Jonathan Rowe

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Published

March 24, 2011
West Marin Citizen

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Jonathan Rowe was a man of so many great gifts and talents that it is hard to believe they all came together in the same person.

I had the good fortune to see these gifts in action at close range.  For eight years in Washington D.C. we shared cramped office space – not much bigger than a big walk-in closet. We’ve been friends ever since.

Jonathan was an inspiration in so many ways.  For example, how he overcame a terrible speech impediment.  When he was young, he stammered and stuttered so much that it was nearly impossible to understand him.  Who could guess that he would rise above that handicap so well to host a weekly radio show on KMWR?  And instead of being defeated by it, it drove him to learn to write with great mastery and power.

Jonathan was the most generous person I ever met, both personally and professionally.  He often joked that if there was a job that paid no money, he was sure to take it.  And he did.  He gave away so much of his time, and never seemed to regret a moment of it.  He was beyond generous to his friends and colleagues, always willing to share ideas, suggestions, encouragement or anything else.  And though he did not have much money, he gave it away freely to the causes he believed in.

Jonathan’s patience was legendary.  He worked as a journalist for many years.  It is a stressful job, with tight deadlines and time pressure.  For the many years I shared an office with him, he never once lost his temper, never snapped at me or anyone else that I ever saw.  I never knew such patience was possible.

There were so many ironies about Jonathan that one could go on for days.  For example, he was a scholar’s scholar without being scholarly.  He delighted in books on a great variety of obscure topics.  He enjoyed talking about ideas, and would do so happily for hours.  But he was never pedantic.  He had the gift of grasping complex ideas, and communicating them in short, vibrant sentences.

During his last fifteen years, Jonathan focused his brilliance on the on the failures of mainstream economics, and the importance of establishing and defending commons.  Jonathan wrote that the commons is “the part of life that is not the market and not the state, but is the shared heritage of us all….The sky and oceans, the multitude of species, wilderness and flowing water and the like are commons. So too are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories and games of childhood, the processes of democracy. The commons is a kind of counterpoise to the market. It provides stability and sustenance rather than restless appetite and craving. It connects to the ‘we’ side of human nature as opposed to the market’s unrelenting ‘me.’ The concept includes anything not owned but shared in common.”

Through hard work, Jonathan rose to become, in my opinion and others, the most compelling writer on economics in America.  He had the unusual talent of piercing though the elaborate smokescreens of corporate public relations and modern economics. His writings on commons, diseconomy, economic indicators and corporations will provide insights and inspiration for decades to come.

But his writing never took on the cast of arid economic tracts.  Rather, he wrote with the touch of a poet.  His writing was bursting with life: real stories, real people, real places, real feelings.  The kind of thing you almost never see in economics, which is full of mathematical abstraction.

Jon wrote about what true wealth really is: not the money in your pocket, not the sum of the widgets produced by our nation, but the bonds that tie our hearts together into communities, neighborhoods, friendships and families.  His work was to multiply these bonds, and to strengthen them.  He taught us how to cooperate, and new ways to cooperate, to solve our own problems in ways that corporations and governments cannot.  He wrote about what we all share, and why we should keep sharing it. That work made him a national treasure.

And yet, Jonathan was the opposite of starchy or pretentious.  He had great humility and was amazingly self-effacing.  He was a graduate of Harvard University, and had a fancy law degree, but you’d never know it.  He seemed to hide it as best he could.  Not that he was ashamed; it just wasn’t important.  I often tried to convince him to take credit for what he’d done.  But he rarely would.  He didn’t believe in it.

Jonathan loved working at his “office” in Toby’s Feed Barn, and sharing stories with his friends, neighbors and others in the community. He seemed allergic to dressy clothes.  And though he was not tall or dexterous, and didn’t have much of a jump-shot, he delighted in playing basketball with his friends.

Jonathan loved his family so much.  He was devoted to his wife, Mary Jean, and so proud of their eight-year-old son, Joshua. He relished their company. Their loss is incalculable.

In a strange coincidence, I spent the last ten days of Jonathan’s life volunteering for him to put up a website for his writings: www.jonathanrowe.org.  It’s a trove of riches.  I urge you all to dip into it.  Long live his good writings and good works.  May they inspire us all.

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