Nineteenth Century Ownership, Twentieth Century Taxes, Twenty-first Century Products

Ownership rules date back centuries but there is no reason these cannot be changed to match the changes we have seen by the twenty-first century. Similarly, taxation can be adapted and actually utilized to improve some aspects of society

Advertisements

Laws and traditions change slowly, over the course of centuries. But technology determines many aspects of our social life and economic activities, so we may well have very outmoded laws and traditions, as compared to our economic activities. Perhaps this disconnection has grave impacts on any new socio-economic system we might try to invent.

Back in the nineteenth century, ownership was usually simple. One object or piece of real estate, one person. This pattern dates back for more centuries than records exist. There were often exceptions to this, such that a higher status person might simply demand the property, and it became that person’s. Furthermore, the king or a noble could have an objection to the property, for example if it was not being used, and take it away and give it to someone else. A disfavored person might have some or all of his property taken away. But in general, ownership was fully powered, in that you could do with it what you wanted. Real estate might have more conditions on ownership than personal property.

In the days when nobility owned much of the land, they all knew that a hungry population is a rebellious population, and in order to keep the social system intact, they needed to use land, especially farmland, productively. If someone did not do that, others could step in and take it over. Abandoned property could be taken over by someone who would use it, in line with the general principal that efficient use of resources promoted social stability.

The rise of trading companies changed the scope of ownership, but the same general principle remained. Efficient use of property promoted social stability. Trading companies could bring back resources from foreign nations or regions, and that would improve the standard of living in the home country. When manufacturing began to become large-scale, the same principle remained. A large company could produce more efficiently, and therefore promoted the general good. There was little social complaint back then about the accompanying fact that a few individuals could, through this mechanism, accumulate vast wealth. The complaints started when monopolies came into existence and companies, instead of being used to promote the general welfare, were used to depress the general welfare while enriching the few individuals on the top of the economic pyramid.

Even back in the days of nobility owning most of the property, it was clear that economic power equaled political power. The nobles with the greatest landholdings typically had the most influence over the king’s decisions, or even who became king. Sometimes this was done via military means, and other times simply political means. As economic power shifted from nobles to owners of companies and corporations, nothing changed except the use of military means declined.

The basic idea that economic ownership entails the responsibility to promote the general welfare still exists, but often it is only a slogan and an excuse, rather than a guiding principle. Technology has armed society with an array of ways to create new ways to have ownership, more in touch with this principle, but there is little activity in the direction of developing a new system based on them. Neither is there much activity in the direction of coupling human activity with appropriate compensation. Ownership of tools promotes efficiency of work, but ownership of great corporations has no justification based on the idea that each person should receive rewards in society as a measure of their own contributions. Instead, the value of high level people’s contributions is exaggerated out of all bounds, by factors of hundreds and thousands, and no equity in compensation exists.

The exaggeration of compensation, based on ownership rights, has been with us since the time of the nobility. Then as now, it fed the psychological state of the large owners. Ideas for distributed ownership would not have worked well then, as technology had not yet arranged for universal education, detailed record-keeping, excellent communication, and more, all of which make other alternatives possible.
One alternative is ownership of companies and corporations by employees. There is an obvious connection between ownership and motivation for working diligently and creatively. The same motivations that exist in modern corporations, if they live up to high standards, where employees who do well and improve efficiency or solve problems or otherwise contribute more than others are rewarded more, can be augmented by an ownership stake in the company or corporation.

Another means of distributed ownership is via large, possibly independent, agencies, responsible for absorbing part of the production of sectors of the economy, and investing in old or new companies in order to obtain returns on the money. Pension funds are examples of this process.

What is the possible rationale for maintaining the nineteenth century legacy of ownership rules that are not necessary in the twenty-first century, and which do not necessarily promote efficient use of production nor a just return for the effort expended by individuals. Tradition is nice, and has a role, but this is not one of them. Basically there is no justification whatsoever for our current rules for ownership.

Taxation has been around for thousands of years. The nobility, of whatever sort existed, taxed the wealth of others. The amount of tax was often chosen on the basis of how much an individual had, and of course there was always corruption, inequity, nepotism, and other social ills involved with it. The twentieth century saw the innovation of the income tax, which was supposed to be a more scientific way of taxing. Other taxes also were instituted in the twentieth century, notably the employment tax, where each employee and employer pay a tax which is supposedly used for an insurance or retirement fund. The previous type of tax, based on property, has remained around. Its main form has been on real estate, but taxes on other kinds of property are very common as well. Another category of tax is a transaction tax, in that tax is paid to some agency or organization whenever some trading, sale or possibly also exchanges, occurs. These three taxes are built around the idea of collecting money with the least objection by those taxed.

More recently taxes have been imposed, similar to transaction taxes or property taxes, on something the government wishes to discourage but not prohibit. The most famous of these is on tobacco. Very similar are criminal fines, which are imposed on individuals who do not follow the set of laws promulgated by a government agency. They have the same purpose as taxes to discourage certain activities, although there are other purposes as well, such as compensation for injuries.

