Varieties of Consensus

English: Flowchart of consensus based decision...

Flowchart of consensus based decision-making (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Alternate title: Hacking Consensus]

Did consensus kill Occupy or are reports of its death greatly exaggerated–or both?

First of all, words like Occupy, consensus, capitalism, socialism, democracy, anarchy, liberal, conservative, and green all have one very important thing in common: each is, by itself, absurdly ambiguous. Each has a wide range of definitions, variations, and parts…some of which conflict with or totally contradict each other. Depending on the intended definition(s) (often absent or poorly specified) each term can represent a desirable set of ideals or a set of dreaded evils, or a mix of both.

For example, early capitalism was relatively democratic compared with the aristocratic manorial and feudal systems it emerged from. Many serfs and tenants evolved into self-employed freeholders. Eventually, however, that decentralized and egalitarian form of capitalism tended to morph into its own opposite: a system of concentrated  monopoly capitalism.  US capitalism returned, full circle, from its egalitarian, anti-feudal roots to a new iteration of top-down rule by a small, rich elite–in effect, neo-feudalism. So early capitalism was revolutionary while modern capitalism became mainly counter-revolutionary, both under the same banner, after numerous reversals of bias in the interim. Other minor but potentially competing or co-evolving variants include green, natural, ecological, and p2p capitalism.

Similar arcs, trend reversals, and full-circles can be found in the histories of  socialism, democracy, anarchy and most other “brands” of political and economic ideology and their many variants and hybrids.

Even within a single culture and a narrow historical period, simple one-word labels like capitalism and socialism, liberal and conservative, etc., conceal important variations and overlaps. Over time a brand like “Made In Japan” can go from signifying “inferior crap” to being associated with high-quality, high-tech gear. The fallacy of brand bias, whether for products or ideas, is partly a matter of intellectual fads and out-dated assumptions, and partly a matter of over-generalization.

As we are re-discovering today, largely thanks to the Occupy movement, effective political democracy and  economic democracy are mutually interdependent. Changes in economic bias, either democratic or anti-democratic (distributed or concentrated, egalitarian or authoritarian, etc.), sometimes precede corresponding  political shifts. Political trends may follow more “organic” grassroots economic trends. In other cases the chicken comes before the egg and economic trends follow political reforms. But in almost every case, it seems clear that political or economic extremes of any kind can lead to backlash: collapsing bubbles, revolutions, counter-revolutions, etc.

An interesting catalog of intellectual fads and over-generalizations related to common ideological brands is presented in Dave Pollard’s review of The Democracy Project  (a new book by David Graeber, prominent analyst of the Occupy movement and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years). Pollard not only summarizes some of the key issues in Graeber’s  book; he adds important social, economic and political insights of his own including a “sketch of the ‘camps’ of political and philosophical movements of the 21st century; elaborated on here.”

Pollards New Political Map

Source: Dave Pollard, how to save the world

Intelligence vs Ideology

Both Graeber and Pollard point towards consensus decision-making, rather than obsolescent ideologies, as a basic common denominator of civic intelligence.

In Creating a World Citizen Parliament (published in Interactions, the magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)), Douglas Schuler writes:

Building civic intelligence. The seventh, final, and probably most daunting challenge is building civic intelligence [22]. The goal of this project is to help make individuals, and especially groups, actually smarter in relation to our shared problems. This is the conjecture that motivates this project: We won’t successfully address our problems if we don’t increase our civic intelligence.

Civic intelligence is the ability of people working together to address shared problems. It’s a type of community capacity or collective intelligence focused on shared goals: the capability of addressing civic ends through civic means. Although this idea has been explored by countless authors (including, somewhat prominently, John Dewey), it has not historically been the orientating idea it needs to be.

–Douglas Schuler

Comparative Consensus

Many people insist that consensus is an all-or-nothing proposition, which is what distinguishes it from majority rule. This is the ideal or “pure” form of consensus. But if consensus is seen as relative (a matter of degree), rather than Boolean (true or false, all or nothing), then in some form, and and in some degree, it is common to any collective problem-solving or decision-making model. It is the basic currency of civic intelligence.

But many of the arguments for and against consensus just seem to beg the question: what is it? What forms can it take? What are its internal moving parts? The topic of consensus, like democracy, anarchy, capitalism, etc., covers both an abstract general notion (with varied definitions) and an evolving set of in vivo and in situ practices that are application-specific and context-dependent.

Like many movements before it, OWS bumped up against various practical limits of “pure” consensus. But Occupy’s process of innovation and work-arounds (hacking consensus) is ongoing. So reports of Occupy’s death are greatly exaggerated. In fact it has a growing number of definitions, variations, and moving parts. Its increasing diversity and complexity outpace the ability of activists, journalists, and scholars to connect all the dots.

The challenges of hacking consensus models might include:

  • inefficiencies of scale (numbers of people involved) and scope (number and complexity of issues)
  • resource constraints (physical space, infrastructure, time requirements, process proficiency levels, information distribution)
  • disruption by minorities
  • inequalities of access, influence, etc.
  • manufactured consent

I have a few opinions about consensus based on personal experiences but I’m not an expert on the subject. So I would love to see a broad comparative analysis of variations, case studies, and academic research on social/civic organizing and decision-making models that have, as a common theme, a significant bias towards consensus; but which also try to address the practical limits or failures of consensus. Can anyone suggest one or two of the best available resources on this topic?

