Framing the Market

Market failure diagram showing deadweight loss

Market failure diagram showing deadweight loss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m tired of  the market hype from the right and the left. The 1% relentlessly pushes a free market (invisible hand) mythology without defining what they mean by it, all the while lobying for regulations that favor their own interests. And the Left has begun pushing a post-market (new-age invisible hand) mythology. Each form of market/anti-market fundamentalism will fail for the same reason: denial and wishful thinking (two sides of the same coin).

Is the market guilty as charged, or has it been falsely framed by both sides?

MYTH: The Free market.

FACT: There is no such thing as a free lunch or a free market. Every market is manipulated by the strongest players. The private sector cheats, steals, lies, and bullies. The state regulates according to a mixed set of public and private interests. If those interests get out of balance, either the public or private sector (or both) will suffer.

“Markets are not provided by nature. They are constructed — by laws, rules, and institutions. All of these have moral bases of one sort or another. Hence, all markets are moral, according to someone’s sense of morality. The only question is, Whose morality? In contemporary America, it is conservative versus progressive morality that governs forms of economic policy. The systems of morality behind economic policies need to be discussed.”    AlterNet / By George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

MYTH: The Invisible Hand.

FACT: There is no such thing. There are only real, material “hands” that we either cannot or will not look at.

MYTH: Government is the problem, not the solution.

FACT: The solution is maximizing utility through appropriate checks and balances. Government has a role in 1) providing regulatory counter-balance to private concentrations of power which amplify the cheating, stealing, lying, and bullying; and 2) socializing some of the costs of education, R&D, infrastructure, public safety, national defense, etc.

MYTH: Markets are the problem, not the solution.

FACT: Ecosystems behave like economies with markets. Natural markets tolerate large amounts of power asymmetry (aggression) and information asymmetry (deception). What is not found in a natural ecosystem is an externality. They do not exist there. Externality in human economics is an entirely abstract fiction. An externality is where someone gets something for nothing and gets away with it indefinitely. That doesn’t happen in an ecological economy. If it did, all life would probably be extinct.  Instead, nature is stubbornly resisting and postponing its extermination at our hands. It actually doesn’t happen in the real human economy, either. It only happens in human economics, which is riddled with a variety of naive or intentional accounting errors which are generally explained by economists as externalities or market failures. Naturally, externalities and other accounting errors inevitably produce market failures.

Post-market theology

I won’t dwell on the myths of “economics as if only the 1%  mattered,” because they are now fairly well understood by many. We have given the invisible hand a very long trial. It’s had some episodic success but it is now failing badly. But there is lately a “new age” invisible hand that some are appealing to as an alternative.

I recently published a piece with the alternate title of  “Escape from the Planet of the Economists.” In that piece I made a case for “economics as if people mattered” and “economics as if the biosphere mattered.” I drew from writers like E. F. Schumacher who argue that the human economy is part of the ecosystem, not vice versa. This is currently being called sustainable or ecological economics. I completely agree with the particular arguments of the particular authors I cited. But some economic pundits are embracing this general framework without adequate understanding of what the ecosystem is or how it works, and without adequate understanding of what markets are or how they work. They seem fairly sure that you can’t shoehorn nature into a marketplace, and fairly sure that that one idea explains everything.

The premise seems to be that since the market has not historically conserved and enhanced the biosphere, the biosphere must work on non-market principles. The problem is that the second conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. It is a non sequitur. First, the nebulous thing we often call “THE market” doesn’t exist. Instead, the economy is an aggregate of many markets. Because many (or nearly all) of these markets are distorted or flat-out broken, it appears that markets per se are unworkable. Its as if someone in the middle of a vast junkyard of broken cars concluded that all cars were inoperable. In fact, with the right knowledge and tools, many of those cars could be fixed. But my imaginary character doesn’t have that knowledge. He doesn’t have the right tools, either.

If the first error is a false analysis of the problem, a second error inevitably follows–a false solution. The reason all the old cars (and old markets) in the economic junkyard are broken is that they were not maintained in a responsible fashion because they were only on temporary lease to their operators. Lets say all those irresponsible operators were just following the example, and sometimes the advice, or direction, of their betters, the 1%.

And now this two-faced 1% is getting caught in the act of green-washing their activities. They are pulling the strings of their politician manikins, sending them to international summits on hunger or the environment or global warming, campaigning for austerity or resource management schemes full of tricks and loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of deep-water drilling platforms through.

Many conclude that these amoral capitalists have nothing to offer but more waste, fraud, exploitation and abuse. Which is pretty much the case. So its only natural for a movement to gravitate around respect for the 99% and for the environment, and then go looking for post-market methods for shaping society and finding harmony with nature. They turn to gift economies and sacred economics drawn from mankind’s romanticized past, or imagine societies that function on harmony and good will instead of greed and accounting. They may be inclined to imagine bountiful commons that manage themselves the way nature manages itself. I’m sympathetic to the sentiments and the philosophy, but that doesn’t satisfy me. I want the skills and the tools to get broken markets and broken ecosystems back on the road to thriving.


GB.MEX.10.0143 (Photo credit: balazsgardi)

Of course what goes by the name green often isn’t (including some versions of “green economics“), and the only solution for that  is eternal vigilance against green-washing. “Big Green” would be dumb not to appropriate certain language from Natural Capitalism, for example–its just so easy.

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it.” – Political economist Frederic Bastiat, The Law [1850]

We are well-advised to be wary of giant green snakes and wolves in green clothing sneaking into the people’s garden; but not to be prejudiced against all applications of  market thinking in ecological economics. Is there any reason the 99% cannot “occupy” and democratize markets?

I can believe that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) projects are (or are not) clever tricks to disguise continued exploitation. Either way, the effort to scientifically quantify natural systems, as in  approaches to sustainable or Natural Capitalism, is not in itself a sinister scheme. It is required for good management of any system, whether fishery, forest or farm. No doubt the language of pending high-level agreements may be obfuscating some ulterior motives. I’m very skeptical of trading permission-to-pollute credits. But what is often proposed as the alternative is not exactly transparent, either.

Here is a fairly typical example from a writer who rejects Natural Capitalism and similar approaches because he fears a slippery slope to green-washing. He proposes an economic system based on:
  • peace, harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, equality and social and environmental justice;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism
There are lots of ambiguities there. Such ambiguities can easily morph into obscurities and obfuscations which can provide cover for abuse and exploitation of people or natural capital or both. Not even the ban on colonialism and interventionism really holds up to analysis unless we go back to being hunter-gatherers and stop colonizing or intervening in nature. As one of my peers pointed out to me recently, appeals to optimality are really arguments that we’re living (or will be)  in the best of all possible worlds; or would be if only we’d regulate or deregulate or something.
Inquisition 2.0?

How will we draw the lines between good-faith green economics and green-washing? No simple answer, but that’s the kind of thing that empirical science, at its best, can be good at. The alternative to science may be a kind of post-market fundamentalism whose dogma demands belief in a new-age invisible hand. I am already seeing omens of an Inquisition 2.0 which will torture disciples of sustainable capitalism until they confess to sins of  green-washing and recant their faith in science.

An ecological moral philosophy is useful, but a new version of the invisible hand (even a spiritual one) is not. A real science of sustainable economics is needed regardless. Such a science won’t be achieved just by good will and wishful thinking. It will require deep observation, painstaking metrics, statistics, and very complex accounting.

Confusion of tongues

The original Green Revolution was guilty of so many sins it may have cast a permanent cloud over the word “green”. Modern corporate and political green-washing darkens that cloud even more.

The battle for the soul of the word green reminds me of the confusion of tongues (confusio linguarum), the fragmentation of human languages described in the Book of Genesis 11:1–9, as a result of the construction of the Tower of Babel.  And George Orwell charicatured the authoritarian appropriation of language with  Newspeak in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. (Wikipedia)

I’m not convinced that the left is not impoverishing the conversation on sustainability in another way with its glittering generalities about sacred economics and effortless abundance.

In a nutshell, without the rhetoric, the  moral or spiritual approach to economics boils down to:

  • reducing the scale and scope of markets
  • expanding the scale and scope of the commons
  • putting more emphasis on the public sphere

All that really means to me is there is no unitary, all-encompassing market and certain things aren’t on the auction block. Markets shall have circumscribed scope or boundaries, including appropriate regulation and no more archaic, grandfathered externalities. But the notion that everything should evolve from markets toward something else is pure speculation. Well-regulated, democratically-managed markets might be natural and desirable even within many local commons. An agricultural land trust might want a big, bustling produce market, and why not?

What we must add to the moral philosophy is an ability to mimic the balance between steady-state and development in living systems.

We need to start seeing markets, commons, and ecosystems alike as complex adaptive systems requiring appropriate (e.g. transparent, dynamic, and democratic) constraints and regulatory mechanisms both internal and external. We need to see them as layered, overlapping, recursive, and locally differentiated by environemntal niches.

These systems are almost unfathomably complex and I wager that all our current models and subjective interpretations barely begin to scratch the surface of the objective reality. Any notion that we can re-engineer the whole market ecosystem from the top down is the height of hubris. Instead it will take a great deal of inspired trial and error from the bottom up and from the inside out.

In our efforts to upgrade our economic consciousness, plenty of kumbaya will be essential, but it won’t be sufficient. Humanity cannot live on love and peanut butter alone.  I think many of the innovators  who will fertilize the science and technology of sustainable markets may come from the highly experimental (and less theoretical) hacker, re-mix, peer-to-peer (p2p), and open source cultures.

Ecological economics can also be thought of as integral economics, a framework that includes but transcends existing fundamentalist market frameworks, integrating local econo-diversity with global interdependence–i.e. reinventing economics for people and place.”

