Corruption and its Cures

There are three main categories of corruption: political coruption, accepted small corruption, and individual corruption. Each can be mitigated.

It seems like a nice courtesy to define clearly and explicitly what it is you are writing about, as words are so slippery and full of alternate meanings. When a reader comes upon something that appears interesting, he/she may be carrying some baggage in experience, so that the meanings of the words, especially the topic words, may have different nuances or even serious differences in meaning from what the author intended. This means there is wasted time on both the author’s and the reader’s part, and we all despise wasting time.

By corruption I mean an individual with a hierarchical job to do, a job in a hierarchy, where he/she has a specific task to accomplish, altering his behavior so that some personal benefit will accrue to him/her or some one or some group that he/she favors. Consider some examples:

Example 1: A politician has input into tax laws and can insert a special clause favoring some tiny subset of people if he chooses, and it will most likely pass due to the methods by which laws are checked before being passed. The politician, in return for a contribution to his favorite charitable foundation, will insert a tax clause as requested.

Example 2: A judge in criminal cases has to choose amounts for fines for guilty parties involved with financial crimes. The amount could be equal to the amount gained or more, or with the right inducement, somewhat less, leaving a surplus for the benefit of the convicted criminal or his family, partners, friends, or whoever else was the recipient of the largess of the criminal before he was caught.

Example 3: A bureaucrat is responsible for completing forms for the public, relating to some function, like driver’s licenses, or registering a deed, or any of the hundreds of things a citizen might have to do. The bureaucrat ordinarily finishes his task within a month, or within a day if there is a gift included, such as a box of candy or a bottle of vodka.

Example 4: A building inspector has a long list of technical points that can be used to hold up construction projects, some for a long time and some expensive to change. For a bit of work on the inspector’s friends’ property, or some materials for such work, these technical points might be waived as insignificant or not safety-related or discretionary.

Example 5: A mid-level manager in a supply department of a large corporation has a selection of which supplier to use for some large purchases, but they are comparable. With the provision of an arrangement for a free dinner for the manager’s family in a top-level restaurant, the choice becomes straightforward.

Example 6: A professor is on the board set up to review new students’ applications, and for many students, a favorable choice by him/her will make all the difference needed between acceptance and rejection. Instead of sticking to academic or other university-related issues, the professor tilts his/her rating based on personal biases.

Example 7: A professional athlete manages to miss some key shots in a championship game, losing the match, which is much to the delight of a gambling syndicate. The syndicate is very generous in their expressions of gratitude.

Example 8: A fireman, finding a shoebox-sized metal container filled with currency, manages to get it away from the scene of the fire while the building burns down. The contents are not returned to the building owner.

These examples are only a few of the hundreds of possibilities for what might be included under the label of corruption. In the process of trying to find a viable new socio-economic theory which has more elements of fairness while not losing the positive aspects of older theories, what should be done about corruption? Which types of corruption should the system be designed to minimize? How should this be done, and what might be the cost to the system of having anti-corruption measures installed within it?

The first level, in the first example, might be referred to as political corruption. The quid pro quo by which a politician might be influenced can range over a tremendous domain, involving third parties in a variety of ways. All would be legal in the absence of a specific agreement to take some political action in return for some other action. Specific laws might be written to control some particular one type of action, but since there are literally hundreds of options, these laws can easily be outflanked. Only by going to the common core can they be controlled as a body. There must be laws of just deserts which control the common core, which is excess inequity of wealth and income, which makes possible political corruption. If wealth of any household is no greater than, say, five or ten times the average, there is no surplus available for corruption. If the income of any household is no greater than a similar ratio from the average, there is no opportunity for the products of corruption to be realized by a household that is a beneficiary of some potential corrupt political act. If these two measures do not exist, then corruption will find a way around any existing structures to make the inequality greater, and the feedback effect will take over and lead to great inequality.

The solution, in fact the only solution, to political corruption is the same as the regulations or laws or what-have-you that relate to income outside of corruption. With investment following a Churchillian directive, and unearned profits being taxed and used for the good of those whose work earned the benefits, and human labor being recognized as impossible to vary in value by more than a factor of five or ten, then corruption would be intrinsically controlled.

Judicial corruption, as illustrated in the second example, is almost eliminated by the same cure as political corruption. When no party to any lawsuit has excess wealth or income to use for corruption, and no defendant in a criminal case has excess wealth or income for use like this, there is little opportunity for corruption to exist. A related question concerns corruption involving corporations. Would the legal counsels for a corporation have motivation to do judicial corruption? Perhaps if their income might be diminished by a factor of two if they did not, they would. A corruption corporation might arrange to have a judge get a delayed promotion in return for a favorable or slanted verdict, so the possibility does not disappear, but only diminishes in range.

Transparency is often described as a mitigation for corporate corruption, including that which occurs around a court case, but just as individual corruption in a world where extreme inequality exists can find clever ways to occur, so might clever ways to disguise payoffs be found. Having independent watchdog agencies to monitor corporate finances and behavior is often touted as another means of curing corporate corruption, but the response to this is to corrupt first the process of monitoring as well as influence the regulations for transparency, thus enabling further corruption to go forward. Perhaps layers upon layers of watchdog organizations, which monitor transparency as well as behavior, might be necessary.

The remaining six examples are simply illustrations of individuals doing small-scale corruption of differing varieties. No high-level formulation of a socio-economic system is going to eliminate the possibilities that exist here, but there is one essential and very important difference. Examples 3 through 6 can exist in small numbers, as exceptions to the general way that people in these positions behave, or they can be the more-or-less accepted way of behavior, that no one quibbles with but just lives with and works around. To have a society that operates efficiently, and in which people are supposed to receive benefits according to the effort they expend and the talent they accumulate, then the routine acceptance of corrupt behavior on a small scale cannot be accepted. This means that not only will there have to be laws regulating it, there needs to be public awareness that such behavior is not accepted. There has to be methods by which it can be reported, and there must be organizations that are held to high standards that investigate it and work to diminish the amount of it until it only exists by exception, not by routine. Once this is done, the socio-economic system will be largely free from corruption.

