Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work

Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work

by Jonathan Rowe, Peter Barnes
     
 

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Why We Need the Commons
A huge part of our economy is invisible, invaluable, and under siege. This is “the commons,” a term that denotes everything we share. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature: the air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness, and watersheds. Others are the product of human creativity and endeavor: sidewalks and public

Overview

Why We Need the Commons
A huge part of our economy is invisible, invaluable, and under siege. This is “the commons,” a term that denotes everything we share. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature: the air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness, and watersheds. Others are the product of human creativity and endeavor: sidewalks and public spaces, the Internet, our languages, cultures, and technologies. Jonathan Rowe illuminates the scale and value of the commons, its symbiotic relationship with the rest of our economy, its importance to our personal and planetary well-being, and how it is threatened by privatization and neglect. He unifies many seemingly disparate struggles—against pollution, excessive development, corporate marketing to children, and more—with the force of this powerful idea. And he calls for new institutions that create a durable balance between the commons and the profit-seeking side of our economy.

“This elegant book is a wonderful introduction to the originality of thought, clarity of expression, and humanity of vision that made Jonathan Rowe so respected by those who knew him. It will change the way you think about economic, environmental and social problems and how to solve them. “
— James Fallows, national correspondent, The Atlantic

“Jonathan Rowe describes the emerging movement to protect the vast commonwealth owned by the people. Gird yourself to see nature and human ingenuity in a very different light. Then open these pages and a whole new world will come into focus.”
—Ralph Nader

“There is an economics of common wealth. Common wealth can and must be managed. That is Jon Rowe’s gift to us.”
--George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, University of California at Berkeley and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This elegant book is a wonderful introduction to the originality of thought, clarity of expression, and humanity of vision that made Jonathan Rowe so respected by those who knew him. It will change the way you think about economic, environmental and social problems and how to solve them. “
— James Fallows, national correspondent, The Atlantic

“Jonathan Rowe describes the emerging movement to protect the vast commonwealth owned by the people.  Gird yourself to see nature and human ingenuity in a very different light. Then open these pages and a whole new world will come into focus.”
—Ralph Nader

“There is an economics of common wealth. Common wealth can and must be managed. That is Jon Rowe’s gift to us.”
—George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, University of California at Berkeley and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant

“It’s not too much to say that our future as a species requires grasping the ideas in this book.”
—from the foreword by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

“Jonathan Rowe’s work offers a stunningly original vision that brings new depths of common sense and moral vision to the economic and social crises of our world. Who knew that there could be such a marriage of hope and hard-hitting clarity!”
—Jacob Needleman, author of An Unknown World

“Read this book as though you were opening a treasure chest.  It transcends our stale left-right debates and reveals the wealth available to all of us if we just recognize and protect it.”
—Sarah van Gelder, executive editor, YES! Magazine

“I've met a lot of people in my life, but none quite like my friend Jonathan Rowe.  He was a unique and original thinker who constantly challenged our prevailing ideas of progress.”
— Former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan

“This brilliant book by a wonderful man we lost too soon illuminates the essential question of our politics going forward: are we all in this together? Jonathan Rowe's answer is a resounding and convincing YES!”
—Jonathan Alter, NBC news analyst and author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One

“Most journalists leave behind nothing more than ephemeral news clips about forgotten but over-hyped crises. Jonathan Rowe bequeathed us a provocative concept that could unite left and right—the fostering of places and institutions outside the realms of business and government that can protect us from twenty-first century avarice.”
—Walter Shapiro, veteran political columnist

“Jonathan Rowe maps out a vast swath of our economy that few of us have considered and conventional economists have persistently failed to account for — the cooperative realms of family, neighborhoods and civic society. The relentless colonization of these realms by the market explains much that has gone wrong with modern society.”
—Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief, The Washington Monthly

“If there is any way out of the squeeze that afflicts today’s economy, it will partly be through the ideas held in this book. And Rowe delineates them with both a philosopher’s eye and a poet’s touch. Yes, the commons has been around for a long time, but rarely has its potential been explained so clearly.”
—Todd Oppenheimer, author of The Flickering Mind

“Jonathan Rowe was a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, happily planting practical ideas that others missed or dismissed. In Our Common Wealth, he shows how we can share, rather than destroy, the varied bounties of our earth and our own communities.”
—Russ Baker, Editor, whowhatwhy.com

