It is rare for a political activist and a poet to cohabit the same body. Rarer still for that strange hybrid to intersect with my life and share my journey. Which is why I was so privileged to work with my friend Jonathan Rowe – and why I am going to miss him a great deal.
On Saturday morning Jon went off to the gym, as he often did, and came home not feeling well. By the evening he had a scorching fever and went to the hospital. By Sunday morning, he was gone. He was 65 and leaves behind his wife Mary Jean and young son Josh.
Jon’s sudden, unexpected death underscores something that he understood well: our fixation on the big abstractions – politics, economics, wealth – tends to blind us to the fragile and beautiful realities of human existence, whose intrinsic importance cannot be denied....must not be denied.
As someone blessed with a capacious mind and soul, Jon clearly recognized the brutal necessities of politics while honoring the immanent truths of the spiritual. He also had the clarity of mind to realize that while the two realms may never be reconciled or integrated, neither can they ever be disconnected. Jon’s life was to wrestle with this koan.
I met Jon in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C. when we were both making our way as young public-interest activists in Nader circles. We were younger men and the world was a more hopeful place. Ronald Reagan had not yet been elected. People still believed that government could be a force for good, and that active, informed citizenship could change the world. Only a few years earlier, half the graduating class of Harvard Law School had wanted to work for Ralph Nader during their summer vacation. Idealism was not just socially acceptable, it was cool.
Jon was ten years older than me, and of an “earlier generation” of the Nader’s Raiders, but we shared a certain creative optimism and political zeal. He had been one of the authors of Tax Politics: How They Make Your Pay And What You Can Do About It – a pioneering Nader-sponsored book about the inequities of the American tax system.
What always struck me about Jon was how terribly thoughtful and reflective he was in a Washington demimonde where everyone has the attention span of a flea. He was as attentive to the human condition as the gaudy stagecraft of politics. Yet Jon was no naïf. He was well-versed in the folkways of Washington, not least because of his tutelage under Nader and then Charlie Peters, editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly.
At the time, The Washington Monthly was a plum of a job for aspiring journalists. It was the kind of place where James Fallows, Jonathan Alter and Tim Noah worked before going on to work at The Atlantic, Newsweek and Slate, respectively. As if to follow that trajectory, Jon continued as a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor.
At a certain point, however, Jon realized that the satisfactions of journalism were less interesting than those of effecting change as a political player oneself. Jon once told me of his revelation, while interviewing a neighborhood activist, that it would be so much more fun to be on the other side of the interview, as the activist. Why write about the news when you could become a newsmaker oneself?
And so, inspired by a outsider’s sense of mission and the lessons learned under Nader and Peters, Jon put his shoulder to the wheel to make some news of his own. He became an aide to Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, where he was privy to the inner machinations of the Senate leadership and guided Dorgan’s initiatives on farm policy and other issues. On the side, Jon continued to write occasional pieces for The Washington Monthly and other magazines.
Even now, one of Jon’s pieces sticks in my mind as an unforgettable read – a piece that nudged me into my current line of work. “Rebuilding the Nonmarket Economy,” which appeared in The American Prospect in January 1993, explored the “informal safety net” and “the neighborhood we have lost.” Jon was essentially bucking the neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the time by examining the social and moral dynamics that underlie the market. The commons, as Jon wrote, is the unnamed substrate for so much of what occurs in the marketplace and political life:
In the past year, I have talked to older people across the United States about the kinds of neighborhoods they grew up in. They recalled a world that is rapidly disappearing – the local grocers who carried the family on credit until the paycheck came, and the neighbors who brought home-made soup to people who were ill. "On the farm, if you ran short of help, they come and give you a helping hand," a lay preacher in Maryland recalled of his boyhood neighbors in rural North Carolina. "They weren't relatives, but just like relatives." These seniors were talking about an informal safety net that turned their neighborhoods into a kind of extended family. Now that they need its support, they feel the loss acutely….
What people value, they keep track of. It is revealing, therefore, that for all their lecturing about traditional values, the Reagan and Bush administrations offered no ideas for keeping track of the realm of social interaction that actually embraces these. The government could tell you all about the money supply but nothing about the traditional modes of exchange they say they care so much about.
The federal government should develop indicators for the nonmarket economy the way it charts the GNP. Then it should require nonmarket economic impact statements for new and existing laws, similar to the economic and environmental impact statements currently required. Such analyses would make legislators and regulators think about their actions in a new way. They would begin to see how, up and down the policy spectrum, America rewards mobility and social disruption rather than cohesion and staying put. The tax laws are a prime example. There are deductions for moving expenses but not staying expenses, for example. Accelerated depreciation rewards turnover in real estate rather than patient holding.
Why not have decelerated depreciation that rewarded investors who were in for the long haul? Similarly, homeowner deductions could increase or at least stay even the longer the property is held. Better still, there should be a homeowner (and renter) allowance that is geared to income rather than to the price of a house. The current system gives most to those who have (and borrow) most, which is both unfair and destructive to the nonmarket realm.
Jon’s interest in the “nonmarket” realm – the moral and social economy of the commons – became deeper and more sophisticated as he collaborated with Edgar S. Cahn, the former dean of Antioch Law School, to write a book about “time dollars.” Cahn understood how the market economy ignores people who don’t have money, often leaving their unpaid labors unrecognized and their basic needs unmet. But what if a practical system could be invented to mobilize people’s energies to serve one’s non-market needs for eldercare, lawn-mowing, tax advice and car-pooling?
