ParEcon Questions & Answers

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 Technology and Parecon

bWhat is the connection between technology and economics and parecon?

Technology is similar to science, of course, in its trajectories of pursuit and logic of development. Those who work to produce it in a parecon, let’s now call it applied science, are like those who work in any other endeavors regarding influence, conditions, and income. The critical change is the determination of what technologies are worth pursuing and implementing. In capitalism this is determined by profit making possibilities and the need to maintain or even enlarge the relative advantages of elites which include capitalist and coordinator class dominance as well as hierarchies regarding race, gender, polity, etc.

As a result the direction of technological innovation reflects the needs of narrow sectors of the population, not generalized human well being and development.

In the U.S., for example, technological nightmares abound. Indeed the whole idea of high tech and low tech is revealing. It is high tech if it involves huge apparatuses and massive outlays of time and energy to generate and utilize (many profit possibilities). It is low tech if it is simple, clean, and comprehensible (fewer profit possibilities). Why isn’t it high tech if it greatly enhances human well being and development, and low tech if it tends toward having the opposite effect?

Smart bombs are the highest of high tech, in their deadly majesty. The sewage system, in contrast, is mundane, at best. Yet the former only kills and the later saves.

Pursuit of new drugs with dubious or even no serious health benefits is high tech. Working to get hospitals cleaner and bug free is low tech – relying largely on medical hygene norms. The former is profitable for the rich and powerful in accruing more wealth. The latter is beneficial for all society in accruing longevity and quality of life, but might actually minimally diminish profits, at least short run. Capitalism pursues the former and rejects the latter.

In the U.S. the pursuit of industrial technology is overwhelmingly about profits. This has diverse implications. U.S. technology seeks innovation to lower market-determined markets costs which in any event misprice everything, not least discounting the adverse effects of production on environment and workers. Thus technologies that use less inputs that must be purchased are sought, but technologies that spew less pollution or impose less stress on workers are not a priority unless owners are forced by social movements to pursue them.

U.S. technology seeks to increase market share by convincing audiences to buy products regardless of the value of the incorporated innovation (or its social cost in byproducts) or the manipulation of the incorporated design and display features. Thus gargantuan resources and human capacities go to designing packaging and conceiving and producing advertising, often for entirely interchangeable and utterly redundant or even harmful products. Everyone knows it. It is all built in. Within our system, taking that system as a given, it is just another nauseating fact of life.

U.S. technology likewise seeks to increase coordinator class and capitalist domination of workplace norms regardless of the implications for workers below, or in fact even including imposing divisive control and fragmentation. As evidence for this all too obvious claim, consider the type of machinery introduced during the Industrial Revolution via the comments of Andrew Ure, a consultant for the factory owners, “[i]n the factories for spinning coarse yarn. . .the mule-spinners [skilled workers] have abused their powers beyond endurance, domineering in the most arrogant manner. . . over their masters. High wages. . . have, in too many cases, cherished pride and supplied funds for supporting refractory spirits in strikes. . . . During a disastrous turmoil of [this] kind. . . several capitalists. . . had recourse to the celebrated machinists. . . of Manchester. . . [to construct] a self-acting mule. . . . This invention confirms the great doctrine already propounded, that when capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility.” [Andrew Ure, Philosophy of Manufactures, pp. 336-368]

Or more recently, referring to modern circumstances, consider David Noble’s summary that “Capital invested in machines that would reinforce the system of domination [in the workplace], and this decision to invest, which might in the long run render the chosen technique economical, was not itself an economical decision but a political one, with cultural sanction.”

The point is under the norms of capitalism there won’t be funds to research new workplace organization and design or new tools with the aim that the well being and dignity, not to mention the knowledge and power of workers should be enhanced, but exactly the opposite.

U.S. technology also seeks to ward off avenues of innovation that would diminish profit making possibilities for the already rich, even at the expense of lost public and social well being for the rest of society. Don’t even think about replacing oil as social lubricant and fuel as long as there are profits to be extracted from its use, as but one example. The economy will push against doing so and only social movements could propel serious pursuit of wind, water, geothermal and other approaches, especially ones that would decentralize control, diminish specialization benefiting elite sectors, and challenge major centers of power regarding their current agendas.

