Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Civility and professionalism (yeah, right!) in internet comments

Internet comments are subject to creative conjugation: I am telling it like it is; you are abrasive; he is an asshole.

Burt Likko is unhappy with the response of several commenters on a recent (now withdrawn) post on Ordinary Times. Among other issues, Likko laments,
Toxins brew in our comments threads — seemingly forgotten is the principle of charitable interpretation, commenters labor to frame others’ statements in the worst possible light, and then demonstrate smug self-satisfaction in having done so.
Likko wishes,
This site ought to be the online equivalent of a dinner party amongst interesting friends. A college bull session, fueled by beer and fellowship and the thrill of sharing newly-learnt things. A re-creation of a symposium from classical times, where we fill each other’s wine glasses even while we debate. An environment where a multiplicity of different ideas are aired, heard, discussed, and shared. A place where people can engage in intellectual explorations, learn about new things, and try on new and different thoughts for size. For quite a while, and when the community is at its best, that’s a thrilling and exciting sort of place to be, a joyous bazaar of the mind where all manner of wares may be found on display.

I spent a few years as a contributor, moderator, and administrator of the now defunct Internet Infidels Discussion Board, as a contributor to the Straight Dope Message Board, and of course, I have this blog, so I know exactly what Likko is talking about. I've also had experience a college instructor, especially in political science. Likko wants, I think, something close to the environment I have to create in my classroom.

I could talk about rules and regulations, procedures, standards, but that's not the point. The point is to understand the attitudes and purposes of people who comment on the internet, and act to reconcile those attitudes with the desires of the publisher.

It seems too obvious, but the vibe of a dinner party between interesting friends presumes that the participants are already, you know, friends. I give my actual friends much more benefit of the doubt than I give to strangers or acquaintances. If one of my friends says something apparently dumb, I'm inclined to at least think for a moment. And even if my friend really does say something dumb, I also have an investment in the relationship, so I'll try to gently persuade them, or at least just ignore it and maintain the relationship. In contrast, if a stranger says something dumb, then I usually just write them off. There are a lot of people in the world, and I don't have time to dig into everyone's mindset to determine if they really are smart despite appearing dumb.

Second, people really really really want to be heard, and for some people, internet comments are the only way they think they can be heard. Also, everyone thinks they're right about everything (if they didn't, they would have already changed their mind), and they view contrary opinions as something wrong in need of correction. It takes enormous personal discipline to view even the best contrary opinions with charity, and even more discipline — and usually an alternative creative outlet, as I have here — to simply disengage with the worst.

The closest I've come to participating in and creating a collegiate environment among people who are not already friends is, well, in college. The college environment depends on both the ethics and substantial authority of the instructor. The instructor has not only power over the class discussion, but power over the students in assignment of grades. Furthermore, the scope and limitations of the instructors' power is pretty consistent across any student's experience, so they develop internal habits of what they can and cannot say, and how they can and cannot say it. When they come into my classroom, they already know their role and my own in the process.

A site like Ordinary Times has neither of these features. The commenters are not all friends with each other, they often have not developed or do not exercise the discipline to be charitable or silent (and why should they? I'm not making any universal normative claims for this kind of discipline), and the moderators of a site have little actual power over the commenters. Moderators can edit or delete comments or ban commenters, but that's the extent of their power; unlike instructors, moderators do not have something that the commenters desperately want and have paid a lot of money for.

I think for blogs and websites, there is no middle ground. Either you go the old PZ Myers route* and allow pretty much all comments besides spam and harassment, or you go my route and pretty much eliminate comments**. You can make all the rules you want, but people want to have their say, and they always believe they themselves are being perfectly reasonable and polite; it's the other guy who's being an asshole... and sheesh! do they get pissed off when the moderator disagrees.

If you want a friendly, collegiate environment, I don't think there's anything to do but hang out with your friends or go to college.

*I have no idea if Myers still has this commenting policy. I stopped even reading his comments a long time ago.