Cahn invented a “time dollar” (or “time-banking”) system that enables people to volunteer an hour of their time for someone in their community and get a “time dollar” credit in return. Suddenly people in poor neighborhoods or elderly communities – who have more time than money – could serve each other’s needs with greater structure and reliability. Today I would group time-banking with a host of other commons-based approaches that merit greater attention. Time banking has in fact taken off as an international movement in twenty-two countries and six continents.
Shortly after his work with Cahn, Jon joined a Bay Area group called Redefining Progress, which sought to develop new economic metrics for evaluating the nature of human and social well-being. One of his crowning achievements in this regard was the 1995 cover story for The Atlantic that he co-authored, about the deficiencies of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of progress. It was entitled, “If the Economy Is Up, Why is America Down?”
Jon’s self-taught lessons about the “nonmarket economy” suddenly found a fruitful new focus in 2000 when he joined with Peter Barnes and Harriet Barlow in starting the Tomales Bay Institute. The new organization was intended to be a new activist think tank dedicated to developing the paradigm of the commons in politics, economics and culture.
Peter was co-founder of the socially responsible long distance phone company Working Assets, and author of the Who Owns the Sky? proposing a “Sky Trust” solution to global warming. Harriet was a respected social and environmental activist. Jon became director of the new project. “I really think there is not just an opportunity here, but a necessity, of getting public debate and imagination out of this free-market straitjacket it’s been in for 20 years,” Jon said at the time.
Jon came to the commons with a deep familiarity with Washington politics, law, economics and culture. One could not imagine a more necessary preparation for the formidable challenge ahead: to develop a bold, sophisticated critique of market economics and culture – and to introduce humanistic and social values into a body of policymaking that had (and has) no use for them.
“Community is not hydroponic,” Jon once wrote. “It does not grow in the gaseous air of political speechifying about values. Nor does it arise from enterprise and ownership alone. Community requires particular kinds of enterprises; it requires neighborhoods that have a real function and don't just serve as loci for consumption.” Jon increasingly wrote about the social and spiritual effects of our hyper-market culture, too.
My real collaborations with Jon began in 2002 when I joined the Tomales Bay Institute – later renamed On the Commons – to help develop commons discourse. I had just published Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth, and was thrilled to have a close colleague who could challenge me and enrich my thinking. Two years later, I started Onthecommons.org to leverage the power of blogging, then a relatively novel genre of Web culture. Jon joined me in frequent blogging. Our friendship and collaboration on all things related to the commons intensified, and I grew in my appreciation for what the commons might become. Jon did indeed expand my thinking.
During this time, I wrote a profile of Jon as an “Uncommon Commoner,” which gives a nice portrait of the life that he settled into in Point Reyes Station, California. Jon had enough distance from the hurly-burly of Washington, yet enough ongoing connections to comment intelligibly about contemporary trends. I remember all sorts of project experiments and discussions and retreats at which we honed our sense of what the commons is and could become.
A few years later, Jon joined with Elizabeth Barnet in starting and then managing the West Marin Commons, a small citizen group dedicated to building “a sense of connectedness and shared responsibility around land, people and resource use in West Marin.” The project built upon his role as the host of a local radio program on KWMR-FM, serving West Marin County. Jon knew how Washington worked; now he wanted to explore firsthand how the commons works, and could work, in his own local community.
When I try to describe Jon to people who didn't know him, I gravitate to the words "political poet" and "spiritual pilgrim." He was terribly modest and conscientious, yet fiercely intelligent and committed. He struggled hard to balance his knowledge about politics and economics with the deeper mysteries of the soul. Even though he was a working journalist, he sometimes struggled to meet deadlines because he could not just ignore his poetic gifts and sense of writerly beauty…..and such things cannot be forced; they must be met on their own terms. In hindsight, I am glad it worked out this way because Jon’s dedication produced some of the most lyrical, lovely sentences I’ve encountered in political journalism.
Jonathan never acquired the recognition that he deserved as an original thinker and venturesome journalist. It’s partly because he deliberately chose to live outside of the constellations of prestige and respectability, and outside of the power centers of New York and Washington, D.C. He knew that the really important, transformative ideas would not emerge from there. The richer, deeper insights were more likely to emerge from his laptop while sitting in front of Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, a spot that saw farmers come in to buy animal feed and tourists to buy a cup of coffeee or a t-shirt. Jon called this spot his “commons office.”
Jon, you left us too soon. But you left us a rich body of thinking inflected with some prophetic truths and infused with your sweet temperament: a precious gift. I am still dining on your work and inspired by your determination to understand the mysteries of the commons.
Update: It turns out that Jon had been building out a website to collect his various writings: http://www.jonathanrowe.org. That repository deserves to be completed both as a tribute to Jon and as a way of advancing his perspectives. Suggestions and recollections are invited below.
Update II: Russ Baker, a journalist and friend of Jon's, has a wonderful remembrance of Jon Rowe at his website, www.WhoWhatWhy.com. Condolences to Mary Jean Espulgar-Rowe can be sent to PO Box 427, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956.