Neither markets nor economic anarchy seem to scale well by themselves. But I think they might scale indefinitely in balanced proportions.

Poor Richard

“They want us to believe the choice is the “free market” or government, when in fact it’s one system because government sets the rules of the market. And the real choice is between a system that works for the many or the few.

They want us to think people are paid what they’re “worth,” when in fact people are paid according to how the moneyed interests have organized the market — to their benefit and against most of the rest of us.

They don’t want us to see the upward pre-distributions hidden inside the market that give them a big chunk of our paychecks, as we pay more than we should for everything from drugs to Internet service to food.

They don’t want us to know how much their pollution is sickening us, their devastation of our lands is imperiling us, their sacking of our communities is ruining us, and their takeover of our democracy is robbing us of our capacity to set things right.” 

~Robert Reich


Robert Ryan is a Graduate Student Assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. Class of 2013 · PhD · Structures and Foundations · Business Environment, Ethics, and Public Policy · Strategic Management

This is my online interview with Robert Ryan on 5/22/2012:

Poor Richard: Robert, I’m curious what you think of my very unscholarly take on markets and green economics in “Framing the Market.”

Robert Ryan: The simplest way to summarize this problem is “optimization under constraint”. In the same way that engineers perform constrained optimization problems, it is generally assumed in markets that individuals do the same, each using the same rationale as an engineer of their own personal consumption functions. Markets (here we are referring to idealized, perfect ones) are non-coordinated mechanisms for spot transactions to optimize utility under budget constraint. What this generally means is that the only two important variables are individual level preferences and budgets. As you have mentioned, this doesn’t hold true if you have more important variables like information, time, transaction costs, bargaining power, etc. Simply put, there is no “environment” in traditional market models, period, which is what separates them from evolutionary ecosystems. Ecosystems aren’t just individuals. There are group level dynamics where individuals interact with “BOUNDARIES” of the system. For example, consider how tides in a sandbar ecosystem is a boundary condition for the survival of a population of sandbar-dwelling animals. The very existence of tides shapes behavior. The list of natural system boundaries for markets include, but are not limited to: Rationality (what Herbert Simon called bounded rationality)…environmental entropy and finality (in the sense that some resources tend to be not only scarce, but decaying and non-renewable, and that some resources have critical inflection points where they pass between sustainable in supply and not……power (which is delineated by human institutions, including knowledge, law, etc.)…technology (which is the level of possible combinations of resources to create final goods)….etc…..notice that all of these constraints can be put into the economic system, but economists struggle to do so because of the complexity problem causing indeterminacy (the mathematics of chaos takes over, essentially, when everything ids dependent on everything else recursively). The simplest way to escape the problem of chaos is to hold some things constant over time. So, this is what people do to solve problems- hold things constant that may or may not BE constant. Their biggest error in the modern age occurs when hey hold constant essential SUPPLY SIDE problems, such as pollution externalities being ignored. An externality as you defined it is not quite right. An externality really is when one individual’s action that maximizes THEIR preferences impacts the entire economy negatively. For example, if a polluter pollutes, everyone else picks up the tab. The simple way to deal with externalities is to regulate against them, but that requires common agreement among everyone in the regulation.

Poor Richard: Robert. I appreciate and agree. Could I add your remarks as a comment to my blog post? (I was being a little flip with my definition of externalities. Maybe I should tweak it.)

Robert Ryan: Many people don’t know that economists indeed do solve such problems. The most popular field of economics for dealing with this problem is the economics of contracts. A market is a special case of contracts where all tricky bits are held constant. However, contract economics is generally specified so that you can account for ANYTHING. But, the math is really tricky for even the simplest of contracts. Contract economics presumes a bunch of agents are trying to negotiate a solution to an economic problem, and at least one of them is a principal. This is basically the mathematical representation of social contract problems: “we all get together before birth, or before the veil of ignorance, and devise a social contract to solve problems” – is how my professor Lawrence Ales puts it. For example, there may be some golden ratio of consumption of farmland that if you pass beyond you begin destroying future farm output. In order to prevent this, the principal is granted the ability to distribute to farmland (forming your constraint) and then the agents can auction for their slice of production. In this fashion you cap the use of farmland. Easier said than done, because it is hard to know exactly how this problem works in the real world–the chaotic inter-dependencies of the precise use of farmland and the precise use of other kinds of resources (water, air, etc…what technical combinations are employed in production, etc. ) are hard to know, and the equations of their interdependency are recursive. Carbon caps are an attempt to do exactly this, and the logic for it comes from contract economics, not market economics. To summarize again, you can solve these problems one at a time by holding other problems constant, but you get the “law of unintended consequences” even in contract economics in a complex world. Solving one problem can often pass the problem into another domain. Solving carbon problems can, for example, pass the problem on to other kinds of supply issues, rent-seeking behavior, arbitrage, etc. However, we can still do some of this with economic engineering (combinations of market and contract rules) if we use a kind of Pareto efficiency rule– start with the biggest problems first and work backward– permit the little inefficiencies to exist and simply engineer human solutions to the tough problems. When the problems of the world are explained thusly, then it becomes obvious that ethical solutions to market economic problems are certainly obtainable, and only ignorance or immoral behavior can explain why we don’t engineer problems of public goods of such nature. This means our real problem is NOT economic but political/social. Ironically, everyone keeps blaming economists when the real blame lies in the power structures of political reality.

AS a general rule, one would say that markets should only be the appropriate mechanism where externalities and supply side inter-dependencies are trivial. When they are major problems, markets will inevitably destroy whatever environment you are dealing with. They eat themselves. They are cancerous. However, if you can contain and isolate markets from the ecosystem so that they are in “remission” essentially, then they are optimal. Ecosystems do suffer from cancerous market-like problems, too. The main reason why ecosystems tend to survive in the long run is that the entire system adapts to starve the cancer. Human markets aren’t designed to adapt to starve the cancer efficiently. They will in the long run, but in the long run we’re all dead. A troublesome species like humans can simply write themselves out of existence. Well, if that’s not an acceptable endgame solution, then we have to constrain our own cancers before we eat ourselves. This is why we need social contracts, and if we cannot make adequate ones, we need to break into subspecies (tribes, etc.) and exterminate the cancerous subspecies that are indigenous to the problem in order to save the species. That sounds awful, but true.

Poor Richard: I agree with you about the difficulty of the math. Fortunately massive data collection and pattern detection may soon give us a new way of doing science, and replace a lot of difficult mathematical modeling. I think we should take about 10% of all scientists and mathematicians and put them on that critical path.

Robert Ryan: We are reaching a state of the world that definitely calls for a technocracy in the similar sense that Plato wanted us to have philosopher kings. Truly the smart people of this world could be put to work solving our problems in a fashion far superior than is currently being done, and this is a big part of my political platform I advance. I call it the Pragmatist party (or New Bull Moose).

Poor Richard: I like the sound of the Pragmatist party. How would it handle the 1%?

Robert Ryan: By appealing to the top 20% instead. One of the big fallacies is that the 1% can out-bully the entire middle class. They can’t. No middle class and there is no economy, no military, no institutions to exploit. The middle class has not really shrunk. Its the lower middle, or working class, that has been getting worse off and shrinking as more people are falling to the lower class. The real middle class is really the professionals, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, petite bourgeoisie. There is no political party designed to appeal to them directly. In fact, both American parties preserve power by going around them completely. Most of the real middle class are independent and non-extremists. The pragmatist party basically says: enough is enough. These are the real job creators, the innovators, the creatives of society. Without them there would be no economic growth. So, let’s appeal to them pragmatically and say they can deflate the 1%, and in exchange for gaining more representation, they must take better care of the lower classes than the 1% has. Our target audience is thus the people who truly dominate campaign donations, charity donations, and our communities, but have been so fractionalized and “suburbanized” so as to think of themselves as independent instead of a class. If they were to think of themselves as a class again of sane people of balanced reasoning, then the middle class could save us.

Poor Richard: How can you appeal to such a class without insulting or alienating the rest of the 99%? And isn’t there a good reason that the middle class doesn’t make waves?

Robert Ryan: Yeah– I’ve had this discussion many times before. Well, we are reaching a point where, for the first time in American history, their prospects are not looking to get better, and they all mostly know that their nation is crumbling slowly, and that there is no good reason for this to happen. There are already plenty of instances of these people getting together to get the job done on a smaller scale. Typically you see this in university/business/local govt. cooperation. Various entities have gotten together to plan to save Detroit, for example. And they’re already on the right track. These sorts of cooperative efforts to socially contract new, smarter solutions do happen, and when they do, they tend to be more localized. This is part of the sensibility of the authors out there writing about the urgent need to revitalize our cities– cities are the places where, historically, the top 20% collaborate to make great places to live for everyone. The 1% typically help finance everything and provide resources flowing into these cities. But the very history of the city is the history of the yeoman specialists and master tradespeople getting together and making economies tick. The role of the larger federal system is to provide resources to these self-organizing activities on a more local level– such as infrastructure banking, research grants, development money, etc…but the activities have to be more local and less centrally planned. There seems to be an optimal scale efficiency of central planning, and it is when you have diverse interests willing to throw their hat into a common state interest– in the US, this has never been the federal level because of a lack of common identity. Regions and states are more apropos. Richard Florida is one man who understands this and would be an ideal candidate for such a party.

Richard Florida | Creative Class Group

How Detroit Is Rising

You’ve heard the story of the city’s downfall. This is the story of its comeback.

