A Conversation with Steve Dubb of Nonprofit Quarterly (Part One)
Steve Dubb is a senior editor at Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ), where he directs NPQ’s economic justice program and writes, among other things, its monthly Economy Remix newlsetter. Steve has worked with cooperatives and nonprofits for over two decades, including twelve years at The Democracy Collaborative and three years as executive director of NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation). He was also one of the originators of the concept of community wealth building.
Steve, I’m very happy to connect with you. I find your Economy Remix column to be one of the best things going these days.
Thanks, happy to speak with you also — I’m a reader of Ownership Matters.
Thanks. I want to start with a striking and very rich piece you published a few weeks ago on the Biden agenda and whether it can reshape this country’s social contract. By which term, I think you mean our shared national understanding of where and how we are all in this together — or not.
In this relatively short article — which is a great short-form primer on the recent history of government spending on social programs — you explain that the Biden proposals are significant, even if they fall far short — and you show this in the numbers — of making up for longstanding infrastructure and social support gaps.
You note the most important measures besides infrastructure and a greener economy are the child tax credit, universal pre-K, paid family leave, and tuition-free community college.
But then the gaps, as you also point out, are underinvestment in addressing the climate emergency, no increase in minimum wage, no student loan forgiveness, no expansion of public health insurance, certainly no UBI or reparations.
Then you add “What is clear at this point is that the U.S. regime of neoliberalism that has dominated public policy for the past 40 years has been dislodged. What remains less clear is what will replace it.” You say we’re leaving behind neoliberalism, which was a kind of public (or anti-public?) philosophy: tell us a bit about this big word and its history.
If you go back to the end of the Second World War, unemployment fell to a low of 2%, which set the stage for the growth that followed through the late 1960s. But by the early 1970s, corporate profits were declining. From a corporate perspective, this was a problem. The corporate neoliberal “solution” involved restoring profits by knocking down the place of labor in what had been thought of as the New Deal, Keynesian order.
This policy shift was thoroughly bipartisan. It was, after all, President Carter who signed into law a bill that lowered capital gains tax rates and who deregulated trucking and airlines. Reagan’s policies, such as lowering individual income tax rates and attacking labor (such as by firing air traffic controllers) consolidated this shift.
So now we are going through another shift in the social contract, as faith in this kind of capitalism declines.
Yes, although it remains to be seen what the next stage looks like. It might be reform within capitalism, but we might also find a way to transcend the existing economy, in part because the condition of the planet might require it.
You mentioned the New Deal, which has gotten a new relevance in some ways, of course. Sarah Horowitz, in her new book Mutualism, argues that, in the early days of the New Deal, it was not particularly a kind of top-down plan hatched out in paneled rooms in D.C. but rather built on models already underway around the country. Models of various kinds of mutual aid, cooperativism, friendly societies, in New York, California, and elsewhere. The idea was basically to replicate them and then scale them up.
So this is her answer to the debate over whether the solidarity economy we want is going to emerge at the grassroots level or the federal level. Her pitch is that it’s sequential: it needs to begin bottom-up in order to can reach the federal level, through the same process that we saw in the 1930s. What’s your thoughts on her argument?
You know, I haven't read her book, but I am certainly familiar with the argument that the New Deal had state and local precedents. I did a lot of research myself at one point regarding this. For example, there were pension systems at the state level in the 1910s and 1920s that were rudimentary forms of what would become social security. There was unemployment Insurance built off of things like workers compensation, which came in the aftermath of the horrible 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Yes, you can go through the New Deal and find state and local precedents. So that much of the argument is true.
And what are we seeing today? You're seeing efforts at the state and local level to create public banks. The last public bank in this country was created in 1919 and it’s still around: the Bank of North Dakota.
It’s very telling how politics has shifted over time. The reason why North Dakota got the public bank back then was because of this political group called the Nonpartisan League, which of course was actually socialist. And it won control of the state legislature and the governorship in North Dakota. That's why you have the Bank of North Dakota, dating from a time when North Dakota was a center of U.S. radicalism. Hard to believe now.
But similar things could happen in other states today. You might soon have public banks in New York or California or New Mexico.
You could also have a public reconstruction bank at the federal level. There is actually a precedent for that. There was an agency called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation back in the New Deal that lasted through 1957.
With all the organizing around public health insurance right now, maybe there is a chance to achieve universal health care in the US, as happened decades ago in Canada. And, if you look at Canadian history, here too, the argument that local efforts often precedes national policy is borne out again.
