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COMMON CURRENCY: Demonstrating common cause is a necessity

The "tragedy of the commons" is a dilemma arising from a situation in which a group of individuals, acting independently and rationally in their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.

This dilemma was popularized in modern times by an influential article authored by Garrett Hardin published in the journal Science in 1968.

But the central dilemma presented by the over exploitation of a common resource is a timeless one. It was the subject of much commentary among 19th century economists, and appears to have been of interest to even the Greek historian Thucydides, who commented, "the common cause imperceptibly decays."

I first came across this "tragedy" as a freshman student of economics in college, where it was used to explain market price mechanisms. The metaphor of the "commons" is often used in this way to illustrate the concept of cost shifting.

Originally used to describe the problem of overgrazing on public pasture land, today the great cost shifting debate would be something like the problem of global warming.

Since a coal burning power plant pays no cost for putting CO2 into the atmosphere, the "cost" of the global warming effect of this greenhouse gas is shifted to society at large. (On second thought, this might not be the best time of year to use that analogy. In a couple more weeks or so, a bit of global warming is going to sound like a pretty good idea.)

But speaking of imperceptible decay, I couldn't help notice the article on the Riverside Avenue capital improvement project scheduled for 2011 that appeared in the Enterprise last Saturday.

According to the article, this project area will cover a few blocks along Riverside Avenue, 3rd, 5th, Beach, Washington, and Forest that still have sewer and water lines installed in the 1920s.

The article states this is a high priority project because half the city's flow travels through the sewer lines in this area, making the need for replacement urgent. The article also reports that the cost of replacing the sewer lines will be 100 percent assessed to the adjoining property owners.

So here is what looks like a case of the "tragedy of the commons" in reverse.

At first glance, it looks like a few dozen property owners are going to pay 100 percent of the cost of replacing these dilapidated sewer lines that will benefit far more property owners than will actually pay for it.

On the other hand, if there is a back up because of a pipe failure, some unlucky property owner will also endure 100 percent of the cost of the mess.

And there are a couple other considerations. The sewer line that runs by your property isn't really useful to you unless it is connected to something else farther down the line. And at some point, those property owners were assessed also. So, at some point in time, everybody pays in or the system doesn't work at all.

I think a more problematic example is the new Park Rapids storm water utility. For centuries a legal doctrine developed to treat surface water runoff as a common enemy. In shorthand, the storm water that runs off my property and floods yours is not my fault.

But today we recognize that management of storm water run-off in built-up areas contributes to maintaining the health and quality of public waters. But the storm water utility fee essentially privatizes the cost of creating a public good.

But there is no easy answer here either. Every study ever done on the relationship between water quality and property values shows a direct correlation between the two. Higher quality water equals higher land values. And in an economy that relies upon high quality water resources for tourism, the actual measure of the cost shifting going on is less clear.

As the Greek historian wrote, "common cause imperceptibly decays." Here is the real crux of the issue. Common cause is a conscious choice. It requires active engagement, and participation.

Is the property tax system in Minnesota a bit whacky? You bet. Are there problems with local assessment policies that create unfair cost shifting burdens for some property owners? I think so. Do we face some tough decisions to make up for past neglect? Most definitely.

But we have also demonstrated the ability to make common cause. Rebuilding Main Avenue is common cause. Passing the school levy is common cause. Bringing opportunities for higher education to Park Rapids is common cause. Revitalizing our downtown business district is common cause. Integrating the arts and commerce into a more vibrant community is common cause. Creating state of the art telecommunications access for our region is common cause. We can do this.

And not demonstrating the will to do it? Now that would be a tragedy.

Alan Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.generation