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21 New Institutions Needed

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The kind of social structure that makes commons productive in the Alps of Switzerland, the rice fields of the Philippines, and many other settings are not always possible in the United States. What’s more, some commons—such as the oceans and the atmosphere—are too large to be amenable to participatory management. The challenge is to build formal institutions that replicate the essential features of commons even if they cannot include the social dynamic of local settings.

One essential feature is equity. Commons serve all, either equally or by a just distributional standard, subject to necessary rules for access and use. A second essential feature is inter-generational responsibility. Corporations are programmed to maximize gains for the quarter or year. Commons, properly designed, are encoded to preserve assets for future generations.

There are times when government can manage commons according to these rules. For example, Central Park functions admirably as a commons under city ownership. But government ownership is not always possible or best. In the United States, continuing pressure on national forests and other public lands illustrates the vulnerability of ownership that is ultimately political. At the local level, there are similar pressures to invade public spaces with corporate sponsorships, advertising, and so on.

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5 Stop the Invasions!

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

To get to San Francisco from where I live, I usually drive through the hamlet of Nicasio. It’s just a scattering of wooden structures around a community baseball field. The hills beyond are mainly ranches, not much changed from a century ago.

Recently, a sign appeared by the road there. “SOON TO BE BUILT ON THIS SITE,” it said, and my insides went code red. I thought of bulldozers, asphalt, a mange of houses with glandular disorders. Then I saw the smaller print: “Thanks to your help, absolutely nothing.”

The sign was the work of a local organization raising funds to buy the land so that developers couldn’t. The large type triggered something many Americans feel: a brooding sense of impending loss. This sense begins with wilderness and open space but doesn’t end there. Everywhere we look, something we thought was off-limits to the market is falling prey to it: schools, genes, children’s imagination and play, urban water systems. Development is decimating our natural ecology just as big box stores are destroying the social ecology of Main Streets.

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1 Our Hidden Wealth

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

My wife grew up in what Western experts, not without condescension, call a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, or just pass the time. Some of my wife’s warmest childhood memories are of playing hide-and-seek late into the evening while adults chatted under the tree.

The tree was more than a quaint meeting place; it was an economic asset in the root sense of that word. It produced a bonding of neighbors, an information network, an activity center for kids, and a bridge between generations. Older people could be part of the flow of daily life, and children got to experience something scarce in the United States today—an unstructured and noncompetitive setting in which their parents were close at hand.

In the United States we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect. Yet most Western economists would regard the tree as a pathetic state of underdevelopment. They would urge “modernization,” by which they would mean cutting down the tree and making people pay money for what it provided. In their preferred vision, corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Something free and available to all would become commodities sold for a price. The result would be “growth” as economists understand that term.

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Medium 9781576753613

Chapter 9 Building the Commons Sector

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

If you dont know where youre going,
you probably wont get there.
Yogi Berra

My sons play a computer game called Sim City. Its a brilliant invention that lets you design, grow, and govern your own virtual metropolis. You plunk down streets, sewers, power systems, and subways. You zone for commerce, industry, and residences. You drop in schools, hospitals, and fire stations. Soon a city comes to life. Its enough to engross kids for hours.

Now imagine an adult game called Sim Commons that lets you design and grow your own virtual economic sector. The object of the game is to produce the most happiness with the least destruction of nature. You plunk down commons trusts, and from simple menus you assign them property rights, ownership regimes, and management algorithms. As you play, the computer displays your happiness and nature scores. Through trial and error, you learn what combinations of moves work best.

In the real world, building a new commons sector will be something like that. While we wait for an historic shift at the national level, we can build and experiment at lower levels. We can test different kinds of trusts, nonprofits, and informal associations, seeing how closely they can hew to commons principles. Then, when history is ready for bigger changes, well be ready too.

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Medium 9781626562141

4. Extracted Rent

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty
and all that crap, and get to where the Money River is

—Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

When I cofounded Working Assets (now known as Credo) in 1983, we organized as a private corporation. Our corporate charter was our license to enter the American marketplace, with its 300 million consumers and all the legal, financial, and physical infrastructure Americans have built over generations. It also gave us the right to maximize financial gain for ourselves. We paid a pittance for these privileges and at no extra cost got limited liability and perpetual life. The entire package came with a timeless guarantee that our physical, intellectual, and financial property would be protected by the full authority of America’s state and federal governments.

“Not a bad deal, starting a corporation,” I mused at the time. “Sure, we may fail, and I may lose my investment, but if we win, we win big. And boy, is America behind us!”

Ten years later, when our annual sales passed $100 million, my partners and I realized that our closely held company would be worth millions more if we took it public. Thus, in addition to all the gifts America had already given us, we could pluck several extra million dollars out of thin air simply by floating a stock offering. Having just read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, about a wealthy heir and the crafty lawyer who advises him, I thought I was getting close to the Money River.

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