GEOGRAPHIES OF REFERENCE

My young friend (and nephew) Florian Pellet recently posted a 1997 article from the Cato Institute (Boaz, David. Creating a Framework for Utopia, Vol. 31, No. 6, November/December 1997) as an interrogation on what it means to be a libertarian. The article coincides with a number of my own preoccupations regarding the management and care of public spaces. As I am into my 18th year living in France and it has been 15 years since the article appeared, I believe this article is ready for commentary: the key insights concern not only time and historical context, but essentially geography. Here’s why.

The article, “Creating a Framework for Utopia” offers an enticing view of the Libertarian philosophy as a philosophy of individual liberty and community self-determination. It makes a strong argument for the freedom to innovate and the right to self-determination. But, as the author implies clearly in his title, “Creating a Framework for Utopia”, he is not concerned with practicalities but with daydreaming about a world in which we are free to pursue our dreams unfettered by practical consideration.

As a plea for a libertarian Utopia, a number of major fallacies very quickly become evident. The first, and the least forgivable of the author’s intellectual shortcuts is his very obvious anti-government bias. For Boaz (and writers published by the Hudsun and Cato institutes generally) “that government is best that governs least”.

How often have we heard this platitude? And how often must we hear it more before we learn to question such simple mindedness?

To paraphrase the United States’ founding fathers, gathered in Philadelphia and prepared to risk all for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. After a bloody and ill-financed seven year war of independence and after a six-year experiment in confederation politics, many of the same founding fathers agreed to a centralized union governed by a membership charter, the United States Constitution. The preamble to that document reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It was understood then that a government (by the people and for the people, if you will) was necessary to ensure the public good.

What is missing from the Boaz article is not only that governments are necessary, but any mention of the values that such governments serve: the public good defined by a majority of citizens through their representatives met in Congress. Indeed, such governments are necessary and even to be hoped for because of their capacity to create and promote “public values”.

These ideas are so fundamental as to be pointless in repetition. And yet, if we do not repeat these truths we are likely to miss the fact that these truths assume the existence of a public good, that there is a greater public good in well organized (and governed) collective living than in individual selfish organization.

The second fallacy in the Boaz approach is the implicit assumption of market efficiency and the author’s failure to so much as acknowledge market failure. Fifteen years down the road from Boaz’ original work, the evidence of market failure is all too evident: the 1999 reform of United States banking laws (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) which created banks “too big to fail” led to the 2008 world financial markets meltdown; Increased concentration of media power and the relaxation of media ownership rules in 2003 led to complacency in following the Neoconservatives as they manipulated public opinion and a weak president; Merger and acquisition approvals from the Department of Justice far too numerous to count have resulted in anticompetitive markets where high barriers to entry encourage the creation of economic power at the expense of innovation. Absent responsible regulation, the “market approach” to regulating public spaces consistently fail to produce “socially desirable” outcomes.

Why the quotes around “socially desirable”?

Because social desirability is the quality expected and the end result of a political process and public policy.

Competitive and accessible education for the brightest and the best is a socially desirable outcome, public healthcare and a confident, healthy workforce are socially desirable outcomes for their benefit to worker productivity, a vibrant and competitive media landscape is a socially desirable outcome when you consider the importance of an informed citizenry. And yet, for each of these examples (and there are others) we Americans have accepted mediocrity: in education we have accepted that a liberal arts education should be an exercise in a student’s ability-to-pay, or at least, mortgage his/her future (although to be fair, localized and community based alternatives exist). With respect to health care it remains to be seen whether Public Health Care as it is now conceived will deliver on its public policy potential. Concentrated and monopolistic media ownership have led to complacency on critical national issues – the matter of public safety and security, the right of privacy, global warming and the depletion of major national aquifers.

Markets do fail and the social ills which confront America today are largely a reflection of those failures.

The third and perhaps most important fallacy in the Boaz argument, is the author’s failure to account for the practical aspects of geography in his Utopia. Boaz develops as a central premise the idea that historically there is tension (and competition) between centralizing and decentralizing views of authority. He notes that for any “country larger than a city, local conditions vary greatly and no national plan can make sense everywhere”. But, rather than develop the attractiveness of local scale for market economies, Boaz launches into a discussion of “economies of scale”, a traditional and well documented approach to the creation of wealth.

