Who Owns What?

In his second Inaugural Address, President George W. Bush declared once again his desire to "build an ownership society."

"By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny," he explained, "we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal."

Millions of words have been written about how the president intends to achieve his goals. I'll refrain from adding to that output. For I'm still bewildered by Bush's bizarre definition of "ownership."

President Bush certainly does not believe one should be able to "own" one's body, certainly the most essential of all forms of ownership. He's sent federal agents into California to arrest a woman trying to reduce chronic pain by using a plant (marijuana) grown in her own backyard, an act the good citizens of California had declared legal by direct vote.

President Bush believes people can -- and perhaps should -- lose their jobs because of what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms. He has moved aggressively to overturn state laws allowing the aged to die with dignity under their own control.

Ownership of personal information? President Bush opposes policies that require companies to gain permission before they use my personal information for private gain.

Ownership of public information? The Bush administration has restricted access to public information -- information the public has paid to gather -- to an unprecedented degree. In his first two years in office, for example, he classified more than 4 times the number of documents as Bill Clinton did in his first two years.

Bush does seek to increase home ownership. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has sought to do so. None has done so little to make that happen as George W. Bush.

The debate about Social Security illustrates the kind of ownership Bush views as central to his vision of the ownership society. His proposed Social Security reform, the centerpiece of his second term in office, will enable Americans to own shares in huge mutual funds that hold a portfolio of shares in many corporations.

This is a trivial form of ownership. It's more like having a piece of the action than having any of the rights or responsibilities that we normally associate with genuine ownership.

There are, of course, many forms of business ownership. Some, like local ownership, cooperative ownership, worker ownership, or municipal ownership, allow individuals to participate directly in decision-making. These are structures where the loci of authority and responsibility merge. Bush's policies, on the other hand, vigorously support another less sanguine form of ownership -- huge, absentee-owned, business structures where those who make the decisions are very distant from those who feel the impact of those decisions.

In the end, President Bush's ownership society turns the word "ownership" on its head.

He firmly believes that we don't own those things that most of us would indisputably believe we do own -- our bodies, our privacy, our dignity, our bedrooms. And to add insult to injury, he just as firmly believes that we can own those things that most of us would argue are not ours to own -- air, words, folklore.

Over one of the entrances to the massive federal Department of Commerce building in Washington is an apt and instructive quote from Abraham Lincoln. "Patents fuel the fire of genius." The patent and copyright systems were begun so that one could monetarily benefit from a successful invention or work. But today copyright has been extended far beyond the life of the original genius, and even, in many cases, the life of his or her heirs. This is a destructive, indeed dangerous, form of ownership that cannot be justified on the basis of its encouraging innovation.

In his marvelous recent book, Brand Name Bullies, David Bollier, a fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, offers abundant examples of the weird nature of the kinds of ownership George Bush vigorously endorses.

One of the most instructive occurred a few years ago. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) sent out letters to 288 camps in the American Camping Association, demanding that Brownies and Girl Scouts stop singing copyrighted songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" unless the camping groups ponied up thousands of dollars in licensing fees.

Bollier, and Peter Barnes and Jonathan Rowe and Larry Lessig and many others, propose that when George W. Bush talks about the ownership of property, we engage the discussion by talking about the commons, that is, property owned in common for all to use sustainably.

Bollier asks, "Who owns the internet? Who owns online knowledge? Who owns words, letters, and smells? Who owns the fictional characters of mass culture? Rather than granting "fair use" exceptions to the default norm of property ownership (on a parsimonious, case-by-case basis!), the commons reverses the terms of debate. It asserts that many cultural and creative intangibles presumptively belong to all of us, and that a strong case must be made before exclusive rights to privatize them are granted."

Under George W. Bush's ownership society, a person wracked with debilitating pain does not "own" the right to go into her backyard, pick a plant and eat it to alleviate that pain. But a non-person -- a corporation -- like McDonalds has the right to "own" phrases like "Play and fun for everyone" and, "Hey, it could happen."

There is a word that describes this kind of thinking and the person who engages in it. Unbalanced.

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