Where are the new ideas ?

by John Quiggin on May 16, 2006

The debate over the need for new ideas on the left isn’t confined to the US. Australia has also experienced a shift to the right, but the process and outcomes have been different, being much more similar to Britain and New Zealand. This post from my blog is about Australia but most of what follows applies to all three countries.

Andrew Norton at Catallaxy has an interesting piece responding to a claim by Dennis Glover that rightwing thinktanks in Australia are much better funded than their leftwing counterparts. He makes the contrary argument that the universities represent a left equivalent, a claim which I don’t think stands up to the close examination it gets at Larvatus Prodeo.

More interesting, though is Norton’s characterisation of the state of the debate

Since most of the institutions of the social democratic state are still in place, social democratic ideas are perhaps going to seem less exciting than those of their opponents on the right or the left. They are about adaptation and fine-tuning more than throwing it all out and starting again. …. The right doesn’t have ideas because it has think-tanks, it has think-tanks because it has ideas that need promoting
This was a pretty accurate description of the situation in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it has ceased to be so. The right hasn’t had any new ideas for some time, and the policy debate between social democrats and neoliberals has been a stalemate for most of the last decade.

In economics, the big theoretical ideas underlying the resurgence of the right – public choice theory, property rights analysis, rational expectations macro and so on- were developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. The big theoretical ideas since 1980, such as the renewal of game theory, endogenous growth theory and behavioral economics have not been particularly leftwing, but they have undermined the certitudes about the optimality of market outcomes that underlie neoliberalism.

On the policy front, the neoclassical counter-revolution turned into policy programs in the 1980s. These ideas were set out in broad terms by Kasper et al in Australia at the Crossroads in 1980, and a more detailed version emerged in the UK, NZ and Australia in the 1980s, incorporating privatisation, competitive tendering, tax reform, free trade, anti-union industrial reform and so on. There have been no really new ideas along these lines since National Competition Policy in the early 1990s.

The Howard government illustrates the point. Whenever it wants to be seen as a radical reforming government it reaches into the 1980s bag for a policy that, the Hawke-Keating government wanted to adopt but couldn’t manage for one reason or another – Telstra privatisation, the GST, IR reform and so on. In its populist mode, policy initiatives have been more redolent of the 1950s.

Most of the rest of the time, though, the Howard government is dealing with the fact that the radical reforms advocated by neoliberals haven’t worked exactly as advertised. Just like the social democrats, they spend most of their time adjusting and fine tuning.

So we’ve seen steady readjustments. For example, it’s become clear that there’s no workable alternative to the universal basic insurance provided by Medicare, and that keeping the private insurance system going at all will require massive subsidies making the whole notion of a market untenable.

The only real attempt at a systematic set of new ideas since the early 1990s has come from advocates of the Third Way, and they have delivered a lot less than promised. There are, I think, some interesting new ideas in the air, and I’ll try to post about them.

{ 83 comments }

1

rilkefan 05.16.06 at 5:40 pm

“being much more similar to Britain and New Zealand.”

I’m afraid comparisons to the political situation of New Zealand are unlikely to help most people unfamiliar with the political situation of Australia.

2

Guest 05.16.06 at 5:55 pm

I disagree *wholeheartedly* with the notion that new ideas are needed. The rule of law, inclusiveness, justice, and executive competence are all plenty enough ideas to run a country on. Scrambling after novelty is an unnecessary defensive reaction. What, are people who don’t believe in fundamental fairness going to change their minds because a politician tells them so? The opposite of bullshit isn’t more bullshit, it’s telling the truth.

3

Yentz Mahogany 05.16.06 at 6:17 pm

I agree with guest. But I would also point out that there are plenty of new ideas; they’re just not especially left, and/or not especially good. Many radicals are on the ‘right-wing’, because the orthodoxy in many countries is left.

Communitarianism is one of those few new leftish ideas that I would think are good. Anarchism, though hardly new per se, or good, has enjoyed a surge of popularity.

There are also new alliances, if not ideas: I guess I’m a neoconservative, in some sense, but I’m that way because I think it is a position most consistent with my leftist values, (though I despise and distrust the bedfellows that it forces me to have).

The sexual revolution, along with the newer Naomi Wolf generation of feminism, is certainly new. Postmodernism is a half-century old, but in terms of cultural influence, it has been most recently been amply exploited (usually against the left, but sometimes in favor of multiculturalism). Keiran Healy just made a post about NSA wiretapping and social science / networks which might be used by leftist social engineers to do blog out the truth.

Really I need to know more about what’s being asked for. What’s “the new plan” after socialism? I would suggest a welfare state over a warfare state, a minimum wage which is one dollar above the living wage, and welfare which is a living wage. Privatization of state-owned enterprises which they have no business of owning, regulation in places where appropriate. Maybe other things. Won’t go on.

I’d also need to know what the “new” ideas of the right are. Really seems like the same old story to me.

4

John Quiggin 05.16.06 at 7:20 pm

“I’m afraid comparisons to the political situation of New Zealand are unlikely to help most people unfamiliar with the political situation of Australia.”

A pity, as the political history of NZ over the past 25 years is probably the best available case study of neoliberal reform and its problems.

5

floopmeister 05.16.06 at 8:11 pm

“I’m afraid comparisons to the political situation of New Zealand are unlikely to help most people unfamiliar with the political situation of Australia.”

“A pity, as the political history of NZ over the past 25 years is probably the best available case study of neoliberal reform and its problems.”

If only they were US states, hey.

6

John Landon 05.16.06 at 10:03 pm

I am puzzled. Is there a left? The best new idea would be about how to have a ‘left’.

7

Dan Kervick 05.16.06 at 11:04 pm

I can’t agree with guest and yentz mahogany. I do think we are desperately in need of some big ideas – and perhaps even more desperately in need of recovering the capacity to think big ideas.

Although I am no longer involved in teaching, my 18 years experience in higher education convinced me that something is deeply wrong with contemporary intellectual and spiritual life, and the morale of the “developed” world – I often felt that many of the young minds that came to me had already been wrecked by some mysterious form of cognitive abuse inflicted upon them by their earlier educational experiences. It wasn’t just what they didn’t know – it’s what they didn’t care about. As I look out over our contemporary culture, it strikes me that much of the West has experienced a similar kind of collapse or exhaustion of the imagination.

At least in the US, the really dynamic and transformative forces are reactionary ones. The wingers are carried away with enthusiam for revolutionary steps backward into vanished right-wing utopias: laissez faire paradises; pious Christian republics; rigidly heterosexual, monagamous and patriarchal sexual orders; or bully titanic empires sowing awesome, creative destruction.