The issue is not the creation of wealth, but the scale at which wealth is created and redistributed as a matter of fairness and equity.

Boaz writes in his section of a “Framework for Utopia”

What we need is not utopia, but a free society in which people can design their own communities.

I couldn’t agree more.

But it is not enough to agree; one must understand that community is first and foremost geographic. It is rooted in place. It exists and is viable because of water resources or fertile land or access to some special ingredient that gives its inhabitants and the inhabitants of its trading area a competitive advantage in producing a tradable surplus.

Wealth creation is a matter of trade and tradable surpluses. And it is here that market theory becomes relevant. One cannot trade if one does not have producers of goods or buyers willing to exchange for those goods.

Trade and comparative advantage are central to the economic functioning of the community and geography is the sole criterion for sustainable development. But geography is not of itself sufficient to explain community development. Communities exist within hierarchies of communities and share specific values by treaty or by acknowledgement of suzerainty.

For instance, cities that participate in the hierarchy of French cities share a language, a set of laws, ideals about social justice and the meaning of life. They acknowledge a shared history in terms of a succession of events. By the same token, the cities that participate in the Mediterranean hierarchy of cities share a water resource and acknowledge a shared history of rivalries and outcomes as do the cities and communities on the North Sea and of the Baltic and Black seas.

It is these stories that create sustainable human relations, not the pursuit of riches or the accumulation of wealth. It is shared stories such as these that create the conditions for sustainable redistribution of wealth and for cooperative development, in short, the conditions for creating a utopia of cooperating and prospering communities.

Poverty and the Ohio Media Circus, or When is a circus not entertainment

Recent buzz in the blogosphere has concerned itself with Kelly Williams-Bolar (Kelly Williams) a socially ambitious, presumably single mother of two young girls “trapped in poverty” and condemned to substandard schooling.

I became aware of the facts through an article on the progressive website, Truthdig: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste–Except in Ohio. The dramatic headline was accompanied by a picture of a straightened, nappy-haired black woman whose bloodshot eyes were on the verge of tears. Nothing like the attractive, forty year old woman pictured in the press

The reading trail led me to essayist, Marcia Alesan Dawkins www.marciadawkins.com and an abundance of media spin, from local ABC affiliate WEWS’ report on the sentencing, Woman Gets Jail Time in School Residency Case, to the Cleveland Leader’s confusingly headlined article, Mother Gets Jail Time for Lying to Get Kids in a Better School System and the Akron.com Community News and Notes website, Walsh Defends Prosectution of Williams-Bolar, moves to dismiss deadlocked charges

Headline writers and editorialists must be having a field day.

But this is the way a free press works.

The contest is between those who feel justified, by virtue of professional achievement or material wealth, living in an exclusive neighborhood and school district and those who believe that the dominant, materialistic discourse of our society has condemned a large segment of our citizens to permanent social disadvantage, an attitude we might forgive among certain minorities. The entire process, if one believes the Summit County Prosecutor (and we should believe her as the legitimate representative of the public order), was exacerbated by defendant Williams’ brinkmanship and insistence upon access to neighboring public spaces.

Did Kelly Williams and her father bring the problems upon themselves?

Only the people of Ohio and Summit County can say for sure. Even then, it may take judicial remedy, a lengthy appelate process and possibly even legislative remedy for justice to be served.

So where then does the issue lie?

At issue are the social values that define our public spaces, the right of public access and the old question of separate but equal. In a larger sense it is about how citizens in outlying counties, townships and municipalities insulate themselves from the social problems of neighboring jurisdictions. It is about metropolitan governance and a shared idea of citizenship.

The problem is not Ms Williams’ social ambition nor even her questionable character, but the failure of the State’s education system to anticipate and remedy the special needs of individuals trapped in poverty, the failure of the State to remedy something that is obviously separate and just as obviously, not equal.

The war on poverty is not something that is happening in far away Africa, South Asia or in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro. The war on poverty is happening in our own backyard. Ms Williams’ fight and the media circus that she inspired simply call attention to the rigidities of a system built around economic priviledge and material access.

