Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous | Bloomberg Opinion

Source: Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous | Bloomberg Opinion, by Tyler Cowen

What happens when a nation built on the concept of individual property ownership starts to give that up? … Lately I’ve been worrying about … the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.

The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?

We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative. Perhaps we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways, but it also seems to be more conformist and to generate fewer empire builders and entrepreneurs.

The libertarian political theorist might tell you that arrangement is simply freedom of contract in action. But the more commonsensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.

Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment.

 

From Comments:

The article identifies some problems but totally misses their actual source. The problem isn’t that we own less stuff, it’s that the ownership is replaced by a dependency on a handful of corporations which we have no ability to influence or appeal to.

The substitution of individual ownership for a communal one in which individuals retain a stake – a real community, or at a larger scale, a democracy – is not inherently bad. The problem with our recent trend is that we aren’t getting communal ownership in return; we’re getting nothing but convenience.

 

Renting is giving up money for conditional access to an item. Owning is giving up liquidity for unconditional access to an item.

In renting, when you are done with the item, you terminate, yielding access and recouping none of the money. In ownership, when you are done with the item, you sell, yielding access and recouping some money.

High-end hobbyist equipment such as camera lenses and woodworking tools are great things to own; they offer great enjoyment, tend to retain value, and you can typically find a buyer if and when you want to sell.

Things that are difficult to sell and poor at retaining their value are good things to rent.

I’ve heard compelling arguments for both Renting and Owning of Houses and Cars and it really comes down to circumstances, but it’s always good to own something you can use and sell if the need arises.

 

> It’s pretty obvious to me that a deliberate and intentional effort has been made to ensure that only people who own a lot of property have any voice in the system; to flip that relationship around and make it a moral statement is frankly a little scary.

That’s not true. The reason why property ownership was required to vote is because in a democracy, the founders knew that if the majority of voters didn’t have property then they would eventually just vote to take away the property of others. But they also knew that if the majority of people didn’t own property then the government would also fail. So their solution was to only allow property owners to vote, but to make it easy and basically free for all citizens to become a property owners, and to heavily incentivize them to do so.

Early American democracy only worked because there was basically an unlimited amount of free land to give way. And to the extent that it still works, it’s because technology and intellectual property have replaced land as the primary sources of capital.

American democracy is designed around broad-based capital ownership, not broad-based ownership of stupid shit you don’t need. This is why this article doesn’t make sense, because it would be far better for democracy if e.g. the average American owned $20,000 worth of Uber stock rather than $20,000 worth of car. Stock is capital, whereas a personal car isn’t.

 

To understand the point of the author you need to look back, deeply back, at the history of human society. For most of human history, most people did not own any property. In a feudal society, for example, a few lords owned everything, and everyone else worked for them and owned nothing.

The “American experiment” was radical in that it placed the individual at the center of governance. The U.S. system of government is “built up” from citizen consent, not “pushed down” from a divinely-granted right of hereditary rule.

In order for this system to work, citizens must own property. Otherwise, they don’t have the resources to collectively enact change. The Bill of Rights presumes citizens who have the resources to speak, associate, petition, etc. That’s why it is worded to constrain the government’s power, not worded to grants things to citizens.

The fundamental idea behind American democracy is that Americans have the means to pursue their goals and to influence each other.

This is why it was so much easier for early U.S. citizens to found churches and corporations than it was in Europe. European churches and corporations were top-down, and therefore few and conservative. U.S. organizations were bottom-up, and therefore many, diverse, and innovative.

So… that’s why property ownership is at the heart of American democracy.

But what about:

> deliberate and intentional effort has been made to ensure that only people who own a lot of property have any voice in the system

There’s actually a lot of evidence against this, for example the entire labor and environmental movements. Collective citizen action has worked a lot of change to the U.S. over the years, and I predict it will continue to do so.

All that said, I think it’s a pretty far reach to claim that the American experiment is at risk because a few people don’t want to buy CD’s or cars anymore. People still like money and things! The real estate market is not drying up. There’s plenty of property being owned and desired by Americans.

I think that lack of money is a bigger issue. Over 40 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line! I think that’s a much bigger problem for American “stake in the game” than whether someone who has disposable income decides to spend it on a Kindle instead of books.

Intermediated of the world, unite! | Radio Bruxelles Libera

I have the pleasure to report here the English translation of the article that Stefano Quintarelli, a pioneer of the Italian Internet, wrote for Il Foglio some days ago. I have been astonished by t…

Source: Intermediated of the world, unite! | Radio Bruxelles Libera, by Innocenzo Genna
English translation of: Intermediati digitali, unitevi | Il Foglio, by Stefano Quintarelli (Italian)

We can no longer limit the analysis to capital and labor, we must also include information in the equation and the digital revolution that expresses it.