Faced with this onslaught, it is perhaps not surprising that the former left has evolved into a largely conservative force, dreaming of nothing so much as a return to postwar liberal normalcy. But something more is needed. We are suffocating in a “can’t do” miasma. Proposals for progressive change and transformation of human life that seemed quite entertainable by our grandparents, and their grandparents, are now seen as far beyond the limits of achievability. Every suggestion for bold change, or for a large-scale, transformative public project is immediately set upon and bound up by a thousand reservations and worries and fears and self-fulfilling social impossibility claims. The great dreams of human liberation – from work, from pain, from loneliness, from violence and war, from tedium, from poverty, from desolation – strike many people as idle fantasies.

Even where people do allow themselves to think great changes are in store, they feel they have no real control over them. These changes will be produced by the gradual, oozing, unpredictable flow of market forces operating in evolutionary fashion over time. Perhaps the great market leviathan will slouch toward an end to disease, or perhaps toward an end to privacy, or perhaps toward an end to love and family – who knows? In any case, it’s not up to us, and the sense that people can actually chart a course and choose their future seems lost. Even the one hope for progressive change that does captivate many of the young – in the environmental area – is mostly tamed by early adulthood into a bland faith that the the market will eventually take care of it all through the gradual accummulation of the products of entrepreneurial greenness.

The complexity of contemporary life has perhaps generated an iron network of interconnected interests that makes for a genuine tyranny of the status quo. Every tug on a cable anywhere in the net produces an immediate countervailing pullback from all other threatened sectors – and the tug is overwhelmed.

Imagine: our ancestors once proposed a five-day work week, an end to child labor and other such affronts to the Iron Laws of Economic Necessity – and they accomplished them! Who would be so bold today?

8

mpowell 05.16.06 at 11:18 pm

In response to #3: what effect would instituting a minimum wage that is $1 above wellfare have? Would the minimum wage be necessary at that point? Who would want to work for it?

9

Yentz Mahogany 05.16.06 at 11:44 pm

Dan,

The worry about loss of imagination is not the same as the worry about loss of spirit. And there’s no loss of spirit on the left per se. There is a loss of faith in liberalism, though, mostly because nobody seems to know (or agree) on what it is. And there’s a loss in labor mobilization, because of obvious reasons.

The spirit of the left has always gone by the same old story: they rally together when there’s a great big evil, and then split into factions when the doing’s done. However, even though you have multiple cultural movements, they’re still there. Anarchism, feminism, green, and animal rights movements are very much enthusiastic.

Yeah, many left-liberal people are pessimistic, and many take a sort of pragmatic-conservative attitude. I live my life largely on certain bland principles. But that doesn’t mean I’m totally unmotivated. It means that my picture of a better world is identical to the picture I’ve always had. And, really, it’s likely the same picture (in all significant respects) that I think the liberal left has always had. Equality of rights. Sustainability. Etc. The same old goals, still plugging away, because that’s what you do when you believe in something.

MPowell,

Greed. Striving for a better life. Etc.

10

noone 05.17.06 at 1:50 am

“I’m afraid comparisons to the political situation of New Zealand are unlikely to help most people unfamiliar with the political situation of Australia.”

heaven forbid that we should want to learn from other countries’ experience.

I agree with John. At least in NZ ‘the right’ keeps returning to more of the same “privatise/competition/market reform”, although a watered-down version of the 1980s given many of the failures. (most of the time, the right’s argument is, “the reforms didn’t go far enough; so don’t blame us…”. I think very few on the right admit publicly that their own state-reforming project had a similar kind of hubris to the projects of keynesian times.)

I’d say that much of the intellectual justification for the 1980s reforms was exported from the US, although this was modified for the local environment. I suppose we await the next big thing.

from a left-ish POV, it’s hard to say in NZ, but generally it conforms to what john says too. Certainly (NZ’s) Labour appears to have repudiated its dalliance with neoliberal ideas. I’m not really sure, even now, what Labour stands for. Despite what starry-eyed columnists in the guardian and the independent say, NZ’s Labour hasn’t come up with many new ideas; the ideas (mostly taken from Britain) it has had have had to be watered down because it’s been in a coalition, or because labour fears a backlash from public opinion (eg., the foreshore law, which ‘returned’ the foreshore to ‘NZers’, and which overturned a court of appeal decision suggesting the foreshore could belong to MAori groups). NZ’s Labour is more like Blair’s New Labour, really.

It does seem to me that perhaps the mainstream left thinks that grand projects are not a good idea, having seen the results in the 1980s. At least as a matter of political survival no one wanted to advocate big ideas for the first couple of elections since 1999. Now it might be too late: labour’s been in power for 3 terms, like in Britain.

11

David Sucher 05.17.06 at 3:27 am

Could someone help me understand this discussion and bring it down to specifics? I am trying to understand what it means in an area — urban development — which I know and which is largely invisible to national politics.

Is something like the New Urbanism a “new idea?” And is it from the left? or right? What about growth management, in general? I assume it is left? But is it new? What about being “anti-Kelo?” Is that new? is it left? or right? Tax-increment financing? Left? Right? New?

What might be “new ideas” from the Democrats in this area? If I sound a bit sceptical, I am. Lots of the old liberal ideas are still good ideas, if often dreadfully implemented; some of the new ideas are just bad ones. What, for example, can Democrats do (or should do) about middle-class housing costs? Besides the simple (and I think bad) idea of more subsidies? Democrats in my city almost univerally (they couldn’t get elected otherwise) favor zoning which protects single-family homeowners. In Democratic party terms, is that a bad old idea? Or a good old one?

Is subsidizing major league sports part of Democratic core values? ( It sure seems so.) Is that an old idea? or a new one?

Or is this whole area of public policy a non/bi-partisan one?

What would be the truly progressive (and I don’t mean “left”)position in urban development? More of the same policies as wse have now? Or less?

12

abb1 05.17.06 at 3:51 am

What’s “the new plan” after socialism?

But where’s socialism? The point of socialism is not in giving the workers handouts like minimum wage, universal healthcare, progressive tax, etc.; the point of socialism is giving the workers control over the means of production, simple as that. Unions being represented at and eventually taking over corporate boards of directors should be the new plan, I think.

13

Brendan 05.17.06 at 5:06 am

‘But where’s socialism? The point of socialism is not in giving the workers handouts like minimum wage, universal healthcare, progressive tax, etc.; the point of socialism is giving the workers control over the means of production, simple as that. Unions being represented at and eventually taking over corporate boards of directors should be the new plan, I think’.

