Monthly Archives: December 2014

Other, Alternate Political-Economic Systems

A huge motivation of mine in writing about proprietism has been my lifelong and insatiable urge to transcend the bipartisan rhetoric of everyday politics. I am so sick of “left versus right.” Academic rhetoric is quite literally no better. It’s as though every policy, and even the question of society itself, is completely and flawlessly answered within a spectrum that has capitalism on one end and socialism on the other. How do we develop better technology? The market. How do we take care of our sick? The state. How do we grow financially? The market. How do we reduce poverty? The state.

In my research I’ve found more “isms” than I ever thought existed, and a handful have fallen outside the above mentioned spectrum. They include voluntaryism, anarcho-syndicalism and its cousin Libertarian Marxism, and anarcho-primitivism (how I would love to see a politician describe herself as anarcho-primitivist). I even came across the ism I interpret to be the exact antithesis of proprietism: corporatism. Corporatism is like an extreme form of statism where society is organized, guild-style, into giant independent sectors, kind of like Panem in The Hunger Games. In addition, I have discovered two more systems that very much lie outside the box.

The first is the notion of the collaborative commons, whose theoretical spokesperson would have to be Jeremy Rifkin. In The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Rifkin holds that as technology improves, the marginal cost of production, that is, the cost to produce one additional unit of a product, approaches zero. He claims that when this happens, “profits dry up,” and the efficiency that capitalism brought is now the very cause of its demise.

I really like the spirit of what Rifkin is getting at; the commons, as observed on the Internet most notably with open-source software, has proved itself to be a highly productive form of organization. I do, however, have an issue with Rifkinian Economics. What he’s saying is that the fixed costs associated with the production of a product will always exist, but the variable costs, those production costs that correlate directly with the number of units produced, will approach zero as the “Internet of things” improves. Even if that is true, it does not logically follow that competition in light of zero variable costs will then cause profit to flatten. Profits are profits: the premium paid for a product in addition to cost that goes to the owner of the operation. Though I understand that profits can get excessive, the theory is that it is the owner’s reward for taking on the risk of the operation. So will the commons one day become a paradigm for information collaboration? Yes. Will it become a political-economic system? I don’t think so. You can run a web site on the commons, but not a chemical plant.

The other political-economic system is Jaron Lanier’s humanistic information economy that he outlined in his fun and important book, Who Owns the Future? Lanier brings up a painful point: as of right now, we can use a variety of free services on the Internet, but we’re paying the price by letting a myriad of servers create algorithms based on our behavior, which in turn allows companies to get better at charging us for the stuff we want. Lanier believes that this could be corrected by creating an infrastructure that allows people to be compensated in micropayments for the value of the information they contributed. I have to credit Lanier for proposing such a bold and original idea.

I hope proprietism can be equally viewed as bold, and outside the capitalism-socialism spectrum. It would embrace free-enterprise and market forces like laissez-faire capitalism, yet seeks for a more even distribution of ownership and wealth. It doesn’t shackle entrepreneurs and hard workers, and the Information Age will allow less room for depraved business practices. Additionally, it relies on the profits from socially-responsible brands for social problems, a technique which is likely to be just as if not more effective than nonprofit entities (see For-profit: the Better Nonprofit. I see both Rifkin’s and Lanier’s ideas as being compatible with, not opposed to, proprietism.

Will a Robot Replace You?

When you commit yourself to researching the future of the political-economy as I have, you will come across a great deal of literature that describes an impending job market bust that will be permanent and irreparable. The implosion will come as automation overtakes nearly all aspects of the supply chain and in every sector of the economy. This naturally leads me to ask: when, in history, has technological innovation left workers permanently unemployed?

Technology has definitely caused historic upheavals in the job market. The 1930s serve as a somewhat recent severe example, and half-jokes about how robots will all take our jobs someday were common back then as they are now. The 1930s actually had plenty in common with the 2010s: despite the loss of disposable income, consumer products like telephones and automobiles became omnipresent while a rising generation forged its identity. Then, it was Greatest Generation, now it’s the Millennials. Needless to say, the robot revolution did not happen, though one could argue that a robot evolution has been occurring since the dawn of the industrial revolution, it stands that the unemployment rate since the Great Depression has bounced around, reaching levels as low as 4%.

Silicon Valley sage Jaron Lanier holds that this time, the job bust will be for real. Even more apocalyptic-minded are Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age. I think that the current economic downturn has everything to do with technology, but I cannot commit to the idea of it being permanent.

I have no empirical evidence to support this feeling, but here’s why I think I’m right: most people most of the time will find a way to make it. To believe that automation will permanently displace workers is to believe that every human was born to do one thing; to serve a single purpose like a cog in a machine (pardon the cliché). It is to believe that a human can let an automaton rob him of his pride. It is to view all workmanship as products that can be substituted, and that human ingenuity, innovation, and even productivity are nonexistent except as talents possessed by an extreme minority.

Now that I’ve made my views on the possibility of large-scale permanent unemployment clear, let me drop the bomb. Major and permanent job displacement due to technology is actually possible under one condition: a welfare state. Shocker? If an entire portion of the population is provided income and a basic standard of living while being unemployed, that portion will grow steadily forever as the life of a worker continues to be only slightly better than the life of an unemployed person.

So maybe the doomsayers are correct: if we keep redistributing income to unemployed people, technology will replace them all. What would that society look like? One class the lazy majority, another wealthy owners? Who’s the slave in that scenario?