David Bollier

One of the Most Pervasive - and Wrong - Conservative Economic Myths, Debunked

The following is an excerpt from Think Like A Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. Copyright © 2014 by David Bollier. Reprinted with permission of New Society Publishers.

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The New Economic Events Giving Lie to the Fiction That We Are All Selfish, Rational Materialists

Jeremy Rifkin's new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” brings welcome new attention to the commons just as it begins to explode in countless new directions. His book focuses on one of the most significant vectors of commons-based innovation — the Internet and digital technologies — and documents how the incremental costs of nearly everything is rapidly diminishing, often to zero. Rifkin explored the sweeping implications of this trend in an excerpt from his book and points to the "eclipse of capitalism" in the decades ahead.

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The Couchsurfing Culture Is Spreading Across the Planet

The gift economy is alive and global among an improbable network of "Couchsurfers" who stay in strangers' homes when traveling. The idea got its start when Casey Fenton impulsively booked a flight to Iceland because of a cheap online airfare, and then realized that he didn't know anyone there and had no idea what to do there.

So he found a list of email addresses for students at the University of Iceland in Rejkevik, and sent out emails asking if he could crash with them on their couches. He got lots of invitations and had a fantastic weekend with utter strangers.

When he got home, Fenton and three friends created a website to try to systematize the idea. The result was "Couchsurfing," a new way of meeting people while traveling while enjoying free lodging. People register online and provide some information about themselves, and then either offer a place for other registered Couchsurfers to stay, or explore available couches in selected cities. The site does not charge anyone for helping arrange the connections. In fact, it expressly forbids hosts from charging their guests (upon penalty of expulsion from the site's registry).

Call it semi-organized gift exchange. It's a Web-assisted gift economy for travelers that thrives simply because people are basically good and enjoy meeting strangers from other places. Couchsurfers understand that they are not just getting a free bed; there is an implied social contract that they will spend some time eating or drinking or touring the city with the host. Some hosts take visitors to parties or tourist sites, others just meet them for coffee.

To help visits go well, the Couchsurfing site has all sorts of tips for guests and hosts, suggesting ways that people can have a happy, safe visit. Both hosts and guests are rated by their counterparts, which helps to identify bad actors and reliable, generous CouchSurfers.

Interestingly, Couchsurfing doesn't demand a tit-for-tat reciprocity. There is no direct exchange of hosting for surfing. People are free to host or Couchsurf without any quid pro quos or elaborate calculations of "points." The idea is simply to help people meet interesting strangers while traveling, and share with them.

Since its launch in 2003, Couchsurfing has become an international phenomenon. The site has attracted 1,930,000 million registered Couchsurfers from around the world, and it has facilitated 2,086,778 "successful surf or host experiences." (The site keeps elaborate statistics of number of Couchsurfers, languages spoken, etc.) Couches are offered in 230 countries and 73,339 cities. There are 154,682 registered Couchsurfers in the United States, 20,823 in Australia, 230 in Tanzania and 28 in Antarctica.

Originally a volunteer project, Couchsurfing has evolved into a virtual nonprofit that operates with no physical office; its staff interconnect through the Internet. The project is unabashedly positive in outlook and even idealistic. Its "vision statement" declares: "We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places we encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community."

If it all sounds a little corny, the testimonials from Couchsurfers are generally glowing. One Couchsurfer wrote, "We had a great experience couchsurfing in Asheville, North Carolina. We connected with an awesome couple who let us stay with them, even offering us a bed in their roommate's room and feeding us a yummy home cooked meal. There is no money exchanged, and people only bring gifts or offerings if they so desire. We bought the ingredients for the meal we shared and left them a nice note."

Others rave, "Couchsurfing has totally changed my way of traveling and of living. I have learned how to trust people, how to appreciate their stories and diversity." Another called the Couchsurfing scene "a conglomerate of well-intentioned people, of good karma, and you just have to jump in to enjoy it."

Couchsurfing has become so popular in some locations that there are local groups who host visiting Couchsurfers. The connections often persist over time, and grow into a new sort of international network of friendship, pleasure and trust. What's amazing about Couchsurfing is how quickly it has scaled and how durable and trustworthy it generally is. It just goes to show that a gift economy can grow to international scale, thanks to the Web, and be every bit as satisfying as the Holiday Inn, and cheaper.

