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?