It is much more important that political corruption be ended, by instituting just deserts taxation of excess capital gains and income, including all devices used to hide it. This type of corruption, once it becomes well-known, is like a poison in society, and would be used to justify all other types of corruption. The role of high-level examples in society can be great, and if there was transparency in this area, so that all political figures were known to be operating with no corrupt payoffs, neither to themselves or to those they favor, then low-level corruption would be easier to have reported and ended. So, from a top-down fashion, corruption is at least viewable as a curable disease, as long as the just deserts medicine can be made to be tolerable.

Minimum Wage and Maximum Salary

The opposite to Mimimum Wage is Maximum Salary, and this has hardly been explored, but makes some sense. Another aspect of mimimum wage laws is the long-term aspects, which also seem to be largely ignored.

By “Minimum Wage” we refer to the possible implementation of laws which set a floor on the hourly wage which may be paid to anyone within the jurisdiction of the law-writing organization. Any wage-paying organization can institute a minimum wage for all employees of the organization, and that is an implicit fact for any organization, when it sets its salary structure. Minimum wage becomes more noteworthy when it is a government organization which sets the wage and it has the power to demand that any wage-paying organization within its geographic boundaries will have to set their own organizational minimum wage to no lower than some floor.

These laws do not typically relate to the minimum number of hours per month that the wage-paying organization must give their wage-earners, so the actual amounts received by wage-earners do not rise proportionally to the minimum wage floor. There are some standard arguments which are made in opposition to the installation of a minimum wage or to the increase in the level chosen for that minimum wage. The first argument is that it will simply raise prices, so the consumers will suffer from any hike in minimum wage. The second argument is that it will lead to a reduction in hours worked, so employees affected by a rise in minimum wage levels will not benefit much from the rise. The third argument is that it will reduce the profitability of the organizations subject to the minimum wage rise. The fourth argument is that it will lead to unemployment of some of those subject to the minimum wage, either from an increase in workload for those remaining or from more automation or other productivity changes to reduce the need for the labor of those working at the minimum wage. The fifth argument is that the minimum wage law will drive customers for those organizations paying it to regions where it does not apply. All of these and others have standard elaborations, as well as standard counters and rebuttals. However, first let us apply these arguments opposing a minimum wage to the inverse situation, that of a maximum salary.

A maximum salary law is the analog of a minimum wage floor, but on the other end of the remuneration scale. It says that no one should be paid more than some roof amount per month. Again, this rule is used implicitly by every organization, as it sets the salary for the highest paid individual within the organization. Maximum salary, like minimum wage, becomes noteworthy when it is applied by a government organization for all salary-paying organizations within its jurisdiction.

The amount of money involved can be much greater with a maximum salary law than a minimum wage law. The reason is that the salaries of other employees are scaled to the maximum salary paid. Let’s do a numeric example to illustrate. Suppose there is a large corporation, with a top executive, and on each level of the hierarchy, the individual has n subordinates. Each of the n subordinates has n subordinates as well. The top executive gets a salary of T, and each step down in the hierarchy has a reduction of a factor of r in salary, so the second level gets Tr and the third level Tr2, the third Tr3, and so on. With j levels of hierarchy, the total salary paid is simply a geometric series, amounting to T[(nr)j -1)/(nr-1)]. Suppose the corporation has 8 levels, the top salary is 100 times the national average salary, S, and there are 7 subordinates for each individual higher than the lowest level, and the ratio r of salary from level to level is 70%. Then the total labor cost is about 8.5 million times S. American large corporations have a ratio such as 100 or 200 or 1000 or some such large figure. If we compare this with a country like Japan, where for decades following the second world war the top salary was a single digit, like 7, times the national average, the total labor cost drops to 0.6 million times S. The ratio is simply 100 to 7, of course. But this example demonstrates that high top salaries can make an extraordinary difference in total labor costs, dwarfing anything that a minimum wage could do by factors of a hundred or a thousand.

The same arguments that are typically used against a hike in the minimum wage can be used in favor of reducing the maximum salary. First, there will be a large reduction in the cost to consumers with a reduction in minimum salary. Second, the money released can be used to increase employment at the lower levels, resulting in individuals who were on wages and part-time being employed for more hours per week. Third, it will vastly increase the profitability of the salary-paying organizations who are affected by the change. Fourth, it will allow more people to be employed at levels near the lower one, as there is a tremendous amount of money freed up by this maximum salary reduction. Fifth, it will draw customers in from areas where there is no or a higher maximum salary, leading to an improvement in the profitability of organizations, corporations, companies or partnerships, which are subject to the maximum salary.

One could translate the elaborations of arguments in favor of minimum wage over to the analogous case of maximum salary. One could also translate the counter-arguments opposing minimum wage over to maximum salary. The arguments, however, in favor of a minimum wage would be opposed to a maximum salary, and those opposed to a minimum wage would turn out to be in support of a maximum salary. Thus, if there were a location where both should be considered, they should not be part of a package together, as those supporting one would necessarily, if they were logical rather than emotional, oppose the other.

It is somewhat difficult to actually formulate such laws, as there are many ways that devious organizations could use to outflank them, and actually pay less than the minimum wage or more than the maximum salary. There is little need to try and formulate one of them, as that would only have use if a political jurisdiction were actually contemplating such a law; the laws could be done, and there would have to be some political follow-up to find out how organizations were evading them; this is much like what the tax-collecting organizations must do in situations were tax evasion becomes common and some revision of laws is necessary to take the mechanisms of evasion into account and defuse them. This is an on-going necessity for financial law enforcement of all types, but is not relevant to the questions posed here, which simply illustrate the complementary law has the inverse of support.

