Tragedy of the Commons

There’s a concept called the Tragedy of the Commons that generally says individuals acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting some common resource.

A real-world example is fishing. The scale of global fishing operations has outrun the ability of the fish to keep up. As a result, 90% of many fish species were depleted, and now require protection to recover.

In the U.S. over the past 30 years, after financiers successfully manipulated a string of American administrations into deregulating financial markets, they began fishing out the U.S. middle class.

That’s a problem, because with so many people who were once middle class now bumped down to being the working poor, that group can’t be tapped for more money. It’s going to have to come from somewhere else.

They are now hungrily eying pension funds, and the recent budget deal gave them what they wanted – legal access to pension funds. We’re talking about money explicitly set aside for retiring workers, money that should remain safe even if the business fails. Businesses can now tap that money if they want to. If the business fails, or the money is invested in something that fails…too bad. No pension for you. Even if you paid into it.

This doesn’t apply to social security funds…yet. But some of you may remember Bush the Younger campaigned for market-based social security accounts. With a new Republican gang in the Congress, watch for a rebirth of that idea, or something like it.

It’s not enough that they have set back an entire generation’s progress and tied down another with insanely high educational debt. They’re coming after your retirement too. They’re fishing out the middle class from cradle to grave.

One of unregulated or lightly regulated capitalism’s biggest flaws is this Tragedy of the Commons problem. It’s fractal, it appears at different scales, it’s only the players that change. It can push entire nations, including ours, in a downward spiral, a race to the bottom.

Unless we intervene. Recognize the cry for deregulated capitalism as the smokescreen it is. Reinstitute real checks and balances. Take money out of campaign funding.

American government has been tightly in the grip of business interests before and shook it off. It can be done again.

The stakes are getting higher. Apathy is not an option.