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Re-imaging Politics through the Lens of the Commons

By David Bollier - David Bollier, October 2, 2017

The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?   Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.   Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.   The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.

The Net Economic Impacts of California’s Major Climate Programs in the Inland Empire

By Betony Jones, Kevin Duncan, Ethan N. Elkind and Marilee Hanson - UC Labor Center, August 3, 2017

As the metropolis of Los Angeles spread east and Southern California industry shifted after World War II from manufacturing war supplies to a consumer economy, the sweeping groves of the Orange Empire gave way to the sprawling housing developments of the Inland Empire. Located in the valleys and foothills east of Los Angeles and north of San Diego, the Inland Empire is defined here as Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Situated in a strategically important area inland from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the Inland Empire has been a hub for the transportation of goods and people since its initial development. After the economic downturn of 2008-09, the region emerged as a powerhouse in the blossoming logistics and warehousing industry;1 transportation and warehousing employ 7 percent of the region’s workers (compared with 5 percent statewide).2 In addition, the Inland Empire has always included many “bedroom communities” for the Los Angeles area: about 44 percent of Inland Empire workers travel 30 or more minutes each way to work.3

But this economic shift has come with an environmental cost. Industrial air pollution has directly affected the lives of Inland Empire residents since World War II, when a steel plant was built in the San Bernardino County town of Fontana. The air quality challenges have become more pressing with the growth in automobile traffic in the Los Angeles area, as prevailing winds bring smog into the region.4 The Empire’s valleys also trap the area’s own air pollution from the truck, automobile, and train traffic running through the region, connecting the ports to the west with the major throughways to the east.5

In addition to the environment, the economy of the region is also fragile. The Inland Empire makes up over 11 percent of California’s population,6 but incomes and employment lag behind much of the state. Per capita income is about $23,000 compared with a state average of over $30,000, placing it among the lowest earning metropolitan areas in California. More than 17.5 percent of the population was living below the federal poverty line in 2015 ($24,250 for a family of four), compared to 14.7 percent of California’s entire population.7 The environmental and economic challenges facing the Inland Empire make it an important region in which to study the economic impacts of the state’s climate programs.

This report offers a quantitative assessment of the net economic impacts between 2010 and 2016 in the Inland Empire of four of California’s major climate programs and policies: cap and trade, the renewables portfolio standard (RPS), distributed solar programs (including the California Solar Initiative), and investor-owned utility (IOU) ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs, overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It also includes projections and factors affecting the impacts of these programs on the region through 2030.

Results for the four programs and policies investigated are summarized below. The findings indicate that California’s major climate policies have had net economic benefits in the Inland Empire.

Kate Raworth on 'Doughnut Economics'

Kate Raworth interviewed by Adam Simpson - The Next System Project, August 23, 2017

A Bank Even a Socialist Could Love

By David Dayen - In These Times, April 17, 2017

“Money is a utility that belongs to all of us,” says Walt McRee. McRee is a velvety-voiced former broadcaster now plotting an audacious challenge to the financial system. He’s leading a monthly conference call as chair of the Public Banking Institute (PBI), an educational and advocacy force formed seven years ago to break Wall Street’s stranglehold on state and municipal finance. 

“This is one of the biggest eye-openers of my life,” says Rebecca Burke, a New Jersey activist on the call. “Once you see it, you can’t look back.” 

This ragtag group—former teachers, small business owners, social workers— wants to charter state and local banks across the country. These banks would leverage tax revenue to make low-interest loans for local public works projects, small businesses, affordable housing and student loans, spurring economic growth while saving people—and the government—money. 

At the heart of the public banking concept is a theory about the best way to put America’s abundance of wealth to use. Cities and states typically keep their cash reserves either in Wall Street banks or in low-risk investments. This money tends not to go very far. In California, for example, the Pooled Money Investment Account, an agglomeration of $69.5 billion in state and local revenues, has a modest monthly yield of around three-quarters of a percent. 

When state or local governments fund large-scale projects not covered by taxes, they generally either borrow from the bond market at high interest rates or enter into a public-private partnership with investors, who often don’t have community needs at heart. 

Wall Street banks have used shady financial instruments to extract billions from unsuspecting localities, helping devastate places like Jefferson County, Ala. Making the wrong bet with debt, like the Kentucky county that built a jail but couldn’t fill it with prisoners, can cripple communities. 

Even under the best conditions, municipal bonds—an enormous, $3.8 trillion market—can cost taxpayers. According to Ellen Brown, the intellectual godmother of the public banking movement, debt-based financing often accounts for around half the total cost of an infrastructure project. For example, the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge cost $6.3 billion to build, but paying off the bonds will bring the price tag closer to $13 billion, according to a 2014 report from the California legislature. 

Public banks reduce costs in two ways. First, they can offer lower interest rates and fees because they’re not for-profit businesses trying to maximize returns. Second, because the banks are publicly owned, any profit flows back to the city or state, virtually eliminating financing costs and providing governments with extra revenue at no cost to taxpayers. 

The Revolution in Work Calls for an Evolution in Living

By Graham Peebles - CounterPunch, March 17, 2017

Poverty blights the lives of billions of people throughout the world: in developing countries, where it is acute, and industrialised nations, where it’s hidden but growing. It rises out of social injustice, makes exploitation and abuse inevitable, brings death and disease, robs people of opportunity and dignity, feeds anger and resentment.

Much like the rubbish that litters the streets of our cities, the poor, destitute and hungry are swept out of sight. Their existence is an embarrassment to politicians and sits uncomfortably within the shiny materialistic image promoted by cities and countries eager to attract ‘inward investment’.