It might be noted that the five arguments listed here for and against such laws are based upon predicted short-term effects and proponents typically ignore long-term, but more important, effects. For example, consider the argument that installing a minimum wage law will produce unemployment among low-wage-earners. An organization who hires at the minimum wage might have to reduce employment rather abruptly, as its costs would jump up on the day that the minimum wage law went into effect. In order to maintain its ability to pay expenses, it might very well be forced to lay off some low-wage earners. It might also raise prices and take other expedients, but one very possible scenario is the lay-off. What happens to someone who is laid off? This is a longer-term question.

Because the minimum wage is instituted in a jurisdiction, there might be fewer opportunities for a person suffering such a lay-off. One alternative is to emigrate to a different area where there were low-wage job opportunities. Emigration is a large step for some people, who might have all sorts of different ties to the area where they were formerly working. Some might be quite mobile, and others might be hardly mobile at all. Mobility comes at a cost, and low-wage-earners might be the least mobile of any group of employees, as the costs to migrate bar them from seeking this solution to their law-induced unemployment.

Another alternative is that they become frustrated, and decide to seek education so that they will no longer be only capable of employment at the lowest wage. There are people who have avoided gaining such education, for various reasons, ranging from their childhood experience at home or in school, their previous attempts at enrolling in some educational program, or peer pressure. The lay-off they suffer may be sufficient to overcome these reasons for hesitation. One might some some fraction would turn to education, while others would not. What this means is that some portion of those suffering unemployment would seek to improve their proficiency or breadth of knowledge, and then later enter the workforce again, at a higher level and with more capability. Overall, the minimum wage might be said to have improved the average capability of the workforce over some time period following its installation. So, the jurisdiction that instituted it might see a reduction in demands for assistance and an increase in taxation, owing solely to the pressure for better education that some portion of the newly unemployed low-wage-earners experienced. Does this exceed any losses the jurisdiction might have suffered from an increase in demand for assistance? Perhaps and perhaps not, but this is a long-term effect and cannot be simply measured. So, it might be argued that there are short-term disadvantages to a minimum wage but potential long-term advantages.

Ownership of Corporations

Employee ownership is a key ingredient for a just deserts economic system. There are two other novel concepts that are related and needed here.

The same arguments that hold for ownership of real estate leading to unearned income also hold for ownership of other things, including shares of corporations or companies. Corporations sometimes have large changes in their valuation, leading to higher values. If a person purchases some share of the corporation, and the workers and those in close relation to it are successful in increasing its value, the person with the share would reap the benefits.

If this is thought to be a bad idea, there are two solutions, at least. One is to tax the capital gains resulting from the sale of a share of the corporation, so that the capital gain could be recovered, in part, and distributed to those whose efforts led to this gain. Another is to ban the sale of shares of corporations. Taxation is a well-known factor in almost any economy, and its advantages and disadvantages are known to some degree. However, if the sale of shares of corporations were not allowed or were restricted somehow, how would such an economy function?

Many corporations and companies are owned privately, and many were originally the property of the founders. This arrangement can be described, persuasively but not properly, as the owners reaping the gains of their efforts. This is quantitatively not true. Their effort may have certainly contributed to the increase in value of the corporation or company, but as the effort of a human is limited in value by the time spent and the value of the mental and physical labor contributed, the increase in value of the corporation can be many times the value of the labor hours. Founders also could be taking a salary, would be another recompense for their time and effort, meaning that the increase in value of the corporation would be duplicating that payment.

Corporations and companies which are privately owned by the founders are often passed via inheritance to the heirs of these founders, and they maintain ownership possibly without being involved at all in the corporation or company. This is the exact recipe for unearned income, and the just deserts socio-economic system is supposed to reduce this, while increasing earned income. Furthermore, the heirs might simply sell their shares, leading to another variant of unearned income.

One variant that partially alleviates this is the employee-owned corporation or company, where the employees all own shares of the entity. There can be many different ways in which employees share in the value of the company or corporation, but the core idea is that instead of extra salary or wages being given to the employees, shares of the entity are. They might be forced to sell them when leaving the company, or not, depending on the particular rules that the entity sets up. The contribution that the employees make toward the success of the entity can be considered some justification for any capital gains flowing to them. One nice point about employee-owned corporations and companies is that it provides additional motivation to the employees to do whatever they are capable of to increase that success and thereby increase their own total received value. Motivation is a key ingredient to any socio-economic system, as the system’s overall productivity is directly related to how industrious those who work are, including those who work on improving the various entities, networks, organizations and other features of the system.

There are many other factors which influence the value of a company or corporation, besides the contributions of those who work within it. Sometimes abrupt changes happen, such as the failure of a competitor, the new availability of a useful invention or resource, or a new appreciation of the value of its products by whoever is consuming them. These can result in a large capital gain, which does not appear to be the result of the effort of the employees. They should receive some of this capital gain, but the rest should be returned to those outside the entity, which by default are the various levels and agencies of government and public institutions. One concept which might be suggested is a progressive tax, amounting to zero for gains below some percentage and increasing as it exceeds this.

The other side of an abrupt increase in value is an abrupt decrease in value. This can happen for the same reasons as an increase, and more besides. If there was an inverse tax for these situations, a soft-landing could be provided for the corporation suffering the reduction in value. Sudden changes prevent individuals within such an entity from adapting. A company which was specialized in producing a product for which demand was rapidly diminishing, or which uses a resource which was rapidly depleted or became more costly, might need such a soft landing, so that it could downsize without the trauma of a collapse. The progressive tax, with both a positive and negative side, could accomplish that without eliminating the motivation for those in the entity to solve their problems by themselves. If the tax was fed into an insurance fund, it might be able to mitigate these situations.

Thus, two of the tools that might be used for a just deserts economic system are employee ownership and a two-sided progressive tax on the capital value of any business entity, corporation or company to be used for an insurance fund. There are very many ways in which these two concepts might be implemented, and a just deserts economic system might allow large numbers to be present, as long as they do no disservice to the concept of just deserts. Somehow there must be a balance between what might be called luck, meaning the sum total of outside factors, and successes due to the deliberate actions of the employee-owners. Luck cannot be eliminated, just kept from being disastrous or miraculous. Sometimes luck and internally-generated successes cannot be quantitatively separated, and so if the progressive levy could accommodate both, it might eliminate this discrimination problem.

