44 Slices
Medium 9781576753613

Chapter 1 Time to Upgrade

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Society is indeed a contract between those who are living,
those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Edmund Burke (1792)

For the first time in history, the natural world we leave our children will be frightfully worse than the one we inherited from our parents. This isnt just because were using the planet as if there were no tomorrowthats been going on for centuries. Its because the cumulative weight of our past and present malfeasance has brought us to several tipping points. Nature has her tolerance limits, and weve reached many of them. In some cases, very possibly, weve passed them.

Consider, for example, our atmosphere. Its not just todays pollution that hurts, its the accumulation of fumes weve been pouring into the air for centuries. This has already caused ice caps to melt, hurricanes to gain ferocity, and the Gulf Stream to weaken. Almost universally, the worlds scientists warn that far worse lies ahead. The question our generation faces is: will we change our economic system voluntarily, or let the atmosphere change it for us?

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Medium 9781609948337

4 A Parallel Economy

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

For two centuries, economists have regarded the commons as a medieval relic. Money is what really counts, and progress follows in the train of it.

Perhaps this was true for a while. At the start of the industrial age, products were scarce and commons abundant. All the economic gears were arranged to produce more stuff. But times change and scarcities shift. Where once the products of the market were scarce, now it is commons that are scarce, and also most needed. For this reason the commons is not a relic. It is a parallel economy that does real work, a counterpoise to the market that provides antidotes to many pathologies of the modern age.

Take quiet, for example. For centuries, noise has been regarded as a byproduct of progress. Today, Americans rate noise as the number-one urban problem. Not crime or trash, but noise.

Quiet is not a mere amenity. People need it for sleep and concentration, both of which are in short supply. One study showed that kids who live in the rear of apartment buildings do better in school than those who live above noisy streets. The market’s answer is drugs for sleeping and concentration—more products for sale, in other words. But does not quiet get better results at less expense? Critics say noise controls are obstacles to the economy. In reality, they are economic measures that meet a real need.

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3 A New Commons Story

Jonathan Rowe Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

For decades, people have defended the commons and not known it. They’ve battled pollution, development, corporate marketing assaults on their kids, and so many other things it’s hard to keep track. What’s been missing is a story that unifies all these seemingly unrelated battles with the force of a powerful idea.

Think about the market story. A few centuries ago, people looked at economic life and saw many seemingly unrelated things. They saw factories and farms, shipping firms and theaters, and so on. Then, in 1776, Adam Smith came along and said, “These aren’t separate things. They are different aspects of the same thing—the market.”1 His insight gave mental shape to the whole, and the idea of the market with its beneficent “invisible hand” has dominated public imagination ever since.

It has certainly made life easy for the Wall Street Journal. Without the market to cast a devotional glow upon private transactions, the Journal would be left with only a welter of deals to report. The market ties those mundane transactions into a larger narrative of uplift and grace. The editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course; it is embedded in the magical word market.

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Medium 9781626562141

6. The Alaska Model

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Our dividend program simply gives back to the people a portion of
earnings from invested oil wealth that belongs to the people.

—Former governor Jay Hammond

Jay Hammond, the Republican governor of Alaska from 1974 to 1982 and father of the Alaska Permanent Fund, led a life nearly as exciting as Thomas Paine’s. He was a Marine fighter pilot during World War II, then a bush pilot, commercial fisherman, and backcountry guide in Alaska. Friends urged him to run for local office, then the state legislature, and then for governor, all of which he did with some reluctance. After retiring as governor, he moved with his native wife to a remote lakeside cabin accessible only by float plane. He died in 2005, a state hero.

It’s unlikely that Hammond read, Agrarian Justice. Nevertheless, he conceived and then persuaded legislators and voters in a ruggedly individualist state to adopt the world’s first universal dividend-paying fund of the sort that Paine envisioned. He did this, and the people of Alaska approved it, not out of any ideology but because it just made sense.

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8. Carbon Capping: A Cautionary Tale

Peter Barnes Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Our planet’s atmosphere is a sacred public trust that belongs to all of
us, and the right to pollute it should not be given away for free
.

—Senator Edward Markey

Many of the ideas discussed so far in theoretical terms collided with reality in 2009, when Congress attempted to limit carbon pollution in the United States. Like two previous attempts, this one failed. At the same time, though less noticed, Congress also missed an opportunity to create a fund that pays dividends to all Americans. The revenue for this fund would have come from selling rights to dump carbon dioxide into our co-owned air.

The story of these failures is both political and intellectual. In this chapter, I trace the transformation of a good idea—a market-based limit on carbon pollution—into a compromised and beaten one. This transformation was driven by the familiar Washington process of rent seeking, and its story yields a number of lessons.

THE IDEA OF CAPPING FLOWS of harmful substances, and then letting markets allocate them, goes back to 1968, when a Canadian economist, the late John Dales, floated the idea in a book called Pollution, Property & Prices1 At the time, Dales wasn’t thinking about climate change; he was thinking about farmers who polluted streams with chemical runoffs. Some farmers could reduce their pollution more efficiently than others. If a declining quantity of pollution rights were issued and farmers could trade them, Dales argued, farmers themselves would find the cheapest ways to cut their pollution.

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