USE COMMON WEALTH TO REDUCE INEQUALITY

David Bollier reviews With Liberty and Dividends For All, August 19, 2014

EVERYBODY talks about economic inequality, but hardly anyone offers a credible way to reduce it.  French economist Thomas Piketty documented the deep structural nature of in­equality in Capital in the 21st Century, but the best solution he could come up with was a global wealth tax.  Good luck with that!

What a pleasure, then, to read Peter Barnes’ new book.  Barnes is a writer, entrepreneur and author of Who Owns the Sky? and Capitalism 3.0.  Now, in With Liberty and Dividends For All, he proposes to reduce inequality by the simple method of paying equal dividends to everyone from wealth we own together.

The dividends Barnes envisions wouldn’t come from taxes.  Rather, they’d come from charging cor­por­a­tions for their use of our airwaves, our atmo­sphere, and our grants of copyrights, trade­marks and patents.  It’s a well-accepted principle, he says, that businesses should pay to use property owned by someone else.  Why should they get a free ride on assets owned by all of us?  He calculates that charging for use of our com­mon wealth could generate yearly divi­dends of up to $5,000 per person.  Now that would reduce in­equal­ity!

Barnes introduces these ingenious ideas with an astonishing clarity and con­cision. Despite delving into some arcane fields of economics, social policy and law, his sen­tences are brisk and lucid, and his scholarship lightly worn (but with sufficient end­notes).  He takes us to a zone of policy originality that even Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and Amartya Sen haven’t dared to visit.

One beauty of his proposal is that the income everyone receives would come with­out poli­tical or psychological stigma.  The dividends couldn’t be criticized as reck­less govern­ment spending or money taken through taxation.  Nor could they be called a handout to the “unde­­serv­ing poor.”  Dividends from common wealth would be a universal birthright, and that is a big part of their appeal.

Barnes’ idea is based on the highly successful Alaska Permanent Fund, which since 1982 has paid yearly dividends of $1,000 or more to every resident of Alaska.  Conservatives like Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly are ardent supporters of Alaska’s dividends, which come from wealth Alaskans own together.

Chase down a copy of With Liberty and Dividends for All.  It will challenge many of your assump­tions about what we can accomplish within a market economy and within the framework of the commons.  The reverberations from this short, readable and profoundly original book will be heard for years to come.


Adapted from David Bollier’s blog, Bollier.org: News and perspectives on the commons, 8/19/2014
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