Thursday, May 3, 2012

Common Theme 1

One of the most important concepts in the modern world is an often overlooked but critical piece of the puzzle in American politics. It is seldom (if ever) mentioned by any national political figures and on a local level it barely gets lip service. Yet, it guides a significant amount of domestic policy. In fact, many debates about the role of government seem to revolve almost exclusively around this ‘it’--common pool resources.

Part 1: The Basics

This unglamorous name, hereafter referred to as the commons, is a type of resource that has some peculiar qualities that exclude it from much of the traditional governmental framework. Technically the commons is defined by two main characteristics: the difficulty of exclusion and the presence of subtractability. Basically, it’s hard to keep people from taking some of a resource, and the resource can be taken.

Information is a peculiar case of a resource that is difficult to exclude but does not subtract. Almost anyone can learn but no one can take that information away.

Water is the classic example of the commons. In a given region everyone pulls from the same aquifer, the borders are amorphous, and it is nearly impossible to keep people from using the aquifer. In these cases traditional property rights have no meaning. A person may not buy part of a stream and use it however they please. Nor can a heartbroken harlot poison her ex-lover’s well without jeopardizing the entire aquifer.

In the early days of the West, the solution to these water problems was simple. Get a big straw, settle upstream, and suck hard. And that worked ok. Eventually though, that stopped working. The text book example is the Colorado River where water became so over-allocated that today it no longer even flows to its mouth. Instead it dries up somewhere in the Mexican desert, miles from the sea.

Laws regarding the use of the commons are a hodge-podge. Largely the issue is ignored or traditional property laws are modified to manage the commons. In the West, water rights are allocated based on acre-feet. The mean quantity of the water source is determined and separated into units known as acre-feet, or the amount of water that would cover an area of one acre to one foot of depth in water. These acre-feet are then sold as water rights and the holder of the rights are allowed to use that amount of water in a given time period--generally a year.

This is doesn’t always work. Water quantity is rarely exactly the amount estimated on paper and often the rights are over-allocated. Water quality is often poorly monitored and polluters rarely punishable under the full force of the law. Even in cases where a party overdraws water according to their rights, it is hard to track down and prosecute the offender. Then there is the case of gradual pollution from non-point sources. Basically, if everyone were to flush their prescription drugs down the toilet, there could be significant health effects to users downstream but placing blame on one person would be unfair.

In this sense, the commons is truly society’s fault. Conceptually, this is hard to grasp for many people and thus laws regarding it have been apt examples of square pegs getting shoved into round holes.