Thus we have a large panoply of taxes, and fines, doing two things: raising money for the government to spend, and punishing activities that are illegal or discouraged. Taxes can also be used to correct flaws in our socioeconomic system. We do not have to restrict taxes to those legacy uses that the twentieth century bestowed upon us. Unearned income can be taxed and the money used, via a separate channel, for common uses not related to consumption. Wealth accruing from unearned income can be retroactively taxed in the same way.

One key to unearned income is the mass effect. Someone may do some work, create something, and have it reproduced at low cost thousands or millions of times, and the compensation the individual receives is based not on the amount of effort that was devoted to it, nor the level of talent or creativity involved, but instead on the multiplier that is used to produce the mass copies of it. There is no justification for this, other than some twentieth century legacy methods of compensation.

For example, someone can sing a song in a coffeeshop, and exert a certain amount of effort on it, and have a certain amount of talent. There would be some compensation for this. Another person can exert the same effort, have the same talent, but sing their song on mass media, and receive ten or a hundred or a thousand times as much compensation. Why? We do not need to preserve these rules for compensation when the mass effect kicks in. Effort and talent based compensation is enough to continue to motivate individuals to produce excellent work.

The same holds for all other kinds of effort that is swallowed up by the mass effect. This mass effect does not multiply the effort needed nor does it expand the talent involved. There is no connection between the effort and talent involved and the compensation involved when this mass effect takes over. In the twenty-first century this mass effect is becoming more and more common, and rewards are going out of balance more and more. The mass effect occurs in a large number of places, and is a complex phenomenon, but the basic point of it is that there are other ways, more efficient in the use of resources and just as motivating for those who care about their work, to compensate, without such gross disruptions of society that are caused by these huge disparities in rewards. Taxation, if taken out of the twentieth century framework, can be used delicately and precisely to correct the disruptions caused by the mass effect and bring society back to a more just and reasonable foundation. Similarly, ownership is tainted by the mass effect, and needs to be adjusted in a way that will promote long term benefits for our society.

What Should Be Measured in an Economy?

It is hard to define an economic system if no one can agree on what the proper measures of its goodness are. And there is even a deeper issue – culture and its transmission.

If two economies are to be compared, there has to be some measuring. But what is to be measured? As technology progresses, more and more data is collected about the economic affairs of individuals, companies, corporations and government organizations. But how should this be distilled down to a few simple, easy-to-explain numbers that tell us which economic system is better?

The word better, when defined in some very specific and quantitative terms, can have literally hundreds of precise, actionable meanings. There is little need to cite examples, but for the record, one can compute the total economic transactions made, the amount of energy consumed, the amount of food produced, the number of vehicles on the roads, the average square footage of the dwellings of the individuals, the ratio of the top quintile’s average earnings to the lowest quintile’s, the amount of taxes collected by the highest echelon of government, and on and on and on. One could also write justifications for many of these measures, going around and around without settling on anything. Perhaps this could become a parlor game, in which everyone has a chance to define their preferred economic measure and then there is a secret vote on the best.

Why not have ten different measures? Then different systems could be compared, and one might be better at measure one and another at measures two and six, while yet another is great at measure nine. If we want to make a recommendation of a system, or define some details of a chosen system, there has to be a decision as to which measure, or weighted sum of measures, is to be used to make the call. Having ten measures get us no nearer to recommending an economic system than having none.

If we ask for preferences for different measures of an economy, every intelligent person might come up with a different one. A person who grew up hungry might have strong feelings that food production per capita or food consumption per capita might be the best measure, although that is a measure, which if used for an economy, would push the population towards obesity. Mean square footage of dwellings is a measure for someone who grew up in a cramped and crowded dwelling, but not for someone who grew up in a large and lonely mansion. Someone with military experience and an appreciation for its need might think that the level of spending on armies and navies that can be afforded is the best and safest measure, while someone who grew up with a parent who was excessively sympathetic to the poor would thing some income parity measure is the best. One can go on and on about this as well, as there are so many possible experiences that can be the subconscious or conscious background for a preference for a measure. Maybe the idea of having some vote on what is best would be good, except that would not please those who believe in monarchy or oligarchy, unless the vote were restricted to the royal family or those who were in the top 0.1% of the economic food chain.

Is there any measure possible that does not depend on the feelings and even the whims of the particular economist who is being consulted on the issue? Many could certainly proclaim that some simple or complex measure had this measure, but when dredging up the basis for it, it comes down to emotion or self-interest, or perhaps the self-interest of some group. What therefore is the point of trying to figure out an improved economic system, if there cannot be any agreement on what constitutes ‘best’ or ‘better’ or even ‘good enough’?

What alternative exists for defining an economic system and recommending it for adoption? One could simply ask an individual to design it, without bothering about any qualitative measures to validate that it is somehow, in some way, the best one. Who could be asked? Those who already control the economy? The current system, with some modifications to solidify this control and sweep even more wealth, income and power into their hands, and make their acquisitions permanent and irrevocable, and also inheritable, might be the obvious answer. Another possibility is to discover the god of economics, and find a bit later on those who can get messages from this god inside their minds. They could write down the messages and the information could be fitted together to make up an economic system. Or some other group might be asked, like the top generals. What might their response be?

