A Big Issue Vendor in Brisbane

It’s fairly late as I write these words. It has to be. I would not perform this act of professional self-harm if anyone I liked intimately enough to dissuade me was actually awake.

Last week, a periodical with which I’ve had a long and regular association celebrated a milestone. Happy 20th birthday,The Big Issue. Happy birthday and goodbye.

For 14 of the 20 years The Big Issue (TBI) has been sold by vendors nationwide, I’ve not only been happy but actually chuffed to write a column. Lately, though, things have changed. (But please, still buy the publication.)

TBI, which took its cue from a not-for-profit publishing model in the UK, was a good small idea. Media workers put together a magazine of creditable quality. Low-income earners sold it and retained half the cover price for themselves. It was, to use the modern phrase, a double dividend. Good publication with a decent income outcome.

If you buy the publication — and please, continue to do so — you may know that its vendors are often people who have endured life on the margins. In the many features currently celebrating TBI’s birthday, you’ll see these vendors described as disabled or homeless or, in one atrocious turn, as people who have made “bad choices”. Of course, the only “bad choice” they made was to be born into a society that demands the economic and social marginalisation of some of its citizens. It’s just like my Uncle Karl always says, “Relative surplus-population is the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works”. It is our present society that produces poverty and exclusion. Not disability, and certainly not “bad choices”.

As I am both garrulous and nosy, I speak at length with a TBI vendor once a fortnight. Theirs are often stories of hardship so extreme, to employ an old Australian phrase, You Wouldn’t Read About It. Well, you will read about it in TBI, where a vendor’s life is briefly narrated every issue. And you would hear about it at the TBI office, where editorial staff host a breakfast to describe the contents of every new issue to vendors, some of whom have been failed so badly by our munted nation, they never acquired the skill of reading. Illiteracy is not a choice.

Even if we don’t know the individual stories of our local vendor and even if we don’t buy TBI, we know what their fluoro vests imply. These people are doing it tough. These people are those to whom a small financial exchange will be quite meaningful. These people are the publication’s raison d’etre.

There would be no TBI, and no TBI board, without the vendors. While Alan Atwood, veteran newspaper guy and recently departed editor, and his genuinely lovely team have produced a fab mag in which I’m proud to see my byline, the magazine is just not one-tenth as important as the people who sell it. And I’m not being some kind of “let’s celebrate the deserving poor! We are nothing without them!” Mother Teresa twat here. I’m just stating the obvious. None of you buys TBI because you give much of a crap for what Helen Razer has to say about her failed dinnertime experiments. You buy it because your exchange permits you to interact with someone you would not likely otherwise know in a mutual spirit of dignity.

I don’t think the model is perfect. If I had my way, we’d solve the problem of hunger by marinating the bodies of the ruling class then serving them to the unjustly marginalised. But as far as charitable exchanges go, this isn’t a bad one. I have always loathed the tagline “helping people help themselves”, and I believe that if you teach a man to fish, you’re quite likely to keep him in some sort of angling servitude until he is dead and you have built your fortune on his body.

But, back in the real world outside the dream of communism: vendors tell me, and they tell the editorial staff, that the pocket money is OK and the sale activity is often a little better than playing bingo in church halls. In other words, I have never thought TBI provides an answer to poverty and exclusion. I just think it’s a quite good small measure, like a soup kitchen whose patrons are permitted to keep the ladle.

Which is not to diminish the value of the vendors, which is immense to TBI.

They are the reason we make the magazine. They are the reason the board exists. They are the “brand” — an extraordinarily visual one, too. While, as I have said, the magazine is of good quality, it is of good quality chiefly due to the vendors. No one on the editorial staff has wanted to let them down by producing a piece of rot. We make something that is, somehow, copy edited and subbed and nicely designed so that the vendors can feel that every sale is justified. Thanks to Alan, and good, bright people on the editorial staff like Melissa Cranenburgh and Lorraine Pink, the magazine doesn’t read like a charity pamphlet.

So. TBI builds its hi-vis visibility on the hard work of vendors. Their hours in the street produce the magazine and the board that governs it. All of it. And, to be gracelessly honest, it also produces some much-needed income for me. As journalism revenues are in the toilet, I have been pretty grateful for the wage, enough to meet my utility bills every month. And I tell you this less because I’m interested in kvetching (obviously and historically, I’m quite generally interested in that) and more because I want to underscore that my decision to leave TBI is not taken lightly.

As a self-ladling soup-kitchen kind of deal, TBI was just dandy. But what I suspect it has become is something else — something “more”, as I imagine its executive would have it. What was once an organisation that had a small group of vendors as its sole focus now has its eye on bigger and more imaginary things.

To look at the media and corporate presence of TBI board, it seems they think “business solutions” can change the world. And, I can’t be down with that. Probably, no one who saw The Big Short or ever spent five minutes listening to Yanis Varoufakis can be down with it, either.

I should say that this piece of writing and the “I quit” to which it is appended is entirely authored by me. I am writing only about my suspicions, which peaked at an unseemly hour. I certainly want to make plain that no member of staff has prompted the sleep-deprived view I here describe.

