Capitalism 3.0: Ready to Rumble!

Regular FC readers are familiar with our recurring feature, "Open Debate"—which is basically two smart, compelling people debating an urgent topic entirely by email. Past debates have taken on design for the masses, the future of China, and the upside (or not) for Google.

For several months, I've been trying to find someone to debate Peter Barnes. He's a social entrepreneur (he founded Working Assets, the long-distance phone company that gives a portion of call charges to charity) and former journalist whose new book is called "Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons" (Berrett-Koehler).

Barnes offers timely analysis—and an unorthodox solution. He says "capitalism as we know it is deeply flawed": it creates pollution, waste, inequality, anxiety, "and no small confusion about the purpose of life." Specifically, he says, corporate-driven capitalism is squandering the assets that we've historically thought of us belonging to all of us—the commons. That would include, foremost, the environment, but also the airwaves and community infrastructure. Business, Barnes argues, depletes these assets without compensating us.

His answer: a new sort of public trust, a market-based legal entity that's neither privately owned nor government-run, that would preserve common assets—setting limits on their depletion and paying dividends based on their use to us, the collective owners. Just like oil companies have paid monies into a trust shared by residents of Alaska, we'd create market mechanisms around the consumption of air, water, forests, and habitat.

Is Barnes brilliant or insane? Is his strategy a silver bullet, or wildly impractical? You'd think there are plenty of people out there—business executives, government officials, even social entrepreneurs—who think Barnes is a dangerous nut case. But for as many people as I've asked, no one's actually willing to say that for publication. It's one of those ideas, perhaps, that's just too hot to touch.

Or is it? What do you think? Who'll take Barnes on?

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  • JimmyJet

    People like this need to be taken seriously. I'm embarassed that 4 people so far wouldn't get excited by a man who essentially wants to turn this world around and take it back for the people. I can't wait until China and India start dictating the rules. North American NeoEconomics need a kick in the ass. Accountability isn't even in the corporate vernacular.

  • Kris

    Sounds like another version Big Oil to me - a good theory, but no real ownership and therefore no accountability...

  • Peter Rees

    Haven't read the book so let me reserve comment. On the basis of Keith's post I'm not convinced Barnes is saying anything interesting.

    However Allen White's Is it time to rewrite the social contract? might be a good starting point for Barnes' effort.

  • Michael

    Nothing special, if he would have understood basic economics, thats what we create governments for. They are created to solve the tragedy of the commons problem - this trust of his would be for example the co2 emission scheme. These trusts will evolve, don't know whats to argue about with him.

  • chris

    I will take him on. I am not a market expert or a capitalist, simply an architect. However, I think that an architect's training allows him to intelligently participate in this type of a debate. Architects are generalists, they are responsible for organizing, categorizing and compiling information from various trades into a coherent whole. It usually results in a building, but it could result in a business plan or development strategy. I know it might not be the star-studded, high-profile, main-event type headline you are looking for, but perhaps it could be billed as the expert vs. the generalist. Or the common man. Let me know.