Defining ‘bad’ isn’t nearly so difficult. If people are dying from starvation, something is wrong, and the system failed. If population is being drained by migration to other lands, again, something is wrong, if the motivations for the population decline are based in economics. Then things get fuzzy. If people are chafing about having to spend time in commuter congestion everyday because of the price of housing near work, perhaps the economic system is bad in how it zones land. If there are long lines for obtaining the necessities of life, even though they are available, possibly the part of the economic system relating to distribution is faulty. Universal complaints are an indication of an error in economic system design, unless the constraints are so tight that one complaint cannot be satisfied without creating another, potentially worse, one.

There could be very many economic arrangements that do not give rise to universal complaints, meaning that the set of ‘good enough’ economic system might be quite large. This means that if we use popular outcry as a measure of the goodness of an economic system, the bin of acceptable systems could be quite full. And the willingness of a population to object to some aspect of their economic system might vary quite a lot, with some more stoical populations willing to put up with situations that a more clamorous one would take to the streets with. Here, media has its effects as well. Where media plays a large role in people’s lives, in other words, occupies a great deal of their time, the advice of those who control the media, filtered through the various message-giving instruments a media system has, might make a difference in what is acceptable and what is not. Again, somewhat murky.

This brings us back to the same point made elsewhere. Culture plays a large role in defining what is desirable and what is acceptable in economic systems. Take corruption as an example. There are many different kinds of corruption, and it can be overt and obvious to everyone or concealed behind all manner of legal constructions and privacy rules. One population, of a homogeneous culture, might regard petty corruption as just a part of life, something everyone knows about and everyone participates in, while a second population, also homogeneous, might find it horrendous and seek to expunge every single instance of it. The second population might regard legal corruption, where laws are written to allow many kinds of payoffs to politicians without any law being violated, as ignorable, while a third population might see legal corruption as no different than illegal corruption as it was based on the same thing: politicians selling their vote for some sort of benefit to them or their relatives or some affinity group or former colleagues, or whatever. Thus, culture plays a large role in public outcry and in defining the bin of acceptable economic systems.

Popular culture does not simply appear in a puff of smoke and be learned and wholly accepted by a population. It is something accumulated over time, but more importantly, passed on from generation to generation through the means of training and education of the younger generation by the older. This means there might be populations without any culture at all, where they might be homogeneous or heterogeneous, but they simply do not pass on values, opinions, motivations, heritage, and other bases to the next generation, but allow the young to pick up what they can from wherever they can. If this is the state of a population, almost anything can fit into the bin of acceptable economic systems. It also means that any individuals who want to be able to structure the economic system to fit their definition of good, better, best, can do so most easily if they can convince a population to stop transmitting their culture from generation to generation, and leave it in the hands of some specialists. And as a last step, the specialists have to be willing to climb aboard the support train for the economic system preferred by those who have the means to disrupt intergenerational transmission of culture.

It is certainly possible to devise an economic system that has some laudable attributes, and perhaps one which can be shown to meet a variety of measures of goodness, but as long as the culture is determined by those who prefer another system, good to them and perhaps not so good for the large majority of the population, there is little need to work too hard to define its details. Unless, of course, there is some means by which such a better economic system can gain the attention of the population – an unlikely event.

Choosing Goals for an Economic System

Having very few goals for a new economic system makes it more likely there will be no conflicts. Here we discuss the most fundamental goal: survival.

If an economic system is being designed in a top-down manner, coming up with one or more top-level goals is the place to start. Current economic systems have many goals, and the problem with that is that they sometimes compete, not in the sense of being opposite, but in the sense of giving contradictory guidance in certain situations. It is better to have fewer goals than many. Often goals for an economic system which are set up early in the history of the system are added to or modified in later eras. So, in designing an economic system, it is important to choose few goals, but also to choose them in a way which makes they less liable to change as time goes on. Societies change as technology changes, so this factor is one which should assist in the choice of goals.

In early eras, there was a clear goal. It was to benefit the upper echelon of society. Ever since there was a top leader, it has been the leader and his court or companions which have been the recipients of most of the benefits of the society. This group may represent one percent of the total population, or twice that or half that, but in any economy, the beneficiaries of the economy are a small fraction, and they are those who command the economy. In different places it has been military leaders, and in others the descendants of military leaders. In later eras, the benefits flowed to a top layer of individuals who had ownership rights on much of the land in their vicinity. Even later, it was a group of owners of businesses who prospered far more than anyone else. Later than that, it was the owners of financial establishments who received the lion’s share of the benefits of the society. In other societies, it was the higher castes which benefited the most, in the sense of having a higher living standard, or more freedom from want.