Innovations in consensus processing

Automation might be one approach to minimizing some of the problems with consensus process. For example, a consensus status metric (the relative degree of consensus at a given point in time) might be generated from data mining using sources of “Big Data”  including opinion and preference data from social networks, consumer purchasing data, polling and petition data, referendum results, public comment data, etc.  Instead of starting from scratch with a blank slate on any topic (degree of consensus = zero or unknown), efforts at creating consensus on a given topic or set of topics might begin from a data-derived point of reference–a de facto initial consensus status benchmark. This might save a lot of the time and energy associated with seeking consensus, especially in the early stages of consensus processing.

Another example of automation might be a “human microphone (mic check)”  app for mobile phones. If lots of people in a general assembly could “conference” their mobile phones together in “speaker phone” mode, this might be a way of creating a mobile public address system on the fly.

Mobile and remote meeting apps might also address many other infrastructure and consensus-processing issues faced by online and in-person assemblies, committees, etc. For example, an “artificial intelligence immune system” for consensus-toxic behavior patterns might be able to minimize disruptions by minorities, reduce inequalities of access or influence, or produce antibodies against manufactured consent.

Innovation can have unintended negative consequences but Trial and Error is the Hinge of Evolution; and the perfect is the arch nemesis of  both the  individual and the Common Welfare even in the sometimes highfalutin’ world of consensus.

Poor Richard

LP: You favor consensus democracy with collective deliberation and equal participation. How can that operate at a large scale? What’s wrong with majority voting with rights?

DG: Majority voting tends to encourage maximizing the differences between people, rather than encouraging compromise, creative synthesis, seeking common ground, which is what consensus is designed to do. Majority voting also invariably needs some sort of coercive mechanisms of enforcement. Don’t get me wrong, nobody’s talking about absolute consensus, like they used to do, where just one person can block everything and there’s nothing you can do about it. Consensus is just a way to change proposals around until you get something the maximum number agree on, rather than our system, say, where practically 48-49 percent of voters each time always ends up crushed and defeated. And yes, when you get up to a larger scale, you can’t just rely on assemblies or spokescouncils. It does make sense to decentralize as much as possible. Consensus only works if you don’t have to ask for it unless you really have to. But as for scaling up: there are any number of possibilities.

One I’ve been studying up on of late is sortition. Through much of Western history, it never occurred to anyone that elections had anything to do with democracy — they were considered aristocratic. The democratic way of choosing officials, if you had to do it, was lottery. Give people basic tests for sanity and competence and then let anyone who wants to throw in their name have an equal shot. I mean, how can we do much worse than a lot of the people we have now? Sortition would be more like jury duty, except non-compulsory. But there are all sorts of other possibilities.

LP: Is democracy possible in America? If so, what might it look like?

DG: It’s possible anywhere. But it would take enormous changes in our economic and political assumptions. Myself, I’m less interested in mapping out a constitution for a truly democratic society than creating the institutions by which people can collectively decide for themselves what it might look like. The one resource in the world that’s absolutely not scarce at all is smart, creative, people with ideas we’d never have thought of. Solutions are out there. The problem is 99 percent of those people spend most of their lives being told to shut up.

Ownership of the Commons

English: A map showing community property stat...

A map showing community property states in red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the difference between the commons, community property, and public or private property?

IMO at that level of generality those are almost useless distinctions. Within any community there exist a variety of distinct  people-places-things-relations-rules-results hextets. This is true even in the most extreme cases of “all things held in common”. My version of the tragedy of the commons is when the philosophy or ideology of a group does not accurately describe the reality of its practice. Then the philosophy or ideology can become an obfuscating factor, and the rules of actual behavior may be buried or forced into invisibility, with human nature acting as an invisible hand, often with unintended results. I’ve seen this personally in communes and collectives in which I gave participated.

For example, imagine a highly idealistic commune. All property is supposed to be held entirely in common. There is not supposed to be any private property or any boss. But adults still tell children what to do or take certain things away from them– it is a necessity of physical reality. The same is true for a member who has dementia. These are obvious exceptions to the rule of equal sharing, but between the child, the adult, and the senior with dementia are many tiny degrees of variation. In fact, no two people are exactly the same, and the actual relations between people and property vary by degrees. Things also vary by degree. I share the hammer but not the pocket knife I sharpen a special way. I share my coat but not my toothbrush. Similar aspects of exclusivity apply to things like chainsaws, guns, medical instruments, etc.

Ownership is very relative. It is a bundle of many rights or powers along with a bundle of responsibilities, and each is relative as to its strength, weakness, etc. So ownership can be attenuated down nearly to nothing and still be a form of ownership. At one level if you see it you own it, at least compared with the guy who never laid eyes on it. OK, it may not be a kind of ownership that fits our customary default categories, but those are artifices. I’m speaking of ownership in a more general way as any form of control or even potential control (sort of like potential energy) and the commensurate duties and responsibilities that go with that. Also, practically every living thing, including bacteria, owns stuff, in the sense of controlling stuff or excluding others. Can you think of a place or thing to which that doesn’t apply? If not, then if people tried to create a category of things that were unowned it would be a kind of fiction. Fictions can be powerful, but I’m much more a non-fiction guy. So, instead of searching for something in the world that is literally unowned, a better aim for me is to define the kind(s) of ownership I like or dislike.

Every hextet of people-places-things-relations-rules-results is sufficiently unique for it to merit some individual attention. Making categorical assumptions is an important timesaver, but we gloss over particulars at a cost. Speaking of hammers, for example, one community where I lived separated claw hammers into three categories by appropriate users: novice, experienced, and expert. Tools with cutting edges are also a good example. An expert not only knows how to use an adze, draw-knife, or chisel well, she knows how to sharpen it in the best way. But some users even break hammers. Thus user-place-tool-work-maintenance-results is a system that is only as good as its weakest link.

