Debt Circus: The Coming Liquidation of the Commons Realm

When a debt circus starts to fold there is a desperate resort to hard assets.  The banker seizes the real estate; investors head to precious metals.  America’s biggest debtor is the federal government itself.  As the hyper-leveraged economy contracts; and as China and other countries balk at financing the deficit that the Bush Administration deliberately has created; there will be demands to liquidate the common pool to keep the operation going. It won’t be entirely an accident.

We’ll be told we have to ease restrictions on poisons in the water and air, to get the “economy” going.  We’ll be told the public domain has to go as well.  Offshore oil?  National forests?  Resort developments in the national parks?  There will be a replay of the contractor honey pot that the occupation of Iraq became, only this time on the privatizing front.  There have been previews around the country.  Local governments, starved of tax revenue, have had to sell access to a captive audience of school children to corporate advertisers, just to raise money.  We’ve tossed the kids into the liquidation fire.  Why not trees?


Good Bye Night Sky

There was a time, a few days ago in human history, really, when people spent a lot of time looking at the sky at night.   To read Greek mythology, and Shakespeare’s plays, one might guess that people were as familiar with the constellations, as they are with corporate brands today. Or close at least.   Of course, it was possible back then to see the sky at night.  As David Owen pointed out in a recent New Yorker piece (August 20th), in Galileo’s day – about 400 years ago –people thought the Milky Way was a continuous ooze, so densely packed were the heavens to the naked eye.

Today we can see only a fraction of what was easily visible back then.  We are enclosed in a visual cocoon, and the cause is not just the smog and fumes that fill the sky.  Even more it is the light.  “Today a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building on a cloudless night,” Owen writes, would see “less than one percent of what Galileo would have been able to see.” We emit so much illumination – if that’s the word – down here below, that we have lost the capacity to see above.


Management Lessons from the Commons: How to Make the Boss Shape Up

One of the many tragedies of the conventional economic mind is the grip that the “tragedy of the commons” has upon it.   Among other things, the “tragedy thesis,” as it is called, feeds the economist’s arrogance about modernity itself.  Traditional societies all were stupid and programmed for destruction, it says implicitly.  Only we moderns, with our market mechanisms and technological wonders, can save the world.

This is, of course, total bunk.  Most traditional societies did far better jobs of managing their resources than we moderns, or post moderns, have been able to do.  An example is the remarkable water sharing organizations in the Northern Philippines called zangera. These embody a native genius in husbanding the water commons in such a way that everyone gets a just share.  They also show how to arrange a system – “incentivize” it in the econ parlance – so that leaders work to that end rather than to their own aggrandizement and gain.


Walking Cities and Commons-Based Health Policies

When I lived in New York City I walked everywhere, and all the time.  It wasn’t just because driving there is insane and I didn’t have a car anyway. The city calls you forth.  In decent weather you can walk for miles and hardly be aware of it. As a walker I was not alone. New York is a city of them.  On visits upstate I’d see a great many hefty people. At malls I’d get stuck in aisles behind matching double-wides.  In the city there wasn’t much of that.

People often think of New York as a decadent and unhealthful place.  I began to wonder if in fact the opposite was true. I made some calls but couldn’t get anywhere.  This was about fifteen years ago.  Apparently, some researchers have been on the case in the years since.  The current (August 15th) issue of New York magazine has a feature story called “Why New Yorkers Last Longer.”  Residents there, it turns out, live on average nine months longer than Americans do generally. Their life expectancy is increasing at a faster rate. Walking is a major reason why.


The Fountains of Boston: Childhood is a Commons

Am I the only one who thought of Huck Finn and the Mississippi when I read Efren Gerardino’s post about the river of his youth in the Philippines?  There was the absence of fences and boundaries, the openness and sense of possibility – an American story but also the story of childhood everywhere.  Efren remembered “the good life” even though he and his friends had very little, materially.  Childhood is a commons. Where it is abundant, children can feel rich so long as they have food to eat.

