February 25, 2008

The Future of Economics: Capitalized Socialism

8I'm still working on what to call it. People in the United States don't like the word 'socialism'. Especially those of us who remember the Cold War and the U.S.S.R. Communism is a dirty word, even though it wasn't so much communism as fascism that we really had a problem with; but I digress. This is going to be a random rant about our capitalist economy, socialism ideas, the future and a change that we are undergoing as I write.

The United States thrived through the Industrial Revolution, and through the Computer Revolution that followed it. The lives of our grandparents were hard, back-breaking lives, with 6-day work weeks and 12-hour work days. When they came home, there was still more work waiting for them at the house. Life isn't that hard any longer. Our homes are increasingly coated in new-aged materials such as vinyl-siding and faux brick fronts. Only the trim needs painting, and not even every year at that. Our land is no longer 2 or 3 acres of farmland that needs be plowed, planted, fed and harvested. It's now a patch of 1/4 acre genetically engineered short grass that is fed by automatic sprinklers and the monthly visits from the TruGreen ChemLawn truck. Mowing it takes less than an hour. Our homes are fitted with electronic devices that our grandparents didn't dream of: dishwashers, frost-free refrigerators with ice-makers, and washer/dryer machines.

Not only are our lives easier, but the lives of the lower-class as well. Even the cheapest apartments are fitted with indoor air-conditioning, garbage disposals and clean water and waste disposal. Certainly I am not begrudging the raising of the standard of living in America, I am merely calling attention to it to make a point. The reason that we have these things is because of the bulk production and economies of scale that have taken over in our country. Once we produce a nicety, a creation that makes our lives easier, we distribute the cost of research, development and production on a declining scale based on demand. Demand for the latest and greatest drive down the price of the common and mass-produced, until either the item in question becomes free, or is no longer produced by a corporate society that sees value in profit, but not in social welfare.

And free is relatively new in our society, but it is a growing phenomenon. Wired magazine in March of 2008 has Free! as its cover story and covers a great deal of information about (mostly information and Internet services) things that are free, and why they've become so. While it does not touch greatly on physical items, there is mention of the Freecycle movement in the U.S.

Our efficiency is catching up with us. The things that we need to produce (housing, clothing, food, entertainment) now take much less work to produce than they once did. We also have a vast society full of hand-me downs, with entire generations full of entertainment available to our new generations. With the speed that we can put out entertainment (and retrofit and re-purpose old entertainment), we may have already generated enough for the lifetime of our children.

Perhaps the phrase I was looking for is Hand-Me-Down Capitalism, or Capitalized Socialism.

How does Hand-Me-Down Capitalism work?
1) Corporations invest in research and development to improve products and invent new products.
2) Initial production runs and initial high prices pay the costs of the initial R&D and protect a comfortable margin of profit during production runs. Profits are kept in-house as those who provide R&D and initial creation of items are given the incentive to continue making new things.
3) Production runs over-produce what is necessary to ensure that goods are available until they are outmoded. Here we have to make some concessions for socialism to provide the incentives for companies to do this. This is where we switch from capitalism to socialism and need the greatest re-engineering of our monetary-centric economy.
4) Hand-me-downs are turned in for newer models and re-used for those who can not afford the latest and greatest. (This is where we need some more work - especially in using enduring standards during engineering)
5) Mass production of older models need socialized assistance to ensure continued availability after what we consider end-of-life today.

At the bottom of the society are those who do not work on the production of new things. In fact, new labor force is needed to put into production the items of old. Social work programs can reproduce what the factories of old produced, with all of the lessons learned through initial production runs. Repetitive tasks mean work for unskilled laborers. Exposure to technology and historical runs of older products mean training and education of those who may be starting at the lower rung of the labor force. Increased production of goods mean greater availability of older items for places in the world that may not have them.

Capitalism will continue to thrive because our advertising and marketing will continue to do a great job providing us the incentive to want the biggest, baddest, brightest we can offer. The only way to afford this ever-increasing standard of living will be to participate in the cutting edge and pulling down a piece of the unsocialized money supply. Fewer and fewer workers will be needed, however, as technology rapidly increases our effectiveness. Competition for the high-life will become more and more fierce.

Concerns for this new economy include ever-increasing class warfare, and a sense of entitlement for the lower class. We already see that those who have a standard of living above and beyond what could be expected a mere hundred years ago feel cheated that they can not live the life of the middle class. We need to do a better job of ensuring that maintenance of the standard of living of the lower class is kept to a level wherein this rebelliousness is quashed through 'good-enough' levels of service.

What we need:
1) Better engineering for increased life-span of physical goods.
2) Use of standards in part usage and item design to ensure continuing serviceable goods.
3) A recognition of social needs in addition to profit needs. Provide incentives for R&D that make a difference in how things are engineered to ensure long-lasting items.
4) Social work programs that provide service levels for the hand-me-downs in society. This means providing incentives for the working poor to continue working, incentives that may not mean a change in class, but instead a sense of accomplishment, belonging and entitlement that provide quality of life improvements from a psychological, if not physical standpoint.
5) Bring back Mr. Fix-It. Social intervention should provide incentives for fixing and maintaining old items to ensure continued serviceability instead of the American throw-away culture. Since the financial incentives may not be there for these highly skilled individuals, society needs to provide incentives for their continued existence. Low cost parts availability, anti-trash incentive programs (imagine what it costs the environment to trash a computer versus reusing it [or its parts] and pay the differential as a cost incentive to those who work to save it)

I am coming back to this draft now two days later. I've had some time to give it some more thought, and I came up with an idea. What might help is if we were to create something much like the energy/carbon credits. We could create the 'SC' credit (for Social Conscience). We could give companies SC credits that could be used to gain tax benefits (or other incentives such as access to federally sponsored corporate loan programs). People would be able to amass SC credits as well. In fact, one thing I've always been a fan of is 'work for welfare' programs. Some of you who know me are probably asking yourself whatever happened to my belief in limited government. I'm not so much a fan of small government, as I am a fan of limited governmental meddling. Less rules, more services...but again, I digress.

SC credits are like money, but are centered on providing basic quality of life services and have an economy that cannot be used for frivolous purposes. You wouldn't be able to trade your SC credits outside of the program. SC credits could be integrated into the social security program (x SC credits = 1 work credit). Other governmental services could be bought with SC credits, like maybe a fast lane at the DMV, or extend your unemployment insurance for a month.

Obviously there are a lot of details that need to be worked out to prevent crossover areas (where we provide money for social recipients to pay for things that are a necessity to them, but not to their landlord, e.g. rent) from becoming places where abuse and fraud amass.

The benefits, however, would be fantastic. People could perform social welfare to amass credits they can use later in life when they're unemployed and/or retired. SC credits wouldn't need to be taxed. You wouldn't allow people to freely trade them to prevent fraud. It would force people to either be independently frugal or provide community service in order to receive community help. Incentive programs ensure that businesses provide their 'hand-me-downs' to help society. You could even provide programs like patent-release programs where engineering diagrams and documents are released into the public domain for social credits.

That's my thought for the day...and this post is already too long.

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