Friday, December 23, 2011

Another solstice and i'm reminded more than ever that i don't have any time to waste. I feel there's still work for me to do before i shuffle off this mortal coil. I had thought my contribution was to organize the world's wisdom but it seems Intelligence has other ideas and has hit on me, innumerate candidate that i am, to bring a new economic theory to light. It struck me as ironic but, as the theory took shape, i realized that conventional economic minds, steeped in the dismal science, would be the last to admit the possibility, much less grasp the import, of an alternative system. They are doctrinally blinkered with what i call moneytheism and brook the existence of no other gods.
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.
~ Shunryu Suzuki ~
My unlikely qualifications include being born under the counter of a chaini shap; seen imperialist extraction and wealth appropriation first hand; witnessed and endured class, race and colour prejudice; been an entrepreneur, artist/designer, social deviant and intuitive empath; combined with a boddhisattvic compassion, all contrived to prepare me to question deeply the current status quo as the Occupy protesters are doing. I had at first only vague intimations that would coalesce into a coherent system. I daresay not many others, certainly not economists, can claim a similar hodgepodge of experience. That seeming diffusion resulted in a generalist overview with a holistic grasp of systems. Life prepares you for itself. You just have to be ready to see the opening door.

Like everyone else not part of the 1%, i was faced with diminishing financial prospects, qualifying me for food stamps, Medicaid and a free monthly cell phone service, without a single dollar coming to me. This basic life support allowed me to work in the community and on creative projects, work that is not readily counted in GDP or that attracts remuneration. Granted my needs are minimal but could this safety net not be extended universally and distributed digitally? There are enough resources to go around if some don't get too greedy.

I became aware of the the work of Jacque Fresco and The Venus Project proposing, with the help of The Zeitgeist Movement, a Resource Based Economy where all the world's resources are owned in common and managed rationally. It is a single system after all. Everyone would share access to these resources without the need for money. Considering the ongoing financial crisis which seems to have no end, every day bringing new problems resulting from the last round of adjustments, precipitating further tweaks in a downward spiral, money seemed to be the central problem, so why not do away with it? Money is after all only a symbol of wealth, a means of exchange. Somewhere along the line, we have mistaken it for wealth itself, even trading it as a commodity. Systemic change is needed and not structural adjustments as proposed by conventional economists.

My concerns with all the moneyless proposals i came across was a conspicuous absence of a means to control distribution. As evolved as we'd like to think that human beings are, fear and the greed that it engenders are part of our survival responses. I have seen near riots when rice was rationed in our shop in the 1970s, and the behavior of Black Friday crowds is evidence that the instinct has not been restrained by conscious evolution. It is very difficult to overrule the reptilian brain.
We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination.
~ Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976

Without the incentive of profit, would creators and producers continue to innovate and produce? These two concerns led me to consider an index similar to GDP but greatly expanded. This index i call Net Planetary Value would be calulated by algorithm using three types of criteria — ethical, social and environmental — over time — past, present and future. Each individual, company, product and organization would be pegged according to how much it contributed to NPV. That index would in turn determine how much access they had to goods and resources, a reciprocal effect.

The system would be self-regulating with a constant flow of information providing feedback in a fractal-like structure, like this animated graphic. I believe this arrangement would be a tool for the rational management of resources and provide the incentive necessary to motivate. I have grandiosely dubbed the system PANACEA, an acronym for Planetary Accounting Network Affording Communities Equitable Access. Communities are defined to include ecosystems, bioregions, animal populations and indigenous tribes which are all recognized as sovereign entities, much in the same way that Bolivia has recognized the Rights of Mother Earth in its constitution. You can Like PANACEA on Facebook.

So imperative do i regard this contribution at this time of imminent global economic collapse, compounded by climate change and the growing unavailablity of fossil fuels that i have devoted most of this year to documenting and propagating these ideas. I've stepped down from leadership positions with Ecolocity, Petworth Market and our tenants association, all initiatives i helped start, but happily they have matured and can stand on their own. I feel like Paul of Tarsus must have felt when struck by revelation on the road to Damascus. My world view has been completely changed. To quote myself, once you know something you cannot unknow it. The response so far has not been encouraging; though it's early days, this is no time for dawdling. We'll see whether i come to be known as a crazy, if harmless, eccentric, or if like Copernicus and other proponents of unorthodox views, time will vindicate me.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Outline for a new economy

I fully support the Occupy protests and gratified that some people are waking up and making their objections known. I place the demonstrations in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings and other demonstrations throughout the world. They have a common cause even if they have not identified it exactly - the economic inequity of the monetary system. To be successful, the single demand of each of these movements ought to be the phasing out of money to be replaced by an accounting system based on a value index.