**I still permit comments, but I am deliberately rude to people I don't like, so they will leave, and I ban them quickly if they persist. I get very few comments, especially compared to the early days of my blog, which suits me just fine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

It's all about the Benjamins

In The Red and The Black, Seth Ackerman (2012) notes that a key feature of capitalism is that firms are autonomous. True: in a capitalist economy, both firms and households are autonomous in the sense that they need not ask permission of anyone outside the firm before taking economic action. However, to coordinate the vast, global machine of capitalist production, there must be a constraint on this autonomy, a severe constraint; otherwise, firms and households would just do things willy-nilly, and there would be no coordination.

I will let Herr Marx do the heavy lifting on the critique of capitalism, but I will observe that the severe constraint is that everyone needs money: yes, anyone can do whatever they like, but if they don't bring in the money, they are well and truly fucked.

Capitalism needs every household, every firm, thinking about money every waking moment. Everyone has to be trying to get their hands on as much money as possible all the time and and all the time spending all of the money as usefully to themselves as possible.

The capitalist system needs money to be constantly moving: it's bad if households or firms hold onto large stacks of actual money for a long time; Thus, for "keeping score" in the long term, instead of accumulating money itself, people accumulate wealth, legal ownership of streams of money. To use a biological metaphor, money is blood, wealth is blood vessels, the supply of blood.

Workers need money, so they work for wages. They need more money, so they work harder and try to find better paying work. Firms need money, and more money, so they please their customers and are always trying, even absent direct pressure, to increase revenue and cut costs (or increase market share). Similarly, the bourgeoisie, the legal owners of streams of money — profits, interest, rent — are always trying to increase their wealth, accumulating more and bigger streams of money.

"Markets", at least capitalist markets, work only to the degree that everyone is motivated to get and spend money and accumulate wealth. Take out this pillar, remove the constant and desperate need of every individual to get and spend every possible dollar, and capitalist markets collapse.

A corollary to this money motive is that money as a product of wealth requires no work, so it is absolutely necessary that only a few have real wealth; if everyone had wealth, no one would, because no one would be working to produce stuff (goods and services), which is finally what money is about.

Capitalism requires a great deal of "central planning". First, a capitalist society must have a legal regime to make people always desperately need money and have to work to acquire it but keep them from just shooting each other for it. This legal regime requires central planning: there must be no "market" alternative to markets.

Furthermore, there must also be centrally planned international force used to shut down socialist alternatives. It is instructive to note that although capitalists proclaim the inherent superiority of capitalism over socialism, capitalist powers are quick to use every means at their disposal, not only military force but also torture and terrorism, to instantly destroy any attempt at socialism. If socialism is so inferior, would it not be better to simply say, "Y'all want socialism? Go for it; we won't interfere. When you start starving, come talk to us, and we'll fix you back up." Ain't gonna happen.

More importantly, because of the critical importance of money, the money itself must be carefully centrally planned and managed. "Free banking" is up there with the stupidest, anti-capitalist Libertarian and right-anarchist ideas. If a capitalist society fucks up the money itself, the drive to acquire money and streams of money collapses, and the economy collapses. When capitalist economies lose a big chunk of physical productive capability, in earthquakes and other natural disasters, the economy quickly recovers. When the money gets fucked up, such as in the Long Depression, the Great Depression, or the current Great Recession (a.k.a. the Lesser Depression), the effects are severe, and it takes a long time to recover. Whether it's a carefully curated private banking system or a state-regulated central bank, a capitalist society must keep careful track of the money itself.

I will examine Ackerman (2012) in more detail later, but the centrality of the money motive to capitalist markets is a severe defect in Ackerman's market socialism. Markets don't work by magic, and labeling some system as a "market" doesn't make it one. Matthijs Krul (2013) correctly uncovers the contradiction: "Ackerman’s solution is to propose a market socialist alternative, which would have prices (and thereby evade the calculation problem), but not profits — a handy solution if ever there was one, having one’s cake and eating it too."

I won't say that one cannot use the word "market" and "prices" except in the context of the capitalist central money motive, but as I noted, for some number to be a "price", the number has to matter, it has to in some way affect people's economic behavior. Take out the constant, desperate, and urgent need for money, and you have to give some alternative account of how prices affect behavior.


