The time in between Godelieve Spaas, Week 4

Proposition 1: Indebted

The first few weeks of the lockdown, I had my hands full: with myself, my laptop, and the virus. Slowly but surely, I found the room to look outside and I started to wonder where this crisis was going to lead. I'm worried about the economy, or actually, about people. How are we going to take care of all those people who are heading for trouble?

Financial Aid for Businesses

One of the things that fascinates me about this are the support packages and measures for companies. Already, EUR 1.5 billion has been transferred to 81,000 of the 97,000 companies in the Netherlands that employ 1.3 million people. Businesses can use the money that they save with the support on salary to focus on their own survival. That way, the employees keep their jobs and can continue paying the rent and buying groceries. It sounds like a lot of money and this is just the beginning. I believe that all the businesses that are now receiving money are indebted in some way to the government and to society.

Discussions are raging on social media about the benefits and drawbacks of giving aid to companies. Do we want to give money to companies that hardly pay taxes? Denmark is refusing to give financial COVID relief aid to companies that are established in tax havens. Should we support companies who are mass polluters (KLM) or squeeze their suppliers (Booking.com)? The WHO is also trying to warn the world about climate change, which is expected to be responsible for 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. Maybe we could kill two flies with one slap and save the economy and the planet at the same time.

Wishing Wells

What if we could use this relief money to make wishes come true?

By attaching conditions to state aid, we could give the economy a push in the right direction, as well as people, societies, culture, and the earth. Everyone believes that money can make dreams and wishes come true. Who hasn't thrown a coin into a wishing well or fountain? Whether it's the wishing well that Dutch Princess Juliana opened in the Efteling theme park or the Trevi Fountain in Rome: you take a coin in your right hand and throw it over your left shoulder into the fountain, without looking back, and you make a wish in your mind.

Chaim van Luit, The Wishing Well Revealed, 2017.

Chaim van Luit, The Wishing Well Revealed, 2017.


All those coins at the bottom of fountains and wells represent fantastic networks of money and wishes. The great thing is that one person's coin brings them happiness while also helping all sorts of charities that receive the money from many of these wishing wells.

Suppose we consider the money from the support packages as coins and the companies that receive them as wishing wells. Then we could transfer those companies' profits to charities, just like the profits from the wishing wells.

That reminds me of a work by artist Otobong Nkanga: Carved to Flow. The work consists of three parts. Part One took place at the Documenta exhibition in Athens. It was a workshop where soap was made from various local oils. During Documenta in Kassel, the pieces of soap were sold as works of art. In Part Three, the profits from the soap were distributed via a not-for-profit organization to artists and researchers who are committed to nature conservation.

Otobong Nkanga 2017 Carved to Flow

Otobong Nkanga 2017 Carved to Flow


Hearing that story instantly struck a chord with me. Wouldn’t it be cool if all businesses invested their profit in a not-for-profit? I see the whole thing before me, what it would bring about. Loads of money for art and culture, for health care, education & research, for nature conservation, poverty reduction, and cleaning up the plastic soup. All of that money would eventually turn back into profit. When we pay the people who do all that work, they end up spending it on groceries, rent, and other lovely necessities. That creates a constant cycle between profit and not-for-profit.

Would It Work?

While investigating this, I found a TedTalk by Melanie Rieback, an entrepreneur who does precisely what I described. She has an Ethical Hacking company and gives all her profit to the foundation NLnet which is working to develop an open information society.

It’s possible.

German economist Giacomo Corneo has a similar idea. He proposes that the government buy a majority share in companies on behalf of all of us. That would redirect more than half of the dividend to that country’s citizens. According to Corneo, this would bring poverty down from 9% to 6%.

That’s another possibility.

Imagine

Both are interesting options worth further consideration, I think.

Imagine that we all became partial owners of KLM and different sorts of organizations in the Netherlands. We would have a say in their policies, we would be able to influence their strategies for doing more for nature and for society, and we would share in the profits too.

Suppose we were to ask all those companies now in receipt of a support package that enables their continued existence, to give, say, 50% of their profits to not-for-profit organizations. And suppose we, residents of the Netherlands, were allowed to make a list of where we would like the money to go.
What would happen then? Could it create an economy that takes care of people and the earth? An economy that allows nature to restore itself, the oceans to become clean again, and art and culture to flourish as never before?

It might be a nice way for companies to repay the debt they are now taking on.

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