Only in very recent times has there been much discussion of a wider distribution of benefits. There was never any discussion about whether it makes much sense to have such a wide distribution of benefits. In one aspect, it is a question of the division between the use of the products of society for infrastructure and common defense and other society-wide tasks and for direct consumption. The direction of a large share of the benefits of society to a small top-level percentage of the population means that this group’s consumption uses will not use up the whole amount of benefits allocated to them, and therefore there will be an amount available, usable for any benefit to the whole of society. Traditionally, the control of the allocation process has been in the hands of a such a small percentage of population, and this has resulted in the provision of things that the society needs to gradually improve. Over periods of time, this allocation pattern has resulted in the economic growth of societies.

There are some quantitative measures that might be discussed. Society needs a balance between these different allocation factors, and the fractions allocated to lower class consumption, to upper class luxury consumption, to various societal needs, to supporting economic growth, to supporting technology development and deployment, and other ones that might be critical to the improvement of a society. The wrong set of values for these fractions might lead to social collapse, or revolution, or loss of defense capability, or simply stagnation or negative growth.

If there is one goal for society that seems to transcend others, it is self-preservation. If there is something in a socio-economic system which causes the society to split in two, or to descend into turmoil, or to lead to invasion, or to give rise to waves of criminality, or some other ill, then this is perhaps the strongest indication that this particular socio-economic system is flawed and not to be recommended. It is not that there is some unique lack in a bad socio-economic system, but instead a departure from a range of values which worked. If too much allocation goes to upper class luxury or to the process of altering the allocation fractions via financial manipulations or corruption of the political tax-levying process,then the socio-economic system may get into trouble.

There are feedback loops which definitely change the allocation of benefits, and if these are allowed to control it, instead of themselves being monitored and controlled, the system may depart from the range where the society is successful and may move into a danger zone, where one or more of the pitfalls of a system can arise. Some strong controls would be necessary in order to thwart these feedback loops.

Perhaps the strongest feedback loop is the one where wealth is used to concentrate wealth further. Because of the diversity of mechanisms by which this can happen, only direct controls on the accumulation of wealth can control it. Controls on income alone might be bypassed, if there are ways that, covertly or overtly, can add to the wealth of particular individuals. Wealth controls can be done by different formulas, and can be thought of as some type of property taxes. There are few historical instances of progressive property taxes, where it is not the value of property itself which is used but the concentration of property ownership which is the important variable. However, this seems to be the only taxation method which will control corruption and excess allocation to the leadership cohort.

Why not give gigantic amounts of benefits to the leadership cohort? There needs to be capital amassed for many purposes in a society, and the old method of having the leadership cohort take it and use it for socially beneficial purposes did bring society this far. There are three reasons for looking for a better way of allocating benefits. One is that the allocation of great wealth to a small minority works for some range of allocation, but because of the feedback effects of wealth concentration, it always increases until there is a breakdown in society. The second is that the provision of social benefits is voluntary on the part of the extremely wealthy, and may be very distorted in the choices of what is to be supported, with vital needs being shortchanged while frivolous expenses increase. The third is that as society becomes more aware of economics, unearned income, solely for the purposes of capital accumulation for valuable purposes of the society will appear and be appreciated as a wrong solution.

All three of these reasons can be collected under the goal of having a society which continues, instead of breaking down in one of the many ways that societies can suffer or even collapse. It is curious that this goal, the preservation or survival of the society is analogous to the first goal of any living organism. Survival is built in to the genetic programming of all organic creatures, and it makes sense to also attribute it to social arrangements. Once primates, and subsequently humanoids, divided themselves into clans or small groups who cooperated rather than competed, the concept of clan or group preservation made sense. So not only does this primary goal of living organisms match that of the proposed goal of the socio-economic system which we are trying to design, the same goal is present in the organization of humans and earlier, humanoids, into cooperating groups. It is almost a tautology that a group which does not concentrate on self-survival will disappear and be replaced by a group which does concentrate on self-survival. Thus, there should be little reason to dispute this goal as being the most elemental one for a socio-economic system.

What about other goals? There are an uncountable number of possibilities, all of which arise from some emotional connection between a person and a concept. Take justice. Each person can define what justice is, and there will be some discrepancies between one person’s take on this and another’s. The same goes for all of these emotionally derived goals for a socio-economic system. There may be some core to some or all of these concepts, but which of them might be taken as preeminent enough to be used to define the structures, organization and procedures of a society attempting to live under a new socio-economic system. Self-preservation does not have much of the heightened enthusiasm associated with it as a fair society, a just society, or other similar concepts, but as discussed above, it is much more fundamental.

Are any further goals other than self-preservation needed to define how a socio-economic system should be structured? Do the mechanisms of a society help to define how it might be defined? In order to fully utilize the goal of self-preservation can be used to define the whole structure of society, there has to be a model of how human beings behave. Only by understanding, well and in detail, how humans would act within a society can this goal be fully utilized.

Unemployability

Socio-economic systems have to have some features that cause individuals to want to be productive and contribute to the society in which they live. What works?

