Challenging the Commons

Nobel_Economics_Reyn_t607Delhi Upgraded to business class from Bangkok to Delhi, which was a rare and wonderful treat, but finding that my bag had gone missing on the exchange took a bit of the thrill off it.  There seems to be a lot of a bit of this and a bit of that going on these days.

Waiting for the plane earlier in Chiang Mai while seated at the Dairy Queen, a hot dog in my hand and my feet stretched over to my carry-on, a random middle aged fella in shorts, a t-shirt, and a big smile comes up out of nowhere and says, “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but are you the guy who owns ACORN?”  I answer, “ACORN’s a non-profit, no one owns it, but I founded the organization and worked there for 38 years.”  He then rejoins that he had seen me on TV and thought he recognized me.  I quip that it had been a good time to “be in Thailand” and across the world from all of that since “half of my emails are threatening and the other half want to work with me to organize in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Zambia, Belize, South Africa, and elsewhere.”  He says, “Well, good luck and hang in until you win!”  I shook his head and then wished I had asked him where he was from in the world.

Like I say, these are strange days.

A Nobel Prize in Economics is awarded to a woman professor in Indiana, who researched and wrote a response to the classic conundrum defined as the “crisis of the commons,” meaning that there is little collective responsibility over common assets or property. This problem has helped create an ideology behind centralization on one hand and privatization on the other.  She found and argued differently citing fishery management groups and other community efforts.  This is all interesting stuff, particularly if it puts wind in the sails of community efforts to manage affairs and programs, which is a core principle of community organizing.

I think about this a lot.  Did creating a unitary, single corporate structure with ACORN, and seeing the same transition with SEIU in my 25 years there as well, both allow huge capacity and power to be created, and also lead to democratic abuses and arbitrary management practices that we read about now when the organizations are beleaguered and under fire?  As I help construct a federated structure on the international level, how do organizations protect against the problems of decentralization, which lay behind the ACORN behind the scenes power struggles in recent years and led to the sloppy lack of standards and supervision so glaringly revealed recently?  The “coordinated autonomy” that was so much a founding principle of ACORN’s organizational structure and resonates in the operation of strong local unions as well, seems both supported and attacked simultaneously.

The checklists have a lot of items on each side with plenty of plusses and minuses, but somehow the circuit breakers and internal protections are breaking down.

Maybe there’s a Nobel Prize series of lessons about how to puzzle all of these matters through as well?  Academics, get busy!

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