No trespassing. Keep out. Private property. Su...

“The word “redistribution” implies that there is a distribution that is default, and that we redistribute when we modify thedistribution away from it. This, of course, is wrong. There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe. In the United States, we have constructed and enforce institutions of private property ownership and contract enforcement. Those institutions generate very different end distributions than we would see if they did not exist. But they do not have to exist by logical necessity, nor do they constitute the default form of economic institutions.” (Matt Bruenig, “There is no such thing as redistribution“)

The people-places-things-relations-rules-results hextet is unique for every actual instance, no matter what the big philosophy or mythology of the community may be. Does that mean that generalizations such as the commons or a community property philosophy are meaningless? No, generalizations and abstractions have their utility. But they also have their limitations, typically in oversimplification and lumping dissimilars together. No two commons are the same, and no two people or things within a single commons are the same. I’m not just referring to the tautology that nothing and nobody is physically equal in the physical world. Human equality is generally understood to mean civic/legal/moral equality, not equality in form or function. We are all physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally different, and shared ideals and narratives often mask those differences, even from ourselves.

Commons ≠ commons, people ≠ people, and private ≠ private, so it is almost meaningless to say that common property ≠ private property.  Similarly, because of the variation within types, capitalism ≠ capitalism and socialism ≠ socialism, so it is almost meaningless to say that capitalism ≠ socialism. In fact, in certain specific cases of capitalism and socialism, capitalism = socialism!

English: Eastatoe Falls, North Carolina. On PR...

Eastatoe Falls, NC. On PRIVATE PROPERTY. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a large enough sample, men are taller than women. But no one is surprised when a particular woman is taller than a particular man. Similarly, a particular item of private property might be shared or conserved better than a particular item of public property.

Another way in which property and ownership are relative is this: property may be shared in common among group A, but not shared with group B. If group A were flower children and group B were corpoRats, I’d be the first to cheer for such an enclosure.

Private and public are relative. Sharing and exclusion (or enclosure) are relative. Commons is relative. Community is relative.

The generalizations of private, public, community, and commons have utility for certain purposes, but that utility is relative. Public and private is not the same as apples and oranges. One person’s apple is not another person’s orange. Oranges and apples don’t vary by degrees over a spectrum. There is no point on the spectrum of apple variety that it is an orange or a banana. Not so with ownership and property. All forms of ownership and property lie on a common spectrum, so that from one perspective a thing may appear private and from the other side of the spectrum that same thing may appear public. Similarly, from the inside a community may appear enlightened and egalitarian, and from outside it may look like a bunch of airheads or elitist assholes.

“Often…property is juxtaposed to commons – as if commoning was a negation of property. Unfortunately, this view presupposes and consolidates a very narrow understanding of property, where the general is conflated with the particular. Property relations are not only exclusive, private property rights as instantiated within capitalist democracy (that is, a particular conception of property). As a jurisprudential concept, property can be used to understand, analyse, reflect upon and organise social relations with regard to things in any context (this is the general conception of property). The conflation of the general with the particular, which conceals the historical and anthropological fact that property can be and is understood (very) differently, takes on a further dimension in colloquial talk.” (J.M. Pederson, Commoning)

Analysis has levels. Too often we compare and contrast things at one level while some particulars at another level may be just the opposite. I’m not just saying that exceptions prove the rule. There’s more to it than that. At the level of particular instances, capitalism can equal socialism. So if we only contrast capitalism and socialism at the general level, we get no closer to the particulars where actual social engineering is possible. We need to continually oscillate between generalities, which provide ontological categories and hypotheses, and particular in vivo and in situ cases that provide empirical data.

Poor Richard

Related PRA 2.0 Posts

A Capital Idea Part 1

I’d like to introduce Robert Warden who will be posting here from time to time on topics of economics, politics,  and whatever else ails him. I am very glad to have his contributions.

Robert is also known as “Natural Lefty,” “Mucky T. Mudskipper,” and a few other aliases. He has a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside and teaches Psychology part-time at Moreno Valley College. His essays tend to focus on the application of psychology to a wide variety of topics such as politics, economics, philosophy, spirituality and all of science.  His  posts are mostly in the form of progressive series of short essays built around common themes.

Robert Warden also blogs at,, and the Thom Hartmann Bloggers Group on Facebook.

— PR

A Capital Idea Part 1

by Robert Warden, April 21 2010

It has occurred to me that the idea of financial capital has been used in the wrong way all along. This feeling has been reinforced by conversations with a number of my like-minded friends. According to my Random House Webster’s Dictionary, relevant definitions of capital include: “The wealth, as in money or property, owned or used in business,” and “pertaining to financial capital.”  The economic system based upon capital is known as capitalism, which my dictionary defines as “An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately owned.” I critiqued the use of capitalism as a basis for an economy in “The Immorality of Capitalism”   a few months ago. My moral critique of capitalism has its basis in academic psychology, which shows that unrestrained capitalism compels people to act at the lowest levels of morality. Basically, the pursuit of profit trumps all other concerns in capitalism, at least if it is not restrained in some way. Thus “might makes right” according to an unfettered capitalistic system, and whatever increases profits is morally justified. To use yet another platitude in the most appropriate possible manner, “The ends justifies the means.” Such a Capitalism encourages businesspeople to “rip off” their customers if they can get away with it.  As a result, business people typically operate on the lowest of the six stages of moral development described by Lawrence Kohlberg, a stage in which any outcome favorable to oneself is considered morally good, which normally applies only to young children, yet, shows a resurgence among wealthy businesspeople in adulthood due to the perverted economic system we suffer under, a system usually referred to simply as capitalism.

