Research AreasPolitical
Forum on Social WealthFull Description

The Challenge

No economy consists of markets alone. The monetary value of the goods and services that we buy and sell remains small relative to the value of the larger environment in which markets are embedded. Economies draw resources from and dump wastes into our natural surroundings, but markets fail to balance the costs of this dependency. Economies rely heavily on contributions of time and money that have their basis in kinship, community, and personal affection, but markets fail to acknowledge the benefits of these gifts. Economies depend ultimately on reservoirs of human knowledge that are passed and accumulated from generation to generation, knowledge that is most fruitful not when exchanged in markets, but when freely available to all.

The simple fact is that we can no longer afford to ignore our profound dependence on non-market realms. An antiquated faith in the all-embracing efficiency of competitive markets is today undermining the sustainability of our larger economic system. Conventional measures of efficiency exclude inputs and outputs that cannot be readily bought and sold. As a result, economic success is calibrated in terms of market prices rather than human values.

Because we have failed to acknowledge the importance of our common wealth, we have failed to protect it against encroachment. Our air and water are being poisoned and the Earth’s climate destabilized. The families and communities that sustain society are being stripped of public support and told to fend for themselves. Resources that we collectively own, from forests to broadcast airwaves, are being usurped by private business interests, often with the complicity of the government.

The Opportunity

It is time to imagine a new way of thinking about the wealth that underpins our economic and social well-being. We propose the idea of "social wealth," an idea rooted in human history and common sense. A healthy and safe environment - encompassing our physical, social, and expressive environment - is the ultimate public good. It cannot be maintained by competitive markets or state regulation alone.

  • The environment: After major legislative victories in the 1960s and 1970s, political progress toward effective environmental protection has slowed, and in some cases reversed. Advances of the environmental movement are now constrained by a focus on technical solutions that isolate environmental problems from their broader social and economic context.
  • Caring labor: Women continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of caring for children and other dependents. This work contributes to our common wealth by creating and replenishing our labor force and sustaining human well-being. Yet this is not adequately recognized or rewarded by either the market or the state.
  • The information commons: Corporate interests are continually attempting to enclose the information commons by privatizing access, commercializing schools, and patenting crops, life forms, and even the human genome. A diverse new movement of librarians, software developers, healthcare advocates, Internet users and others is now struggling to preserve public access to our shared knowledge, culture and creativity.

While each of these movements struggles to assert its interests and values, they lack what their market adversaries do not: the ability to invoke a larger grand narrative about value creation and social good.

The Forum on Social Wealth

The Forum on Social Wealth aims to fashion a new "cognitive frame" that recognizes how families, local communities, online networks, ecological systems and other non-market entities "produce value," not just in an economic sense, but in ways that matter socially, morally, and personally.

We want to foster dialogue and critical thinking on the intersection of these movements. Our success will be measured by the extent to which we spark fresh thinking on how to improve local and global governance of these resources, move policymaking in new directions, resonate with a wider public, and generate tangible advances in the stewardship of our common wealth.

To this end, the Forum sponsored six public lectures that were held at the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2005-2006. Video and text of these lectures are available on the Forum’s website.

The Forum is currently engaged in two ongoing collaborative projects:

The first, ‘What’s the Economy For, Anyway?’ aims to encourage people to look beyond checkbooks to things that money can’t buy, and to rally people around the task of nurturing and protecting and forms of wealth we share in common. As part of this project, the Forum is organizing a three-day program of speakers, workshops, and films in conjunction with the Green Festival to be held in Washington, DC, on October 5-7, 2007. Click here to find out more about this conference.

The second, ‘Using Common Wealth for the Common Good,’ aims to develop and build public support for a national policy agenda for governing common wealth to promote the common good. An example could be the establishment of a trust fund which would distribute revenues from carbon charges – in effect, payments for use of the global atmospheric commons – via equal dividends to every woman, man, and child and/or funding for public goods and services. 

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Visit the websites for these Forum projects:

What's the Economy For, Anyway? 

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