Thus, the prescription for capital gains is that, whatever the cause, it is untaxed, negatively or positively, if the annual change is under some percentage, such as five percent, and then increases gradually at first and finally steeply. This does not discriminate between luck and success, and perhaps these two causes are too often mixed together. This also has the advantage of being fairly simple in its description and implementation.

Are there other aspects of employee-owned entities which might lead to some amendments to the very simple concept promoted here? One is that employee ownership might inhibit the inter-entity mobility of employees, which would mean that the best use of personnel would not be happening. If a person leaving one entity wound up with zero initial ownership of the new entity where he was now working, they might not make the transfer. One way to alleviate this is similar to that done with portable pensions. With a portable pension, there is some net value which is ascribed to each employee, and when they leave a company for another one, the value of the pension transfers over. As long as the company cannot make use of the pension amount for business uses, it would not matter to the departing or arrival company that this happens. This would happen with a pension system which covered more than one company, perhaps being regional or otherwise extensive. The ownership rights might also be somehow transferred from the departure company to the arrival company, but this must be a bit more carefully done so that there is not a great loss or gain.

If an amount equal to the transferee’s share of ownership was transferred to the arrival company from the departure company as well, then this amount might be used to reduce the debt held by the arrival company and increase that held by the departure company. This would change the value of the two companies by exactly this amount, in an accounting sense. There might be other schemes which also reduce any additional inhibition to transfer between companies or corporations. There will be many factors which affect a decision to transfer between entities, including uncertainty about the nature of the new position, other employees and their willingness to accept a new employee, change of locality and its affect on a family or relations, and many others. These are not the subject of a socio-economic system, at least not initially, but the financial incentives or disincentives can be reduced so that they do not form an additional feature.

Government organizations can have similar value associated with them, which would expedite the transfer of individuals between government agencies and private entities. One often-discussed fault of government organizations is that there is little motivation to improve and excel. If a value fund could be established for each government agency, which would increase if the agency was able to meet its goals or exceed them, then there would be some motivation for employees to work to accomplish that. This value fund could be transferred to the ownership fund of a private company or vice versa, so there would be less inhibition to transfers. Government agencies would become, to an extent, analogs of employee-owned private entities.

Unearned Income and Winston Churchill

Churchill wanted to put a tax on land sale profits, in a specific way, as he felt some were unearned and therefore more deserving to be taxed away. This concept is intriguing, but regrettably not the Rosetta Stone to a new system.

The term “unearned income” became famous with economists David Ricardo and Henry James, who used it to denote the appreciated value of property which was not from development of itself, but of the surroundings. The idea was that this was done without any significant contribution by the owner, yet he or she reaped the lion’s share of this appreciation. A very famous speech by Winston Churchill in 1909 is often quoted to define the problem, if there is assumed to be one, with a landowner making possibly huge profits on land without having exerted any effort whatsoever to receive them. Instead, Churchill spoke about the profit arising because of the labor and expense of the general community surrounding the property, near and far, who improved the potential utility of the land without any development of it having been done. Churchill favored that the unearned profits from the sale of such land be taxed by the state and used for the good of the community, whose efforts produced it.

The general principle of taxing unearned income more than earned income has received support from many quarters, and seems to be an acceptable principle upon which to base a taxation system. However, there has been no end of controversy and change in what is considered unearned income. This blog has as a goal, a better way of defining it, and a better way of taxing or otherwise regulating it.

It is a natural way of human existence to avoid tax, and tax avoidance mechanisms are as ubiquitous as tax plans and almost as prevalent as tax payers. Even more prevalent are the paid experts who promote the income and wealth of their sponsors as earned, or whatever label receives less opprobrium. The same experts are at the ready to explain or rather excuse any tax avoidance scheme in terms relating to personal choice or corporate advantage or professional practices or some other rationale for its use, other than stating it to be exactly what it is. In contrast, there are a few individuals who simply label tax avoidance schemes for what they are, and state they are proud to have located and made use of them. All this obfuscation makes it somewhat difficult to exactly define what is ‘unearned income’, if there is anything like this, and what should be done to tax or regulate it. To deal with this murky situation, some basic principles need to be enunciated.

The first point to be made is that unearned income does not exactly exist. All income is partially earned and partially unearned, and the difficulty is in deciding how much of it is one and how much is the other. The land value appreciation gain that Churchill spoke about is one of the easiest and simplest ones to describe as it is almost binary. In Churchill’s picture, the value gain is unearned if the landlord does not develop the property, but the development, if it appreciates, produces earned value. Things aren’t binary in economics, but quantitative. The landlord invests his money in a piece of property, and could have instead put the money into a CD or some other investment. The lack of interest paid for undeveloped land represents a loss, as compared to the interest from other investments. Annual tax, even if small, represents another cost of holding the property. Thus, taxing the gain of a piece of undeveloped property at 100% would eliminate all potential interest in such investments. However, a tax at 100% of the amount over some multiple of the average gain of investments, plus tax costs, would be a better approximation to the return of unearned income back to the community which created it. What multiple to use is debatable, but it should not be large, perhaps somewhere between one and a half and four.

Churchill also used the same speech to promote the annual tax on a piece of property, as distinct from tax on the appreciation recognized in a sale, as dependent on the potential value of the property, as opposed to its original value. Sometimes and in some places, the exact opposite is done; zoning is a tool for maintaining artificially low appraised values, and limits on tax appraisal changes annually is another. The taxation on an annual basis, as opposed to the tax on the sale profit, is simply a moving in time of the amount of the taxation, if the mathematics of tax rates is done correctly.

