Santa Cruz Permaculture recently interviewed Marco Vangelisti, who has a background in finance and investment management and was a founding member of Slow Money. He is a 100% impact investor and helps communities increase their capacity for local investing. Marco’s workshop is titled “Essential Knowledge for Transition: Understanding the economy, money and investing and how to transform them for a regenerative world” and will take place February 23-24.
Our interview began by acknowledging the fact that some people think economics is just plain boring. Others find it confusing, or overwhelming because while they know it has direct effects on their lives, how it functions and the various forces at play can seem complicated and beyond our control, and that can cause anxiety. Why is this, and how do we overcome the inertia around understanding economics so that we can actually transform our current systems for a regenerative world?
SC Permaculture: For many people, the concept of “economics” is either boring or frightening orboth. What drew you to economics and finance, and what keeps you interested in this work?
Marco: The economy and the logic of the market have permeated every aspect of our lives and the way we interact with each other to meet our daily needs, yet most people feel unable to or uninterested in understanding how the economy works.
Part of the problem is the way economics has been taught in school in the U.S. in the last forty years. Case in point–I came to the U.S. after studying math in Italy and attended economics classes as UC Berkeley. Economics as taught in college had taken a quantitative turn and my math skills were very useful. Only after the financial crisis of 2018 I finally understood that the assumptions required to “quantify” economics and apply to it the mathematical apparatus rendered it not only inaccessible to the regular public but also irrelevant for understanding how the actual economy worked.
It turns out that understanding how the economy works not only does not require understanding economics (especially the current hegemonic strain of neo-classical economics) but it is actually accessible to anyone with a basic level of education and curiosity.
Economic decisions made by the financial and economic elites in this country, without our understanding let alone our consent, profoundly affect our lives. To exercise true democracy we need to reach a collective understanding of how the economy actually works and challenge the economic decisions made by the few which affect them many. I see this as the necessary path to bringing about a more just and compassionate society. This is was motivates me to share with regular people my understanding of the economy and of the financial world.
SC Permaculture: You touched on this a little already, but why is understanding money, banking, economics, and finance important for the average person?
Marco: Basically the money and banking system, the economic system, and the financial system act as the operating system of society. The way these systems are currently configured leads to a number of undesirable outcomes like concentration of wealth and power, increased inequality, the housing unaffordability crisis, mounting levels of debt, increasing insecurity of the labor force, environmental degradation. It does not have to be that way! A systemic approach is called for and can be brought about by citizens equipped with a critical understanding of those systems and the more benign alternatives we can to create.
SC Permaculture: How have your years of experience working in finance influenced your current views on money, the economy, and capitalism?
Marco: My 20 years in finance made me understand the extent to which great wealth has been accumulated in the hand of the few through a process of extraction. One of the primary mechanisms of value extraction and expropriation has been finance and investing. Capitalism has been transformed into a form of financial capitalism that has sucked the life out of labor but also out of the old industrial capitalism of the prior century.
To understand our current economic situation it is also critical to understand the role of banks in the creation of debt and money therefore inflating asset bubbles, creating business cycles (or increasing their magnitude) and the process of expropriation.
SC Permaculture: What is the main problem with our current banking system and what could be the role of public banking in the new economy?
Marco: Our current banking system is based on a private for-profit model which has not served our economy well. A common description found in most of the introductory economic textbooks describe banks as intermediaries that collect excess savings and lend it to expand productive activities in the economy. It turns out that banks create the money they lend and very little of their lending goes to productive activities. Most of their lending now goes to fund acquisition of existing assets – mostly in real estate. This causes asset bubbles and the housing unaffordability crisis experienced by most desirable cities in the U.S. A significant portion of their profit comes from fees and very high credit card interests.
The private banks also rely on government subsidies in the form of FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). As we have seen in the build up to the financial crises of 2007-2008 banks created too much money, lent it recklessly to fuel a massive housing bubble and when the whole edifice of credit collapsed the U.S. Government had to step in and clean up the mess. Banking in a modern economy has become an essential component of the economic infrastructure and the private sector has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted in managing the awesome privilege of creating the money we use every day.
An obvious solution is to turn a large portion of the banking activity into a regulated utility owned by the public through a network of local, state or federal governments. The public banking sector in Germany is considerable and is credited with the post WWII stability and resilience of the German economy. A network of public banks in the U.S. could provide credit where credit is needed (especially to rebuild our failing infrastructure and to support the productive economy), would not fuel financial speculation and asset bubbles, would not engage in usurious practices or unscrupulous lending, and would not be a drain on the economy through ever increasing fees and high interests.
SC Permaculture: Could you briefly describe the mission behind Slow Money? How did it get started and what have been some results of this organization so far?
Marco: Slow Money is a movement that emerged out of the Slow Food movement. It recognizes that our industrial food system and our financial systems are problematic and that a new ethos is called for to address the problem caused by both.
The idea is to direct some of the personal investments towards the goal of restoring the fertility of the soil in our own foodshed by supporting local farmers and food producers who treat soil and people with respect. The idea is to measure the success of our investments by the world they make possible and not just by the financial return they generate.
There are currently about 20 local Slow Money groups around the U.S. that have mobilized around $60M of capital to fund more than 600 small family farms and food enterprises.
SC Permaculture: What does impact investing mean? What is one example?
Marco: Impact investing refers to a form of holistic investment that is aware of the non-financial impacts an investment has on communities and ecosystems. Socially responsible investments mostly consists of screening the worst offenders out of a mutual funds of the stock or bonds of publicly traded companies (mostly multinational corporations). Impact investing usually focuses not on publicly traded companies but on funding specific project that try to address a social or environmental problem.
One example is Community Foods Market (CFM) in West Oakland. West Oakland is currently a food desert and its 28,000 residents don’t have access to a full grocery store where they live. After a decade-long effort, Community Foods Market will open the very first full-service grocery in West Oakland in decades. California residents can invest in the project through the DPO (direct public offering) of CFM shares. This would be a very clear example of an investment that is trying to solve a social problem–in this case eliminating a foods desert in the Bay Area.
SC Permaculture: In the past decade, you’ve seen changes already taking shape in our economy and society. Can you share a few of your favorite examples of these changes?
Marco: One of the most positive changes I have noticed in the last decade has been the resurgence of worker-owned cooperatives which represent a systemic alternative to capitalism. Unlike most privately owned and all of the publicly owned companies out there, worker-owned cooperatives are democratic institutions bound to other cooperatives by an ethics of collaboration and support instead of competition.
Another hopeful sign has been the eschewing on the part of many of the Millennials I know of the consumerist fervor that has characterized the American society since the middle of the 20th century. The social enterprise movement has also grown and young people are more likely to dream about building a social enterprise than becoming a CEO of a large multinational corporation.
SC Permaculture: Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives, Marco! We look forward to seeing you in February.
Learn more with Systems Change and the Next Economy: Regenerative Design for People & the Planet
Join us this February 23-24 in Santa Cruz, CA to spend the weekend learning about all of this and more with Marco Vangelisti! Register online here. Additional information about the Systems Change & The Next Economy course, including dates, workshop titles, and instructor biographies for our January, March, and April workshops, is available at http://santacruzpermaculture.com/economy/