Jonathan Rowe

Tough Love for the Obesity Lobby

The Bush Administration has a problem with personal responsibility. They make a big deal about it for nearly everyone -- except themselves and the corporate big shots who finance their campaigns.

A case in point is the recent World Health Organization's proposal to combat the spread of obesity, diabetes and related illnesses throughout the world. The WHO proposal -- called officially the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health -- would encourage governments to adopt a number of common-sense steps, from better food labeling and limits on junk food advertising to the promotion of healthful diets with more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. It also urges governments to make sure that schools promote such diets, not junk food and soda pop.

Hardly radical stuff, and long overdue. WHO's own studies show that unhealthful diets and physical inactivity have become the leading causes of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer throughout the world.

One would think the U.S. would be eager to sign on. We know this problem first-hand: some two-thirds of us are overweight, plus, the President himself is a fitness buff. And let's face it. Much of the crescendo in global lard comes from the junk food diet that U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's and Kraft have exported.

On top of all this, two years ago, President Bush called for a new ethos that says "we're responsible for our decisions." So you'd think he'd be the first to take some responsibility for the consequences of the actions of the country he leads. Fat chance. Instead, the Bush Administration has blocked the WHO anti-obesity plan, and re-opened it for weakening amendments. The Administration has hauled out its focus-group-tested slogans to pass the buck -- and ensure lots of them for its friends in the junk food industry.

First, "science." Whenever the Administration wants to muddy the waters it invokes the experts in the white coats. So here, William R. Steiger, a top aide at the Department of Health and Human Services (and George Bush Sr.'s godson), wrote to WHO that there are "numerous instances" where its food policies "are not supported with sufficient scientific evidence." Come on. Maybe the scientists employed by the junk food industry can't figure this one out, but our grandmothers did and their grandmothers before them. Dr. Walter Tsou, president-elect of the American Public Health Association, observed "Any mother with any common sense knows that you don't feed your kids cookies and ice cream every day unless you want to see them gain weight."

Is that really so hard? Is it really so hard to figure out that a Big Mac and a large shake, with 1600 calories combined, might cause some problems on the obesity front?

As it happens there is no shortage of science that confirms this common sense. Take fast food. One study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that boys and girls who ate fast food three times in the previous week had far higher calorie intakes: 40 and 37 percent, respectively - than did those who did not eat fast food. Another study, published in this month's issue of Pediatrics, estimates that the consumption of fast food could account for an additional six pounds of weight gain per child per year. But this research is not paid for by the junk food industry. So in the interesting logic of the Administration, that apparently makes it "junk science." Kaare R. Norum, the Norwegian professor who chaired the scientific panel that advised WHO, notes that the attacks on the WHO's scientific evidence "have not come from scientists. They have come only from industry."

Next the administration invokes "personal responsibility." Steiger, the top HHS aide, wrote to WHO that the Administration "supports personal responsibility to choose a diet conducive to individual energy balance, weight control and health." Steiger similarly told the Washington Post that "what's lacking" in the WHO approach "is the notion of personal responsibility as opposed to what the government can do." This echoes the spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who said: "There is no mention [in the WHO strategy] of what we consider to be the fundamentally important issue of individual responsibility."

The echo is not coincidental. Note that the Bush Administration is not demanding some personal responsibility from junk food bigwigs such as sugar magnate Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, Safeway CEO Steven Burd, and Richard F. Hohlt, a lobbyist for Altria (formerly Philip Morris), which is majority owner of Kraft. It is not asking them to take responsibility for the billions of dollars they and other junk food marketers spend seducing our kids with saturation ads, nor for the obvious and predictable consequences of these actions - i.e. the diseases associated with the consumption of junk food.

Each of these fat cats has purchased an indulgence in the form of bundled $200,000 contributions to the 2004 Bush campaign. So the Administration points the finger instead at parents and their children. The finger comes no less from the Department of Health and Human Services, which probably should be renamed the Department of Junk Food Marketing and Corporate Services.

The sugar industry has wanted to hobble WHO since the organization said that free sugars should comprise less than 10% of total daily calories. Last April, the Sugar Association actually threatened WHO that it would sic its allies in Congress on the U.S.'s annual $406 million contributions.

Now, we agree that people do need to take more responsibility for the junk they put into their mouths, and for their failure to get off their behinds. But the global obesity lobby has to take some responsibility too, for its nonstop propaganda campaign, especially when it is aimed at children. That includes Henry Kravis, founding partner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which is majority owner of Channel One, an in-school marketing service that bombards schoolchildren with ads for soda pop and junk food. True, Mr. Kravis has bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign. But surely President Bush understands that sometimes, we just have to say "No."