References

Ackerman, Seth. December 2012. The red and the black. Jacobin 8. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from jacobinmag.com/2012/12/the-red-and-the-black

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On communism and markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from http://mccaine.org/2013/01/30/on-communism-and-markets-a-reply-to-seth-ackerman/

Monday, August 15, 2016

Quiggin on Locke: Against freedom

According to John Quiggin's 2015 article, John Locke Against Freedom, John Locke’s classical liberalism isn’t a doctrine of freedom. It’s a defense of "expropriation and enslavement."

In fine deconstructionist form, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's specific historical situation informs a reading of his works, especially the Second Treatise on Government and Letters on Toleration. Quiggin (2015) claims that it widely known that Locke justifies slavery and denies property right to indigenous people, but that these elements are peripheral to the main themes of Locke's writing, but Quiggin (2015) argues these themes are central. Quiggin (2015) reports that Locke "was intimately involved with American affairs," drafting the constitution of the Carolinas, serving on American trading boards, and, most importantly, was "a major investor in the English slave trade." Quiggin (2015) argues that an interpretation of the latter in light of his supposed advocacy of liberty as mere hypocrisy is "too charitable." Instead, Quiggin (2015) argues that the contradictions between liberty and slavery finds its way into Locke's work: they
are designed to fit his political positions both in England, where he supported resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Catholic James II, and in America, where he was part of the slave-owning ruling class (albeit from afar).

Quiggin (2015) observes that Locke's argument for religious toleration in Letters on Toleration excludes "both Catholics and atheists"; Locke does not argue for toleration per se, but rather for tolerating only good ideas, i.e. his own. Similarly, given Locke's deep involvement in the colonization of North America and expropriation from the indigenous people, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's theory of "original acquisition" is not just a benign historical fiction but an active justification of expropriation: a property right lies not just in temporal priority, but in best economic use. Quiggin (2015) compares the idea that agriculture is a superior economic use to hunting-gathering, justifying American colonial expropriation, and Kelo v. City of New London, where superior commercial use justified the exercise of eminent domain over Ms. Kelo merely temporal priority. Locke does not stake out truly universal standards; he simply universalizes his own specific interests.

Quiggin (2015) reinterprets Locke's "oft-quoted statement": “SLAVERY is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” (Locke, 1821, book 1, ch. 1. § 1). Quiggin (2015) denies that Locke does not categorically condemn slavery; instead, Locke condemns slavery only for Englishmen, and only the "slavery" of submission to an absolute monarch. Locke approves of "the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive [emphasis original]" (Locke, 1821. book 2, ch. 4. § 24). Alexander Mosely (N.d.) describes Locke's extension of this argument to enslaved Africans as "defending, if somewhat naively, colonial slavery," but Quiggin (2015) rejects the apologia of naivete. Quiggin (2015) argues that all these positions fit a consistent pattern: rights, freedom, liberty are only for people like Locke, with his particular interests situated in his particular historical context.

(I hope soon to summarize the next two installments in Quiggin's polemic: John Locke’s Road to Serfdom and Locke’s Folly, with Quiggin's summary.)


References

Locke, John. 1821. Two treatises on government. Bartleby.com. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from http://www.bartleby.com/169.

Moseley, Alexander. N.d. John Locke: Political philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/locke-po/

Quiggen, John. 2015. John Locke against freedom. Jacobin. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/locke-treatise-slavery-private-property/

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An introduction to prices

Curiously, the three systems of economic organizations that Seth Ackerman (2012) investigates in The Red and the Black all feature something called "prices". Prices are uncontroversially (I hope!) a key part of standard market capitalism, but Ackerman reports that both the alternative systems he examines, presumably Albert and Hahnel's (1991, 1992a, 1992b, 2002)* "participatory economics" as well as Soviet-style central planning, also have prices. According to Ackerman (2012), Albert and Hahnel's plan uses a democratic process to set prices; similarly, the economic task in the former Soviet Union after 1989 was to "Get Prices Right": not to introduce a price system, but to correct an already existing price system (which they found to be already correct). Thus, it is clearly not the case that prices per se are the critical factor; every economic system seems to have "prices." Differences in economic systems consist not of whether or not some system has "prices," but of what prices represent or do, and how these prices interact with human behavior.