To replace the irrational, inequitable and inefficient monetary economic system which prevails, a new rational, self-regulating system is necessary to meet current and projected global realities. The present model is ultimately based on the barter mechanism which grew into trade and digital exchange. Units of exchange came to be standardized to facilitate trade but the issuing of these units is strictly controlled, creating an artificial scarcity, and converting the currency itself into a commodity. These units are further hoarded and manipulated in such a way as to create debt, inequity and poverty.

It is difficult to displace such an entrenched paradigm, so embedded in every aspect of life that most people cannot even conceive that there could be an alternative. The silver lining to the current economic crisis is that people will be forced, perhaps for the first time, to examine their unconscious assumptions and stretch their cognitive range to allow for a different approach.

A value-based economy would look like this:

New Planetary Economy

The planet can sustain all life on it, though not at the level of consumption that obtains in developed countries. Everyone and everything has value. The sum of all unit values is Net Planetary Value. Value is potential until triggered into manifestation by activity. People realize value by accessing goods and services.

Each entity – individual, corporate, municipal, national, bioregional – is assigned an index relative to its contribution to NPV, which index determines its level of access to goods and services. Particular elements or activities may be indexed positively or negatively as it affects populations, infrastructure or the environment. Indices are computed algorithmically from a matrix of nine criteria: ethical, social and environmental qualified by a time dimension that embeds past provenance, present utility and future impact. Entities acknowledge each transaction by digital and/or biometric means. Data is transmitted to a distributed network which continuously updates all indices using algorithms in a self-regulating feedback loop. Built-in checks and balances adjust indices to mitigate excesses, waste and abuse.

Since it is not dependent or contingent upon monetary values, NPV can be implemented by any functioning economic unit. It will run parallel to the monetary system until that system strangles itself with its own contortions or belief in it is withdrawn, whichever comes first. Increased parity and efficiency are realized with the accession of each additional entity until universal inclusion is achieved. Each person is automatically assigned an index that gives access to food, housing, education and healthcare. Personal index is increased by life stage, training, skills and accomplishments, affording access to levels beyond basic needs.

There are no monetary limits. No budgets, no debt, no banks, no inflation, no price distortions. There will be less government, less corruption, less crime. Land ownership will revert eventually to occupancy rights. With basic needs guaranteed, many will no longer work at jobs. Traditional jobs are becoming obsolete anyway. People will choose vocations. It is a means to advance their indices. Every service rendered is rewarded. Each corporate entity likewise is assigned a base index that allows access to infrastructure and services. All corporate entities are by definition non-profit. Businesses compete and prosper by offering superior goods and services thereby increasing their corporate index with concomitant access to higher levels of goods and services.

Everyone counts. Everything is counted.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

From Arab Spring to American Fall?

The chickens seem to have come home to roost as young people, unable to get ahead, while saddled with unserviceable student loans, and older folk, unable to find jobs in a shrinking economy, are taking to the streets to express their disgust at a system which has left out 99% and benefits only 1%. The Occupy Wall Street movement has taken inspiration from Tahrir Square, practicing direct democracy and non-violence and setting up operational and social services in Zuccotti Park under the resurrected name Liberty Plaza. A library even. They've reminded the cops they too are part of the 99% and invited them to join in solidarity, reminiscent of the Egyptian protesters offering flowers to Mubarak's soldiers.

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

Their demands, published in a manifesto, are admirable, covering a wide range of abuses. Have the American people, who seem to be broadly represented, finally woken up to their condition of wage slavery and financial chattelry? Are the activists tenacious enough to occupy public spaces for long enough to wrest concessions from the Powers That Be? You can be sure even if all their demands are met it will result in superficial reforms and regulations that will allow the corporatocracy to continue business as usual maybe a bit less brazenly.

Talk of revolution and manifestos is well and good, creating media buzz and a feel-good camaraderie on the barricades and behind the digital redoubts, but nothing less than the dissolution of the monetary system will bring about real change. We have conflated the meaning of money with wealth and power for so long that it is unthinkable to even consider overturning the tables in the temple.