I think it’s safe to say that that is a highly partisan view of ‘socialism’ and that many socialists have said precisely that ‘socialism’ ‘is’ the giving of such ‘handouts’. If you don’t believe me have a look at the Communist Manifesto. There you will see such proposals as: ‘establish a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.’ and ‘Abolition of all rights of inheritance.’ and ‘Free education for all children in public schools’. Nothing about worker’s councils or the taking over of corporate boards.

14

Scott Martens 05.17.06 at 5:16 am

Alright, how about this as an agenda:

1. Economic and social risks should be born in proportion to people’s ability to support risks. A billionaire risking half his fortune by investing in a firm is risking much less than the same firm’s janitor, whose entire income is dependent on it. The state should use its power to operate outside the market to balance those risks. The opposition is wrong to treat all participants in economic and social activity as simple equals when they manifestly are not.

2. Democracy is when the behaviour of an institution is structurally linked to the benefit of its stakeholders, which includes not only the legal owners or administrators but also workers, suppliers, customers and people indirectly affected by the ecological and social consequences of the institution’s operation. Furthermore, a stakeholder’s stake should be measured in proportion to the risk each person each stateholder sustains from its operations. This applies to government and non-government institutions, including private firms. It is furthermore valid to apply the authority of a democratic state in support of institutional democracy for non-state institutions. The opposition is wrong to place nominal property rights above the rights of stakeholders, and it is equally wrong to assume that two-party elections provide an adequate heuristic for government institutions.

3. You have a right to expect your neighbours to try to find a way to coexist with you in peace; and you have an obligation to try to coexist with your neighbours in peace. You do not, however, have the right to choose your neighbours. These rights and obligations apply independently of race, immigration status, historical claims to territory, and questions of cultural and linguistic integration, and apply not only domestically but in the evaluation of other countries’ policies, with Israel specifically not exempted. The opposition is wrong to treat language, race, religion or official immigration status as grounds for granting people different rights.

4. You can do social engineering. You can even do successful social engineering. The history of capitalism and liberal democracy is a history of successful social engineering. What you cannot do is social engineering where you get just the results that you want. Changing the world naturally means changing it into something else, possessed of new unexpected problems that in turn have to be addressed. No utopia is forthcoming, from us or them, and Jesus is not in the habit of informing anyone when he plans to come back. But real improvement to people’s lives is possible. No program should be assumed on ideological grounds to produce the desired results, and the opposition is wrong to advance a single-minded agenda of neoliberal and reactionary social engineering at home and abroad without any willingness to evaluate outcomes, change path, or consider the possibility of failure. They are equally wrong when they refuse to consider addressing some problem because it smacks of “social engineering”.

As for ideas to complete with public choice theory, property rights analysis and rational expectations, how about supporting work in studying institutional cognition and the coordination of goal-oriented group activity? The lack of actual individuals as real agents in much of modern economic activity – the dominance of the firm as a producer as well as consumer and the constant presence of official regulatory bodies, state contracting and organised group activism in social activity – suggests that it might be able to take on public choice theory and rational expectations.

You can also make a good case that none of these ideas are actually new, but then much the same could be said of neoliberalism.

15

abb1 05.17.06 at 5:24 am

Don’t they list these things as steps in the direction of the public eventually taking over the means of production, though?

16

dearieme 05.17.06 at 6:01 am

The Left is drearie and bankruput beyond recovery: choose which of the Rights suits you best and join in to try to influence it.

17

Brendan 05.17.06 at 6:05 am

‘Don’t they list these things as steps in the direction of the public eventually taking over the means of production, though?’

Aha well yes now you cut to the chase. What the manifesto says is: ‘The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.’ (emphasis added).

Lenin has been much criticised for talking about ‘trade union consciousness’ etc. but in fact this view has a Marxist pedigree. No doubt Marx would have supported worker’s councils etc. (he certainly seemed to at the time of the Commune), but he would never have argued that this was an end in itself: the end result always had to be a political solution in which the ‘proletariat’ in the form of a political party took over THE STATE, when then took over the country (essentially).

Now there was an extremely obscure debate in the ’20s between followers of Lenin and the Dutch theorist Anton Pannekoek (of whom Chomsky is an admirer). Pannekoek argued (what I think you are arguing, insofar as I understand it) that socialism could develop ‘from the bottom up’, with more and more worker takeover of factories, communes, worker’s councils, soviets etc, such that, eventually, the state would wither away.

What the heirs of Lenin argued (and they were probably right) is that if you have corporations, firms, businesses etc. who are trading with each other for money, selling, advertising etc. then what you have is admittedly capitalism run by workers not capitalists, but it’s still capitalism. You still have markets, the money economy, division of labour (and, therefore, alienation, exploitation and so on).

On the other hand, what Pannekoek thought (and he was probably right too) is that if you have all active political and social formations of a society in the hands of the state, then you automatically have an anti-democratic situation, because no matter how well intentioned you are, power flows away from the workers and ‘upwards’ in the body politic towards the state, and, more specifically, to the political party which runs the state.

He was probably right about that too.

In other words, anarchists are hampered because either (in the final analysis) they accept markets (albeit markets ‘controlled’ by workers) or else they accept that some form of organised political takeover by the state is necessary (which, being anarchists, they can’t accept).

On the other hand Marxists are hampered because in practice they could never square their commitment to direct democracy, and the flow of power ‘down’ to the workers, with the fact that their other commitment to concentrating all power in the hands of the state (which meant power flowed ‘up’ away from the workers).

Both sides therefore got caught in terrible Catch-22s from which they haven’t been able to escape. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the failure of the radical (anarchist/Marxist) left flows from the failure to be able to square these two particular circles.

18

john m. 05.17.06 at 7:02 am

I think there are more new ideas around than you suggest but I find the more interesting ideas to lie in the area of breaking down or ignoring the traditional notion of right and left in general. As a couple of the comments above refer to, it is becoming increasingly meaningless to ascribe ideas to either the right or the left as political groupings and policies become far less clear cut. For example, I have long maintained that whatever the Bush administration is, it is definitively not a traditional conservative right wing administration. Likewise, Blair’s greatest insight was to recognise that the traditional labour party had no place in modern Britain – hence New Labour, a sort of centrist conservative party. Some of this (but not all) hinges on the notion, taken as given by far too many, that there is no superior political model to the combination of capitalism and liberal democracy, even though such a statement implicitly admits that the two are not the same thing (see China for further info). As for NZ, a clearer example that privatisation etc. is by no means automatically a good thing would be hard to find. Except for water and rail in the UK. And telecoms in Ireland. And lots of other examples. Note that there is a difference between deregulation and privatisation. Neo-conservatism, as far smarter people than I have pointed out, is not a natural right wing philosophy – it suggests that the overwhelming miltary might of the US should be deployed in order to make the world a better place – a moral rather than strategic conclusion but not one that I think can be accurately labelled left wing either. Describing the US Democratic party as left wing is pretty foolish in any event – anymore than New Labour could be described as left wing.