As a result, the question that has occurred to me is, how can we build a society with a more morally enlightened economic system? Not only would a morally enlightened economic system be far more fair, but it would also be more productive, because people would treat each other better within this system (which is the basis of morality in the first place), and be better rewarded for their efforts. Even more, since financial capitalism is basically an undemocratic system, we could build a more truly democratic society by changing our economic system. A related question is, what would be the basis for such an economic system? In order to build a more enlightened society, with a morally enlightened economic system, we must rethink its basis. An answer which I can only take partial credit for, although it occurred to me independently, is that there are different types of capital, not only financial capital. After having this idea, I discovered that some other authors have already written to some extent about certain types of capital other than financial (but not nearly as extensively as I plan to).

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of types of capital:

1. Financial capital (the current basis of our economic system and probably the only one that has really been actually fully utilized)

2. Resource capital (the valuing of our shared resources, in which a healthy environment is a wealthier one, as the basis of wealth)

3. Human capital (the valuing of our talents and skills — which innately belong to the individual and cannot be owned by others — as our actual wealth)

4. Intellectual capital (the valuing of ideas as the key to progress and as the basis for true wealth)

5. Scientific capital (the valuing of scientific knowledge and its application as the basis of true understanding and wealth)

6. Moral capital (the valuing of moral character and the nurturing of moral character as the basis for a happy, just and truly wealthy society)

7. Spiritual capital (the valuing of spiritual well-being and the quest for spiritual enlightenment as the basis of true wealth)

8. Well-being capital (the valuing of psychological happiness and well-being as the truest indicator of the health and wealth of a society)

9. Work capital (the valuing of actual work as the true basis of an economy, a bottom up approach which precludes people sitting around collecting money do to their exalted position in society)

10. Human health capital (the valuing of our health as prerequisite to any form of true happiness or wealth)

I thought of all 10 of these possibilities in about 10 minutes; there may be more to come. In any case, it is my plan to explore the possibilities for making these the basis for an economy, or at least, incorporating them into our economic system to make a more enlightened, balanced, and improved system. It is important to keep in mind that these types of capital are not mutually exclusive. The best possible economic system may well involve some combination of all of these. But at the very least, the time is long past due that we begin to recognize the reality and importance of these various sorts of wealth. It is also important to realize that some of these types of capital may already have a functional role in our economy. However, their roles need to be expanded and explicitly acknowledged. It is not just about money, which is essentially a human-constructed abstraction of the concept of value, whose acceptance as the basis of wealth means:

  • Accepting all the inequities of making inappropriate comparisons of value
  • accepting all of the human fallibility built into our monetary system
  • accepting a nondemocratic, autocratic system which has as its goal the creation of monopolies while hypocritically claiming to endorse competition
  • accepting that human beings have dominion over all life and all resources on earth, justifying the abuse of other lifeforms and our environment.

A truly healthy and sustainable economy means recognizing and appreciating the true bases of our wealth, and using a scientific approach to create a more enlightened, happy, compassionate, fair and environmentally friendly society.

Robert Warden

Escaping Economyland

(Alternate title: Escape from the Planet of the Economists)

Economyland is a place on the flat world of  Reductio Ad Absurdum where the Economical Bestiary’s mythical beasts run wild in a free state of nature. Economyland is the true center of the universe around which the sun, planets, stars, and all the rest of the universe revolves. Economyland was created by God and placed under the dominion of man,  a sort of Disney-esque theme park for economists of all species. In ancient times Economyland was known as Economia:

In the Eastern Orthodox, Greek-Catholic Churches, Latin Catholic Church,and in the teaching of the Church Fathers which undergirds the theology of those Churches, economy or oeconomy (Greek: οἰκονομία, oikonomia) has several meanings. The basic meaning of the word is “handling” or “disposition” or “management” or more literally “housekeeping” of a thing, usually assuming or implying good or prudent handling (as opposed to poor handling) of the matter at hand.  (Wikipedia)

War of the World-views

Pius conservatives are fond of accusing science of being reductionist, of reducing the divinely-wrought human being and the world of nature to an oversimplified, materialistic machine.  This is, as always, the conservative pot calling the kettle black.

Liberal economists don’t do much better. Most economists share a model of the economic world that is simplistic, reductionist, and naively anthropocentric.

<– click on the image for a closer view of Economia

Capitalism defines the economic system in terms of the dynamics of capital and labor; production, distribution, and consumption;  or as it is often framed, the supply and demand of goods and services. The natural world is seen only as a supply depot for raw materials. The production and consumption of goods and services of and by the biosphere , is treated as a giant externality. And that view is a giant existential blunder.

Of course, it is a conveniently self-serving (if short-sighted) blunder in some quarters; and we need not wonder too hard about how and why this oversight has persisted for so long.

In contrast, “economics as if people mattered” (see below) has to begin with economics as if the biosphere mattered. The biosphere can not be treated as a free supply depot and waste dump. The ecosystem cannot simply be seen as a magical black box that God put here to provide for all human wants and dispose of all human garbage. You’d have to be either a moron or a person with serious conflicts of interest skewing your judgment (or both) to hold such a view. Yet that is just the view of most economists, for whom nature is simply a part of the human economy rather than vice versa.

