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Opinion ‘Tragedy’ can turn into abundance

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is an environmental term coined by ecologist Garett Hardin back in 1968. The basic premise and dilemma is that when a resource is shared, or held in common, it can lead to depletion, since those utilizing it have a greater incentive to profit from its use rather than to conserve the resource.

A similar dilemma seems to be in place when it comes to government spending. With the national debt north of $15 trillion and climbing, there doesn't appear to be any serious effort to change the mindset that the wealth of the country is a “commons” that can be strip mined at will. Tapping into government money is like a communal ATM machine if you have the right pin number.

Politicians talk about cutting spending but usually in vague terms. The adjective “wasteful” is typically attached to the noun “spending.” Since new or extended government programs are originally promoted as vital and necessary, I'm not quite sure how the metamorphism takes place from meaningful to wasteful. Waste is a natural byproduct, especially when someone else is paying or sharing the tab.

Ironically, labeling government spending as wasteful or unnecessary can hinder fiscal restraint, diverting the discussion as to whether or not the spending is “necessary” - ignoring the fact that it simply can not be afforded. On the federal level, the big three budget categories are Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security and Defense. It would be tough for a candidate (who expected to be elected) to advocate slashing spending for those agencies. Add to that the acquisition of taxpayer booty on a local level. Elected representatives take great pride on bringing home the bacon for pork barrel programs for their districts. Not only is this not metaphorically kosher, it's poor stewardship of tax money.

Environmentally concerned people have realized the importance of sustainability and the necessity to avoid the depletion of natural resources. Unfortunately, that mindset has not quite carried over to the conservation of fiscal and economic resources. The electorate gets lip service about balanced budgets and paying down the debt, but politicians get elected by keeping the money spigot flowing.

A small example to use as a template for avoiding the tragedy of the commons can be found with our local ramp harvesters. The ramp is a pungent and pricey wild leek that is found in the Appalachians in early spring. My friend, who I refer to as Mr. Ramps (I don't want the ramp cartel muscling in on his territory) has clued me in on proper ramp “hunting.” He, and many others understand that ramp patches need to be carefully picked and preserved for future growing seasons. Unlike the wild onion, ramps do not grow easily and everywhere. Certain conditions are required for this particular vegetable. Sure, you could clear cut or should I say “clear pull” a patch and reap a short term ramp windfall, but that would end the harvesting cycle. Though there is no Department of Ramps or Federal Bureau of Ramps Investigation - ramp hunters seem to be self-governing in their utilization and preservation of this natural and economic resource.

Current economic indicators are not promising and I am doubtful if an economic meltdown can be averted. However, if the philosophy of Mr. Ramps can take root, there is a glimmer of hope that the tragedy of the commons, over time, can grow into an abundance of the commons.

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