As more jobs become obsolete due to new technology and the closure of traditional industries, unemployment is set to rise, incomes disappear, and, unless there is a radical reappraisal of the economic environment, poverty levels will rise, perhaps exponentially. In fact, with wages stagnant many of those now living in poverty are actually in work – the ‘working poor’ – trying to survive on a pittance, many of whom cannot feed themselves without the support of food banks.

DAPL Doesn’t Make Economic Sense

By Mark Paul - Dollars and Sense, February 2017

Last week, Donald Trump signed an executive order to advance approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines. This should come as no surprise, as Trump continues to fill his administration with climate deniers, ranging from the negligent choice of Rick Perry as energy secretary to Scott Pruitt as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, a man who stated last year that “scientists continue to disagree” on humans role in climate change may very well take the “Protection” out of the EPA, despite a majority of Americans—including a majority of Republicans—wanting the EPA’s power to be maintained or strengthened.

As environmental economists, my colleague Anders Fremstad and I were concerned. We crunched the numbers on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The verdict? Annual emissions associated with the oil pumped through the pipeline will impose a $4.6 billion burden on current and future generations.

First and foremost, the debate about DAPL should be about tribal rights and the right to clean water. Under the Obama administration, that seemed to carry some clout. Caving to pressure from protesters and an unprecedented gathering of more than a hundred tribes, Obama did indeed halt the DAPL, if only for a time. Under Trump and his crony capitalism mentality, the fight over the pipeline appears to be about corporate profits over tribal rights. Following Trump’s Executive Order to advance the pipeline, the Army Corps of Engineers has been ordered to approve the final easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners to complete the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux have vowed to take legal action against the decision.

While the pipeline was originally scheduled to cross the Missouri River closer to Bismarck, authorities decided there was too much risk associated with locating the pipeline near the capital’s drinking water. They decided instead to follow the same rationale used by Lawrence Summers, then the chief economist of the World Bank, elucidated in an infamous memo stating “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” That same logic holds for the low wage counties and towns in the United States. The link between environmental quality and economic inequality is clear—corporations pollute on the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable; in other words, those with the least resources to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment.

The Great Deceleration

By Alex Jensen - CounterPunch, December 2, 2016

In 2015, a major study of 24 indicators of human activity and environmental decline titled ‘The Great Acceleration’ concluded that, “The last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind”.[1] We have all seen aspects of these trends, but to look at the study’s 24 graphs together is to apprehend, at a glance, the totality of the monstrous scale and speed of modern economic activity. According to lead author W. Steffen, “It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force.”[2]

Every indicator of intensity and scale of economic activity — from global trade and investment to water and fertilizer use, from pollution of every sort to destruction of environments and biodiversity — has shot up, precipitously, beginning around 1950. The graphs for every such trend point skyward still.

The Great Acceleration is manifest everywhere, including many areas not covered in the study. It is impossible to directly, humanly appreciate the ghastly scale of change. Only statistics can do that. For example:

  • Humans now extract and move more physical material than all natural processes combined. Global material extraction has grown by more than 90 percent over the past 30 years, reaching almost 70 billion tons today.[3]
  • In this century “global economic output expanded roughly 20-fold, resulting in a jump in demand for different resources of anywhere between 600 and 2,000 percent”.[4]
  • For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise.[5] Today, around 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. “About two thirds of this is for packaging; globally, this translates to 170 million tons of plastic largely created to be disposed of after one use.”[6]
  • The global sale of packaged foods has jumped more than 90 percent over the last decade, with 2012 sales topping $2.2 trillion.[7]
  • “In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares… has been taken over by four industrial crops: soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. These crops don’t feed people. They are grown to feed the agro-industrial complex.”[8]

Not only are the scale and speed of materials extraction, production, consumption and waste ballooning, but so too the scale and pace of the movement of materials through global trade. For instance, trade volumes in physical terms have increased by a factor of 2.5 over the past 30 years. In 2009, 2.3 billion tons of raw materials and products were traded around the globe.[9] Maritime traffic on the world’s oceans has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air and noise pollution on the open seas.[10]

Post-Growth and Post-Extractivism: Two Sides of the Same Cultural Transformation

By Alberto Acosta; Translated by Dana Brablec - Alternautas, June 4, 2016

Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race travelling in the train applies the emergency brake.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

The centrality of externalities to economic understanding

By Brian Davey - Credo, July 31, 2016

What economists call “externalities” are not unusual or a special case, they are ubiquitous. They are rooted in private property and the relationships of market society. The way in which non market societies protect bio-diversity through totem arrangements is described.

Walton Family, Owners of Walmart, Using Their Billions To Attack Rooftop Solar

By Mike Gaworecki - DeSmog Blog, November 16, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A recent trend has seen utilities deciding that since they haven't been able to beat back the rise of rooftop solar companies, they might as well join them (or at least steal their business model). But the Walton Family, owners of Walmart as well as a stake in a manufacturer of solar arrays for utilties, aren't ready to give up the fight.

A new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has found that, through their Walton Family Foundation, the Waltons have given $4.5 million dollars to groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Americans for Prosperity—groups that are attacking renewable energy policies at the state level and, specifically, pushing for fees on rooftop solar installations. The head of ALEC has even gone so far as to denigrate owners of rooftop solar installations as “freeriders.”

But support for groups seeking to halt the rise of clean energy is only half the story. According to Vice News, the Waltons own a 30% stake in First Solar, a company that makes solar arrays for power plants as “an economically attractive alternative or complement to fossil fuel electricity generation,” per its 2013 annual report, which also identifies “competitors who may gain in profitability and financial strength over time by successfully participating in the global rooftop PV solar market” as a threat to First Solar's future profitability.

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