Meeting on the Commons

Friday, February 26, in history – on this day, in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure establishing Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and on February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a measure establishing Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. No one took to the streets in protest. No one claimed this was the end of America as we know it. In each case it seemed like a good idea at the time, and a good idea in general. In fact you may have caught Ken Burns’ latest PBS series on our national parks, America’s Best Idea. Apparently it wasn’t Pop-Tarts. It was setting aside the best and most amazing places for everyone to enjoy, and to protect those places from being exploited for profit, keeping them pretty much as they were, except for modest roads in, some parking at the edges, the unobtrusive hiking trails and a few restrooms. Everyone shares these places and no one owns them. The government administers what few operations are necessary – upkeep of access and the few facilities – and that’s that. The modest amount of tax money that takes bothers no one. These are common facilities, after all. In fact they’re our Commons.

And everyone is comfortable with that concept, an old one. Before there was America there was the Boston Common – although there was some problem with that. It wasn’t until 1830 that matters were settled and everyone agreed that, no, that was a place for everyone, as it is today. Americans do argue over what constitutes The Commons – resources that are collectively owned, and thus owned by no one. And the process by which the commons are transformed into private property is called enclosure, a conflict in many an eighteenth or nineteenth century British novel. The idea is that forests, fisheries or grazing land are something we all share – so when the Sheriff of Nottingham tells Robin Hood he’s poaching, Robin Hood laughs in his face and we all smile. And out here the problem is surfing in Malibu. The good waves are owned by no one, but the rich Hollywood folks own access to the waves, expensive beachfront property, with amazing fifty-million-dollar homes, and that’s private property. As they say, you can’t get there from here. And the lawsuits never seem to end.

Of course the commons generally includes public goods – public space (even if sometimes not the access to it), public education, and the infrastructure that allows what we have going on here to function, like roads and electricity and water delivery and sewage systems. It’s just the basic stuff.

But even there there’s a countertrend, as some hold that many of these things should be commoditized – you know, things would be better if all the public schools were closed and education were entirely for-profit, so there’d be competition, and good schools would make a ton of money and bad schools would go under, as they should. Sure, such schools might end up massively exclusionary, to increase profits, but they’d be damned good. And you hear the same argument made about other public services. Out here, for a time, Enron provided much of the state’s electric power, trading and swapping energy contracts and making big money – this didn’t have to be public and regulated. The market is always more efficient than the government. Of course that didn’t work out well – the brownouts and blackouts brought the state to a halt, and the cost of electricity doubled and doubled again until it was twenty times higher than it ever was, as Enron could do that if they wanted, and did – and in July 2001 the feds had to intervene. And once again electric service is considered part of the commons, for now.

It seems we need to keep thinking about these things, as explained in an article by Garrett Hardin first published in the journal Science in 1968, The Tragedy of the Commons:

The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Central to Hardin’s article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd), of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

Ah, there’s the rub. With shared resources, an individual, making a rational economic decision, exercises his right to the common resource and receives all the benefits of it, and the irreversible damage to the common is shared by the entire group – everyone pays for that one guy’s goodies, so to speak, while everything is ruined. It’s just not right.

And that’s at the core of the current bitter disagreements about healthcare reform – whether basic healthcare services are, like roads and sewage systems – part of the commons. Or have basic healthcare services been rightly commoditized – something you pay for, if you wish, or if you can, where large insurance companies, hospital chains and giant pharmaceutical make big money, and provide amazing services and products, that people are willing to pay for? Currently, after the Obama healthcare summit, the Republicans are fanning out across the country saying America has the best healthcare in the world – and it does. You just have to pay big bucks for access to it. But the argument is there:

In a mid-afternoon session devoted to the deficit, House Republican Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio unleashed a broad attack on the entire plan, calling parts of it unconstitutional. “This 2,700-page bill will help bankrupt our country,” Boehner said. He labeled it “a dangerous experiment with the best healthcare system in the world. … I could go on and on and on.”

And the argument goes on and on. And it’s not new:

During the second presidential debate, on Tuesday October 7, both candidates focused on putting healthcare reform at the center of their plans to restore the health of the economy. The word “health” was mentioned 47 times during that debate. But reflecting their starkly different philosophies, the two senators differed dramatically on whether healthcare is a ‘right’ or a personal ‘responsibility.’

Responding to that question, Senator McCain put the onus for health care squarely on the individual.

So, basically, if you cannot afford access to the best healthcare in the world, get a better job and earn real money. This is not part of the commons. We have a private system. If you want to surf, buy your own beachfront property.

