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Russell Richard

Piping Stress Analyst, Piping Stress Inc.

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How would an economic system not based on the acquisition of material wealth work?

The internet is essentially a machine that duplicates products without expending resources. It is a literal cornucopia of content products. The SOPA discussions are demonstrating that the old style economics of one-way distribution will not work for content companies in the present and future. But, what about everything else?

As we gather knowledge about the universe, we are able to create things with greater and greater ease. In the case of just about all content, we have gathered enough information to create a system that effectively generates product for no cost. There is also, usually, no profit - people make things because they want to.

Physical objects are more difficult to generate in this manner. We know this because it still takes effort and resources to make them. However, there may come a time when physical objects are created just as easily as content is created through the internet. What happens then?

What happens when we can no longer rely on profit from making things? How do we create an economic system that isn't based on acquiring material wealth?

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    Jan 22 2012: If I ran the world, or even a country, for a year, my social experiment would be as follows:

    Basic food staples are free. Bread, vegetables, eggs, etc, so no one fears starvation.
    Basic housing is free. Small apartments mass produced so everyone has a place to live.
    Basic transportation is free. Buses, subways, etc are all free, so people can go wherever.

    These things would all be subsidized by the government, ensured as basic rights for all people.

    Everything else, however... the luxuries... still costs money.

    Want a TV? Work for it. Want a house? Work for it. Want a car? Work for it. Want steak? Work for it.

    With people's basic rights supplied, work is no longer a NEED, and so jobs lost to the advance of technology is no longer a tragedy. People who do any sort of work gain a form of civic prestige, and in addition are payed for the luxuries they desire.

    Now, what does this mean for artists? Simply put, artists can be artists. If you want to paint, save up some money for tools and paint. If you sell your products, great; you get money. If not, maybe painting's not for you, but at least you won't have to worry about starving.

    Everything else in society will more or less be the same; there will still be a great need for many types of workers and experts. But there will not be a need for every single citizen to have a job, and so bureaucracy will be lowered and more people have the freedom to pursue their own interests.

    The numbers are a tricky thing, I admit. Maybe incentives for small families, to ensure that feeding and housing everyone doesn't cause an explosive birth rate beyond our means to support. And other stuff. But I think it's doable, and I'd like to see how well it works, as well as how it might finally put an end to the myth that people who are given things for free won't work.

    Millions of people spend hours on work without pay. Just look at the internet. Create space and freedom for people to experiment in, and many will inevitably produce.
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      Jan 23 2012: I really like your social experiment idea. Nonetheless, there IS evidence (most of it empirical) that goods gained without effort are goods not being valued or correctly used. An example would be the utopian societies. All of them failed and none lasted more than 10 years. The reasons? 1. People started wanting to own (capitalism) 2. People didn't make that much effort and lived upon the work of their fellows. 3. Fights broke over how the communities should be managed.
      Another example is the plastic money paradox. Yes, it is money gained, but as you actually don't feel you're giving your money away, you tend to spend more. Same thing happened with the 2008 economic crisis; banks got greedy and started offering credit to people who couldn't actually pay back the credit given, not to mention the interests. What happened? people spent way more money than what they actually gained (that means, the credits they got were used as free-I'll-worry-about-paying-back-later money) and voila! economic crisis!

      I think this can be translated to the "giving basic things free" idea. I live on a medium-high class district were we've got our own water wells. Four years ago, the neighbors' counsil discovered we were running out of water because no one was caring about not wasting it. They made us install water meters in our homes and asigned us a fixed quantity depending upon how many of us lived in each house. Results? No more excessive waste of water. The key here was creating a concept of cost. Water's still "free" (we pay maintainance fees), but since we have to actually work for it, we no longer waste it.

      In your social experiment, you'll help people? undoubtedly. You'll get burdened with people who live upon what they are given and don't make even the least effort? definitely. Which will be the biggest group? I sincerely don't know.
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        Jan 24 2012: Hey there, I wanted to ask a couple questions about the points you raised;

        1) Why would people not be able to own things in the experimental society I outlined? I said nothing about ownership or capital or the lack thereof.

        2) Many people currently work for promotions or try to get better jobs not for food, but for luxuries: how would that change in the society I outlined?

