Sunday, November 12, 2006

Capitalism's Redeemer: A Podcast Interview With Author Peter Barnes

Is capitalism salvageable? Can it be a vehicle for improving the human condition? Is it possible for free markets to preserve our environment and adapt to the realities of global warming? Or is capitalism an instrument of profit for a few and nothing more? Can government regulation effectively balance the public interest with corporate power? Peter Barnes, the author of Capitalism 3.0: A Guide To Reclaiming the Commons (Berrett-Kohler Publications, Inc.) has pondered such questions for three decades. CLICK HERE to download his book for free in PDF format.

Barnes began his career as a reporter for the Lowell Sun (Massachusetts) and later wrote dozens of articles for Newsweek and The New Republic about economics. As a child he helped his father “crunch numbers” for several books he wrote about the stock market. Yet, Barnes reveals that,
“But my real economic education began in my thirties, when, after a midlife crisis, I abandoned journalism and plunged headfirst into capitalism.”
The theme of his entrepreneurial career is profit and social responsibility. In 1976, Barnes co-founded a worker-owned solar energy company in San Francisco and in 1983 he co-founded Working Assets Money Fund. Working Assets screened money market funds for investors who wanted to put their money in companies with a social conscious. He also became president of Working Assets Long Distance. In 1995, Barnes was named Socially Responsible Entrepreneur of the Year for Northern California. Currently he is a senior fellow at the The Tomales Bay Institute in Point Reyes Station, California.

Specifically, Barnes considers how modern life has diminished “the commons”: a generic term like the “market” or “state” referring to assets we inherit such as the ecosystem or the culture we create. Barnes describes the commons as assets that are gifts and shared by everyone. Air, water, ecosystems, languages, holidays and music are assets we share and haven’t earned.

Scarcity of common assets that influence our quality of life is a modern trend. The demands of working longer and earning less have debased our culture and profit at the expense of nature has contributed to an era of scarcity for people not earning top dollar. Hence, Barnes’ observation that,
“When capitalism started, nature was abundant and capital was scarce; it thus made sense to reward capital above all else. Today we’re awash in capital and literally running out of nature. We’re also losing many social arrangements that bind us together as communities and enrich our lives in monetary ways. That doesn’t mean capitalism is doomed or useless, but it does mean we have to modify it. We have to adapt it to the twenty-first century rather than the eighteenth. And that can be done.”
His book partly explains how capitalism’s past and current “operating systems” have devoured nature and he provides a blueprint to upgrade it for modern life. In devising this upgrade Barnes believes society must go beyond the antiquated paradigms of government regulation or market solutions. He contends societies should construct “trusts” that preserve the commons for future generations instead.

Ben Cohen, Co-Founder of Ben & Jerry’s said:
“Barnes shows us how to build a new economic sector that is held in trust for future generations. Ecosystems and their services would be managed for long-term benefit rather than short-term profit, and all Americans would get cash dividends.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of the Natural Resources Defense Council also praised the book:
“Using his years of experience as a successful entrepreneur, Barnes shows how capitalism can be upgraded so that it protects rather than devours our planet. Required reading for everyone who looks further than the next quarter’s results.”
Barnes agreed to an interview with me about his book and ideas for upgrading capitalism. Please refer to the media player below.

This interview can also be accessed for free via the Itunes Store by searching for "Intrepid Liberal Journal."


christian_left said...

I like his ideas. This general approach may be the most promising way to save the capitalist economic system from its own self-destruction. In focusing on exploitation of nature as the primary looming threat to continued capitalist expansion, I think he is right on target. On the other hand, part of me wonders if an entirely new system may need to replace present-day capitalism--some combination of communitarianism and socialism, with room for small business, small farms, etc.--with a major shift from profit-making and greed to an entirely different set of values (e.g., community, equality, sustainability). But perspectives like this give me hope that we might be able to find some middle way of strong reform without completely dismantling the current system or letting it collapse in a spectacular cataclysmic global conflict polarized between haves and have-nots over scarce environmental resources. I look forward to reading the longer PDF; thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Aaron said...

Another great post.

We really do need to find some middle ground that can reform the way our society works.