*It is perhaps the fault of Jacobin (the online version of the magazine is very difficult to correctly cite), but Ackerman infuriatingly fails to completely cite many of his sources. Hopefully the citations here will assist future scholars.

An economic system consists of a collection of institutions that has three primary functions. First, a quantity and mix of stuff (goods and services), constrained by the available labor and natural resources, must be produced and distributed. Second, the institutions themselves must be reproduced: the human beings who participate in the institutions, and the quantity and mix of stuff will change over time. I use the passive voice above purposefully, because the third and most important function of an economic system is designating which people in which institutions have how much and which control over the production, distribution, and consumption of stuff, the supply of labor offered by the people, and the reproductive future of the institutions.

In On Communism and Markets, I think Matthijs Krul (2013) gives these last two functions special emphasis. It might (or might not) be more "efficient" in some sense to have some system of distribution, but so long as that system reproduces capitalist relations of production, it's not socialism.

However, I think a stronger argument is possible. For Marx, a necessary presupposition for a socialist revolution is that capitalist relations have become fetters on human productive powers. If that is indeed the case, then preserving any kind of specifically capitalist relations is at best dodgy, and requires a much stronger positive case than Ackerman (2012) makes. It is insufficient to argue that capitalism has kept the grocery stores stocked, capitalism uses some unspecified price system, therefore we should preserve this unspecified price system to keep the grocery stores stocked.

These issues are certainly important, but the technical problem of producing and distributing the right quantity and mix of stuff under labor and resource constraints still remains.

I want to construct a minimal definition of price. All three of the systems have something called a "price": to understand how they differ, I want to understand what is common between them all. In the general form, a price is a number attached to some definite, objectively determinable quantity of stuff. The number must be directly observable by and exactly the same for every relevant actor. The number must directly affect the actors' economic decisions: if the number were nontrivially different, the actors would make different economic decisions just because of that difference in price.

Thus the differences between different economic systems consists of how a society attaches these observable numbers to definite quantities of stuff, how these numbers affect people's economic behavior, and how the institutions and individuals reproduce these mechanisms of attachment and effect. In addition to briefly describing the capitalist theory of prices, I will examine each of the systems Ackerman (2012) and Krul (2013) discuss: market socialism, Albert and Hahnel's (1991 etc.) participatory economics, and "Soviet-style" central planning.


References

Ackerman, Seth. December 2012. The red and the black. Jacobin 8. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from jacobinmag.com/2012/12/the-red-and-the-black

Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel. 1991. The political economy of participatory economics. Princeton University Press.

---. 1992a. Participatory planning. Science & Society 56.1: 39-59.

---. 1992b. Socialism as it was always meant to be. Review of Radical Political Economics 24.3-4: 46-66.

---. 2002. In defense of participatory economics. Science & Society 66.1: 7-28.

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On Communism and Markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from http://mccaine.org/2013/01/30/on-communism-and-markets-a-reply-to-seth-ackerman/

Friday, August 12, 2016

Central planning and market socialism

What should a socialist economy look like? I'm somewhat in agreement with Marx: we should not be "writing [recipes] (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future."1 Indeed, to a certain extent, I'm completely in agreement. The point is not to design a socialist economy at all; what the economy looks like, even in its broad character, is not the main point. The main point is to establish the "dictatorship of the proletariat": a society of the workers, by the workers, and for the workers. Economic issues are a means to that end; they should be evaluated by how they move society towards or away from the dictatorship of the proletariat. Because the dictatorship of the proletariat is so far away from my experience, it is difficult to imagine how the proletariat, given real power, will choose to organize their economic life. But difficult is not the same as impossible.