“Jonathan Rowe creates a whole new entry in the tired national debate between state and market: the commons.  His thinking is neither liberal nor conservative—the commons needs to be protected from the state as well as from corporations. You can see echoes of Charles Murray here as well as Philip Slater.  This is a beautiful little book.”
—Mickey Kaus, author of The End of Equality

“Our Common Wealth is a vitally important book that lights the way to putting economics in the service of human needs.
—Gregg Easterbrook, author of The Leading Indicators

“Our Common Wealth delivers a jolt of common sense. This book is Jonathan Rowe’s legacy as Small Is Beautiful is E. F. Schumacher’s.”
—Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share

“Many modern readers still appreciate Montaigne’s timeless essays on subjects both profound and personal. I fully expect citizens of future centuries to discover—and similarly appreciate—Jonathan’s remarkable insights and wisdom, too.”
—Phil Keisling, Director, Center for Public Service, Portland State University

“No one understands the depth and beauty of the commons better than Jonathan Rowe did, and none have expressed it as clearly. The best of his writing on the subject is in your hands. It will change your take on just about everything.”
—Mark Dowie, investigative journalist

“Jonathan Rowe had an enviable gift for stripping complex ideas down to their essence. No idea mattered more to him than preserving the things we all share free of charge against the encroachments of capitalism. This jewel of a book describes how the commons sustains and enriches our lives and what we can do to save it.”
—Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence

“Jonathan Rowe has bequeathed a book to us that does nothing less than make the invisible visible. After reading its crystal-clear pages, you will redouble your efforts to protect the things that matter most.”
— Alan AtKisson, author of The Sustainability Transformation

“This profoundly sensible and humane book is the perfect antidote to selfishness, greed and the mindless pursuit of profit that endangers even the air we breathe.”
—Charles Peters, founding editor, The Washington Monthly

“In both his writing and his life, Jonathan Rowe was the explorer, cartographer, and defender of the commons. This book illuminates the ways in which the commons provides a framework for all of economics.”
—Edgar Cahn, founder, TimeBanks USA

“Jonathan Rowe never shied away from an idea because it was too big, too new, or too unlikely to be taken seriously. He believed the world could be changed for the better if we look beyond clichéd notions.”
—Sam Smith, Editor, The Progressive Review

“Jonathan Rowe was perhaps the most original and provocative thinker I ever met. He was also an artist with words, a craftsman who wrote with the kind of care he saw disappearing from our hurried, consumer-centered society. While no book can do full justice to his life and thought, this one gives us a wonderful glimpse into them.”
—John de Graaf, coauthor of What’s the Economy For, Anyway? and Affluenza

Library Journal
When Rowe (former editor, Washington Monthly) died suddenly in March 2011, his work on the economic concept of "the commons" was left unfinished. Rowe's writings, composed over an 18-year period, were gathered by his associates and are presented in this slim volume edited by entrepreneur and journalist Barnes (Capitalism 3.0), with a foreword by Bill McKibben (The Global Warming Reader) and an afterword by David Bollier (cofounder, Commons Strategy Group). Rowe saw the commons as a collection of shared natural and social assets, including air, water, land, the Internet, parks, and other locations where people socially interact. The first challenge, he noted, is to acknowledge that the commons exist, given that their components are mostly invisible. Rowe discusses how a park is valued for the land it occupies, and how developing the land for the purpose of making money destroys the park and all its social and natural elements. He also explains how history has proven that communities can share common resources without destroying them. Here the case for common wealth is set forth, putting the onus on the reader. VERDICT Recommended for every tree hugger and park sitter and those who hope to gain more awareness of the world around them.—Bonnie Tollefson, Cleveland Bradley Cty. P.L., TN

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781609948351
Publisher:
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
04/01/2013
Series:
BK Currents
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
144
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

OUR COMMON WEALTH

The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work


By JONATHAN ROWE, Peter Barnes

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013Jonathan Rowe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60994-835-1


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Our Hidden Wealth


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.

That's the story of the commons, a generic term (like the market and the state) that denotes wealth we share. To use this term is to evoke a puzzled pause. You mean the government? The common people? That park in Boston? In fact, the commons includes our entire life support system, both natural and social. The air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness and fl owing water—all are parts of the commons. So are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories of childhood, the processes of democracy. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature, others the product of human endeavor. Some are new, such as the Internet; others are as ancient as soil and calligraphy.

What they have in common is that they all "belong" to all of us, if that is the word. No one has exclusive rights to them. We inherit them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us. We are "temporary possessors and life renters," as Edmund Burke wrote, and we "should not think it amongst [our] rights to commit waste on the inheritance."

