It’s not just water per se, but also the lands under what were
originally shallow waters. Most coastal cities have increased their
areas greatly by filling in shallow waters. The surface of San Francisco
Bay is about half of what it was before filling began. Boston has doubled
by filling. Just who owns the original seabed is a complex legal tangle,
but in many areas the public has basic ownership rights for which it usually
claim market rents. The “Public Trust Doctrine” applies
to some shallow waters. In 1983 the California Supreme Court resurrected
the dead letter office (Mono Lake Case), and many cities, with a little positive
thinking, could enhance their shriveled revenues greatly by moving aggressively
on these rents.
America’s Two Experiments
The notion that government should protect the commons goes back a long way.
Sometimes this duty is considered so basic it’s taken for granted.
At other times, it’s given a name: the public trust. Several states
actually put this duty in writing. Pennsylvania’s constitution, for
example, declares: “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are
the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.
As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain
them for the benefit of all the people.” Note that in this constitutional
dictum, serving as trustee of natural resources isn’t an option for
the state, it’s an affirmative duty.
Yet here as elsewhere, rhetoric and reality differ. Political institutions
don’t function in a vacuum; they function in a world in which power
is linked to property. This was true when fifty-five white male property
owners wrote our Constitution, and it’s no less true today.
America has been engaged in two experiments simultaneously: one is called
democracy, the other, capitalism. It would be nice if these experiments ran
separately, but they don’t. They go on in the same bottle, and each
affects the other. After two hundred years, we can draw some conclusions
about how they interact. One is that capitalism distorts democracy more than
the other way around.
The reason capitalism distorts democracy is simple. Democracy is an open
system, and economic power can easily infect it. By contrast, capitalism
is a gated system; its bastions aren’t easily accessed by the masses.
Capital’s primacy thus isn’t an accident, nor the fault of George
W. Bush. It’s what happens when capitalism inhabits democracy.
This isn’t to say the United States government can’t, at times,
restrain corporations. It has a number of tools at its disposal, and has
used them in the past with some success. But the measures it can take are
woefully inadequate to the task of safeguarding the planet for our children.
Let’s see why. ... read
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