Distributism and the Just Deserts System

Distributism as a popularly discussed possible economic system which was never tried. It provides a convenient discussion point for comparison with both a potential Just Deserts system and the usual capitalism one.

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Distributism is a socio-economic system which is characterized by the wide distribution of ownership of productive property. Like any other socio-economic theory such as socialism, there are variations on the idea, perhaps wide ones, which keep some precepts but not necessarily all of them, and also possibly change the means of implementation of those that are accepted.

In its simplest form, Distributism says that productive property, such as agricultural land and factories should be owned by the employees, according to some rule. The theory behind the system originated over a hundred years ago, and then production was thought of as concerning material goods only; thus the distributists thought that property was easily divisible into productive and non-productive property. Leisure was not a good to be produced, and so a public park was not productive property and did not fall under the mandate to be owned and governed by those responsible for the activities needed to continue to provide leisure to the public. Neither was a transportation system thought to be productive, as the moving of goods and people from place to place was not a product. Nowadays that concept has been clarified and the legacy concepts of material-only productive goods has been generalized to other intangible goods. Distributist concepts are not particularly affected by the generalization of productive property for material goods to all property.

Distributism took as one of its benefits the increase in motivation of individuals that arises when their efforts are rewarded both with a wage or salary as well as an increase in the value of the property which produces the benefits. However, such an increase would not occur in a steady-state economy, and if the distributist system does not provide this benefit in a steady-state system, how might it be expected to work in the other two situations, where the economy is shrinking or when it is growing? There may be great value in distributing the ownership of property to the population, but motivation is not necessarily one of them. Perhaps Distributism sees workers as comprising three categories: those who will work industriously in any situation; those who will never work industriously on their own but will seek to do only the minimum forced upon them for survival by the system; and those who are motivated only by the opportunity to receive more benefits if they work harder and smarter.

If the third category is a substantial fraction of the total, Distributism will show a higher productivity if ownership of the means of production allows this category of worker to produce more. How might this happen? For a few classes of workers, they could spend more time if they owned their means of production, and could work themselves to exhaustion if they chose to. For workers in mass production, it is hard to see how an individual in such an operation, even if a part owner, could increase his hours of work except in some unusual circumstances. In those circumstances, it would make no difference if he was a part owner or not. The assembly line, or whatever the production method was, will not run extra hours simply because certain individuals wish it to.

Just Deserts as a socioeconomic system might result in the same arrangements, but for an entirely different reason. Distributism believes that the distribution of property to a large fraction of the population will improve the efficiency of production, and this is a sufficiently important issue that it should be done. Just Deserts believes there is no way individuals can legitimately earn enough to have huge differences in the amount of property owned, and so there is no way that such ownership disparity could happen, except by legacy ownership, and that would be gradually erased as the new socio-economic system were put into operation.

The question of how to arrange for ownership of things well beyond the ability of an individual to own is not clearly decided. Employee ownership is one example, but stock ownership is another, and community ownership yet another. All three are used extensively in our current economic arrangements, and all three seem to work well. For the first two, there are employee owned corporations that successfully compete with similar corporations where ownership is by the sale of stock; neither category seems to have an inherent advantage that propels them to dominate the other. Community ownership is used for certain classes of things, such as roads and schools, but there are certainly examples of roads and schools which are privately owned, by stockholders, and they seem to both work about the same. There are also, in some countries, extensive public ownership of utilities or even ordinary corporations, and they do not quickly crumble.

Long term effects might differ, but it would seem that a socio-economic system with a diversity of ownership types might have some advantages. The three categories of ownership might be originated in different ways. Just Deserts does not prohibit private ownership, but simply makes it impossible for someone to accrete sufficient unearned income as their wealth so that there would be orders of magnitude differences in the amount an individual would own, compared to the mean or mode. It might be that ownership was not by individuals, but by households, but this should make little difference in the way the society would function.

One of the major advantages of unfettered capitalism is the ease by which large quantities of resources can be amassed for the purpose of starting new businesses. There is a great tendency for those without large amounts of excess capital to use their income, perhaps totally, as the basis for their level of consumption. For Just Deserts to work, a mandatory fraction would have to be withheld for the purposes of amassing capital that could be put to the task of creating new businesses, when such were necessary. There would need to be other withholdings as well, such as for old age and disability insurance, health care insurance and other individual expenses. But in addition to these, there would have to be a capital fund withdrawal.

