The Global Commons Plan

Invest in the future of the commons now

Logically a transition to a society based on the commons should begin at the center of globalization, the United States. Yet, since politics takes many twists and turns, the chain might break at another so far unforeseen peripheral place, which causes repercussions in the center. But, for the sake of a thought experiment, let’s take the US.

What could a plan for the US then look like? The population of the US is roughly 300 million, so we’d theoretically be dealing with 600’000 neighborhoods, 15’000 boroughs or towns, 300 regions and 30 territories. As the spatial distribution of the population is not homogeneous and various geographical and historical factors come into play, the actual figures will be somewhat different. (Not all “new” territories correspond to existing states – but it wouldn’t make sense to create new state borders, no matter whether they are a bit too big or a bit too small.)

The creation of 600’000 sustainable neighborhoods based on micro-agro subsistence with all the trappings might cost $5 million each (not including the costs of resettling suburbanites), totaling $3 trillion. The costs of establishing or transforming of lively town centers (incl. ABC, a world food-depot etc.) are more difficult to estimate. In some situations it wouldn’t cost anything and could just be part the regular municipal budget, in others it could run up to $100 million or more. Old city centers that had been founded before the age of the automobile are easier to adapt to the age after it. If we allow $20 million for each, it would mean another $300 billion.

All in all we’re talking about a $3.3 trillion investment program that would have to be spread over a number of years. Additional investment should go into the reanimation of the (sub)-continental train-system. (Class-war winner Warren Buffet seems to have begun to invest in it.) Also old canal networks can be reactivated. The creation and relocation of regional and territorial industries alongside train-tracks and canals (remember that the cars and most of the trucks are on their way out) would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The insulation of buildings, local energy plants, eco-design of industrial goods would not cost anything, they would just mean a re-direction of investment away from consumer goods to collectively useful goods (see below). An incentive program to get this process started would be a good idea, though.

Financing this Commons Plan is not a big problem. For historical reasons it could take on the form of a “New” Deal between government, unions and bosses, each contributing one third to the Commons Plan fund. A tripartite committee would run the Plan in a transparent, communicative manner. The annual wages of the 100 million US workers currently amount to $3.7 trillion. If a 3 per cent Commons Plan tax is instituted, you get $111 billion from the workers and the same amounts from the bosses and the government, all in all $333 billion per year. In ten years the Plan could be implemented. The workers would profit from the additional services and cheaper food, the bosses from lower wages, the government from less expenses for crime prevention, health or infrastructure (streets). On the other hand, the workers or new commoners would have a decisive say in what is produced.

Economists are complaining of the glut of idle capital at the moment. This glut is so large that some banks now charge negative interest to fence of the flow of money that encumbers them. Okay: if you don’t know what to do with this money, we have the answer: invest in the future of the commons. Schumpeter rejoice! Creative destruction galore!

From the traditional economic point of view, the global plan doesn’t look like a break with the past. The GNP can even grow for a while, as expenditures for consumption decrease, whereas expenditures for the investment in the 5 spheres of the commons and the ecological conversion of industries may increase for a while before the big shrinking begins. So the effect on GNP is neutral. Such a strategy will allow a soft landing in the beyond.

The implementation of the CommonsPlan will be based on bottom-up participation. Federal commissioners will not order the transformation of your neighborhood or town, but it will rather be a voluntary program, one that supports local initiatives, as they emerge. If enough inhabitants of a given neighborhood or borough express their will to make some steps forward, they will automatically get organizational, financial and know-how support from the fund and its staff.

The advantage of this comprehensive, almost megalomaniac plan, is that it positions living in decent, healthy and supportive neighborhood as a human right, which in fact it is already – we are waiting to see it implemented. The rich have no problem creating their ideal (even ecologically perfect) neighborhoods with all the features mentioned above. In the form of gated communities or exclusive towns (like Disney’s Celebration) they probably already exist. Microcenters could also be the form of glorified gentrification.

In a lot of “middle-class” situations a Big Plan is only needed to give persons with enough resources a little organizational and financial shove to get their act together and to pool the existing assets. But there are a lot of neighborhoods, which are not even recognized by their inhabitants as such, that will need large investments in infrastructure, in education as well as organizational support. It’s either everybody or nobody.

This is particularly true on a global level.

In Europe and the US we’d see 1’600’000 neighborhoods and 40’000 boroughs. But what about the rest of the world? In 2007 the world GNP was about 54 trillion $, of which 38 trillion went to the “developed” countries and 14 trillion to the “developing” countries. Africa only got 2.3 per cent or 1.25 trillion $. Africa has about one billion inhabitants, one seventh, or 14.3 per cent, of the world population. As we’re all entitled to 7700 $ a year, Africa should be getting 7 trillion $. If, for starters, we allotted every African neighborhood 100 000 $, we’d need 200 billion $, every borough or town 20 million $, another 100 billon $ and every territory 1 billion $, another 50 billion $, altogether 350 billion $. (More than this might be needed, though.) Compared with the 266 billion $ (0,7 per cent of 38 trillion, as promised by the UN) that we owe the developed countries anyway, this is peanuts.

With 1 per cent of the GNP of the rich countries, we could invest 380 billion every year. Spread over five to ten years, which would be enough to free all the neighborhoods, boroughs, towns or territories of the world from squalor and boredom.

A comprehensive global plan that would invest 5 million $ in every one of the 14.64 million neighborhoods (7.32 billion persons are estimated to live on the planet in 2015) would cost 73.2 trillion $, just about the yearly global GNP. Not all neighborhoods would even need such an investment, some may-be more. Spread across ten years, that could be done.

A global plan might seem far-fetched and grandiose at this moment. Just pouring money into the global south, as justified as it is, might wreak more havoc than do good, if the requisite basis of democratic participation does not exist. It might even ruin the remaining forms of subsistence. All these circumstances must be taken into account.

On the other hand the mere suggestion of a global plan is important as a clear and loud signal of global solidarity, justice and equality. Look: we are in this together. A massive redistribution of wealth is due. There cannot be rich commons in the north and poor commons in the south. We need a common plan. What it will look like exactly will have to be determined by the nascent movements of commoners. But the principle itself is important. We have a comprehensive plan for a global commons; we will work out the details and scenarios of implementation together.

There is no way around a Commons Plan.