Sunday, January 27, 2013

Why More of the Economy Should Be Made Public

The current neoliberal consensus on economics holds that markets are the most natural and fairest basis for an economy and that private enterprise is the most efficient institutional structure for production. Therefore, any deviation from private ownership requires justification with very good reasons.  Thus the manufacturing of consumer goods, for example, should (“Naturally!”  “Of course!”) be done by privately-owned corporations, but it is acceptable for, say, the military to be public, because we can come up with good national defense and security reasons for doing so.  (Although even in the military as much as possible should be privatized, and so unfortunately the manufacture of weaponry and, increasingly, military functions themselves, are done through private enterprises).  Many forms of infrastructure -- roads, airports, schools -- are often thought to meet the bar for public provision too (but again, as much as possible should be privatized).  But not much else is accepted as “naturally” public. Even our the votes in our elections are counted by private companies. 

Thus the default position is that private ownership of society’s production apparatus is normal, and proposals to the contrary have to meet a very high burden of proof to be acceptable.

OK, for sake of argument, let’s accept that for the moment.  Even if we do, I still think there’s good reason for the following industries to be publicly owned, in whole or in part (I’m sure there are others sectors that would benefit from public ownership, or partial public ownership; this list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive):

The military: for security reasons as already noted, with no privatized functions at all; defense contractors should be nationalized too.
Courts, prisons, and police: justice is a public good. Period.
Elections and vote counting: democracy is a public good. Period. 
Banking and finance: given how important finance is, and how bad private ownership has been for the public at large -- remember the crash of 2008? -- all banks, stock brokerages, and other financial firms should be made into public entities, owned locally or nationally as appropriate, with rigorous supervision. 
Energy: Energy -- oil, gasoline, coal, nuclear, hydro, solar, bio, etc. --  provides the fuel and electricity that makes the whole economy run.  It is therefore inherently a matter of public concern.  This is magnified by the fact that private energy companies are a huge cause of our greatest looming threat, climate change, and have a stranglehold on our legislatures and are preventing change.  All hydrocarbon companies should be nationalized immediately, and other forms of energy be made into public utilities under strict pubic watch; and sustainable form of energy such as wind, solar power should receive huge public subsidies.
Education -- a country can’t remain a democracy without an informed citizenry, so schooling from kindergarten through PhD should be public. 
Transportation -- governments have always provided the necessary infrastructure to make transportation systems work, from roads and bridges and highways to railways and seaports and airports.  Partial or full public ownership of airlines, railways, subways, light rail, and bus systems helps to make the smooth and comfortable flow of people and products easier.   
Communication and Media -- the best media companies in the world are not the private ones like Fox but the public ones like the BBC.  As social networking advances, I think that we are also going to find that the public equivalents of iTunes, Facebook, and JSTOR will be needed to make information widely available to the people who will do the most with it. 

Now, when I say “public ownership” here I don’t mean “totalitarian state control of a command economy like the Soviet Union had.”  There are many forms of public and semi-public ownership, including utilities, independent public corporations (like the Federal Reserve in the United states or the BBC in Great Britain), local and municipally-owned enterprises (like local savings-and-loans), worker-owned cooperatives, and more.  So if your first thought is to scream the words “Pinko commie socialist” at me, take a step back, count to ten, and go ahead and open your mind up to new ideas.  I know you have a mind, because you’re reading this, and now is the time to use it: our world is in trouble, and the main source of that is the private ownership of the means of production, so let’s all work together to get creative here, OK?

In fact, rather than just providing better reasons for a larger public economic sphere, we should ask: why is it that only public ownership of society’s productive capacities should face such a high burden of proof?  Shouldn’t it be the case that, for any particular sector, we adopt the forms of economic organization that brings the most benefits to the public at large?  Shouldn’t we be open-minded, experimental, and empirical about specific forms of company organization, rather than simply and unreflectively default to one norm?  Shouldn’t we flexibly endorse the most beneficial, most productive, least polluting, least destructive forms of economic arrangements?  Maybe in some cases private enterprise is indeed best; maybe in some the public utility form of ownership is best; maybe is some cooperatives are best; maybe in some local community control is best; maybe in some nationalization is best (certainly for the military, and perhaps for many others too). 