And U.S. technology seeks to implement the will of geopolitical war makers and negotiators via provision of the tools of statecraft – smarter bombs, bigger bombs, deadlier bombs, and vehicles to deliver them, of course. So if you are a young potential innovator, the pressure on what to study, what skills to develop, and what personality to nurture, if you want to “make it,” are enormous. No one honestly doubts any of this. It is even evident throughout popular culture just how much it is all taken for granted. What people doubt, only, is that there is any alternative.

dddWhat about parecon’s relations to technology?

As David Noble urged in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, “No one is proposing to ignore technology altogether. It’s an absurd proposition. Human beings are born naked; we cannot survive without our inventions. But beneficial use demands widespread and sustained deliberation. The first step toward the wise use of our inventions would be to create a social space where these can be soberly examined.” Additionally, this space has to not only prepare people to soberly examine options, and not only welcome them to doing so, it has to remove incentives and pressures that run counter to their applying as their norms and values ones that truly emerge from and support human well being and development. Does parecon do all that and therefore abet desirable technological development?

Imagine a coal mine, a hospital, and a book publishing house in a society with a participatory economy. Inside each there are people concerned with evaluating work and conditions and proposing possible investments to alter production relations and possibilities, not in pursuit of greater profit – a category that doesn’t exist in a parecon – but in pursuit of more efficient utilization of human and material inputs to provide means of greater fulfillment and development of those who consume workplace outputs as well as of the workers producing them.

In the coal mine there is a proposal for a new technique, made possible via new scientific or technical insights, that would ease the difficulty of work and increase its safety, or, if you want, that would reduce the pollution effects of the work.

In the hospital there is a proposal for a new machine that would increase healing effectivity in certain cases, or again, reduce the difficulty of certain hospital tasks.

In the book publishing house there is a proposal for technological change or new equipment that would make the work of preparing books a bit easier.

And let’s add one more proposed pair of innovations, as well, first a social investment moving social energies and resources to some military experiment and implementation of a new weapons system on the one hand, or second an allocation of energies and resources to an innovative new set of machines and work arrangements to produce quality housing at low labor cost and with reduced environmental degradation.

What is the difference in how a capitalist economy and capitalist workplaces and consumers address these possibilities, as compared to how a participatory economy and pareconish workplaces and consumers address these possibilities?

In capitalism, as we have seen, various affected parties will, to the degree they even know the decisions is being made, weigh in on it. Capitalists and coordinators will be privy and will have access to the levers of say. They will consider immediate implications for themselves – largely via profit possibilities but partly, for the coordinators, via implications for their conditions and status – and they may also consider longer run implications for the overall balance of class and social forces.

Innovations bettering the situation of workers or even consumers will be ignored unless and to the extent they are also profitable for owners and to the degree the more general benefits don’t raise profitability problems. Technical innovations will be appreciated for lowering incurred costs – perhaps by dumping costs on others – and for increasing control and subordination on behalf of lasting preservation of favorable balances of power.

In the capitalist workplace, in fact, innovations that cost more and generate less gain in output per input but that provide greater control from above will often even be preferred to the reverse, innovations that yield more product per asset but empower workers. The reason is that in the latter case the gains may ultimately be distributed, due to workers’ greater bargaining power, such that the overall result for owners is a loss rather than a gain, even though the result for productivity is positive.

Or take another indicative case. Why is there such a disproportionate allocation of social resources to military expenditure and research in the U.S., as compared to spending it on health care, low income housing, roads and parks, and education? Diverse explanations are offered for this bias. Some say it is because the military expenditures provide more jobs than the social expenditures, and therefore are better for the economy. But this is clearly wrong, of course, and in fact the reverse is overwhelmingly the case. The technology laden production of bombs and planes and associated research has only a fraction of the labor needs, per dollar invested, that producing schools and hospitals has.

