Markets in everything creep not just into our lives, but into our thoughts. Most environmentalists worried about the climate crisis focus on winning a cap-and-trade system or at best a carbon tax. They prioritize pricing greenhouse gas emissions. When we buy a kWh of coal generated electricity, we don’t pay for the asthma or other respiratory diseases it caused, nor do we pay for global warming effects. This is why environmentalists often focus on "getting prices right" as the primary solution to the climate crisis.
Many reformers try to tame markets, and take advantage of their virtues without suffering today’s ill effects. After all, a market price provides information, however imperfectly. When we purchase something, its price implicitly compares its value to alternatives. Some critics would say a market price is a highly imperfect approximation of the social value of what we buy. Trying to repair markets rather than discard them is a reasonable response.
Alternatively, others try to create non-market proposals that accomplish the good things markets do without the flaws. For example, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel proposed a system called Parecon which included a bottom up means to generate valid prices without needing markets. (It is well worth examining in detail, and I suggest following the links or references to do so.)
There is good reason to pay attention to price. A modern industrial system requires aggregating potential inputs in possible combinations that would take millions of digits merely to write out. Prices allow distributed actors to make simplified choices without needing to individually weigh larger effects. Without such simplification, we could not feasibly choose how to produce, distribute and consume all the goods and services a 21st century society creates.
Important as it is to get prices right, in many economic decisions price is NOT the primary driver of behavior. Perhaps it is not surprising that, in consumption decisions, other factors often trump price. For example, what we think will taste good may outweigh cost in choosing between peach pie and chocolate ice cream. But even when evaluating cost saving measures in heavy industry, (where an economist might expect to find the elusive rational actor), price plays a surprisingly tiny role.
For example, between 1992 and 2002 the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office studied opportunities for Great Lakes industries to reduce toxic waste at a profit by improving boiler efficiency. They found many possible projects that could have paid back their cost in five years or less. Industry took advantage of none of these possibilities, not even an improvement that would have paid back its investment cost in a single month, and then yielded a 100% return every month thereafter. According to the study, top executives considered boilers a cost center. In interviews with the consultants conducting the study, middle management simply did not believe it could convince decision makers that putting money into boilers was anything but pure expense. Perhaps most of these factories were in troubled industries, and middle managers did not want to risk their jobs by presenting possibly controversial proposals to their bosses. The Carbon Tax Center hosts my bibliography on this issue. It documents that people respond slowly and in small increments to price increases in energy. This seems to apply to any type of decision where capital expenditures are used to lower operating costs, and to social costs and public goods in general. My article in the July/Aug 2008 issue of Z Magazine, "Cooling a Fevered Planet" describes in more detail some of the reasons this is true.
Robin Hahnel suggests a reason this applies even more strongly to long term planning. The cost/benefit ratios of things like railroads and electric grids depend a great deal on social choices made between the time work on the project begins, and the time the work is complete. Thus neither market prices, nor prices derived from short term planning processes are particularly helpful in determining whether to implement such proposals. They require a long term viewpoint, planning in the old fashioned sense of discussion and expert testimony about direct effects. Evaluating the derivative of the derivative of a price will tell us very little.
The problem: most planning processes we know of that are not centered on price tend to be undemocratic. Historically, Soviet and Chinese style planning were part of totalitarian dictatorships. When corporations make plans inside firms bigger than many nations, that process is as top-down and totalitarian as any of the former Communist nations. Corporate planning can produce quite dire consequences, as a long series of economic crashes and environmental disasters illustrate. Planning by democratic governments is usually more influenced by large corporations than popular opinion. And even if the governments themselves were truly democratic and responsive to majority views, the process itself is top down. There is no real path to initiate programs from the bottom up in today’s governments. (To get a citizen initiative into a legislature is a laborious process compared to a rich industry lobbyist lunching with someone who has taken huge contributions from her over the years.) There is no procedure for repeated feedback where proposals can be refined, sent back to the public for change, and refined again.