Multimedia showcase | Creative Class Group

mimicking the balance between steady-state and development in living systems

The 99% Solution

Sidney Paget: Sherlock Holmes

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sign of the Four opens with an alarming scene:

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.   With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks.  Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

A little later in the story Holmes states, 

“It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution.  Would you care to try it?”

Limitation of classical social movements

Classical social movements have often been limited by tunnel vision, cooptationastroturfing, diversion, attrition, intimidation, repression, legal injunction, corruption, constraints of philanthropy, etc. Meanwhile, today, the 1% (the looter elite), are attacking the 99% on every side,  capturing every institution of society, and privatizing every resource on the planet.

“America is in financial ruin. Europe and Asia are on the brink of self-annihilation. Chaos reigns. But like I’ve always said, there is opportunity in chaos.” (Xander Drax, The Phantom)

What cultural transformation has lacked is an organic form, an embodiment tailored to chaos: a stigmergic swarm, or a slime-mold for example.

“When food is abundant a slime mold exists as a single-celled organism, but when food is in short supply, slime molds congregate and start moving as a single body.” (Wikipedia)

A Slime mold growing on a beer can

A Slime mold growing on a beer can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 99% Solution

  • The 99% Solution is not a “mob”. It is a self-organizing organism, a “complex adaptive system“.
  • The 99% Solution is an emergent cultural slime mold that can engulf countless separate islands of class, political identity, and single-issue activism.
  • The 99% Solution has the potential to initiate and sustain a fundamental cultural phase transition.
  • The 99% Solution can assimilate (but does not require) leaders, agendas, advisers, critics, and philanthropists. It only requires active participants.

“You will be assimilated. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

(Star Trek)

Poor Richard

  • The Co-Intelligence Institute works to further the understanding and development of co-intelligence. It focuses on catalyzing co-intelligence in the realms of politics, governance, economics and conscious evolution of ourselves and our social systems. We research, network, advocate, and help organize leading-edge experiments and conversations in order to weave what is possible into new, wiser forms of civilization.


Bilogical analogs in the workplace

Statue of Marx and Engels from the Szoborpark,...

Image via Wikipedia

Response to The swarm as a method of work organisation (P2P Foundation blog)

Excerpted from Bob Cannell:
“A 2006 European study found the primary cause of degeneration of worker coops was capture by experts who come to dominate and control information. Creating controllers is not safe in worker owned or cooperative business.”

This is an interesting observation and I think there may be an important issue to explore.

Humans share many genes with other social animals. One thing we can observe in many social species is the way that “status” genes can be turned on by social circumstances. In many species when an “alpha” individual is lost by the pack or herd, a formerly subordinate individual will fill that role. Not only does the behavior of such an individual change, but in many cases there are physiological and morphological changes that can accompany such status changes even in fully developed adult individuals. This may be mediated by epigenetic mechanisms.

It may be that humans (perhaps some more than others) are similar in that respect. Put some people into a group of cooperating peers where there is no alpha individual and this may actually trigger something in them to assume an alpha role.

In humans it is especially difficult to distinguish between psychological, genetic, and environmental triggers for behavior, and my point is not to make a case for genetic determinism. I am only suggesting that the variety of unconscious and involuntary forces that might affect human competitiveness and status-related behavior can run very, very deep.

If leaders, controllers, experts, etc. are dangerous for cooperative peer groups, it may take a lot more than peer pressure or ideology to suppress the tendency of humans to express such phenotypes.

It occurs to me that we might try to incorporate environmental stimuli in the workplace that would somehow inhibit any tendency for alpha traits to emerge and drive individuals to fill status roles that are vacant by intent–if there were some kind of artificial “decoy” alpha in the room, for example. Perhaps a magnificent animated statue of Marx that would occasionally…

Poor Richard

Organizing P2P organizations

English: overlay network Reo Mā`ohi: rede sobr...

Overlay network  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last updated 11/21/2012

[I probably should have titled this “Hacking the Organization”. What follows is not a primer of organizational design but simply a back-of-the-envelope sketch of how a number of organizational design and management ideas might be applied to peer-to-peer (P2P) organizations. My intention is for these ideas to be adapted or “hacked” for P2P applications without getting hung up on ideology or terminology, much of which has historical baggage.]

Security, dignity, civic/legal/moral equality, justice, education, love, fun…all these are common sense, plain language values that almost every sane person shares. This is where any thought about the politico-economic arrangements of society, especially the “commons”, should begin. We should build up from these in the simplest and most direct fashion possible. And perhaps with as little theory and philosophy as possible.

I recognize that many p2p activities may be amorphous, fluid, informally organized, or conducted by completely autonomous  and independent individuals. My own preferred lifestyle is agrarian and communitarian. I’m not a particularly good team player. But I would like to think of a world where p2p organizations can launch satellites, build solar-powered factories, and make trains run on time.

In The Political Economy of Peer Production, Michel Bauwens describes peerism as “cooperative individualism”. I think that is an important perspective and I think it can be extended to groups as well. Whether cooperation is one to one, one to many, many to one, or many to many, all cooperators are peers. If they are not peers, the enterprise should not be called cooperation.

In the same paper Bauwens notes that “At present, peer production offers no solution to the material survival of its participants. Therefore, many people inspired by the egalitarian ethos will resort to cooperative production, the social economy, and other schemes from which they can derive an income, while at the same time honoring their values. In this sense, these schemes are complementary.”

Perhaps I am taking a broader approach to peerism than some, but I think peer production and cooperative production are more than complementary. In my mind the concept of a true peer is essential to the concept of true cooperation and vice versa. I know this is not how cooperative production and peer production have always played out historically, but I am hoping that in the future such distinctions may evaporate. Worker cooperatives worthy of the name should become fully p2p organizations.

It is often observed that many worker coops have hierarchical management or that open/free software development projects may have “benevolent dictators” or merit-based hierarchies. How can members of such organizations be said to be “peers”? I think being a peer is most fundamentally based on consent. Ideally, consent to cooperate is freely given and fully informed. But in the real world, consent is a matter of degree. Even under the best of circumstances freedom is constrained by things like personal needs, availability of alternatives, peer pressure, etc., and information is never complete. Nonetheless, we can strive for the highest degree of informed consent for ourselves and for all those peers with whom we cooperate.

The following ideas are directed at maximizing consent and peerism in the context of organizations that are not limited to asynchronous digital production of intellectual goods and services without monetary compensation, but also organizations capable of  physical production of tangible goods and services in every part of the economy, and capable of providing people with financial security and a reasonable level of prosperity. Later in the post I’ll write specifically about an approach to designing very large, global organizations that might be capable of dealing with some of our most serious existential crises such as climate change, or the predatory-commercial (or authoritarian-state) enclosure  of our global information and communications (Internet and WWW) infrastructure.

General Design Framework

My favorite framework for analyzing and designing formal organizations consists of five layers:

  1. Values & principles
  2. Goals & objectives
  3. Methods & processes
  4. Organizational structure & relationships
  5. Forms of ownership and distribution of income and assets

This framework could be used for almost any kind of organization from a private, for-profit corporation to a non-profit, charitable foundation or NGO. It is a structured way to analyze or define “what we do, how we do it, why we do it.” In my opinion, it could be very well suited to designing or redesigning peer-to-peer organizations. There is a lot here that lends itself to reverse-engineering existing organizations, too. Some of it may resemble ideas found in the now unpopular business process re-engineering (BPR) framework, but my framework is distinguished from BPR by being a do-it-yourself (DIY) and peer-consensual process.

Although most groups who want to form an organization will have some initial overview of most or all these layers, if each category is analyzed in sequence then each successive layer of the organization is consistent with and solidly supports the layer above.

1. Values and principles. The founding members of an organization can begin by listing, defining and prioritizing their values. It begins with an open process of brainstorming to create a exhaustive list. Then the list can be massaged by consolidating redundant items. Ranking or prioritizing these can then be assisted by creating a “poll” where each member gives each value a 1-10 importance rating. The resulting ranking can be discussed and the poll retaken as often as desired. All this activity can be documented with or without the names of individual participants to begin the historical record and “audit trail” of the organization.

Values and principles aren’t always easy to sort into separate categories. A lot of things are both values and principles, but perhaps principles are more often than not about process.

Examples of values: security, dignity, justice, fairness, civic/legal/moral equality, human rights, community, education, creativity, diversity, opportunity, health, love, fun, future retirement, free time, personal growth,  friendship, loyalty, honesty, openness, sharing,  reliability, sustainability, conservation, etc.

Examples of principles: composability, subsidiarity, radical transparency, consensus, meritocracy, heirarchy (or non-heirarchy), separation of powers, checks and balances, cooperation,  recycling,  etc.

2. Goals and objectives. These define the purposes and products of the organization and enable the practice of  “management by objectives (MBO).” I use that term here in its plain language, common sense connotation and not in the special sense it has acquired in the world of corporate management doctrine taught to MBA’s. Values and objectives  provide a means to measure success or failure empirically and quantitatively and the means for implementing quality control and continuous improvement (concepts well elaborated by W.E. Deming). Goals and objectives can be brainstormed and refined in the same manner as values. In addition, every goal can be rated according to the values that have already been established to further refine priorities. Goals and objectives range from the most general, “mission statement” variety (which might include quantifiable goals like carbon-neutrality, net-zero landfill, etc. ), to general product lines and revenue goals, to extremely specific goals like product specifications, production targets, , etc. One important set of goals explicitly states the ways the organization hopes to enhance the lives of its members. Goals can be further defined and organized as near-mid-long term. One simple way of organizing all these goals is an outline or a series of wiki pages. The wiki platform offers a ready-made way to document all the discussion and revision history and to hyperlink between all the layers of the framework.

