The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work
A huge part of our economy is invisible, invaluable, and under siege. "The commons" is a term that denotes everything we share as opposed to own privately. 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 squares, the Internet, our languages, cultures, technologies, and infrastructure. In graceful and down-to-earth prose, Jonathan Rowe illuminates the scale and value of the commons, its symbiotic relationship with the rest of the economy, its importance to our personal and planetary well-being, and how it is threatened by privatization and neglect.
Rowe also describes a growing movement to recognize and defend the commons on many fronts: community initiatives, legal actions, and visionary proposals such as a "sky trust" to charge polluters and distribute the proceeds to all of us. Simple gestures can be powerful too: Rowe relates how he set some benches in a vacant lot and watched a public gathering space take shape.
For decades, people have defended the commons and not known it. They've battled pollution, development, corporate marketing assaults on their kids, and many other attacks on common wealth. What's been missing is a story that unifies all these seemingly unrelated battles with the force of a powerful idea. This is what Jonathan Rowe provides in this thought-provoking book.
A s Highway 1 winds north from San Francisco along the Pacific coast, a rusty road sign proclaims, "Point Reyes Station--Population 350." That's an understatement these days, but it aptly reflects the way Jonathan Rowe, who lived here for the last decade of his life, thought about the town. Sure, parking is sometimes hard to find on Main Street and the feed barn now includes an espresso bar, but Point Reyes Station is still a very quiet place, nestled amid nature and farms, with friendly merchants, a local newspaper (two, actually), and caring neighbors. Which is how Jonathan Rowe thought the world ought to be.
I met Jonathan long before either of us lived here. We first connected in Washington in the 1970s when I was a reporter for The New Republic and he, a recent law school graduate, was among Ralph Nader's first "Raiders." We clicked instantly and remained close friends (and eventually neighbors) until his sudden death in 2011.
Jonathan was a brilliant, complex, and somewhat quirky man. Other adjectives that could be applied to him include humble, deeply religious (in the best sense), and loving. He was both a thinker and a doer, with each activity enriching the other. And he was a wonderful, almost poetic, storyteller. He made his graceful paragraphs seem effortless, though of course they never were.
Jonathan grew up in small towns on Cape Cod. The arc of his life flowed through Boston, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, with a detour through Philadelphia, but his small-town roots never left him. After Nader he worked for a mayor of Washington (Marion Barry) and a U. S. Senator (Byron Dorgan of North Dakota). He wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and many other journals. His achievements are too numerous to list here, but one is worth special note: his slow and difficult ascent from stutterer to radio talk show host.
Intellectually, Jonathan journeyed too. At Harvard in the 1960s he was a Goldwater Republican. Gradually and somewhat reluctantly, he shifted to the left. Yet all his life he retained the temperament of a Burkean conservative, and one of his great disappointments was seeing the conservative movement taken over by billionaires, yahoos, and zealots. His writings covered many subjects. What unified them were lifelong preferences for small over big, local over distant, and nonmonetary over monetary relationships. These were the source of his passion for the commons.
Jonathan was what you might call a scalist, someone who thinks scale is really important, possibly more important than anything else, and that there are such things as enough and too much. Eat one cheeseburger and you feel great, eat two and you're stuffed, eat three and you're sick. The optimal scale for a human community is substantially greater than one, but never greater than the number of people who can sort of know each other, or so Jonathan thought. Similarly, the optimal quantity of many sorts of human activity is far short of infinity, yet we seemingly don't know when or how to slow down.
Jonathan didn't discover, or more precisely, name, the commons until late in his life. In the mid-1990s he moved to San Francisco to work with a now-defunct think tank called Redefining Progress. The group's premise was that what mainstream economists call "progress" is in fact the opposite. Since the 1970s, the think tank argued, economic growth in the United States has led to less happiness, not more. In this spirit, Jonathan lead-authored a much-discussed Atlantic Monthly article called "If the GDP Is Up, Why Is America Down?" 1 The group's remedies for this dissonance were better economic indicators (down with GDP!) and taxes on "bads" like pollution instead of "goods" like labor.
Such remedies were not entirely satisfying to Jonathan; they felt more technical than human. What Jonathan wanted was to revivify a whole spectrum of human activity that was small, local, and mostly nonmonetary. He knew such activity was widespread, but it didn't have a name. After much thought, he stuck an old but appropriate tag on it: "the commons." Once he took this leap, a whole world opened up.
J ONATHAN ' S FIRST ARTICLE MENTIONING " THE COMMONS " was published in 2001 in The American Prospect. 2 It was not about the commons per se, but about a time banking system invented by his friend Edgar Cahn. (See chapter 18, "Time Banking.") In the system, members of a community provide services for each other at no cost. For each hour members help one another, they get credit recorded in a computer that they can draw on when they need help themselves. In the article Jonathan traced the system's roots to colonial days when settlers built cohesive communities around a common pasture.
Soon Jonathan had constructed a larger narrative that saw the commons as a collection of many shared natural and social assets, including the Earth's ecosystems, the ecologies of small communities, the Internet, and our collective achievements in a myriad of fields. This is a much larger vision of the commons than we are accustomed to. In it, the commons is a vast economic realm, comparable in scale to the market and just as important. "It is a parallel economy that does real work," Jonathan would write later, "a counterpoise to the market that provides antidotes to many pathologies of the modern age." Moreover, this broadly conceived commons is far from being a relic; in fact, it is needed today more than ever. "At the start of the industrial age, products were scarce and commons abundant. All the 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."
What unifies this extremely diverse sector are its operating principles. Unlike the market, which is organized to maximize short-term private gain, the commons is (or should be) organized to preserve shared assets for future generations and to spread their benefits more or less equally among the living. If government nurtured this sector as zealously as it nurtures the market, the modern world would be a healthier and happier place.