There is little obvious or immediate benefit to the individual from such a capital fund withholding. It would be subject to claims against it for consumption purposes. Some sort of social barriers are necessary to prevent this.

As any large block of capital, collected capital would be subject to corrupt use. Capitalism has few barriers to the corruption of government and internal agents of companies and corporations, such as supply officers, but in cases where there is no monopoly or cartel operating, there is competition. Competition eliminates some mis-uses of capital. Poor matching of supply and demand serves as another barrier to the poor use of capital. These would have the same effect under a Just Deserts system as under capitalism. One type of corruption in capitalism involves the obtaining capital under false pretenses or without the proper checking of the planned uses of it. This would also exist under Just Deserts, except that the source of the capital would be somewhat different. The source under capitalism might be an individual or a group of individuals with high wealth, whereas under Just Deserts the equivalent source would be an agency designed to make good use of withholdings from workers.

As noted before, the benefit from corruption under capitalism is to increase the income or wealth of the person causing the corruption; under Just Deserts the same could be true, but there would be a massive difference in scale. An individual or small group of individuals under capitalism could, if they were wealthy, engage in corruption whereas the group would have to be so large under Just Deserts, it would be unlikely to occur. Of course, if the scale of corruption goes down, it would be possible to have some, but the effect of it would be much less grand, meaning much less money would be diverted because of the corruption. Thus, Just Deserts makes corruption somewhat less likely, but by no means impossible. A Distributism system would have much less accumulation of wealth, as property, by some means, stays widely distributed. If a more general Distributism system were installed, so that not only productive capital was widely distributed, but all forms of wealth, then the same conclusions about corruption that pertain to Just Deserts also pertain to Distributism.

One proclaimed advantage of Distributism is that the dispersal of capital would make production more efficient, by motivating large numbers of individuals to work harder with the capital they had. Just Deserts has even a better claim to this, as not only is capital more finely dispersed, it is productivity which is rewarded with higher income, just as it is under capitalism. Under Just Deserts, the only way open to obtaining a higher standard of living is to earn more by producing more. Capitalism rewards hard workers, but it rewards the holders of unearned income even more, and allows rewards to accrue which are not connected with productivity. By focusing the attention of everyone on productivity and reducing the propensity for corruption, Just Deserts might be seen as the socio-economic system which actually generates efficiency in the economy, as Distributism and capitalism were reputed to be, but do not necessarily.

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.

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.

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.

Debt and Transparency

If one wishes to create a just deserts economic system in which benefits recieved are related to contributions made, then economic transparency is a must.

Debt is one of the many instruments that societies use to adjust the benefits that different individuals and groups receive out of the total production of the society, and it has some commonalities with the others and some differences. One of the commonalities is that it is used to transfer production benefits from one individual or group to another individual or group. Taxes, subsidies, fees, fines, wages, salaries, tolls, alternative remuneration, and many others share this trait. One can design a socio-economic system using any of them to adjust the allocation of benefits among the individuals and groups, and a change in one of them, for example, a revision of the tax rules, can be thought of having a primary purpose of taking some wealth or income from one subset of the population and delivering it to another subset. Of course there could be a three-way redistribution or a four-way, and while these are interesting, let’s just look at the simplest case.

Debt is a number on an accounting ledger. The movement of benefits occur when the magnitude of the debt is changed, or the interest on the debt, if there is any, is paid. If A owes a debt to B, if the debt is increasing, A is receiving some benefits accounted for by that, and B is losing some. If A pays interest on the debt to B, B is receiving some benefits and A is losing some. If the debt is forgiven, A is receiving some benefit and B is losing some. If the debt is paid off, B is receiving some benefits and A is losing some.

If there is some higher-order regulation going on in the society, so that, for example, the governance is seeking to have some influence on who gets benefits and who loses them, they can do so fairly directly by taxation, which is typically within the purview of a government. Taxation, positive or negative, of the payment of interest on a debt can be done, and was historically part of the US code for many years before being eliminated. It was negative during that period for the payor, and still is for mortgage interest. Taxation, like every other type of transfer of benefits, has side effects, in that individuals and groups adjust their behavior based on their total benefits, including both debt and taxation. It also, like every other type of transfer of benefits, is gamed by those involved with it to maximize their own received benefits.