The commons of my own childhood was abundant in its own way. We lived in an old, close-in Boston suburb, with meandering streets that followed the contours of the land.  We played in the old aqua-duct, and at the swamp that formed a wooded basin behind the houses.  By unspoken agreement, the entire neighborhood was open to us kids.  We played football in one yard, wiffleball in another.  We didn’t know the owners, and no one seemed to care.


Cooperators of the Prairies

It was not accidental that the man who embedded this version into the political vernacular, Ronald Reagan, was himself reprising a role from his “B” Westerns. The late ex-president didn’t just memorize his scripts—he believed them. Not for the only time, he chose a congenial fiction over an inconvenient reality.

Start with the notion that wealthy Americans all have made their money through honest endeavor, and that taxes therefore are a form of theft.


The Cowboy Commons

Almost forty years ago, Garrett Hardin, a biologist, bid us to “picture a pasture that is open to all.”  This pasture was everywhere and nowhere, and inhabited by dimwits enlisted from the economics texts. They had no history or social affinities,  no context of custom or law, just an internal calculator of their own immediate financial gain.  From that hypothetical Hardin spun out the “tragedy of the commons,” which has been a staple of the economics texts ever since.  It was theology rather than economics, which made for a congenial match.

Many commentators have pointed out that if Hardin had bothered to observe the world, he would have found that commons often have worked wonderfully – and continue to do so to this day.  He didn’t have to go far.  The evidence was practically right outside his window, historically speaking, in the open pastures of the old American West.


Property and Freedom: Those Who Saw What Was Coming

In my last post I reflected on how an excessive assertion of property rights can turn this supposed bulwark of freedom into a threat to it.  Intellectual property is an especially virulent example. Ideas by their very nature suffuse everything; so in the name of protecting intellectual property rights the state could inject itself into just about everything.  A recent example is the proposed Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007, in which Alberto Gonzalez, the attorney general, is seeking new authority to tap our phones and otherwise trespass into our lives.

If Mr. Gonzalez had any historical awareness – let alone self-respect – he would know that the early writers on human freedom were worried about precisely the issues his proposal raises. Would love of lucre undermine the freedom that made prosperity possible?  Would the protection of property become the entering wedge for the very tyrant that property was supposed to check?  When freedom was still a live idea, rather than an encrusted doctrine and polemical cudgel, people were alert to the danger that the commercial version of it could spawn.


Reffing in the NBA

Perhaps you have heard about the study of supposed racial bias among referees in the National Basketball Association that two economists completed recently.  The New York Times gave it front page play, which was not surprising, given that it combined two story lines that the Times cannot resist  – namely, racial discrimination and something that “economists say.”  The study has been dismissed on many sides, including by black NBA players. It appears fairly ridiculous on its face.

But it does reveal much about the economic mind – how it cognizes reality, and what it regards as truth.  This is especially useful to us advocates for the commons.  Some of the same mental tics that led economists to see racial bias in the NBA have led them to see inherent “tragedy” in commons, always and by definition.  The fallacies of the NBA study shed light on the economistic fallacies that have beset discussion of the commons for as long as most of us can remember.


If the Commons is a Form of Property, Does that Make it a Commodity?

We can become attached to the object of our loathing.  Look at Bush and Iraq, or Ann Coulter and “liberals.”  What would the gracious lady do without the nemesis that shapes her psyche?  Would she have anything to say? So too, in a slightly different way, with Marxists and property. They can be so opposed to it that it sticks to them like glue.

This came up at the commons conference in Berkeley I wrote about last time.  In my talk, I used the terms “ownership” and “property” in connection with the commons, and this caused great displeasure for another person on the panel.  I was a “commodifier” he said.  A commons is the opposite of property, not a version of it.  I was told afterwards that this gentleman is a Marxist.  But in fairness, others can feel uneasy in a less rigorously dialectical way.  To say that a commons is a form of property can make it seem a carrier of the disease it is supposed to resist.