The label ‘monopolist’ was used in Churchill’s speech, and this again is because of the nearly binary nature of land. There is little land created on the planet’s surface, and only by reclaiming wetlands, dredging dirt for use in artificial islands, or using polders to force back the sea. One can claim that a particular piece of land is held as a monopoly, if it is in a particular location that cannot be bypassed, but otherwise, land is somewhat fungible. The owners of all the land in some particular location might be said to have a collective monopoly, but so could all the owners of a particular stock or anything else. Supply and demand slides into monopoly as the owners form a cartel to dissuade individuals from selling before some process increases the price substantially.

A real monopoly would exist if some individual or band of individuals obtain rights to all of some land, just as they would if they had obtained all the rights to some resource, like oil, or some invention that was patented or some drug which was likewise limited. These monopolies have not been similarly singled out for extra taxation, as Churchill did with land, but they could be with similar justification. The basic point of the singling out needs to be clearly stated. Churchill felt that there was little justice in allowing unearned income to be lightly or inconsequentially taxed, but he felt that justice was done better with a mere 20% tax on land profits. Others have written that societies need to harness the labor, capital, land, and resources they have available to them so that these four quantities could be put to the best use in increasing the living standards of the population, or at least some of them. The Churchill 20% tax would not do that.

In designing a new socio-economic system, or even trying to see if there are any better ones possible, it is necessary to be specific about the goals of the society. Should this goal of increasing the living standards of some subset of the population be one which shapes all the tax and regulation policy of the governance mechanisms? This one, as are most others, has some appeal to it, but like all goals, it is arbitrary as well as being poorly defined. Should a socio-economic system be defined by setting down a few goals and then building up the details of the system to accomplish them? Soviet communism had a simple slogan, something about changing the distribution of the products of society to be based on needs rather than productivity, past and present. Other systems have had slogans as well. The alternative is to be more Churchillian, and stick with what we have but modify it a small amount in the direction we think would improve it.

These are just two of the many ways to conduct planning for a society or for a project or anything else. One is to set a destination, which might be listed as a set of goals, and then try to get there. The other is to keep doing exactly what is currently being done, and just make small corrections. Both work well in many instances. The first one is more appealing if the general opinion of the existing socio-economic system is negative, and then a new plan or a new set of goals might be chosen to break away from it. The second one, obviously, has appeal in the inverse situation, where the general opinion is that things are not so bad, and can be corrected. The second one also arises in the instance where it is recognized that no one at all can figure out how to design a new socio-economic system from scratch, and that any system should have some experience with it before it is adopted. Since one cannot experiment with a whole society, it means that there is no way to make a new socio-economic system that is acceptable to the population. Theoretical justifications as to how a system would work are not likely to be correct, as there is no body of experience and no general theory of sociology and economics which would assist a team of designers in figuring out the details of the new system.

Are these latter opinions justified? Is it indeed impossible to come up with a whole new system, and the best that can be done are minor course corrections, perhaps a large amount of them in an never-ending stream. How exactly would we know if minor course corrections will take us in a desired direction or steer away from it or lead us into unknown territories, if there is no competency in sociology and economics? The lack of experience and the lack of theory seem to be an inhibition to small changes, as well as to large ones. So, let’s just keep trying.

The Basics of Capital Formation

Capital formation has to be understood in order to be put into the proper place in a new economic theory. Just as with other concepts in economics, such as debt, there are details which obscure the actual nature of capital formation. These details need to be cut through in order to develop a good new economic theory.

Capital will be defined here as physical capital, including anything needed to increase productivity of labor. It includes a wide range of items, which are not usually lumped into one category. It includes tools for craft work, ranging from a hammer up to a robotic assembly line. It includes transportation items, including vehicles for transporting goods up to cargo aircraft. It includes communication, from post offices to communication satellites.

Many of these items are dual use, meaning they serve consumption uses as well as production uses. This is especially true with transportation and communication. There is not much difference between transporting a 75kg person on vacation and a 75kg person going to work and a 75kg box of commodities. Separating out these uses takes a little diligence, but that is a task for another day.

Besides physical capital, there is knowledge capital, which is the information needed to build the physical capital, to maintain it, and to operate it. It has to be generated and it has to be preserved before being put into use.

Both physical capital and knowledge capital have to be paid for, or “formed”. For a long, long time, the metric used to measure these has been labor. A field plowed in ancient times by humans pulling a plow might look the same as a field plowed by a plow pulled by an ox, but the custom is to say that there was more labor in the first field, and less but more productive labor in the second field. If there was some measure of the value of the plowed field, and the first one took six man-days to do it, old economic theory might say the value of the labor for a day was one-sixth of that of a plowed field, and if the second one took one man-day to do it, that the productivity of that batch of labor was five, induced by the capital of the ox and the associated ox-driven plow, together with the knowledge capital of how to maintain oxed and how to plow fields with them.

The simple example illustrates the ghastly mess that traditional economics finds itself in. There are no good metrics. Because so little can be comparatively measured, the task of measurement becomes a problem for society, and the introduction of money is treated as a solution for this. If there is a large enough community, and plowed fields become a category of exchange, there can be a translation of plowed fields into currency units. Then the value of the plowed field can be defined in economics as whatever someone pays for it. There are multiple obvious flaws with this system of valuation, and they undermine any theory of economics, and any discussion of capital formation. Some sort of market trading everything is a mandatory requirement for setting the value of things, and only certain types of markets will suffice.

The existence of a monopoly or cartel on any type of goods or services destroys the concept of value for necessities, as the holder of the monopoly or the cartel participants can choose a range of prices and have them paid, meaning the value of this good or service is not well defined. For goods and services that are not necessities, there might be said to be a tradeoff between alternate consumption items which fixes the transitional value of an item. If the monopoly controls a whole set of alternate consumption items, such as all foods, we are back to the lack of value situation.

Markets have only existed for certain items in history, typically long-distance trade goods. The distribution of consumption goods was handled in a different way, up to a few hundred years ago in some places, and up to a shorter time in others. Instead, there was a social hierarchy, and the responsibility of the higher levels was to ensure that the lower levels received a share of consumption goods. Let’s call this situation, a pre-market situation.

