Here's Good News About Your Net Worth

Let me offer some good news about the state of your wealth. Sure, the 401(k) tanked, the house lost a big chunk of value, and things are looking shaky at work. Indeed, the Federal Reserve recently reported that Americans all together lost $5.1 trillion during the last three months of 2008 alone.

But what you possess individually accounts for only part of your true net worth. Each of us also owns a stake in some extremely valuable assets: clean air, fresh water, national forests, the Internet, public universities, blood banks, rich cultural traditions and more.

All these things are part of what is now being called "the commons," and they are more important than ever.

The things we share enhance our lives in countless ways - the roads we travel, parks where we gather, publicly funded medical and scientific breakthroughs we take advantage of, the accumulated human knowledge we use for free many times each day. In fact, without these commonly held resources, our modern society and market economy would never have gotten off the ground.

When the economy appeared to be booming, many of us didn't care about the commons; it hardly seemed to matter that the local recreation center was in disrepair and Social Security on the ropes. Private health clubs and IRAs would meet those needs. But in today's downturn, Americans are increasingly grateful for services and opportunities provided for us outside the for-profit economy.

But the news about our common wealth is not all good. While it has not declined 30 to 40 percent in value over the past year like many people's personal savings, it still faces major threats.

The financial downswing creates new pressures to balance state and local government budgets by hacking away at critical services and programs. St. Louis is looking at cutting bus service in half and St. Paul, Minn., is closing one library and slashing hours at 11 others. And the state of California is looking at trimming almost every state program and service.

But even in good times, the commons are vulnerable to exploitation by those who seize an opportunity for personal gain at public expense. This degradation of our shared wealth has become known as "the tragedy of the commons," after a famous 1968 essay in Science magazine by Garrett Hardin.

Hardin, a biologist, used the example of grazing lands - perhaps the most familiar use of the word commons - to describe how selfish instincts led livestock herders in traditional societies to let their animals overgraze commonly owned land.

But the situation Hardin describes is "the tragedy of the unmanaged commons." Cultures throughout history, including our own, have devised effective systems to make sure that common assets were not depleted. That was the impulse behind conservation laws, financial regulations and social programs enacted between the 1910s and 1970s.

The true tragedy of the commons has been inflicted on us by free-market zealots who attacked these sensible measures in order to carry out greedy raids on our common wealth.

Fortunately, this unprecedented looting of the commons sparked a new movement of "commoners" who are standing up to protect things that belong to all of us. The commons is becoming a model for thinking differently about how we make decisions, manage resources and think about responsibilities. Some people now envision a commons-based society where shared wealth compounds our individual assets in "the pursuit of happiness."

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