23 August 2016

Public spaces, community disgraces

[I wrote this after yet another hour dodging dog shit and honking cars on the not-charming streets of Buenos Aires]

I sometimes introduce myself not as a water economist but as someone who "works on the commons," i.e., non-excludable goods that are shared (or exploited) by all but must be created (or funded) by some. The commons are, by definition, not amenable to market or price solutions because those solutions require exclusion to limit exploitation or encourage production.

It's thus clear that the commons will not be provided at adequate or desired levels unless the community (or a political mechanism) is strong enough to impose order on its members or unless someone decides to "irrationally" sacrifice on behalf of others.

That requirement helps explain why you can simultaneously see a robust market for, say, food or drinks or clothing but an absolute failure when it comes to clean and secure streets.

One of the main reasons that I moved from the US to the Netherlands was my admiration for the Dutch people's (relative) success in providing and protecting the commons. The streets are clean and safe. A much smaller share of people are vulnerable to poverty or poor health. Politicians tend to serve the common good.

The case in other countries depends on a mix of history, circumstance and personalities. I'm writing this from Argentina, which just celebrated its 200th anniversary of independence (its 200th anniversary of rebellion passed in 2010), but the celebration was a lot more subdued than I would have expected. I asked a local about this -- telling him that many Americans are enthusiastic about (and willing to die for) their country. He said that was not the case in Argentina, where people are not so proud of their country -- unless it is winning at football.

Argentina has a complex history characterized by migration, exploitation, rebellion and class antagonism. The people are proud and very loyal to their families and friends, but you cannot find many who speaks on behalf of their communities or cities -- except in contrast with another community or city.

All of these thoughts lead to my main realization, point and complaint: the commons in Argentina are poorly provided or maintained. The pavements are broken. Stray dogs -- and dog shit -- are everywhere. Garbage makes its way to cans that are not emptied. Buildings are abandoned, graffiti'd and tripled locked. Streets are dominated by car noise and pollution rather than neighborly activities.

There are many points of warmth to reduce the pain of these blights, but those do not overwhelm the realization that the people here enjoy and protect their personal spaces while avoiding public ones.

Argentina, of course, suffers from the knowledge that it has been great (world's fifth largest economy in 1910) whereas most countries with weak commons (e.g., Saudi Arabia or India) have never know any different. (Even America has experienced a rise in "bowling alone" that has hit new lows with its red/blue, 1%/99%, evangelical/secular schisms)

It's depressing to go from a strong to weak commons country just as it's depressing to switch from steak to McDonalds or high-speed to dial-up internet, and I was compelled to write this to counter my depression at spending a long cold day walking cold, dog-shitted, empty ugly streets in this Argentinean town. I hope that they will, someday, see enough in each other to build communities as strong as their families.

Bottom Line: We all gain from a robust and expansive commons, but we must all do our share to provide and protect it.

20 August 2016

Flashback: August 2015

These posts are STILL useful and relevant. If you have any comments, then please leave them on the original post. I will approve them ASAP.

19 August 2016

Friday party!

We're back from South America. Lots of posts to come, mostly related to "the commons," but here are a few cool videos (first second) from Iguazu Falls.



01 August 2016

Aguanomics is on holiday

Until I get back at the end of August, I suggest that you:

  • Read those books you've been thinking about, except for all those incoming emails
  • Read my book (free download), if you've always wanted to get a 100pp overview of the private and social benefits of water.
  • Check out my project -- Life plus 2 meters -- if you want to contribute a vision on living in a world where climate change is happening and requires adaptation. Posts will start "going live" on Sep 1st.
We are traveling in S America for 6 weeks :)

26 July 2016

The political economy of property taxes

I advocate property tax as a source of revenue due to its simple measurement and implementation. It's also progressive, in that property owners (and indirectly, renters, shoppers, et al. using the property) will pay more for properties that are worth more.

So why do we see such a small share of local and national tax revenues from property taxes compared to income, expense and -- worst of all -- corporate taxes?*

In my opinion, it's because rich people want to avoid taxes on their wealth, so they "help" politicians design and implement those other taxes in ways that sound "fair" on paper, but actually take very little from the rich (as opposed to a lot from the middle classes).**

Bottom line: Follow the money (or lack thereof) if you want to know who the system is really designed for!

* Corporate taxes make no sense in theory (we want to tax people) and they are MUCH easier for corporations with lawyers to avoid/dodge compared to the individual taxpayer.

** I asked several leading scholars of inequality for their opinions on property taxes. They just shook their heads as they agreed with me. Property taxes are totally off the radar of most people -- perhaps because they see themselves as potential "victims" of higher property taxes without considering how much more the wealthy would pay with, say, a 4-5% annual property tax that had no exemptions. (It's no accident that the Vatican is the greatest real estate owner in the world.)