Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Prevailing Doctrinal Assumptions, Part II (and some other Observations)

Earlier today, I was discussing with my dad about various topics. My dad, for those of you who don't know me personally, is a MIT math graduate with a very keen intellect. My smart side, insofar as it's there, comes from my dad. (Most else of importance probably from my mom.).
We were discussing alternative economies, and a few things came to my mind:

1) The degree of infiltration of dominant ideology makes me increasingly confident of the true revolutionary nature of parecon. Though we were discussing a non-capitalist future vision, he continued to talk about markets, using that terminology even when he meant something decidedly non-market or distinct from our markets. People simply don't get the idea until we say it very openly that, yes, we want no markets, not even bazaars or farmer's markets (except possibly in cases where people wish to establish a small "black" market and the community seeks to ignore it). And the reason why was fairly clear: Dad himself said it, describing what a co-op institution would have to do to appeal to the market. People on the left are often committed to state or political intervention, and they are really surprised when pareconists try to reduce state or political intervention. My Dad even argued that a political structure is any situation where people sit down to make policy. While that's one definition, I don't think it's a useful one, because it applies to corporations, families, church groups, whatever you want. When we talk about politics, we more mean the discussions people have as public actors, as citizens, and I believe that the economy should rationally respond in a decentralized manner to economic problems rather than having a separate political entity that does the job, insofar as this is possible.

For example: The solution with a state or alternate polity-interventionist paradigm, say, to deal with carbon emission, is to tax gasoline after the fact and use that money to pay for some other program. The solution of a parecon is to directly include that price into the price for gas.

This may make me sound like a marketeer saying that the government shouldn't interfere with the economy. And I agree at least in principle, but there's a key caveat: If the economy can't do the job, as in our economy, then outside regulation from somewhere will be a necessity, and unfortunately that outside regulation as a practical matter must frequently be done by the state. I think Chomsky put it succintly when he said (I'm paraphrasing) that he doesn't like cages, but if there's a tiger outside, he'll be willing to temporarily use the cage to protect his family while the tiger is being killed. That doesn't mean that you can't cozy up the cage (i.e. fight for certain types of civil liberties and democratic change within the government, one area where right libertarians and I see mostly eye to eye), but you sure as hell can't take down the cage while tigers are around. The analogy does somewhat fall down at another level of analysis, but I think it's a good initial thought experiment.

2) Real issues of sustainability come up with work, and this is where parecon can really appeal to green bio-regionalists and other people who put the ecology first. We want people to be working, because people want to satisfy their creative interests; and, when they don't work, they tend to not be doing something useful and even be doing counter-productive things like crime. It isn't of course universal, but a culture of work does help. But our productive system increasingly requires fewer and fewer people, and we don't want to increase production excessively because that strains resources. So the answer is to have everyone, or a good portion of people, be doing things that don't require high material inputs but are quality of life labors: teaching, researching, art and writing, counseling, and so on. Balanced job complexes are exactly the solution to this problem.

3) Questions of autarky vs. comparative advantage are treated too cavalierly. Capitalists claim that comparative advantage characterizes their favored economic system, yet that's hardly true. Notice the homogenization of global culture, forced by particular economic arrangements: that doesn't cause cultural comparative advantage, but rather the reverse. The fragmentation of the market into small totalitarian actors also prevents comparative advantage from reaching its pinnacle. For comparative advantage to be truly successful, it has to be balanced vs. autarky and be rationally designed, by a democratic and instantly responsive economy.

Let's get more concrete. We don't want every town making bikes, even small villages. But we don't want a global bicycle plant: shipping costs make it too ludicrous. These are the balances of autarky vs. comparative advantage, and the law of diminishing returns applies in both cases.

On a drastically different topic: Today, I read The Lottery. It is truly a disturbing story, and it was supposed to illustrate the dark side of human nature. Yet I think it shows some distinct things.

People can stick to the most horrendous of rituals as practice, saying that any change will make it worse. It's very applicable to suburban America, which conjures the frontier life without acknowledging the dark side of that same life.


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