One of the first widely respected economists to correct this misapprehension was E. F. Schumacher who published Small is Beautiful in 1973, which placed the study of economics where it belongs, inside the study of the ecology of the biosphere. His ideas were of course treated with contempt by most conservative economists and they are generally still ignored by or unknown to most liberal economists.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher.

Schumacher was a respected economist who worked with John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith. For twenty years he was the Chief Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board in the United Kingdom, opposed the neo-classical economics by declaring that single-minded concentration on output and technology was dehumanizing. He held that one’s workplace should be dignified and meaningful first, efficient second, and that nature (and the world’s natural resources) is priceless.

Schumacher proposed the idea of “smallness within bigness”: a specific form of decentralization. For a large organization to work, according to Schumacher, it must behave like a related group of small organizations. Schumacher’s work coincided with the growth of ecological concerns and with the birth of environmentalism and he became a hero to many in the environmental movement.  (Wikipedia)

The Happiness Index (E.F. Schumacher Society/New Economics Institute)

The E.F. Schumacher YouTube Channel

Another writer, Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, is making an effort to put the study of economics into a modern scientific perspective. Following are a few excerpts from a pre-publication version of his book The End of Growth:”

The classical [economic] theorists gradually adopted the math and some of the terminology of science. Unfortunately, however, they were unable to incorporate into economics the basic self-correcting methodology that is science’s defining characteristic. Economic theory required no falsifiable hypotheses and demanded no repeatable controlled experiments. Economists began to think of themselves as scientists, while in fact their discipline remained a branch of moral philosophy—as it largely does to this day.

…For help, we can look to the ecological and biophysical economists, whose ideas have been thoroughly marginalized by the high priests and gatekeepers of mainstream economics…

The ideological clash between Keynesians and neoliberals (represented to a certain degree in the escalating all-out warfare between the U.S. Democratic and Republican political parties) will no doubt continue and even intensify. But the ensuing heat of battle will yield little light if both philosophies conceal the same fundamental errors. One such error is of course the belief that economies can and should perpetually grow.

But that error rests on another that is deeper and subtler. The subsuming of land within the category of capital by nearly all post-classical economists had amounted to a declaration that Nature is merely a subset of the human economy—an endless pile of resources to be transformed into wealth. It also meant that natural resources could always be substituted with some other form of capital—money or technology. The reality, of course, is that the human economy exists within, and entirely depends upon Nature, and many natural resources have no realistic substitutes. This fundamental logical and philosophical mistake, embedded at the very heart of modern mainstream economic philosophies, set society directly upon a course toward the current era of climate change and resource depletion, and its persistence makes conventional economic theories—of both Keynesian and neoliberal varieties—utterly incapable of dealing with the economic and environmental survival threats to civilization in the 21st century.

Another giant of economic empiricism and innovation, though not an economist per se, was W. E. Deming.

William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and consultant. He is perhaps best known for his work in Japan. There, from 1950 onward he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing and sales (the last through global markets, through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.

Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being considered something of a hero in Japan, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death. (Wikipedia)

Though still virtually unknown and unappreciated in the US, Deming was almost solely responsible for the transformation of Japanese industry from having, in my childhood, a reputation for manufacturing cheap junk goods to, by the mid-70′s, a reputation as the maker of the world’s highest quality and highest value automobiles, electronics , and many other consumer goods. Though his ideas of continuous improvement were originally widely rejected in the US until recently because they did not fit with autocratic US corporate culture, in the 80′s and 90′s US industry imported many Japanese manufacturing consultants  due to the reputation for quality and efficiency that Japan had gained, ironically, as a direct result of adopting Deming’s ideas.

Demings methods, rejected by US captains of industry for decades, swept through the entire Asian world and are largely responsible for the fact that Asian manufacturers are still kicking US industry’s ass today in markets as diverse as cars, cell phones, personal computers, and solar cells.

Where would American workers be without such enlightened and visionary corporate management? Perhaps still in the middle class instead of in unemployment lines or among the the ranks of the working poor. The story of W. E. Deming proves yet again that a profit is without honor in his own land.

The US Is Becoming an “Underdeveloping Nation”


While President Obama tapped former corporate executives to become his top economic team, many economists question the path the United States is on. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now speaks to the acclaimed Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. He won the Right Livelihood Award in 1983, two years after the publication of his book Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics.

“We are simply, dramatically stupid. We act systematically against the evidences we have. We know everything that should not be done. There’s nobody that doesn’t know that. Particularly the big politicians know exactly what should not be done. Yet they do it. After what happened since October 2008, I mean, elementally, you would think what? That now they’re going to change. I mean, they see that the model is not working. The model is even poisonous, you know? Dramatically poisonous. And what is the result, and what happened in the last meeting of the European Union? They are more fundamentalist now than before. So, the only thing you know that you can be sure of, that the next crisis is coming, and it will be twice as much as this one. And for that one, there won’t be enough money anymore. So that will be it. And that is the consequence of systematical human stupidity.”

“First of all, we need cultured economists again, who know the history, where they come from, how the ideas originated, who did what, and so on and so on; second, an economics now that understands itself very clearly as a subsystem of a larger system that is finite, the biosphere, hence economic growth as an impossibility; and third, a system that understands that it cannot function without the seriousness of ecosystems. And economists know nothing about ecosystems. They know nothing about thermodynamics, you know, nothing about biodiversity or anything. I mean, they are totally ignorant in that respect. And I don’t see what harm it would do, you know, to an economist to know that if the beasts would disappear, he would disappear as well, because there wouldn’t be food anymore. But he doesn’t know that, you know, that we depend absolutely from nature. But for these economists we have, nature is a subsystem of the economy. I mean, it’s absolutely crazy.”

