Art Kleiner (art) Sat 3 Jan 09 01:47
Thanks for introducing me to Orlov - I hadn't been aware of him before. Much of the current talk about collapse reminds me of similar conversations in the 1970s -- when CoEvolution Quarterly published a photo of a woman on a beach saying, "Armageddon outa here!" -- and the early 1990s -- when Slackers came out. The realities of middle-class collapse are terrible. A good friend of mine just had a life savings wipe-out in the Madoff debacle. Being a grasshopper myself, with limited savings, I feel some relief at not being caught up in the crisis as badly as others, but since I make my living as an editor and writer, I know I would not be among the last to suffer in a serious collapse. But is that really what we're facing? The trouble with analogies to the Soviet Union, or Italy, or any other country, is that we don't really have a clue as to what parts of the analogy are critically similar and what are not. I agree, for example, that America is riven by anomie and "bowling alone," trained through years of television and relying on government for support. But as a parent of three grade-school children in a relatively dense New York suburb, I also see a huge amount of latent community spirit that might kick in, like potential energy before the rock starts rolling downhill. I haven't seen anything like Mokray's barnraising-weatherizing, but I think it COULD happen.... Sort of like the Grameen bank, but in a middle-class context. Similarly, to have huge shortages of goods there would have to be a long devolution of manufacturing and shipping in this country; the cash backlog and demand would be such that, for that to happen, there would have to be severe privation for six months or more. It COULD happen, but for it to happen, mere credit collapse would not be enough. The big fear is that the government bailout is yet another bubble. I regard the past 10 years as an effort to continually get back to the 1990s bubble - first through housing, then commodities, then energy, then derivatives, then housing again - maybe not in that order. The goal for a lot of people was to refind that comfortable 10% growth.... what if the bailouts represent a last-ditch desperate attempt to accomplish this, and then end up collapsing themselves? I'm not sure what such a collapse would look like; perhaps we'd have to go back to the 1700s to find one. I take comfort in ideas from two theorists: Peter Senge posits that the entire industrial age was a bubble, that is now collapsing.... and Carlota Perez says that the industrial age has been here at least four times before.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 3 Jan 09 07:52
Art, those are great points: abstractions and analogies aren't as helpful when you're into new territory without a map. And I dn't think we're talking about "mere credit collapse" - that's just one piece of a complex unraveling. I didn't read Perez, but I thought Senge was onto something... we've been in the industrial age "bubble" so long we couldn't see it, and we couldn't see around it. Here's what I think I'm seeing, and I'm eager to hear what Bruce has to say. There is the credit collapse, and the various unethical and illegal practices that have brought chaos to the financial sector. There's a realization that oil is not forever, so even if we're not at peak, we're so much more keenly aware that it's a finite resource, and whether it's cheap and goes fast or expensive and spent more slowly, it will eventually be gone. And we know we have to rethink the way we use oil as we rethink everything we do that dumps additional carbon into the atmosphere - so we have constraints that we failed to acknowledge through most of the industrial revolution. There's also the transformation of human resources, as developing nations evolve into societies with any kind of middle class, they demand more resources and they take more work. If it's decreasingly the case that a few industrialized nations rule and the rest of the world serves, we have to consider how limited resources are shared more broadly. We can fight for the resources and the jobs, or we can cooperate, but either way, we're challenged and we have a difficult ongoing transition. And then there's global warming, massive pollution, dying oceans, various toxic byproducts of civilization gathering in festering piles across the planet... Generally assessing all of this, I think we're beginning to understand that we have to base the way we live and the way we do business on sustainability, and that's a transformation that offers significant opportunity, so there's that one piece of good news. But how do we proceed? One solution at a meta level is to get good at sorting things out locally. Neighborhood charrettes, and as I said earlier, a New Alchemy Insitute on every block, replacing the failing corner stores. Another question for Bruce: how is design relevant to solutions for sustainability? Can we design our way to a more workable world?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 3 Jan 09 08:37
