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  • 03.08.12

Should Companies Pay To Use Our Common Resources?

As citizens, we collectively own a lot of property. And companies often use it at will, without giving anything back to us. That’s not very market-driven. Is there a way to put prices on those resources so everyone benefits?

Should Companies Pay To Use Our Common Resources?

Even the poorest among us, in theory, own the oceans and the sky. As part of the commons, we share global resources–from the atmosphere to the benefits of political stability. Why shouldn’t those who use our commons pay for them, asks Peter Barnes, the co-founder of Working Assets. We can then reinvest those dividends in everyone.

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Barnes argues his case along the lines of pure capitalist logic. If the rich earn dividends off their accumulated wealth of cash and investments, everyone should benefit from the vast wealth that belongs to society. It’s not about redistribution per se: it’s about “paying dividends to equity owners in good old capitalist fashion … except that the equity owners in question aren’t owners of private wealth, they’re the owners of our common wealth,” he writes in Yes! magazine.

In fact, one U.S. state already does this: Alaska. The Alaska Permanent Fund invests its state oil revenue into public funds with stocks, bonds, and other assets. These throw off annual dividends that every resident receives as a check in the mail: about $1,000 to $2,000 per person each year.

An American Permanent Fund would be quite similar. Clean air, water, biodiversity, and other natural wealth, all part of a valuable commons, would carry a price tag to consume or pollute. Corporations, for example, would have to pay to release more mercury or carcinogens into the air. At the moment, think how much it costs them today for each additional dose of pollution, despite some regulations limiting the worst damage: nothing.

There are, however, more than one type of commons that the fund could tap. Society creates enormous value by parceling out shared resources (the airwaves) as well as creating the legal protections and stability to operate a large business. Corporations benefit from patent and copyright guarantees that persist for decades. Public stock exchanges create billions of dollars in value for corporations through the public trust of government-mandated transparency. Banks are allowed to lend customers more money than they hold in their accounts. That’s worth trillions. The list goes on. Although it’s easy to argue government meddling could go too far, a small levy on those sources of wealth could also be invested in a public fund from which everyone benefits.

After all, even a little wealth can be liberating: it frees people from the anxiety of meeting daily needs and encourages them to take entrepreneurial risks, educate themselves, care for friends, and volunteer. For the majority of Americans whose real incomes have stagnated and even declined since the 1980s, that type of freedom is ever more elusive.

The U.S. remains the richest and most productive country in the world. Yet a large share of that are dividends, capital gains, rent, and interest flowing to a relatively small number of people, argues Barnes.

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“If we want to remain a middle-class nation, that needs to change,” he writes. “Jobs alone won’t suffice. We need to complement wages with non-labor income from the wealth we all own. That would truly make us an ownership society.”

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.

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