Like wages and salaries, debt can be transparent or opaque. However, with wages and salaries, the side losing benefits, the payer of the wages or salaries, is likely to be obvious, except for some small fraction of the remunerated work done. The payees are also fairly obvious, but the amounts can be confidential. With debt, it is the custom that one side is transparent and one side is opaque.

When an individual takes out a debt from an institution, it is really a debt between that individual and the owners of the institution. For an individual taking out a debt for the first time, or even beginning the arrangements for an eventual debt, the individual would not be disclosing any other debts, as there would be none. However, as part of the process by which an individual demonstrates his ability to handle the terms of the debt, the individual taking out a debt is forced to reveal all his other debts, as well as economic information which might inform the potential creditors about the individual’s likelihood of repaying that debt or otherwise complying with the terms of the debt. This information is in the direction of transparency.

Despite this, there is no comparable transparency on the part of the grantors of the debt. If it is an individual, there is no block of information on this individual’s total loans or other financial information. Perhaps for the purpose of the immediate loan, this is not relevant, as if the loaning individual has the wherewithal available, then it is irrelevant to the debtor what the other financial conditions of the creditor is, unless there is something in the contract that makes it relevant, for example, allowing the loan to be called in under certain conditions.

For the purpose of a governance-wide understanding of the financial condition of the population they govern, it is relevant. Because there are multiple feedback loops which can severely distort the benefits distribution in a governed area, this type of information would provide governance and anyone else who wanted to know, for example investigative reporters, with some data to help them form their conclusions. To be more specific, if it was true than ten individuals owned almost all the debt in a large region, and this was unknown, then those in governance could not readily assess what might happen under different sorts of regulations relating to debt and its associated details. Having this level of concentration of ownership of debt would indicate that the feedback loops associated with massively unequal distribution of wealth and income had already taken hold. Specific remedies to this type of distortion of the economic landscape could not be done so easily.

What is the value that a one-sided type of transparency, in this discussion related to debt but generally applicable to all economic transactions, relationships and conditions? Is it of value to the debtor that his/her economic situation be laid open to scrutiny by anyone seeking to consider him/her as a potential recipient of a loan, and then of value to the creditor that his/her economic situation be completely concealed? Rather, both of these situations, where the informational advantage is solely on the side of the creditor, are of value to the creditor and of potential harm to the debtor. The real difference is not simply related to some individual transactions, but it is intimately related to the ability of those in governance, those who study economics, and those who are concerned about the long-term stability of the socio-economic situation to understand quantitatively and specifically, what the actual distribution of benefits within the society is, how these relationships are structured, and how they change. This information protects the status quo, as zero change is typically the default decision made or advised on in the absence of information sufficient to draw any conclusions. This, for individual transactions, a one-sided transparency or even a two-sided transparency to these particular parties damages the long-term stability of the society.

There could be objections to the concept of transparency on the grounds that many or most transactions are not between individuals, but between an individual and a group, such as a partnership, company or corporation, or between two such groups. The objection is non-substantial however, as there must be ownership rights of any such group that ultimately lead to individuals. A bank, as an example, is owned by its stockholders or partners, and by dissecting the fractional ownership of any group down to the individuals behind the group, clarity can be obtained for all types of transactions. Another objection might be to the fact that there are transactions between individuals or groups within one governance region and individuals or groups within another one. This also subsides under the condition that any transaction or contract must be with one region, either as it was stated as one of the conditions of the transaction or contract that one of the two possible regions was to be the legal home, or because, in the absence of such a stipulation, that the one in which the contract was concluded is the legal home. In the age of the internet and video communications, having the stipulation could be made mandatory for any legal transaction involving individuals or group from two distinct governance regions.

What actions might be taken by the governance region, once it was armed with all necessary information gained by such transparency conditions? First off, statements would be rephrased. Instead of: “Such and such a subset of individuals has too much debt”, the same situation would be “such and such a subset of individuals has granted too much debt and has amassed resources allowing that which are far beyond anything that could be accumulated by a just deserts socio-economic system and such and such other group has been loaned money by them in excess of what is reasonable for them to pay.” The one-sided statement lacks so much clarity that it would be hard for the governance to decide what to do in response to it.

