A good boiled frog recipe can be found in one of Daniel Quinn’s lesser known novels, “The Story of B.”
“If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.”
A new report issued by Friends Of The Commons called “The State of the Commons 2003/2004” helps us to see our boiling condition (see www.friendsofthecommons.org).
What are the Commons? “It embraces all the creations of nature and society that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations,” the report says.
What are Common assets? “Those parts of the commons that have a value in the market. Radio airwaves are a common asset, as are timber and minerals on public lands. So, increasingly, are air and water.”
The concept of the Commons may be foreign to most but it’s been around for a long time.The Romans, for example, distinguished between three types of property: res privatae, res publicae and res communes, as the report points out.
Res privatae consisted of things that could be possessed by individuals or families. Res publicae were those things set aside for public use by the state i.e. transporation infrastructure. Res communes consisted of natural things used by all of us, such as air and water.
During the Middle Ages the Commons were shared lands used by villagers for hunting, crop planting and wood gathering. The 1215 Magna Carta established forests and fisheries as res communes, natural resources available for everyone.
The idea of the Commons can also be seen in America’s founding, which is why Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky established themselves as “Commonwealths.”
Jonathan Rowe, one of the report’s co-authors, explained to me how they set out to write the report. “We asked ourselves, ‘What would a corporate annual report look like if it were written for stakeholders in common assets instead of for shareholders in cor-porate assets?'”
“We wanted to turn a corporate annual report inside out, and start to turn what economists call ‘externalities’ into the internalities that they are in terms of human health and well being.”
Did you know that economists primary method of ascertaining economic health is by calculating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – an adding machine that can’t subtract? Social ills like divorce, crime and pollution the GDP counts as good for the economy. Why? Divorce means second homes. Crime boosts private security business and envi-ronmental clean-up is a booming industry.
In other words, we have a system that privatizes profit while socializing risks and costs, which means the bulk of the social costs associated with “economic development” are shouldered by those least able to do so, as Chomsky has pointed out on numerous occassions.
Of course, the value of our common wealth is beyond measure, though there are as-pects of it that can be roughly quantified, the report argues. In fact, the report says, the value of our common wealth is worth more than the estimated $40 trillion value of our nation’s private wealth.
Take the airwaves as one small example. “The broadcast spectrum is worth roughly three-quaters of a trillion dollars. Yet much of it has been given away to commercial broadcasters for free,” the report says.
“Benjamin Franklin never got a patent on the Franklin Stove, nor did Jonas Salk get a patent on his polio vaccine. But today a patent frenzy has turned research labs and even farms into lawyer heaven. The Mosanto Corp. has brought over 400 lawsuits against farmers for alleged misue of its patented seeds.”
One of the report’s many recommendations is to establish common property rights that would force polluters to pay into specified trusts and use the money to replenish the common wealth, which runs counter to last week’s Senate rejection of mandatory caps for greenhouse gas emissions and the recent EPA rule change that widened the definition of “routine maintanence” for power plants, giving major polluters more latitude to “modernize” their facilities without having to install pollution controls.
Of course, the Friends Of The Commons call for strengthening common property rights is a far cry from Mike Albert’s more radical vision of participatory economics but perhaps it can serve as one of the many entry points on the road to democratic economic life.
The cauldron bubbles with boiling water and they say frog tastes like chicken. Question is: are we too chicken to leap frog out of the pot?
ZNet commentator Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times reporter and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]