I believe Jacob's onto something with post #18 there. "The costs of everything have crashed, and the asset bubbles we've had are partially about the problem in establishing stable returns in an economy where prices are naturally always dropping from technological advances." I can't entirely believe that prices naturally skid toward zero, Chris-Anderson-style. For instance, bison meat used to cost nothing because you could just step outside the door and shoot one. Technical advances like the railroads caused the price of bison meat to go up. Still, those asset bubbles are freakin' bubbly these days. Globalized electronic money seems to wander around like it's homeless. It used to be jet-setter money that hopped national borders, but now that epoch's gone and it looks like miserable vagrancy set in. Money keeps looking for some solid roof with a nice eight percent ROI, but wherever the money settles, something catches fire and falls over. Money had to flee technology, then flee real estate... oil... huddled in US Treasury Bonds? A Treasury bubble? Where ARE those stable returns? This is what I like about Taleb's BLACK SWAN financial nihilism. Financial "plans" are schemes of wealth destruction. Weird crap happens -- financial epileptic fits, basically. Reason fails. At length there's some return to a semblance of normalcy, and the economic witch-doctors assure us that the wrath of the gods is gone. It's safe to get greedy again. That's behavioral economics -- everything we claim we know about economics is astrology, it's pep-talk. We go for it in the same cheery way that Aztecs used to go for human sacrifice. A Human Sacrifice Bubble. I think this may in fact be so, but it begs the question as to what we ought to do to feed the children, pet the cat and just get on with daily living. Do we HAVE to have Black Swans hiss and bite the daylights out of us at random intervals? Real people really suffer in these tailspins. If economies are inherently unstable, shouldn't we be bending every effort to protect ourselves from their unreasonable depredations? A civil right to food and shelter would sound like a good start. How come we have to immiserate ourselves every time we hear the black wings beating?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 3 Jan 09 08:43
Jon was asking what kind of nifty designer gizmos I'm into this season... I'm still interested in the networked commons. A social invention that enables social inventions. If markets don't work, and central allocation doesn't work either, then a commons makes a lot more sense to a lot more people. It gets easier to fight off the vampire hordes of commercial IP creeps who want to monetize everything, lock it down with legal barbed-wire, and make sure the fix stays in. Because they're broke. So why not try something that's not nailed to collapsing cash-flows? "Commons-based peer production." That seems to be opening up new spaces for contemporary thought and action. It might enable new modes of getting by in tough times. I find myself impressed that young people, my students, the Internet natives, they don't seem aware how different the digital commons is from previous ways of organization. Google, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Facebook even, they simply think that's how the real world works. It's like a HERE COMES EVERYBODY where they're already here. The commons offers ways out of the glum solipsist autarchy of hippie homesteads and survivalist city-states. If you're gonna "do it yourself" with a wireless Linux netbook, you're not doing it Robinson Crusoe style. You've got the collective labor of a couple million guys there under your arm. This is not a "virtual community" WELL-style. It's more like a huge, anonymous public infrastructure of aqueducts. But if you're getting clean free water, why buy that bottled stuff they marketeers flew in Fiji? This peer-production stuff used to look very hobbyist and geekish and rickety. It was hotglue and strapping-tape. It's still not "mainstreaming," it will likely never have commercial gloss. Still, it's acquiring some kind of commons-gloss. It looks better, it works better, it performs with more functionality in wider areas of life. It has escaped its geek ghetto. Normal people no longer apologize to their bosses for using open-source components, or for finding things out on the "unreliable" Internet. Hardware commons and instructables interest me quite a lot. The trend toward make-and-do labs and hacker spaces is also of keen interest to me -- not just what gizmos people are designing and making, but how the infrastructure of designing and making is itself breaking up and reassembling in new component-sets. "User Experience Design." Good God, what *isn't* "user experience design"? It sounds like the most vaporous thing on earth, but the way those guys talk is completely imperial. I'm wondering what happens if somebody makes a small town commons-based. The street lights, the parking meters, they've all got APIs... you get to hack the sewers, repaint the streets... all the building regulations go up for grabs... Would it be a grimy hippie dive like Christiania, or might it get suave and geeky-upscale, like the Google campus? Suppose you found some dead James Howard Kunstler strip-mall burg, bought it for a dollar, and turned it into "OpenSource-opolis" where every possible object and service was creatively commonized. Would that be heaven, hell -- or what we've got now only different?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 3 Jan 09 10:12