Employability is used here to mean that a person has the ability to work in the current location and time. It is a slippery concept, and deserves to have some details added to it so that it can be sensibly used. Let’s start with very simple examples to clarify the concept. Suppose there is a country, Simpleland, with only ten kinds of jobs. An individual in the population is employable if he can perform one of these ten jobs to the minimum standards. This individual may be employed if he has a slot to work in, and unemployed if he does not. So there are really three levels here, employed, unemployed but employable, and unemployable.

The economy of Simpleland produces benefits which are distributed to the population. The distribution of the population into these three levels makes a great difference in the standard of living. If 90% of the individuals are workers, they produce some total quantity of benefits, T, which are allocated to the population. On the average, everyone gets T/N, where N is the total population. If only 45% of the individuals work, only T/2 is produced, and everyone gets T/2N, half the amount of the previous example. Between these two examples, there are two possibilities. One is that in the second, 55% of the population in unemployable. Then T/2N is all that the average will ever rise to. If in the second, 45% is unemployed but employable, the average could rise to T/N if additional production facilities were saved for and built.

Productivity is not a savior in this case. If productivity, p, rises, we can consider what happens. Then in the first case, the average benefit is pT/N, and in the second pT/2N. No relative change between the two cases happens. There is no way in which Simpleland 2 can ever catch up with Simpleland 1 as long as there remains a large fraction of unemployables.

The socio-economic system is likewise unable to change the average received. All it can do is change the allocation of the total amounts of benefits. If the employed receive R times as much as the unemployed, then the employed in either country would receive RpT/N(R – u(R-1)), and the unemployed, pT/N(R – u(R-1)), where u represents the fraction of unemployed.

Allocation systems can compensate for a lack of human capital in the sense that they can raise the living standards of one group at the expense of another. For example, if Simpleland 1 has a socio-economic system strongly supporting consumerism, and it had R = 1, but Simpleland 2 has a socioeconomic system strongly supporting production, and it had R = 11, the employed in Simpleland 2 would have just as high a level of benefits as the employed in Simpleland 1. Of course, the unemployed in Simpleland 1 live at the same standard as the employed, but in Simpleland 2, they are in relative penury.

For amusement, one might make other comparisons between Simpleland 1 and Simpleland 2 when they have different productivities and allocation fractions, but that solely would serve to obscure the point. Nothing replaces human capital. Any nation with significantly less human capital is going to have an average level of benefits significantly less.

Investment might change productivity, p, or reduce the number of employable but unemployed. A different socio-economic system might change the allocation fraction, R. But if the number of unemployables is large, these changes do not overcome this difficulty at all. There is no way that a country like Simpleland 2 can ever match the average standard of living of Simpleland 1, provided that information and investment flows allow both of them to reach their maximum values. The implications of this are that human capital is the dominant variable, more important than productivity or allocation fraction, in determining how well the population lives. Socio-economic systems, such as Just Deserts, just move around benefits, affecting principally allocation.

This is a static picture. Any change in the percentage that is unemployable will be reflected in the average benefits received, and if it goes up, then things will get worse, on the average. If the percentage goes down, things will get better, assuming everything else stays the same. Birth and death statistics change that number. If there is an age difference between the employable and unemployable fractions, time alone will change it, assuming the categorization of an individual is immutable. If, for example, the employables are older, their retirement and death will increase unemployability. If birthrates are higher among unemployables, and there is a good correlation between employability of parents and children, unemployability will likewise increase. If employables migrate out, this will also increase unemployability, as will the immigration of unemployables.

Another dynamic is the movement of individuals between the two sides of the employability category. If employables become unemployables, obviously the fraction of the population that is unemployable will go up. This particular change can come from disability, or some emotional change which takes away an employable’s will to work. Perhaps periods of unemployment can do that. The reverse motion, from unemployables to employables, might come from training, rehabilitation, or having enough time to overcome emotional changes that negatively impact will to work. This dynamic fuzzes the distinction between the unemployed but employable and the unemployable. Perhaps the unemployable category might be further divided into temporarily unemployable and permanently unemployable. The worst situation a country can find itself in is if the permanently unemployable fraction is large and rising. Living standards must go down from this effect.

Having non-productive work for the unemployed does not change the average living standard at all, and reduces it to the extent that non-productive work has costs involved, which must be subtracted from the total production of the economy. Let us leave the binary world behind, and suppose that work can range from maximally productive to totally non-productive. If the benefits for the productive end of the scale do not motivate individuals to try to move to those jobs, then the same phenomena happens. This finally is a point at which socio-economic systems have an effect. What is necessary in a benefit ratio for an individual worker to strive to become very productive? What else is necessary in order for workers to want to do this?

It would appear that a socio-economic system could encourage or discourage individuals to become highly productive, but there may be other factors, psychological and cultural factors, which predominate. Just Deserts is being designed with the idea that huge differences in rewards are not necessary, and a more balanced reward system will work as well or almost as well. But without understanding the psychology of the worker, we might not understand if rewards can be diminished, or if rewards are not the most important variable in setting worker determination and motivation.