Others say it is because of the massive profits that accrue to aerospace and other militarily involved industries which obviously lobby hard for the government support. But this too is false. The same, or indeed equally large other industries, would make the same kind of profits from expenditures going to housing, road repair and other infrastructural work that they undertook for government contracts. It is highly interesting, indeed, that in the aftermath of obliterating the social structure of Iraq there is a tremendous flurry of interest and pursuit by U.S. and other multinationals to rebuild that country, assuming a climate of safety can be guaranteed for them, yet there is no similar flurry to rebuild the inner cities of the U.S. itself. What makes blowing up societies, or even just stockpiling to do so, or reconstructing societies other than our own – at least up to a point – more attractive as a path of major social commitment than reconstructing and/or otherwise greatly improving the social conditions of poor and working class communities throughout the U.S.?

The answer is not short run profits. They can be had in all the competing pursuits. The same companies or equally large ones could make huge profits building schools, roads, and hospitals in cities throughout the U.S., just as in Iraq.

What causes the military investment to be preferable to the social investment isn’t that it is more profitable, or that it employs more people – both of which are false – but is that its product is less problematic. Sad as it is to contemplate, the distinguishing feature is that social investment benefits most of society, particularly those who need better health care, education, transport, housing, etc., whereas military expenditure’s outputs benefit either no one or only elites via their utilization in wars.

The key to comprehension, in other words, is that while social investment betters the conditions, training, confidence, health, and comfort of most working people, it also contributes to their ability to withstand unemployment and their ability to develop and advocate their own interests. It increases their bargaining power. And their increased bargaining power in turn means workers will be able to extract higher wages and better conditions at the expense of capitalist profits – and that’s the rub.

It isn’t that owners are sadists who would rather build missiles that sit in the ground forever than build a school that educates the poor because they revel in people being denied knowledge. It is that owners want to maintain their conditions of privilege and power and realize that overly distributing knowledge or conditions of security and well being is contrary to doing so.

vI still want to know how parecon is different, explicitly?

How is parecon different? In a parecon proposed technological investigation, testing, and implementation are pursued when the planning process incorporates budgeting for them. This involves no elite interests but only social interests. If military expense will benefit all of society more than schools, hospitals, parks, etc., so be it. But if not, as we can reasonably predict, than priorities will dramatically shift.

But that is the obvious part. What is really instructive is to look at the other choices mentioned earlier. What is the calculus of a parecon regarding an innovation in a workplace – be it publishing house, coal mine, hospital, or what have you?

A change can have diverse benefits and costs. If it doesn’t require added inputs and expenditures but does have benefits, of course it will immediately be adopted. But suppose there are high costs in materials, resources, and human labor. Not everything can be done. Choices must be made. If we produce another toothbrush, something else, using the same energies and labors, goes unproduced. On a larger scale, if we make one innovation, or a bunch, some others will have to be put off. What is the calculus?

The claim is that in a parecon the criteria of evaluation are human fulfillment and development writ large and that people have a say proportionate to the degree they are affected. Without redescribing participatory planning in full, it may hopefully suffice to point out one very revealing aspect.

If I am in a capitalist coal mine contemplating a work altering (to make some of it less dangerous) innovation there, and you are in a capitalist book publishing house contemplating a work altering (to make some of it more pleasant) innovation there, in the same society, of course, we each want the innovation in our own workplace for our own well being. Neither one of us has any reason at all to be concerned about conditions beyond our workplace, nor do we have any means to know what is afoot outside. We battle for our investment – actually, we try to accrue profits to pay for it. We don’t give a damn about others and, indeed, if we are to gain maximally, should waste no time fruitlessly worrying about others.

Now suppose the workplaces are pareconish in a participatory economy. Things change very dramatically. The coal miners have a balance job complex and so do the publishing house workers. It isn’t just that each person in the coal mine has a job comparable to all others there, or that each person in the publishing house has one comparable to everyone else there, it is that all of us, taking into account our work inside our primary workplace but also outside it, have a socially average job complex. I, who do some coal mining and some quite pleasant and empowering work in my neighborhood (or whatever) and you, who do some publishing house work and some largely rote and tedious work in your neighborhood (or whatever) have, overall, comparably empowering and fulfilling labor.

How do we benefit from innovations in our workplaces? We will also wind up with a balanced job complex. Benefits don’t accrue only in single workplaces, in other words. They average over society. We all have an interest in investments – technological undertakings – that maximally improve the overall social average job complex. We have to be concerned with what occurs outside our workplace if we are to favor what is, in fact, most in our own interest.