A number of people have discussed ideas for how a socialist economy might work. Chris Dillow describes "his" socialism, directing us to Seth Ackerman's sketch of "market socialism" by way of Matthijs Krul's response. I agree with Krul that Ackerman does not locate the fundamental issue of socialism as located in the relations of production, rather than distribution. Although Krul catches that that Ackerman yada yadas over all the good parts, I don't think Krul really nails down the specific problems with Ackerman's ideas.

Krul hints at the contradiction of the idea of prices without profits, but his objection is mostly Marxobabble. In order to analyze Ackerman's proposal, and why they will fail, we'll need to delve deeply into the nature of "prices" and "markets". Buckle in and hang on to your hat: it's going to be a bumpy and extremely wonky ride.

1"Preface to the Second German Edition", Capital vol. I

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The lesser of two evils

I've seen Suicide Squad, and it sucked. Sam Kriss is not so charitable in his review, The Ho-Hum Squad: Jared Leto’s Joker and the evil of banality:
We could note how the lesser evil is always measured against the absolute worst that could possibly happen—nuclear war, the end of the world—while the act of refusing to settle for it is so rarely measured against all the actual wrongs that really do take place. These things are tolerable, and they’ll never end. It’s a cop-out, a refusal to ever think through what evil actually is.

The Century of the Self

The very sharp Marie Snyder shares — and more importantly summarizes, for us video-challenged folk — the documentary film, The Century of the Self - A Brief History of Psychoanalysis and Corporate Control. She concludes,
The fact that Bernays and others are able to manipulate society is testament to Freud's original theory hitting a nail on the head in determining how our drives affect us. But what some people do with that understanding is frightening. This clarifies a pivotal role for schools (complete with lessons on Freudian theory) to ensure we wake people up to their own decision-making as well as to their internal drives. We need to demand a democracy based on collective will for the benefit of society, not individual desires for the benefit of the self.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Advice for Clinton supporters

Corey Robin has some advice for Clinton supporters: if he were truly worried that she might lose, they should actively court leftist voters. They definitely should not attack them.
If . . . I were a big booster of Clinton and if I were at all worried that she wasn’t going to win in November . . . I’d spend every waking or at least spare minute of my life between now and November making sure that every potential Clinton voter that I or my committees could reach was converted into an absolutely solid and reliable vote for Clinton come November. . . .

And here’s what I’d not do: spend my time on social media or in person castigating every member of the left who is a potential Clinton voter but is skeptical or leaning toward Jill Stein or thinking about sitting this one out, castigating them as reckless, irresponsible, childish, purist, fanatical, immature, incompetent, cultish, blinkered fantasists of the revolution, and so on, and then deliver long, sonorous monologues—where I demonstrate zero desire to listen or understand, much less engage, with what the people I’m trying to persuade are thinking—about the need for a popular front that includes the very people I’ve just dismissed as childish and irresponsible.

I get this. Nobody likes being bullied, and those of us sincere commitment to actual progressivism and not just slower regressivism have been being bullied for more than a generation. When does the story stop being give in to keep things from getting worse and start being about making things actually better?

Robin speculates on possible reasons why Clinton and her supporters are not adopting a primarily positive approach to the left, and he nails it with his final possibility: "they don’t think they share any values with the Clinton skeptics on the left; they think those leftists actually believe in very different things."

Clinton is on the right; she's been on the right her whole career. The only reason the left is even considering her is that the Republicans are not only farther to the right, they have moved off the scale and have become officially (instead of informally) batshit crazy. Clinton wants to move to the right, because she sincerely believes that would be best for the country (and her career, but she is at least not a pure opportunist). She can move to the right; there are any number of neoliberal Republicans who see Trump as if not actually fascist then deeply damaging to capitalist class interests and will vote for Clinton.

Why shouldn't she move to the right? Why should she court leftist voters? Even if she had to move left to win, she has her career to worry about: the capitalist class doesn't give six figure speaking fees to socialists.

The only worry she really has on the left is that either a left faction of the Democrats will take the nomination in 2024, or the left will split off from the Democratic party and challenge her in 2020 or 2024. Neither of those outcomes are likely. Enough Sanders leaders will be co-opted and stay within a more explicitly neoliberal Democratic party, the institutional power of the Democratic party is sufficiently large that a third party (or a second party, if the Republicans completely fall apart) on the left will always be marginal.