In current circumstances, that doesn’t mean public programs run by conventional governments should be sneered at, when the alternative is private central planning. Nations, such as France, with a larger public role than the U.S. in health care end up with better health care systems that cost less than ours. Public investment in education, pensions, mass transit, green energy and day care provide worthwhile alternatives to more heavily corporate dominated systems, even under today’s governments.
But it does suggest that the problem of democratic planning by means other than playing with prices is a critical one, even in the economic sector. This is especially true because government has a lot of roles besides the purely economic. Some more democratic way of controlling public institutions than we have at present is critical. For that matter one big advantage authoritarians have over democratic movements is the ability for everyone to get on the same page quickly. Efficient medium and large scale democratic planning methods would be useful to our current political movements.
The section that follows will criticize contemporary proposals for democratic planning, and suggest a possible alternative.
Some contemporary proposals for democratic planning, and an alternative
One suggestion often made is to simply give up on large scale planning. Instead, do almost everything locally. If something absolutely has to be done on a large scale, let every little municipality, or county or bioregion negotiate with its neighbors the way nations negotiate today. Of course this assumes a degree of local self-sufficiency that is absurd with a world population of 7 billion. A high percentage of the world’s metro regions couldn’t feed themselves completely from crops grown within or near their own borders. That number would rise drastically if we stopped moving water long distances.
As to energy, even the New Rules Institute, which is one of the big U.S. advocates for local self-reliance admits that half of U.S. states could not power themselves completely with local renewable energy. If we count people rather than states, the study shows a much smaller percentage of communities could generate needed electricity locally and renewably. If we don’t propose some alternative form of large scale planning we will end up with the current mixture of corporate planning, and planning by governments captive to corporate interests.
Some people favor a plebiscitary democracy, where everybody votes on everything. This is extremely time-consuming, and there is no deliberative process. What is voted on is decided either by conventional politics, or by a petitioning system. Victory in getting petitions on the ballot would go to those with the most money, or in more egalitarian societies to those with the most spare time and best networking skill. And there is no simple means of tweaking a proposal before it goes to the ballot. Even the most minor change requires a whole new referendum. I will nobly refrain from bringing up the example of California.
Another suggestion is that a conventional representative system would work quite well in the absence of dominance by the corporate elite. The problem is that we still would have tremendous insulation of representatives from their constituents. A congress or parliament is elected either for a fixed term, or until a government loses its majority. In neither case do constituents decide when the new election happens. And once a government is in power, it decides its own agenda, which may be quite different from the one it was elected on. Even a congress or parliament ruled by a party that keeps promises may still ignore important policies supported by the majority. And representatives in conventional systems get very limited feedback on support for such policies. There are letters and demonstrations and grass roots lobbying, etc. The politician never really knows how representative this feedback is of real public opinion or at any rate can pretend not to know. Representative democracy as it currently exists serves as a safety valve for public opinion, a way to ensure minimum concessions are made to prevent the majority from exploding, but no more.
One way to look at it: supposedly government officials are public servants. They work for us. Would you be satisfied to be "boss" of a company where you could only fire an employee every few years or so, regardless of performance? Especially would you be satisfied if you could not even give orders during that term, but hired employees on the basis of a commitment to a program of work which they might or might not follow? They very kindly would allow you to send suggestions to their secretary during the time you employed them, which that secretary might or might not forward.
Stephen Shalom produced a summary of his proposals on these issues back in 2006. He suggested a system of nested councils. Everybody takes part in a local council which makes certain local decisions. Local councils elect delegates to higher level councils which make decisions covering broader geographic areas. Delegates are elected for a brief term, and are subject to recall if the local council does not feel itself properly represented by them. Delegates are also rotated; they don’t serve continuously for multiple terms. Supposedly this keeps them organically connected to the local councils that elected them. Second level councils elect delegates to third level councils, and so on, right up to the national and maybe even international level. As a check, decisions by higher level councils can be subject to referenda to ensure they really represent majority views. There are also proposals for means of protecting minorities, and for a judiciary and executive power, which I won’t focus on in this essay.