3. Methods & processes. “Management by objectives (MBO)” as I use the term has two basic features: 1) a given goal or objective is associated with a project team, and 2) it is generally up to the team to define and mange the resources and methods that are used to achieve the goal. This includes devising the internal structure and self-management methods of the team itself. This is the layer where recursivness and diversity enter the organization. The first two layers have established the universals of the organization; this layer begins differentiating the “species” of project teams that will evolve over time to fit various ecological niches within the organization. The extent to which methods and processes meet the values and goals of the organization will determine their “fitness”. Management by objectives is the organizational equivalent of natural selection. But the difference is that natural selection is all about reproductive success and is otherwise values-neutral, whereas MBO selects for success at explicit, preselected values and goals. This is the opposite of top-down BPR. The MBO that I am describing is agnostic (with the possible exception of legalities) about the internals of any project team and looks only at results. From this perspective, the more mutations, the merrier. In the design stage of an organization, methods and processes will be the prerogative of the organizing members, but this represents only a state of initialization, a starting point for initial project teams. At this stage, the members can only make educated guesses about which methods and processes will best fit the organization’s values and goals and the conditions under which it operates. One important category of methods and processes defines the feedback loops between project teams and the methods for transparency and accountability to the organization as a whole. This is includes but is not limited to bookkeeping, quality control, exception handling, conflict resolution, hiring and firing, purchasing, and the interfaces between projects and between the organization and the outside world. All this can again be organized in outline or wiki form.

Deming process for quality control and continuous improvement:

Deming PDCA Cycle

PDCA is a successive cycle which starts off small to test potential effects on processes, but then gradually leads to larger and more targeted change.

Establish the objectives and processes necessary to deliver results in accordance with the expected output. By making the expected output the focus, it differs from other techniques in that the completeness and accuracy of the specification is also part of the improvement.
Implement the new processes. Often on a small scale if possible, to test possible effects.
Measure the new processes and compare the results against the expected results to ascertain any differences.
Analyze the differences to determine their cause. Each will be part of either one or more of the P-D-C-A steps. Determine where to apply changes that will include improvement. When a pass through these four steps does not result in the need to improve, refine the scope to which PDCA is applied until there is a plan that involves improvement.

4. Organizational structure & relationships. This is often poorly matched to values, objectives and methods, which is why it comes at this stage of the design process. At this point the appropriate structure and sub-structures should almost be self-evident. Indeed, the forgoing discussion makes the assumption that the organization will consist of largely autonomous project teams. What I haven’t discussed yet is the idea that some projects will be designed to provide services to other projects. Examples are accounting services, office space or facilities management, information and communication technology, etc. This is analogous to some of the typical departments of traditional organizations, except that they are more autonomous and that most of their services are offered to client projects on a voluntary basis. In other words, production projects can choose to “outsource” such functions either to the appropriate in-house service project (the in-house accounting team, for example), to providers outside the organization, or to handle any or all of these typical tasks within the production project itself. It might also be possible for multiple accounting services or IT teams to exist and compete with each other. This prevents these in-house service projects, such as accounting and IT, from gaining too much power by virtue of exclusive expertise and captive clientele.  This is an example of how checks and balances can be established between autonomous project teams. All these projects are peers. All these projects can mutate or fork.

Below are some organization charts that are compatible with the project approach. Note that the “Management” box in the matrix chart is a project itself. It may be the venue for organization-wide goal setting, scheduling, and certain interactions with the outside world.

Matrix Organization

Matrix organization sheme

A WikiMedia Organization chart:

Wikimedia “Eloquence” Platform

Wikimedia has an excellent gallery of organizational charts, well worth perusing.

One of the best (albeit somewhat dated) introductions to organizational process and structure I know is “The Limits of Organization” by Ken Arrow. He identifies the typical working parts & processes of an organization– things like goal setting and decision making, information flow, accountability, and feedback loops.

5. Forms of ownership. This also is often poorly matched with the organization’s values, objectives and methods. It applies to the organization as a whole as well as to individual projects and to resources and assets that are created, acquired, used, and exchanged within and between projects and between the organization and the outside world. Choices of forms of ownership often reflect the requirements of other entities with which an organization or project will interact. Different projects might choose different forms of internal property ownership and property management.

Michel Bauwens writes in a post on the Next Net discussion group, “One of the key features of peer production is access for use and production without prior permission, and with the control mechanisms moved away from the ‘controlling access’ and ‘controlling work process’ to  ‘controlling quality of the results’…” I agree with this as a general trend and preference within p2p organizations, but there are many kinds of resources that are scarce, exhaustible, or subject to access control even in p2p production scenarios.

Resources like common computer code repositories, design drawings and specs, documents, digital media, etc. are intellectual or creative works that can be shared, copied, reused and repurposed without diminishing the common resource pool. Such resources are placed in the public domain or are licensed under a GNU General Public License, Creative Commons copyright, or similar type of commons-oriented ownership.

However, a p2p organization may also purchase or license intellectual or creative works for their own use or for resale that are subject to a more restrictive commercial license or copyright. This could be anything from commercial accounting software or other software applications that limit the number of concurrent users to electronic books or copyrighted documentation and reference materials. In such cases the organization, its subsidiary project groups, and its individual members must establish and follow appropriate procedures for managing such property according to the terms of its use.

If p2p organizations are to expand from the domain of intellectual and creative production into the wider economy to produce many kinds of tangible goods and services, then there are many other kinds of resources which they will need to buy, rent, own, share, sell, trade, and manage.

Purchasing materials, components, and equipment can done by individual project groups or this can be aggregated into special purchasing or supply chain management groups. The ownership and management of resources can be internal to a group or aggregated into various kinds of resource “pools” that are shared by multiple groups.

Property and ownership (like organizational structure) are highly “hackable” or customizable within the existing legal frameworks of most modern nations.

There is a large catalog of “off-the-shelf” forms of organization and ownership as well as exotic forms and infinitely customizable hybrids providing a vast palette of options that can be used to create any organization and manage any kind of resource for any purpose under the sun.

P2P peeps are good at hacking and forking things and in the years to come will spawn many new organizational species.

One thing to consider in choosing a legal form of ownership is that we face an existential threat from predatory special interests that are waging an increasingly well-coordinated war on democratic social and economic institutions, including other businesses. The progressive, egalitarian community faces a radically authoritarian opponent that is hell-bent on establishing a global corporate neofeudalism–a system of private governance and private ownership of all that remains of the commons.

Our problem is how to defend ourselves, our institutions, and our commons against such an enemy and such an assault, without adopting the enemy’s methods or mentality. What kind of self-defensive and counter-offensive methods can we devise that can match the scope, scale, and speed of the enemy’s economic class warfare?


Incorporation has several advantages that make it a common form of business ownership. However, my position is that most corporations have too many advantages that are seldom in the public interest. For details see Tom Hartmann’s book:  Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” – And How You Can Fight Back.

Although corporate law varies in different jurisdictions, there are four core characteristics of the business corporation:

Liability exemptions, perpetual life, corporate personhood, and other corporate advantages should be granted only when those perks or incentives serve to correct some market failure. Otherwise all other forms of business are at a disadvantage. And if all businesses and persons are incorporated, we may as well toss the estate tax, which in my opinion is a necessary and proper tax.

When businesses receive corporate advantages, they should be required to act strictly within narrow charters and should have requirements that unincorporated business don’t–greater transparency for one. Not only should they NOT be legal persons, they should be much LESS than legal persons. They should behave like the publicly-chartered legal fictions that they are.

People Resources

I use this term to distinguish p2p people resources from the conventional human resource management mentality. Although an individual may be on multiple project teams, she is nevertheless a unique and indivisible person.

Costs and benefits of extreme outsourcing

One of the greatest challenges I see for p2p organizations is the question of “fringe benefits”. The status of “independent contractor” or “free agent”  has its attractions both for the peer and for employers.  The downside is that many for-profit corporations have carried this to an extreme form of outsourcing, both to minimize facilities costs and to divorce themselves from personnel costs, especially the cost of fringe benefit programs. If peers are going to have any fringe benefits under this new regime, they will almost certainly need to form mutual benefit associations to supplement the healthcare, retirement, and unemployment benefits which may or may not be provided by government.

A mutual organization exists with the purpose of raising funds from its membership or customers (collectively called its members), which can then be used to provide common services to all members of the organization or society. A mutual is therefore owned by, and run for the benefit of, its members – it has no external shareholders to pay in the form of dividends, and as such does not usually seek to maximize and make large profits or capital gains. Mutuals exist for the members to benefit from the services they provide and often do not pay income tax. (Wikipedia)

Maximizing the quality of life of all present and future peers is the highest possible mission of any P2P organization.

Disorganization of the peers

The ecosystem of innovation in the techni-capable general public is hugely fertile and productive, but in an emergent, stigmergic, and largely undisciplined piecemeal fashion. Many new species of innovation might be characterized as technology “micro-organisms”, and many are born and die in virtual islands of isolation without passing their “DNA” to other species or generations of technology. The cross-fertilization of innovations and designs is very localized and random. This is not necessarily bad over a vast time frame, but it dramatically slows the evolution of best designs and practices –especially in the “large animal” category of technology platforms.

We could leave the progress of innovation to the invisible hand of “natural selection” by market forces and we would get a slow evolution. But such a “hands-off” approach is not really hands-off at all. Such evolution would be heavily shaped by the existing vested interests and powers. The only innovations that would be allowed to survive would be those that were not disruptive to the powers that be. How will we organize effectively to stop climate change or stop the corporate take-over of the internet? To balance the influence of the vested special interests we may need large, global organizations  that operate in the public interest.