19

abb1 05.17.06 at 7:36 am

Brendan, thanks.
I think the concept of autoritarian socialism is pretty much dead, gone, fogetaboudit.

But I don’t see the concept of libertarian socialism (not in its more radical forms, of course) in any particular trouble or having failed or been refuted. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with markets, money, division of labour, and reasonable level of material inequality.

20

Chris 05.17.06 at 7:51 am

The superiority of liberal democracy is “taken as given by far too many” is it? Heaven forfend! And your own superior model would be what?

21

john m. 05.17.06 at 8:50 am

#Chris The superiority of liberal democracy is “taken as given by far too many” is it? Heaven forfend! And your own superior model would be what?

You have kindly underlined my point. Firstly what I wrote was “Some of this (but not all) hinges on the notion, taken as given by far too many, that there is no superior political model to the combination of capitalism and liberal democracy, even though such a statement implicitly admits that the two are not the same thing” So, what I’m suggesting is that to even question the combination of capitalism and liberal democracy as the best possible system is considered unthinkable heresy. Your response ignores the capitalism component (to the extent of re-wording and effectively misquoting what I wrote) and reacts with flat refusal to even entertain the notion that another system could exist. I did not suggest that there actually is one, I suggested that if you act from the premise that this is impossible, you’ll certainly never come up with a new idea – the basis of the original post being on this topic. To be honest, it’s the notion that capitalism = democracy that drives me nuts, hence the reference to China.

22

Chris 05.17.06 at 9:00 am

That’s a trivial equation by which to be driven nuts.
Now reverse it.
China shows you can have capitalism (of a sort) without democracy. Can you have democracy without capitalism? Only if you can democracy without freedom!

23

Chris 05.17.06 at 9:01 am

…have democracy… of course

24

abb1 05.17.06 at 9:16 am

Yes, without freedom to exploit people, or, rather, without freedom to exploit people in one particular manner.

There are many freedoms you don’t have in a typical democracy: freedom to murder, freedom to rape, freedom to own slaves or to become a slave, etc.

25

john m. 05.17.06 at 9:58 am

China shows you can have capitalism (of a sort) without democracy. Can you have democracy without capitalism? Only if you can have democracy without freedom!

How do you mean “of a sort”? What sort? What’s different about it to other sorts,whatever they are? Are democracy and freedom the same thing or just co-dependant? Can you have democracy without freedom? As for the equation, I was merely using that as short hand for the common but mistaken assumption that capitalism and democracy are the same thing or funamentally intertwined. And it is not at all trivial given that western politics are dominated by the two philosophies in question. Let me give you an example of the kind of thing that I mean: here in Ireland the state owned airline, Aer Lingus, is about to be privatised. Its capital has been amassed by the investment of public funds. It operates in an unregulated, sorry de-regulated (us westerners hate unregulated – free – markets) market within which it is both highly profitable and competitive. It is illegal for the state to subsidise it in any way. Every discussion I have heard to date takes it as a given that it should be privatised and then proceeds to argue about how and why i.e. that it is automatically a bad thing for a government to be the owner of a business operating in an openly competitive market. I see no reason why this is the case. It seems neither anti-democratic nor anti-capitalist.

26

David Sucher 05.17.06 at 9:59 am

I have a suspicion that a platform which urged that all real estate (I assume that that is one of the means of production) be socialized (beyond what it is now through regulation) would NOT be a very attractive program at the polls anywhere in the world, much less the USA.

But I was intrigued by Martens’ statement that “Economic and social risks should be born in proportion to people’s ability to support risks. A billionaire risking half his fortune by investing in a firm is risking much less than the same firm’s janitor, whose entire income is dependent on it.”

How does that differ from the current situation in which in case of the bankruptcy of the firm the billionaire would lose his total investment and the janitor would lose nothing? I think there is an incorrect equation of investment with income

27

Chris 05.17.06 at 10:00 am

No, you’re right, I see the error of my ways.
I’d far rather be exploited by the state.

28

Chris 05.17.06 at 10:07 am

Well if economic freedom is an important freedom then I struggle to see how capitalism and democracy are not fundamentally intertwined.

29

Chris 05.17.06 at 10:13 am

David Sucher – I agree. In any event, how is the state supposed to balance those “risks”?
It does so already doesn’t it?
The billionaire loses his entire investment.
The janitor receives welfare payments if he can’t find another job.

30

Chris 05.17.06 at 10:15 am

Of course, without the billionaire’s investment, there would be no firm and no job.
Ooops, sorry, I mean no exploitation…

31

albert 05.17.06 at 11:18 am

I thought environmentalism, (and its political expresstion through the Greens) was the new idea of the social democratic left.

32

DC 05.17.06 at 11:31 am

No no no Chris – without the firm and the job, without the worker, there would be no billionaire. True there would be no job without the billionaire’s investment – but that’s not to say there would be no investment without the billionaire.

And what’s the risk to the billionaire? Sure he can lose an entire investment. And maybe he’ll find a way to lose so many investments that he, what?, has to become…a janitor? Well I suppose I agree, that is quite a risk, and quite a balance.

33

engels 05.17.06 at 11:39 am

Without the firm, the job, the workers, the consumers, the wider community, the natural environment, and a legal and political system of exploitation – there would be no billionaire.

34

Chris 05.17.06 at 11:48 am

I guess the comments tell their own story.
John Quiggin is right – the left has no new ideas.
Just the old tropes.

35

DC 05.17.06 at 11:52 am

Brendan,

I believe the measures at the end of the Communist Manifesto were little more than immediate demands, not a description of socialism.

As for “capitalism run by workers not capitalists, but it’s still capitalism”, I think it would be hard to describe this as capitalism (without capitalists). There has been growing inrerest in the idea of “market socialism”, espectially among the analytical Marxists, so I don’t think there’s any reason to see markets and capitalism as synonomous, nor socialism and markets as antonymous.

Where I do agree is that socialist theory and practice has always had a dilemma between the socialisation of the means of production and their nationalisation, i.e. between workers’ control (which may retain some of the irrationality of capitalist competition) and central state control (which is undemocratic, bureaucratic and may not be productively dynamic).

As to a solution I’m not sure if I have anything more constructive than the word synthesis.

