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Socialism: Disputing Pie Slices


[This is the fifth in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

In my last essay I suggested that the growing constituency of people aligning with “socialism” ought to be able to answer the question: In your better economy what determines how much income we each receive. While current activism rightly focuses on climate disasters, the Green New Deal, health, militarism, racism, and much else, we nonetheless need longer term vision to combat the widespread demobilizing belief that all efforts at change will dissolve back into the ills of the present, and, even beyond instilling hope, to provide positive direction and goals toward which our current actions can lead so they steadily enhance our prospects for comprehensive and lasting gains.

I also suggested an answer to the equity question: Income ought to be for how long we work, for how hard we work, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which we work, as long we are producing socially valued product. But before we can proceed to other issues about which advocates of socialism ought to have answers, we have to acknowledge that many who hear our income formulation will doubt or even strongly reject the approach. What are their reasons? I have heard the following and if you have heard or you yourself have another doubt, please enter it as a comment beneath this article.

1.  The equity approach punishes anyone who can’t work, whether for age or health reasons. If you can’t have duration, intensity, or onerous conditions of work, you have no basis for getting an income, which is unacceptable.

2.  The equity approach doesn’t materially incentivize people to use their inborn talents and so fails to elicit potential output. We may share the social pie equitably, but the pie will shrink horribly, which is unacceptable.

3.  The equity approach doesn’t reward acquired skills. Why would I go to school to become a doctor if I can earn the same income per hour of my work time for doing jobs that require much less preparation? The approach will not yield enough doctors, or extended education for any purpose, and therefore again impose massive, unacceptable pie shrinkage.

4.  The equity approach doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to elicit desired effort/output from each worker. This is another version of the same problem. We will have pie shrinkage so severe it undercuts our more fairly sharing what pie there is.

5.  The equity approach doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to elicit innovation. Why develop new technologies and techniques if you don’t benefit from doing so? This causes yet more long-term pie shrinkage.

6.  In any event, even if the above problems have answers, which is to say even if the social product would not unduly shrink due to equitably sharing it, the final criticism of our equity approach is that no one can measure duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, so it is an unimplementable aim.

Let’s consider the criticisms in turn. 

The first is only a misunderstanding due to incomplete exposition on my part. Of course, in a worthy economy if you are too young, too old, or otherwise unable to work you get a full adult or child income free, and of course all medical care is free. No one is left out of equity. 

The second concern has in mind someone with great inborn talent for some type of work. A potential pianist, mathematician, architect, athlete, or whatever else. The idea is that the equity approach doesn’t give such a person a material reason to pursue a path utilizing their talent. If you could be a great surgeon, but only a good cook, but you loved cooking, this approach would not give you an income-related reason to forego competent cooking and pursue  superior surgery. The observation is true. My reply is threefold. 

First, almost everyone with exceptional talents inclines toward using them and would, indeed, have to be coercively prevented from doing so even if using their talent would yield them less income than not using it. Think artists, athletes, scientists, and so on. Second, the equity approach does include an incentive to utilize one’s talents in the form of the admiration, respect, self satisfaction, and self fulfillment that accrues to superior rather than only competent actions. And third, if you don’t feel a drive to utilize your inborn talents it is presumably because you don’t enjoy them and you more strongly incline toward some other pursuit sufficiently that you would forego the accolades that superior activity would bring. In that case isn’t it actually appropriate and perhaps even more productive that you make the preferred choice?

The third concern has two parts. First why would anyone pay to go to school to learn new skills instead of immediately earning an income out of school, since continuing in school won’t earn you more later. And second, why would anyone want to become, say, a doctor when you can do something requiring less training, and earn the same? The answer is that in a future equitable economy and society, schooling, for example to become a doctor, is not only free, but you receive pay while in school as it is considered work since you are producing the learning and skills you will later utilize and thereby adding to the social product. And then, beyond the issue of time in school, if being a doctor doesn’t give you a greater rate of income than other jobs, why do it? To heal, to contribute, to utilize your talents. We are are more than financial beings. Imagine, even in our current society  you are in high school. You want to be a doctor, and you know that it means you will have to go to college, and then medical school, and then be an intern, and only then be a full doctor, or, if you prefer, an engineer, lawyer, scientist, accountant, or whatever else that takes lots of training. You are suddenly told that there will no longer be massive income differentials in society. You will not wind up earning $500,000 a year as a doctor, while a coal miner earns, $75,000. Instead you will earn much less, though you will start to get paid it as soon as you begin your special training. How low do I have to set your doctor income for you to decide that you will forego four years of college, three years of graduate work, and some heavier than normal on the job training for a couple of years as well, all at your new salary level, for you to instead chose lifetime employment in the coal mine? 

