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Capitalism 3.0: The Book Tour

This article was written by Worldchanging DC local blogger, Graham Webster in January 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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I'm just back from Peter Barnes' talk about his new book Capitalism 3.0 at Busboys and Poets. The book, it should first be noted, is so committed to the concept of the commons that it is available free as a PDF online. (Wryly acknowledging the oddity of giving away a book with the word "capitalism" in the title, he writes, "I invite you to peruse the downloadable version, and if you’re so moved, engage in a commercial transaction that microscopically boosts GDP.")

It's that somewhat sardonic but ultimately rational outlook that Barnes brought to Washington, D.C., tonight—the end of a three-week book tour. "I've been a talking head for about three weeks, and I'm almost talked out," he began, to the knowing assent of a District crowd less than 24 hours after the State of the Union. He proceeded from that point to summarize the big-idea significance of the commons and then a sense of how, bit by bit, our real-world society might institute the changes he calls for.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Barnes argues that there is private wealth and then there is common wealth—in the form of nature, structures supported by the community and society (such as parks, streets, capital markets, the internet), and cultural and intellectual wealth (the wealth of ideas). Private wealth, he argues, is produced partly by appropriating common wealth, and private profit often externalizes costs into the commons. And he proposes a solution. Austin local WorldChanging blogger Michael Strong wrote in October:

Barnes, whose father is an economist, is revolutionary because he completely acknowledges the decades-old argument that government failure is endemic. His version of the argument is accepted by progressives because, for the first time, he offers what amounts to a non-governmental solution: Create private trusts with a public interest in order to ensure the long term preservation of key elements of the commons.

Barnes places a lot of faith in the institution of the trust—one in which certain individuals are charged with custodianship of resources owned by beneficiaries. The easy example is the "sky trust" (explored in Barnes' older book Who Owns the Sky?), which would regulate private interactions with the atmosphere by selling the right to dump pollution into it. As they sell less and less of such rights, the cost of pollution rises, and pollution decreases. The graceful flourish is that companies paying for the right to pollute would then be adding monetary wealth to the sky trust. And we're all beneficiaries. Barnes envisions a system in which we would all get paid dividends from our share of the collective.

This won't be easy, but Barnes suggests the way to achieve this is to scale up models like the Alaska Permanent Fund, which takes "at least 25 percent of all mineral lease rentals, royalties, royalty sales proceeds, federal mineral revenue-sharing payments and bonuses received by the state" [1] and puts it into a common fund that pays dividends to Alaskans.

The clearest hurdles would be the need to get something like the state constitutional amendment that enables the Alaska model enacted on a national scale, let alone in the international context. Barnes' faith in the bottom-up entrepreneurial process may stem from his own success as a businessperson concerned both with profit and ethics. (At one point, he said, his company Working Assets opted not to be publicly traded despite certain increase in the value of shares because of the constraints they would see when subject to Wall Street-style expectations and measures such as quarterly profit margins.)

Barnes was responsive to the inquisitive crowd at Busboys and Poets, which he said he regarded as part of the D.C. commons. Prodded by a sympathetic but critical questioner, he acknowledged that, indeed, consumers would bear a significant cost in the renewal. But he noted that they'd also get dividends from the trust—the sort of thing only possible if what amounts to taxation can be channeled into a fund separate from the general treasury.

Ultimately the question is, as Barnes put it, "how to install the upgraded operating system" he envisions. "It will be a 20-30 year task, and it has to happen at all levels," he said. Let's hope the development of something like Capitalism 3.0 doesn't get bogged down the way, say, Windows Vista did. And with some luck, Capitalism 3.0 would have better multilingual and global compatibility than Windows ever has.

Capitalism 3.0: Planning a Big Upgrade is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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