Though the commons is everywhere, it is nonetheless little noticed. For economists, it is a kind of inchoate mass that awaits the vivifying hand of the market to attain life. Forests are worthless until they become timber, just as quiet is worthless until it becomes advertising. In this way of seeing things, the enclosure of a commons is always a good thing. Money passes over the commons and says, "Let there be light." The village tree becomes Fox Broadcasting, and trumpets blare in heaven.

So too in politics and the media, where the concept of the commons might as well not exist. There are no news reports on the condition of the commons, no speeches about it in the Senate. Newspapers have many pages of stock market reports but barely a word about wealth that belongs to all of us. Political debate is about the government versus the market. One camp wants to turn everything into something for sale, the other counters with programs of the state. It is a debate between Walmart and welfare, and it leaves no room for anything else.

But of course there is more. The value of the commons is beyond reckoning. Before we can protect it, though, we have to see it, and that is no small task. When we breathe the air or banter with neighbors on the sidewalk, it rarely occurs to us that we are using a commons. A commons has a quality of just being there. People don't need a contract to breathe or an insurance policy to call a neighbor for help. Nor do commons require advertising. The market is always pushing "goods" and "services" in our faces, which might raise doubts as to whether they are really good or really serve. A commons, by contrast, quietly waits to be used.


Of course, seeing the commons is only a first step; the ultimate challenge is to protect it. The solution is not to create new government agencies or programs. Rather, it is to create rules, boundaries, and property rights to protect common wealth, just as we do for private wealth.

This is a crucial point. Societies create private property and societies sustain it. Take away our legal and institutional supports and private property crumbles.

If private wealth requires such an array of props, it is not surprising that common wealth needs as many or more. Private property has lawyers, lobbyists, and bankers on its side. Common wealth, by contrast, is poorly organized, cash short, and inherently nonaggressive. In other words, it needs help.

What forms should such help take? The government should not run a commons any more than it should run businesses, but it can and should set boundaries. For example, it can restrict suburban sprawl through zoning, reserve more of the public airwaves for noncommercial use, and keep the Internet from being taken over by large corporations. Steps like these would not mean more government intrusion into economic, environmental, and social space. Rather, they would make it possible for something besides corporations to occupy these spaces.

Regarding the natural environment, the case is especially strong. The oceans and atmosphere do not belong to government or private corporations. They belong to all of us, and we need institutions that reflect this. One can imagine, for example, trusts that receive polluters' payments and distribute them to all of us as owners. Such institutions would reflect the fact that there are common rights to clean air and water, just as there are private rights to the factories that pollute them. Put commoners in charge of the air, let us charge polluters for using it, and we'll see a lot less pollution than we do now.

CHAPTER 2

How Tragic Is the Commons?


In the belief system called economics, it is an article of faith that commons are inherently tragic. Almost by definition, they are tragic because they are prone to overuse. What belongs to all belongs to none, and only private or state ownership can rescue a commons from the sad fate that will otherwise befall it.

The standard reference for this belief is an article that appeared in Science in 1968 called "The Tragedy of the Commons." 1 Though the author, Garrett Hardin, was a biologist, his article was strangely lacking in scientific inquiry. It was more like economics—an extrapolation from assumptions rather than an investigation of reality.

Hardin assumed that all commons are free-for-alls. He bid his readers to "picture" a hypothetical pasture peopled with hypothetical herders. These herders existed outside of any social structure and lacked even a capacity to talk with one another. They all behaved according to what the economics texts call "rationality": they let their herds loose in the pasture in a single-minded effort to maximize their own gain, with no thought for the future or for anybody else. Under those assumptions, tragedy is a foregone conclusion.

What Hardin overlooked is that people do not necessarily behave as economists assume they do. As historian E. P. Thompson observed, Hardin failed to grasp "that commoners themselves were not without common sense." Thompson was referring specifically to the common-field agriculture of his own England. Households had
(Continues...)


Excerpted from OUR COMMON WEALTH by JONATHAN ROWE. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Rowe. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“It’s not too much to say that our future as a species requires grasping the ideas in this book.”
—from the foreword by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

Meet the Author

Jonathan Rowe was a Nader’s “Raider,” a US Senate aide, an editor at the Washington Monthly, and cofounder of OntheCommons.org.
Peter Barnes (editor) is a cofounder of Working Assets/Credo and the author of Capitalism 3.0.

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