More importantly, the left can't fight, and they don't have a good story. Today's capitalist left is the residue of professional-managerial class (PMC) rule that was defeated in 1980. Today's left is driven by nostalgia; it is regressive in the literal sense of a return to the past. Moreover, the PMC is fundamentally hostile to the working class (although less so than the bourgeoisie), they demonstrated both their impotence and their loyalty to the bourgeoisie, and the workers don't trust them. "Back to the 1960s!" is not a good rallying cry.

Clinton will move to the right, and the left will let her; what choice do they have? Absent an actual revolution (probably fascist), we'll have eight more years of neoliberalism, eight more years of Middle Eastern wars, eight more years of substandard medical care, eight more years of worker income stagnation, eight more years of global warming, eight more years of mass incarceration and police murders, eight more years of financial parasitism, eight more years of filthy water, filthy air, filthy slums, shitty McJobs.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Clinton and the turn to the right

Beverly Mann is concerned about pundits' (a term which must be used very loosely when referring to Friedman) exhortations that Hillary Clinton move to the right to capture Republicans disaffected by Trump. Paul Krugman is equally concerned.

They are missing the point. Clinton wants to move to the right; Friedman is trying (probably by accident) to provide intellectual and ideological cover.

Krugman spent the entire primary season trying to undermine Sanders' reforms, and now he exhorts Clinton to support them. Wait, what? If Clinton does support Sanders' reforms, it won't be because of Krugman. It will be because the Sanders wing of the party, voters and elected officials, uses its power to push for them.

Clinton is a 1960s Republican. She's pro-business, pro-"free" trade, pro-war, anti-labor, anti-union, anti-poor. She will protect the capitalists and the upper levels of the professional-managerial class, including women and people of color, but without concerted pressure from progressives, she will do nothing but the most egregious tokenism for anyone outside that group.

She will will not end the mass incarceration and police murder of black people; instead, she will give good jobs to a few BlackLivesMatter leaders and neutralize the organization. She will make sure that rich and middle-class women can get safe and legal abortions, but if a poor woman in Mississippi has to travel for 8 hours — twice — to find a clinic, well, that's just too bad. She might eliminate public college tuition — that's a giveaway to the tenured academic class — but she will do nothing to make sure those students have good jobs when they graduate. (And the real expense of college is not tuition, it's trying to eat and pay rent while studying.) She might raise the minimum wage, but only by a little and do nothing to prevent the raise from being expropriated by landlords and businesses. She will do nothing to interfere with health insurance profits from the PPACA, and do nothing to improve access to actual medical care currently unaffordable to the working poor. And, of course, she will continue to murder brown people in the Middle East, torture suspected "terrorists", and strengthen the surveillance state.

On the one hand, the collapse of the Republican party is an opportunity for Clinton. She can run on the scary Trump! platform, and say nothing substantive about her actual administration, and make no important commitments. If she's smart, and she is, and she has the stomach for it, which she might, she will do everything to make sure the progressive Sanders wing of the party is marginalized or outright purged.

But scary Trump! is also an opportunity for progressives. (Chaos is a ladder, right?) Progressives can hold their noses, vote for Clinton, but work like crazy to strengthen the progressive wing. Win congressional and senatorial races. Take control of state legislatures. Win governorships. The collapse of the Republican party makes these efforts much easier. Don't give in to the Republican-lite wing of the party, especially in local races. It is doable.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Central planning

In theory, a market price system should be better than central planning. That's certainly the experience of both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. As a computer programmer, I mostly agree.

Ideally, we want to distribute as much as possible. Centralizing anything creates a single point of failure; although the probability of a single failure is lower than in a distributed system, when a centralized system fails, everything goes down. In contrast, an individual failure is more probable in a distributed system: there are more things to fail, and because we spend less to secure each distributed element, the probability that an individual element fails is higher. However, in a distributed system, the consequences of a single failure are negligible, and the probability that enough distributed elements will fail at once to bring down the rest of the system is lower than the probability of a central failure, however careful we are with the central system. Furthermore, distributed systems generally scale better. Doubling the number of elements in a distributed system is usually cheaper than doubling the power of the central system.

