Non sense on Stilts, David Schweickart Parecon critiques

Extraits en anglais d’un texte posté sur le site

Under capitalism, « the market » makes those determinations, via its « invisible hand. » Surely we can now dispense with this impersonal mechanism, and replace it with a more effective and humane procedure. Surely human planning can do better than inhuman market forces.

Such a belief seemed eminently plausible in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, when power passed, for the first time in history, into the hands of a party committed to constructing an economic system superior to capitalism. Indeed it was not a crazy idea. It was embraced by many of the best and brightest of the Left. Why not simply ascertain what our resources are and what people need, then put people to work in the requisite industries in the requisite numbers and have them produce what is needed?

But planning without markets failed in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea. Everywhere it has been tried, it has failed. Of course, Albert knows this, but he has an explanation. Communist planning failed, not because planning cannot replace markets, but because Communist planning wasn’t democratic; it wasn’t truly participatory.

A « controlling class » took over, and it was they who decided what people needed, and how it should be produced. The consumers weren’t able to articulate their wants or needs. The direct producers had no control over their work. Moreover, the Bolsheviks didn’t have computers. But we do. And we are committed to participatory democracy in ways that Leninists were not. Just because one form of planning failed doesn’t mean that all forms must fail.

Fair enough. The failure of one form of planning does not entail the failure of all forms. But we must then ask, « How would you do it? » How would Parecon determine what should be produced? How would it bring people’s needs and wants into alignment with what the workforce is willing and able to produce? To his credit, Albert does not sidestep this question, as do so many on the Left who remain hostile to the idea of « market socialism. » He addresses it head-on.

Let’s start with the first question. How would Parecon determine what people want? Albert’s answer is straightforward. Ask them. Don’t have people simply buy things, then hope that competitive pressures will see to it that what people want will be produced in the requisite quantities. That’s a formula for exploitation, manipulation, environmental degradation and all sorts of other evils. Just ask them what they need. Let them tell us, and then let them tell us how hard they are willing to work. We’ll negotiate back and forth until these two factors – demand and supply – are brought into balance.

Okay, let’s try it. What do I do? Albert tells me that I must first go to my PC and access my consumption list from last year, which is stored in a central computer. I’ll also be given a price list, and a figure indicating how much an hour’s average labor will be worth this year. (It may be more than last year, if our economy has grown more productive, less if productivity has declined.)

I then list what I want to consume next year, and how many hours I’m willing to work. The value of my consumption and the hours I’m willing to work must match. (If I’ve been given an above-average work rating, I multiply the national hourly average value by 1.1 or whatever has been deemed appropriate, to determine how many hours I need to work to cover my desired consumption.) I then send my list to my neighborhood consumption council, which will either approve or deny my proposal. Normally it will be approved, but, since my request will be posted publicly, « neighbors could express an opinion that a request was unwise ». (Isn’t that a lot of scotch you’ve asked for? Wouldn’t red wine be better for you?)

Actually, I give them a bit more information. I’m also expected to write little notes to provide « qualitative information about my reasons » for wanting various products. I will also write up a report for the local worker council, indicating my work preferences. These notes too will be posted. Albert doesn’t think this will be burdensome: This does not entail everyone writing long essays about their work and living conditions. It does mean that people will need to generate concise accounts that substitute for the fact that not everyone can personally experience every circumstance.

Of course not every worker and consumer will use all this qualitative information in every calculation. But when there are odd changes in preferences of workers or consumers that someone does not understand or wants to explore further to comprehend what is behind a particular indicative price, the qualitative information is available for a check and clarification.

That’s the first step. Let’s think about it for a moment. Forget about the notes. Let’s think about the list. For some reason Parecon supporters don’t have a problem with having to make a list of all the things one might want to consume during the course of a year.

Albert reassures Barbara Ehrenreich, « In Parecon you have to spend some time over the course of a week or two entering your budget and interacting with the overall process. I suspect this won’t take longer than people now spend doing their tax returns. »

Well, let’s see. Let’s start with a week. Roughly, what would I like to consume next week? I drink three cups of coffee a day, so I’ll need twenty-one cups of coffee. I take a variety of vitamin pills each morning. Those are easy enough to multiply by seven. I sometimes eat cereal for breakfast. That’ll require some sugar and some milk. How much sugar? How much milk? Let me think about that. Sometimes I scramble an egg. That’ll require some salt, pepper, butter. Sometimes I have some bacon … Hmm – I’m only in the first half-hour of the day. This is getting complicated.

