Everybody talks a lot about economic inequality, but there don’t seem to be many credible proposals out there, let alone ones that have political legs. 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 and discover some sensible, practical ideas. Barnes is a writer, entrepreneur and long-time friend; we worked together a decade ago with the late Jonathan Rowe in exploring the great potential commons in re-imagining politics, policy, economics and culture. The author of pioneering policy ideas in Who Owns the Sky? and Capitalism 3.0, Barnes has just published With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough (Berrett-Koehler Publishers).
The book aims to reduce inequality not through the tax system or education and training, but by inventing new commons-based institutions that can generate nonlabor income for everyone. The secret of the wealthy, of course, is that they don’t depend on salaries or wages, but on investment income from their equity assets.
So how might commoners pull off this trick? By generating income from common assets. The money won’t come from government spending or redistribution, or from new taxes on business. It will come from commoners seizing control of the shared equity assets they already own – the atmosphere, airwaves, the sovereign right to create money (now enjoyed by banks), and the public institutions that make stock markets and copyrights possible.
These equity assets belong to all of us. Unfortunately, most of the benefits from these assets have been privatized by banks, oil companies, telecom companies, the culture industries, depriving us of income to which we, as common property holders, are entitled.
Barnes proposes renting out various common assets to businesses that wish to use them. This is a well-accepted principle – to pay for something owned by someone else. Why should companies get a free ride on public assets? Barnes proposes charging corporations for the use of the airwaves, the pollution sink of the atmosphere, and the right to monopoly protections such as copyrights, trademarks and patents. Revenues from our common assets could be channeled into independent, non-governmental trust funds that would then regularly generate dividends for everyone.