The Presidential Debates Are a Scam

Have you wondered why the presidential debates don't present any serious ideas or encourage any substantive exchanges about policy and political philosophy? Have you noticed that the events resemble a whirring jukebox of familiar sound bites -- a highly produced, tightly scripted affair with with no surprises and little passion?

There's a reason. Both candidates and their political parties want it this way. The debates are not the production of some independent third party like the League of Women Voters, the host university or news organizations. They are co-produced by the Democratic and Republican Parties themselves, who have ingeniously disguised their actual roles by nominally delegating control to the Commission on Presidential Debates

The Commission sounds like some venerable group of eminent graybeards and experts. Not so. It is a group of party apparatchiks whose express goal is to broker the terms of the debate in order to advance and protect each candidate's interests. For the 2008 debates, the Commission negotiated a 31-page memo of understanding that lays out in precise detail the rules of stagecraft, questioning, follow-up, audience deportment, and other conditions. The contents of this memo, however, have not been disclosed despite requests by citizen groups.

We do know the upshot of the memo, however: a series of carefully orchestrated PR events that pretend to host a wide-open, vigorous debate.

The truth is, no one can really learn much about the candidates or their ideas when the format has such rigid time limits on answers and predictable questions from mainstream news anchors. The moderators are constrained from asking tough follow-up questions, and the audience is forced to sit like zombies in a funeral parlor. Even with the so-called "town hall meeting" format, there is no genuine back-and-forth dialogue between candidates and citizens. Nor are there any direct candidate-to-candidate exchanges. Third-party candidates have been summarily excluded, so there are no disruptive questions that might expose the limited vision of the two major parties. (Ralph Nader was famously excluded from the 2000 presidential debates because his citizen support was deemed too insignificant to make a difference in the election.)

In short, the presidential debates are shams if they are to be considered debates. They are meant to simulate honest, spontaneous exchanges of ideas but in fact, their real goal is to prevent any spontaneity, depth, complexity or worrisome surprises.

A more open format would give candidates greater latitude to express themselves at length and with nuance. But that's apparently what the two parties really don't want. An open format leaves too much room for candidates to be caught off-guard or exposed as superficial. An open format would require candidates to be able to go beyond repetitious talking points and rehearsed accusations and one-liners.

In 1998, former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite wrote, "The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become ... the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse." It is a testament to the state of mainstream journalism that leading news anchors happily agree to participate in these farces. It's great PR exposure, after all.

One of the best debunkings of the modern presidential debates is George Farah's book, No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates (Seven Stories Press, 2004). Farah charges that the Commission on Presidential Debates "acts as an effective screen for the two parties to evade citizens' most pressing questions, and absorbs the political costs that would otherwise accrue to the parties. This function of the CPD, as an arms-length organ of the parties, amounts to a shocking institutional rigging of the electoral process that degrades our democracy and signals worrying bipartisan contempt for transparency in this country's highest elected office."

This year, however, an insurgent citizen coalition is arising to challenge the rigged presidential debates. The Open Debate Coalition, led by Professor Lawrence Lessig, has sent a letter to the Obama and McCain campaigns asking them to change the ground rules for the debates. The coalition spans a broad left-right political spectrum. It includes Craig Newmark of Craiglist; Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post; filmmaker Robert Greenwald; Mindy Finn, a Republican strategist; Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia; Patrick Ruffini, a former Republican National Committee eCampaign Director; and many others.

The Coalition has asked that the debate moderator have broad discretion to ask follow-up questions after a candidate's answer, and that the public be able to use the Internet to vote on which questions shall be asked. The Coalition has also asked that, as a stipulation of the next debate, the media pool must release all 2008 debate footage into the public domain.

This is an issue because on at least two occasions, TV networks have invoked copyright law to prevent candidates from using footage from the debates. Bloggers and other commentators should not be constrained from using video snippets from the debates because the host TV network asserts copyright control over its footage. The event ought to be available to every citizen, especially now that citizens have their own video-production and -publishing capacities.