For most of history, the majority of workers were in the agricultural sector. There also was little by way of stored inventory of foodstuffs, so motivation was by fear of starvation. Much of the world was also in the grip of a landed oligarchy, so fear of bosses was present. In more recent times, employment has shifted into industry, and mankind’s instincts for altruism and sympathy have become more expressed, so the fear of starvation and of bosses has declined relative to earlier eras. Desire for consumer goods has replaced fear as a principal motivator. This may not be a permanent feature of a modern economy. Recall that consumer goods have only exploded in volume and complexity over the last century, and the interest in them may well die back to a lower level. Altruism can cause individuals to seek more productive employment, if the rewards are sufficient. The Soviet Union and other communist countries, when there were few consumer good rewards for highly productive workers, used media propaganda to encourage altruism. This worked to some extent, but like consumerism, it seemed to have lost much of its strength as a motivating factor. What is left for a Just Deserts economic system to use to cause motivation among workers?

Another related issue is that if the economy has many non-productive jobs, for whatever reason, and there is a spectrum of benefits available from them, for someone who is motivated to seek personal benefits or benefits which are altruistically distributed to closely related individuals, seeking a highly remunerated but non-productive employment position may be just as attractive or more attractive than a potentially highly remunerated productive employment position. Any economy needs such positions in some numbers, but a Just Deserts system must be designed to reduce the attractiveness of such positions in accordance with improving production. Yet such jobs may actually fulfil extremely important functions within the economy. Perhaps a maximum term for someone in this type of position would serve to reduce the attraction away from productive employment. In some military forces, there is a mandatory employment rotation system which limits how long an individual can stay in one type of position before moving on to something else. This may provide some insight into how to maintain a highly motivated and employable population, concentrating on productive work.

Balancing Benefits to Consumers and Producers

Is efficiency in marketing a good thing and something desirable in an improved socio-economic system? Or are there trade-offs that need to be carefully examined?

This post is about one aspect of the trade-offs that exist in an economy between producers and consumers: retail size and the corresponding efficiencies. To develop some simple insights, consider an economy with only a few positions. The economy has a retail sector, and many other sectors, which we will lump together as non-retail, except for the suppliers sector, which makes and sells things to the retail sector.

The positions in the economy are retail workers, supply personnel, other workers, unemployed, retail managers, and retail owners. Let’s assume they are all distinct to keep things as understandable as possible. Consider two alternatives, one in which all retail is of some average size, non-chain, and local, and the other in which some retail is very large, chain, and regional or national. Outside of retail, things are mostly identical between the two alternatives. There are differences, and they go like this. The large retail has more low-level worker efficiency, and gets by with fewer workers. This means that in the first alternative, there are less unemployed people, and more retail workers, per item sold or per dollar in sales. It also means that, in the management hierarchy of the large retail, there are more managers, and the upper salaries are larger, since salaries tend to go upward, sometimes rapidly, in larger organizations. Furthermore, ownership may be more concentrated.

Besides the labor efficiency of the larger retail, it has supply efficiency, in that larger quantity buying may get discounts, justified by cost or motivated by competition. The discounts in part come from the supply sector workers and owners. It would be possibly to consider consolidation of supply firms, but that is an unnecessary complication.

Contrast the two. Prices would be lower in the large retail case, as there are efficiencies to be gained, so everyone’s earnings would go more into retail and less into other sectors. There would be more goods passing through the retail sector. Other sectors would suffer from the redistribution of spending. This has an effect on benefit allocation. There would be more unemployment in the large retail case, so more taxation would have to flow from the population in general to those who are unemployed and need some sort of assistance in order to maintain a tolerable standard of living. Taxation could come from anywhere, but if it is not very progressive, it hits a middle sector of the population, leaving the lower and higher ones with less effect.

So, in one simple situation, the benefits of society are distributed differently in a small-only retail case or a large retail case, and going from small-only to large means unemployment would be greater, more benefits would flow to higher pay managers and wealthy owners than to workers. Other sectors would lose some benefits, as lower prices in the large retail would draw more spending there.

To generalize from this simple example in a single sector, conglomeration tends to move benefits from the poorer portion of the population to the wealthier. Perhaps there are exceptions to this, but that seems to be the trend. Is this desirable in a Just Deserts economy? The question is a very basic one. How much of society’s benefits should be allocated to different classes or percentiles of the population? Government regulation, most likely taxation, can affect this, and can also affect the ability of large retail, or any large organizations in an economic sector, to exploit the potential advantages of size. What should be done?

This question needs to be set into the context of the whole Just Deserts economic system. One principle is the maximum income effect. This might be done with a Maximum Salary law plus a wealth tax, or tax rates similar to those in effect in the United States during the era around John Kennedy’s presidency, when the top rate was 90%. This change has as a side effect, the reduction of major corruption, meaning it would be possible to pass laws affecting large businesses without the expectation that they would be riddled with loopholes designed by those donating blocks of funds to politicians or otherwise arranging for them to be rewarded.

Another effect of this change would be that ownership of corporate organizations and private companies would be different, in that many or perhaps most would be employee owned; others might be stock companies, but ownership would be more widely distributed among individuals. Government agencies charged with amassing pension and other types of funding might be owners as well. Thus, when the two alternatives are compared, the wealthy that are benefited by the large retail are not the exceeding wealthy, but simply those who have arranged to have substantially higher wealth and income. Estimates might be that an asymptote for the upper salaries are five times average salary, but there are many ways in which this might be figured out.