The pattern lanugage for communication that Doug Schuler's been working on, articulated in his new book _Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution_ (http://budurl.com/aebb) has a Commons pattern: http://budurl.com/428v Here's the context for the pattern: "'The commons' is a useful term for contemporary political discourse because it provides a new lexicon for re-situating market activity in a social and political context. It helps us identify resources that should not be alienated for market use, but should remain non-propertized and 'owned' (in a civic or democratic sense) by everyone. Our culture has no serious vocabulary for contextualizing 'the free market' in a social framework; it assumes that it is a universal, ahistorical force of nature. The commons helps rectify this conceptual problem by offering a rich, countervailing template to the market paradigm, one that can speak about the economic and legal aspects of a commons as intelligibly as its social and personal aspects." Incidentally, I just responded in an interview (to be published this week at sxsw.com) with something similar to your idea above. I said... "Remember how we used to say 'IP on everything,' talking about an Internet of things? The mantra for the project I'm describing would be 'API for everything.' Imagine a world where, in any given built environment, you could interface with the building and all its systems to get a clear picture of energy use, emissions, anything that has an impact on the sustainability, not just of the building, but of the building, its occupants, and the various ongoing interactions and processes within." API on everything doesn't depend on the OpenSourceopolis model, but they would work well together. I tend to think the 100% commons-based solution would evolve into something more like capitalism - that seems to be an inherent of the human psyche and the way we work with the concept of value and our inherent self-ishness. How could you create a commons-based environment where "enightened self-interest" was a factor?
(dana) Sat 3 Jan 09 10:53
Stefan Jones writes: Obama's stimulus spending might work if it were heavily skewed toward infrastructure retooling. Goal would not just be job creation for survivability and sustainability. Like hardened power grids for shipping windmill juice to power a national rail system. Or gear to turn sewage into fertilizer for non-food-crop biofuels. Hire Kuntsler and his ilk to rave up scenarios, then sadden them by addressing them one by one. Implant an electrode in McCain's testicles to make him even more ornery and put him in charge of vetting the distribution.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Sat 3 Jan 09 11:13
<I regard the past 10 years as an effort to continually get back to the 1990s bubble - first through housing, then commodities, then energy, then derivatives, then housing again> I'm no absentee Pocatello slum lord, but I think Art is correct about holding the atypical returns of the 1990s as the standard. George W. Bush wasn't ushering in the Information Age, he was artificially stimulating the economy on two primary fronts: first, through six years of the loosest credit standards ever witnessed since the mortgage phenomenon began, and secondly, with a war. Iraq bolstered the good old Military Industrial complex. I think Dubya was hoping to delay the collapse of his economic house of cards until after 1/20/09. <ways out of the glum solipsist autarchy of hippie homesteads and survivalist city-states.> WELL, I find it ironic to read Bruce's hippiephobic reactions here on the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. I remember this from last year, too. You do remember the Last Whole Earth Catalog don't you Bruce? Indubitably hippie! <Would it be a grimy hippie dive like Christiania, or might it get suave and geeky-upscale, like the Google campus?> Yep, the hippies were guilty of the same thing that academics were in the mid-70s until very recently. A spirit of postmodernity supplanted the hippies' consciousness revolution that championed last-whole- earth-"we-can-change-the-world" possibilities, challenged wasteful-materialistic-consumerism, honored our oneness as humans. In other words, except perhaps for the ecologists, many new disciplines surfaced from the 60s to embrace our separateness, our differences, and most significantly, our personal/corporate/national returns on investment. Women's Studies, Native American Studies, Black (African American) Studies, Chicano Studies, GLBT Studies, Entrepreneurial Studieseach gender, every ethnicity and persuasion, and ROI needed its own voice and positionality to crush the Euro-male grand narrative that was oppressing us. Thank the French poststructuralists for the theoretical deconstruction. There was, of course, no Department of Countercultural Studies anywhere, and the thought that humans could author change on a grand scale went by the wayside, too. The returns on our money dominated. Of course, many of the bona fide hippies split from the cities to go back to the land to self-imposed, self-reliant virtual irrelevance. There were