14. Q&A: Economics
and Society 

If we do not now dare everything,
the fulfillment of that prophesy,
recreated from the bible in
song by a slave, is upon us:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
no more water, the fire next time!
-James Baldwin 

Women’s Work, or “Other Labor” 

If household functions were deemed work in a parecon as Wages for Housework advocates might prefer, then they would be part of the planning process, allocated in balanced job complexes. All questions of equity, control, diversity, solidarity, etc. would be handled as with any other kind of work. 

On the other hand, if household functions were deemed, let’s say, kinship activity, and not part of the economy per se in a society with a parecon, then the determination of how they are done and in what relationships would depend on the values and structures of the kinship sphere of life (as opposed to the economy). 


However, just as the economy has to be compatible with the cultural/community sphere of life, the polity, and kinship, so vice versa. Thus, if kinship says male and female have very limited implications for life choice and human capability and inclination, the economy cannot have a sexual division of labor. And if the economy says people must respect equity of circumstance and empowerment, the kinship sphere cannot allocate its kinship activities in a non-equitable fashion re fulfillment or empowerment. Thus, if rearing children, etc., is not deemed first and foremost economic activity, still in a parecon it will have to be handled equitably if the kinship sphere and the economy are to be compatible. 

It isn’t that the parecon system doesn’t account for current conditions of child care and home work, it is that a visionary model isn’t a description or plan for how to attain and create the vision. It is just about the established good economy. 

If home work and child care isn’t deemed economic, then everyone has to do a full share of economic work, in a balanced job complex. The home and childcare work would have to be equally shared or women would be exhausted, as now in many instances. But it wouldn’t have to be planned in the same fashion as production in typical workplaces. It would be, instead, a part of consumption or other dimensions of social life. 

On the other hand, if homework and childcare is part of the economy, then the dictates of parecon guarantee equitable and just allocations for men and women, and for all those involved. In any event, I agree with you that a parecon requires a different kinship sphere than we now have—one that doesn’t produce patriarchy, for example, or commercial class attitudes either. 


This I don’t quite follow. It is one way to proceed but by saying that it is the only way, it seems to assume that however much child care and home-based work occurs, it must inevitably occupy women more. Why is that? It seems much more likely to me that it will be shared, handled collectively, in various kinds of new living arrangements. Indeed, it seems to me that our vision for kinship relations will probably require this for reasons that have to do with eliminating hierarchies of power and other unjust phenomena among men and women, not simply for the reasons that a parecon would require it. 

There is also a good case to be made that home-based work is a rather private and personal affair, the volume of which is to a considerable extent a matter of one’s own choosing, not subject to an economic plan, and the output of which is for oneself, not for others in the economy. This is what makes consideration of it a bit complex. 

For example, suppose you and another person live together and opt for a very fancy house arrangement that takes a whole lot of work because you like the elaborate layout and floor plan and floral arrangements and whatnot, which entails all this work. Should all the work that you do on this stuff count toward your economic contribution to society and should all the inputs not go against your incomes, even though you and your partner are virtually the only beneficiaries of the excess household labors? It may well be more just, in fact, to say that we are all responsible for our own living arrangements, cleanliness, and so on, using our incomes and energies as we choose, in addition to whatever is the average workload that society has settled on for the economy (presumably much reduced from now). That seems preferable to me, at any rate. But I think good values and insights on these issues depend, in considerable degree, on a powerful, compelling, and liberatory vision for kinship institutions in general—which is why we don’t get into it too much when discussing parecon as an economy, feeling we don’t have the insight to do so. 


Government and Parecon 

What we call political institutions today—local, state and national governments—actually perform both political and economic functions. This is because our present economy consists of a market system, and markets will lead to the production of few if any public goods, and because there are certain public goods whose non-production is so unacceptable that every market economy has got to substitute some other decision-making mechanism for the market mechanism regarding these public goods. In our economy local, state, and national governments therefore have to double as economic institutions for the purchase of minimal amounts of certain public goods—for which they collect taxes. 

But as much as the economic decisions of today’s  “political” institutions dominate their time and our interest in them, they do debate and decide other more “political” things as well, like war and peace, whether drugs are legal or not, what the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system will be, whether America the Beautiful or the Star Spangled Banner will be the national anthem, immigration policy, etc. My ideas about what kinds of political institutions and procedures would be best for making these kinds of political decisions run along democratic, participatory lines. What are the most desirable political institutions and why? How should we accomplish political functions such as legislation, adjudication, and implementation in ways that not only achieve our political aims, but also further values we hold dear such as solidarity, equity, self management, and diversity? These are really the same questions as led to developing parecon economic institutions, only transposed to the political realm.  