Various interest groups recognized long ago the need for global institutions and created them. They serve political, commercial, financial, legal, military, economic development, scientific, educational, cultural, public health, philanthropic, and other specific agendas.

There is no comparable global public interest institution, for example, whose agenda is specifically to build our future public global information and communications infrastructure (PGICI), sometimes called The Next Net, including all the layers of hardware and software necessary to provide the entire suite of high-level information and communication services to the end user community.

The non-governmental public-interest organizations I’m suggesting need be no bigger or more complex than a UN, WHO, WTO, IMF, NATO, World Bank, or a multi-national corporation. There are many of these in our modern environment.

The problem is that there is no GLOBAL PUBLIC-INTEREST “BUSINESS” MODEL. I use the term “business model” because it is such as cliche in current public conversation. If we want to understand what really makes an organization succeed or fail we dissect its business model.

For the project of forming an open, transparent, democratic,  global public-interest organization there is no compatible private for-profit business model, and there is no compatible public non-profit business model either. Something like the PGICI is beyond the usual scope of private philanthropy and it is incompatible with governments that place private business interests (profits) above the public interest.

A PGICI would have to be funded by the end users, and it SHOULD BE. But there is thus far no working business model for a crowd-funded public project of such size and scope. Projects of that size and scope are the province of governments and global industries alone, with perhaps a few philanthropic examples in the public health and humanitarian sectors.

Of course the business model is not the only problem. No field-tested organizational model exists, either. So what about a coalition of parties like the W3C,  the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the UN ICT Task Force , the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Free Software Foundation, the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, the OpenNet Initiative, the WikiMedia Foundation, Google, the BBC, and others to design and launch a PGICI umbrella organization. The two big questions are 1) is this a project the public can comprehend and agree on, and 2) does the not-for-profit, non-governmental public sector have the global-enterprise-level entrepreneurial and management abilities to make something like a PGICI happen. Or is that kind of entrepreneurial and management ability strictly a private-sector commodity? If it is the latter, then the capitalists have been right all along and we can’t live without them– so we might as well all shut up and go to our cubicles and behave.

The Large, Massively Complex, Adaptive Organization

“How do we organise ourselves to achieve our…aims? It is an age-old question, with the answer often revolving around two poles of attraction, the centralised cadre versus the decentralised loose network.” *

How should we organize ourselves in the 21st century?

* Harry Halpin and Kay Summer in Turbulence

“[T]here is now a brief window of opportunity – a moment outside ‘normal’ time – where a network of social movements can actively form and radically reshape the world. To do so successfully, future movements must consciously try to avoid two distinct fates: either the dissolution into a decentralised network of loose clusters of relatively isolated groups, movements and individuals – the fate of the summit-hopping phase of the movement of movements – or a decline towards a centralised network of cadres, which severely damaged the movement in the Sixties. Our lines of flight from these dead-ends consist in wilfully pushing ourselves to learn from successful networks and evolve towards a mature distributed network with abundant hubs and a powerful long tail: a movement with both mass participation and dynamic hubs of people and events, capable of evolving and responding rapidly to a fast-changing world. A tall order – perhaps – yet the alternative is bleak indeed.”

My thesis is that both poles of large organization structure–the loose network of diverse individuals, organizations, and movements and the centralized, top-down, hierarchical organization–have strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses severely limit the attractiveness, effectiveness, or longevity of organizations at either extreme. What is needed is a new model for organizations large enough to address international crises and global development needs but without the weaknesses of either of the old large organizational forms.

I propose a variety of bio-mimetic principles and metaphors with which to design a new model for large, global, non-governmental organizations that are democratic, transparent, and open to mass participation. The new model will achieve stability neither through conflict avoidance nor through central command and control, but through the flexible yet closely coordinated dynamics of complex adaptive systems (CAS).

In what follows I’ll discuss a number of bio-mimetic principles and metaphors for organizational design, but the single most important concept in complex adaptive systems is that the complexity of the network of feedback circuits (e.g. nerves) must be commensurate with the complexity of the functional relationships among all the organization’s internal parts (e.g. cells).

The best biological analog for complex feedback circuits is the neural network. A  neural network is made of a great many individual neurons (nerve cells) each with many cross-connections to other neurons. Although there are many specialized types of neurons and neural networks (just as there are many types of workers and teams in a large organization), most of the types have large numbers of connections with their fellow neurons. A neuron receives feedback from other neurons via its dendrite  fibers. These have many branches, collectively referred to metaphorically as a dendritic tree. A neuron sends out nerve signals via its axon fibers–cable-like projections that can extend tens, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of times the length of the cell body. Like the dendrites, the axon has many branches, enabling communication with many different target cells. Between the branching dendrite and axon fibers combined, the typical neuron in the human brain has an average of 7,000 connections to other neurons. Some have many more connections. Can you imagine an individual member of an organization with 7,000 direct, hard-wired connections to other members? This is a lot of very close-coupled, bi-directional feedback.

Two of my favorite authors on organizational design are the Nobel-prize economist Kenneth Arrow (The Limits of Organization) and Edwards Deming, the father of industrial quality control and “continuous improvement.” Both men emphasized the central importance of an organization’s feedback networks to the practical limits on its size and efficiency.

The basic element of a feedback network is a single feedback loop. Each feedback loop of a neuron may involve many other cells, so the possible number of loops is far greater than the 7,000 connections that each individual cell has.

Deming described the generic logic of the basic feedback loop in terms of the PDCA cycle (see details above). PDCA stands for plan. do, check (or study), and act.

A neuron performs analogous feedback steps, with less anthropomorphic labels. However, a single neuron probably has a greater number of such feedback loops than many human organizations. A single mouse brain may have more such loops than the largest human organization on earth. (If we want to talk about collective human intelligence, maybe we need to at least aspire to a feedback network as complex as that of a mouse brain. Deming called his organizational philosophy, BTW, the “System of Profound Knowledge”.)

The point is that organizational failures are most often related to feedback failures–organizational feedback networks tend to be woefully inadequate. So massively complex feedback is the primary bio-mimetic design principle for massively complex, adaptive organizations. One of the best tools we have for implementing complex feedback networks within an organization and between an organization and the world is called a social network.  Social network platforms like facebook or Google +, for all their faults, are easily capable of supporting feedback networks involving hundreds of millions of people. While each neuron might be thought of as having 7,000 neuron “friends,” most humans may only be capable of interacting  with a few hundred (see Dunbar’s number) in any coherent fashion.

Designing organizations as complex adaptive systems (CAS)

It is often claimed that CASs cannot be intentionally planned or designed–they must be allowed to emerge spontaneously and serendipitously from natural evolution of from a “cloud” of stigmergic activity . Examples of complex, adaptive stigmergic activity are seen in swarming ants and bees, schooling  fish, etc.

IMO this is a one-sided view. CASs can be helped to emerge. Emergence can be intentionally pushed, pulled, and guided. And in the case of the Next Net Ecosystem, I argue that in order to address the scope, scale and speed of various immanent existential threats we MUST assist with the emergence of new ICT infrastructure with new defensive and counter-offensive capabilities. The birth of the Next Net Ecosystem needs skillful and dedicated midwives and husbandmen to bring it safely into this world in a timely manner despite serious obstacles and risk factors.

Examples of planned, designed, and managed CASs and guided emergence include complex gardens, permaculture systems, and forest garden designs, and the design and management of other complex, integrated agricultural and horticultural systems involving mixed ecosystems of plants, animals, humans and natural resources with diverse bioregions and microclimates.

Rooms, patios, campuses, and plazas full of master gardeners, permaculture designers, agriculturalists, landscape designers, etc. can and do collaborate on designing, building, and managing complex adaptive systems every day.

They combine systems science with knowledge, experience, and practical skills and apply principles of continuous improvement and quality control to make complex systems progressively healthier and increasingly more robust, productive, and adaptive.

As one small case history of helping a complex adaptive system to emerge far more quickly than would otherwise have been possible without intensive planning, design, and management, consider this personal gardening story:

Living Systems Theory (LST)

Additional bio-mimetic principles and metaphors for the design of large, complex, adaptive organizations can be drawn from the Living Systems Theory of James Grier Miller and others.

In the Wikipedia section below, reference is often made to “self-organizing” systems. In the case of biological organisms and ecosystems there is no single explicit designer or architect. However, all the organisms both inside and outside of an eco-region are co-designers, co-architects, and co-engineers of the ecosystem, despite the fact that their activities may not be intelligently coordinated. A consequence of this lack of intelligent planning and coordination is that adaptation to environmental changes is often slow and, in the short term, clumsy.

If nature succeeds as well as it does without intentional systems analysis and planning, how much better might we succeed at organization and social evolution WITH system science, design, quality control, and continuous improvement methods if those methods are intentionally and carefully applied?

Furthermore, if 500 people got together and designed, planed, and built an organization in an open, transparent, and democratic way , that organization may be said to have been “self-organized”, even if the original 500 people no longer belong to the organization. Thus references to “self-organization” below in no way detract from the application of living systems theory to the creation of large, complex social institutions.

Wikipedia: Living Systems

Living systems are open self-organizingliving things that interact with their environment. These systems are maintained by flows of information, energy and matter.