No matter how distributed we get, there is always some need for centralization. The internet, for example, is a massively distributed system. However it requires a number of very centralized systems, notably standards to ensure interoperability, domain name servers, and search engines. The internet would not work without Google or someone like them: it doesn't make sense to distribute web searching. Similarly, a centralized system must still distribute something: it makes no sense, for example, for every Russian to travel to the one centralized grocery store in Moscow to buy food. We cannot just formulate a simplistic distributed good/centralized bad (or vice versa) dichotomy. Centralization and distribution are neither binary nor just a trade-off; they are dialectically related.

But still, in theory, a more-distributed price system is, at a first approximation, clearly more efficient than a more-centralized economic planning system. However, it is at a second approximation that we run into trouble.

The internet works as a distributed system because individual elements don't have much incentive or opportunity to exert more power over the system. Even the internet, however, does present opportunities for over-centralization; the power Google has over searching does afford them both the incentive and the power to control everyone's internet experience. Similarly, the power that trunk carriers have over internet traffic gives them a lot of power to manipulate individuals' experience. Paradoxically, we try to solve these over-centralization problems with another centralized institution, the federal government, with net neutrality and anti-monopoly laws and regulations in general.

A price system, however, by design gives everyone the incentive and opportunity to acquire more money and more power. The fundamental incentive of a price system is to accumulate money. A new firm joins an industry only if it can earn an economic profit; but an existing firm in that industry has a strong incentive to resist entry and maintain its own economic profit. No individual firm wants to be in perfect competition; every firm wants to be a monopoly. A price system tries to establish perfect competition by incentivizing firms to escape perfect competition. This contradiction is fundamental, inherent, and ineluctable to a distributed price system, or, more precisely, a private profit maximizing price system.

Thus, while a central planning system is usually less efficient than a private profit maximizing price system at a first approximation, it might be more efficient at a second approximation, because it eliminates the profit motive to establish and maintain monopolies; in other words, a profit maximizing price system is susceptible to "centralization from within," and worse, these centralized entities are not publicly accountable.

(Note that I say "usually" and "might be" above in the sense that anything can be done badly. Crony capitalism, for example, is a profit maximizing price system done badly, and even Soviet-style bureaucratic centralization might be better. At some point, theory must give way to execution.)

Looking at the problem this way, the real problem is not centralization or distribution, not a "price system" (whatever that is); the real problem is private profit maximization. Communism is, therefore, simply what follows from eliminating private profit maximization (i.e. private ownership of the means of production). Soviet or Maoist centralization is one possible consequence, but not the only consequence.

I've outlined one possible alternative, which I'm not entirely happy with. Here's a brief sketch of another:

First and most importantly, when I talk about government below, I mean a radically democratic government, where all the citizenry are substantively and frequently engaged with public policy and, more importantly, engaged with the actual implementation of public policy. The people may employ a civil service to manage routine and rule-based activities, but the people have and exercise sovereign political power. In other words, I am presuming the radically decentralization and distribution of policy and executive political power.

Second, every person (with democratically decided exceptions) earns the same hourly wage. Within reasonable limits, people can choose to work more or fewer hours, but the hourly wage is constant. Everyone who can work has a social and legal obligation to do so. Under no political or economic system I know about can individuals exercise the actual freedom to work any job they choose, so there are social and economic constraints on what jobs a person can choose between, but no individual can be explicitly forced to take a specific job. Everyone able to work at something socially useful is guaranteed the opportunity to do so, and if there are more people who want a specific job than can be usefully employed at that job, objective and fair procedures determine who gets those jobs. If there are fewer people who want a job than is needed, the people will have to democratically decide how to respond; raising the hourly wage for that job is one possible response.

