unscathed. Forty-nine states depend on Wall Street for their financing. From the perspective of everyone in the country—except for the 683,932 people who live in North Dakota—this is the only possible way. It may be unfortunate. It may be costly. It may not make any sense. After all, why should governments, when they need money, have no choice but to borrow from private banks at high rates? When they have money, why must they just watch as those big banks take their wealth out of state to invest it who knows where in who knows what? But that’s just the way it is—or so we believe. We have been slaves for so long to the status quo that our minds have been affected. We have come to accept the story that this is how it has to be. We seem to have lost our capacity to imagine a new thing. But the little Bank of North Dakota keeps on chugging along, modestly doing what a public bank can do, showing us, if we would only notice, that there is another way. Some things that have made me hopeful recently: --A woman who has virtually single-handedly created a movement for public banking in the United States (see --The capacity of the soil to nurture life (it's spring!) --All the efforts around the world to develop and share low-cost clean water technology --A high level UN meeting this spring that brought together 600 participants to address a new economic paradigm and create a better set of indicators to measure human well-being than growth in GDP--a call for an ecologically sustainable economy issued by prime ministers, presidents, secretaries of the interior and high-ranking officials all over the world. More resources: Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years: Download PDF of Muscle Building for Peace and Justice, a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world. For earlier columns, go to