Executives such as Mr. Kravis seem to have a hard time grasping another Administration nostrum -- that parents are the proper guides to their children's behavior. They persist in injecting themselves into the relationship between parents and children. They seduce kids with ads crafted by psychologists to turn the kids into relentless nags for junk food that many parents do not want their kids to have. These executives have got to take some responsibility for the way they disrupt the home. The President should remind them of this.

And it's time for the U.S. government to take some responsibility itself, and stop hindering parents' efforts to instill healthful eating habits in their kids. Forgotten in the daily barrage of junk food ads is the way the government actually encourages these very corporations. Under U.S. tax law, for example, most corporate advertising is tax deductible. So next time your kid throws a tantrum because you don't want to buy her another Big Mac, you might recall that your tax dollars are helping to pay for the ads that induced your child's snit.

The obesity lobby has developed a welfare mentality, and it's past time for the Bush people to show some tough love. It should stop -- right now -- the tax break for advertising of junk food, and advertising to children generally. No more taxpayer-subsidized meddling in the American family. No more corporate welfare to goad kids to throw tantrums for Whoppers, Cokes, M&Ms and the rest.

The President himself should take some personal responsibility for this step. He should call Lanny Griffith and Rob Leebern, lobbyists for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Coke, into his office. He should tell them that even though they each have bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign, the time has come for them to decide whether they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution -- and that the government isn't going to help them anymore if they persist in the former.

Then the President should get on the phone to Director-General J.W. Lee of WHO and apologize for the moral relativists at his Department of Health and Human Services who lack the courage to stand up to the junk food lobby.

Eighteen months ago, President Bush himself said "when I talk about personal responsibility in America, I expect there to be corporate responsibility as well, and we will hold those to account who do not uphold those high standards in America."

It's time for the President to walk his talk. He should hold junk food and advertising executives accountable for their role in promoting obesity and disease throughout the globe. Literally millions of lives are at stake across the planet. The world needs a coalition of the willing in the cause of global health and freedom from unchecked corporate influence on children. Who better than America to lead?

Jonathan Rowe is a writer, contributing editor to The Washington Monthly, and a founder of the Tomales Bay Institute. Gary Ruskin is a founder of Commercial Alert.

The Global Accounting Scam

Several months ago a professor at the University of North Carolina published findings that turned beliefs about the economy upside down. Health improves, he said, as the economy goes down. When the economy declines, to a point at least, deaths, smoking, obesity, heavy drinking, heart disease and some kinds of back problems all decline as well.

"Sounds unlikely," said the New York Times. And indeed it is, by the standard reckonings at least. We all know that an expanding economy makes us better off -- or do we? Another study, this one in England, found that shopping, which is the drive train of the entire economy, and which is supposed to make people feel good, actually can make them depressed. "For significant numbers, dissatisfaction is now part of the shopping process," one of the authors said. (As though we needed a study to tell us that.)

What's going on here? How could we feel better when the experts say we should feel worse, and worse when they say we should feel better? Could it be that economists don't know up from down to begin with?

This is the nation's hidden accounting scandal, the one that neither government nor media will touch. It concerns the accounting for the entire economy, the way the government purports to determine whether things are getting better or worse. This accounting is called the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. It is central to the big policy debate in Washington, and is the template for the policies the United States projects upon the world. The media regard it with a reverence bordering on awe. The Wall Street Journal recently called the GDP the "world's most reliable economic indicator."

Yet like the books of Enron, Tyco et. al., the federal economic accounting is a sham. It portrays regress as progress and misery as economic advance. If you ever have wondered how you could feel so harried, stressed, maxed out and under siege, even when the government says the economy is doing well, the answer is here. If the president really is looking for chief executives who "cook the books," he might well take a look at the economic books over which he himself presides. They truly are a mess.

Adding It Up - and Adding, and Adding...

Imagine an accountant who can add but can't subtract, and who is so nearsighted he can't see past his nose. That is the mentality behind the GDP. The GDP simply adds up the money Americans spend and calls the result growth and good, regardless of where the money went and why.

By this reckoning, the more medical bills you incur, the more junk food your kids yammer for, the more you sit in traffic and the more your credit card company rips you off with hidden charges, the better the economy is doing and the more the politicians can brag about the nation's "growth."