It’s notable that getting universal health care in Canada involved considerable political struggle. It began In Saskatchewan. Tommy Douglas, who was leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a social democratic party outside the dominant Liberal and Conservative parties, became Premier (their equivalent of Governor) and got the first publicly funded hospital insurance for any province launched back in 1947. Federal legislation didn’t come until decades later. Success didn’t come easy — once the doctors went on strike and community health clinics were formed as a response to that.
So I take it as true that most often there are state and local precedents to federal policies, and that the federal government rarely invents things out of whole cloth. That being said, the broader account about the New Deal is really complicated and probably doesn’t fully fit the bottom-up story that Sarah wants to tell. Still, there was a strong mutualist tradition at that time and a number of features of the New Deal (such as credit unions and rural electric co-ops) did build on that tradition.
I want to ask a question about Nonprofit Quarterly and your publication’s outspoken stance on so many of these issues. Given your name, it’s maybe not quite what the reader would expect, right?
Our name, admittedly, is not very helpful. I mean, we’re neither quarterly (we do have a quarterly magazine as one of our publications, but we also publish online nearly daily), nor are we only about nonprofits. But if you go to our mission page, we say we aim to foster an “active, engaged and sometimes disruptive civil sector.” And what is that sector?
Remember that in the 1930s civil society was not primarily about nonprofits: it was mostly labor unions, right? They were the center of civil society at the time. In the 1960s, you could say it was the Black church, in which Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor, like his father before him. NPQ was founded in the late 1990s, not a time of great social activism, even though you did have the anti-globalization movement. At the time, arguably nonprofits were a reasonable approximation of the center of civil society.
Today, however, with the rise of Black Lives Matter and a number of other social movement organizations more generally, you’d have to be blind to not realize that the center of civil society has shifted once more. Today our editors all have backgrounds with various social movements. For me, my background is in community wealth building. We’re all writers but we weren’t hired because we’re journalists.
This shift at NPQ dates from the election of 2016, after which our board decided we needed to build out our capacity in certain ways. The writing of NPQ at the time was not adequately addressing the struggles for economic justice and racial justice. We wanted to build an organization to meet this moment, to shift the coverage to the conversations we need to be having, to be a platform for that.
I think readers today get that it’s not a trade magazine for foundations and philanthropy. It’s an independent voice, although you do speak to philanthropy in order to advocate change in the sector.
We need to look at where philanthropy got its money. And then you will understand its core interest. So the idea that somehow philanthropy will save us, I think, although widely held, is fundamentally mistaken.
That said, not only are there some very good people in philanthropy, there is an actual, radical philanthropic wing. And we're very grateful for it — it provides some of our funding. But also, far more importantly, it is supporting social movement organizing and institution building.
And I want to emphasize the latter, because ultimately independent institutions are what is needed to shift power. If you think about labor unions back in the day, they generated their own revenue from member dues. They weren't dependent on outside funders. They were outside philanthropy. They have even at times become a source of philanthropy, like when the UAW, often a pretty flawed organization, did offer financial support to civil rights organizers in the 1960s.
Employee-owned firms also are capable of generating their own revenue, independent of philanthropy. That’s why employee ownership is so important.
We need a strategy by which ordinary people can amass capital and revenue in order to have an effective, politically independent voice. This is why I cover cooperatives and community land trusts, and so on. If you can get ownership of land or of a business and be generating your own revenue, that exponentially increases your social, economic, and political power to effect change.
Now that does not in the least mean that philanthropy is unimportant. And we do, as you say, “speak to philanthropy” from time to time.
An example from back in March 2020: One of the first calls we saw about philanthropic responses to the COVID crisis was from Vu Le, the former executive director of RVC (formerly Rainier Valley Corps). He had just written a blog post to say this is the moment philanthropy had been waiting for: Everyone needs to double their funding, and double their grants in this emergency period.
And it was clear what was happening was horrifying, both the virus itself and tens of millions of people who found themselves out of work overnight. Within a couple of days, we at NPQ echoed that call. I'm not going to say that Vu Le and NPQ alone shifted hundreds of millions or even billions of grant dollars. But we did have an effect, and many other people in the field did join that call, with a significant number of foundations responding. It did make a difference.
So we are in dialogue with philanthropy, certainly. We encourage philanthropy to center equity in all their grant making, to make the shift toward supporting anti-racist organizations, etc. And, but again, I think it’s important to keep in mind that whatever successes we have, it’s with the idea of helping movements to build self-sustaining capacity.