Shalom was talking about this largely as a political system, a substitute for our current legislatures. But the problems he tries to solve also apply when trying to democratize large industries and economic sectors. Unfortunately, I think the proposed solutions are deeply flawed.
First, however "organic" the connection, indirect election works poorly when we add a third step. Councils electing councils may or may not work. Councils that elect councils that elect councils are asking for trouble. The problem will be easier to see if we focus on a simplified government example. Assume a bottom level council is a neighborhood. Neighborhoods in turn elect delegates to a municipal council. Municipalities elect delegates to state legislatures which send delegates to a national legislature. In this example, everybody takes part in a neighborhood council. Multiple neighborhoods elect delegates to a municipal council. Suppose those delegates actually reflect municipal views on issues. (We will see shortly why they might not.) When the process elects delegates to the state level, there is no reason to expect these state legislators to reflect neighborhood views. People who agree on local issues can strongly disagree about what to do statewide, let alone nationally. Every layer is further away from the local level, and with every layer the "organic" connection grows more tenuous. Once we get past the municipal level, delegates are being elected to state, and national councils by people who don’t know them personally, who have only seen them briefly in action during meetings.
But it is worse than it seems. There is no reason to believe a municipal council elected from multiple neighborhoods will reflect the combined view of those neighborhoods. Picture five neighborhoods of one hundred people each.
Each neighborhood elects one delegate to the municipal council. Two of the neighborhoods strongly favor a municipal day care center: 80% yes, 20% no. Three neighborhoods oppose the center 52% to 48%. So, municipal public opinion favors the day care center by around 63% to around 37%. But opponents will elect three delegates to the municipal council by slim majorities. Day care center supporters will elect only two, by large majorities. Nor does the distribution of public opinion need to be as extremely unbalanced as this case to produce those results. If you look at the record of U.S. congressional elections you will see a large number of years in which Democrats won the majority of the popular vote, but lost Congress to Republicans. And with multiple layers of nested councils we have multiple chances for this to happen.
Subjecting disputed council decisions to referendum does not compensate for this flaw. One point of electing nested councils is to avoid the need to subject every decision to a popular vote. The uncertainty about whether any decision by larger councils represents majority opinion provides a strong incentive for losers in contentious votes to appeal to the referendum process.
It is worth noting that certain kinds of dictatorships loved nested council systems. The informational flaws offered great opportunities for one party States to give the illusion of democracy, to engage in their own version of what is sometimes called "manufacturing consent". The unlamented Soviet Union, the formerly communist China, Zimbabwe for a large portion of Mugabe’s rule, and North Korea for much of its history all used nested councils with indirect elections.
Are there solutions to these problems? Let’s step back and think about what we want to accomplish. The ideal form of democracy may well be direct deliberative democracy where everybody meets, forms proposals, engages in thoughtful discussion and votes the final product of all this deliberation up or down. While it might be ideal as democracy, it is not ideal for people living within it. This form of democracy would leave no time for anyone to focus on anything except "democratic discussion". Even if there were world enough and time for direct deliberative democracy, those of us who don’t want to spend our entire lives arguing would find it a nightmare. So we need a way to delegate much decision making to others, while retaining enough control not to make those others our masters. Conventional representative democracy and nested councils are both attempts to accomplish this.
That is one reason many populists favor market solutions combined with very roughly equal income and wealth. That approach looks like a way to indirectly vote with our pocketbooks. If pocketbooks don’t vary too much in size (unlike at present) that seems fair and efficient. Unfortunately, as shown at the beginning of this discussion, price is not that efficient. People don’t respond to price changes the way economic man and woman do in economics textbooks. That might also apply to very radical non-market planning proposals that try to imitate the virtues of markets without their flaws, if such systems relied too much upon "getting prices right".
This suggests something. If Parecon can borrow the iterative nature of price adjustments in a market to design a non-market planning based system, perhaps we can borrow other features from markets and conventional governments.
