23 Aug 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.

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