Patrick Mazza

Sam Smith's Repair Manual:

A guide for fixing what ails us

Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual: How to rebuild our country so the politics aren't broken and politicians aren't fixed!,
By Sam Smith
W.W. Norton & Co., New York
247 pages, $14.95 paper.

This work of progressive populist common sense could well rank Sam Smith as our modern Tom Paine.

Both entertaining and informative, Smith's book is just what the title promises, a repair manual for politics and the country. Making abundant use of capsules and summaries, Smith covers an amazing amount of ground. He has managed to cram into 247 highly readable pages a virtually comprehensive guide to the best ideas out there today for restoring democracy, justice, cities, the environment, media, economic equity, civil liberties and ethnic harmony.

No snobbish academic leftist consumed with abstracted debate about how many strategies can fit on the head of a pin, Sam Smith is instead a representative of a rare breed. In the I.F. Stone tradition, Smith publishes the feisty Progressive Review (and is a contributor to the Progressive Populist). He is a truly independent journalist with his feet firmly grounded in the reality of neighborhoods and everyday people -- in this case the poor and heavily black neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., of which he is native.

In fact, his section, "Why a white guy likes living in a black city," shows how someone living in D.C. could be so down to earth. He draws insightful contrasts between cold and manipulative white Washington and the friendly and humane black city surrounding it. With a background in community-based activism, Sam is a delightful paradox, a neighborhood-power advocate living in one of the world's great imperial centers.

Smith embodies an emerging grassroots politics best described as progressive populism. A D.C. Green, he helped start the Association of State Green Parties, the new national Green federation that rose out of the '96 Ralph Nader presidential campaign. Like Nader, Smith's focus is very much on bringing back democracy to a country increasingly controlled by huge corporate-bureaucratic institutions.

With grace and humor, Smith leaps over the walls that confine all too much of today's progressive and environmental activism in self-righteous, ineffective isolation. He expounds a crossover politics that holds significant potential to unite a new American majority.

Writes Smith, "We have to move toward a politics that offers a choice not between left and right but between corporatism and democracy, not between big government and big business but between overbearing institutions and supportive communities ..."

That politics includes profound ideas for electoral reform, such as replacing winner-take-all elections with proportional and preference voting systems. He would restore citizen power by stripping corporations of their "personhood" and bringing back the revocable corporate charters that prevailed in earlier years.

Cutting corporate power and subsidies would save taxpayers a lot of dough, as illustrated by a chart on page 81. Waste management interests in 1992 made $3 million in congressional race contributions and next session received $300 million in subsidies and tax breaks. Mining is more extreme: $1 million in contributions for $2 billion in tax breaks. Think that's a lot? Check natural gas: $3 million for $4.3 billion, coal: $1 million for $8 billion, oil: $23 million for $8.8 billion, and nuclear: $100,000 for $11 billion.

Sam effectively pokes through economic myths such as that Social Security is going broke -- only if you assume the country will perform worse economically than it did during the Great Depression -- or that budget deficits are a bad thing -- no more than going in debt to buy a house or car. Printing money to invest in capital projects that yield long-term benefits is how we became prosperous, he notes.

Smith outlines a common-sense economic plan that includes cooperatives, community banking, civic-owned enterprise, local currencies, shorter work weeks and revival of usury laws. He urges revising economic statistics to count environmental and social destruction as a loss. Cleaning up a toxic waste site or throwing people in jail does not count as economic gain even though the gross domestic product does just that, Smith says.

In his folksy way, Sam recommends we break through such obfuscations as "risk assessment" and instead study poker. We're playing an odds game with the planet's environment that we're bound to lose, he says. To win, he says, environmentalists must include the human community in their message. "Urban neighborhoods should be considered human marshes as worthy of protection as any wetland." And avoid moralistic priggery. "Emphasize a politics of enlightened self-interest.."

As a dedicated city dweller, Sam is finely tuned to the possibilities of citizen activism for "designing urban places for those who actually live there," as he subtitles his urban chapter. He digs at the edifice complex which has convention-centered, aquariumed and sky-box-stadiumed city after city at the public's expense while real neighborhoods go to hell. Smith knows cities can be good places for people to live if they stop trusting elites and become their own city planners.

Smith has seen firsthand the elite's real solution for poor urban neighborhoods, control by paramilitary police under the guise of the war on drugs.

The author's inner city background equips him with another set of key insights about ethnic relations. And call it ethnic, he says, because race is a myth with no scientific base. Smith courageously criticizes the treatment of racism and bigotry as deviant. It's not. It's normal, he writes, and backs his case with anthropology. The issue is not hate -- it's cultural narcissism. Recognizing that unhappy fact, "our repertoire of solutions might tilt more toward education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multicultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul."

Sam says not all the hundreds of ideas contained in this remarkable guide will work. But it is "an American establishment that tends to dismiss new ideas as untested, radical, off the wall or dangerous" that has given us a strained economy, degraded environment and alienated citizenry.

Too often, progressives and environmentalists seem to buy into that same negativity, feeling it sufficient to stand back and snipe without standing up for the bold ideas needed to make fundamental changes. Sam reminds us that part of what defines us as Americans is readiness to experiment and freedom to make mistakes; if we're wrong, try something else. That is what we're in danger of losing.

"America has never been perfect," he writes, "it's just been a place where it was easier to fix things that were broken. The ability to repair ourselves has long been one of our great characteristics as a people and a nation. This book is written in the faith that we still possess it."

In this conservative era that is a substantial leap of faith. Sam Smith's American repair manual is as solid a jumping-off point as there is to be had.

Patrick Mazza is a Portland, Ore.-based ecological journalist who edits Cascadia Planet, a Northwest bioregional website at He is also co-chair of the Association of State Green Parties. To order a copy of Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual and other progressive populist books, see our book page.

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