Ehrenreich Interviews Albert Q/A 8

Ehrenreich: OK, let’s forget about the slackers v. the nerds and approach the time issue in a more socially serious way. On a panel you organized at the 2003 World Social Forum, a former mayor of Porto Alegre described a real-life experiment in something like parecon — the city’s “participatory budget,” introduced by the Workers’ Party (P.T.). For a year, hundreds of ordinary citizens representing different neighborhoods and themes — health, welfare, housing, transportation, etc. (but n.b. — not lipstick colors or skirt lengths!) — met repeatedly to devise the next year’s budget, or at least that half of the budget other than fixed expenses. Then the Brazilian radical economist Paul Singer observed that, if it took hundreds of people a year to plan 50 percent of the budget for one medium-sized city, the process of planning for a nation could be cumbersome beyond imagining. Doesn’t that give you pause?

Albert: The Participative Budget project in Brazil is a fascinating and important experiment. But it certainly does not give me pause. It came about because when the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) began to win city and even state government elections, the legislature was hostile and likewise the judiciary. The PT had unchallenged control of only the government budgets where they held mayoralties and governorships, such as in Porto Alegre and the state called Rio Grande Del Sol. When the governor there planned to raise minimum wages, the legislature quickly organized to pass a law that any raise given at the lower levels of income had to be matched by a proportionately identical raise at every other level of income, thus obviating the gain. Given this type of obstruction, the PT decided that a campaign they could embark on without sabotage from other branches of government was to incorporate public involvement in deciding what the PT-led governments would spend taxes on.

So the participative budget program was initiated as a kind of consultation between government ministries and sectors of the populace brought together for the purpose of discussing about 10-15% of the government budgets. It is certainly a pareconish direction to move in, though it didn’t explicitly reject markets or private ownership, or propose any alteration to workplaces, etc. Indeed, it was really a political innovation. It diverged from parecon not only in scale, not only in having no aspect on the producer side — not only isn’t it about numbers of dresses or lipsticks to be produced, it isn’t about deciding any production outputs at all — and not only in being a government project, but also in its entire infrastructure and methodology.

That the participative budget is slow (though I think it actually runs on the schedule set for it, and though much of the slowness may be attributable to the government side of the equation, rather than running long because it must take that long or because the public is the problem) tells us no more about how participatory planning would operate than the fact that a half a bridge won’t get us rapidly across a river tells us about the affectivity of a whole bridge to get us quickly across a river, or then the travails of central planning tell us about participatory planning’s prospects, for that matter.

Skirts, and now you mention lipstick too, keep resurfacing. In participatory planning what is addressed by the cooperative negotiation between consumers and workers during planning is their quantities. Inside firms, rather than a boss deciding their composition, colors, etc., this is handled however workers councils choose, though without class division. Consumers don’t enter consumption proposals enumerating the lipstick shades they want, colors, sizes, etc. Just how many lipsticks, broadly. They later pick what they like at distribution outlets. Teasing details from the amounts they desire is handled statistically.

All this is elaborated in more detailed discussions of the procedures in the book and elsewhere. But parecon doesn’t require that the consumer explore the detailed issues associated with lipstick colors, or even pay attention to lipstick colors other than how they do now – which is by choosing, on the spot in a store, which color he or she likes. And the same holds for skirt sizes, colors, lengths, etc. But to accomplish all this easily, parecon doesn’t make the mistake of marketizing lipstick and skirts (and so much else) and thereby consigning the larger issues of how many to produce, by what methods, using what techniques, and with what remuneration for those doing the work, to market motivations and dynamics. Instead, it uses statistical averaging techniques to avoid nitpicking detail, while keeping the driving dynamics of decision making under the purview of workers and consumers who cooperatively negotiate the outcomes with proportionate influence.

Would a working participatory planning be efficient in reaching decisions and in getting them to reflect self managed preferences in light of the true social costs and benefits of competing options? I have said that yes, it would, and I have offered some modest evidence for it, but the real and compelling case requires presenting and assessing the full participatory planning model as, for example, in the book, Parecon.

I guess what I would say here is that if readers would like there to be an alternative to class-dominated market or centrally planned allocation, and if they would like to be able to advocate such an alternative knowing its properties (or improving them as they see fit), they ought to look at the more complete description of participatory planning’s procedures and institutions and judge its properties for themselves.

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