I often drive to school to teach and attend meetings. How many trips do I anticipate this week? How much gas will I need? Eventually I’ll need an oil change and a new oil filter and, with winter coming on, new set of spark plugs, and… Or maybe I’ll take the bus. But how do I figure that? Bus-miles used? (I’ll definitely need to attach a note to this one, because it will matter whether the route I take is well-traveled and hence has lots of passengers to defray the cost, or whether there are usually only a couple of us on it.

« Wait, wait!! » Albert and company will respond. « Just look at last year’s list. You don’t have to start from scratch. Just estimate your changes. » Well, that does make matters a bit easier. (It would seem that at some point I would have had to construct an initial list but let that reservation slide.) I look at last year’s list. I see that I consumed two hundred and twelve eggs last year, eleven pounds of bacon, two pound of salt, one hundred forty-seven gallons of gasoline, … I see I also bought two new pairs of pants, a pair of shoes, fifteen bars of soap. I had to replace my computer. I used twenty-four highlighters, thirty reams of computer paper,

Wow! This is a pretty long list! It goes on for pages and pages. It’s hard to believe I consumed all that stuff in just one year. Okay, I have my list of last year’s consumption. It took awhile to print out, listing as it did all the food, clothing, housing expenses, entertainment, travel, books, magazines, cleaning supplies, gifts, etc., etc., etc. that I purchased last year.

Now I have to think about the coming year. What would I like to consume this coming year? I’ve been thinking about giving up meat, so that gives me some options. I can compare what I spent on bacon with what I might spend on … what? Maybe soybeans. Let’s see back to the computer to get their anticipated price per pound. Hmmm, I wonder how many pounds I’ll need… I just remembered, there are some birthdays coming up. What did I spend on birthday gifts last year? What did I buy anyway? I’ll have to search back through the list. (Presumably I tagged as gifts when I bought them all the items purchased as gifts, so my computer’s search engine can locate them quickly.) How much did I spend? What do I want to buy this year–for birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversary?

« Please note, » says Albert, « this does not mean that every individual must specify how many units of every single product they need down to size, style and color. » Whew, that’s a relief. But then what do I specify? Birthday gifts? A nice sweater for my wife? We have a problem here. If I don’t specify what gifts I want, including such details as size, style and color, how are the producers going to know what to produce?

Ehrenreich worried about this. « Call me vain, petty, capitalist running dog, but I certainly don’t want a bunch of committees deciding how long skirts will be or what lipstick colors will be available. » Albert’s reply? « Applying all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear them and of those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence the length and color, as well as their number and composition, their method of production, and so on – instead of profit seeking determining the result. »

Yeah, well… but Albert seems to have missed a basic point. How will the producers know what kind of skirt Ehrenreich wants or the kind of sweater I’d like to give my wife if we don’t specify these details on our consumption-preference list? Albert says I’ll « interactively, proportionately influence » what will be produced. But how? I guess we’re supposed to attach notes to the producers–but that’s a lot of notes, not to mention a lot of foresight.

Maybe I’m just being picky. Maybe most people will just look at last year’s list and make only a few changes. (Of course there are 100 million households in the U.S., so even « a few » will be millions, but never mind. Let’s move on.) What next? Well, the various consumer and worker councils, using their computers, and helped out by facilitation boards, aggregate all this information, to see if what people want to consume matches what they propose to do, qualitatively and quantitatively, at the workplace. If, for everything that is desired, there are people willing to work long enough in the appropriate production facilities to produce it, then the process comes to an end. If it doesn’t? (Albert doesn’t expect it to, nor should we.) Well–our lists will be returned to us. The prices have been changed–raised for things for which there is excess demand, lowered for those for which there is a surplus.

« At this point, » says Albert, « consumers reassess their requests and most often shift their requests for goods in excess demand toward those whose indicative prices have fallen because they were in excess supply ». That is to say, we’ll have to redo our lists! All of us – for if supply and demand fail to match for any of the hundreds (thousands?) of items on a person’s list, the prices will change, and so one’s consumption request will no longer equal one’s work offer. So we try again. Then again. Then again… After several iterations, Albert assures us, there will be convergence. Supply and demand for almost all items will come into balance.

Now we can vote. In his example of « a typical planning process, » the iteration process goes back and forth five times, i.e., all 100 million of us are asked to redo our calculations five times. (It’s not clear what happens to people who get sick of all this. I guess they just get what the consumer council decides is best for them.)

Anyway, after five iterations, five plans are set out for a vote. « What would distinguish the five plans is that each would entail slightly different total product, work expended, average consumption and average investment. Everyone affected would then vote, as units, for one of these five feasible plans ».