One key feature of corporations is the use of proxies in shareholder meetings. A shareholder in Target does not have to attend a meeting to influence its outcome. She can send her proxy to someone attending and they may cast both her vote and their own. Of course in corporations this is distorted by the fact that shareholders own drastically different numbers of shares, and have one vote per share. In addition there are many cases, as with mutual funds, where proxies are delegated to another by default, or can’t be voted by the nominal owner. But proxies don’t have to work that way if the intent is democratic.
Instead they can be designed so that each voter gets a proxy for each council. Each voter would have the right, if she wished, to attend every meeting (either in person or electronically) and vote on tens of thousands of issues each year. More realistically she could send her proxies to people she trusted who attended those meetings. She could track her proxy holders’ performance via media and political groups. If judging different politicians continuously at all council levels was too difficult, she could send her proxies for multiple councils to one person, with rights to delegate on her behalf. At any point she could change her mind and delegate one or more proxies to others. Or she could temporarily vote some proxies herself. Or, if she was highly dissatisfied, she could start seeking proxies from others.
This proxy system has several advantages. Proxies are delegated in proportion to the number of people holding particular views. So it is true proportional representation. Yet we can recall the proxies and choose new delegates at any time. Voters can exercise as much control as they choose, with very little effort. With modern computer systems, we can set up security to combine secret ballots with ability to change our mind about who we send proxies to. (This is important, because part of human nature is a reluctance to say no to face to face requests that cost very little effort or money. In the absence of a secret ballot, those seeking proxies would be successful in proportion to their willingness to spend time asking for those proxies, rather than actual public support.)
It has the disadvantages of those advantages too. It would be tremendously responsive to momentary passions, to hatred stirred up by talk show hosts or high powered propaganda. I know ultimately these proposals are supposed to be part of a vision of a better world, but we also need a way to get there. An idea that might work in Utopia, but would make things worse if implemented in the here and now is not helpful. And I’m skeptical that even in a better society we will always be free of moments of collective madness. Even in its present form this system might be suitable for some political organizations, and for choosing nested councils in medium size cooperative enterprises. In both these cases the groups or enterprises have shared purpose, common goals, and (in the case of cooperative enterprises) real personal short term consequences for failure. Similarly, in government, personal contact might neutralize some of these problems at the neighborhood, city or county level. But for larger geographic areas such as states, provinces or nations the problem would be real and dangerous. That probably applies to large political organizations as well. It would also apply to cooperative enterprises that grew big enough to compete with gigantic corporations, or to federations of enterprises in proposals like Parecon.
Let’s look at another approach. Juries are chosen by lot in the U.S. and decide innocence or guilt in criminal cases, and liability in civil cases. Because the judiciary is not intended to be a democratic branch in our system, everything is done to minimize democratic tendencies in this method of selection. The number of jurors is too small to be likely to constitute a representative sample of the community. Challenges by both prosecution and defense attorneys can dismiss certain jurors, further ensuring an unrepresentative panel. The jury’s comings and goings are controlled; it is given orders, instructions and stern warnings that emphasize its inferior status in the legal system in spite of its nominal importance. Again, the judicial branch of our system was designed to be an undemocratic branch. There are real arguments to be made for and against this.
But regardless of whether our current jury system is appropriate to a judiciary, a legislature is supposed to be democratic. Therefore, let’s consider what would happen if we selected our legislature by lot with more democratic goals than that of jury selection. After all, the ancient Greeks thought selection by lot the only democratic method of governing. Elections, to them, were aristocratic.
Suppose we picked state legislatures, national legislatures, and governing councils for really large cooperative enterprises and political organizations by lot. We could select between 400 and 600 representatives at random. Under basic probability, any reasonably random and unbiased means of selection of this large a sample would tend to produce a group that resembled the larger population it was selected from. It would tend to have liberals and conservatives, women and men, LGBT and straight, various ethic groups, various ages and income classes all in approximate ratio to the population it represented. So even though a legislature chosen by lot would not be under our control it would tend to resemble us, and probably produce legislation more to our liking than our current legislatures do.