Ecological economists who promote a steady-state economy like Herman Daly, Bernard Lietaer and David Korten limit their proposals to reforms of the present monetary system.
Participatory economics touted by the left and being taught at Liberty Plaza may give the appearance of empowering the grassroots but the economic balance of power will remain substantially unchanged. Some like Charles Eisenstein promote the idea of a gift economy which relies on people's better angels to give freely without expectation of return. This may have worked for Trobriand Islanders of a bygone era but is not likely to hold much truck in today's complex global systems. I fully support localization and recognize that power down, downsizing and downshift are inevitable but i don't see people going back to trading a cord of wood for a loaf of bread outside of intentional communities. The few voices on the fringe who do advocate doing away with money, like Jacque Fresco and his proposal for a Resource Based Economy, promoted by the Zeitgeist Movement and others, are paid scant attention even by progressives. None have said just how the free-for-all would be managed.

The wealthy will not willingly give up their power. They hold all the aces in the house of cards. The solution then is to withdraw from their game, shift to another system of accounting and distributing wealth so they are left holding bags of worthless cash.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Jobs and growth

It’s not just that the threat of a double-dip recession has become very real. It’s now impossible to deny the obvious, which is that we are not now and have never been on the road to recovery.
~ Paul Krugman, "Wrong Worries," New York Times, August 4 2011

So now the band-aid has been applied and, in the temporary respite it has provided, the mantra will be repeated ad nauseam by every pundit and his mother that creating jobs and growing the economy is the solution. For all of the high-powered experts and economists, they don't get it, do they? -- least of all the Republicans. The average householder in Djibouti, anyone with common sense, can figure out that all the measures that have been taken are just so much tinkering, re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

It's said that 70% of US GDP is driven by consumer spending. In applying stimulus funds to restart the economy, the bailout was given instead to the banks and financial institutions who have diligently balanced their books and have resumed their constitutionally-required profitability. Executives have been handsomely rewarded for their troubles but companies are still awash in cash with nowhere to invest it because consumers are not spending. Duh. Where were those consumers to get what with to spend? If they had been given the bailout instead, they would have paid up their mortgages and credit cards, small businesses would have a life-line, jobs would be saved and there would be a trickle-up effect. It would have increased purchasing power at the starting point of the cycle and set the whole machine in motion. Tax intake would be maintained and state and federal government would not be faced with cutting as drastically as they now have to do.

Main Street is where the economy is and not Wall Street, which is nothing more than a big boys' crap shoot. The "volatility of the market" is but the alternation of the sole motivations, greed and fear. The real economy will continue apace as long as the sun continues to input billions of joules, or whatever unit of energy you care to use, farmers grow crops, bakers bake, builders build, teachers teach and healers heal.

Ignoring for a minute the well-documented limits to growth, let's say some entrepreneurial venture capitalist decides to be bold and initiate the production of some new widget. In the interest of efficiency (read maximum profit), the operation will be automated and roboticized as far as possible or outsourced to the cheapest sources of labor. Where does that leave the local wage slaves who have been bred, brought up and educated to be cogs in the industrial machinery as well as consumers of its output? Without income to continue consuming and nothing to keep them occupied, their life purpose is rendered meaningless and obsolete, so what option do they have but to run amok in the streets? The young have seen their parents play by the rules and get shafted so why should they go down that same path?

The entire concept of employment, work, jobs and the education to prepare for them has to be revisited. Jobs as we know them are never coming back. Even the ones outsourced to China will leave there like water seeking its lowest level till there's nowhere lower to go. The main purpose of education will become to prepare people to live.

Another goal which our schools and teachers should be pursuing is the discovery of vocation, of one's fate and destiny. Parrt of learning who you are, part of being able to hear your inner voices, is discovering what it is that you want to do with your life. Finding one's identity is almost synonymous with finding one's career, revealing the altar on which one will sacrifice oneself.
~ Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1972

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Head of a pin

This whole brouhaha over the debt ceiling and deficit reminds me of nothing so much as the medieval church fathers' respective positions on the number of the angelic host that could fit on the head of a pin. Whether or not either side, or none, were right would not affect the state of grace of the average penitent, or in the instant case, the economic state of the average wage slave. The system is broken and nobody knows how to fix it. Regardless of what solution they finally come up with, its effects will be short-lived. They know this, talking about kicking the can down the road. It does not matter whether they kick a can, a rock or a football, down a road, field or green, it will make no difference.