In just a few years, the traditional capital-labor conflict has been wrapped and dominated by another conflict, a conflict with information that, through the control of intermediation, presses on both. … We are observing a monopolization in the domination of the relevance of the immaterial dimension over the material dimension, in the creation and distribution of wealth, with a rising conflict between intermediaries and intermediated, with the compression of rights and guarantees for large social bodies and with a significant political influence.

The info-plutocracy of the intermediators is based on a centralized control of information, both in terms of data (privacy implications are an epiphenomenon) and of processes with which such data are collected, processed, communicated and used.

Beginning in the 90s of the last century, … By choice, no pro-competitive rules were introduced because it was believed that they would slow down and possibly stall development. Rules were introduced regarding intellectual property and system violation, editorial responsibility, child protection, and investigations of justice, but not in terms of user contendability and competition. Entrepreneurs have learned to exploit this regulation to their advantage by using intellectual property laws to impose restrictive contractual conditions for their users, exploiting network effects … to limit the mobility of users.

The conflict between intermediators and intermediaries induced by the digital revolution of the twenty-first century develops in the relationship between information and production (understood as the product of capital and labor) and is starting a social confrontation between a model of management of centralized information that has developed in recent years (and supported by large technological multinationals) and a decentralized model promoted by some avant-gardes (philosophical, technological, political, etc.), a debate with profound differences between those who advocate closed systems and environments and those who fight for decentralization, to foster greater competition and the possibility for users contestability.

In some cases it has been proposed to build “state champions” (such as a public search engine, or a social network or a public platform for professional bidding). In other cases it was also proposed to consider social networking as a non-duplicable social infrastructure and someone even proposed nationalization. These are hypotheses that bring to my mind the Soviet response to the pressures of industrialization through state-owned companies.

I believe we need to respond as Western society has responded to the industrial revolution, that is, with more market oriented interventions, favouring less concentration of information and regulation of negative externalities. I believe we should not give in to the logic of the inevitability of closed systems and we must stand firmly on the side of openness.

To tackle the digital revolution we need a comprehensive package of measures that are based on the principles of what we have already done in the period of the industrial revolution: new forms of taxation, innovations in welfare, workers’ rights, public guarantee controls for consumers and, fundamentally, increased competition, procompetitive rules, user contendibility, interoperability of services, etc.

But this can hardly happen without an awareness of this new conflict of intermediation between information on the one hand and production (that is, the combination of capital and labor) on the other and without this awareness becoming translated into political action. In order for this political action to take place, it is necessary for the intermediaries to demand it by coalescing into awareness: “Intermediated of the world, unite!”.

Scientists Have Uncovered a Climate Change Precedent | The Atlantic

Source: Scientists Have Uncovered a Disturbing Climate Change Precedent

Looking at evidence about the environments on earth 50 million years ago, it is likely that the earth then had 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), arctic and antarctic environments similar to today’s tropics (e.g. the Sahara desert and Amazon rainforest), and possibly dead zones with temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the tropics.

You can also see a rendering of the earth [here].

The Stock Market Is Shrinking. That’s a Problem for Everyone. | The New York Times

Source: The Stock Market Is Shrinking. That’s a Problem for Everyone. | The New York Times, by Jeff Sommer

When I say “shrinking,” I’m using a specific definition: the reduction in the number of publicly traded companies on exchanges in the United States. In the mid-1990s, there were more than 8,000 of them. By 2016, there were only 3,627, according to data from the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Because the population of the United States has grown nearly 50 percent since 1976, the drop is even starker on a per-capita basis: There were 23 publicly listed companies for every million people in 1975, but only 11 in 2016, according to Professor René Stulz.

In 2015, for example, the top 200 companies by earnings accounted for all of the profits in the stock market, according to calculations by Kathleen Kahle, a professor of finance at the University of Arizona, and Professor Stulz. In aggregate, the remaining 3,281 publicly listed companies lost money.

Traceability | Communications of the ACM

Source: Traceability | Communications of the ACM, by Vinton G. Cerf

The ability to trace bad actors to bring them to justice seems to me an important goal in a civilized society. The tension with privacy protection leads to the idea that only under appropriate conditions can privacy be violated. By way of example, consider license plates on cars. They are usually arbitrary identifiers and special authority is needed to match them with the car owners (unless, of course, they are vanity plates like mine: “Cerfsup”). This is an example of differential traceability; the police department has the authority to demand ownership information from the Department of Motor Vehicles that issues the license plates. Ordinary citizens do not have this authority.

If we are to accomplish the simultaneous objectives of protecting privacy while apprehending those engaged in harmful or criminal behavior on the Internet, we must find some balance between conflicting but desirable outcomes. … In most societies today, it is accepted that we must be identifiable to appropriate authorities under certain conditions (consider border crossings, traffic violation stops as examples). While there are conditions under which apparent anonymity is desirable and even justifiable (whistle-blowing, for example) absolute anonymity is actually quite difficult to achieve and might not be absolutely desirable given the misbehaviors apparent anonymity invites.