As in most current legislatures, each lawmaker would have a publicly funded personal staff hired by them to evaluate information, protecting against deceit by lobbyists. The reason for funding a personal staff would be to prevent legislators being manipulated by civil servants and internal enterprise employees over whom they had no control. Not desperately needing funds for reelection might make such a legislature less subject to bribery than our current system. Not immune: there is still the possibility of personal bribery. But my judgment of human nature is that people are much less likely to be personally dishonest than they are to rationalize taking money to help them win a fight. Not that there would not be plenty of scandals and bribes among randomly selected Representatives and Senators if they governed within our current economic system, but I suspect fewer than in our present national and state legislatures.
Again, such a system would have the disadvantages of its advantages. Not running for reelection would also insulate legislators from voter opinion. There is really no fair way to individually recall dishonest legislators. And even though random selection will almost certain produce a representative sample, there is no absolute guarantee.
Therefore, let’s borrow another idea from conventional parliaments and congresses – an upper and lower house. Have a House of Representatives that consists of members chosen at random, and a House of Delegates that consists of all proxy holders. Representatives would have extensive staffs. So would the 400 or so delegates holding the most proxies. Bills would originate from the delegates and be sent to the representatives by a large minority, for example 35% or more of votes cast directly or via proxy. In the House of Representatives, bills would pass through committees. They would undergo the same process of debate, amendment, revision and bargaining bills are subject to in any democratic legislature. Those passed by a majority of representatives would return to the delegates for an up or down majority vote by proxy holders.
Another idea that could be borrowed from parliamentary democracy is a provision for bringing down governments. If the majority of delegates chose, they could dissolve the House of Representatives. A new lottery would be drawn to choose new representatives. Doing this would also dissolve the House of Delegates, returning all proxies to voters, and requiring them to send their proxies to new delegates. Like dissolving a government in a parliamentary system, the consequences are severe enough that delegates would not choose to do this lightly, but not so severe that it would not happen when needed.
This proxy system for small and medium size governments and enterprises, and the two house system for large governments and large enterprises seem to combine deliberative decision making with democratic feedback and refinement. They are compatible with nested councils where that structure makes sense, but also compatible with other forms of connection and networking. Proxies and random selection might reinforce the democratic nature of the popular assemblies used in many Latin American nations and movements.
I’m confident that if we want real democracy that is compatible with large scale organization we will have to include the use of proxies and random selection of representatives. I’m not confident that these proposals are the best way to make use of these tools, but I think they are a good basis to begin the discussion.
2. The Delta Institute, "Sector-Based Pollution Prevention: Toxic Reductions Through Energy Efficiency and Conservation Among Industrial Boilers: A Report to the United States EPA Great Lakes National Program Office", GL97514402. July 2002. The Delta Institute, 25/Sep/2005 <http://delta-institute.org/publications/boilers/SectorBasedP2.pdf>
- Gar Lipow; "Cooling a Fevered Planet"; Z Magazine; Z Communications; Jul/Aug 2008. <http://www.zcomm.org/zmag/viewArticle/18060>
Kutscher, Charles F. (Ed) Jan 2007. Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.: Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 2030. American Solar Energy Society. 25/Mar/2008 <http://www.ases.org/climatechange/climate_change.pdf>.
Bull, Jaimie, and Tim Helweg-Larsen. Jun 2007. ZeroCarbonBritain: An Alternative Energy Strategy. Edited by Fred Foxxon. CAT Publications Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT); CAT’s Graduate School for the Environment(GSE); CAT’s Welsh Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE); Public Interest Research Centre. 25/Mar/2008 <http://www.zerocarbonbritain.com/images/process.php?file=zerocarbonbritain.pdf>.
Lipow, Garson. Oct 2004. Cooling It! No Hair Shirt Solutions to Global Warming. <http://www.nohairshirts.com>.
Makhijani, Arjun. 10-Jul 2007. Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy (Executive Summary). A Joint Project of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. 10/Aug/2007 <http://www.ieer.org/carbonfree/summary.pdf>.