even anomalies such as Copenhagen's Christiania, where the Danish hippies took over a large abandoned Military base and turned it into a community that would have made Gandhian economists proud, except for constant external pressures from the straight world Dansk polis, or invasions from hard drug dealers or runaways looking for easy fixes that always pressured that scene. But in this you miss the point of "Ethos", Bruce. Again, you are talking in a forum that is an outgrowth of the hippie consciousness. Even in academia today, we are seeing these same scholars who forged separate places for themselves in new departments, now beginning to champion interdisciplinarity as never before. Public humanities are finding ways to connect the academic foxholes. Theory is giving way to praxis. And, yes, global conscientiousness is rising. Last year I attended a conference of hard scientists called "The Greening of the Disciplines." It sure seemed like there was a whole lotta hippie heritage there, even lots of scientists with ponytails. <Opensource-opolis> is a very good start for the new ethos, though. There is no tone of foxhole derision. Hey, it may not even be neo-hippie, but it is sterling!
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 3 Jan 09 11:19
'How could you create a commons-based environment where "enlightened self interest" was a factor?' Maybe by making that environment a more pleasing place to live than the old-style Dickensian racket. Or maybe by abandoning the older and demeaning idea of being "consumers." I think the new word that John Robb is looking for here is probably the old word "citizen." Participation in public affairs used to be construed as "civic duty." Joining the military was being "in service." It wasn't considered a personal profit-center. http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2009/01/middle-class-co.h tml Makes you wonder what the world might look like if peers building commons resources were visibly marked out, honored, publicly distinguished. Sure, you get medals, maybe a flag. People stand respectfully when you enter a bus. You wear a clerical collar. Whuffie pours out of you like manna; you have a golden glow. Traffic lights favor your vehicle. You get free pizzas. It might take less than one would think. People really really like to shop, but "consuming" has a 1950s sound now. I don't know that many gluttons who really and seriously like to "consume" things they buy, to literally gorge on products. People like comfort, status and self-worth, they like services and luxury. There aren't too many of us who seriously need to stockpile fifty dozen donuts. I've been a computer "consumer" for decades now, in the sense that I follow the trade press and buy computers regularly, but I dunno: if a $300 netbook running freeware lets me get the job done, 2009 may be the year when I just plain vanish off the radar. I'd still be plenty busy at my keyboard, but as a financial entity supporting the "computer industry," I would just dissipate into the clouds.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Sat 3 Jan 09 11:26
<I tend to think the 100% commons-based solution would evolve into something more like capitalism> Jon, see post #15. You were doing so well with the use of the term "commons" to forge a new political/cultural mindset, before reverting to the old-school paradigm of "capitalism" that kills the commons before it can get started. Of course, there need to be human incentives, such as ROI, but you just got done showing, very eloquently, why the incentives have to go beyond simply money considerations.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sat 3 Jan 09 13:21
One thing to remember about today's do-it-yourself culture is that it's an optional supplement to industrial production. Sure, making clothes is fun sometimes for some people, but not if you have no alternative. Who wants to make their own underwear, as a regular thing? It's the same for food; people grow tomatoes but there's no big trend towards growing your own flour or rice, and there's no stigma at all over eating out if you're not into cooking. What seems to be happening is that making high-margin fashionable stuff (including media and software) becomes increasingly do-it-yourself but the boring stuff like basic supplies and infrastructure get manufactured cheaply by international companies at scale.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 3 Jan 09 13:38
We can't wish the psychic foundations for "capitalism" away with an "old-school paradigm" dismissal. And I think what kills the commons is greed, not capitalism. I do see people letting go of consumerism - it's like they're exhausted with it. And the consumers wandering stores this Christmas often looked puzzled - what else can I buy? Everybody's loaded, toys are everywhere. I think about the millions of cars sitting in new and used car lots - how many more cars can we need, or want? It's no wonder the automobile industry is gasping for breath. We have more and more supply, less and less demand. It's not sustainable. What do you do with a marketplace where everybody's got something to sell, and nobody's buying? (bslesins slipped in with a relevant thought while I was writing this post.)