I have done this thought experiment with a great many medical students who, at the outset, were aggressively ridiculing the equitable income approach on grounds that with it in place, neither they nor anyone else would opt to become a doctor. Then, however, as I lowered doctor salaries from $500 000 to $400,000 to $300,000, and so on, each step of the way asking if it was now so low that they were going to forego doctor training and being a doctor to instead work in a coal mine at $75,000 a year, they kept saying no, they wouldn’t. And I would get to $75,000 and finally each would say something like, I don’t know how low an income I could live on and still survive as a doctor, but you’d have to go below that for me to switch. The upshot is people need and deserve income for sacrifices, but not for being their most fully and freely expressed selves.

The fourth concern is due to miseducation by intrination. In fact, our equity approach provides incentives correctly. Paying someone high income cannot cause them to have a different genetic endowment. There is also no incentive effect on our DNA. … and likewise for better tools or workmates. In fact, if you are working, the things you can yourself affect that impact the amount of product you generate are how long and how hard you work, and also your enduring harsh conditions if it is necessary for the work to get done. And these are exactly what the equitable income approach incentivizes, and properly so.

The fifth concern is that society can benefit greatly from innovation. So, very often, pursuing innovations is highly desirable. Since equitable income means individuals don’t get to take most of the gain from innovations – unlike owners taking it as profit – that kind of pressure for innovation (as well as for unlimited growth and endless accumulation) disappears. To see why and how a new desirable economy pursues desirable innovations that benefit everyone, whether materially or otherwise, and avoids undesirable innovations that may benefit a few but hurt the rest much more, has to wait further exploration of new relations in coming essays. For now, hopefully the above brief reactions to criticisms are enough to suggest that a new approach can work, and will, when we see how a whole new system can operate. 

But what about the practicality of measuring duration, intensity, and onerousness of conditions to determine incomes? After all, the critics are correct that if we can’t do it, then advocating the equitable income approach is irrelevant to future prospects and plans. My answer is that duration is of course easy to measure. Intensity of useful effort is revealed partly by output, but is also known to and collectively agreed by workmates. And for onerousness, the same holds… but the main thing to realize is that as we proceed and see new ways of organizing work and making decisions, matters of measuring will become much simpler and more collective. So again, to more fully address this concern, some patience is needed. 

Regarding patience, a simple observation that bears on this whole undertaking  is that a tenth of a bridge, even a half or nine tenths of a bridge, can’t get you across a river. Nonetheless if it is part of a whole bridge it can help. So our real question should be is there a whole good society, a whole socialism if you will, that our equitable income can be a workable and effective part of? And that is why this essay is part of a series of essays. 

Now you might say, sure, nice dodge, but that’s asking for a lot of reading and thinking. And you are right, it is. Then again, we are talking about whether a new world is desirable, possible, workable, and attainable. Is there something more important to determine? 

Last point: As we proceed with trying to arrive at ways to answer convincingly what socialism or a good society can or even ought to look like, we have to not only make a case for aims, but also describe how they can be implemented. And that’s another task we have to tackle later, once groundwork is laid.

9 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Marxsen April 11, 2019 3:45 pm 

    Now that I think more about it we probably need to uncouple work from remuneration. Just like we need to uncouple work from health care.

    • Michael Albert April 11, 2019 10:12 pm 

      There are many reasons why that (anarchist sentiment) turns out to be a very well motivated but counter productive way to try to go. There are many articles online about this stuff – you may find one where I address Noam saying something rather similar to you, most engaging. I think it is called querying the young chomsky, or something like that.

    • avatar
      James April 20, 2019 12:38 am 

      This uncoupling work from remuneration is an odd thing. Vague. In a capitalist economy it is clear the role money plays, wages, salaries…access to the social pie. But the access is highly unequal and tends to be decided by markets easily manipulated by states and institutions like the World Bank, IMF etc., in favour of the Big Daddy White Geezer Hegemonic Power Grid.

      Decoupling work from remuneration means then, by what mechanism does society allocate and distribute goods and services, how do people access the social pie, and how does it account for what is produced and consumed so as the qualitative and quantitative benefits of production/consumption outweigh the costs.