Third, all firms other than in obvious monopolies (obvious monopolies such as water and electric power distribution or mass transit, with always-declining marginal costs, are directly run by the government, and the workers in those industries are unionized employees of the people) are worker-operated. Firms are not private profit maximizing: they may only pay themselves the standard hourly rate. Once in operation, firms rely on the government for circulating capital, which they must obtain at the beginning of every accounting cycle and pay back at the end. They must price their goods and services appropriately; if they are unable to repay their circulating capital, they automatically (without direct political action) shut down, and the workers must find new jobs (which will always be available); only direct and active political action by the people themselves (never the civil service) can a firm survive illiquidity.

Additionally, firms may not save money from one period to the next. If they run a surplus above wages and circulating capital, they must give it to the government. Indeed, the government can and should require a surplus, usually some fraction of start-up and circulating capital. Failure to deliver a required surplus entails automatic shutdown unless the people actively decide otherwise.

Fourth, all start-up capital (fixed capital, initial circulating capital, and initial wages) are also provided by the government, with some institutional limitations. Each individual may draw on some guaranteed start-up capital; individuals can pool this start-up capital and within reasonable but generous limits (i.e. the business must not be a completely obvious waste of time and resources), start any kind of business they choose. Local and regional governments and the national government — only on active political decisions — can also directly offer start-up capital for businesses deemed socially useful and under-represented. No one, however, can be forced to start up such businesses; individuals cannot be denied guaranteed employment if they do not join the government's preferred businesses.

In this system, firms lack the strong incentive of private profit maximization, but they still have a weak incentive. If the workers operating a firm like their jobs (and if they didn't, because alternatives are available, they would have already left), they want to be as efficient as necessary to stay in business and keep doing the jobs they enjoy.

Let me tell a story.

In the People's Communist Democracy of North America, I want to buy an electric scooter. I search the web, and find out that the only electric scooter available is Acme's, but it's under-powered, low-range, and super-expensive: I'd have to work 40 hours a week and live on 25 hours pay for two years to get one. I think I can make a better electric scooter, and make it cheaper, and I think that would be a fun thing to do.

First, I go to the government's consolidated capital availability website, and see if the government is offering capital for scooter manufacturers. If there is, I'm in: the government will supply the start-up capital. But there's not. Sigh.

So I go to my local council. I sign up for a speaking slot, and when it's my turn, I pitch the idea to the meeting and call for a vote. If a majority votes for it, our delegate goes to city council and asks if the city will provide the capital or ask the delegate to the regional council to pitch the idea there, or bump it up to the national council. However, at any point, the local, regional, or national council might say, "No, that's a stupid idea. Nobody but wants better electric scooters," or, "We've seen a hundred proposals for new scooters, and none of them were viable." This road is blocked. More sighs. But all is not lost.

I can draw on a my guaranteed personal capital. I talk to my friend J, a mechanical engineer, and my other friend Alice, an electrical engineer, and they think an electric scooter is a peachy idea. We advertise for someone who's interested who knows about industrial engineering. (I'm an accountant, financial analyst and market analyst.) We pool our personal capital, and come up with a solid plan to show that we really could make better, faster, and cheaper scooters, and people will buy them.

I now have three options. First, our team has no incentive to keep our plans a secret. We can call Acme scooters, show them our plans, and encourage them to make better, faster, and cheaper scooters. If our plan is good, they have an incentive to build them, and sell one to me. I'm happy — I have my good scooter, and I can work 40 hours and live on 30 hours pay a week to pay for it — and I can move on to a new project. But let's suppose they're dumb and refuse.

I can go back to the council with a real plan and ask again for capital to build a scooter factory. If they refuse, I find 20 or 30 people who want to build scooters and who still have their guaranteed personal capital and start one anyway, and we all have fun building electric scooters. After all that, if I can't find 20 people who want to build scooters, then it's probably a bad idea. The capital I used to build the plan is wasted, but I'm not going to lose my home and I still have a job. If I want to work some extra hours and pay back the capital, I can try something different in a year or two.

By design, no one can get rich being innovative. On the other hand, no one can go broke and be ruined for life for innovating and failing. Democratic innovation!