Money has served out its usefulness. The symbols of wealth can manipulated no further. The complexity into which the monetary economy has been elaborated is beyond human understanding or intelligence. Economists will be last to admit this. The money spinners have been too clever by half, but they have run into the limits of physics, the limits of growth as they define it. Some growth is called cancer and left unchecked, it destroys its host. Metastasis.

It's hard to even think of a world without money, so let's not. It's a far-fetched notion so we'll pretend that another world, another economy without money is not possible. Back to the real world.

The basic problem it seems to me is that the business of government is conceived of and treated just like a household economy or business, trading something for tokens it can spend, offering services in exchange for taxes, another outmoded idea. Taxes probably began as protection money extracted from peasants by strongmen, warlords, kings, then the state. Then the robber/banker barons loaned money to the king/state to wage wars, creating state/national debt. The state got suck(er)ed into the monetary morass.

The function of the government is to enable the economy, allowing businesses and households to prosper. Under the present cumbersome arrangement, if the state budget shrinks so does the economy. It is ludicrous then for the state budget to be determined by an arcane, arbitrary and inequitable system of imaginary units. It's time to get real, people, and the answer is not gold.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Doing without money

Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of its filling a vacuum, it makes one.
~ Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790 ~

It's been a while since i had a real job, not since i walked out of my assistant manager position at an art supply store. I had high hopes of becoming a writer/publisher and though i've managed to put out two books, my income from them has been nowhere near adequate to cover my expenses. Despite the odd paying gig, frugality and food stamps, i've been forced to survive on savings accumulated from inheritance and a long period of entrepreneurial effort. Numerous job applications have netted one job interview but my discouragement is admittedly mixed with relief as i realize i'd have no time, were i successful in being hired, to devote to the pursuits that fill my days.

And i have been busy. There are not enough hours in the day to follow through on all the ideas and schemes that go through my head. So i began to wonder how i could continue to follow my bliss and get paid for doing it. That's a common theme among many self-help gurus so it must be possible, somebody somewhere must be doing it.

It has led me to think of publishing more and trusting the universe will take care of the details, of raising funds through grants or crowd-funding, of continuing to subsist in near penury until the savings run out. I tried the marketing consulting, life counselor bit but that requires going out and marketing yourself and playing nice even when you don't feel like.

I don't need a lot, just enough to cover my rent, telephone and ISP, gym fee and Metro fares. It's not as though i'm a slacker, far from it. Much that i do is in service to the community, to knowledge and letters, my small contribution to the universe so when i'm gone someone may observe that my presence made a difference. So what happened to casting bread upon the waters and finding it again? Surely there's a way to have my basic needs met without becoming a wage slave in a corporate system for which i have nothing but distaste?

There must be millions of people who endure jobs, whole careers even, that they hate, that stress them out and make them sick, just so they can have a roof over their heads and have some little life. In the twenty-first century when we have conquered nature and become masters of the universe, there is something wrong with that picture. Scholars have recognized this and pointed out that the GDP index countries use to measure progress does not take well-being into account and in fact includes things like incarceration, sickness, war and disaster as economy boosters. Think construction, factory orders for arms, equipment and supplies. Some countries, notably Canada, France and the UK are beginning to recognize the limitations of GDP and have introduced other indices that measure things like happiness and well-being and progress. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has based its national planning on a scale called the Gross National Happiness index and some economists support the use of the Genuine Progress Indicator which factor in environmental health as well.

The prevailing idea of wealth is based on purely material considerations centered on the production, consumption and accumulation of goods and services. Money came into being as a token symbol to facilitate trading and to access that wealth conveniently. It has become itself a commodity, the supply of which has been made scarce in the way it is created and distributed. Money -- the creation of, the accumulation of, the lack of, the trickling down of, the compounding and impounding of, the manipulation of, the theft of -- seems to create nothing but problems. For a convenient symbol, it sure is troublesome. So what if we could do without money?

I'm not even thinking of alternatives like parallel currency, mutual credit or digital systems. Inevitably, those are based on the prevailing monetary system and of limited application. It would only be a matter of time before they are subsumed into the system by manipulation and corruption. The banks and corporations would cream off the profits making currency scarce because that is their sole objective and we would be back at square one. There's got to be some other way to make this work without money and profit so the interest of everyone is served.