Peter Barnes: Capitalism
3.0 — Chapter 6: Trusteeship of Creation (pages 79-100)
Accountability and Democracy
The question I’m most often asked about commons trusteeship is: How
can we be sure trustees won’t succumb to corporate influence, just
as politicians have? My answer is that, while there can be no guarantees,
the odds of escaping corporate capture are much better with trustees than
with elected officials.
The key reason is accountability. In the world of corporations, accountability
is quite clear: directors must be loyal to shareholders. In the world of
government, accountability is less clear. Elected officials must uphold the
Constitution, but that’s about it. If there are conflicts between workers
and employers, polluters and pollutees, voters and donors, or future generations
and current ones, whose side should politicians be on? There are no requirements
or even guidelines. Elected officials, as sovereign political actors, are
free to do as they please.
The fact that politicians operate this way is no accident; it’s what
the Founders had in mind. The job of democratic government isn’t to
take, consistently, one side or another. Rather, it’s to resolve disputes
among factions peaceably, without trampling minorities. James Madison made
this plain in the Federalist Papers. Voters can “fire” elected
officials at regular intervals if a majority so chooses, but they can’t
expect loyalty to any particular constituency between elections. It’s
this absence of built-in loyalty that opens the door to corporate influence,
a force the Founders didn’t — and couldn’t — foresee.
The decision-making of judges, it should be noted, isn’t as untethered
as that of legislators and executive officeholders. Their duty is to uphold
not just the skeletal bones of the Constitution but the full flesh and blood
of the law, with its thousands of pages and interpretations. They may, on
occasion, interpret anew, but unless they’re among a Supreme Court
majority, all such reinterpretations are subject to review.
Trustees are in the same boat as judges, rather than the wide-open waters
in which politicians swim. Their hands are constrained both by the law and
by their fiduciary duty to beneficiaries. This isn’t to say they have
no room to wiggle: equally loyal trustees may differ over what’s in
the best interest of beneficiaries. Still, they are subject to court review,
and they can’t betray their beneficiaries too brazenly.
The tricky thing here is that the beneficiaries to whom we want commons
trustees to be loyal — future generations, nonhumans, and ecosystems — are
voiceless and powerless. We must therefore take extra care when we set up
commons trusts. For example, we should install strict conflict-of-interest
rules for trustees and managers. We should require that all relevant information
about the trusts — including audited financial reports — are
freely available on the Internet. We should ensure that, if a commons trust
fails, its assets are transferred to a similar trust rather than privatized.
We should build in internal watchdogs and ombudsmen. And we should authorize
external advocates, such as nonprofit organizations, to represent nonliving
beneficiaries who, by their very nature, can’t take trustees to court.
Most states assign this function to their attorneys general, but this is
insufficient given the political pressures attorneys general are subject
With regard to the manner of selecting trustees, there’s no single
method. Trustees might be elected, appointed by outsiders, or be self-perpetuating
like the boards of many nonprofits. This is as it should be; we don’t
live in a one-size-fits-all world. The important thing is that, once selected,
trustees should have secure tenure, and — like judges — lengthy
terms. Indeed, trustees should be like judges in other ways: professional,
impeccably honest, well-compensated, and honored. Being a commons trustee
should be a distinguished and attractive calling.
It might be argued that, by shielding trustees from direct political influence,
we’d make them — and commons trusts generally — undemocratic.
The same could be said, however, for our courts. The fact is, there are certain
decisions, both economic and judicial, that should be shielded from politics
and markets. Moreover, neither government nor corporations represent the
needs of future generations, ecosystems, and nonhuman species. Commons trusts
can do this. In that sense, they’d expand rather than constrict the
boundaries of democracy. ... read
the whole chapter
Jeff Smith and Kris Nelson: Giving Life to
the Property Tax Shift (PTS)
John Muir is right. "Tug on any
thing and find it connected to everything else in the universe." Tug on
the property tax and find it connected to urban slums, farmland loss,
political favoritism, and unearned equity with disrupted neighborhood
tenure. Echoing Thoreau, the more familiar reforms have failed to
address this many-headed hydra at its root. To think that the root
could be chopped by a mere shift in the property tax base -- from
buildings to land -- must seem like the epitome of unfounded faith. Yet
the evidence shows that state and local tax activists do have a
powerful, if subtle, tool at their disposal. The "stick" spurring
efficient use of land is a higher tax rate upon land, up to even the
site's full annual value. The "carrot" rewarding efficient use of land
is a lower or zero tax rate upon improvements. ...
taxing land, society impels owners who had been speculatively
withholding or underutilizing theirs to develop or offer their parcels
for development. Hence the newly-available land comes from recycled
sites, not from open space.
The PTS not only lowers the price of land, it
also lowers the cost of
buildings. Untaxing structures, besides reducing their cost, also
augments their supply. More buildings means lower prices and rents. As
the prices of both buildings and land drop, more people are able to
purchase a home, apartment, or condominium.
PTS simplifies the revenue system, leaving fewer
decisions to be made by politicians in favor of their backers. All the
essential facts are open to public scrutiny: the land's owner, value,
use, and levy. And since mere speculation would no longer be
profitable, owners would have less monetary motive to try to unduly
influence the political process. ...
The PTS reduces the profit
from land, making
land use less of a political football. Developers will have less money
to spend on distorting the democratic process. Then society can more
easily resolve land use issues. ...
problem needs a big solution which in turn needs a
matching shift of our prevailing paradigm. Geonomics -- advocating that
we share the social value of sites and natural resources and untax
earnings -- does just that. Read the whole article