Perhaps the largest of the differences between the large retail case and the small-only retail case is the change in the unemployment fraction. All other things being about the same, small-only is less labor-efficient, and therefore employs more people per dollar spent on retail consumption. To be able to judge what might be better or worse, it is necessary to determine how the situation of more or less large retail could be adjusted by government intervention.

Taxation is the common tool that governments use to affect such things. Consider a market share effect on a profits tax. Profits might be figured in some convenient way, but in general, they would be taxed at some rate. If there was also a mechanism by which market share of any particular retail organization could be measured, the profits tax rate could be increased for larger market share and reduced for smaller market share. This would favor non-chain individual retail organization, as well as local over regional and regional over national.

The tax rate increment relating to market share could be determined in different ways. One way would be to bundle all retail together, and simply look at sales fraction on a national or regional, or even international, scale. Then a table would have to be constructed, akin to the many tables of tax rates that are dependent on such things as income, which says how much bump up there would be for a market share of such and such. The table really would control the eventual outcome of the trade-offs between large and small retail. If the tax rates were much larger for bigger market share, then larger organizations would shrink, and small ones proliferate. If the tax rates were only slightly larger, they would only slow down the agglomeration of small retail into large retail. So, juggling the tax rate table is equivalent to determining what spectrum of organizational size is desired.

Only good data resources would allow this tax rate table to be set up. If the goal is to reduce employment, then it would be necessary to understand just what head counts were needed for different scales of businesses in the retail sector, as well as to understand the secondary effects that happen in other sectors and especially in the supply sector. If the goal were instead to affect the median wage, then a different set of data would need to be collected, being the employment data needed for the first option but also salary or wage and hours-worked information for all employees. Some combination of these goals might also be accomplished by just having these two sets of information.

One thing that has not been discussed adequately in Just Deserts economic system posts is how to do a transition from some other system to a Just Deserts system. Clearly, this can be done very gradually, to allow everyone affected by it to make necessary adjustments in their own personal plans, or it could be done rather quickly, to bring about the effects within a single generation or even less. The two aspects of this speed question relate to evasive possibilities. As is well-known, any type of change in a system of large wealth disparities that affects the upper tier wealth or income will be evaded, or politicized, or subject to lobbying. There does not seem to be any mechanism that can avoid this, and so, it may well be that some Just Deserts system can be theoretically designed, and it will look impressive on paper, but there will be no implementation path that is tolerable to those whom it would affect.

No one wants to go through a violent revolution, as it does not simply make some basic changes, it undermines an economy, disrupts all manner of commerce, causes migration, and leaves everyone full of uncertainty and foreboding. Short of such a revolution, there does not seem to be any way that those who might want to live under a Just Deserts economic system could get their hands on the levers of power. There is no educational miracle on the horizon. Cajoling and convincing is not likely to be effective. Some bright new ideas are needed related to transitioning from something else to a Just Deserts system, and these will take a lot of work to develop and refine.

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.

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.

Law-Evaders Beat Law-Writers

A just deserts economic system, in which everyone is limited to their earned income, has inherent abilities to reduce corruption, largely because of the necessary economic transparency that is implicit in the system.

Everybody is somewhere on the spectrum between totally opposed to corruption, cronyism, nepotism and the like, and totally committed to tolerating a situation where certain people are using these political means to advance their own goals. You might say the extremes represent the optimists and the pessimists, with most people in between. At certain periods the center rises up to join the optimists, and some new laws get written for whatever system exists that will outlaw or make more difficult some form of corruption that was exposed. Then comes the long period during which the corrupt people figure out ways to evade the laws, come up with new ways for corruption to flourish, and after some time, things are right back where they were before the orgy of anti-corruption activity took place.

Law-writers work with an irremovable disadvantage, and perhaps more than one. Everything they do is open and clear to everyone, so that anyone seeking a loophole in the law can take advantage of them. The law is static and slow to change, but law-evaders can sometimes move quickly. They work in unseen ways, and can try anything they think of to evade the law.

Corruption is sometimes a ‘quid pro quo’ and sometimes direct nepotism. Direct nepotism is where a corrupt person with influence or decision-making authority decides that some individual will gain a benefit, such as a lucrative, do-nothing position, or a high-profit contract, or some other benefit where the personal slice is large. The individual chosen would not have received the benefit except for the actions taken by the corrupt person. In many cases, there would be no such benefit except for the actions taken by this corrupt person; in other words, the lucrative position was created solely for the purpose of satisfying the corrupt person’s wishes. This differs from a ‘quid pro quo’ example in that the person receiving the benefit receives it because of who he or she is, not because of what he or she will provide back to the corrupt person.