I’m not sure what voting « as a unit » means, but so far as I can tell, the plans would look something like this: Plan A would allow for $11 trillion worth of production, $8 trillion of which will be consumer goods, $3 trillion investment (roughly the U.S. figures for last year), with an average workweek of, say, 35 hours.

Plan B would let us consume more, say $8.5 trillion, invest less, say $2.5 trillion, and work the same. Plan C would set consumption at $8.5 trillion, keep investment at $3 trillion, but raise the average workload to 36 hours. There will be two additional plans, but you get the picture.

What is a committed voter to do? Well, you might wonder whether the local swimming pool your village council requested is included in one or more of these plans. No problem. Get on your computer and find out. You recall some discussion in the newspaper about a solar energy project in Nevada. Did that make it into one or more of these budgets? Check and see. Play around with those $11 trillion budgets for a few days, then make a responsible choice.

Take this seriously. After all, this is an allocation determined democratically by the people, not by blind market forces. This is the brave new world for which so many have struggled for so long. I’ve been quoting from Albert to assure the reader that I am not making this up. I am not caricaturing his position. I have been trying to imagine what Albert’s proposals would require, concretely, if we tried to implement them. Albert is confident that all this would work, and would involve, moreover, only a week or two of one’s time, about what it takes to do one’s taxes. The results would be « stupendously superior » to what we now get under capitalism, or would get under market socialism. I don’t think so.

Let me ask another impolite question. Why does Michael Albert believe such nonsense? Again I can only speculate. Albert is captivated by the concept of a non-market society. Not without reason. Any smart, sensitive person who looks at the world today is bound to be appalled by what he sees. Such a person will notice quickly enough that the dominant economic system has something to do with the mess we are in. Since this system is routinely identified as a « free-market » economy, it is natural to turn one’s attention to the workings of that mysterious entity, « the market, » and to wonder about the possibility of a more rational, more desirable society in which cooperation replaces competition and individuals are motivated by something other than insecurity and greed.

I suspect that Albert was captivated by this vision early on. I understand the appeal of this vision. I’ve felt it myself. Who on the Left has not? Once one begins thinking about and discussing a society based on principles of solidarity, one immediately encounters the human-nature skeptics. Albert is no exception. He recounts his long debates with fellow students at MIT in the late sixties, and the recurring refrain, « People are greedy, violent animals, so what more can you expect? Let me go back to my classes, let me avoid all this distraction. Stop berating me with it. There’s nothing I or anyone can do ».

One learns how to counter their arguments. Existing patterns of injustice are not the ineluctable outcomes of a fixed and unchanging « human nature, » rendering any attempt at change impossible. As any anthropologist will attest, there have been societies in the past (and some still in existence) where people are not particularly greedy, or obsessed with consumption, and the prime motivation for work is social–the exercise of one’s ability for the good of the collective. If human nature is not an insurmountable obstacle, then a non-market society is theoretically possible.

This is a significant conclusion, but of course Albert needs more than that. Is a non-market economy possible for a large, technologically developed society such as our own? (The anthropological evidence derives from more « primitive » societies.) Specifically, is an economy with Parecon’s basic features theoretically possible? This was the next challenge he had to face. And face it he did, with the help of his long-time friend and collaborator, economist Robin Hahnel. In their 1991 book, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (Princeton University Press) they set out a formal model of Parecon, analogous to the formal models of capitalist and centrally-planned economies that have been developed by other economists, complete with the many equations (and assumptions) typical of such models. They then demonstrated its Pareto-optimality.

That is to say, they did for Parecon what the mathematical economists have done for capitalism–demonstrated that a stylized, simplified model of the system will tend toward perfect efficiency. At this point (I conjecture) Albert had become so committed to his project that there was no turning back. What is possible in theory must be possible in practice. And, moreover, given its democratic, egalitarian foundations, it must be stupendously superior to both centrally planned and market economies. Of course, these claims do not follow from a mathematical proof of theoretical efficiency. After all, not only laissez-faire capitalism but a Soviet-style centrally planned economy can be shown to be efficient if enough simplifying assumptions are made.

It is here, I have argued, that Albert’s project collapses. Parecon would not work in practice. Which is just as well, for if by some chance it did, it would not be a system under which any of us would want to live. Why will he not recognize this? As I have shown, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how impossible it would be to implement in practice any of the three basic features of the model. I can no longer offer a rationale reconstruction of Albert’s thinking. But the words of a co-worker from South End Press seem significant: « Michael never gives up. He’s the visionary and he’s the bulldog. I don’t think I know anybody more tenacious. » Against an idée fixe rational argument and common sense are powerless.