Is “no state” a slogan that captures what is needed? I don’t honestly think so, though I respect the  anti-authoritarian impetus. Of course we want no authoritarian state, no apparatus that is above and separate from the populace, imposing outcomes on the populace against our own interests and desires. But that doesn’t mean that all political functions just disappear. Saying we want no state may have some subtle meaning for a few folks, but to most it sounds like saying we want no polity. It conflates bad political institutions with all political institutions, saying that we don’t want the former but sounding like we don’t want the latter. Saying we don’t want a state, meaning (or even just being taken to mean) we don’t want any kind of political institutions, is like saying for the economy, we can do without it, we can have everyone produce and consume whatever they want, as if there are no complicated issues that require institutions and thus serious thought about the structure of those institutions. We cannot forego political institutions but instead need a political vision with specifically political institutions to accomplish political functions in ways we desire, just as we need an economic vision with economic institutions to accomplish economic functions desirably. 

Ecology and Parecon 

Perhaps, perhaps not. Take instead for a minute some animal with no relevance whatever for human well being and development. Say a species that people don’t see, interact with, or get anything from, as far as anyone knows. Suppose this species, in part, exists in places where humans might clear land for use. If society wants to preserve the species it would need to pass a law, as you say, imposing restraints on the economy which might otherwise just wipe the species out. The point is, economic calculation of true and complete human and social costs and benefits wouldn’t even include reference to this particular species so unless there was a law protecting it, there would be no gainsay it wouldn’t be wiped out. 


But the logging case is different. The trees do have great value, one presumes, for human well being and development, and so the cost of their use climbs immensely as they are treated in a manner that would make them irreplaceable. So, the economy actually prices the trees to take into account true social costs and benefits associated with using them...as best it can. Whether you would need rules on top of that or not isn’t clear. I doubt it, but it could be done, no problem. 

Go back to the peculiar species. The law preventing its decimation wouldn’t cause the social costs of clearing the land it lived on to go up and therefore wouldn’t affect the indicative price. Economic actors might want to do it, as they rightly should, being motivated by human well-being and development. The law would simply prevent their doing it. In the case that you describe, the economic system would rightly perceive the social cost implications of the cutting. An additional law wouldn’t be needed, unlike the species case above. 

Now, let’s say that consumers want all these wooden products, and are not discouraged by the high price. They can’t all have them. How would this conflict be resolved? 

I think you may be asking two questions. First, if the price doesn’t stop the clear-cutting, but the society wants it stopped, then what? A law. Second, if something is scarce, who gets it? First come first served, presumably. This can happen, as well, when something innovative takes off. Suppose people’s plans say so much of item “a” is needed in the economy for this year, and the third month into the planned year something happens that makes item “a” much more desirable and many more people want it, so the firm producing it can’t keep up. Well, there are adjustments that would increase output, but perhaps much less than demand, for some items. Then not everyone who wants it now (wants to change their consumption request for this item), and can afford it now, gets it now. Why? Because the price doesn’t climb to preclude buyers. This is also a phenomenon in centrally planned economies and is why there are queues there rather than rising prices which reduce the length of the line until there are only as many people as items to be had. 


Pollution is part of what is counted into the social costs and benefits associated with production and consumption. So the price of products reflects the pollution—and the cost of cleaning it up. For example, suppose a plant produces something for a national audience, and, given the social costs and benefits there is a lot of demand for it. And suppose pollution leaves the plant and congregates above a local community, primarily affecting its citizens. 

Now what? 

What is the just approach? It isn’t automatic. It involves assessment of social costs and benefits, and available options. Suppose it is a relatively unimportant product and the local environmental effect is devastating. Then, by the principle that those affected have a say proportional to the effect on them, the price should climb much higher, due to the high effect on the community, not to mention the potential buyers, who wouldn’t want the relatively minor product, priced out of desirability. The same plant located somewhere where the human impact of the pollution is nil, however, might be fine. 


Suppose instead the product is absolutely critical and there is no way to have the plant be anywhere else for the coming year. Now what? Well, maybe the community of people needs to be moved, if it is suffering that greatly—or protected somehow. But the plant continues. 

Now what kind of economic system can measure the desires and benefits and negative and positive impacts of production and consumption so as to provide indicative prices reflecting them properly, and so as to levy fees so that such clean-ups and the like can be done humanely. Parecon is, I believe, the answer. 

In Neoclassical economics there is a whole subdivision of analysts that tries to figure out how you modify markets to address such matters. Some of these folks are just tinkering in the interests of capital. But some take the problem seriously, albeit accepting markets as inevitable. When you take their quite technical answers and you recognize the ubiquity of external effects (which they don’t) you get a pattern of alterations and reforms, which, quite interestingly, leads rather inexorably to an inefficient and clumsy version of what parecon does rather smoothly. Take a look at the South End Press or Princeton University Press books on the topic—Looking Forward or The Political Economy of Participatory Economics—if your interest is that great, for how the production units are charged for their costs of production, including pollution clean-up, etc. The logic is here, the details are there.