36

mpowell 05.17.06 at 11:57 am

In response to Scott Martens #14: as long as we are going to be specific, I’m going to have disagree w/ part of 2). I think that some stakeholders who are not legal owners of an enterprise should have some say in how it is run. Workers should be able to require fair work conditions and everyone else should be able to require that the company not do any serious environmental damage. And we have laws to address this point. But I am seriously concerned about the claim that customers or suppliers to a company should have some say in how that company is run. Maybe if you don’t believe in capitalism, you’d be inclined to argue this, but the basic function of a free market doesn’t work if suppliers and customers get a vote in how a company is run.

More generally, I think there is some serious debate to be had about which stakeholders in this sense deserve a vote. B/c I don’t think you can convince me that all of them do.

Also, and this is something that I feel too many people around here are inclined to overlook, if you attempt to enact regulations to ensure the fair administration of business, you have to recognize the economic deadweight loss that results. For example, Sarbanes-Oxley: very well-intentioned, but not worth the cost. Its ironic when the government tries to help shareholders but causes them to lose money instead. Its really hard to cheaply insure fair business administration.

37

DC 05.17.06 at 12:02 pm

“the left has no new ideas.
Just the old tropes.”

Ah, but on the internet, as in socialism, at least it isn’t money for old tropes.

I’m sorry, I really am, couldn’t resist…

38

Cian 05.17.06 at 12:13 pm

In response to #36. I think its less about a say in how the company is run, and more about the power to affect that company relative to how it affects you. In the case of workers I think they should (ideally) run it. Whereas customers and suppliers have all the power they need (they can go elsewhere with their custom), and the state (in the monopolies board) intervenes to maintain that. However people in the community who are affected by the company should also have a say in how it runs, relative to them. Should it be able to pollute? How much? In the case of Wallmart, or an arms company, should it be allowed to operate locally.

39

abb1 05.17.06 at 12:50 pm

In respect to empolyees owning corporations, I think it feels more and more like a natural solution because of the way the current system’s evolved – public corporations have no owners now. There’s vacuum there already, no one wants to be the owner – why not the employees? No need for any revolution, any violence, it’s just evolved into this.

40

john m. 05.17.06 at 1:13 pm

#34 Chris, do you agree with the suggestion that billionaires are a distortion of the ideal free market?

41

novakant 05.17.06 at 1:22 pm

I don’t think we need any new ideas – those quaint old ideas like liberté, egalité, fraternité have not been realized and will do just fine – but maybe we should be a tad smarter about how we apply and market them.

one of many examples:

sto p#ssing off business people!

to elaborate a bit: the real threat to social justice etc. is not coming from small to medium size business owners (let’s say ‘medium’ equals where the boss still knows all his employees by name) but from investors and corporations so powerful and well connected that they are able to circumvent or influence to their advantage the financial and political institutions that are supposed to be controlling them, especially in times of ‘globalization’

focussing on their abuse of the system, pointing out that the last thing they want is a truly free market and challenging the prevailing consensus that equates their well-being with that of the common people will go a long way in making the left more attractive to a larger segment of people

42

Brendan 05.17.06 at 1:38 pm

‘As for “capitalism run by workers not capitalists, but it’s still capitalism”, I think it would be hard to describe this as capitalism (without capitalists). There has been growing inrerest in the idea of “market socialism”, espectially among the analytical Marxists, so I don’t think there’s any reason to see markets and capitalism as synonomous, nor socialism and markets as antonymous.’

Well that’s as maybe (although the idea of market socialism is an old one…it was first propounded as a response to the Austrian School’s critique of socialism, if memory serves: of course Lenin’s New Economic Policy was in a sense market socialism). My only point is that back in the day (i.e. in the 19th century) most (not all) anarchists and Marxist would have very much seen markets and socialism/communism/anarchism as being antonyms.

To quote Marx: ‘In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’ It’s not clear what ‘society’ means in this context, but it is reasonable to assume that it means social life, or people in democratically organised communes or something like that; i.e. not a ‘market’ mechanism. The other thing the passage above means is that under Communism no one will have a ‘profession’ or ‘career’ any more, and that the division of labour will be abolished. It is very difficult to see how this would be accomplished without abolishing markets (and, indeed, money per se).

It’s worth noting that probably the world’s premier left wing intellecual, Noam Chomsky, is in favour of precisely this form of radical reorganisation of society. Moreover, others who have praised the best known economic alternative to markets (participatory economics, parecon) include John Pilger and the Media Lens guys. It’s a minority opinion but there are still quite a few on the left who really do want to abolish ALL markets.

43

pdf23ds 05.17.06 at 5:10 pm

Not being very economically literate, I can’t see how billionaires could be a distortion of a system, where the system can naturally lead to billionaires. Is there something about an ideal free market that ought in principle prevent billionaires?

Now, I can certainly see how one could see billionaires as an aspect of an ideal free market system that’s less than ideal in a social sense. I think it’s important to distinguish between what’s possible and how in a system, and what the desirable aspects of a system are.

44

Tracy W 05.17.06 at 6:02 pm

Without the firm, the job, the workers, the consumers, the wider community, the natural environment, and a legal and political system of exploitation – there would be no billionaire.

Without the firm, the job, the workers, the consumers, the wider community, the natural environment, and a legal and political system of exploitation – there would be no janitor.

(I am presuming that the janitor was born and ate a fair chunk of food while growing up. And by exploitation, I presume you mean people not consuming the whole of the product of their labour. Since babies do no labour and still eat, someone was being exploited by producing food that the baby-who-would-become-the-janitor was eating).

45

engels 05.17.06 at 7:14 pm

tracy w – I meant exploitation in a more ordinary sense: being unfairly taken advantage of. Perhaps you are confusing me with someone else.

46

jonathan 05.17.06 at 8:22 pm

The reason there are no “new” ideas is that there isn’t very good analysis of the problems.

It all starts with the question–how does the community organize its necessary work? The basic social struggle is between those who do this work, and those who live off those who do the work.

The key indicator of any society’s success is how good are the working conditions of those who do the productive work. Do the producers have power to control their workspaces? Do they have enough pay so they can basically stop worrying about the problem of simple existence? Etc.

The nearly-perfect example of the ideal producer workspace would probably have been Intel when Robert Noyce ran things. But there were many other such places in USA and western Europe post WWII. And BECAUSE there were such ideal workspaces, they produced nearly miraculous products.

What is most interesting is that the producer super-achievers from the dawn of the industrial age broke almost every economic “law” taught in our more backward schools these days. They paid the help more than the minimums (Ford) they lobbied for protectionism (everyone) they organized cartels (German chemical industry) they mocked highly stratified organization (Noyce, Nokia) etc.