And James Surowiecki just doesn’t believe that compromise was ever possible on healthcare:

For Republicans, the current health-insurance system works reasonably well – in their minds, it’s a key part of what they kept referring to as “the best health-care system in the world” – and therefore whatever changes need to be should be small. The Republicans kept using the word “incremental” to describe their proposed changes, but this is really a red herring, in the sense that it implies that their ultimate goal is to dramatically revamp the current health-insurance system, and that they simply want to do so more slowly than Democrats.

That’s not accurate: the Republicans are reasonably satisfied with what’s currently in place. The fact that tens of millions of Americans don’t have health insurance is not, in their mind, an issue that government should be trying to solve- at least not if it will cost any real money.

But if you do want to cut costs, consider an idea from a governor who wants to be the next president. From The Hill, Tim Pawlenty says it is high time to let emergency rooms turn away patients to cut costs:

Emergency rooms should be able to turn patients away to cut costs, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) said last night. Appearing on Fox News’s “On the Record with Greta Van Sustren” last night, Pawlenty said the federal law that mandates ER treatment should be repealed.

The idea is like the one about the cows in the Hardin article – the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result of people who just, well, use it, in this case without paying. But underlying this is the idea that there is really is no commons here. We’re dealing with poachers. And Tim Pawlenty is the Sheriff of Nottingham, who Pawlenty seems to think was the hero of those tales.

David Sirota sees this operating in a broader sense in Glenn Beck’s keynote speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference:

Beck began his speech posing as a libertarian against “big government.” Notice that most Republican icons are now doing this, though not all resemble Beck – not all of them previously pushed the big-government Patriot Act or the even-bigger-government bank bailout.

From there, Beck worked up a drenching sweat, criticizing Theodore Roosevelt’s notion that we should make sure the accumulation of wealth is “honorably obtained” and “represents benefit to the community.” … Beck called that concept of “community” a “cancer” that “is not our Founders’ idea of America” – somehow forgetting the notions of community and solidarity inherent in the Founders’ “Join or Die” motto. …

To wild applause, he labeled this alleged tumor of “community” the supposedly evil “progressivism” – and he told disciples to “eradicate it” from the nation.

It seems there are no commons, as such. The Founders’ idea of America hated the whole idea the commons, and hated the concept of community itself. What, you didn’t know that? You obviously haven’t studied American political history and the theory of government as extensively as Beck.

Of course Sirota is a tad worried by all this:

No doubt, some conservatives will parse, insisting Beck was only endorsing the “eradication” of progressivism but not of progressives. These same willful ignoramuses will also likely say that the Nazis’ beef was with Judaism but not Jews, and that white supremacists dislike African-American culture, but have no problem with black people.

Other conservatives will surely depict Beck’s “eradication” line as just the jest of a self-described “rodeo clown” – merely the “fusion of entertainment and enlightenment,” as his radio motto intones. But if Beck is half as smart as he incessantly tells listeners he is – then he knows it’s no joke.

In a melting-pot nation of slave descendants and immigrant refugees haunted by ancestral memories of despotic violence, Beck is deliberately employing coded and menacing language, warning his opponents not to believe Sinclair Lewis’ refrain that such horror “can’t happen here.” Beck wants adversaries to know that it can and it will – to them, and at his movement’s hands.

Should one worry, with Beck and Sarah Palin considered by many the best and most insightful thinkers of big thoughts of our age? Perhaps – but some don’t think that, yet. Still, the issue keeps coming back to the concept of the commons. And the brilliant Glenn Beck with his seven PhD’s and storied academic career and deep insightful books on Locke and Richelieu and… No, wait. He is who he is.

But you do find the real thinkers of the conservative side of thing in America saying curiously parallel things, like Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review, two of their best, saying things like this:

The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them – like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.

So it’s not just healthcare, it’s everything those losers in other nations think should be part of the commons – government child care, or gun control, or mass transit.

And that last item sets off Matthew Yglesias:

Sometimes I want to say that something about mass transit drives conservatives batty. Other times I want to say that the conservative discourse about mass transit simply illustrates the fact that it’s an ideology driven by inchoate resentments rather than any ideas about policy or the role of government.

But he says Matthew Schmitz handles the allegation that mass transit is a “socialistic program” or “infringement on our liberty” quite well. It’s simple. Compared to what?

Presumably they think this because mass transit is built and administered by the government and supported, quite often, by taxes. But the exact same thing is true of highways. Would Lowry and Ponnuru denounce the Interstate system as socialistic on the same grounds?