      The maxim, from each according to ability to each according to need, alone, is completely lacking in this regard and therefore meaningless. What is needed is the minimum outline of a set of defining features of an economy that fosters equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management and ecological sanity. Some mechanism by which everyone’s access to the social pie does not undermine this set of shared values and in fact operates according to the maxim.

      Every anarchist wishing to decouple remuneration from work who has critiqued the remuneration mechanism of Parecon, which is what Michael is describing here, has usually offered up absolutely ZERO in return, other than that in a better future society people would, apparently, just behave according to their better nature (which is odd considering they assume that in a Parecon – an anarchist type economy designed to foster better economic and social relations – people would act deceitfully and horridly selfishly) by taking only what they actually need and contributing exactly according to their abilities.

      How they do this without some sort of accounting mechanism is unknown, or at least left open. Open for people to decide. Well, I guess what they decide to do could be anything, from something far worse than now, or far better but apparently, it will or should be NOT be what Parecon offers up, because it has already been decided that that kind of mechanism is bad and will not work. It apparently merely opens up people worst natures.

      So it appears anarchists can apparently show what will not work but are not able to or refuse, out of principle it seems, to go further and show what might. But whatever it is that is decided upon, in an anarchist socialist/communist society will be uncheatable, incorruptible. I find this not just somewhat disingenuous but rather strange, almost, but perhaps not quite, contradictory.

      The problem with the word remuneration is that it carries baggage. In a Parecon, remuneration is nothing like what occurs in a capitalist economy or a market socialist one. In some ways it’s just a credit/debit ledger of sorts. In fact, what people individually get, is decided and agreed upon by the whole of society. How long they work is decided and agreed upon by the whole of society. What gets produced and therefore consumed is decided and agreed upon by the whole of society. All through federated worker and consumer councils fostering self-management. Within those agreements there is slack and the means for some, in discussions with all those affected by such a decision, to work more or less than the socially agreed upon average, and therefore earn more or less than the socially agreed upon average. None if this is implemented through coercion or due to market imperatives but collectively and mutually decided upon.

      In fact one’s ‘wage’, because what is produced for that year has already been mutually decided and agreed upon by the whole of society through the planning process, and therefore also the time each capable citizen spends within a balance job complex doing socially valuable labour (those incapable of working get the social average anyway), is no more than what they have already decided, in collective agreement with all, to individually consume for that year. If I’ve decided, in collective agreement with everyone, to consume five surfboards, three guitars and a partridge in a pear tree for that year, that is my wage. (If I work less than required to pay for that, I owe, if I work more, I save.) Or put more simply and generally, the total social pie divided by the number of citizens is the average remuneration package. (That is because everything produced and consumed has an indicative price that has been decided through careful assessment, accessible to all, and carries information regarding the qualitative and quantitative benefits and costs.) But obviously, some, or even perhaps most, will be taking more or less at socially/collectively decided and agreed upon levels. Those levels are decided and agreed upon by all those affected, in proportion to the degree they are affected, through decision making processes inside workers and consumer councils which are completely transparent (and anonymous as one wishes) and inform the planning process. This is called self-management, a key tenant of anarchism, as are federated worker and consumer councils.

      Further, in relation to measuring effort, it is a complete mystery to me that people find it problematic. Effort gets measured everyday, all the time by people, both outside and inside of work. People get kicked out of shared households due to lack of effort. It’s not even close to spying or prying or doing something nasty behind people’s backs. (And I will hazard a guess that within workplaces during the Paris Commune and Spanish Revolution and elsewhere, there was plenty of fisticuffs related to people taking too much shift and not doing enough) And in a Parecon, the notion that that nasty stuff can happen at such a high level that would see people benefitting from such behaviour to the extent up they would persist with it is rather silly.

      Anarchists themselves wish to see the maxim from each to each play out according to people’s good natures as if people would not notice who is working hard or slacking and who is seemingly taking far more than they need. In other words, people just won’t cheat in such an ethically founded system of full communism…but what that system is, even minimally defined, they cannot say, so it is beyond me how they can make the claim.

