I’ve always found that it is wise to raise a ruckus about the first attacks on the integrity of a commons (which are invariably justified as innocuous, temporary or minor) because bad precedents tend to quickly metastasize. You blink twice, and the next thing you know the commons is enclosed. A shared resource is suddenly converted into private property.
One of the great joys of the Internet is watching the migration of “value” from private islands of proprietary content to open platforms available to everyone. If your content isn’t readily available to the global network of Internet users (because you require payment or permission), chances are you’re on a fast train to oblivion. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has put it (with apologies to Oscar Wilde), “On the Internet, the only thing worse than being sampled is not being sampled.” Welcome to the world of “network effects.”
Why do economists insist on treating information and creative works as scarce – while making the opposite mistake with respect to the depletable services of nature, which they treat as limitless by pricing at zero? Last week, in the inaugural presentation of the new Forum on Society Wealth lecture series at UMass, Amherst, economist Herman Daly tried to shed some light on these paradoxes. His goal was not just to dissect the illogical mindset of mainstream economics, but to help explain why we fail to see and protect our social wealth.
The vision of a healthy commons is an alluring one. The trick, however, is getting there from here. At the moment, the prospect for change of this magnitude seems dim. But history, like evolution, doesn’t proceed in straight lines; it takes big, often unexpected leaps.
Theodore Roosevelt must be a tempting icon for the White House message crew to invoke. A virile Republican, a man’s man who carried the banner of imperialism with pride and the white man’s burden that went with it. Who said children of privilege couldn’t be tough?
There’s a widespread (and false) belief that the commons, unlike private property, is unmanageable. This is in part due to Garrett Hardin’s essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which argued that commons are inherently self-destructive. The truth is that there are effective ways to manage almost any commons, large or small (though global commons present special challenges).
Now that my son has started college, I have become more aware of a growing problem for students and their parents: soaring textbook prices. Publishers have become increasingly adept at inventing insidious new ways to wring more money from beleaguered college students, who have little recourse but to buy the assigned textbook — or enroll in another course.
Economics is a construct of the human mind. It’s a useful way of looking at the world, but shouldn’t be confused with reality. The map — especially the mainstream map — is much smaller than the territory.
Marjorie Kelly has written a brilliant book called The Divine Right of Capital. By “divine,” of course, she doesn’t mean God-given. What she means is that, under current laws and treaties, the rights of capital in America trump everything else. The rights of workers, communities, nature and future generations — all are subordinate to capital’s prerogative to maximize short-term gain.
Let’s assume that, as a society, we’re morally bound to preserve vital shared inheritances for future generations. How might we go about doing this?
One way to think about this question is to consider what you and your spouse would do if you were wealthy parents. Most likely, you’d call a lawyer, and she’d establish a trust, or perhaps separate trusts for each child. You’d endow the trust(s) with specified assets, either now or upon your death. And you’d appoint a trustee — perhaps a bank — to manage the assets on behalf of your beneficiaries.
Even as the film, music and publishing industries climb on their high horses to demand that the public respect copyright laws, they are quietly flexing their political muscles in obscure policy venues to eviscerate the public’s fair use and public domain rights, and create entirely new rights to lock up culture for themselves.
The biggest defect of modern capitalism can be expressed in a single word: externalities (or illth, if you prefer John Ruskin’s prose). Either term refers to the harmful side-effects that accompany current economic activity: pollution, congestion, noise, cancer, stress, extreme inequality, loss of biologic and cultural diversity, and so on.
This story is dedicated to Virginia Heinlein.
In the psychodrama of market theory, capital is the Promethean force. Its capacity to produce human betterment is without limit. It can surmount any obstacle, extricate humanity from any woe, so long as government does not dispirit it with taxes or bind it with regulations. Mere work is a piker in comparison.
Adam Smith was prescient when he wrote: “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
Since the 18th century, and especially since the collapse of communism, we’ve been living in a world increasingly driven by the ‘need’ to maximize return on capital. The rationale for this obsession is that, if risks taken by capital owners aren’t rewarded first and foremost, capital will sit idle and wealth won’t be created.
We reveal ourselves in our instinctive response to another’s need. When the President received reports of people breaking into stores in New Orleans, he saw a threat to property rather than a desperate need for food and water. Enough said.
I’m a businessman. I know the profit motive works. I cherish individual initiative and believe society should reward it. At the same time, I know that markets create illth (John Ruskin’s fine word) as well as wealth, and can’t solve all our problems.
The President’s response to his administration’s ineptitude regarding Katrina has been to distance himself from it. He’s calling for an “investigation,” as though someone other than himself was in charge. His helpers meanwhile are mounting an attack on his critics and shifting the blame to local officials – red-letter moves from the Karl Rove playbook.
Sometimes preservationism, like any good cause given power, runs completely amok and makes itself ridiculous. For example, in Downey, California, the Los Angeles Conservancy and the National Register of Historic Places are fighting hard to save — I am not making this up — a McDonald’s drive-in, complete with neon sign! They are serious!