In MANY societies, however, all the RESPECTABLE jobs are non-productive jobs–law, finance, military, religion, sport, etc. What this means is that it makes almost NO difference to those whose jobs are cursed with the “unfortunate” description of necessary, whether those respectable types call themselves leftists or libertarians.

So producers are threatened from all directions. From the left they get political correctness, social scorn, and other forms of conformism. From the right, they are threatened by the vultures of finance capitalism (hostile takeovers, usury, etc.)

The trouble with this nearly universal outbreak of attacks on productive behavior is that important elements of society are starting to show catastrophic strain. After a generation of glorifying destructive pirates like Jack Welch, the American society is no longer able to maintain itself. The condition of vital infrastructure is ghastly.

Even worse, the major threats to human existence–climate change, desertification, depletion of freshwater aquifers, etc.–are problems of the uncompleted agendas of the Fords and Noyces of history. Just at a time when we need nothing less than the Second Industrial Revolution, we have destroyed our means to genius.

Just remember, deregulation of the energy industry did not produce better ways to dispose of nuclear waste, or a better way to negotiate the end of the age of petroleum. It gave us Enron, rolling blackouts, and price gouging.

47

David Sucher 05.17.06 at 9:16 pm

“…the RESPECTABLE jobs are non-productive jobs—law, finance, military, religion, sport, etc”

Just out of curiousity, where do you place college professors? Are they productive? Or non-productive?

What about singers? What about real estate developers?

I have never heard of your scheme before and it interests me.

48

jonathan 05.17.06 at 9:35 pm

More details of this class theory can be found at:
http://www.elegant-technology.com/ETthree.html

As for professors, it depends. Someone who teaches structural engineering is almost always productive–someone who teaches 19th century French poetry rarely is.

49

David Sucher 05.17.06 at 10:14 pm

But what about the singers and the real estate developers?
What about (language) translators?

What about people who make up schemes such as the one you have brought before us? Is the person who devised this system a producer? or a predator?

50

jonathan 05.17.06 at 10:48 pm

Language translators? Folks who translate instruction manuals for machine tools–yes. Folks who translate tracts for religious groups–no. Singers–a real stretch to ever call one a producer. Composers, yes.

As for real estate developers. They are the producers most likely to give producers a bad name.

The persons who figured out this class analysis had LONG strings of impeccable producer credentials.

51

Tony Christini 05.17.06 at 11:25 pm

Not only new ideas but a new institution — Mainstay Press — progressive fiction, fiction of social change — http://www.mainstaypress.org — with anti Iraq War novels and progressive global epics — highly accomplished and fact-filled….

52

abb1 05.18.06 at 2:37 am

Not being very economically literate, I can’t see how billionaires could be a distortion of a system, where the system can naturally lead to billionaires.

It’s can’t naturally lead to billionaires. It can only lead to billionaires when there is an imbalance of some sort: lack of competition and/or subjugation of labor.

53

Martin James 05.18.06 at 8:16 am

abb1,

What lack of competition and/or subjugation of labor lead to JK Rowling becomng a billionaire?

54

abb1 05.18.06 at 8:34 am

Well, the lack of competition made her a billionaire, obviously. Apparently the stuff she writes is very popular and for some reason there wasn’t enough of it on the market. That’s an imbalance, it’s not how capitalist system is supposed to work, which means it can hardly be called “natural”.

What would’ve been natural here is thousands of JK Rowlings competing desperately trying to sell enough of their stuff to pay the rent, the most talented of them perhaps being able to afford a decent house in London suburbs – but of course nowhere near a billionaire.

55

Martin James 05.18.06 at 8:44 am

I would like to see John post about new ideas in three areas that seem to greatly need new political treatment.

1. What politcal rights, duties and organizations should apply beyond states?

Consider the following thought experiment. What would be the outcome of a worldwide election of an “advisory” world government?

This government would have no power other than the power to speak as the elected representatives of the entire world. Say something like 9 people.

Couldn’t someone like George Soros fund such an election?

It seems like this would be a great excercise in democracy and in world citizenship.

2. What is the proper role of government in regard to transcendental values?

It seems to me that we are seeing the idea of “neutrality” of government towards questions of ultimate meaning – whether religious or otherwise – put to the test. In other words can governments that are neutral in regard to the “purpose” of human beings generate sufficient motivation to compete, whether at the ballot box or on the battlefield, with “meaning-driven” political groups?

In other words, are neutral human rights and material values alone, thick enough to be a political force?

3. Somewhat the opposite of number 2 is the question of to what end should our technolgical knowledge be put to transform the lifeworld and human beings?

The coming decision between progressives and reactionaries will be on the rather arbitrary prioritization of the human species as it currently stands?

The counterpart of animal liberation being something like the liberation or evolution of genes, thoughts and technology from their current form.

56

Martin James 05.18.06 at 10:07 am

abb1,

I think you are blurring ex post with ex ante profit.

Capitalistic theory is not inconsistent with rational actors that are not risk averse.

These actors (say a billion of them) could create a lottery of 1 each and a billion to the winner.

There are no unexploited profit opportunities or imbalances in this lottery, but it does produce billionaires “naturally”.

57

Chris 05.18.06 at 10:38 am

This ‘producer’ idea is wonderfully bonkers.
Are only those people who produce physical goods ‘producers’?
Is finance not necessary for production?
Still, at least you give credit to entrepreneurs.
Most people on this thread appear to consider them to be ‘exploiters’ – and not in a good way!

58

abb1 05.18.06 at 11:06 am

Martin, your lottery example is not unnatural, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the concept of capitalism.

59

Chris 05.18.06 at 11:51 am

abb1 obviously hates the rich.
Why should Rowling “obviously” not be a billionaire?
Artists and sportsmen are exceptions to the general rule because the competing ‘products’ are not substitutes. A lesser golfer is not a substitute for Tiger.
Though I understand why the embittered might want to see the existence of rich entrepreneurs as a sign of capitalist failure.
But take some comfort. The high return on capital of Microsoft will fade down to the cost of capital, just as the returns of earlier generations of winners (e.g. IBM) faded. There is nothing ‘unnatural’ about abnormal profits, although they are scarce. Billionaires are the exception.

But it is this (generally elusive) incentive which has led and continues to lead to so much innovation – it is the story of humanity’s technological advance.

60

abb1 05.18.06 at 11:53 am

Come to think of it, neither does JK Rowling, although her situation is a bit more more relevant that the lottery thing.

Capitalism is about mass-production, work for hire, profits; things like lottery and crafts aren’t really an organic part of it.