At the same time the accounting ignores the implications of expenditures that on their face might suggest advance. Perhaps your neighbor loves her SUV. Perhaps she regards it as a step upward in her life. Still, when she drives the thing, she pours gunk into the air and adds to pressures to put oil derricks near coastal beaches. She takes up more space on the road, adding to traffic and causing everyone to burn more gas. Honest accounting would show such costs. The GDP ignores them.

Worse, the federal accounting actually shows such costs as economic gains. All the gas, the fender-benders, the medical bills arising from exposure to bad air get added to the GDP as evidence of the nation's growth. Americans spend over $5 billion on gas they burn while stuck in traffic, going nowhere. That's $5 billion more for the GDP. Cook the planet, cook the books and call the result "growth."

It's this kind of screwy accounting that enables the president to claim that action to address global warming would be bad for "the economy." Define regress as progress, and steps to take us forward look as though they would set us back. What's more, while counting bads as goods, the GDP totally ignores the genuine goods that don't cost money. The air we breathe, the care that parents and grandparents give their children, the games children play with one another, the quiet of the night -- these are invisible in the national accounts.

Only when the economy destroys them and forces us to buy substitutes do the federal accountants spring to life. Day care counts but mom-and-dad care doesn't. Driving a car counts but walking does not. The reason is not that government numbers-people are incompetent or ethically challenged. Actually they are top-notch. The problem is the antiquated system they are forced to use. It is so out of touch with reality it would be comic -- if the consequences weren't so grim.

Thriving on Absurdity

The absurdities of all this have not gone entirely unnoticed. Economists and the media reflect upon them from time to time in a feet-on-the-desk kind of way. But they continue to use the GDP anyway. Observe the news the next time the Commerce Department releases the quarterly GDP numbers. Does a single reporter or economist say, "Wait a minute. Does this accounting really say what people think it says?"

Not likely. And more, they never acknowledge how deep the phony accounting runs. They might remark on occasion upon the unfortunate side effects of consumption, what economists call "externalities," e.g. the way the SUV gunks up the air. But the consumption itself is always positive, another step up the Mountain of More. "A nation is by definition thriving if its major indices [e.g. the GDP] say people are making more things and spending more money on them," a writer in the New York Times opined not long ago. By definition, which means there's no need to observe actual experience and see if it is true.

Yet reporters are supposed to be observers, not theologians, and these talents are desperately needed with regard to the hoary postulates of economic thought. The problem today goes far deeper than externalities. Increasingly the problem is internalities, the supposed cornucopia itself. Is it really thriving when kids nag their parents for junk food, or when credit card companies rip off their customers with billions in hidden charges? Is it thriving when teen magazines induce a pathological body-consciousness in young girls, to the benefit of the cosmetic and plastic surgery industries?

According to a recent test, six of seven brands of SUVs are designed to incur major damage -- upwards of $1400 or more -- from a crash at just 5 miles per hour. That's GDP. But is it really "thriving"? When one actually looks at the economy, instead of thinking abstractly like an economist, one sees less a happy jaunt up the mountain than a slog through a swamp of the economy's own creating.

Integers of Acquisition

But let's face it. The problem is not just the economy. It's also ourselves.

In the belief system called economics, we all are shrewd little integers of acquisition, who go through life with an unfailing calculus of benefit and gain. Since we all are "rational," as economists use that term, the sum total of our buying must be the nation's prosperity and good. That's the belief embedded in the national accounting -- more buying equals more happiness and good.

Leave aside, for the moment, the buying the economy thrusts upon us. Leave aside too whether it is really so "rational" to be obsessed with shopping to begin with. If we simply observe the life around us, what we see is -- surprise -- a lot of bad choices. We see in fact a nation of people who seem in constant lament over the bad choices they have made.

The book stores are full of titles for such people. Support groups proliferate for those who can't stop eating, drinking, smoking, falling for the wrong people, spending money they don't have. The pharmaceutical industry is marketing drugs for people who can't stop shopping. (Some four million Americans are already addicted to prescription drugs.) Counselors are counseling them.

Yet somehow, when the accountants put all of these bad decisions together, the result is supposed to be prosperity and growth, by definition. And when people start to get control of their lives -- when they toss the gin down the toilet, put the credit cards in the freezer and timers on their telephones -- we hear dire warnings of a drop in "consumer confidence" and a "sluggish" GDP.

