Volume II, No. 4; December 9, 2004
Between the Private and the Public Good
By Carlos A. Benito, Professor of Economics,Sonoma State University
Nine years ago, a student introduced me to a group of people who
are avid horseback riders in Sonoma County. They were concerned about the frequent closing of equestrian trails - horseback riders had to compete for open trails with bicyclists, motorcyclists, runners, skateboarders, and strollers. At the same time, keeping horses in farms or in backyards was being challenged by new environmental rules. They thought that the practice of horseback riding was in danger, and they wanted to make a case for this age-old activity and for the preservation of the tradition of Western horseback riding.
The next morning, as I was driving to Sonoma State University, I contemplated the rolling green hills, and all the expressions of a pastoral life still in existence. My drives to and from campus have been one of the satisfactions of teaching at SSU. The power of this green landscape to trigger meaning within my soul is perhaps the same thing that has attracted others to live in the area, and for more tech-industries to produce here as well. One consequence of these demographic and industrial choices has been that land prices have risen and traditional farming has become less viable-green, a public good, is being challenged by the market and its logic to allocate private goods. Fortunately, the terroir of Sonoma County is appropriate for growing grapes for premium, exportable, and high priced wines. Although lead by the market, the enterprises of progressive growers and wine makers have resulted in the life extension of green landscapes in Sonoma County. At the same time, some organic and ecological family farms are learning to survive using the concept "community supported farming," and they too-through market intermediations-are contributing to maintain green landscapes.
And what about horseback riding? This is an activity that calls for open, and therefore, green spaces, but it largely depends on publicly provided open trails - a public good for most horseback riders. The provision of a public good depends on public choices - where one person is one vote. It is different than the exchange of private goods via markets - where one dollar is one vote and not every person has the same income level.
In response to my student's concern, and in conjunction with a few upper division students and the support of the Sonoma Horse Council, I gradually engaged in a research project to determine the economic impact of Sonoma equestrian activities. The primary equestrian sector is an unseen "industry" integrated by thousands of household operators: households with "backyard" horses and boarded horses, as well as boarding stables. At the same time, this primary equestrian sector is served by many other operations - from suppliers of feed and insurance companies, to veterinarians, to horse supply stores, hotels and restaurants. In turn horseback riding serves numerous community activities such as festivals, clubs and horseracing.
Using statistical surveys and conventional input-output models, we estimated that the primary equestrian sector plus its numerous links to their operations, constituted the "second agricultural industry" of the Sonoma County economy, after grape growing. This evidence became the bases for political lobbying at the County and City levels, resulting in the revitalization of horseback riding in Sonoma County. Since then, I have conducted two more studies for Sonoma County and another for Marin country (see http://www.sonoma.edu/people/benito/equestrian.html). At the same time, under the leadership of the Sonoma Horse Council, horse operations have gradually engaged in the management of residuals and other government mandates for reducing water and soil pollution.
As an economist, I am aware that our societal system includes both a private economy ruled mainly by market institutions, and a public sector ruled by government policies and community actions. During the last thirty years, the national political discourse has advocated the expansion of the private-market economy into areas of the public good and it has succeeded on many levels. While the new order has improved private efficiency, it has also resulted in a more regressive distribution of income and declining fiscal support for education, health, and housing - all public goods to some degree. My interpretation of this societal trend has motivated me to investigate the merits of institutions for public good choices at the local level, where county and city governance interact with organized community actions. While economics and public finance gives us the large picture about society, community-based research gives us an understanding of the nuances of public and private goods, public and private choices, and one-person, one-vote and one-dollar, one-vote. This is a case where, as an economist, I can think globally and act locally.
The final intellectual output of each of my engaged research projects has been a monograph: supported by rigorous theory and methods, but written with non-technical language. However, my community-based research has not ended there, but has included conferences and attendance at local government meetings. Nevertheless, I have combined community-based research, with research for publishing in professional journals or in economic books. My decision to undertake community-based research has been nourished more by my social philosophy than by university incentives. University incentives have attached high weight to quality assurances of publishing via professional disciplines, and for good reasons. However, like me, many faculty members interested in community-based research, still waddle when they walk: with one foot set on professional peer reviewed journals and the other on meetings with community organizations. It is my hope that gradually more CSU campuses will develop a safer place for those colleagues called to do community-based research and teaching. This opportunity will require that we develop instruments for quality assurances for engaged scholarship.
As a result of my community-based research, I am exploring community-based teaching. For instance, I am teaching an economic class using some elements of service learning and community service and combining those pedagogies with lecturing and collaborative learning. It is my expectation that community-based research and teaching are improving my students' learning. It will be the function of assessment, to verify my expectations.