Since the last post, I went to the festival of the Belgian Workers Party (PTB-PvdA) and… that probably deserves a special writeup of its own. I’m also now in Washington DC, in the USA, visiting Megan for the next two weeks.

I like the historic feel of Washington, the city reflects an idealised early American republic. Most of the grand buildings dotting the city were built in the 1920s, and they’re saturated in roman imperial symbolism. It’s impossible to walk around without noticing the eagles, doric columns, fasces, laurel wreaths, muscular bronze statues.

It’s an America obscured by its projection on the outside world - a land of car parks, fast food, neon signs, TV meals, Coca Cola, sometimes war.

Electronic Superhighway, by Nam June Paik

And I feel Washington reflects better the land of Manifest Destiny. It feels like a city in a young country, still cautiously defining itself in relation to revolutionary principles.

Miners in the Sierras, painted by Charles Christian Nahl in 1851-512

I also saw a bust of Eugene Debs. I like Eugene Debs.

Debs bust in marble, made in 1922 by Moses Dykaar

Okay, so lately I’ve been thinking about Universal Basic Services (as the theoretical counterpart to Universal Basic Income). In particular, this tweet from Ed Griffiths hit a note, that you can’t hoard bus trips. There are some public services which are very difficult to abuse, even when using them improperly.

Megan came up with a pretty funny example when I asked her about it. Take a rational actor seeking to maximise their exploitation of a public good. They arrive in a city well-served by drinking fountains and public toilets. They start off by drinking from the fountain, then going to the toilet when they’re full.

Taken to its theoretical extreme the self-interested individual would spend their day shuffling between the water fountain and the toilet: drinking and peeing, drinking and peeing, until they wreck their bladder or collapse from exhaustion. In reality, you can’t hoard water, much the same as you ‘can’t hoard bus trips’.

There are a few other cases like this:

  • Assume everyone has a right to a roof over their head, every family gets a house, and every person their own room somewhere. Nobody needs more than one house, and it’s difficult to abuse this because you can’t physically sleep in two places at once. Currently, where housing is allocated through the market, some people own many houses which they don’t live in, and others sleep homeless on the street.

  • Assume a district has a public running track. On weekends or in the early morning large crowds of people gather to run around in circles. Some people sprint, some jog, some walk, all in different lanes. The track has a finite capacity, but the maximum capacity is high enough that it’s not a huge problem. It’s difficult to abuse because if an individual wants to spend their entire day running around the track, they can do that, and the track will still be there the following day. It makes little difference whether you run for fifteen minutes or two hours, and you can’t permanently take anything out of the track.

  • Assume a city wants to encourage cycling, so they install public cycle pumps around the place. The pumps are made of metal, bolted into the pavement and sturdy enough that they can’t be easily damaged by the weather or through vandalism. It only takes a few moments to pump up your tyres, and they can only be pumped up to a certain point, so nobody’s going to sit there pumping up their tyres all day. You can’t hoard air.

  • Assume a city has a public park, open to all. Anyone can come to the park to smell the flowers, sit on the benches, take shelter under a tree in the rain, take a dip in the lake, let your children play in the playground, or have a picnic on the grass. Again, it’s difficult to abuse this because however much you take advantage of the park, you don’t diminish its utility for others. Sure, the park only has a finite number of benches and picnic places, but in general the park is resistant to over-exploitation.

These all fit outside a narrow defnition of what constitutes abuse. They also probably fit better under the category of ‘public infrastructure’ than ‘public services’. So, how else can public goods be abused?

Megan suggested homeless people sleeping on benches, washing in drinking fountains. Also, when it’s cold outside, sometimes the best place to get warm is by sitting on a heated bus, and that’s not behaviour expected of genuine commuters.

In the US you see measures to push back against this. There’s a little area of Washington with fancy shops, and it’s patrolled by special police who are there to secure and defend what is ostensibly public space. There’s hostile architecture, such as spikes under window alcoves to prevent people from taking shelter under them. There are ‘no loitering’ signs around certain areas, so people don’t hang around too long in one place. This isn’t just a feature of US cities, it happens in Britain too.

On the other hand, if public goods truly belong to the public, we should respect the right of the public to use them, even in unintended ways. Somewhere the line is drawn where a picnic blanket is acceptable, but a tent is not. That line can be moved. It wasn’t too long ago that US cities were subject to a major social movement which reclaimed public squares as a political strategy.

In the Chinese province of Ningxia, I observed that one of the parks had circles of yellow grass where obviously tents had been pitched recently. This was because some ethnic groups have a right to place yurts on public land, it’s a right guaranteed by the Chinese republic. There aren’t many real nomads left in China so I guess they only exercise their rights in a symbolic manner. They can be explained by historical circumstances, but the fact that these rights are still carefully respected suggests that they remain politically important.

Similarly, some citizens in Britain have ancient rights to the land. Such as the right to pick fallen branches from the forest floor. I’m still reading about the various English peasant uprisings and one of the things I’ve taken from it is the significance of the Commons. There was also much more emphasis on the Commons as a situation of natural abundance, for example, the collection of firewood would be a sustainable practice. That’s as much a physical condition as an ideological one: your basket gets too heavy if you collect too many branches, and if you build your fire too high you’ll burn down your house.

The same kind of physical conditions also apply to the over-exploitation of a public water fountain: your bladder can only hold so much water, and water is heavy enough that you can’t carry around more than a couple of bottles. So long as your supply of safe, clean drinking water is secure, then it becomes naturally abundant.

I feel the current conversation around Universal Basic Services is sometimes framed through the language of economy, on how to best manage the steady depletion of finite resources. However, that misses the fact that public goods can be enjoyed sustainably and in forms which are resistant to abuse or over-exploitation.