Rejecting the Hype

It does get a little weird. Yet politically it makes perfect sense. A McDonald's, an Exxon or a General Motors finds great comfort in the GDP. An accounting system that turns obesity and pollution into economic advance turns the perpetrators of these into the heroes of the script. Politicians like the accounting too. It enables them to say that in helping their campaign contributors they are actually helping humankind. Oil drilling in wilderness areas is not a plum for the oil industry, they say. Rather, it's a boost for the GDP.

For the media, meanwhile, the GDP provides a way to turn a complex story into a simple number, one that comes weighted with the combined authority of the federal government and economic expertise. It enables reporters to pontificate on the economies of entire countries without the need to leave their desks. That the GDP aligns economic reporting with the interests of advertisers doesn't hurt either.

These mental grooves are deep, and they are set in concrete. They are not likely to change any time soon. That does not mean we have to follow along, however. The first step to change is to withdraw our consent. The next time we hear Dan Rather, or Tom Lehrer, or the solemn voices on NPR intone about the GDP and "growth," we can just chuckle at how out of it they are. As the corporate corruption exposés have shown to the nation's great pain, phony accounting can't cover up reality forever.

Jonathan Rowe is director of the Tomales Bay Institute and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly magazine. Enough! is a publication of the Center for a New American Dream.

The Promise of the Commons

Words are a form of magic. They conjure thought out of the confusion of experience, and they form the lens through which we see the world. Politics is largely a contest over words - over a version of reality. Those whose words prevail, rule; and those who rule choose the words.

Nowhere is this more evident than in economics. Though couched in the trappings of science, economics is basically a word game. Define anything produced as a "good," and the debate is over before it starts. Who wouldn't want more "goods?" Define "growth" to mean simply an increase in monetary expenditure, and you can claim economic "progress" even if much of that expenditure results from "goods" that are not so good - the obesity and medical bills arising from junk food, for example.

Such words are tools of power. They drive thought towards predetermined ends. Where would the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal be without the term "market" to cast a devotional glow upon the most mundane commercial transaction? It would be left with just a welter of little issues to complain about--a tax matter over here, a trade or regulatory matter over there. These would be separate things, joined only by the fact of economic interest, which would be on the table for all to see.

The word "market," by contrast, invests these little money issues with a cosmic significance. It turns the mundane acts of selling and getting into a cosmology, and greed into the engine of a divine plan. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course. The agenda is embedded in the word, which turns one facet of human experience into a summation of all existence. Within the cosmology of the market there is little room or justification for anything that is not the market. As in language, so in life. In the beginning was the word, indeed.

It was a great achievement of the environmental movement to open a crack in the cosmology. The concerns that came together in the movement existed long before the movement itself: "Resource conservation, wilderness preservation, public health reform, population control, ecology, energy conservation, anti-pollution regulation, and occupational health campaigns," as Mark Dowie recounts them in his book, "Losing Ground." But these were enclaves within the old gestalt; and most public health workers, say, did not see themselves as part of a movement that included hunters and fishing people as well.

Then Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring," and the many became one. They were now aspects of the environment, a realm of reality and value that lies outside the market and that the market is not automatically entitled to claim or degrade. The word invested the smallest parts with the significance of the whole, much as the term "market" had done for business. Smog no longer was just smog; snail darters no longer were just little fish. They now were parts of larger system, in which the health of the whole was bound up with the health of the smallest parts.

For millions, the term "environment" provided a link between their intuitive concerns about the world and a larger and potentially political whole. It gave the concerns a name, and therefore a reality; and this galvanized a movement that changed the nation's political map. Now however, the movement is stalled and on the defensive. The signal triumph of the year - the defeat of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - was a defensive victory, and rested on a slim majority in the US Senate.

Given the forces arrayed against the environment, this is not surprising. It hasn't helped that the movement has become so institutionalized and centered in Washington. But there's a problem also with the word. The "environment" suggests something at the edges of daily experience rather than central to it. In reality, of course; nothing is more central than air, water, and the rest. But the impression lingers. It plays into the polemic that casts environmentalists as the enemies of jobs - of central life concerns. It plays also into the economist's view that the environment is a mere "externality" to the core reality of the market.

The environmental movement emerged by addressing immediate threats to health and safety. It grew by starting to extend such concerns to voiceless populations under the rubric of "environmental justice." Now it needs to claim more of that center - not of the political spectrum but of daily experience. It needs to align consciously with a host of issues there that do not involve the natural environment per se but which are akin to environmental issues and involve the same underlying play of forces.