      Even David Schweickart, a market socialist, who attacked this aspect of Parecon rather viscously and, for an academic, philosopher and logical thinker, quite erroneously, has even shown that noticing other workers effort would go on in worker owned/coop style workplaces and provide a mechanism to ward off shirking,

      “You also know that incompetent or irresponsible behavior on your part affects the well-being of your coworkers and will not be suffered by them lightly. The large, crude stick, fear of unemployment, is replaced by the carrot of profit sharing and the more subtle stick of social disapproval.”

      “Incompetent or irresponsible behaviour” in the workplace, which could easily be just slacking, not putting in, low effort in other words, would be noticed by workmates. Of course it would be.

      Then there are workers councils, through which anyone not putting in would be held to account, hopefully, due to most people’s better nature that comes out in a better economy designed to foster good social relations in the first place, with gentle warnings first and without docking them. In other words you talk to the person because most humans are in fact good and don’t really dig shitty relations anywhere, let alone in the workplace.

      Within those workers councils could also be discussions regarding whether workers should be rated very specifically regarding effort. It may be the type of work that decides this. It certainly wouldn’t be something imposed from above or done secretly without people knowing. The rating would be done anonymously but done with full knowledge it is being done by everyone because everyone decided to do it…this can easily be changed through the very same collective and participatory decision making processes that implemented it in the first place, if it is seen to be detrimental. See, talking to each other.

      It’s also not as if the remuneration aspect of Parecon stands alone, separate from the rest of its institutional structure. And if it did in fact undermine the set of shared values Parecon is meant to foster and maintain, I would have thought that two activists, two anti-capitalists, two market abolitionists, two anti-coordinator class revolutionaries with strong anarchist historical knowledge, leanings, knowledgeable of economics, it’s history and Marx, over the past two to three decades, would have noticed and ditched it for something more credible. And as far as non-market based systems or ideas, anarchists, perhaps separate from Takis Fotopoulis, have offered up pretty much nothing other than vague notions based on the maxim from each to each. And as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t nearly good enough to garner support or convince people from outside the rather small and sometimes insular anarchist community, to believe a clear and coherent alternative and better way of organising an economy is possible. Particularly if you are not particularly fond of markets or central planning.

      Gifting and sharing or just taking what you need and doing merely what you want, which may or may not be socially valuable, won’t necessarily see the full range of rather important modern medical equipment and instruments needed and probably desired by most, produced, based on some kind of natural inclination and desire to do certain shit as opposed to doing other shit, according to one’s own idea of what one’s abilities actually are, I don’t reckon.
      And that’s a pretty important industry, I do reckon.

      • avatar
        Michael Albert April 21, 2019 12:45 pm 

        James…

        I very much appreciate the long very thoughtful comment, and hope others do too, but more, I hope you will consider writing articles.

  2. Elizabeth Marxsen April 10, 2019 5:37 pm 

    Also, one other difficulty, its not so hard to agree upon and articulate the output of a “good worker” who is a peer. How many will be honest and clear about assessing less-than-positive work output of a peer? Laziness, apathy, etc.

    • Michael Albert April 11, 2019 2:42 am 

      Just to clarify – the issue is not how much a person doing a job likes it or not, or has to work on it or not – it is a rating for the onerousness of the tasks themselves. If I happen to love a really onerous set of tasks and I can get assigned them, well, that is good for me. And in any event we should all seek jobs we like as much as possible. Soon in the essays it will get clearer – not least because what a job is will also alter in a good economy. Also, regrettably, it is hard to write a little bit at a time about a system all of whose parts depend on the rest. Likewise hard to be convincing without going into more detail. But ultimately a more full rendition, as in various books, is available.

    • Elizabeth Marxsen April 11, 2019 12:58 pm 

      Ooops – duh – meant its not so EASY to agree upon. Also, the percent of people capable of being honest with themselves about their own abilities/competencies in any given group is not high, based on my experience.

  3. Elizabeth Marxsen April 10, 2019 5:33 pm 

    One concern is that duration, onerousness and intensity of effort is easier to assess within one’s group of same-job peers. (and even then its subject to political bias). But how can it be assessed, and so a value put on it and a hierarchy established across different jobs, between groups of workers doing different work? How will it be possible to gain visibility into the actual effort it takes another person to do something with which I am totally unfamiliar? So as programmer I know what I do and where the effort is concentrated, but when it comes to an attorney who works at the same company, (presuming the attorneys have all agreed amongst themselves upon an “intensity rating”) who is to decide upon (and how can it be decided) what the relative remuneration should be for those 2 groups?

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