Putting the life back in science fiction


Tragedy of the…um, what?

This is a short post inspired by a comment train on Charles Stross’ Antipope.

The question at the time was whether Nobel prizes are sexist, with more women than men getting the award. My anecdote was about the late Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Economics prize for her work showing that Commons could indeed work. I discussed this a couple of years ago in a post about whether to markets could be managed as commons, which was a topic I was playing with at the time.

The previous posts lists eight principles that Dr. Ostrom found worked to allow members of a commons to successfully manage that commons. This goes against the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons (Wikipedia article link). I hear this most often referred to today by people who refer to the idea as a reason why commons should be privatized and market forces should be used to manage them, because otherwise they’re doomed. This isn’t quite what Hardin meant, and later on, he noted that he should have called it “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons.”

Getting at the question of whether the economics Nobels are sexist, I’d point to three lines of evidence:
1. To date, Dr. Ostrom is the only woman who has received an economics Nobel.
2. As I recall from the references, she caught a lot of flack when she received the award. She was derided as a sociologist, not a real economist, and some said that there were other men who were more deserving who were overlooked that year.
3. More to the point, men in particular still refer to the tragedy of the commons as if it’s a real thing. When confronted with Ostrom’s work, they insist that they mean something that’s real, which is a common defense against any such attack.

Here’s the thing: everyone agrees that unregulated commons can be looted. But this statement is also true for any unregulated market (think illegal drugs, human trafficking, poaching…), and it’s true for unregulated capitalism (think illegal drugs, human trafficking, poaching…). If we’re going to use the term “Tragedy of the Commons” as if it’s real, I’d argue that it’s only fair to talk about “The Tragedy of Capitalism” and “The Tragedy of Markets” as the reason why we should manage as many common resources as commons, rather than having them under private, inequitable control that runs them into the ground for the profit of the few. It’s just as true.

However, I don’t expect anyone to be fair, so the better option is to realize that the Tragedy of the Commons is a term that needs to be retired. The reason for retiring it is that self-regulated commons can work very well. Properly designed and regulated commons are a perfectly reasonable management system for everything from community forests to large scale groundwater basins, and eliminating the “TotC” phrase from our vocabulary frees us up to explore these management options where they’re appropriate. Given how important things like groundwater management are for keeping civilization running, I’d suggest that every good management system should be an acceptable option for managing them, and that includes commons.

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Gen. Alexander and the Legacy System from Hell

Here I am venturing into something I know nothing about: the Internet. Recently, I read a 1999 quote from Steward Brand, in The Clock of the Long Now (BigRiver Link), that the internet could “easily become the Legacy System from Hell that holds civilization hostage. The system doesn’t really work, it can’t be fixed, no one understands it, no one is in charge of it, it can’t be lived without, and it gets worse every year.”

Horrible thought, isn’t it? What I don’t know about are the legions of selfless hackers, programmers, techies, and nerds who are valiantly struggling to keep all the internets working. What I do know some tiny bit about are the concerted efforts of the NSA, under General Keith Alexander (who’s due to retire this spring), to install effectively undocumented features throughout the Internets and everything connected to them, so that they can spy at will. Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I’m pretty sure that every large government has been doing the same thing. If someone wants to hack us, they can.

So what?

Well, what I’m thinking about is the question of trust, rather than danger. The idea that cyberspace is dangerous goes well back before the birth of the World Wide Web. Remember Neuromancer? Still, for the first decade of online life, especially with the birth of social media, there was this trust that it was all for the greater good. Yes, of course we knew about spam and viruses, we knew the megacorps wanted our data as a product, and anyone who did some poking or prodding knew that spy agencies were going online too, that cyberwarfare was a thing. Still, there was a greater good, and it was more or less American, and it pointed at greater freedom and opportunity for everyone who linked in.

