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economic woes prompting some states to share

May 24, 2009

From the New York Times:

Minnesota was looking for a bargain on the tiniest walleye fish, known as frylings, that the state stocks in some of its lakes. Wisconsin needed more of the longer fingerlings for its fishing lakes. So the neighbors have decided to share fish — Wisconsin’s frylings for Minnesota’s fingerlings — along with hundreds of other items: bullets for the police, menus for prisoners, trucks for bridge inspections and sign language interpreters.

With governors from opposing political parties and residents who often share only sports rivalries, Minnesota and Wisconsin are being drawn into the unusual alliance by financial circumstance. The sharing, officials in the two states say, could save them $20 million over the next two years.

Lawmakers in at least nine other states, and countless cities and counties across the country, are also engaged in a kind of barter system, often allowing them to cut the size of government, split their costs and share services. Some of the makeovers might have made sense at any time, but the urgent political will to change — cut jobs, close offices and give up power — was absent before the recession.

“What you have is an economy that is forcing people to share,” said Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the county executive in Essex County, N.J., which (for $4 million a year) began accepting juvenile detainees this spring from neighboring Passaic County, which closed its own facility (to save $10 million a year).

Reading this story, the first thing that came to mind was Marx’s famous words from his Critique of the Gotha Programme detailing the basis for a future phase of society in which a communal economic system replaces a private one:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

The irony is that as much as conservatives in the U.S. have denounced “socialist” principles in the past year or so, in the midst of the current economic downturn they’re unwittingly seeing the wisdom of those very same principles:

The deal between Minnesota and Wisconsin grew out of a budget planning session in which Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, and his staff were searching for ways that counties and school districts might share services. “It just clicked,” Mr. Pawlenty said, “that the state, too, should figure out who we could partner with.”

By last month, it had blossomed into a blow-by-blow, 130-page report on the services they intend to share, like inspecting amusement rides and making license plates (Minnesota inmates may soon be pressing Wisconsin’s endangered-species plates). On nearly every front, the two states are considering buying in bulk, sharing computer systems and swapping intelligence about contracts that could be found more cheaply.

“We had been talking about it over the years, and we have had some minor collaborations,” said Gov. James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, a Democrat. “But with the Wall Street collapse and the effects of that rolled out across the country, it was time for us to really, out of necessity, intensify those talks.”

What they’re doing is still being done in the context of capitalism, but within this story about states bartering and sharing resources, I see the seeds of a communal economy based on cooperation in which the sharing of wealth is based on needs rather than profit.

I find it sad that it’s taking economic hard times for these people to actively share goods and services, but I find it encouraging that it’s being done at all.


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