Demands for privacy in this or some other financial areas sometimes revolve around the fact that financial information provides an advantage in negotiations. However, stated another way, it means that some parties, individuals or groups, might be deluded by their own assumptions, or mislead by another party, if there was not full financial disclosures by both parties to all transactions. To campaign for the right to delude and mislead is not the most promising course for a subset of people trying to gain favor from people involved with setting up a new socio-economic system. Neither is a cause for privacy made by the desire of some to conceal accumulations far in excess of what could be possible if earnings were made proportional or less to the amount of contributions, measured by the combination of time and talent and excluding secret information. Thus, it would seem that a socio-economic system based on just deserts principles would demand a high degree of economic transparency everywhere in the system.

Monopoly Taxes

Monopolies are ubiquitous in a socio-economic system, and should be treated from the first in designing such a system. This post discussed their variety and a means of taxing them so as to minimize the negative effects.

A monopoly is a corporation or interconnected group of corporations acting together who control a large fraction of the market share of some class of product. One could have a monopoly in a commodity, such as corn or steel or lithium, or a manufactured product, such as the works of Mark Twain or cell telephones or automobile exhaust systems, or even services, such as plumbing or visa applications or computer repair. These are examples of the class of products, or services, which could be affected by a monopoly. They could also be wide-ranging in scope, such as with a supermarket corporation which controls all imported food, not some individual food commodity, or a fossil fuel corporation, or a electrical energy corporation or many other examples.

Monopolies might be good as they could be more efficient than a myriad of other smaller companies which together met the demand for the product, or provide less expensive products, if they were able to use monopoly strength in the inverse direction, such as by demanding from non-monopolistic suppliers that they maintain low prices. They could have superior products, as if they demanded employees or subcontractors to have a high level of education and experience, as with electricians and doctors. They could have less environmental burden if they occupied less space with some centralized distribution network. Surely inventive public relations people from monopolies could come up with even more benefits.

Monopolies might be bad as they could raise prices and profits on the products they supply, as they were free from the effects of competition, or free to a sufficient extent such that their benefits outweighed their non-competitive pricing. There could easily be a time effect, with a particular monopoly using the benefits, as seen by consumers or clients, during the period of formation of the monopoly, and later a net deficit, as the profiteering from these same customers and clients became more and more dominant.

In a novel economic system, being designed to provide benefits across society, what should be the treatment of monopolies? If the government or governments in the jurisdictions being considered become involved with economics, they could well encounter monopoly situations, and may want to decide on some regulations. What to do?

There are two feedback loops involved here. One involves the growth of the monopoly. As it becomes larger, mastering a larger share of some particular product, the benefits may kick in, and its efficiency may assist in eliminating competition, simply by being more efficient or convenient for consumers and clients. The other effect that happens is that they obtain more economic power, such as saved capital, which may allow them to purchase their competition, or otherwise influence them to go out of business or merge. This can happen if monopoly effects occur in one geographic location first, allowing the amassing of capital, which is then used in another geographic location, and then another, enlarging the area where monopoly effects occur.

The second feedback loop is the typical one where the corporation begins to suborn the politicians involved in governance, so that any regulation to remedy the ill effects of a monopoly is thwarted before it is ever begun, as the corrupted politicians simply use their own public relations messages to obscure its existence or otherwise excuse their failure to take actions. Thus, two strong feedback loops serve to initiate and encourage monopolies to come into existence and grow and eventually take over the market for some product.

Infrastructure costs can assist in the formation and activity of a monopoly. If the initial costs of a transportation network, such as an airport or highway network, or a distribution pipeline, such as for water or electricity or information, or a collection system, such as waste disposal or a stock market, are very high compared to the remainder of the costs involved, no competition can afford to build a similar system, and if the infrastructure is owned by some entity that also provides services or products via the system, a monopoly is immediately in force, even without any other actions on the part of the provider. Thus there are two distinct classes of monopolies, one which is thrust into being by the necessary existence of a single network of something or other involved with a product, and another which arises without the aid of any item of infrastructure.