Is that still true? We’ve seen Stuxnet, which may well have had something to do with General Alexander’s NSA , and we’ve seen some small fraction of Edward Snowden’s revelations, about how the NSA has made every internet-connected device capable of spying on us. Does anyone still trust the US to be the good guys who run the Internet for the world? Even as an American, I’m not sure I do.

This lost trust may be the start of the Internets evolving into the Legacy System from Hell. Instead of international cooperation to maintain and upgrade the internet with something resembling uniform standards, we may well see a proliferation of diverse standards, all in the name of cyber security. It’s a trick that life learned aeons ago, that diversity collectively keeps everything from dying from the same cause. Armies of computer geeks (engineers by the acre in 1950s parlance) will be employed creating work-arounds across all the systems, to keep systems talking with each other. Countries that fall on hard times will patch their servers, unable or unwilling to afford expensive upgrades that have all sorts of unpleasant political issues attached. Cables and satellites will fail and not be replaced, not because we can’t afford to, but because we don’t trust the people on the other end of the link to deal fairly with us and not hack the systems they connect to.

I hope this doesn’t happen, of course, but I wonder. Once trust is lost, it’s difficult to regain. On a global level, can we regain enough trust to have someone run the internet as an international commons? A good place? Or is it too late for that? I’m quite sure that US, Chinese, and Russian cyberwarfare experts all will say that their expertise is defensive, designed to minimize damage, and they may even believe it. Still, in the face of so many soldiers and spies amassing online, why trust our lives to this battlefield? Anything we put online might be wiped out or compromised, victim to a battle we neither wanted nor approved of.

Even though I don’t have a reason to like him, it would be sad if General Alexander’s legacy was starting the conversion of the internet into a legacy system. It will also be instructive too, a lesson in how the buildup of military power can backfire (something I think even Lao Tzu commented on). Fortunately or unfortunately, any history written on a legacy system will most likely vanish when the last expert walks away and the owners pull the plug. That’s the problem with legacy systems, you see. Their data can vanish very, very quickly.



Are Markets Commons? Perhaps they should be managed that way?
December 19, 2013, 9:38 pm
Filed under: commons, economics, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: , ,

This isn’t my original idea. I’m reading John Michael Greer’s The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered (Amazon link), and he makes the assertion that a free market, “in which buyers and sellers are numerous enough that free competition regulates their interactions,” is a form of commons, a resource that should ideally be free to all in a society. He goes on to point out that this is in contrast to those who think that all commons should be eliminated in favor of private ownership. The issue he’s getting at is that free markets cannot exist without regulation, something recognized even by Adam Smith, who noted in the Wealth of Nations that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or some contrivance to raise prices” (reference).

I can see a long argument about how true this is, because it’s a provocative concept. Markets and commons are traditionally diametrically opposed in capitalist thinking, it’s hard to consider that they have anything in common. I’m happy to have that discussion, but there’s another related issue that, to me, is even more interesting: Can markets be managed as commons?

We don’t have any data on this, but the late Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel in economics for her studies of how commons are successfully managed. She found, through studying both successful commons (water districts, community forests, and the like) and unsuccessful commons, that there were eight “Design Principles” that distinguished the successful commons from the failures (Amazon link to reference).

Here are Dr. Ostrom’s eight design principles, as rewritten by David Sloan Wilson in The Neighborhood Project (Amazon link). I’m using Wilson’s version since it’s more general than the original.

1. Clearly defined boundaries. Members of the group should know who they are, have a strong sense of group identity, and know the rights and obligations of membership. If they are managing a resource, then the boundaries of the resource should also be clearly identified.

2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs. Having some members do all the work while others get the benefits is unsustainable over the long term. Everyone must do his or her fair share, and those who go beyond the call of duty must be appropriately recognized. When leaders are accorded special privileges, it should be because they have special responsibilities for which they are held accountable. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.

3. Collective-choice arrangements. Group members must be able to create their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus. People hate being bossed around but will work hard to do what we want, not what they want. In addition, the best decisions often require knowledge of local circumstances that we have and they lack, making consensus decisions doubly important.