They’re cautious people at TBI; an editorial team committed to its vendors will never say an incendiary thing about the item that’s for sale. (And, again, please buy the magazine.) When I called Alan to see why he had resigned as editor, he said nothing. When I called Melissa, the associate editor, she said nothing. When I called editorial assistant, Lorraine, to see if she would say why they had said nothing, she said nothing. But, I reasoned, resignations in themselves must say a little more than nothing. And I had already suspected that something was being said when the board unleashed its curious “buy a magazine from a CEO!” promotion.

Shit, I thought, when I saw this Rich Man Poor Man promotion. What the eff was that to put a captain of industry with a servant of poverty for the purposes of marketing? Who in their right noggin thought that pairing a vendor, maybe a guy with no legs and certainly no assets, with a preposterously rich person was a meaningful branding statement, much less an affirming thing for a low-income earner? To a vendor, I imagine this exercise was demeaning. To a successful capitalist, I imagine it was a great personal comfort. Look at me. Standing so close to the actual poor.

For its 20th birthday last Friday, TBI reprised this idea in only a slightly less shitty way by pairing vendors with politicians. You know, the policy class that has made Australian housing and rental prices some of the world’s least affordable. (This is not just me and my Marxist arse talking, it’s something the Grattan Institute and others have been exploring for years. FFS, the ALP has built most of its election platform on the matter.)

I mean, I do understand that celebrities are a good way to mark an occasion, but who wants to meet, much less spend an entire day with, a CEO or a politician? Get that pretty whatsername from The Project to do it or one of those man-toys from Home and Away. Or Delta. I don’t know. Someone. Just not capitalists and policymakers, the people directly responsible for poverty.

We could put this all down to bad taste. Until we look at the things that Steve Persson, TBI’s CEO, has publicly said. I read them, and I begin to suspect that he and I do not concur about the most productive ways to “help people help themselves”.

Persson is reported in the previously linked SMH piece as relaying how he, “learned of the dangers of relying too heavily on government funding”. It appears to me (appears. I haven’t slept and I was reading Capital all weekend to prepare for an upcoming argument with Guy Rundle) that he believes this case holds as much for some impoverished individuals as it does for those organisations that help-people-help-themselves. Although, this didn’t stop TBI’s board accepting monies from both state and federal government to kick-start a social housing project, Homes for Homes, which uses a model devised by Lennar Corporation, a US Fortune 500 property developer. One, by the by, that received a bailout after the subprime crisis. (Some companies really rely too heavily on government funding.)

Lennar, which has a web directory that details its philanthropic work, does not make mention of this scheme, favourably described in the Australian Financial Review as a promising business solution to the problem of the poor. So I can’t be sure if the scheme, which seeks in time to derive its funding to build affordable houses from a tax deductible 0.1% donation from sales of property, was ever rolled out by Lennar or ever produced a single low-cost home.

It is possible that it did. It’s certain TBI board means very well in adopting this scheme. I mean, I’m a bit surprised that they insist via their website that our housing affordability crisis is due to a “severe lack of funding for new housing projects”. Anyone who has read one of the recent raft of articles on the impact of negative gearing and the capital gains tax concession might question that statement. Anyone who is not in the finance services sector — the place in which approximately half of TBI’s board are employed — and has a stagnant wage in an accelerated housing market might question that statement. I’m also sceptical that donors could ever be so significant in number that TBI will generate anything close to the $1.8 billion that “could” be raised –even if it is, the website estimates that “>35%” of these funds will be used to build homes in seven to 10 years that, in my reading, won’t be owned by the low-income earners for whom they will be built.

And, just to get nit-picky about it, offering another tax concession to people buying and selling property may have the result of swelling the housing market. Even Malcolm Turnbull agrees that the housing market is so “healthy” (I prefer “unaffordable”) because of tax concessions he refuses to repeal. So, in short, the sincerity of TBI’s board and their Rich List partners doesn’t matter one jot if they haven’t thought this whole housing affordability thing through. The road to hell is paved with corporate governance.

TBI’s board of directors has begun to embark on projects other than the magazine itself and most of these don’t give me too much of the irrits, even if they do seem to use the word “journey” a lot and take their inspiration from The All Time Worst Hits of Gesture Politics. The Homes for Homes thing, though, seems like one of those under-theorised gifts of good vibes that finance sector people like to give themselves.

Of course, the belief that successful business practice is just the same thing as good social policy is very widespread. I can’t stop a soul believing this neoliberal philanthropic bosh. I can’t convince anyone that the charitable Gates or Zuckerberg or Cook should be paying their company taxes instead of “making the world a better place”, and claiming further tax deductions for same. I can’t change the minds of the many who think that social policy is not the work of democratically elected persons, but the “disruptors” of Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

What I can do, and what I feel I must do, is end my association with an organisation that has shifted its focus from vendors (who are not represented on TBI’s board) and their magazine (whose editorial staff are not represented on TBI’s board) to some sort of conciliatory “temporary homes for the deserving poor” flapdoodle.

*Read the rest at Daily Review