In a parecon whether you look at the issue as what is best for society or what is best for self, the result is essentially the same, and the norms guiding choices among technological possibilities are, therefore, within the limits of our knowledge, in accord with people’s unfettered and self managed desires rather than reflecting overwhelmingly the preferences of a few based on their interests in elite conditions and circumstances. Parecon establishes the kind of context that both benefits and is benefited by technology in precisely the humanistic sense one would rationally prefer.

How about a detailed more realistic example…

A particularly graphic example of the entwined logic of both science and technology and their interface with economics is the issue of health in society. In discussing health and the economy, on the one hand there is the issue of health levels and health care. How do we organize care giving, pharmaceuticals, associated research, etc.? Before that, even, what is the relation of economic life to the degree of health enjoyed or the degree of illness and harm suffered by the population?

On the other side of the same coin, particularly if we were going to have a whole chapter on Parecon and Health, there is the issue of receiving care. Who is eligible, to what degree, and at what personal and or social cost? What happens economically to people who are unable to work, whether temporarily or even long term or permanently? And finally, does having a worthy approach to health issues place any undo pressure on economic life that parecon is unable to abide? The logic of all this is very like the logic of our other chapters, however, so we want to stick to a few indicators that bear on not only health, but also the larger science and technology realm.

There is a sense in which the situation of capitalism is well summarized by this quote from Andrew Schmookler: “Which entrepreneur will the market reward better? The one who sells a device that will give many hours of joy over a few years before, for a pittance, it needs to be replaced? Or the one who sells an addictive substance that must literally be “consumed” to be used, and that itself consumes the life of its devotee?”

At any rate, borrowing from Yves Engler’s research, we note that “a report by Health Grades Inc., concludes that there were an astounding 575,000 preventable deaths in U.S. hospitals between 2000 and 2002, many from hospital-acquired infections.” Likewise, “an American study reported in the Chicago Tribune concluded that up to 75 per cent of deadly infections caught at hospitals could be avoided by doctors and nurses using better washing techniques.”

As Engler concludes, “Billions of dollars are spent annually on the development of new drugs and medical technologies, but little is spent on basic hospital infection control – even though this would save a greater number of lives – because there has been little economic incentive to do so. Some company makes a profit when a new MRI machine is purchased, but the bottom line that benefits from better hand-washing techniques is only measured in lives.”

In capitalism not only accounting but the actual impetus of markets favors accumulation and profit making. Not only pharmaceutical companies but even hospitals are generally seeking market share and profit. Those without monies get short shift. Those with monies, should be separated from them, if possible. Those who own, whether the pharmaceutical companies or the hospitals or medical practices, should benefit. Profit uber ales sounds like rhetorical excess but in fact it is only a little wrong. Profit always operates, always pressures, and what is gained that isn’t actually profitable is gained only by virtue of fighting hard against profit making pressures. Ironically, everyone knows this…one need only read popular novels or even watch the better TV series to see it.

Everyone knows, as well, for example, that the AMA exists largely to protect the monopoly on skills, knowledge, and particularly credentials of doctors, keeping the level of doctors down, and their bargaining power up, not least against aspiring nurses. Everyone knows – just read the industry magazines – the intense preoccupation with throughput, etc.

On another front, once there is disease treatment of it is of course important, even given the very considerable risks associated with entering a hospital, but treatment may be more subtle than just give the pill and reckon the success. Engler, again, notes that, “Recent American data, reported in New Scientist July 2003, shows that more than 70 per cent of hospital-acquired infections are resistant to at least one common antibiotic. Infections resistant to antibiotics significantly increase the chance of death.” From where does this resistance come? It is “in large part, attributable to our overuse of antibiotics, which is connected to drug companies’ bottom lines.” To sell product there is great pressure to give the drugs even when not warranted, and/or carelessly, so antibiotics are routinely  over-prescribed. This facilitates “the growth of multi-resistant organisms.”

Even more dramatically, “half of all antibiotics sold each year are used on animals, according to New Scientist. Industrial farmers give their animals constant low doses of these drugs to treat infection but also as a growth hormone. The administration of low doses is especially problematic since it becomes a feeding ground for organisms to mutate. Data shows a strong correlation between increased use of antibiotics on animals and the emergence of resistant strains in the animal population with mirrored increases amongst people.” Profits of major food companies run up against the health of the populace…and in capitalism the former are likely to win.