In a pre-market situation, capital goods had to be provided for out of the share of consumption by those making the divisions. Those making the divisions could simply order the distribution of labor to be such that capital goods were produced by some fraction of the population or by some fraction of the population’s labor time. Alternately, some fraction of produced goods could be saved and given over to a subset of the population for the purpose of supporting their efforts at capital formation.

In the market situation, capital goods were part of a market, and so some consumption goods could be used for the production of more capital goods, by the choice of those who participate in the market. In both the pre-market and market situations, capital formation was subtracted from current consumption. The decision making as to how much of what capital was formed depended on the vision of the decision-makers, who implemented their decisions either through a command hierarchy or through a market choice, or a combination of both. The combination occurs when a leader of a group, call it a company but it could be any group, participates in a market to obtain some precursor materials, brings them into the company, and then commands some of those in the group to produce capital goods out of them instead of producing consumption goods.

Markets are not necessarily better at deciding on value than command decision-makers. Those who participate in markets are limited by the information they possess, by their ability to consider the variability of future events, by their personal preferences, and certainly other factors, just as are command decision-makers. Markets in stable situations might tend to produce some values for items, perhaps optimal in some undefined sense, but in stable situations experienced command decision-makers also do much better. Monopoly effects ruin markets, and a large command hierarchy might avoid this peril, but it has its own perils.

There would seem to be a different source of values, and that would be the preferences of those who make command decisions or who participate in markets. Their vision as to the utility, in the longer-term, of capital formation has an important influence on the growth of capital within some area. A decision-maker who sees some utility in more capital formation can use a market or the command hierarchy to attempt to form this envisaged capital. Having such a vision distorts the market somewhat, and influences the remainder of the command hierarchy.

Thus, capital formation happens, not by some magic in a market, but from a vision of a high-level decision-maker, who does two things mentally. One is to envision the result of diverting current production from current consumption into capital formation and to see that the longer-term result is preferable. The other is to assess alternate uses of diverted current production, for example into inventory to average out production over some future period, and to compare this use with that of capital formation. The decisions are all about long-term benefits versus current consumption. The decision-maker must also assess the needs of the population he takes responsibility for and their desires as well, and make a decision as to how much current consumption can be reduced to pay for either capital formation for enhancing long-term productivity or other expedients for easing potential hardships such as the maintenance of an inventory.

Sometimes the vision of a particular decision-maker might be accurate, sufficiently, to produce some long-term benefit from the diversion of current consumption. Alternately, the result could be desultory and produce little for future consumption. This is often denoted as the risk involved in decision-making.

Decision-makers can make inaccurate decisions, however we might measure inaccuracy. If they have advisors who have more, and more diverse, experience, there could be an improvement in accuracy. One of the advantages of the last century stock market is that investors would seriously investigate a company before buying stock in it, and the stock price then represented information for the decision-makers in the company that they might use. The institution of the board of directions might have been founded for just such a purpose. Of course, stock markets can just become a means of gambling, satisfying whatever emotional needs gamblers have.

For a new economic theory, what has been discussed here is important. It means that the choice of decision-makers and advisors is critical to the success of a society following the new theory. These decision-makers make continual decisions as to the allocation of current production, into a variety of possible capital formation options, as well as many others. How the consumption fraction for this allocation is obtained is less relevant, as it might be from something labelled a tax or a mandatory investment or a mit’a, a mandatory labor allocation used by the Incas, or temporary conscription, or something else. The principal issue is the selection of the decision-maker, their education and experience, and the domain over which they make decisions, and the scope or depth of their decision-making in the hierarchy. Just as debt is only one means of allocating current production, mit’a and other mechanisms are just particular means of forming capital. What matters in an economic theory is not the details of the mechanism, but how the current production is allocated. A good economic theory is one in which the best decision-making for this allocation is ensured.

Centralization and Decentralization

Centralization of decision-making has obvious advantages but also some serious catastrophic failure modes. How can the degree and extent of centralization be managed in a socio-economic system?

In designing a new socio-economic system, hopefully free from some of the built-in catastrophes of previous inventions, one important question relates to the centralization of decision-making. The opposite is decentralization, but there is actually a continuum of alternatives lying between these two extremes. The continuum extends in two dimensions, both in the degree of decentralization, meaning the level in a governmental hierarchy where decisions are made, and the scope of decentralization, meaning the number of different decisions that are being considered for centralization. The oversimplified answers are to centralize everything to the highest level or to decentralize everything to the lowest level, and like all simple solutions to complex problems, they are designed to ensure the built-in catastrophes will happen. To minimize them, something different is needed.

What goes wrong with centralization of decision-making? The same problems exist with any monopolization of control. The person or persons at the top, making the decisions, don’t make them well, and then everyone affected suffers from the choices. The first reason that centralized decisions might be poorly made is uncertainty. If the information necessary to make the best choice is not available to the decision-makers or their subordinates or advisors, then they are forced to make an arbitrary choice. If the decision-making were decentralized, there would be many different choices made, and after a period of time, the results of these different choices would be available for comparison. The best could be evaluated, and more information used for future iterations of the decision-making. This would imply that decentralization might be a good temporary expedient to use until the data was in and the best choice was clearly visible, but the counter to this is that conditions change, and therefore what constitutes best might change, meaning evaluation via decentralization is needed again. The conditions might not be the thing that is changing, but the alternatives might be, as new ones are devised and made available for widespread use. Thus, in a stable, unchanging situation, centralization might be a good decision from the single point of view of efficiency, but not otherwise.

The second problem with centralization of decision-making is the drive to uniformity when uniformity is not the best solution. It is easy for a centralized decision-maker to do some sort of evaluation and make a choice that will be implemented everywhere. However, this is based on the assumption that there is a universal best choice. What is best for one area or for one group or for one time might not be best for another area, group or time. This is referred to as the local conditions situation. For centralization to work well, there would have to be knowledge of how local conditions affect the outcomes of a certain decision, and that local knowledge would have to be available to the centralized decision-makers. Efficiency takes a hit here, as the evaluation of a set of alternatives would have to be done considering the variations in local conditions. Uniformity has a great appeal, as do all simple solutions, but it is often a totally false assumption that uniformity would produce the best results in all conditions. Even what is defined as best may differ when different locations, groups or times are considered, and if the definition of best varies, then uniform solutions cannot hope to achieve this local best except in fortuitous circumstances.