Despite promising responses to the Coalition's letter from both candidates, it remains to be seen whether the media pool will put their video of the debate into the public domain and whether moderator Tom Brokaw will use any citizen questions that citizens have voted on at Google's website.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the Commission on Presidential Debates will reform its practices in the future. Right now, the "debates" use a format that is deliberately designed to minimize actual debate, maximize positive PR for the candidates, and deflect any criticism of the debate format away from the two major parties. It's time to open the closed debate structure to citizen voices and a more open format. The two parties should not be able to enclose democratic debate. Citizens, not parties, ought to reclaim the debates. If the United States hopes to recover its moral authority as a champion of democracy, it needs to start walking the talk. What better venue than the presidential debates?

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Why the Hype About Local Food May Be More than Just a Trend

Now that the New York Times has splashed it on the front page (July 22), consider it an official trend: locally grown food is all the rage. It is being avidly sought out by Manhattan's Upper East Side, the glam crowd in the Hamptons, the merely affluent of Mill Valley, California, and even by the rest of us who live in less celebrated locations with few boldfaced residents.

It is tempting to dismiss locally grown food as just another elite fashion, as many people surely will. But it is also true that wealthy households are often the first to validate broader market trends.

Consider it another chapter in the ongoing dance between the commons and the market. The commons lovingly advances a new ideal -- in this case, the ecological virtues, social satisfactions and great taste of locally grown food. And then, after years of hippies, homesteaders and eco-evangelists beating the drum for this new ideal below the radar screen of mainstream culture, entrepreneurs suddenly get hip to what's going on and swoop in to make money from a grassroots trend.

Some things never change. We are at that special inflection point in the evolution of social attitudes that are mysteriously propelling the rise of a new market niche. Its customers, the aficionados of local food, even have a name -- "locavores." There are also novel sorts of new businesses.

As the Times reports, Trevor Paque has made a business in San Francisco planting vegetable gardens for affluent suburbanites who want to eat garden-grown food, but who don't like to garden. So Trevor does the planting, weeding and harvesting. A company called FruitGuys will deliver boxes of locally grown, sustainably raised or organic fruit to people in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Soon mega-millionaires like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh will rail against the trendiness of local food. That's their schtick, after all -- to invent elite foils for themselves so that they can cast themselves as Main Street populists. Real Republicans only eat red meat and potatoes, it would seem.

This is just a shell game in the culture wars, however. I am convinced that local food is going to become a steady, long-term growth market. For its taste, cost and eco-friendliness, local food has already become a symbol of social virtue. People are starting to realize that it is not so good for the planet to haul meat from New Zealand, wheat from South Dakota and fruit from Caifornia. Social demand and sheer economics are starting to buoy local growers, and supermarkets are looking for new ways to call attention to their local produce. The trend lines are clear.

The spending of local money for local produce is surely a virtuous cycle for local economies. It is also likely to promote greater personal connections among people locally, stronger commitments to one's local community, and a more stable and diverse local economy.

Two days after filing the local foods article, Kim Severson, the same Times reporter who wrote about the elite embrace of local foods, had another piece about the upcoming an upcoming festival called Slow Food Nation. The event, to be held in downtown San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, will feature pavilions devoted to foods like pickles, coffee and salami. A quarter-acre patch of the lawn in front of City Hall has been ripped up to grow a garden.

Slow Food Nation is an ambitious attempt by Slow Food USA, the American spinoff of the Italy-born Slow Food movement, to establish itself as a recognized political and cultural force. Organizers hope the festival will be, in the words of Severson, "the Woodstock of food, a profound event where a broad band of people will see that delicious, sustainably produced food can be a prism for social, ecological and political change."

I am sure that certain elements of the Slow Food world will behave like effete connoisseurs and fawn over the local argula and goat cheese. But really, is that so bad? Why shouldn't people start to express their affection and appreciation for local food? If cultural snobs and the wealthy can embrace a populist trend without coopting it -- validating it with their presence and boosting it with their dollars -- I say, bring 'em on. Let everyone celebrate the taste of local food -- and then move on to the political and economic realities that sustain it.

If local food is going to be a victim of identity politics, let it be a politics of localism: "We all live here together, so let's find the way to support the farmers who are our neighbors."