Trieb, Franz. 23/Jun 2006. Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection ForConcentrating Solar Power. The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety: Stuttgart,Germany, 23/Jun/2006. 25/Mar/2008 < http://www.dlr.de/tt/Portaldata/41/Resources/dokumente/institut/system/projects/TRANS-CSP_Full_Report_Final.pdf>.
Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson, "Evaluation of Global Wind Power". Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres 110, no. D12 30-Jun 2005, American Geophysical Union, 20-Jan-2008 <http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/winds/2004jd005462.pdf>
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Energy demand responds slowly to prices and reasons
Gar W. Lipow (2008), Price-Elasticity of Energy Demand: A Bibliography, Carbon Tax Center (www.carbontax.org); at <www.carbontax.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/elasticity_biblio_lipow.doc>
The Delta Institute, Sector-Based Pollution Prevention: Toxic Reductions Through Energy Efficiency and Conservation Among Industrial Boilers: A Report to the United States EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, GL97514402. July 2002. The Delta Institute, 25/Sep/2005 <http://delta-institute.org/publications/boilers/SectorBasedP2.pdf>
Davis, Shelley. Summer 2000. "Osha Issues Proposed Ergonomics Standard Excluding Farmworkers." Farmworker Justice News 12, no. 1. Farmworker Justice Fund, Inc. 26/Aug/2004 <http://www.fwjustice.org/FJNews%20Summ%202000.pdf>.
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. May 1997. "The Death of the Short-Handled Hoe." In The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. Edited by Diana Hembree. Harcourt. Public Broadcasting Service. 28/Sep/2005 <http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfields/book1.html>.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 1988. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York, New York: Basic Books/Perseus Publishing.
Dean Baker; The Conservative Nanny State-How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer; Center for Economic and Policy Research; Washington D.C. ; May 2006. <http://www.conservativenannystate.org/cnswebbook.pdf >
GATT, GATT, United States – Taxes on Automobiles (DS31/R), Report of the Panel, Oct. 11, 1994. 11/Oct 1994. GATT, WorldTradeLaw.Net, 30/Sep/2005 http://www.worldtradelaw.net/reports/gattpanels/us-autotaxes.pdf>.pp105-108.
Envirowise, Case Studies- All Industries – Envirowise. Practical Environmental Advice for Business, a Government Programme Managed by Momenta, an Operating Division of AEA Technology Plc, and Technology Transfer and Innovation Ltd., Sep/28 2005, Momenta, 28/Sep/2005 <http://www.envirowise.gov.uk/page.aspx?o=168584>.
Mitsutsune Yamaguchi, Implementing the Kyoto Protocol Target and Its Impacts on Trade: Japanese Automobile Fuel Efficiency Standards. 2003. Keio University, Global Environment & Trade Study, 30/Sep/2005 <http://www.gets.org/pages/harmony/Yamaguchi.doc>.
David Stern, "Reversal of the trend in global anthropogenic sulfur emissions", Global Environmental Change 16 (2006) 207-220.
David Stern’s spreadsheet for North American data: http://www.rpi.edu/~sternd/NAmerica.xls (Excel Spreadsheet).
David Stern’s spreadsheet for Western European data: http://www.rpi.edu/~sternd/WEurope.xls (Excel Spreadsheet).
(Note; spreadsheets are no longer on internet, but I have copies if anyone wants them.)
Gar Lipow, "Emissions trading: a mixed record with plenty of failures", Grist Magazine, 19-Feb-2009 < http://www.grist.org/article/emissions-trading-a-mixed-record-with-plenty-of-failures>
Larry Lohmann, Carbon trading, a critical conversation on climate change, privatization and power, development dialog no. 48, September 2006, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala, Sweden. < http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/pdf/document/carbonDDlow.pdf>
International Rivers, "Rip-Offsets: The Failure of The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism", November 2008 <http://internationalrivers.org/files/CDM_factsheet_low-rez.pdf>
Gar Lipow, Offsets: Pissing the earth away ,Grist Magazine, 9-Jun-2009, <www.grist.org/article/offsets-pissing-the-earth-away>