Several days of silence calls for at least a whimper of sound here… I’ve been on the road (Washington, DC, Boston, and tomorrow Montreal) and writing for crisp deadlines in amidst the travel. And I’m still uncertain as to whether it’s better to post little snippets just to keep the flow coming to your blog readers, or if I should concentrate on lengthier, more considered posts when the opportunity for them arises. Either way, I have been adding to the Shadow Blog, and there’s been plenty to add there, most of which I could have said something about here. (Unfortunately I can’t control the Shadow Blog’s appearance — that’s Google’s prerogative — so some entries come up only as linked titles, while others blare their full length at you.)

But a few things worth mentioning both concern economics:

First, the very pleasant surprise of Elinor Ostrom being awarded a Nobel Prize for it. (The other surprise Nobel I’ll leave uncommented upon…) Ostrom is a political scientist whose work on the commons is central to reconceptualizing the human capacity to manage commonly held resources. Her work (along with that of many colleagues) has dealt the death blow to Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” scenario, with its ornery assumption that unless we privatize or bring in the heavy hand of government, humans will destroy their environment inevitably, incessantly, and repeatedly, out of some kind of death drive (or maybe birth drive, an inability to control our own reproduction). That’s a simplification, of course, intended provocatively, but it still gets a little maddening to see how captivated students get by the elegant simplicity of Hardin’s apocalyptic tale, while being much less interested in the messy complexities of real life as shown by painstaking fieldwork and careful analysis. Ostrom’s work shows that commons can be, and often have been, successfully managed — it just takes the right kind of collective institutions (appropriately scaled, manageable and participatory, with clearly understood responsibilities, etc.). Here’s the Nobel committee’s justification for their decision, a recent article of Ostrom’s from Science for those with institutional subscriptions, and some blog discussions on the topic.

And second, the seismic shifts starting to take place in the field of economics, of which Ostrom’s Nobel is one indicator, Paul Krugman’s recent NY Times Magazine piece How Did Economists Get it So Wrong? is another, and the growing prominence of behavioral economics is a third. The latter is being incorporated into policy making in the US, as I’ve written about before, especially now that Cass Sunstein has been confirmed as Obama’s regulatory “czar” (he who has been under fire from Glenn Beck for, well, does it matter?). This piece from Britain’s funky Prospect Magazine provides more news about how it is also shaping public policy in the U.K.

(Where, though, are our buddies the ecological economists? They need to be taking this opportunity to leap to the forefront of economic debate as well. (I ought to prod my colleagues up the street at the Gund Institute eco-eco think-tank to see what they have to say…)

The idea of the commons is central to Ostrom’s work and, incidentally, is also at the heart of Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s third and final installment of their much loved / drooled over / berated (hopefully not in equal measure) Empire trilogy. (Are they the George Lucas of sociopolitical theory, or the Darth Vader?) Following up on Multitude, this one’s titled Commonwealth. They are the inspirational writers of the Spinozan (post-Marxist) left, and I’m eager to see where they’ve taken things (despite the weaknesses of the previous volumes, as outlined, for instance, by some of the articles here).

Re-Public put out a very nice special issue on the commons a while back, though it focuses more on the technological commons than the ecological ones, and the issues faced by the two are not always the same. I would also recommend Re-Public’s environmental justice issue, and Steven Shaviro’s (and others‘) more recent analyses of the economic crisis. And see On the Commons for more of this kind of thing.

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