Thanks for the clarifications.
John \"sb\" Werneken wrote:
> I have two general quibbles with your elaboration: (1) I do not agree that a
> theory that can be reduced to an absurd result under extreme conditions is
> necessarily wrong; (2) I am more concerned with how we decide, than with
> what we decide (means, not ends).
Good points. I think the focus on how we decide is very well put.
> As far as "clean air" goes, if I owned some, I would not want it sullied.
The point is that you (as an individual) probably would not own any
For example, consider how the FCC has planned to give away spectrum for
HDTV to existing broadcasters; this is analogous to giving carbon
credits to existing polluters in proportion to how much they pollute. In
all likelihood, "clean air" would initially be sold to the highest
bidder. It is likely that Dow Chemical or midwest coal burning power
plants would have more ready cash and credit to purchase the rights to
clean air than you or I. Then anyone coming down with lung cancer would
have no right to sue, because they had no economic ownership right to
clean air. "Sorry Mr. Jones, but you did not own any clean air because
your great-grandparents sold the right to it to send your grandfather to
Princeton. Your lawsuit against Mega-Polluter Corp. is denied."
That is related the point I was trying to make with my comment on
business only responding to the interests of those with money. That is
why there is not considered by business for there to be a significant
demand for food in India or China.
> I have seen EPA regulations reported as requiring @200,000,000 invested in
> order to eliminate enough pollution to statistically avoid one death. If
> life is priceless, why is it so rare that anyone would spend more that
> $1,000,000.00 to provide life-saving treatment? If $1,000,000.00 is more
> than we are actually willing to pay for a life when we have the chance, how
> does $200,000,000.00 become an acceptable cost?
I agree -- sometimes these assessments are absurd. There does need to be
some prioritization of limited investment funds.
However, why should any company be allowed to pass on external costs
(like deaths)? If it costs $200 million to fix a problem, then obviously
the cost of that business activity may be considered too high by the
company, and that process should be shut down. But here we get into
deeper issues and vested interests. If the company is already running
and will lay off people who will go on welfare, the costs of the broken
implicit promise to the employees is again made into an external costs
(i.e. paid by the taxpayer for welfare payments).
In our economic system it is not usually possible to remove distributed
dividends from shareholder's pockets or wealth retroactively from people
who briefly owned a stock. But, realistically, if a bunch of people
engage in an activity or support it, and only years later do the
enormous external costs become apparent, then in a "fair" economic
system those participating and investing individuals should pay. That
really means shareholders (and perhaps even employees). But the limited
liability system of stock ownership prevents that. The argument for
limited liability is that otherwise investment would not happen because
it would be too risky. This issue would certainly need to be revisited
in a system where everything is "owned", and perhaps should be revisited
I think the deeper issue here is again external costs -- and despite the
concept of everything being owned, there will always be external costs
in terms of hard to prove things like health risks or hard to quantify
things like community disruption. Why should any company be allowed to
pass on the costs of health risks and death to consumers? One could
make an argument that that is the cost of having access to goods and
services. That is the argument for the Forest Service selling old growth
timber that costs more in taxpayer forest roads to produce that timber
companies pay -- because the end result is supposedly a good economy and
cheap timber goods for U.S. citizens (although now much of the lumber
goes to Japan).
The point as you put it is "who decides?". The answer is that in our
system, the entities with money. More and more often this means decision
makers are immortal corporations who are for most practical purposes
above the law because they can't be imprisoned and their charters are
The counter argument is again that this is what is practical. It is a
compromise between accountability and initiative. But we need to
acknowledge it as a compromise. And that means, it needs oversight to
make sure the compromise is not abused. And that means laws or a moral
code governing conduct.
> Of course an individual or a corporation is better, given the rights to own
> and to sell. Then there are clear incentives for conserving value, clear
> ways of establishing precedence when values conflict, and a mechanism of
> competition to allow better methods to come to prominence.
But it seems, these are not done as well as they could be. The whole
need for a OHS/DKR/Bootstrapping is to be able to do these things
better. And also, fundamentally, the question is what entity is
benefiting from these decisions (the public or the company). To quote
William C. Norris, "Business exists to meet societies unmet needs". If
business stops meeting society's needs, then that social contract needs
to be reexamined.
> Yellowstone and the great national parks were Teddy Roosevelt in 1901-1909,
> not FDR or the 1930's. And not much of a fight either. As head of the
> organization owning the land (federal government) he simply declared the
> parks created by executive order. Ownership at its best.
You're probably right on the dates; I need to find my reference for the
political infighting behind this.
> The average family income in America is an un-Plutocratic 39,000.00. But
> still enough that wages and subsidies (social security, medicare,
> foodstamps) grant far more than the necessities of life to most of us.
Average means there are people above and people below (unless you live
in Lake Woebegone "Where the kids are all above average"). My major
point is that markets often don't work for the people below average.
That is why we have welfare programs; that is why we have free public
education; that is why we have OSHA and workplace protection laws.
Speaking worldwide, most families probably don't make $1000 a year. Does
this mean they are not entitled to clean air or clean water or an
Part of this is what we consider to be basic human rights. This differs
by culture. In America, people have a right to work where they want, and
live where they want, and get health care of their choice, if they can
afford it. In the USSR, people had a right to a job, an apartment, and
healthcare, whether they could afford it or not, but they had little
choice about the quality. Maybe the issue here is, what fundamental
rights do people have in regard to clean air and clean water, and access
to other environmental resources or the neccesities of life (however
that is defined).