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Sat 3 Jan 09 14:11
Certainly, there are psychic foundations for "capitalism" which are as basic as looking out for our own interests. The problem I see with the term is, for example, when American Republicans wrap themselves in this term and villainize the term socialism. American "capitalism" is infused with many socialistic attributes that are taken as givens. We do not have the capitalism of Dickens' London where child labor, or polluting the shared skies or discharging effluent into the rivers or drinking water is tolerated. Pollution control is a form of socialism. In the US we have Social Security and Medicare, clearly socialist measures. Likewise, $700 billion dollar bailouts for the Plutocrats is blatantly socialistic, but justified to bolster capitalism in America. Consequently, if we create a workable "commons" approach, it may have attributes of both socialism and capitalism for it to work, but the use of these terms, which are already so convoluted and politically distorted, have little value for us as we try to move forward. I think what post #15 was suggesting, is that we need to rethink how we "frame" our political paradigms. The same is true for the terms "liberal" and "conservative". These terms have come to have little meaning except within the narrowest of policy directives, such as what we should do about health care, gay marriage, etc. The idea of a "commons" does have historical precedence, but the application of the term today is not stymied by the kind of perceptual baggage that come with these other terms. Also, you are not wrong to be concerned with the underlying factors that killed the "commons" of old.
John Payne (satyr) Sun 4 Jan 09 08:55
How much of what's wrong and getting worse with the world traces to the sacred cow status of capitalism?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 4 Jan 09 10:14
I don't think that capitalism or communism or socialism cause or cure "what's wrong and getting worse." They've all worked in some contexts and failed in others. Maybe the questions are, not how do we dispense with capitalism, but how do we have a capitalism that is less corruptible, and how do we create a social context where fair profit is okay, but greed is unacceptable?
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Sun 4 Jan 09 10:48
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Sun 4 Jan 09 11:26
...again, we start by forging new geo- and socio-political paradigms with labels that don't set off firestorms of opposition before reasonable innovations have a chance to take root. For example, why do we allow the sacred cow of capitalism to prevail when big money is to be had, but when faced with the downside of corporate ineptness and market collapse, we bail out the incompetence with corporate socialism. It's not so simple as fair profit VS greed. When Congress voted in 2000 to allow private insurance firms (A.E.G.) to insure bundled mortgages, suddenly the banks who you approach for a loan, knew they could transfer their risk. It wasn't their money at stake. Suddenly, they didn't look at you as a homebuyer in terms of the risk and reward of their investment in you, but in terms of making money solely on the immediate transaction. The risk of your nonpayment was not theirs. Of course, with Fannie Mae, IndiMac, FreddieMac underwriting transactions with high credit risk (politically motivated to stimulate the economy) we had the other key factor which created our current mess. It's a myth that pure capitalism was at fault here, for the artificial stimulation of our housing sector was rife with Government malfeasance, too. Of course, AEG was instantly bailed out. Our Congress created this precise problem in 2000. When all the foreclosures hit, AEG, who was delighted to take the insurance premiums, didn't have the money to pay out. So, yes, we need a social context where people can afford the housing they buy (and we need more affordable housing, too!), but, again, terms like capitalism and socialism become convenient smokescreens for the politicians and corporations to maneuver in ways that, as we see, can be highly irresponsible, except in the short term.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 4 Jan 09 11:29