Some scientists have proposed in the last few decades that a general living systems theory is required to explain the nature of life.[1] Such general theory, arising out of the ecological and biological sciences, attempts to map general principles for how all living systems work. Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into component parts, a general living systems theory explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of the relationships of organisms with their environment.[2]


Living systems theory is a general theory about the existence of all living systems, their structure, interaction, behavior and development. This work is created by James Grier Miller, which was intended to formalize the concept of life. According to Miller’s original conception as spelled out in his magnum opusLiving Systems, a “living system” must contain each of twenty “critical subsystems”, which are defined by their functions and visible in numerous systems, from simple cells to organisms, countries, and societies. In Living Systems Miller provides a detailed look at a number of systems in order of increasing size, and identifies his subsystems in each. Miller considers living systems as a subset of all systems. Below the level of living systems, he defines space and time, matter and energy, information and entropy, levels of organization, and physical and conceptual factors, and above living systems ecological, planetary and solar systems, galaxies, etc.[3]

Living systems according to Parent (1996) are by definition “open self-organizing systems that have the special characteristics of life and interact with their environment. This takes place by means of information and material-energy exchanges. Living systems can be as simple as a single cell or as complex as a supranational organization such as the European Union. Regardless of their complexity, they each depend upon the same essential twenty subsystems (or processes) in order to survive and to continue the propagation of their species or types beyond a single generation”.[4]

Miller said that systems exist at eight “nested” hierarchical levels: cell, organ, organism, group, organization, community, society, and supranational system. At each level, a system invariably comprises twenty critical subsystems, which process matter–energy or information except for the first two, which process both matter–energy and information: reproducer and boundary.

The processors of matter–energy are:

  • ingestor, distributor, converter, producer, storage, extruder, motor, supporter

The processors of information are

  • input transducer, internal transducer, channel and net, timer (added later), decoder, associator, memory, decider, encoder, output transducer.

Miller’s living systems theory

James Grier Miller in 1978 wrote a 1,102-page volume to present his living systems theory. He constructed a general theory of living systems by focusing on concrete systems—nonrandom accumulations of matter–energy in physical space–time organized into interacting, interrelated subsystems or components. Slightly revising the original model a dozen years later, he distinguished eight “nested” hierarchical levels in such complex structures. Each level is “nested” in the sense that each higher level contains the next lower level in a nested fashion.

His central thesis is that the systems in existence at all eight levels are open systems composed of twenty critical subsystems that process inputs, throughputs, and outputs of various forms of matter–energy and information. Two of these subsystems—reproducer and boundary—process both matter–energy and information. Eight of them process only matter–energy. The other ten process information only.

All nature is a continuum. The endless complexity of life is organized into patterns which repeat themselves—theme and variations—at each level of system. These similarities and differences are proper concerns for science. From the ceaseless streaming of protoplasm to the many-vectored activities of supranational systems, there are continuous flows through living systems as they maintain their highly organized steady states.[5]

Topics in living systems theory

Miller’s theory posits that the mutual interrelationship of the components of a system extends across the hierarchical levels. Examples: Cells and organs of a living system thrive on the food the organism obtains from its suprasystem; the member countries of a supranational system reap the benefits accrued from the communal activities to which each one contributes. Miller says that his eclectic theory “ties together past discoveries from many disciplines and provides an outline into which new findings can be fitted”.[7]

Miller says the concepts of space, time, matter, energy, and information are essential to his theory because the living systems exist in space and are made of matter and energy organized by information. Miller’s theory of living systems employs two sorts of spaces: physical or geographical space, and conceptual or abstracted spaces. Time is the fundamental “fourth dimension” of the physical space–time continuum/spiral. Matter is anything that has mass and occupies physical space. Mass and energy are equivalent as one can be converted into the other. Information refers to the degrees of freedom that exist in a given situation to choose among signals, symbols, messages, or patterns to be transmitted.

Other relevant concepts are system, structure, process, type, level, echelon, suprasystem, subsystem, transmissions, and steady state. A system can be conceptual, concrete or abstracted. The structure of a system is the arrangement of the subsystems and their components in three-dimensional space at any point of time. Process, which can be reversible or irreversible, refers to change over time of matter–energy or information in a system. Type defines living systems with similar characteristics. Level is the position in a hierarchy of systems. Many complex living systems, at various levels, are organized into two or more echelons. The suprasystem of any living system is the next higher system in which it is a subsystem or component. The totality of all the structures in a system which carry out a particular process is a subsystem. Transmissions are inputs and outputs in concrete systems. Because living systems are open systems, with continually altering fluxes of matter–energy and information, many of their equilibria are dynamic—situations identified as steady states or flux equilibria.

Miller identifies the comparable matter–energy and information processing critical subsystems. Elaborating on the eight hierarchical levels, he defines society, which constitutes the seventh hierarchy, as “a large, living, concrete system with [community] and lower levels of living systems as subsystems and components”.[8] Society may include small, primitive, totipotential communities; ancient city–states, and kingdoms; as well as modern nation–states and empires that are not supranational systems. Miller provides general descriptions of each of the subsystems that fit all eight levels.

A supranational system, in Miller’s view, “is composed of two or more societies, some or all of whose processes are under the control of a decider that is superordinate to their highest echelons”.[9] However, he contends that no supranational system with all its twenty subsystems under control of its decider exists today. The absence of a supranational decider precludes the existence of a concrete supranational system.

At the supranational system level, Miller’s emphasis is on international organizations, associations, and groups comprising representatives of societies (nation–states). Miller identifies the subsystems at this level to suit this emphasis. Thus, for example, the reproducer is “any multipurpose supranational system which creates a single purpose supranational organization” (p. 914); and the boundary is the “supranational forces, usually located on or near supranational borders, which defend, guard, or police them” (p. 914).

Strengths of Miller’s theory

Not just those specialized in international communication, but all communication science scholars could pay particular attention to the major contributions of living systems theory (LST) to social systems approaches that Bailey[11] has pointed out:

  • The specification of the twenty critical subsystems in any living system.
  • The specification of the eight hierarchical levels of living systems.
  • The emphasis on cross-level analysis and the production of numerous cross-level hypotheses.
  • Cross-subsystem research (e.g., formulation and testing of hypotheses in two or more subsystems at a time).
  • Cross-level, cross-subsystem research.

Bailey says that LST, perhaps the “most integrative” social systems theory, has made many more contributions that may be easily overlooked, such as: providing a detailed analysis of types of systems; making a distinction between concrete and abstracted systems; discussion of physical space and time; placing emphasis on information processing; providing an analysis of entropy; recognition of totipotential systems, and partipotential systems; providing an innovative approach to the structure–process issue; and introducing the concept of joint subsystem—a subsystem that belongs to two systems simultaneously; of dispersal—lateral, outward, upward, and downward; of inclusion—inclusion of something from the environment that is not part of the system; of artifact—an animal-made or human-made inclusion; of adjustment process, which combats stress in a system; and of critical subsystems, which carry out processes that all living systems need to survive.[12]

LST’s analysis of the twenty interacting subsystems, Bailey adds, clearly distinguishing between matter–energy-processing and information-processing, as well as LST’s analysis of the eight interrelated system levels, enables us to understand how social systems are linked to biological systems. LST also analyzes the irregularities or “organizational pathologies” of systems functioning (e.g., system stress and strain, feedback irregularities, information–input overload). It explicates the role of entropy in social research while it equates negentropy with information and order. It emphasizes both structure and process, as well as their interrelations.[13]

See also


The Global Superorganism – an evolutionary-cybernetic model of the emerging network society

The organismic view of society is updated by incorporating concepts from cybernetics, evolutionary  theory, and complex adaptive systems. Global society can be seen as an autopoietic network of self-producing components, and therefore  as a living system or “superorganism”. Miller’s living systems theory suggests a list of  functional components for society’s metabolism and nervous system. Powers’ perceptual control theory suggests a model for a distributed control system implemented through the market mechanism. An analysis of the evolution of complex, networked systems points  to the general trends of increasing efficiency, differentiation and integration. In  society these trends are realized as increasing productivity, decreasing friction, increasing division of labor and outsourcing, and increasing cooperativity, transnational mergers and global institutions. This  is accompanied by increasing functional autonomy of individuals and  organizations and the decline of hierarchies.  The increasing complexity of interactions and instability of certain processes caused by reduced friction necessitate a strengthening of society’s capacity for information processing and control, i.e. its nervous system. This is realized by the creation of an intelligent global computer network, capable of sensing, interpreting, learning, thinking, deciding and initiating  actions: the “global brain”. Individuals are being integrated ever more tightly into  this collective intelligence. Although this image may raise worries  about a totalitarian system that restricts individual initiative,  the superorganism model points in the opposite direction, towards increasing freedom and diversity.  The model further suggests some specific futurological predictions for the coming decades, such as the emergence of an automated distribution network, a computer immune system, and a global consensus about values and standards. Read

Additional Bio-mimetic ideas

Additional principles and metaphors for the biomimetic design of large, complex organizations can be taken from recursive fractal geometries and from some of the concepts of object-oriented programming.

Object-oriented programming techniques include features such as:

(See more resources on bio-mimetics and complex adaptive systems below)

Poor Richard

Related subjects and resources:

PERT chart for a project with five milestones (10 through 50) and six activities (A through F). The project has two critical paths: activities B and C, or A, D, and F – giving a minimum project time of 7 months with fast tracking. Activity E is sub-critical, and has a float of 2 months. (Wikipedia)

Gantt Chart with critical path

Bio-mimicry and CAS: Resources to help extend the application of biological metaphors and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) to organizations


Excerpt from Replacing systems management with complex responsive processes in peer to peer work environments (P2P Foundation blog)

Break Free from Our Systems Prison

Implications of Complex Responsive Process Management Thinking

preDraft version for UKSCS conference 2010– not for republication.

Please acknowledge source if you quote.