The natural environment itself is part of something larger - the commons, the shared heritage of us all, for which we all serve as trustees. The commons is not the market and it is not the state. It is the space around and between, the source and context of both. It has a natural dimension, such as the oceans and atmosphere, rivers and wild places, the diversity of species, the quiet of the night. The commons has also a social dimension: language and culture, the stories and games of childhood, the street life of cities, the vast stores of human know-how and knowledge, the new informational crossroads of the World Wide Web.

The commons unites the social and the environmental, much as Carson's "Silent Spring" united wilderness preservation and toxic pollution. It is a generic term for all that is subject to corporate (and governmental) trespass, expropriation, despoliation, and abuse. The concept provides the missing link between the ecosystem and the social system; between the assault on earth's atmosphere and the assaults on the cognitive atmosphere of urban spaces; between the depletion of the ozone layer and the depletion of our peace and serenity; between the destruction of species and the destruction of languages and cultures; between the loss of rain forests and the loss of traditional games and stories of childhood. And on and on.

The commons occupies the place in the economy that women once did, and to some extent still do. It is a realm of productivity that gets little recognition or respect. It does much of society's work and often the most important work. Which would be of greater use to most Americans: a new DVD drive for their computer, or a new neighbor who could look after their kids if they had to stay late at work? Which could they do without more readily: Coca-Cola or clean air?

The market itself cannot function without a commons. Consider the shops on a traditional Main Street. They need sidewalks to bring customers, a common language with which to transact business, a system of accounting that is similarly shared, an ambient civility and respect for law, and on and on. Functionally, the social commons is the air that commerce breathes. (And speaking of air, commerce cannot function without that either.) Even in the rarefied realms of high tech, the commons serves a central role. Innovation depends upon an intellectual commons of research and knowledge embodied in the university and public library - and more recently the World Wide Web as originally conceived.

The issue here is not the government, the commoditized services of the state. Those are important too, but they are different from the commons, which is the realm of society and nature that is distinct from both the market and the state. The commons serves also by not doing. It is the quiet in the midst of noise and din, the open and unspoiled places that provide peace and rest, the streetscape that is uncluttered by advertising, the children's game that is uncontaminated by some media corporation's wiles.

In a nation glutted with stuff but suffering an increasing scarcity of quiet and peace, this role as refuge from production -- the capacity to produce nonproduction -- is increasingly important. Yet it is something the official policy mind cannot grasp. Where the commons is producing abundance, this mind sees only a void -- an absence of stuff.

Recasting history

Every movement needs a story. To claim the future we need to explain the past. The story of the commons does this. It helps explain how the nation lost the capacity to see the sources of its own wealth, and how it came to regard the destruction of its commons as the growth of its economy. It explains how the market became both center and circumference of our sense of freedom and prosperity. So doing, it challenges the dominant narrative today, which is the triumph of the market over ignorance and repression - of stuff over the supposed void.

The conventional account goes something like this. Long ago, in the Dark Ages of history, much land in England and Europe was a commons. Ordinary people had the right to farm and forage, hunt and fish, on property they did not technically own. People did eke out a living. But the system was essentially static. No one had an "incentive" to innovate or improve. Finally the British Parliament saw the light. It passed a series of "enclosure" acts - over 7,000 in all - which stripped commoners of their legal rights and banished them from the land. Land became real estate and the commoners became an urban "labor force" for the factories and mills that were sprouting up.

It was the beginning of the modern market economy, and of "progress" as conventionally conceived. It was also social engineering on a massive scale, and a massive "taking" of property rights as well. But because it was done on behalf of the rich, it has gone down in the history books as "progress" instead. To a degree it was. The dislocations were brutal, the plight of the new urban factory workers as grim as Dickens and others portrayed. (Karl Marx didn't come from nowhere.) But there is no denying that the enclosures, combined with new technologies like the steam engine, bestirred energies of enterprise and invention that eventually improved the lot of most people.

The trouble is, the conventional economic mind froze into place around these early enclosures. Henceforth, whenever the market enclosed a commons - whenever a corporation turned something that belongs to all of us into a commodity, or else used it as a dump - the result was deemed progress by definition. Displace storytelling with a corporate entertainment industry? That's progress. Displace Main Streets with shopping malls? More progress still. No further inquiry was required or even permitted.

It's a case of arrested conceptual development, and it has become the master script for virtually every news story on the economy and every political debate. It is built into the reigning index of progress, the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. Every enclosure is by definition good, even if the actual results are bad - and even if the commons enclosed was more productive, and created more value, as a commons. Is McDonalds' cooking better than the kind parents used to do for kids? Are Terminator seeds really an improvement over traditional varieties?