“The principles of economics should be based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.
  • And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under any circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.”

View the entire interview with Amy Goodman and Manfred Max-Neef.

Keeping It Real

Modern economists need to get over their hair-splitting theories, self-serving technical jargon, and their detached, ivory-tower naïveté, and get real.

As E. B. White once aptly advised, “Bend down, Librarians, and taste the page.” I think it was also he who said “All their biology is Latin names.”

That is the message of the Economical Bestiary, which ridicules the brand of economics which persists to this day as little more than, as Richard Heiberg calls it, moral philosophy. The moral hazard for economists is succumbing to the personal, financial, and academic conflicts of interest between the cognitive corruption of their profession and the objective imperatives of reality.

Poor Richard

Framing the Market (PRA 2010)

Ecological economics (Wikipedia)

Environment Equitable Sustainable Bearable (Social ecology) Viable (Environmental economics) Economic Social

Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing “strong” sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital.


Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution is a 1999 book co-authored by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. It has been translated into a dozen languages and was the subject of a Harvard Business Review summary.

Their fundamental questions are: What would an economy look like if it fully valued all forms of capital? What if an economy were organized not around the abstractions of neoclassical economics and accountancy but around the biological realities of nature? What if Generally Accepted Accounting Principles recognized natural and human capital not as a free amenity in inexhaustible supply but as a finite and integrally valuable factor of production? What if in the absence of a rigorous way to practice such accounting, companies started to act as if such principles were in force. (Wikipedia)

The principles used by Natural Capitalism Solutions are:

1. Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively.

This slows resource depletion, lessens pollution, and increases employment in meaningful jobs. It lowers costs for business and society, halts the degradation of the biosphere, makes it more profitable to employ people, and preserves vital living systems and social cohesion.

2. Redesign industrial processes and the delivery of products and services to do business as nature does, using such approaches as biomimicry and cradle to cradle.

This approach enables a wide array of materials to be produced with low energy flows, in processes that run on sunlight, emulating nature’s genius.  It shifts to circular economies in which materials are reused, remanufactured and waste is eliminated.

3. Manage all institutions to be restorative of natural and human capital.

Such approaches enhance human well-being and enable the biosphere to produce more wealth from its intact communities and abundant ecosystem services and natural resources.(Natural Capitalism Solutions)

whiny corps

Haha, who’s that always crying “wolf!, wolf!, wolf!” ? Could it be the Big, Bad Wolf, himself?

Social evolution: An ounce of allegory vs a pound of theory

Society in our modern world is little different from the earliest societies. There are four elements: sheep, shepherds, wolves, and scavengers. The sheep are we the people. The shepherd is government, which leads, protects, and annually shears the sheep. The wolves are the corporations which run the sheep half to death, rip out their throats, drink their blood, and feed upon their flesh. The wolves leave enough scraps to feed assorted cadres of buzzards, crows, rats, and other scavengers. All have co-evolved and are mutually co-dependent. Neither the shepherds nor the wolves will free the sheep. Sheep can only escape this tightly integrated system by becoming cooperatively self-reliant.

In another analogy, the liberal class is like the Eloi in H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. The docile and child-like Eloi would awake each morning to find food, clothing, etc. provided for them in the night while they slept. But a few of their number would also be missing each morning. The Morlocks (who lived underground) manufactured and provided all the necessities to the Eloi as they slept, but they also carted some of them away each night to feed upon them in the underground city.

There is no political or economic theory that can save the Eloi. All that can save them is for them to learn how to provide for themselves independently of the Morlocks, and to learn how to protect themselves.

This is a question of works, not words, and tactics, not theory.

Work is a matter of effort and skill, chipping away the marble or wood one blow at a time. Work is pragmatic, interdisciplinary, and non-ideological; with artistry, resource management, critical path management, management by objectives, and continuous improvement. (This sounds like a gruesome mashup of creativity, labor, and corporate culture.) Oddly enough, there once were artisans… and after a while there were workshops with masters and apprentices… and then there were schools and guilds and societies… and eventually there were corporations. This was ever-increasing collectivism. The left might be happy with this except for the now-gratuitous regimentation of life, commodification of work, and alienation from nature that came with it.

On the Hack the State site, Toni Prug writes:

Armed revolutionaries and anarchists hate the state. Social democrats want to be the state. I say we better hack it. [W]e need to Hack the State (hack as reuse by clever re-purposing of what’s already here), to make it do what we want it to do. (via Hacking the State, P2P Foundation Blog)

For the pragmatic, eclectic approach to social change I think the term “hack the state” works beautifully — at least for the digital activists and the internet-savvy white collar workers. Maybe not so beautifully for “mom and pop” or the blue-collar workers here in the US.

But as an ex-IT guy I like “hacking” and I would go right down the line hacking capitalism, hacking the corporation, hacking the bank, hacking property, and even hacking the commons.

Curiously, many such “hacks” already exist in the history of pragmatic, progressive movements in the US. But neither the old-school socialist terminology nor the new-school computer hacking terminology sit well with much of “Middle America”.

My own tentative umbrella term for interdisciplinary hacking of capitalism, corporations, banking, property, and democracy is “Green Free Enterprise”.

Besides cooperative self-reliance and provisioning, to rise above being sheep we the peeps need to protect ourselves from the predators in society, whether they be pirates, tyrants, corporations, or corrupt bureaucrats.