The third problem is actually a set of problems collected under one label, and the label is corruption. It is so much easier to have corruption in a centralized system than in a decentralized one, as a monopoly of control can be exploited by the individual making the decisions at the center of power. Corruption does not simply mean that the decision-maker takes some benefit in order to make a decision favoring a particular party. This is only one of the many facets of corruption, and perhaps the most well-known and appreciated one. However there are more. A centralized decision-maker can have a different agenda that the one appropriate to his position. The centralized decision-maker might have his/her own interests at stake, and therefore seek to have some benefits received for making a particular decision. The ways in which this could happen and even be disguised are manifold. But the agenda the centralized decision-maker has might not be oriented around maximizing his own benefits. After all, benefits are asymptotic in that more and more of something often produces less and less enjoyment and appreciation. They are psychological individuals who feel good about counts of things, but for many individuals, they obtain their enjoyment other ways and tilt their decisions according to these ways.

One is simply the human lust for power. The ability to control aspects of the lives of others provides enjoyment to others, and has for the entire history of humanity. This might explain the desire for the monopolization of decision-making, but it does not portray the whole spectrum of agendas that a centralized decision-maker might have. One is a hidden antipathy to some location or group. Decisions can be made which disfavor the location or locations or group or groups that the antipathy is directed toward. The more subjective the decision, the more that antipathy can be concealed.

The inverse is just as possible. Nepotism toward one’s family or friends might be fairly obvious, but nepotism toward some location or group, the opposite of antipathy, can also be easily concealed.

Furthermore, it does not have to be simply antipathy or nepotism which drives the decisions of a centralized decision-maker, it can be a preference for control of some particular aspect of the lives, of everyone affected or of some subset of the population. Decisions have side-effects, sometimes dramatic ones which in the long-term diminishments overwhelm any short-term benefits. A corrupt decision-maker can promote his preference of opinions by shifting the choices he/she makes. Over the long-term, these effects would be felt.

Self-benefit, antipathy, nepotism, and side-effects are not simply present in top-level decisions in a centralized decision-making arrangement; they can appear at any level. If decisions of a certain category are decentralized to some lower level, the exact same phenomena can appear at that level. It would not have the wide-ranging effect that a single monopolistic decision would, but it would still have a local effect. Preventing this might be seen as one justification for centralizing decisions. Local corruption is overridden by higher-level control. Unfortunately, the higher-level control is just as prone, or possibly more prone, to corruption. There are other means that a newly designed socio-economic system can mitigate corruption.

One is transparency. Transparency is easier to obtain at small local levels, where interpersonal contract is common. Knowing someone as an individual is more likely to reveal their tendency toward corruption than only hearing about a decision via some disseminated ukase. Establishing transparency at high levels of concentrations of decision-making power might be very difficult, and can be countered by having specialists at providing deceptive façades for the justification of all decisions. Investigation of such decision-making by other specialists, perhaps self-appointed ones, can be made difficult by the denial of access or simply by having a unified front of interface people, all of whom are familiar with the façades.

Thus, there are tremendous disadvantages to centralized decision-making, but there is one advantage that is similarly huge: efficiency. If the same decision has to be made thousands of times, as opposed to once, it stands to reason that the same level of attention and scrutiny to the details of the decision cannot be afforded. A centralized decision-maker can have a large staff devoted to a single decision, and even with this, the costs of making the decision once are much smaller than making it at the lowest level of governance. To make a decision properly, in a complex situation, there might be much academic or otherwise collected information and theories to be located and digested. It might be necessary to hire a specialist with a background in some certain area to review this data, and it might even be necessary to have a team appointed to do this. The costs of a decision are not the same at the lowest level and the highest level, as there is considerably more data to analyse when considering a decision that would be implemented on a very wide scale, but the costs do not scale up proportionally with size, perhaps increasing instead only logarithmically. It might well be that at the lowest levels, the cost of an objective decision are simply too high, and some subjective choices would need to be made. Perhaps the solution would be to copy some other location’s decisions, or to keep the prior decision barring some obvious failures, or to simply make a haphazard choice based on incomplete information and inadequate models and interpretations.

There are some clear antidotes to the poison of corruption and the poison of inefficiency. One is to make decisions at the lowest level where the resources would be available to make a thorough decision, perhaps not at the highest or lowest levels, but somewhere in the middle. The other would be to invent methods of ensuring transparency, and of training sufficient specialists that there is no shortage of people able to investigate decisions. Perhaps jocularly, another solution would be to raise everyone up in the society to expect corruption of various types to pop up everywhere, as well as inappropriate subjectivity. People tend to be raised in a trusting environment, without adequate warning and training for the situation that exists in the real world, and countering that some formal way might provide another mitigation for the problems of centralization and decentralization.

In the Valley Between Libertarianism and Communism

It seems that only extreme libertarianism and extreme communism are studied and expounded. This is an error, as there are many alternatives other than these two polar extremes.

Both libertarianism and communism have supporters and detractors, and all of these fine people have reasons for their opinions. But there does not seem to be many who think half and half of these makes a good combination. The two poles attract interest because of their implicit simplicity, and the ease with which they can be explained and justified.

Libertarianism, as we use it here, means there is minimal government interaction and individuals make agreements with one another to enable sharing of work, trade, and everything else. Communism, as we use it here, means there is maximal government interaction, and the government makes rules by which work, trade and everything else is conducted. Furthermore, libertarianism allows inequity in the extreme to exist, and communism does not allow inequity to a great degree.

