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Tax Day Special! Dowser Interview: Donna Morton of the Centre for Integral Economics

,    /   Apr 15th, 2010Interviews

Happy Tax Day! Have you ever wondered why don’t we tax Hummers instead of salaries? Or why don’t we list environmental damage as a liability on balance sheets? These are the kinds of questions with which Donna Morton, cofounder of British Columbia’s Centre for Integral Economics, is obsessed. Morton sees economics as an art, not a dismal science. She’s spent years thinking about how to change economic incentives to improve society. And one of her core lessons is that, even when talking about taxes – or especially when doing so — you have to reveal your heart.

Dowser: The Centre for Integral Economics (CIE) strives to shift tax policy to advance social and environmental justice and economic prosperity. What’s innovative about your approach?
Morton: We work upstream from problems, trying to prevent crises. We ask, ‘How can tax policy be used to reward leadership on environmental and social justice issues, while making people pay for their wastefulness and inefficiencies?’

You say that we can be the generation that changes the world economy so it no longer ‘pits profit against people and places.’  How can tax policy help?
Companies operate under, ‘How can I do what I do and never have to pay for the resulting fragmentation of communities, toxic pollution and rampant use of natural resources?’ We say: Point taxes at the worst problems in our society and take taxes off the things that we treasure. Why do we tax work? Why do we tax investment? Why do we not tax pollution, congestion, sprawl, and Hummers?

Can society compel large companies to be more socially conscious?
If we made businesses internalize the real costs of childhood cancer and nuclear energy by forcing them to put it on their balance sheets, they would turn on a dime to avoid the associated processes and chemicals.

What is an example of a tax that could better align economic behavior with social justice?
The Tobin Tax. It’s designed to address currency speculation, for which there’s currently no taxation. An infinitesimally small tax could create the largest-ever global superfund to address green infrastructure, the end of poverty, AIDS, etc.

What’s the problem with currency speculation?
Currency speculation involves trillions of dollars exchanging hands every day via international transactions. Because it’s international, there’s no governing structure and therefore no taxation. It’s a massive profit-making scheme that destabilizes currencies and causes many other related problems.

Can you point to a tax that promotes sustainability today?
The British Columbia carbon tax on gasoline makes businesses and citizens conscious of their carbon emissions by making them pay for them. Ideally, the tax dollars are invested in mass transit, renewable energy and rebates to help create a more efficient fleet of vehicles.  The carbon tax has influenced federal policy in Canada.

What has been your biggest obstacle?
Raising money — because our work is unusual, complex and policy-laden. Most donors are interested in direct projects like feeding the poor or building literacy. Our work is more structural. How do we get ahead of poverty, pollution and childhood cancer by not allowing these things to happen in the first place? The funding pool for that is much smaller.

So, how have you raised funds?
When we couldn’t raise funds through foundations, we went out and earned them. We’ve had years where we generated 90% of our revenue through fee-for-service work such as consulting, research, speaking engagements and in some cases even branding and marketing.

I’m becoming more interested in coaching. I was approached by an investment banker who asked if I could coach some of his CEOs and executive teams on how to rethink their business acumen to push for ethical changes in the world. He was interested in learning how to align internal corporate structure with sustainability objectives.

What are some things you tried that didn’t work?
We tried to push governments to go faster than citizens were ready to accept.  We tried to stuff ourselves into the box of being sustainability consultants.

But the biggest mistake I ever made was not bringing my whole self to the work.  The times I’ve been most effective is when I’ve worked from my heart and deep authenticity. Saying this is who I am, this is what I feel and believe, and here’s my vision for what’s possible.

Do you think it’s possible to build a social movement around tax policy?
Citizens are not really interested in taxation. We think it’s complicated, mind-numbing and mystified—and it is. But it doesn’t have to be. Much of my work is about describing economics as a story—a work of art–that people can wrap their heads and hearts around. We’re becoming more of a communications and education organization than a policy organization.

How will that be developed?
By using multimedia, television, film and radio partnerships. We developed economic literacy workshops and the Art of Economics book project, which focuses on community-led economics. I’m also part of a quasi reality television series on the lives of people who are doing environmental work called ’Changemakers Act for the Planet.’

In your latest project, First Power, CIE trains leaders in First Nations [Aboriginal Canadian] communities to build and sustain renewable energy ventures. This seems like a departure from your earlier work.
That’s right. CIE has always worked on pointing to best practices in the global economy, but now we are leveraging our expertise to build social businesses. Rather than tracking green collar jobs, we are creating them.

So why have you chosen to work with First Nations?
We’re taking advantage of the fact that First Nations want energy autonomy as much as they want other forms of autonomy. Also, First Nations communities have deep traditional beliefs and practices around sustainability. Many First Nations were living sustainably on this continent for 10,000 years [laughs].

Good point.
Yes, and unfortunately, many First Nations communities have inadequate energy sources and very limited sewage systems. So we’re turning a negative situation into a positive one by empowering First Nations to leapfrog ahead of non-aboriginal communities in the use of green technology and power.

Who have been your big influences?
When I was 15, I heard a speech by Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. A light went on and I thought, ‘That’s my tribe.’

Also, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Paul Hawken, Jane Jacobs and E.F. Schumacher influenced my sense that economics is a fault line—a powerful piece of what is broken and therefore a powerful place to heal.

Any funny stories?
In my 20s, during a government land use process, a group of us created and performed a hip-hop number to shift the debate. It actually succeeded.

What has this work taught you?
We mustn’t decide that there are good guys and bad guys— ethical people and unethical people. We have to put aside our divides and our judgments. Listen and talk to absolutely everyone you can.

You have to work at the grassroots, but you can’t be afraid to be in the room with senior elected officials and people who run large companies. I listen as much to moms on welfare as I do to senior executives. I don’t think either group has an exclusive claim to the truth.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: CIE

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