Perhaps, if pressed, they would. But probably not, as that’s best left to Beck. And Yglesias adds this:

But of course they have nothing to say about genuine infringements of liberty like minimum parking requirements, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, prohibitions on accessory dwellings, etc. that are mainstays of America’s centrally planned suburbs. That’s because to them what really matters isn’t socialism or liberty (certainly nobody who cares about liberty could be as enthusiastic about torture as National Review writers are) but Americanness.

Even here, though, their critique falls badly flat. The world’s largest subway systems are in Japan and South Korea – not socialistic Europe – followed by New York City right here in the United States. Multiple-unit train control was invented in Chicago, as part of the world’s first electrically driven railway. I believe that all of the world’s 24-hour rapid transit systems (NYC Subway, Chicago L, NY-NJ PATH) are in the United States of America.

So you get nonsense:

But here the problem is that merely being located in the United States of America isn’t good enough to pass the inane identity politics litmus tests of the contemporary right – New York City isn’t America (except for purposes of exploiting 9/11 on behalf of torture and aggressive war) nor are Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, etc “really” American.

So therefore mass transit is un-American and therefore it’s socialist, so it follows that anyone who wants to build mass transit is doing so out of socialistic hatred for the United States.

Yep, you can go crazy when you have to deal with what should be the Common – and what not. And Yglesias later returns to the issue:

In this telling, there’s something insidious about asking if they don’t do something better someplace else. But of course another way of looking at it is that you by definition can’t find examples of alternatives to the US status quo by looking at the US. That’s why you regularly see the Cato Institute touting Chile’s pension system or Heritage extolling the virtues of Sweden’s K-12 education or David Frum talking up French nuclear power. After all, we’ve never attempted to shift from a guaranteed pay-as-you-go pension system to a mandatory savings one in the United States. Nor do we have any examples of widespread operation of public elementary schools by for-profit firms. Nor do we have a robust nuclear power sector. So if you want to explore these ideas – ideas that conservatives often do want to explore – you need to look at models from abroad.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! So why isn’t it okay for liberals to talk about French health care or Finnish education or Danish energy policy?

He offers this answer:

As Barack Obama once said, when you look at the right sometimes it’s like they’re proud of being ignorant.

But that misses the mark. The problem is the Common. They want none of that concept, or very little of it, even if their arguments veer off into fact-free absurdity and those wispy inchoate resentments. But they do have ideas about policy or the role of government. Both things are bad ideas.

And in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch looks at the state of the Republican Party, working to assimilate the Tea Party crowd, or the other way around, and he sees George Wallace, but not the racist:

Like Wallace and his supporters 40 years ago, today’s conservative populists are long on anger and short on coherence. For Wallace, small-government rhetoric was a trope, not a workable agenda. The same is true of his Republican heirs today, who insist that spending cuts alone, without tax increases, will restore fiscal balance but who have not proposed anywhere near enough spending cuts, primarily because they can’t.

But it comes down to this:

I am saying three things.

First, with the important exception of race, not one of Wallace’s central themes, from his bristling nationalism and his court-bashing to his anti-intellectualism and his aggressive provincialism, would seem out of place at any major Republican gathering today.

Second, and again leaving race aside, any Republican politician who publicly renounced the Wallace playbook would be finished as a national leader.

Third, by becoming George Wallace’s party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today.

His thought is that conservatism “is wary of extremism and rage and anti-intellectualism, of demagoguery and incoherent revolutionary rhetoric” – so Wallace was a right-wing populist, not a conservative, if that matters.

But it is a matter of the Common. And on Friday, February 26, the anniversary of the establishment of those two major national parks, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly discussed Obama and the whole concept of the Common on Fox News:

Beck said, “If you want to be technically accurate, he’s not a not a Marxist. He’s not a Socialist. He is a Progressive… the spirit of it. The idea is people don’t understand what progressive really means. The difference between Marxism and Progressivism is Marxism has a revolution, like what Van Jones would like to do. Progressivism says bit by bit we’ll eat at the Constitution in the name of progress.”

O’Reilly defined progressivism as, “Progressivism wants to take your stuff. That’s it. That’s what it is. They want to take your stuff.”

Beck added, “I will go a step further. They don’t just want to take your stuff. They want to control every element of your life.”

O’Reilly wouldn’t quite go that far, “Maybe… I don’t think Obama cares what you do in your spare time.”

Well, it gets harder to discuss the Common all the time. It’s always been a problem. It’s the damned surfers and cowherders of course.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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