Tuesday, July 6, 2010

From the Commons High of 4th of July to How ROUGH Social Equity Should Be?

Fourth of July is a day when the commons is actually felt, not just theorized in the abstract. From community parades and concerts of patriotic music, to neighborhood barbeques and kids enjoying impromptu pools and sprinklers, we share our public spaces in a way that is rare. And unlike other holidays, there isn’t much of a consumerist element to the day (aside from good food and drinks). It is fitting (yet ironic) that we celebrate our nation’s independence in the commons. But now that the glow of the fireworks has faded into that faint odor of chemical smoke, it’s back to a different (but more routine) form of independence – the rugged independence of our ‘you’re-on-your-own’ economy.

For many of us, the end of the holiday weekend marked a return to the daily grind of work. But for at least 15 million people, they’re dealing with grinding unemployment. And for more than 2 million of those who are officially ‘unemployed’, they went into this Independence Day weighed down by the knowledge that they were losing their unemployment insurance.

The fact that many millions of people are struggling economically illustrates how weak our commons has become. As we’ve discussed before, rough social equity is essential to having the chance of a healthy commons. But the struggles of the millions of unemployed and discouraged workers (who don’t count in the official unemployment count anymore because they’ve given up on applying for jobs that aren’t out there) are not just due to the current recession; it’s a feature of our economic system.

At the end of June, the U.S. Census Bureau ended its period of public comment on developing a supplemental poverty measure (download the Federal Register announcement here). People from all ends of the political spectrum agree that a new poverty measure is needed. The official poverty measure was developed in the 1960s, based on the food costs of families, which are now a much smaller portion of a family budget compared to rent, transportation and healthcare. So there’s no doubt that the poverty rate needs updating, but if we’re going to take the commons seriously, we should be exploring relative measures instead of just establishing the bare minimum.

Bringing about rough social equity poses a challenging question for us: “How unequal should our incomes be?” That question got addressed by the working-class perspectives blog this week (referencing The Spirit Level) and concludes that the optimal level of inequality is for the top tenth should get one third of all income (down from the half of all income they get now).

I wonder if commons-based thinking leads us in a different direction. Do we also reject the idea of absolute income equality? (personally, it makes me uncomfortable) And if so, do we reject the notion of equality on the basis that it would kill economic growth (particularly in light of the environmental catastrophe that our addiction to growth has created)? If rough social equity is essential to a healthy commons, the other side of that equity’s roughness is (presumably) some acceptable level of inequality. So how unequal should our economy be from a commons perspective?

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