The deeper point is that we are defining the characteristics of an
economic network through policy and related laws. One principle for
example is you can't take things from people by force. Why make that
law? Isn't it "fairer" to say only people who can defend their
possessions by force have a right to keep them? But instead we have
police and a legal system subsidized by taxes.
So, having made the point that we decide how to structure the economic
network, the issue is "how should we structure it?" Obviously we want to
encourage individual initiative in producing the things people need, and
likewise we want to encourage people to be responsible about the
resources they have at their disposal. I think we are both in agreement
A monetary system is a way to do this, and even on "Star Trek Voyager"
people get "replicator credits" they swap. However, no one talks about
"replicator credits" on "Star Trek: The Next Generation". Why? Because
the Voyage crew are alone, living off of scarce resources. The
Enterprise crew has starbases to refuel them and is part of a wealthy
network. My point? Beware of using "scarcity model" thinking in
designing economic systems for the future. The points you make about
selling "clean air" imply a scarcity. Perhaps if there is considered to
be enough basics to go around, then the need to pollute to produce SUVs
will be seen as "vanity", not a basic necessity. There is talk about
thinking through a "post-scarcity" economy. It may have very different
Indira Gandy said a few decades ago something like every U.S. citizen
contributes more to pollution than a village of Indians. The path to the
future might lie more in the direction of Duane Elgin's "Voluntary
Simplicity". We must decide between when current costs in pollution
support necessity and when they support Vanity.
For example, as an undergraduate, I transferred from a cheaper state
college (SUNY Stony Brook) to Princeton. Why? Probably in large part
"vanity" (plus a host of other noxious reasons -- arrogance, greed,
selfishness, etc., and maybe a couple good ones). If I had banked the
difference in cost (or just dropped out and save all the cost) and
invested it in the stock market, I would probably be independently
wealthy today from it. Or, that money might have lifted one hundred
Africans out of poverty or starvation. Of course, I might then have
ended up like that well known college drop-out (Bill Gates), and
certainly the software world would have benefitted from Bill Gates
having a liberal arts degree.
Spending "the environment" to have SUVs may mean that in a hundred years
we may *have* to live in environmentally controlled domes which are
harder to maintain (where everyone owns a slice of air) rather than just
living openly on the planet Earth. People who can't afford a dome will
just suffer and die. When our great-grandchildren ask why the world is
like this, would we really have a better answer than "vanity"?
> When everything has a private owner, there are no "external costs". Those
> damaged without compensation can and do sue, and they collect, if they can
> convince a panel of laymen that they are correct as to damage and cause.
Some people say if the poor are given money from the rich they will
mismanage it and it will end up back in the hands of the rich. While I
don't totally agree, I think there is some truth to this. The
implication: many people will in a short while not own "clean air" or
"clean water" if these are made ownable commodities.
> I think my actual position though is fairly consistent. I see this marvelous
> "new economy" and I see so many people demonstrating the benefits they have
> received from two great trends in America: the trend of the individualist
> capitalist ethic, and the trend of the social investment in the community's
> future (particularly in education & in infrastructure). I hear a lot of
> voices denying the value of the capitalist tradition. I hear lots of other
> voices claiming that the "new economy" owes nothing to the society as a
> whole and in fact deserves to be left completely free of any restraint or
> impost, on the grounds that it was entirely self-created.
The thing about "America": We must never forget that there were tens of
millions of people living in "America" before 1492. Many of these people
had a very sophisticated and peaceful cultural system. These people were
ruthlessly exterminated by biological warfare (blankets intentionally
contaminated with Smallpox, and to a lesser extent introduced V.D.),
overt military action, forced death marches (the "Trail of Tears"),
creation of addictions (i.e. selling alcohol), and treachery (repeated
violation of legal agreements). Had this happened in a few years instead
of a few centuries the enormity of it would have been more apparent. The
end result was vast amount of land wealth, mineral wealth, timber, and
raw materials for the immigrants, protected from conflicts by vast
oceans. On top of this, much of the early wealth was in the South was
produced by slavery, resulting in the suffering and deaths of millions
of Africans and their descendants (because it was harder to enslave the
Native Americans -- they knew the land and could easily run away). I
credit much of American's early success to these factors -- not to the
political or capitalistic system -- and to an extent, the later success
builds on the wealth of the early success. We must never forget the
genocide behind the creation of the American way of life. For
references, see "A People's History of the United States" by Howard
Why were the Native Americans and imported African Americans exploited
and exterminated? In part, they had little economic power, and in the
case of the Native Americans had a very different model of land
ownership (hunting rights vs. defended enclosures). When one talks about
ownership of everything, perhaps one should also think about giving
America back to the original owners, the Native Americans, and
compensating Africa and African Americans for their losses. But
frankly, this will be considered too expensive and won't happen (except
in token ways) and their impoverish descendants don't have the funds it
takes to buy justice on that scale. The bottom line: when you talk about
privatizing everything, remember the way American land ownership was
privatized from the Native Americans, and think deep and hard about who
the next genocide might be against.
Personally, what I get out of this portrait of American history is that
to deal with the guilt of living in and profiting from a society with so
much blood on its hands, we need to use the resources we have for all of
humanity, to in a small way make up for the behavior of our ancestors
and our own continued participation in the resulting society.
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