"One thing to remember about today's do-it-yourself culture is that it's an optional supplement to industrial production. Sure, making clothes is fun sometimes for some people, but not if you have no alternative. Who wants to make their own underwear, as a regular thing? "It's the same for food; people grow tomatoes but there's no big trend towards growing your own flour or rice, and there's no stigma at all over eating out if you're not into cooking. "What seems to be happening is that making high-margin fashionable stuff (including media and software) becomes increasingly do-it-yourself but the boring stuff like basic supplies and infrastructure get manufactured cheaply by international companies at scale." *These are important issues. *The thing that interests me about today's "do-it-yourself" culture is that it's so commons-based. You wouldn't see Thoreau retreating to Walden Pond to make himself some high-margin fashionable media and software. That wouldn't be possible. Besides, why would true "do-it-yourself" even BOTHER to be "high margin"? You're not selling it, you're supposed to be making and using it autonomously. And "fashionable"? Fashionable to whom? Why? Thoreau isn't in an enterprise that requires new clothes. Nobody is looking. *It's not the massive scale of DIY that I find promising. I've got a few Maker-style knick-knacks in my daily life, more than I used to, but they're not replacing industrial production for the planet's teeming masses. Not this year, that's for sure. *What powerfully strikes me is that "international companies" are no longer "making it themselves," either. These companies don't design it, they don't manufacture it, they don't distribute it... They've retreated to their "core competencies," which I'd be guessing are phantoms like "shareholder value" and other financial legerdemain. Or buying into the Republican Party, maybe. Isn't that rather detached from on-the-ground reality in 2009? *Individuals Versus Big Corporations are just not the issue any more. It's more like no-profit networked peer-groups versus loose gangs of for-profit contractual hucksters. Two ad-hocracies, both globalized now: the peers are on the net, while the corporations are offshored. *Offshored corporations have cash and can buy the nation-state, but that activity weakens nation-states drastically. Since corporations use national currencies, they're kinda sawing off their own feet. *It's hard to figure which of those systems is the more unstable and peculiar. Given that finance is collapsing while Linux isn't collapsing, maybe the ground is shifting somewhat. *If you try to frame this situation as Little Me versus IBM, we get nowhere. That's an argument John Ruskin was losing 150 years ago in the arts-and-crafts movement. *Peer-production versus offshoring is a much more useful situation to think about now. Like: exactly *why* is peer-production so bad at doing boring, useful, vital stuff like farming? *Then, instead of debating communism and socialism like we've been doing since 1848, we can ask: What might a plausible peer-production farm look like? *I'm guessing a peer-produced farm would be rather like a New Alchemy greenhouse. Except: rather than forcing its inventors to stay nailed to Cape Cod so that the all-organic sewers didn't overflow, its management would be networked. You'd webcam your module of the farm, crops would send you SMSes. You wouldn't be tied to the soil, which is surely one of the major components of agricultural tedium. *Of course you'd start out farming high-end hokum like baby arugula and mutant purple okra, because that would attract the star system-builders. Once they built the infrastructure and released it into the commons domain, THEN you get somebody less inventive to grow some rice. *At this point we're supposed to jump indignantly sideways and say, well, the capitalist profit motive is central to the human condition, so of course Three Initial Corporation sells the digital urban rice! *Look: does that MATTER a whole lot now? The reality on the ground would be this: that digital urban rice has appeared. Digital urban rice would be very weird. We never had any of that before. It would change a lot of everyday reality. *Everyday reality IS changing. General Motors crumbles at a touch. There are no newspapers. Gangs of terrorists fight major military powers and bankrupt them. A black guy is the US President. Ten months ago, petrocrats like Putin and Chavez were conquering the world and now they've got soupbowls. *We need new ways to frame what's going on.