When social animals and people first began to populate the earth they quickly found strength in numbers. Eventually our experienced pioneer ancestors invented the wilderness stockade to keep out unwanted intruders of both the four-legged and two-legged kinds.  But the ultimate enemy often came from within the tribe, city, or state in the form of predatory elites either in merchants’ garb or royal attire–the over-zealous wolves and shepherds and, worst of all, the unholy alliances of the two.

What philosophers of the commons often seem to want looks a lot like feudalism to me–what I might call peer-to-peer feudalism. Maybe that’s fine, but from Aristotle’s Athens to the Soviet communes it keeps turning out that mankind’s relationship with land and with materials and with tools is at its highest an intimate, personal relationship like that between a husband and a wife or a mother and child.  Managers of  giant Soviet farms found that when they gave each working family a quarter-acre of personal land, the yields on those private family plots were ten times what they were in the collective fields. Similarly, one of the most generous and community-spirited men I ever knew would not let another person handle many of the tools of his trade. In many families and communities there are “common” tools for laypeople, but many (if not most) artists and craftspeople have very intimate, personal, and private relationships with their tools. Especially where any sharpening is involved.

Again and again, socio-economic systems and institutions that work best in real life seem to be hybrid, hacked systems where there are checks and balances between the individual and the collective good; where these checks and balances evolve bit by bit over great time (notwithstanding the rare but natural socio-economic phase transitions that sometimes occur) through the agency of both obvious and ambiguous forces that are as complex as the forces of geology and evolution.

This is not to say that unguided, natural social evolution is the best thing. The point is that when we ply our arts, crafts, and trades to the canvass of culture, to the carpentry of social institutions, and to the husbandry of nature we must respect the natural, biological and psychological complexity and diversity of all life; and not the least our own lives; and be informed by the deep, fractal complexity of natural ecology and the broad diversity of form and fit that emerge from natural selection.

Just as we can think globally and act locally, we can think theoretically but act pragmatically and observe empirically.  We must continuously refit theory to the facts on the ground and in the field, confident that whatever works in practice can work in theory, but not vice versa. We must be more committed to explicit, measurable objectives than to methods or even to noble (we think) principles. There is only one essential noble principle–“the golden rule.”

The rest is sausage making.

Poor Richard

Analyzing mixed socio-economic systems

Michel Bauwens.

Michel Bauwens –Image via Wikipedia

This is a response to “Should we worry about capitalist commons?” by Michel Bauwens of the The Foundation for P2P Alternatives. What follows won’t make as much sense if you don’t read that article first.

Avoiding the language trap

As Michel Bauwens acknowledged in an article about theories of property rights subtitled “The Ubiquity of Mixed Systems”, when we try to superimpose political and economic theories, doctrines, and ideologies on actual human society we nearly always end up needing to think in terms of mixed or hybrid systems. As he importantly noted in that article, an “arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.” It is vital that in developing new economic and social theory we work from actual examples, cases, and histories, as Michel did  in “Should we worry about capitalist commons? by basing his discussion on the case of the free software movement.

Michel’s post also takes important steps in describing the relation between the socio-economic status quo at any given time and emergent relations and phase transitions. Michel writes:

It is simply inconceivable that a slave-based empire could undergo a phase transition towards the feudal mode of production, without the existence of proto-feudal modalities within that system; it is equally inconceivable that the feudal mode of production could have a phase transition towards the capitalist mode of production, without proto-capitalist modalities existing within that feudal system. It is the ultimate strengthening and intermeshing of these proto-capitalist modalities, which creates the basis for a political and social revolution that ultimately guarantees the phase transition.

This reminds me of the “include and transcend” trope in the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics theory of  psychology professor Clare W. Graves.

Relationships between a status quo and an emerging transition state are often reflected in their respective linguistic and rhetorical idioms. Terminology can include and transcend or it can be provocative and divisive. Often a particular terminology is chosen precisely to signify affinity with one group and/or distinction from another, as in the case of “capitalist” terminology and “anti-capitalist” terminology.

I have learned as a computer programmer that I can take a flow chart depicting the logical relations between a set of inputs, outputs, and algorithms and I can code that sucker in any one of a dozen computer “languages”. What’s more, in any one of those languages I may have alternative choices of data structures, methods, etc. for accomplishing the same ends. Likewise a crafter of detective stories can tell the same story in many different styles and structures. Then that book can be translated into any number of languages.

The underlying logic, values, relations, and specifications of the computer program or novel are in many ways more important or fundamental than the language in which they are embodied. The latter becomes important only in relation to the environment in which the program must run or the book must sell. The same is true when it comes to expressing socio-economic models and theories with language.

One of my personal rhetorical preferences is to use terminology that is familiar and comfortable to people in the center in mainstream culture, especially when I am discussing ideas that may be culturally unfamiliar or uncomfortable to many. By choosing “business” terminology that is native to the mainstream, and even native to my political opponents, I sometimes alienate my own friends on the left. But my intent is a kind of rhetorical “Jujutsu” (a Japanese martial art for defeating an armed and armored opponent in which one uses no weapon).

Wikipedia says: “‘Ju’ can be translated to mean gentle, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding. “Jutsu” can be translated to mean “art” or “technique” and represents manipulating the opponent’s force against him rather than confronting it with one’s own force.”

Or maybe I just take a perverse pleasure in being provocative towards my own philosophical and political community. Or both.