The other type of corruption is easily understood as a hidden trade of benefits. In the simplest instances, the corrupt person provides something to a donor, such as a tax break, a waiver of requirements for an activity that increases the profit on it, a pardon of some wrong-doing, a minimization of fines paid or time served, access to someone else corrupt, a re-writing of laws relating to monopolies or cartels or an order to not prosecute these, or any of a myriad of other things; in return the donor provides something to the corrupt person, such as a immense lecture fee, or a book contract with little requirements but a large advance, the ability to participate in a mock investment designed to be lucrative, the elimination of someone either physically or contractually, high-profit contracts for a company owned by a spouse, sibling or child, and many, many other options.

The last of these might be labeled indirect nepotism, especially if the beneficiary is not financially connected with the corrupt person, but it is better to draw the primary line between types of corruption between direct nepotism and ‘quid pro quo’ corruption as the distinction is more clear and more useful.

These are only the simplest options. There can be delayed benefits, such as a lucrative, do-nothing position for the corrupt person himself following his tenure in the decision-making role which affords him the opportunity for corruption. There can be three-way arrangements with a donor providing benefits for corrupt politician 1, who is the donor providing benefits to corrupt politican 2, who closes the loop by writing laws or making regulations or restricting law enforcement relating to the original donor. There is no limit on the variations in these schemes, and therefore, a group of law-writers who are interested in limiting corruption can outlaw some schemes, but more will immediately spring up. Where there are corrupt politicians, there will be corruption. Morality might prevent some individuals from corruption, but corrupt people will use corruption to replace these moral ones with others more amenable to the corrupt schemes.

Fortunately, the economic system of just deserts provides a substantial remedy for this situation. If total income is limited for every individual or household to some small multiple of the average income in the governed region, then there will not be enough in any single person’s pocket to make any substantial corrupt payoff. To see the extent and inherent limitations in this bulwark against corruption, it is necessary to consider how it might be evaded.

First, could there be small instances of corruption, where the amount involved was an almost negligible portion of the average income in the jurisdiction? This is certainly true, and indicates that what is done by a just deserts income limitation does not change morality, only the practical, over-all effects of it. Large corrupt contributions make the disparity between those only receiving their earned income and those who arrange systems within the economy to provide them with ten, a hundred, or a thousand times as much as any human being could rightfully earn. Morality is something effected by teaching people, often the young, about what is considered right and wrong within the society. Efficiency in the society is effected by establishing laws limiting income to earned income.

Second, could there be cabals which get together to amass enough resources for a large bribe, or its equivalent, which would allow them to receive some benefits beyond, perhaps far beyond, their earned income? The amassing of resources could certainly occur, but with a limitation of income to earned income, there are no avenues for moving large amounts of benefits to the members of the cabal. There are no avenues because to enforce a limitation of income, income must be known, as well as other data. This means economic transparency has to be universal.

Economic transparency has been the bane of corrupt people ever since there was central data systems which allowed it to be possible. There have been litanies of protest against economic transparency, by invoking trigger words such as ‘privacy’, but they do not amount to anything other than pleas to allow unearned income to be received without anyone being aware of it. Transparency does no good unless there is some means of using it for detection of prohibited income, and then taking some sort of action, judicial or otherwise, which overturns the forbidden process and reverses its effects. This means that there must be some agency which has the power to access this data, meaning that transparency is available at least to this agency if not to everyone, and which is motivated to find and reverse the results of prohibited activities.

It must be very obvious that if there is only one such agency, and only this agency has the authority to inspect economic data, they would be immediate targets for corrupt offerings. Once the agency concerned with ensuring has been ‘fixed’, then there is no further barriers to non-earned income enriching those who cause this corruption, as well as others. The situation would seem to be dependent on the degree of transparency, but it may not work that way. If the ability to examine income and other economic data is more widespread than just the agency charged with enforcing the economic rules of the society, and that agency does not take action, the population will very quickly come to realize that these rules are simple paper only, and have no meaning in the actual activity that underlies the society. The number of pessimists, as defined at the beginning of this post, will soon rise as more people become tolerant of what has become the unwritten rules of the economic life of the society.

So, if this agency is the keystone of any barrier against, not only corruption, but against any usurpation against the economic rules of a just deserts socio-economic system, how might it be shielded against corruption offers, as well as threats of a more diverse type? How might it also be protected against apathy, born of years of success in imposing these rules, both on the part of the enforcers, and on the part of the population? When a population passes through a revolution or a large change in the economic system, it might be largely enthusiastic about the new system, for a period of time, but then, as difficulties arise, or simply as years pass by, the enthusiasm dies away, and corruption begins to find a way to slowly infiltrating the system. Those who are in charge of enforcing the new rules grow tired of their tasks, and begin to think of the pleasures that a little unearned income might provide them. Thus, the aspects of disparity that were so striking and unappealing, which led to the imposition of a just deserts economic system, would fade away, and the very local considerations of a small amount of corruption seep in and begin the process of undermining the rules.

Thus, the problem of maintaining a just deserts, non-corrupt economic system may be just as difficult as the process of setting one up in the first place. Any effective socio-economic system must have some processes, like rotation of personnel, that militate against the boredom that would inevitably set in.