This discussion of violations of health by modern social choices could proceed at almost infinite length, but let’s explore at least one more arena of experience and revealing evidence.

It turns out that as Steven Bezrucha reports, “about 55% of Japanese males smoke, compared to 26% of American men.” Nonetheless Japan has the greatest longevity for its citizens on the planet, and the U.S. comes in nearly 30th. Bezrucha asks, “How do [the Japanese] get away with winning both Gold Medals? What is loaded in Japan’s smoking gun?”

One explanation would be that while smoking is certainly bad for people, other prevalent health conditions in which Japan scores better rather than worse than the U.S. are significantly worse.

Bezrucha reports that “Research has shown that status differences between the rich and the poor may be the best predictors of a population’s health. The smaller the gap [in status] the higher the life expectancy. The caring and sharing in a society organized by social and economic justice precepts produces good health. A CEO in Japan makes ten times what an average worker makes, not the 531 times in the USA reported earlier this year.”

The point here is that the impact of an economic system on health occurs in numerous ways, and perhaps most importantly via the environment it establishes for us to live in, endure tension and pain in, or thrive in.

In  contrast to understanding the overarching impact of economies people “commonly equate health with health care.” But the U.S. spends “almost half of all money spent world-wide on health care to serve less than 5% of the planet’s people.” Despite this, its health is not even top notch, much less proportionately better than in other countries. Partly this is due to the expenditures mostly benefiting a few rather than all citizens. Partly it is due to much of the expenditure being profit guided rather than health guided, and having limited health impact. And partly it is due to the other impacts of the economy – pollution, tension, inequality, etc. – being so harmful. The U.S., for example, is first in the world “in the Non-Voter Olympics, the Homicide Olympics, the Incarceration Olympics, the Teen Birth Olympics, the Child Abuse Death Olympics, and the Child Poverty Games,” as well as in having “the highest rates of significant mental illness,” plus, of course holdling “a commanding lead in the Billionaire Olympics, with over five times the silver medalist’s score.”

What all this has to do with science and technology is that it demonstrates, again, how they can be misdirected, biased, and perverted by profit and market pressures. What is different in a parecon?

All of it is different. Firms don’t operate in a market and have no incentive to sell other than to meet needs and develop potentials. Addiction is not profitable but only socially destructive.

Preventable deaths are to be prevented not ignored due to their being profitable, or even preventing them being costly. Research and technology is directed where it can do most good, not be most profitable to a few. Reduce not only deaths in hospitals due to insufficient attentiveness to hygene, or short staffedness, but deaths due to pollution, dangerous means of transport, insufficient attention to workplace health and safety, not to mention addictive consumption such as of cigarettes or alcohol, etc. There is not only no impediment to addressing real areas of benefit, not only no inclination to violate such areas, but there is every incentive to solve social ills in proportion to benefits that can thereby accrue, not to individuals hoarding property, but to all society.

We have the number of doctors that health warrants. No doctor has any incentive to try to inhibit the numbers who get medical training and are able to provide medical relief. There is no coordinator class interest to protect at the expense of society losing the productive capabilities of its populace.

Similarly there is no drive toward speed up and cost cutting producing tension destroying health in a parecon. People choose to work longer or less long accounting precisely for the quality and richness of their lives thereby afforded. And similarly the gap in income that generates so much ill health in capitalism in a parecon is not 500 times or 10 times between high ranked and low ranked employees because there are no high ranked and low ranked employees, whether in an income or power sense, but only people having balanced job complexes and exercising self managing decision making influence. Nor are there billionaires and paupers due to ownership differences…because no one owns means of production in a parecon.

In a parecon, whether we are talking about the direction or scale of basic research or about the technology of health provision, or about the social structures that make either beneficial or harmful, the guiding precepts are as with all the economy, self management by affected parties in pursuit of well being and development and in accord with equity, solidarity, and diversity.

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  1. avatar
    Michael Albert February 11, 2014 2:32 pm 

    Thank you for the kind words!

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