Soc 292: Parecon Comments

In perusing the internet I found a pdf of comments by students, I think, of a sociology course (292) that used parecon for a reading. I thought I might briefly react to its contents in a few blog posts.

The first student, after indicating his broad support, wonders if parecon isn’t “an economist’s fable, a different one from the neoclassical model with fundamentally different first principles, but still a fully formed theory of behavior.”

I think I know what he means, and I think the answer is no, parecon isn’t that. Quite the contrary, there are few if any assumptions regarding behavior in different settings, etc., none that are controversial. Rather, parecon worries about the settings themselves – how can we make them equitable, self-managing, etc. Rather than assume a certain kind of person, parecon is concerned to establish a certain kind of institutional setting for diverse kinds of people.

The student wonders “Has Albert reified the public in the same way that economists reify the private?” Again, I don’t think so. There is no bias toward elevating society as compared to the individual. If anything in that regard could be claimed it would be the reverse. What is claimed that is related, however, is that even if an individual has no inclination to be socially concerned, or even a tendency toward anti-sociality, nonetheless, if he or she is to optimally benefit personally, he or she will have to take account of social implications. A nice person becomes greedy and avaricious to gain personally in capitalism. In a parecon, even an anti-social person has to attend to social implications in a solidaritous way to gain personally. The point is, personal benefit and social good are entwined in a parecon, rather than contentious.

He – this student was a he – wonders, “Do we really want to be this engaged?” Let’s rephrase that. Do we really want to be in an economy where we can freely participate, and have the means to do so, to affect outcomes in proportion as they affect us? Put that way, it doesn’t seem overly engaged, but just about right, I think.

The student asks, “Isn’t this model still technocratic?” I don’t know what that means. Parecon is certainly not technocratic in the sense of elevating a technocracy to power…if that is what is being asked. Parecon does use technology, however, but then any human society will, of course.

And the student asks, “Will people really think about opportunity costs in the way that Albert outlines on p. 164: ‘if a peanut factory makes soy nuts, chicken farmers have less soy feed, which increases beef output, which affects leather production, which reduces some plastic production, which reduces economies of scale in plastic production, which raises the price of VCRs’? This is the same deterministic mechanism that makes perfect sense to economists but is not usually borne out by behavior.”

I am afraid this is confused, perhaps due to poor exposition on my part. Yes, typical economists tell all kinds of stories that have little to no relation to real conditions – assuming perfect knowledge against environments that broker information narrowly, or assuming preferences that are unaffected by economic life against the reality of human preferences largely reflecting economic impositions, or perfect equality of influence over prices and choices as against grossly unequal bargaining power, and so on. But parecon does none of that, and saying that choices in one part of an economy impact possibilities that remain in other parts is a simple truism…though whether an economy properly accounts for and impacts these relations, and on whose terms, and the extent to which people can freely participate, are another matter entirely.

The student says, “Occasionally parecon seems almost sufficiently contrived to give Hayek the benefit of the doubt.” Here too, I think maybe I know what this student means, though it isn’t indicated fully. The descriptions of any system are generally without much of the friction that it necessarily embodies in its social dynamics, and the confusions, and mistakes, especially in shorter presentations. They are streamlined. And while parecon notes this, and even tries to explain how reality would be more complex and muddy, one could read descriptions of it and feel they are too “perfect,” I think. But this is an artifact of communication, I believe, not of the model.

The student says, “When Albert tells us that ‘society has presumably decided in its year’s consumption plan how much theater it wants,’ parecon seems like a bureaucratic dystopia – shouldn’t theater be spontaneous, freely available, even overabundant, in a utopia?” This is simply a misunderstanding plus the above noted problem. First, of course the economy can decide precisely what the student says – that more theatre than is desired, even, should be funded. And of course, whatever is decided, it is possible later to amend the decision. There is really nothing much different about theatre performances than bicycles on this score, or, say, aspirin. All are important. All will be planned imperfectly. Many will involve corrections over the course of a year. But mostly important, in a parecon all will be planned and then refined in accord with self management.

The student says, “A question about the mechanism of parecon – it appears that the same process determines all goods. To be extreme, the decisions about string production and nuclear power plants are conducted along the same lines, which is fine, but require the same level of engagement from people, which might be frivolous. Isn’t it wasteful, or at the very least tiresome, to go through this process from top to bottom? Shouldn’t participation be dependent on interest, to some degree?”

Sure it should, and it is. Take the example. There will be no commissions to study the implications of string production, etc. etc. There will likely be such studies, for nukes. The people who produce strings will spend more time on string decisions, and major users, I guess. Same for nukes, but everyone is a major user, if we take account of risks. Nukes take more investigation to have knowledge that bears on decisions. In one case the plan will be adjusting a little the total output from what it was last year, say – in the other it may be negotiating having the product at all. If nukes become a part of economic life, then they may well stop taking large investments of time, becoming, if safe, no more time consuming in the broad, than string or bicycles. If they are contentious, then things will be different. This is in accord with the student’s request.

The student asks: “An exciting element of parecon is that it can change the kind of production – that is, it can give us more of the right kind of production, by appropriating the time spent on advertising and goods that no one really ever demanded. But will it? Won’t people want more SUVs, and not fewer? Albert seems to presume that the deliberative system will allow good to win out over bad outcomes – ultimately disallowing harmful goods that will adversely affect the majority.”

No, I don’t assume that at all. Rather, I make a structural case for why we can expect it to happen. Parecon incorporates in SUV prices accurate estimates of the personal and social implications of their production and consumption. Thus, the price is very different from what it is now under markets, where the ecological impact (and actually, most of the human direct human impact too) is barely noticed, if at all. It is this that makes it more sensible for you to prefer pollution minimal (and humanely produced and less dangerous to use) public transport and bikes, or whatever, to SUVs in a parecon.

The student asks – very fairly — how will we get there, could this work in only one country, if so what about capital flight – and while I have offered my views on such matters in many places, of course the real point is that if lots more people want to get there, more efforts will be undertaken, and more clarity about strategy will emerge.

The student wonders, “under parecon, is there an incentive to lower prices by either moving jobs overseas or, absent that, purchasing goods from lower-wage countries?” A parecon could vandalize other countries and thereby as a whole benefit, then dividing up the spoils equitably domestically. That much is true. But I think it is fair to say that the tendency for that to occur would be hugely diminished – not only because there is no competition for markets making such behavior not only lucrative but necessary to avoid going out of business, but because the entire logic and morality of parecon points away from imperial mindsets and choices.

This student ends… “A final cheap shot: where are race, gender, status, sexuality and family in this analysis?” Right next door, so to speak, needed to be enunciated so one can judge whether parecon is compatible with worthy aims in these other domains, and can benefit them.

Leave a comment