Bob Cannell FCIPD

This paper is an argument for application of CRP thinking to practical management learning. It attempts to show why CRP is a radically new ‘take’ on the theory of organisational management and why it is better suited to democratic and participative organisational environments.


Some examples will illustrate this problem. Worker cooperative members can design their working arrangements any way they wish. Suma is the largest worker cooperative in the UK and was described as one of the two most radical employers in Europe by the former director of Co-operatives Europe.

Suma members for example have collectively decided they want to choose their work colleagues democratically, to multi-skill and undertake multiple jobs in the course of a week (job-rotation), to work how and when they want and to have strictly equal pay rates for all Suma workers. But all of these eminently egalitarian and reasonable wishes, the operations and criteria of which are worked out in the present in active conversation, is in conflict with employment legislation and an employment culture which assumes a prescriptive and systematic relationship between employer and employee.

Suma principle Conflictual Employment Legislation
To be able to choose who you work with The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employees rights whereby worker cooperatives can be sued for unfair dismissal for democratically deciding to terminate the employment of someone they do not wish to work with , and further punished for democratically refusing to reinstate.The abstract systematic rights of employees in the ERA take precedent over the human relationship processes.
To choose your own management Employment Tribunals and Trade Unions interpret the ERA as requiring a specific authoritative decisiontaker, a senior manager, for all decisions about the application of the ERA.Operating management as a function of a collective, as many worker coops do, not as a status attached to individuals, is therefore tantamount to an unauthorised decision.The reified idealised system of hierarchical authority is considered to exist whilst the real interacting processes of network governance relationships are discounted as false.Tribunals and Trade Unions will demand to know ‘who precisely is in charge’ and the worker cooperative has to present some individual to speak on their behalf, e.g. their personnel officer, even though that person does not have the executive authority demanded.
To choose the jobs you want to do Worker cooperatives tend towards multi-skilling and job rotation. It is therefore difficult to prove lack of capability when employment legislation assumes employees are hired for a specific job i.e. that the contractual terms (a hypothesised system) take precedent over real and existing relationships between colleagues.
To work the way you want Worker cooperative members around the world, tend to want a multi-skilled portfolio of duties, characterised by flexibility and self-initiative within a self regulating network of relationships in the workplace.The Health and Safety at Work Act and all subsequent H&S legislation (especially the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations) require a specific, narrow, prescriptive bureaucratic system of rules and procedures which must be imposed by a system controller.
Worker owned businesses require safe principles of working (managed in practice by responsive complex processes of relating). H&S orthodoxy requires ‘safe systems of work’ enforced by disciplinary procedures against non-compliant operatives.
To work when you want Executives and senior managers with autonomous decisionmaking powers are exempt from the Working Time Regulations. Hourly paid worker cooperative owner managers are not.It is an offence for a worker cooperative to permit its member employees to breach the WTR even though they own and control their business in contrast to the salaried executive who may be a small cog in a big corporate.The self-regulating nature of an existing complex responsive network of mutually dependent relationships in an equal status collective is discounted in favour of a system of bureaucratic controls which assumes the existence of a hypothetical external controller of a reified ‘as if’ system model.
Equal pay rates for all workers Equal net pay is a common ideal of worker owned businesses. The Part Time Workers Equal Treatment regulations’ if enforced by Tribunal order, effectively prevent equal net pay rates between part and full time workers.

It is possible to assess common management techniques for their basic underlying assumptions. Most of these have been designed pragmatically without consideration of the underlying philosophical assumptions; CRP based or Systems model based.

Systems based techniques will not be easy to use or just ineffective in an organisation which lacks arbitrary management authority, the ability to require subordinates to JEDI (just effing do it). CRP friendly techniques would be a better choice of tool in organisations where consensual agreement is required for proposed change to take place.

Technique CRP friendly Systems assumption Comment
Project Management Agile school PRINCE2 and other waterfall methods Agile is emergent. P2 is predictive.
Communications Receiver based, On demand. Network. web2 Broadcast , published, web1 Interaction (conversation) vs Transmit (control)
Employer Branding Employee engagement program Employee satisfaction survey Engage vs Study
Training Interactive group self-learning Cascade, classroom
Strategic management schools Emergent, evolutionary, contingent methods Ancoff, strategic choice, any predictive methods
Financial management Management by margin(Beyond Budgetting model) Management by objectives
(financial business planning)Budgeting
Guide vs goal seeking cybernetics
HRM Human Relations Management Human Resource Management Relationships vs units of resource (which are a reified myth anyway)
Operational management Self-management, cooperative teams,High Initiative Operations,management as function Taylorism, team leadership,management as status Enforced conversation vs repressed conversation
Organisational Development Vertical integration and segmentation,matrix/networkFlat hierarchy Horizontal integration and silos,pyramid hierarchy Vertical requires real time communications , horizontal merely business information processing
Leadership theory Open leadershipservant leaderfacilitation Great man theorycelebritychief executive cult CRP vs. external controller of system
Business Information Open Books Need to know Open Books enables complex responsive relating by human participants. Need to know restricts behaviour, participants to that of operatives.
Theory of the firm cooperatives hierarchies
Change management CRP Business process Re-engineering , Value Chain Analysis
Culture People & customers focussed Finance, operations, marketing dominated Responsive human Relationships vs things
Marketing Active marketing Passive marketing Customer relationship management vs systematic marketing campign
Visioning Appreciative Inquiry Future search AI focusses on interpersonal relationships. Future search on ‘wants’ and posits an ideal future towards which a cybernetic systematic approach is possible
Quality standards Investors in People? ISO9000 etc. TQM, 6sigma, EFQM etc. are largely systems based but with CRP elements
The critical path method (CPM) is an algorithm for scheduling a set of project activities.[1] It is an important tool for effective project management.

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

Public Truth

No Fairness Doctrine

Image via Wikipedia

Fox News’ Lies Keep Them Out of Canada

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Reader Supported News, 01 March 11

s America’s middle class battles for its survival on the Wisconsin barricades – against various Koch Oil surrogates and the corporate toadies at Fox News – fans of enlightenment, democracy and justice can take comfort from a significant victory north of the Wisconsin border. Fox News will not be moving into Canada after all! The reason: Canadian regulators announced last week they would reject efforts by Canada’s right-wing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to repeal a law that forbids lying on broadcast news.

Canada’s Radio Act requires that “a licenser may not broadcast … any false or misleading news.” The provision has kept Fox News and right-wing talk radio out of Canada and helped make Canada a model for liberal democracy and freedom. As a result of that law, Canadians enjoy high quality news coverage, including the kind of foreign affairs and investigative journalism that flourished in this country before Ronald Reagan abolished the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987.

Fairness Doctrine in the US

In the US, our commitment to free speech even extends to liars. None of us here want a “Truth Police”. That would be too “chilling” on our rights and liberties. The “Fairness Doctrine” ingeniously addressed the problem of biased (and lying) speech on the public airwaves not by limiting speech, but by adding more speech to it.

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission’s view, honest, equitable and balanced. The 1949 Commission Report served as the foundation for the Fairness Doctrine since it had previously established two more forms of regulation onto broadcasters. These two duties were to provide adequate coverage to public issues and that coverage must be fair in reflecting opposing views.[1] The Fairness Doctrine should not be confused with the Equal Time rule. The Fairness Doctrine deals with discussion of controversial issues, while the Equal Time rule deals only with political candidates.

In 1969, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Commission’s general right to enforce the Fairness Doctrine where channels were limited, but the courts have not, in general, ruled that the FCC is obliged to do so.[2] In 1987, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, prompting some to urge its reintroduction through either Commission policy or Congressional legislation.[3] Following the 1969 Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission decision, which provided the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with more regulatory power, the main agenda for this doctrine was to ensure that the viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints.

n 1974, the Federal Communications Commission asserted that the United States Congress had delegated it the power to mandate a system of “access, either free or paid, for person or groups wishing to express a viewpoint on a controversial public issue…” but that it had not yet exercised that power because licensed broadcasters had “voluntarily” complied with the “spirit” of the doctrine. It warned that:

Should future experience indicate that the doctrine [of ‘voluntary compliance’] is inadequate, either in its expectations or in its results, the Commission will have the opportunity—and the responsibility—for such further reassessment and action as would be mandated.[7]

The Fairness Doctrine has been strongly opposed by prominent conservatives and libertarians who view it as an attack on First Amendment rights and property rights. Editorials in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times have said that Democratic attempts to bring back the Fairness Doctrine have been made largely in response to conservative talk radio.[32][33]

On August 12, 2008, FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell stated that the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine could be intertwined with the debate over network neutrality (a proposal to classify network operators as common carriers required to admit all Internet services, applications and devices on equal terms), presenting a potential danger that net neutrality and Fairness Doctrine advocates could try to expand content controls to the Internet.[34] It could also include “government dictating content policy”.[35] The conservative Media Research Center‘s Culture & Media Institute argued that the three main points supporting the Fairness Doctrine — media scarcity, liberal viewpoints being censored at a corporate level, and public interest — are all myths.[36]

In June 2008, Barack Obama‘s press secretary wrote that Obama (then a Democratic U.S. Senator from Illinois and candidate for President):

Does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters … [and] considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible. That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.[38]

In February 2009, a White House spokesperson said that President Obama continues to oppose the revival of the Doctrine.[39]


At the end of the day, the Fairness Doctrine only helped to provide more diversity. That’s not the same thing as truth. Its more like truthiness.

(By the way, it is very interesting to me that the conservative Media Research Center considers the public interest a “myth.” Conservatives tend to consider the concept incoherent or ambiguous, but I believe that says more about their own cognitive process than about the public interest.)