Sebastian Mendler (smendler) Sun 4 Jan 09 12:30
Re capitalism: I have been wondering if it is possible, symbolically speaking, to take Friedman's dictum about the social responsibility of corporations - namely, "the only social responsibility of a corporation is to deliver maximum profits to its shareholders" - and append three simple words: "WITHOUT DOING HARM..." That is, without doing damage to the environment, or causing involuntary suffering among other humans. Is such a capitalism possible? Is it still capitalism?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 4 Jan 09 14:39
The relative amounts can be different, but whether you're Apple or Wikipedia or the Obama campaign, you still need to get people to pay attention, give money, and perform services. Raising money - well, that's the core competence of a capitalist organization, right? Outsource everything else, but if you're raising money and spending it then you're controlling what other people do in a fundamentally capitalist way. A public radio station begging on the air and selling "sponsorships" is essentially engaging in capitalism. So is a church that asks for donations. So is anyone who works for a living and gets what they need by spending their own money. However you do it, you're in trouble when people decide to stop paying attention to you and the money stops flowing in. Ad-hoc organization is a different game where central control over spending goes away; instead of raising money you get people to either work or spend their own money on a project's behalf. Organization becomes less about controlling cash flow and more about documenting the state of the project and encouraging common goals. Some projects can even have a separate existence from the people who work on them. Even if nobody's interested, a dead software project could hibernate until someone else stumbles across it and becomes interested again. A sufficiently compelling project like solving Fermat's last theorem could get people to work on it on and off for centuries. But the thing is, people can't *rely* on a project like that. It's fine for mathematics or creating art where there's no deadline. But basic needs like providing food and shelter have deadlines. Command and control arises out of urgent short-term goals. The Chinese peasant traveling far from home to work in a factory has needs they want taken care of, and your outsourcing capitalist firm has something to offer. (Although, nobody sensible is going to expect a pension from one of them.)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 4 Jan 09 15:52
>>> It's not so simple as fair profit VS greed. <<< Nothing's ever simple, especially where economics is concerned. But fair profit vs greed is relevant to the question of capitalism. To the question of economic tsunami, I think you have to register several quakes to get the complete analysis. But the guy who's swimming for his life isn't thinking about the Richter scale. He'll do with a floatable bit of debris. >>> *We need new ways to frame what's going on. <<< Amen! And you know how it goes - at least in transition, the older modes don't disappear. I'm seeing more and more work getting done by aggregates of contractors working cooperatively, and a whole crew of entrepreneurs who are building clusters instead of companies. More coworking environments are springing up, and the coworkers are forming alliances to do all sorts of things, both innovative and mundane. More and more businesses are bootstrapped. But larger shops aren't closing their doors, at least not yet. The business schools are still spewing MBAs with recipes for building companies through round to round financing, venture capitalists are still scouting prospects, and established companies are still churning along, building widgets. Big companies may be dinosaurs, but they're still stomping through the forest, gobbling mammals. >>> "the only social responsibility of a corporation is to deliver maximum profits to its shareholders" - and append three simple words: "WITHOUT DOING HARM..." <<< There's no law of capitalism that says you have to maximize profit, and socially responsible companies are already forming that set different priorities ahead of profit maximization. For example, a company might say to its shareholders, our goal is the best possible profit we can get, but without sweatshops, without pollution. So I think what you're saying already exists, and you're seeing more companies exploring the meaning of "corporate social responsibility." The question then is what a company's to do if it realizes it can't profit *at all* without running offshore sweatshops, working minors twelve hours a day, or without dumping pollution into the environment. What then? And what if you found that the only way to guarantee a decent standard of living to every living human being was to scale your own lifestyle 'way down? Who's going to make concessions? A multizillionaire isn't going to voluntarily give up his mutliple transcontinental homes, and a suburban family of five or six won't voluntarily give up a couple of bedrooms - they'll struggle to hold onto what they've got. And while CSR is a bit of a trend, many corporations won't go there voluntarily, or their shareholders won't let them. But the reality is global demand for better living against limited resources, and that resistance we'd all feel to giving up what we've got could be volatile. (I think I'm just agreeing with <bslesins>.) I should remind people who are not on the WELL and are reading this - you can chime in on all this by emailing email@example.com. Our hosts will post your comments and questions here.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Sun 4 Jan 09 17:46