Don't bother asking. Enclosure means money, and money is the only thing the economic mind knows how to see. So it can't see that growth increasingly has become a process of cannibalization. The market literally devours the natural and social basis of its own existence. Every aspect of human experience and every inch of space - physical, social, psycho-emotional - must be enclosed and turned into something for sale. Like the beast in Dante's Inferno, the market gets hungrier the more it is fed.

Most of us are aware of this at some level. But usually it is a vague gnawing, a nemesis without a name. The commons provides a name and thereby an understanding. It identifies not just the aggressor but also the thing aggressed upon - namely our common property, a source of wellbeing that we all share. This is a new master script, and it opens the way to a new politics that is outside the hoary Left/Right mold.

Since the commons is not the market and not the state, advocates for it are not part of either camp. They seek to enlist the state exactly the way the partisans of the market do - to establish ground rules and boundaries, and to protect property, which in this case is common property. They seek ground rules to protect the quiet, for example - not so that government can occupy that space but so that our own thoughts can. They seek to restrain the spread of WalMarts and mega-malls, not so that government can provide the alternative, but so that the social ecology of traditional Main Streets can.

If the government could re-engineer an entire society to create a market, why can't it enact modest new ground rules to protect the commons? If it can provide a legal structure for an institution called the corporation to manage and dominate the realm of private assets, why can't it provide legal structures for institutions to manage common assets? In his book Who Owns the Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism, Peter Barnes proposes just that, in the form of a Sky Trust to manage the atmospheric commons. Many such new structures are possible.

The goal is not to replace the market with a commons; that would be absurd. The goal, rather, is to establish an equilibrium and balance of a kind the economics texts do not recognize: an equilibrium not just between supply and demand within the market, but more importantly between the market and the commons which lies outside it. Yesterday's answer can become today's problem. What was once progress can become regress if extended too far.

If one looks closely, one can see the beginning of a new commons movement stirring across the land. One sees it in the anti-WalMart battles, in the fight to get advertising out of the schools, in the persistent concerns about genetic engineering and the corporate ownership of the genetic commons. One sees it too in the opposition to the sale of the names of sports arenas and other public places to corporations. Even Jim O'Brien, coach of the professional Boston Celtics, wished out loud that the city's sports arena, the Fleet (Bank) Center, could have the name of its predecessor, the Boston Garden. (Some localities are reaping what they sow, as Houston discovered when it found itself with an Enron Field.)

In response to rider pressure, Amtrak has established "quiet cars" where no cellphones are allowed. This illustrates the desire of many Americans to draw a line and say to the forces of enclosure, "Thus far and no farther." This is not a liberal or left-wing cause. Phyllis Schafley and Ralph Nader work together to get advertising out of school classrooms. Sports fans are not always known for their radical political views. Regarding the destruction of traditional Main Streets, Don Eberly, a prominent conservative, says "I am anti-Walmart. Economic life has to be anchored in the moral and social life of the nation."

This is a new kind of freedom movement, a fight for freedom not just from the state but from the market as well. It recognizes that the market isn't everything, and the beachhead of this movement is an unlikely place - high tech. Much of the outrage at Microsoft, for example, stems from the way the company has taken the underlying language of computation - the operating system - and turned it into private property in the form of Windows. It's as though a corporation claimed ownership of the English language, so that we all had to sign a licensing agreement before speaking, and could speak only the words that the corporate owner had approved.

This has prompted a reaction in the form of an open software movement, the centerpiece of which is Linux, the operating system that was developed through a cyber-commons on the Web. Linux illustrates the fecund productivity of a commons, and its connection to genuine freedom as well. (With Linux, users are free to tinker and improve, just as we English speakers can invent our own words.) A similar drama is playing out in university research labs, where corporate funds and a patenting frenzy have turned the traditional commons of shared knowledge into a petri dish of secrecy and paranoia.

In the past the commons has been easy prey because the people most affected - the commoners - by definition didn't count for much. In high tech, by contrast, the commoners are articulate and influential. A spate of recent books by Stanford University's Lawrence Lessig and other prominent law professors has given the concept a respectability it didn't have before. (See box) There's a rare opportunity to advance the commons more broadly. When a concept proves its worth at the cutting edge of techno-economic change, it can hardly be called reactionary, or anti-freedom - or anti-market, for that matter.

To the contrary, the cause of freedom is about to take another turn.

Jonathan Rowe is Project Director of the Tomales Bay Institute, an Earth Island project, and a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly.


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