        3) Why would community management cause fights in the society I outlined? What would be different in that regard?

        I'm just having trouble connecting the objections you raised to anything I said.

        As for your later point:

        "They made us install water meters in our homes and asigned us a fixed quantity depending upon how many of us lived in each house. Results? No more excessive waste of water. The key here was creating a concept of cost. Water's still "free" (we pay maintainance fees), but since we have to actually work for it, we no longer waste it."

        This is exactly how the problem of "waste" would be solved. There wouldn't just be an infinite supply of food for everyone to take from whenever they want; people would be given food stamps or food credits, just like now, that would only be able to be spent on those basic food staples (bread, eggs, vegetables, cheese, etc). Why would people be wasteful of these things if it's still limited and finite for each person?

        "You'll get burdened with people who live upon what they are given and don't make even the least effort? definitely."

        But these people are already a burden. Soup kitchens, homeless shelters... these things can be eradicated by solutions in our grasp. We HAVE the food. We HAVE the space. They don't cost us anything; we as a society simply have to make the decision to distribute them rather than let people starve to prove some philosophical point that benefits no one.

        Think of it this way; if they are truly that unmotivated so as to not work for luxuries, what are we proving by letting them starve?
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          Jan 29 2012: The comment about utopian societies was to illustrate my point about why I believe that a society that offers free things wouldn't survive and I gave a basic analysis about why they failed. I wasn't referring to your social experiment when I talked about capitalism. Still, you're right - I didn't really grasp your idea.

          You raise a good point about soup kitchens and homeless shelters and also about how letting people starve proves nothing. But - a big but - the real problem here is what will happen once people do not need to work.

          If, for example, low-paying jobs are what they are nowadays, then I can tell you that a lot of people will choose not working over luxuries and they are right, because working conditions are not fair. Others simply won't even try because climbing the job ladder is quite difficult. So it is very probable that a chunk of society will stop working altogether.

          If low-paying jobs start being more fair, then part of that chunk of people that chose not working over luxiries will work. But you will still have a segment of society that won't bring any good to the community. Given, as you have stated, every society will have them.

          Nonetheless, we as people are quite the copy cats so, if you've got a bum who doesn't work but does reproduce, most probably his kids will be bums who don't work but do reproduce and you can't actually stop them. The incentives for small families may work, but, unless you actually kill the "spare" kids, the parent may or may not follow government regulations.

          When I see a kid that's starving, I feel that's unfair, because he or she isn't given the oportunity to have a dignified life. When I see an adult, I think of a bum. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe the adult is another victim of our greedy, capitalist society, but I cannot help the feeling that if she or he wanted to better him or herself, he or she could do it.

          I think that's a key point: how to offer a dignified life to everyone, but do not condone being lazy.
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        Jan 30 2012: "If, for example, low-paying jobs are what they are nowadays, then I can tell you that a lot of people will choose not working over luxuries and they are right, because working conditions are not fair. Others simply won't even try because climbing the job ladder is quite difficult. So it is very probable that a chunk of society will stop working altogether."

        How many people will actually choose not to work and be satisfied with no luxuries? "A lot" is an assumption you're making, and an unrealistic one. Millions of teenagers do chores, mow lawns, babysit, flip burgers, etc, all while still living with their parents and having their every need taken care of, many for the sole reason of having spending money or saving up for a luxury like a car.

        The major fallacy most people make when considering a capitalistic job market is the assumption that everyone needs to work, without considering that maybe they don't. What if there just aren't enough jobs? Literally, what if there are more people than there are jobs that need people to fill them? In a purely capitalistic system, that means unemployment and misery. With the proper social systems in place, it's just an inconvenience. It would be good to have more jobs so more people can share in the wealth they provide, but no one is starving.

        Part of the reason low paying jobs are low paying is because they're incredibly easy to fill. Even if your assumption was correct and a bunch of people stopped working, guess what? Companies would have to offer higher pay for their jobs to get the positions filled. If they don't need to, then enough people are working. So what's the problem if a bunch of people don't work? We don't need them to work. All the jobs are filled. We still have enough food and space for them.

        Also, how does your view of people as copy cats not work both ways? You insist that people will stop working and have kids just because others do, but not that they would want to work if others do?

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