Broadcasters always hated the fairness doctrine for a variety of reasons, financial and ideological, but I am not sympathetic to the arguments against the doctrine based on property rights, since mass media (even cable) depends on public resources — spectrum and rights of way. But I am sympathetic to concerns about chilling free speech by placing burdens upon it–even the burdens of truth and decency.

On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about the power of mass media in our culture and its capture and use by the super-rich to promote their agenda and spew their propaganda. Our media is almost all privately owned –for sale to the highest bidder. Don’t huge media monopolies threaten our access to accurate information and undermine the democratic process itself?

We rightly prize our freedom of speech, but we also know the right to free speech comes with a responsibility. We all know about  the “power of the pen”, and we all know that power can cause harm. And not just hurt feelings, but financial and physical injury. That’s why we have laws against libel, slander, criminal defamation, and incitement to violence. That’s why, as every school child of my generation knew, we can’t falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater.

Of course when it comes to our free press, we rightly bend over backwards to be permissive. The public interest in a free press is often greater than the interests of individuals or even groups that may be harmed by journalistic errors, irresponsibility, and even outright lies. But when lies and inaccuracies become pervasive, isn’t there is a compelling public interest in demanding a certain level of honesty and responsibility, even from the free press?

Yes. The only question in my mind is how to maximize that public interest without unintended consequences. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water or shoot ourselves in the foot.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Superman fights for “truth, justice and the American way.”  (“In the 2006 film Superman Returns the phrase was recited by the character Perry White as “truth, justice, all that stuff.” ~Wikipedia)

So what would Superman do? What is the American way (or all that stuff)?


There are three ways to make truth and accuracy available in the media. They can (and should) be used in combination:

  1. Diversity. This is promoted by busting up or regulating monopolies. Then (using this method alone) it is “hands off” and hope for the best.
  2. Regulation. This is imposing penalties, as Canada has done, for lying or for causing harm. We regulate speech and visual content in the US to restrict sex and “foul” speech (the least justifiable intrusion of big government into free speech, brought to us by libertarians and republicans), but not lies. We can’t touch outright lies on media claiming to be news. The Fairness Doctrine was a relatively soft form of regulation, but it may have still been unnecessarily burdensome on private media. We need to explore new regulatory principles and methods (see “Justice”, below).
  3. Public media. By itself, this leaves “hands off” the private media, but offers robust public alternatives that have high standards, public oversight, and a firewall against partisan political influence.


We need methods for regulating private media in minimally invasive, burdensome, chilling ways to minimize the harm that media may do to individuals, to groups, and to civil society. What I propose is in a sense a method of private regulation. In general, I think we need to leave private media alone unless they do harm. Basically, I think we just need to make sure that media is fully accountable for civil torts as well as crimes. We need to insure that anyone unjustly harmed by media has legal standing to pursue a remedy. We need to see to it that there is an adequate statutory framework to address the most common types of injury; that there is enforcement; and that there is judicial due process. There needs to be a single point of entry to the justice system for citizens who claim to have suffered injury by the media. There needs to be public-appointed representation for citizens who can’t afford private counsel. But I think we need to go one step further and give all citizens the right to sue media for injuring the public welfare. Failing to serve the public well is not generally the same as injuring the public but in some cases it might rise to that level, especially where the public has contractual expectations of the media by virtue of spectrum, rights-of-way, tax breaks, etc..

Wherever government has authority to act, citizens should have that authority as well, at least by having standing to bring an administrative or judicial complaint or suit to force the government or court to act. But the scope of government regulatory authority should by no means be the limit of a citizen’s right to sue for an injury sustained. All tort principles also apply.

Will this open a floodgate of excessive litigation? Will big media bullies game the system or turn it against those it is intended to protect? Sure. This has been the problem with the law from day one. It has been the problem with democracy from day one. Democracy is the worst possible form of government except for all the others. What is the alternative? We have to strive to put big business and little people on an equal footing in the law, at every step in the process. Fair play is the American way, but it takes all of us, every day, in every way, to operate as a fair and just society. Legislators, courts, and regulators have always struggled with bias, manipulation, and corruption. Not surprisingly, much is known about how to minimize them. We know much more than we apply. None of this is anything new, and it is only peripheral to the proposals made here. It goes without saying.

Fair Play–the American Way

Bust up monopolies. Our people, from the woman in the street to most of the judges on the US Supreme Court, have generally opposed monopolies. Our country got its start largely due to popular opposition to a Brittish monoploy, the East India Company. Hatred of monopolies is in our DNA. But how can we have a free press if all the presses have been bought up by a few giant corporations, some of which are even based in foreign countries, just as the East India Company was? As we have had to do in many industries in the past, we must break up the giant media monopolies to protect the freedom of the press. This is just as true in the internet age as at any time in the past. The internet is the modern “press”. Though it was created by universities and public institutions, private monopolists are constantly encroaching on it, trying to capture its infrastructure and resources and turn it into a digital version of medieval feudalism. Modern monopolists talk “freedom” and “private property” but they want all the freedom and private property for themselves, not for us.

Public media, public access, public interest

Diversity and regulation are not going to fully satisfy the needs of the public interest.  We need a public media system that has parity with private media.

Perhaps the best example of public media thus far is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff. In the US we have the smaller, weaker Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB),  NPR, PBS, and their affiliated local stations. In the US, the public broadcasting system is dwarfed by private players and is under constant attack by conservatives and their corporate masters. The attacks are usually framed in ideological or fiscal terms, but their fundamental motives are political and commercial (anti-competitive). Often, public media are accused of being propaganda organs of the state. For Fox supporters to call PBS a propaganda organ is the height of hypocrisy and irony.

A  fair, open, transparent, and accurate media is a prerequisite for a fair, open, and transparent society. Democracy cannot just leave all of its media needs to private, independent (undemocratic) operators and “hope for the best”. We can’t let the Foxes run the hen house if we want to keep getting any eggs.

For the fiscal year 2010, the budget of the US Department of Defense, including spending on “overseas contingency operations” was $663.8 billion.

CPB’s annual budget for fiscal year 2010 was $422 million. Of course that doesn’t count all those funds donated “by members like you” who must listen to sickening corporate promos, tag lines, and seemingly endless on-air fund-raising marathons.

I propose that a new US Public Media Corporation be funded at parity either with the military budget or with the largest private media conglomerate, whichever is greater. I am convinced that our public access to self-education resources, reliable information, and social networking and collaboration infrastructure is as important to the maintenance and security of our democracy as the military.

The funding for such a corporation should come entirely from the public treasury (no more commercials, corporate promos, or fund-raising marathons) and should be totally isolated from private, commercial, or political special interests.

I suspect that those organizing this corporation could learn a lot from the US Postal Service.

One of the first orders of business would be the provision of broadband and 4G mobile network service to every location and person in the nation. If necessary, some exiting infrastructure should be nationalized by eminent domain. The rates charged for these services would be computed on a break-even basis the way that the Postal Service computes it postage prices.

Wherever technically feasible, the organization and infrastructure built by this public media corporation should be decentralized, local, democratic and peer-to-peer. The network should be modular/cellular, massively redundant, and self-healing. There should be few if any central points of failure. This is not about command and control but about serving the public interest in all the ways the marketplace has failed to do so.

The public media corporation should address all media modalities: broadcast, satellite, mobile, and fiber; networks, platforms, applications, and tools; and last but not least, content.

The “trunk” of the public media system would be a National Public Internet (NPI). (See the related article at the end of this post)

I also think it is time for a National Public Wikipedia that would aggregate many wiki domains including the legacy Wikipedia and forks like Citizendium. This public metawiki would not intervene in legacy wiki editorial and political issues but would establish a universal presentation, user interface, and meta-data standard so it could serve as a two-way portal (editing and presentation) and a single point of access to all participating wikis. This National Public Wikipedia could also have a layer that aggregates and standardizes all the reputation/quality/confidence metrics. In conjunction with this, the same organization could also host a National Public Search Engine and a National Public Social Networking platform based on transparent open source software. Further, the same organization could maintain a distribution of Linux that would include a p2p cloud server node on which all these National Public Internet services could run in distributed fashion.

The private marketplace has had long enough to get its act together and deliver the networks, platforms, and content we want and need. It has failed miserably in comparison with what has been wanted and what has been technically feasible.  The free market is great for some stuff, but it is no panacea, and if we don’t ALL see that by now its probably because we have been dumbed down  by the private mass media–or because we are corrupt, self-serving liars with massive conflicts of interest between our personal greed and the public good.

Of course, in a national public media corporation, there is no constitutional protection for Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. A lying liar (such as a Rush Limbaugh) could be fired at the drop of a hat. Its a  so-called “morals clause”. The same is also true for any private media corporation (such as a FOX*), and it has been all along.

That is the public truth.

Poor Richard

* FOX = Fraud, Oligarchy, Xenophobia

PS While we’re at it lets start a US Department of Market Failures. It can receive online petitions for goods and services that are not available (for no good reason) in the “free market”, such as a notebook PC with pre-installed Linux, a lawn sweeper with metal (not plastic) gears and wheels, a pull-behind friction-powered sickle mower, a rammed-earth brick machine, photovoltaic window film and roof tiles, and so on. Then it can contract for these goods and services from small and minority-owned businesses and operate an online store for their sale and distribution.

Related Articles

Bill St. Arnaud: Marriage of Facebook & Telcos – and why we need a National Public Internet (NPI)

big, fat, lying liars like Limpbaugh and FOX*

Old wine in new bottles: 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.” (Ostrom’s Law) It is vital that in developing new economic and social theory we work from actual examples, cases, and histories as Elinor Ostrom did, and 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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