There may be other classes of monopolies which depend on the unique existence of some single item. For example, if there is only one known mine of a particular ore that has sufficient content of a particular commodity, and the mine is owned by one competitor, an instant monopoly exists. The same happens if the number of mines is plural, but they are all owned by one competitor, or one competitor makes covert arrangements with the owner or owners of the mines which will lead to the generation of a monopoly and the subsequent enlargement of profits for all those involved with that commodity. If patent or copyright laws disallow the use of some unique information, this is also an instant commodity.

Regulations, perhaps written by those politicians with close connections to the purveyors of a particular commodity or a service, which control the sales of it, might serve to create a monopoly. There might not even be a corporation involved in the commodity or service, just a number of individual purveyors who prefer to have entry into the group of those allowed to purvey the commodity or service limited to numbers which ensure high profits or costs to that limited number. Thus commodities can arise from limited and controlled supplies, which might be something as physical as a mine or something as intangible as regulations. This latter effect might actually be involved with improving the quality of the commodity or service, or might only be involved in giving the impression that the quality of the commodity or service is improved by the regulatory throttling of the supply. This is another effect of a monopoly that does not necessarily fall into the beneficial category or the malevolent category, but somewhere in between.

What should a socio-economic system do about such monopolies? They can only come into existence if the governance either organizes them or otherwise condones them, as with almost any other good or bad effect in the system. The socio-economic system has to work in such a way to foster monopolies for them to come into existence, and there may be multiple components of the system which have to be involved, such as finance or communication or regulation. It is necessary to go back to the goals of the socio-economic system to find out if monopolies, or a particular one, has a net benefit according to these goals. If unlimited inequality of benefits received is a goal of the system, support for monopolies would be the consequence of that choice of goal. If limitations on inequality of benefits received, distributed and consumed is a benefit, then some monopolistic arrangements might be negative in net benefit. Like everything else in a socio-economic system, the arrangements that are best are wholly dependent on the goals that are chosen. As noted elsewhere, fundamentals of the system are the allocation of benefits and their total quantity, and other goals that might be chosen, such as the ratio of manufactured products per total energy consumed, don’t have the tight connection with the population being served.

To solve the negative aspects of monopolies, government regulation can be utilized, where regulation might include both taxation and permissive or mandatory laws. Taxation is a flexible tool, as monopolies are usually involved with the provision of necessities to the population, and permissive and mandatory laws tend to interfere with it in a less gradual manner.

One form of taxation might be a simple tax based on market share. If a list of commodities can be created, and the data collection capability of the region is sufficient, market share by entity, corporation or partnership or anything else, can be calculated and a tax level on revenue or profit can be established to accomplish some aspect of the goal of both maximizing quantity of the product while ensuring its allocation is not too exclusive. Taxes on revenue is more effective as profit can be disguised very easily if management and ownership are not separated, as an individual can receive either a bounty based on fractional ownership, if that is not taxed too highly, or he could be granted a position within the entity and paid a large salary, if that is not taxed too highly. It must be remembered that human beings within a socio-economic system will incessantly game the regulations, so some ingenuity is needed to prevent the more obvious gaming tactics from being universally employed. Of course, corruption must be dealt with in this area as well as in every other area, where corruption is defined as the seeking of personal benefits by someone charged with promoting society’s benefits.

An example of a market share tax might be one on, say, the distribution of natural gas. In a region where there is only one supplier, meaning the whole region is supplied by a single corporation, there would have to be first the opening of opportunity for competition, by the ownership by governance of the means of distribution within the region and the delivery to the region. Then competitors might be taxed so that competitors with revenue under 10% of the total market share were taxed not at all, and a positive rate applied, related to higher market share. The rate would steepen as the market share approached 100%. The taxation rate curve as affected by market share would have to be chosen so as to encourage competition, in other words, to overcome the feedback effects of market share, which eventually tend to produce a monopoly and its excesses.

Any such taxation scheme would involve the definition of multiple quantities, such as the region served. And such definitions would affect the profitability of the corporations involved, and therefore would be subject to the possibility of corrupt dealing. Thus, some standards would need to be found that could be applied in default, with some requirements for special justification for deviations from the default standard. Like everything in a socio-economic system, complexity abounds.