61

David Sucher 05.18.06 at 12:00 pm

I wonder if the definition of “producer” is an overly-narrow one?

Let’s take the example of the building of houses. Suppose you own some lots and a builder comes along and says that he will construct some houses there but he wants some particular terms — suppose he wants to pay you for the lots when he receives construction financing. You are not an experienced business person — you received the lots as an inheritance — but the basic offer strikes you as fair and you would like to accept it. But the builder is very experienced and personally unkown to you and you wish to make sure your interests are protected. So you hire a lawyer for advice on how to structure the deal, review the papers etc etc.

Does not the lawyer play a useful role in facilitating the production of houses?

62

abb1 05.18.06 at 12:01 pm

Chris, are you saying that JK Rowling would’ve refused to type her prose for less than a billion?

What do you think is the smallest amount that would provide sufficient incentive for her to produce those 6 tomes?

Thanks.

63

john m. 05.18.06 at 12:55 pm

There is nothing ‘unnatural’ about abnormal profits, although they are scarce. Billionaires are the exception.

This is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most confused sentences I have ever read. Apparently nothing abnormal is unnatural except for billionaires. Or something. And we all hate the rich. Because, you know, stuff.

64

engels 05.18.06 at 2:03 pm

why the embittered might want to see the existence of rich entrepreneurs as a sign of capitalist failure

Or for an alternative line of inquiry: why do losers like Chris worship the rich?

65

jonathan 05.18.06 at 3:10 pm

Producer / Predator class analysis is hardly “bonkers.” In fact, it describes the social reality better than a whole host of theories I can think of–including most on this thread. The short version I presented here does not do it justice–but try out even this condensed version on folks who actually have Producer jobs (high-tech entrepreneur, engineer, inventor, farmer, construction worker, etc.) and see if it doesn’t resonate with them.

66

engels 05.18.06 at 3:35 pm

try out even this condensed version on folks who actually have Producer jobs (high-tech entrepreneur, engineer, inventor, farmer, construction worker, etc.) and see if it doesn’t resonate with them

I don’t know if it “resonates”; there’s no doubt it panders to their vanity.

67

John Quiggin 05.18.06 at 3:58 pm

Martin, I certainly hope to post on
“1. What politcal rights, duties and organizations should apply beyond states?”

Your second and third questions are also important, but others here could probably do a better job than me.

68

David Sucher 05.18.06 at 4:22 pm

Ok, you don’t want to answer my question about the lawyer’s role in craeting housing (above) so maybe you could give us a theoretical description such as “Producers are people who directly (or indirectly) create things.”

The “indirectly” is important.

For example, entreprenurial engineers might like some entertainment and might enjoy a concert. In fact one could argue reasonably that a productive life is made more productive by taking some time off. So isn’t an entertainer in some very real sense part of the productive process? (Assuming the validity, arguendo of your dismissal of singers as productive.)

69

Scott Spiegelberg 05.18.06 at 4:51 pm

I’m curious about the distinction in #50, that singers (and presumably instrumentalists) are not productive, but composers are. What are composers producing? At the most literal, they are producing musical scores. What is the value of musical scores? Not much, unless the scores are performed. Now, there is still an existing market for amateur performances, such that the composer has produced a demanded resource. But the strong majority of compositions are performed by professional musicians, said performances consumed by listeners. It seems that the performers are producing a good just as much as the composers. Perhaps the confusion is in the ephemeral nature of performances?

70

Tracy W 05.18.06 at 6:30 pm

tracy w – I meant exploitation in a more ordinary sense: being unfairly taken advantage of. Perhaps you are confusing me with someone else.

Engels – and you know that the capitalist has inherently exploited someone, while the janitor never has, because?

I don’t know that exploitation has an ordinary sense, it seems to be a very loaded word that is that the users so seldom feel obliged to define. That’s why I reverted to my understanding of the Marxian context.

71

Tracy W 05.18.06 at 6:35 pm

Indeed, it is quite likely that neither the janitor nor the billionaire would not even be alive, where it not for past legal and political systems – be they exploitative or not – infant mortality rates have dropped drastically in the last two hundred years for rich and poor alike, and the legal and political systems affect who you marry, eg I would not exist had not various legal and political systems led to all my ancestors immigrating to NZ. To say that a billionaire would not exist Without the firm, the job, the workers, the consumers, the wider community, the natural environment, and a legal and political system of exploitation doesn’t tell us anything morally useful as the same is true of any other person involved with the firm.

72

engels 05.18.06 at 8:46 pm

the same is true of any other person involved with the firm

And yet they are not billionaires… Puzzling, isn’t it?

I don’t know that exploitation has an ordinary sense

Really?

73

Tracy W 05.18.06 at 9:18 pm

the same is true of any other person involved with the firm

And yet they are not billionaires… Puzzling, isn’t it?

Let us examine a real firm, one that I have worked at (but don’t now). Some people there had PhDs, some people left school at the mimimum age. Some people worked part-time, others regularly clocked in over 60 hour weeks. One person had a second career as an Improv Player. Some people had children, some people at age 50 still hadn’t had children. Some people owned houses, some people didn’t. Some people had major health problems, others were running marathons. Only one person was a French citizen, but there were multiple Indian citizens. … Puzzling, isn’t it?

As for your definition of exploitation – most of the links on the first place didn’t define it. (I’m not sure about the article in what I think is French, the Indian Znet articles appear to be using the Marxian sense I used). And this link (linked by Google from your page) gives a wide range of different meanings for expoitation.

74

abb1 05.19.06 at 1:19 am

One billion dollars is an amount of money that about 1,000 average workers combined will earn in the course of their lifetimes.

It’s the amount that about 40,000 average people earn in a year, a town full of people.

And you are saying that for one person to accomulate this kind of money is as unremarkable as being a French citizen or have a second career?

Did you have any citizens of Alpha Centauri in that firm, by chance?

75

Chris 05.19.06 at 3:07 am

“Chris, are you saying that JK Rowling would’ve refused to type her prose for less than a billion?”

Certainly not. But there are hundreds if not thousands wannabe Rowlings competing for our business. She happens to have had the right combination of luck and skill to have become extraordinarily successful. There are a similar numbers of wannabe golfers, and you could say the same of Tiger.

I fail to see how this is in any way a problem (perhaps you wish to regulate the earnings of authors or sportsmen) or a reflection on market efficiency. Indeed Rowling, and the “billionaire” example, is a perfect instance of the exception proving the rule.