The Kelly Williams case reminds us that ours is a shared destiny and that poverty has no place in the equation.

Millennium Development Goals and institutional dialogue

Over the past several years I have become increasingly aware of efforts to coordinate international development and cooperation. There is no doubt this reflects growing public awareness for environmental and developmental issues and, in France, at least, results directly from significant public debate about the nature and logic of progress and development.

How does this concern me? Like so much in life that is revealed only as the spirit becomes receptive, the Millennium Development Campaign comes after a near-lifetime of efforts to understand my own Self in terms of non-American, non-protestant, non-English-speaking Others. Issues of Self and Other are at the heart of international efforts to save the planet and defuse cycles of stress and violence that have long characterized our western societies and only this past century gave us two European civil wars.

Several years ago, on the fifth anniversary of the Millennium Declaration, I read a PowerPoint presentation regarding the millennium goals.

Download MDG Report

I had heard of the project but dismissed it as something for do-gooders.

September 2010, five years on and the Millennium Goals continue to be the focus of concerted international efforts to cultivate fairness and reddress poverty; Five years on and we have not taken our eye off the ball.

What is the Millennium project?

First, the Millennium Declaration was an affirmation of the United Nations. It was a consensus declaration for the empowerment of civil society in pursuit of “fair and sustainable development”. The declaration acknowledges the principle of national sovereignty and affirms that certain values are essential to international relations, including : freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility.

The declaration then lists a series of objectives :

– peace security and disarmament
– economic development and poverty eradication
– protecting our common environment
– human rights, democracy and good governance
– protecting the vulnerable
– meeting the special needs of Africa
– strengthening the United Nations

The Millennium Declaration was signed 10 years ago. It marked the transformaton of the international political agenda by affirming that henceforth and for the next 15 years, international civil society would have an agenda.

There is no question that the only path to improve our human habitation of planet Earth is one of fairness and social equity. Solidarity in the name of what is right and just and improved working and living conditions are the only way to prevail against darkness, anger and terrorism. (It is worth noting that the Millennium declaration was in place a full year before Al Qaida unleashed war on Western materialism.)

I am not sure that “Mother Nature” can sustain another billion “consumers”, but it is clear that the conditions necessary for dialogue and accomodation cannot be achieved if people do not feel themselves respected and ultimately, responsible for their own welfare.

Growth in a world of finite resources can only occur if there is a sense of shared destiny and a common vocabulary, whatever the language. The values and objectives expressed in the Millennium Declaration have become a benchmark for institutional cooperation and just as importantly, they have provided a political and economic vocabulary for cooperation.

In September 2010 the United Nations Millennium Campaign, with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, published a report on progress toward MDGs, “Millennium Development Goals Report Card: measuring progress across countries”. This report makes some astonishing discoveries with respect to an improving human condition.

This is certainly a “higher order” for world governance. It may have taken 10 years to gain currency in my thinking, and I can only wonder how long will it take to find an echo among my peers. Is there a tangible community of like minded thinkers?

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world

All of life is local.

One might be forgiven for quickly passing over such a banality. And yet, the local is at the very heart of our system of values and the “globalization” debate.

Vital goods (organic matter, oxygen and drinking water) and the biological communities that evolved under these conditions are the quintessence of “localness”. As biological communities grow and become more dense–somewhat like the mega cities of the 21st century–they become more specialized and diversified. Historically that which was produced locally was consumed locally and, according to the first law of thermodynamics, the total energy in an isolated system tended to remain unchanged and in the system. (This of course, raises the issue of scale and interoperability between systems, matter for another debate and discussion.)

The Mediterranean biotope is such a “closed system”, naturally defined as a subtropical marine system conditioned by the earth’s orbit around the sun, producing warm dry summers and mild rainy winters. Within the Mediterranean biotope there are a number of micro-environments formed by mountain systems (Alps, Atlas, Pyrenees), river and estuarine systems (Nile, Rhone, Danube) and a marine topography dominated by coastal systems, continental shelves and deep water environments.

At some point in the evolutionary process, Man’s penchant for socializing led to the creation of local commons as specialized communities producing regular surpluses. Such surpluses were traded as a reliable means toward increasing the material well-being of the commons. Such local surplus led to the development of a class of professional merchant traders and then, to entire societies specialized in colonial settlement.