4. Monitoring. Cooperation must always by guarded. Even when most members of a group are well meaning, the temptation to do less than one’s share is always present, and a few individuals might try actively to game the system. If lapses and transgressions can’t be detected, the group enterprise is unlikely to succeed.

5. Graduated sanctions. Friendly, gentle reminders are usually sufficient to keep people in solid citizen mode, but tougher measures such as punishment and exclusion must be held in reserve.

6. Fast and fair conflict resolution. Conflicts are sure to arise and must be resolved quickly in a manner that is regarded as fair by all parties. This typically involves a hearing in which respected members of the group, who can be expected to be impartial, make an equitable decision.

7. Local autonomy. When a group is nested within a larger society, such as a farmers’ association dealing with the state government or a neighborhood group dealing with a city, the group must be given enough authority to create its own social organization and make its own decisions, as outlined in items 1. and 6. above.

8. Polycentric governance. In large societies that consist of many groups, relationships among groups must embody the same principles as relationships among individuals within groups.

What’s interesting about these rules is that, superficially, it looks like these would be great rules for free markets as well. Look at the complaints such rules would solve:

— markets should have boundaries. People get really uncomfortable when everything is for sale, whether they want it to be or not. There’s a general idea that some things should not be for sale, while markets are the appropriate venue for other things. Similarly, not everyone wants to participate in “the marketplace” and the outsiders resent being forced in.
–Markets should be fair, the fabled level playing field. Most would agree that people should get special privileges only so that they can exercise special responsibilities, not because they have special connections. Similarly, corruption and gaming the system should be punished.
–Collective decision making. This one is tough, because everyone wants to constrain the fat cats, whether or not they’re in the market. Still, there are many complaints about top-down rulemaking, and with good reason. This is not to say that markets are all good at self-governing (and here I’m thinking about the body-counts in illegal drug marketing disputes), but to the extent that a market is self-governing, having rules that everyone agrees are fair is not a bad thing.
–Monitoring: this one is a no-brainer. Corruption kills markets, and they always need to be monitored to avoid people gaming the system. Interestingly, monitoring in commons can come either from within, from people hired to monitor the system, or from outside officials. Any and all of these can work, depending on the circumstances.
–Fast and fair conflict resolution: this one is another no-brainer. Things work best when disputes can be settled fairly and quickly, either be a tribunal within the market, or by higher authorities, so long as judgement is fast and fair.
–Local autonomy. This can be somewhat problematic when you think about Wall Street, but it’s the flip side of having collective decision making within a market. If the authorities are going to let a market make their own rules, they need to let the market govern itself. Note, however, that authorities can be intimately involved in both monitoring and conflict resolution, so long as the market grants that this is their legitimate role in the market.
–Polycentric governance: This is the idea that the relationship between individuals and a markets is mirrored between markets within a greater market, if such a hierarchy exists. I’m not sure how this might work, but it does embody the same ideas of group decision making (on the level of member markets), monitoring, fast and fair dispute resolution, and so forth. That’s not a bad way to handle commerce on a large scale.

To me, this is the bigger point: even if markets aren’t exactly commons, it certainly looks like the principles that lead to successful commons might lead to successful free markets. Additionally, it’s not particularly driven by any market ideology: both progressives and libertarians could agree on these design principles. Even the big government proponents tend to agree (in my experience) that the best regulations are the ones that people think are fair and fairly enforced. Trying to get such regulations written can be very difficult, but it’s often a major goal of regulation. What also makes this interesting is that, if you accept that markets may be commons, it’s possible to have a free market under a wide range of conditions—so long as the market is properly monitored and managed according to rules.

A truly free market won’t work, but a market commons may well be viable. What’s sad is how far Wall Street currently is from most of these design principles. Perhaps our financial markets are a lot less successful and sustainable than we might wish for? Perhaps they need (shock, horror) more regulation, not less, to last?

What do you think?