For years now, people have been casting about in search of a “new economy” to replace capitalism as we have known it. For the most part the suggestions advanced have been one form or another of something called “a shared economy.” As nearly as I can tell, a shared economy is one in which those of us with modest amounts of stuff share what we have with others in the same category, including cooperative ownership of our places of employment. The heart does not beat faster.

Finally, something really new has been suggested by Peter Barnes in a little book entitled With Liberty and Dividends for All. He begins by facing the really, really, really big problem that is coming down the pike:  “We must face the fact that jobs alone won’t sustain a large middle class in the future—there just aren’t, and won’t be, enough good-paying jobs to do that.” His unflinching conclusion: “This means we need broadly shared streams of nonlabor income.” His one-sentence solution: “The best way to create those streams [is] with dividends from wealth we own together.”

About that “wealth we own together,” Barnes cites a successful example of what he has in mind: the decision by the state of Alaska in 1980 to distribute the state’s earnings from North Slope oil directly to the citizens rather than to the state itself. For a theoretical grounding he turns to a late work by Thomas Paine (he of Common Sense fame), Agrarian Justice. Paine distinguished between “natural property”—such as air and water and soil—and “artificial property” invented by men. The latter, he noted, will always be distributed unequally, but the former belongs equally to all. Natural property could be distributed equally to all by creation of a national fund to which users of natural resources would make payment and from which all individuals would receive equal payments.

Barnes develops the idea most fully in relation to the right to release carbon dioxide into our air in large quantities. Rather than a system of carbon taxes, as has been batted around for years, he suggests simply that the fees paid for the rights to carbon emissions be paid directly to all card-carrying (Social Security cards, which represent a distribution system already in place) Americans as annual dividends. The value of such rights would be set by auction. Many other co-owned assets could also yield dividends, including the value of basic systems such as the financial system; securities transaction fees could easily yield substantial dividends for all of us. As would be the case with carbon emission fees, the system could be used to attack the problem of climate change and other environmental challenges such as water pollution or the depletion of ground water.

Barnes argues that his scheme should be politically viable since it has obvious appeals to those on both sides (although probably not those at the two ends) of the political spectrum.

Or, perhaps it is an idea on which a new political party could be built?

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