I agree with the premise of Michael Greenstone’s recent article [“Tradable Water Rights,” Issue #8] that we need a better means of mobilizing water resources. However, the type of market Greenstone envisions may not necessarily reflect true economic value. Conservation, species protection, pollution control, and aesthetics are just some examples of water uses that don’t necessarily have sufficient economic return but are nonetheless very important and perhaps even vital to our economy. A purely market-driven distribution system, similar to what Greenstone proposes, would systematically ignore or under-supply such needs.
The second problem I see with a trading system is that it creates an economic windfall for incumbent users, making actually mobilizing water rights even more problematic, as incumbents would have a strong economic incentive to entrench their rights more firmly through the political system. Incumbents would see any redistribution as a prelude to permanent transfer without political guarantees of a property right to the water–and they’d be right. Thus the necessary concomitant of a trading system is strengthened property rights in water supplies to reassure incumbents of their continuing priority. But such an entrenchment is hardly desirable.
We should not create a whole new class of rentiers to drag down the economy and hold hostage such a vital resource. It is as if we were to give those currently living the exclusive rights to breathe the atmosphere, and all following generations had to lease those rights from them. If Greenstone’s system were implemented, we’d see farmers growing rich off leasing their water rights instead of farming.
No simple property system will work well when a resource is so fundamentally vital (everyone has an ethical claim on the resource), so absolutely finite, becoming de-localized by technology, so encumbered by historical usage (many of the absurdities of water usage come from rights regimes adopted at earlier times), and so laden with political choices that cannot be resolved by simple market signals. I don’t have any pat answers, but a trading system can only be part of a solution, not a panacea as Greenstone suggests.
I am afraid that rewarding our failed public diplomacy with a Cabinet post, as William Galston proposes [“Public Diplomacy Cabinet Post,” Issue #8], may only add a bell and a whistle to our government, and not move the flag forward enough on renewing America’s global image. What’s needed are dramatic changes in policies and greater flexibility in conducting foreign affairs. We should, for instance, fund more scholarships for foreign students, professors, legislators, and journalists. It should be made easier to come to America and gain citizenship. We should also authorize our foreign services to undertake public information programs in foreign countries using national information outlets. (Those labeled as U.S. organs locally are unlikely to be trusted.) Finally, we must make it abundantly clear that American military might exists for the purposes of peace and stability worldwide and contributes to the well-being of the community of nations.
It grieved me greatly to read Susan Jacoby’s article in your most recent issue [“Faith No More,” Issue #8]. The position Jacoby advocates, and the tone she takes, is very much the position that has allowed right-wing, fundamentalist political power to emerge in the first place. Many, many Americans are Christian. However, most Christians are not fundamentalists. Among those who are, there is a growing realization that there is much to admire in progressive thought–witness the recent upsurge in concern among fundamentalists for the American poor and the suffering people of Darfur. Jacoby’s condescension threatens to scare them away from progressivism yet again.
Graham, North Carolina
Realistic Primary Reform
While I agree with Kenneth Baer that our presidential nominating system is in dire need of reform [“A Democratic Primary,” Issue #8], I have two concerns with the solution he proposes. First, runoffs similar to what Baer advocates usually result in lower turnout. (It is possible, however, to use a ranked ballot with Instant Runoff Voting [IRV] to eliminate the need for a runoff.) Second, there may be solutions that are just as effective in solving the process’s problems but require a less dramatic overhaul than turning to a national primary. For instance, the organization FairVote has offered something called the Graduated Random Presidential Primary. This system would feature a schedule of ten intervals, generally of two weeks, during which randomly selected states–with an increasing number of total electoral votes–would hold their primaries. Something on that scale is probably more realistic and would be just as effective.