The expansive colonial settlement practiced by the Romans eventually proved unsustainable and gave way to a system of competing city-states and then to nation-states whose purpose was to serve an ever greater collective interest more or less democratically defined. Individual will was subordinated to the collective weal (the commonwealth) and predatory colonization once again became the order-of-the-day.

In the latest transformation, mechanized transportation, telecommunications and rights enforcement once again threaten the commons (sedentary communities locally nourished) and a new collective ideal is called into existence. But the question precisely, is what can be the validity of such a collective ideal? Who will negotiate it and, under what authority?

My participation in and adherence to a local commons is welcome and indisputable: my existence as a human and the greatness of anything I might accomplish depends on the commons and the nature of relations with distant commons. Such a system is disrupted when relations between commons become unequal and the self-sufficiency of one is threatened by the predatory practices of another.

In the end, why would I want to “harvest” my fish, my wheat or olives beyond the limits of local sustainability? Why would I want to pollute my rivers or disfigure my landscapes when the surpluses acquired are non-sustainable or when market practices predatory? And, what should we do about biological species (such as ourselves) that are not by nature sedentary and thus defy assignment to one or another geographic locality?

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world is perhaps the highest calling.

Public goods and laissez-faire capitalism

“Laissez-faire capitalism” our father would say, “is about economic freedom”.

My only problem with this is that it is “simplistic” and like all things simple, there must be a hitch. “Freedom” has a cost even if that cost is not economic.

How does one count the cost of freedom then, if it is not economic? is it a matter of personal sacrifice, a curtailment of personal freedoms in exchange for a public good? What is a public good?

A public good is a shared space produced by negotiated consensus. A public good, should not, in theory, be available for purchase. It often is however, and herein lies the problem.

A public good can either be preserved (a typically “conservative” idea) or it can be enhanced (typically a liberal, “progressive” idea).

The first cost of the public good is the “social cost” of maintaining a commons: personal freedoms are exchanged for “access” rights to the commons, and “access” has no price. The “cost” of freedom then, is the “value of public access”.

If there is a value inherent in man, it is the value created through freedom and choice. What are my choices if a neighbor or family member suffers from a want that I might somehow mitigate? What could possibly be the value of my freedom then?

While Americans, and before them, Europeans were out pursuing manifest destiny and “national exception”, amassing wealth through capitalistic enterprise, ensuring our survival as a species of humanity, the rest of the world could only watch and concede superior force.

Today the momentum is shifting.

Trust, mistrust, worldview, teleos… so many words of justification.

UN Peace-keepers or Collective Coercion

My good friend Glen Kendall writes in a June 23 entry to his blog, Viewpoint from Abroad that America is somehow shirking its responsibilities with respect to its funding of United Nations peace keeping efforts. While I do not disagree, I wonder if the question is properly raised as to what America’s responsibility should be.

In my view the problem with United Nations peace keeping lies not so much in the lack of physical resources, but in the self-evident contradictions of a “world order” in which nations participate “at leisure”. While I agree wholeheartedly that America should assume its responsibilities, I see a couple of problems.

First, there is the matter of accountability. UN peace-keepers act as proxies for a “collective authority”. I wish it were otherwise, but so long as a single nation (Russia, China the United States, South Africa, India, Brazil…) remains “above the law”, the “collective” remains an “authority” in name only. We cannot have an effective peace-keeping force if their authority is the whim of the current consensus.

The second problem is one of credibility. In our lifetimes the international community has acted a dozen times and more to suppress open strife. Almost always these actions have been motived by self-interest (Korea, Dominican Republic, Chile, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Kuwait…) and much less frequently, as a concerted international effort. Indeed, one of these “concerted efforts” has been the discreditable effort to maintain peace in the Middle East.

Not only might one suspect the International Community’s “motives” for mobilizing a peace-keeping force, but one has to wonder also about such a force’s effectiveness as a force, given the standards of passive-defensive, non-lethal engagement to which they are held.

The UN peace-keeper issue is more than a problem of funding, it is a fundamental political problem and a problem of legitimate authority.