Decision-making is decentralized in libertarianism, as each individual makes all the decisions involving himself. Decision-making is hierarchical in communism, as rules are made by whoever is doing governance, and then are implemented down the levels of a hierarchy. There are thousands of details in a society and this is no place to make long lists of what those details might be and how the two polar opposite social systems differ in each of them, but instead, something of a big picture needs to be obtained.

Two of the features of a socio-economic system that make a difference in its feasibility are motivation and disparity. Libertarianism tries to maximize motivation, so that each individual is responsible for his/her own future, and goes out trying to be maximally productive, thereby securing the most of society’s benefits for him/herself as possible. Communism tries to minimize disparity, so that those without much capability to fend for themselves, temporarily or permanently, are not deprived of society’s benefits. Strict libertarianism has the less capable being taken care of by the choices of the productive. Strict communism motivates the productive by training people to work hard to support the society as a whole and by exhorting individuals to be as productive as they can.

All societies from the earliest human hunter-gatherers to now have this dichotomy between self-interest and altruism, and somehow have to integrate these two impulses. All successful societies have a solution for this, and it might be a complicated one, as opposed to the simple ones included with the two polar extremes of libertarianism and communism. One solution is to have moral strictures taught to the young, with the expectation that the majority will follow them. The two categories of these moral strictures involve working hard, the motivation category, and taking care of the less capable, the compassion category. Different arrangements of these moral strictures are certainly possible and different ways of teaching them and enforcing them are possible.

One way societies enforce these moral strictures is by shaming and ostracising violators, another is by having specialists for enforcement who seek to locate those violators and pressure them or punish them. The point is not that there is only one way to have these two contrary impulses balanced in a society, but that there are many and choices can be made. There is no best way, only multiple options.

If you think of pure libertarianism and pure communism as unobtainable mountaintops, then in between these two peaks is a huge valley of possible ways of organizing a society, and all of existing and past societies are somewhere in the valley. Extremism in favor of either peak is amusing and entertaining, but doesn’t really work to solve any of a society’s problems. What needs to be done is the development of the means by which these two human impulses of self-interest, and pariochial interest, and altruism, widespread or narrowcast, can be integrated.

There is no best solution to amalgamating the two impulses, as the definition of best depends on personal preference, and that varies with the person and even with the experience of the person and even further with how the questions eliciting a preference are couched. Beyond that, the definition of best depends on what you do with the answers you get. If there is a headman, do you simply ask him/her? If there is an elite, do you simply ask them and average over the responses as much as possible. Do you ask all the adults, and define the adults as those over 30 or 40 or 50? There is simply no single answer.

Those whose thinking revolves around anecdotes can certainly find competing anecdotes to justify almost any point of view. Trying to extract some truth from anecdotes is chancy, as the anecdotes one hears is a tiny subset of possible ones, and the selection is subject to the biases of those who spread them. There is simply no simple solution to the design of a society.

Suppose you try to think of some metric to use. Perhaps persistence is a possible metric, and you want to come up with a social arrangement that will last for decades, or even centuries. You would need to consider the environment that the society lives in. Is it marginal, meaning that life-sustaining substances are in short supply, and you need to maximize the incentives for those who have the capability to obtain or produce them? Is it affluent, meaning that there is abundant life-sustaining substances, and the difficulties that arise come from the monopolization of them by those who figure out how to do that within the social arrangements that exist? You would want to find a choice nearer the peak of libertarianism for the first, marginal society, and one nearer the peak of communism for the second, affluent society. If the society drifts from marginal to affluent and back again, depending on the vicissitudes of weather, international relations, wars, external trade or what-have-you, you might need to make a flexible society.

If the society is extremely marginal, meaning there is much early death and disability due to shortages of critical substances such as food or water or shelter, the interactions of the society would have to be designed to preserve those who can obtain the most of these substances in the worst of the times, and to maintain their capability to obtain these substances both via provisioning them and by maintaining their spirits in a situation of great adversity. If the society is extremely affluent, it would be necessary to design in the moral strictures to prevent too much decadence and dissolution, which would lead to a self-limitation and social collapse. If the fluctuations were extreme, and the time scale of the fluctuations was within a human lifetime or even a fraction of it, the ability to adapt itself would have to be built in.

The design of a social arrangement can not be based in the fantasy of someone as to what they think they would like to live in. People’s specific preferences are largely conditioned by their experiences, or even what stories they were told as little children, or the preferences of those who raised them and taught them. While a person who has developed such a fantasy is not harmful, if they have the ability to influence others through persuasive writing, they could be quite misleading and if extremely persuasive, could cause social change that was not in the best interests, however that might be defined, of the society as a whole. The alternative is a careful, widely based discussion of social arrangements.

Besides persistence, living standards is often used as a metric for societies. One can define it in many ways, and many very different ways. Living standards could be the access to life-sustaining substances and activities of the majority, perhaps 90%, of the population. Living standards as a metric could be some number, denominated somehow, of the median individual or household or other living group. In defining living standards, there is a clear distinction between measuring life-sustaining substances, also known as necessities, and anything else. A society which has a huge amount of trinkets can be compared to one which has a robust inventory of food; which is the most desirable, or ‘best’, one?

Someone who is psychologically prone to altruism might seek to define living standards as the amount of life-sustaining substance received by the lowest 10% of the society, however this percentage might be defined. Someone who is psychologically prone to self-interest might seek to define living standards as the amount of trinkets, plus some measure of services if needed, of the highest 10% of the society. Neither is particularly dominating, and some middle ground can be found, but what?

People who grew up, having been deeply inculcated with some strong moral strictures, can use these moral strictures to help them define what would constitute the best possible social arrangements, and those who grew up to think of everything abstractly can continue to think of metrics and environments in which to evaluate them. This is the condition in the valley between the two extreme points of social arrangements. Once the simplicity of these unobtainable ideals is abandoned, the huge valley of options presents itself, without any clue as to where a definition of best might be found. Perhaps the first thing to do is to recognize this situation, and to realize that the deafening discussions of social arrangements can not lead to any results, as there are none. A huge number of possibilities can be utilized and comparisons are very, very difficult to find bases for.