<The question then is what a company's to do if it realizes it can't profit *at all* without running offshore sweatshops, working minors twelve hours a day, or without dumping pollution into the environment. What then?> If corporations are allowed to be treated with the same legal standards as human beings, then certain behaviors simply must be prohibited. Despite all the get-big-government-off-our-backs, this is a highly legitimate role of social governance. For example, the strip mining rape of the 1960s in Kentucky is simply not allowed today in the US, nor is blatant discrimination, child labor, etc. No society is obligated to allow unfettered capitalism just for the sake of private-sector profit/job creation/economic development. It is incumbent on businesses to conduct themselves in a law abiding fashion. As for the shift of such ugly "capitalism" to second and third world pollution/low wage havens, it is mostly incumbent on the governments of India, China, etc. to disallow the fouling of their own nests. Beyond the Nation-State, there need to be transnational initiatives to pressure against the worst environmental and human transgressions such as those related to nuclear proliferation or profligate carbon emissions. Ahh, now we begin to approach the ethos of a global consciousness where the obsolete capitalist/socialist dialectic begins to be replaced by newly framed socio- and geo-political paradigms.
John Payne (satyr) Sun 4 Jan 09 18:56
> exactly *why* is peer-production so bad at > doing boring, useful, vital stuff like farming? It might turn out to be better at designing, building, and programming machines to do the boring, vital stuff.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 4 Jan 09 19:50
"There's no law of capitalism that says you have to maximize profit" Actually, there is, but it's toothless because almost anything can be justified as somehow being in the long-term interest of shareholders. "For example, a company might say to its shareholders, our goal is the best possible profit we can get, but without sweatshops, without pollution." ... well no, you can't say that unless you add that being a good citizen and maintaining a good reputation is also in the company's long-term interests because it's good marketing, yadda yadda. It's not hard to justify because it might even be true. Generally speaking, companies play to win and that's how it should be. The question is whether you try to play by the rules, or do you undermine the ref's attempts to keep the game fair? And when you're done playing the game for the day and put your citizen hat on, do you vote for rules that will make the game more balanced and support the refs? We've just come through a period where lots of people pretty much knew there was lots of cheating going on, but few people tried very hard to do anything about it, and there were lots of people making up self-serving theories about why nobody *should* do anything about it. More here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/opinion/04lewiseinhorn.html
(wiggly) Sun 4 Jan 09 22:11
Bob Morris writes: "Resilient communities" theorists are, without knowing it, entering the place where anarchists have been for decades. No, I don't mean bomb-throwing nihilists, but rather non-violent anarchists who've been discussing how to implement non-coercive, community-based organizations for quite some time now. They might have much to add to the discussion. And vice versa. So what comes next? What's after capitalism and socialsm? I think it will be quite a lot like resilient communities / anarchism. Inherent in any such discussion are the two eternal questions of a new social structure. Who will pick up the garbage and how to protect against those who choose to ignore the rules.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 4 Jan 09 22:24
>>> "There's no law of capitalism that says you have to maximize profit" Actually, there is, but it's toothless because almost anything can be justified as somehow being in the long-term interest of shareholders. <<< I suppose there is, if you assume that the word of Milton Friedman and others who make that argument is law. But my understanding is that a corporation can have a different agreement with its shareholders - its charter can assert other priorities. Investors may choose not to invest, but some will value socially responsible behavior and accept reduced profits that may result. (I agree that they're unlikely to accept *no* profits as a result.)
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