To say that markets are on average highly efficient – and a far more successful way of allocating scarce resources than any other so far (I await the new ideas which the original post correctly identifies as missing) – is not to say that every single market is efficient at every point in time. But their is a strong tendency towards efficiency. Most firms earn no more than their cost of capital for most of their life. But many firms do earn high returns early in their life – that fact is both the incentive and reward for innovation – until their particular advantage is competed away or overtaken. A very small number of firms manage to earn abnormal returns for a longer period of time, and in general it is these which create the (exceptional) billionaires, and grab a lot of attention.

In any natural process there is a distribution of outcomes. The very small number of billionaires represent the extreme tail of a distribution of outcomes the mean of which is far more pedestrian.

76

abb1 05.19.06 at 4:27 am

Chris, again, I think the fact that you have to talk about craftsmen and entertainers – whose earnings have little or nothing to do with the concept of capitalism – to demonstrate your point says something about the difficulty you face here.

I said before – I have nothing against markets, I agree that market is an efficient mechanism in many cases. ‘Market’ and ‘capitalism’ are different animals.

Also I have nothing against inequality. If JK Rowling is so much more talented and/or more lucky than other writers, she should be able to reap the benefits, up to a reasonable limit. ‘Inequality’ and ‘capitalism’ are not the same thing.

The problem with capitalism is different. Suppose I lend you a shovel to dig a ditch and take 80% of what you earned digging – is this a good arrangement for both of us? I this the best arrangement? Maybe it was in the past, maybe it still is, and maybe it always will be – this is the concept you should be defending, not JK Rowling’s billion.

77

Chris 05.19.06 at 4:45 am

I love the “up to a reasonable limit” – and who is to decide that? You, no doubt…

“I lend you a shovel to dig a ditch and take 80% of what you earned digging – is this a good arrangement for both of us?”
Well I won’t be digging the ditch on that basis, and nor will anyone else.

The long run rate of real rate of return on capital in the 20th century in both the US and UK is around 6%.
Is that an unreasonable rate of return for risk taking?

78

Chris 05.19.06 at 4:48 am

Sorry, I mean the long run real rate of return…is 6%.

79

abb1 05.19.06 at 5:26 am

…who is to decide that?

You and I and the rest of us will decide, like with everything else.

I won’t be digging the ditch on that basis

Of course you will, because you have to eat. It’s better than starving.

I have no idea what “the long run real rate of return” represents, how it relates to wages and what it has to do with any “risk taking”. If risk taking is such a rare virtue, why wouldn’t they give me a few billions and I’ll take all the risk for them. And they can take my low-risk job, I don’t mind.

80

Chris 05.19.06 at 5:39 am

“You and I will decide…”
But we have already collectively decided – by buying her books and paying to see her movies.

If you don’t understand the concpet of rate of return, I suggest a quick Corporate Finance 101 might be helpful before you attempt to debate the pros and cons of capitalism.

Risk taking is not a rare virtue, thank goodness -otherwise there would have been no human progress.
But no-one is going to take a financial risk without a financial return. So you can lend money to the government on a more or less risk free basis at, say, a real interest rate of 3%.
Or you can invest in a riskier business, but of course you will require an addtional return over and above the 3% – an amount called a “risk premium.” Historically that total rate of return (risk free rate plus risk premium) has turned out to be around 6%.

You can think of that as being the return you receive on your capital once all the expenses of your business – including wages – have been met.
Very roughly speaking it is your level of profits divided by the amount of money you have invested to generate those profits.

Hardly a huge number, is it?

81

abb1 05.19.06 at 6:35 am

We buy her books and we also set the tax rates, we set the minimum wage and we can set the maximum wage as well; we can do anything we want if we think it would make sense. There is no higher power to stop us if we decide to set a limit on her income. I don’t see what the problem is here.

I don’t see how this “long run real rate of return” is relevant here. Suppose I lend you a shovel that’s worth a million bucks and then take 80% of what you earned digging. Then my rate of return will be low, so what?

Is this arragement – that I own the shovel and hire you to dig – is this beneficial for both of us or not? Is it essential? Is there a better way? I think there is, namely: we could be both digging and earning 100% of what we produced. I may be wrong, but you haven’t demonstrated it so far.

82

jonathan 05.19.06 at 1:04 pm

Comments on non-nested spaces tend to be rather difficult to follow–especially if the topic is this wide open.

So I will post this final set of remarks and anyone who wants to take it further can reach me through my website.

When it comes to the big topics like the end of the age of petroleum, it is obvious that there are essentially two real responses.

1) There is a business-as-usual response which says we are not actually running out of crude, that higher prices will cause more drilling and exploration, so eventually the markets will work as usually described.

2) There is the “crude is finite on finite planet” response which says that it matters little how many holes are drilled into an oil field, it doesn’t change how much crude is available. Therefore, if crude is running out, it makes sense to design and build a new infrastructure that will run on something else (the something else is usually described as hydrogen.)

Let’s call number (1) the Mad Max strategy because it is highly irresponsible gibberish. Let us call (2) the Invent, Design, and Build strategy (IDB). Further, let us assume that ethical humans with large frontal lobes are likely to flock to this second strategy.

It is obvious that an IDB strategy relies on the successful work of highly skilled producers. The question is, How can such a strategy be implemented if the society’s super-producers are lacking training, resources, and political / cultural support? The answer is, it cannot.

For example, this country decided that we wanted to clean up toxic waste sites before the toxins polluted drinking water. We passed a law called Superfund. 20 years later, we discover that virtually none of the Superfund sites have been fixed. Looking closely, we can see why. 93% of all Superfund money was spent on lawyers. Whatever social value lawyers may have, it is obvious they cannot solve IDB problems and even worse, they get in the way by diverting money that MUST go to IDB types into their own pockets.

We live in a society where lawyers have more status than engineers–to the point where lawyers actually get the money that should go to engineers. Why this is so is an interesting question.

It even shows up on this comment thread. Instead of discussing what sorts of problems can be addressed with an IDB strategy, I had to answer some really silly questions such as whether a singer was a “producer.” I was accused of catering to the “vanity” of the producer elites. Etc.

I am absolutely certain that it will be impossible to solve the big problems facing humanity if otherwise intelligent people waste time asking if singers are producers. It doesn’t matter. We can call singers producers of that will make you happy but it is clear that singers (or lawyers, financiers, or real estate developers) will not produce the nuts and bolts necessary to convert to a hydrogen economy.

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David Sucher 05.19.06 at 3:40 pm

Jonathan,

It will be difficult to be persuaded to your way of thinking if in one post (#50) you state that real estate developers are producers and in another (#82) you (seem to) say that they are not. So which is it?

My questions to you have been skeptical but sincere. I am sorry that you think your system is so obvious that questions about whether a singer is a producer is “silly.”

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