Actually, there is a good reason for stepping on liberal corns and tipping our radical sacred cows. All too often we liberals (and especially we “mavericks”) have emotional attachments to our chosen doctrines and jargon that are not justified by actual technical utility.  If we are students of history we may have observed how often old intellectual “wine” is simply repackaged in new bottles. How often does the re-bottling really accomplish anything, and how often does it cause unintended consequences such as the wine getting spilt or going sour? Occasionally the new package actually does something new like dispense single servings while keeping the rest fresh. But often it turns out the new bottle does little or nothing more than the old one did. Its the old “distinction without a difference”. (Or is it the other way around?)

In stark contrast, to actually improve the wine itself might require a long, laborious apprenticeship under a master vintner to acquire a thorough and pragmatic knowledge of soils, vines, cultivation practices, harvesting, pressing, blending, fermenting, racking, bottling, and cellaring. Within and between each subsystem there are many elemental, functional, or essential values and relations. The bottle is vital, but it is perhaps the most uncomplicated piece in all of this (less problematic than even the lowly cork), and for a wide range of bottle designs one kind may do just as well as another.

Another analogy that bears on the subject of “sustainable terminology” is a recycling and re-purposing analogy. We can conserve intellectual capital and labor by recycling our “bottles” rather than tossing the old, used terminology in the linguistic landfill and manufacturing new ones from scratch. Perhaps only a small number of cracked or chipped bottles need to be discarded and replaced with new ones. Our new, improved intellectual wine might just as well be re-packaged in the same old bottles as the the old wine once they have been well cleaned and inspected.

I may have belabored these analogies a bit but I have demonstrated how ideas about one thing, such as terminology, can be repackaged in other terminology as foreign to that subject as  enology, or wine making. It is far less a stretch to repackage some new socio-economic understanding or sensibility in old soci-economic terminology with a minimal number of pragmatic tweaks and hacks.

One example I have recently seen is “copy-far-left”. I’m not sure if this term is technically a neologism, a portmanteau, or something else, so I’m just going to call it a “hack” of the familiar word “copyright” and the familiar expression “far-left” which signifies an ultra-liberal or radical political orientation. (The expression comes from the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly during the French Revolution. The most radical members were seated on the far left of the chamber.) But this expression and others such as copyleft, copywrong, and copy-just-right are somewhat subjective and come with various degrees of emotional, philosophical, political, and historical baggage.

I prefer instead the conventional term “conditional copyright” which signifies a copyright that is a bundle of individual and severable rights– any, all, or none of which may be explicitly retained or waived by an author. An author is anyone who has created a work or “added value” to an existing work. It can be argued that all works are derivatives of previous work but that does no harm to the notion of an author as someone who has added value either to a particular work or to the general body of  creative human expression. The latter generalization is perfectly consistent with a conventional conditional copyright, which can serve the same purposes as any of the other copy-whatever hacks. The conditional copyright is simply any copyright that has a specification which explicitly spells out the rights that are (or are not) either retained by the copyright holder or granted to others with or without other special conditions. This has always been the nature of the conventional copyright. The familiar specification “all rights reserved” is simply a special case of the conditional copyright where the entire bundle of rights is retained unconditionally by the specified copyright holder. This is by no means (and never has been) the only legal species of the conventional copyright.

A similar conditionality has long been established in the common law of real and personal property through the same bundle of rights metaphor.

I challenge any of my liberal or radical friends to define a form of property ownership, non-ownership, anti-ownership, enclosure, non-enclosure, or commons that I cannot model with a conditional property or copyright specification without the need for any new terminology whatsoever, proving that new terminology is unnecessary for a full and fair technical or legal discourse. If new terminology is still desired it should be admitted that it serves a poetic, rhetorical, emotional, or ideological need rather than a technical or analytical one.

(Disclaimer:  the only case to which I will not try to apply conditional copyright principles is the proposition that there is no value created or added; or that any value which may be added does not require any formal or legal means of protection because  some other, informal means is sufficient. Also, I’m not a copyright attorney–these conditional copyright principles may or may not be compatible with current national statutes and international agreements.)

“The map is not the territory” (Alfred Korzybski)

Regardless of what terminology we use to discuss socio-economic theories such as “commons-based peer-production” or “capitalist commons“, we should remember that “the word is not the thing” (Alfred Korzybski). We are discussing actual social and economic relations in vivo and in situ.

In our lives we have one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to many relations–relations between people and people, people and groups, people and objects, groups and objects, groups and the environment, etc. You can find many of the same, identical relations across many cultures, past and present, spoken of via many different metaphors and ritualized/institutionalized in many different ways.

Our choice of terminology and metaphor should be audience-appropriate, but analytically and technically we need to focus on functional relations, values and criteria. We can call something public, private, civic, social, or common. We can call something a group, a partnership, an association, a corporation, a collective, or a community. But people can differ wildly about what any of those terms mean. Any distinctions we attribute to those terms really arise from a more basic and fundamental class of issues: power, rank, consent, transparency, accountability, democracy, inclusion, opportunity, sustainability, reciprocity, symmetry, justice, fairness, dignity, & etc., etc., etc. Too often when we argue at the level of public vs private or common vs corporate we are arguing about the “bottles” and fail to ever connect with those underlying assumptions, values, and relations that really make the wine what it is.

At the academic level there are heroic efforts to put economics on an empirical, scientific footing. Those efforts are largely thwarted by the influence of money and power. But at the level of public discourse economics is almost entirely a vehicle for ideology (a disease of the mind).

Michel Bauwens is taking important strides towards an interdisciplinary, non-ideological, doctrine-neutral analysis of social, political, and economic relationships and I really dig it. That is the kind of framework  I want to build on. That is the kind of framework we can all build upon collectively and cooperatively no matter what our personal biases may be.

Poor Richard

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