So let’s reverse the question: rather than only requiring good reasons to warrant public ownership, maybe we should require private ownership to provide warrant with good reasons too.  Justify your existence, Mr. Capitalist: why, in every case, in every sector, in every industry, should society allow private ownership of the productive enterprises that create our goods and services, provide our jobs and incomes, and in fact shape so much of modern life?  Why should something so important be entrusted to people who otherwise have no accountability to the public at large?  Who have very little oversight by the communities, countries, and peoples who are most directly affected by how businesses produce and distribute their goods and services?  I mean, the economy belongs to all of us, why should we let you play in it?  

More concretely, what I’d like to see is an explicit statement of justification for the private ownership required of every company that exists: they should have to account, in numbers as well as with explanation, for how the fact that society entrusts them with the privilege of ownership is a benefit to the public at large.  And this should be done before public boards consisting of citizens, chosen by lottery to serve as the representatives of the public interest for a year or so (and paid for their time).  They would be like long-standing juries passing judgment on economic enterprises.  And these boards should have the power to review all applications, and to revoke privates incorporation charters and convert them into cooperatives or utilities or whatever other form they think best, when, from the public’s point of view, a company’s activities or organizational structure no longer accorded with the public good, in their judgment.  And that would be a good start to creating an economy that benefits everyone, and not just those at the top who run the show. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Non-Reductionist Materialism III: Spiritualism as a Non-Sequitur

The non-reductive but still materialist point of view is that phenomena exist, and really exist, not merely as collections of parts and particles but also as mid- and large-level physical objects (in a context of relations with other mid- and large-level physical objects).  Accepting this perspective allows us to avoid one easy trap that people sometimes fall into: taking a rejection or critique of materialism as implying that spiritualist explanations must therefore be true.  I said last time, 

“There is a common association between reductionism and materialism, which is so ingrained that people sometimes think that materialism automatically implies reductionism.  This gives many people pause because they become uncomfortable with narrowly viewing very complex and important phenomena, such as cognition, emotion, beauty, and the like, in reductionist terms.  Many then revert to spiritual or supernatural language and philosophies to deal with these phenomena, and so the narrowness of reductionism repels many people from the materialism that its proponents would prefer people to adopt.” 

It can be easy to fall into thinking of the small and the large as a simple binary: if merely atomistic, i.e. “physical,” explanations of things do not give us a complete picture of the world, then necessarily some god or universal force guides and explains the larger whole.  How else could one explain holistic phenomena?  

But this pattern of thought is a non-sequitur, and rooted only in the easy dichotomy of its set-up.  It does not follow from a rejection of reductionism that non-material entities or forces exist or, if they do, that they affect our material world in any way, for holistic objects are fully real and material too.   

This pattern of thought seems to me to be common both among theologians who still hope to defend traditional religion -- sometimes with very complex arguments -- as well as acolytes of New Age “spiritual” forces, auras, crystals.  It also appears to be increasingly ubiquitous among common people at large, many of whom report that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and who believe in some vague entity or force that gives purpose and meaning to an otherwise empty cosmos.  Since this conceptual pattern is so common it is worth attending to. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Non-Reductionist Materialism, Part II: Implications

Last week I discussed what I’m calling “Non-Reductionist Materialism,” a view which, as the name implies, sees the world as fully material and physical, but which does not privilege microscopic analysis in which the smallest parts of reality are taken as definitive of reality entire. Rather, all scales of reality are recognized with the same ontological status as real, from the smallest quantum fluctuations up through mid-level objects like people and societies and planets up though the cosmos as a whole. While analysis of the small certainly has its uses, so does analysis of the other levels, and the universe itself shows no recognition that the smallest parts are in fact the most important.  This week I want to flesh out some implications of this view.  

There is a common association between reductionism and materialism, which is so ingrained that people sometimes think that materialism automatically implies reductionism.  This gives many people pause because they become uncomfortable with narrowly viewing very complex and important phenomena, such as cognition, emotion, beauty, and the like, in reductionist terms.  Many then revert to spiritual or supernatural language and philosophies to deal with these phenomena, and so the narrowness of reductionism repels many people from the materialism that its proponents would prefer people to adopt. 

This is compounded by the fact that the basic metaphor for the reductionist method is mechanism, is which all natural phenomena are conceived of as consisting of interacting parts, as in a machine.  This mechanical metaphor – and it is only that, a metaphor – has in the modern period exploded to encompass and even envelop entire systems of thought, and is often taken to be an accurate, defining descriptor of the universe itself.  It too drives many away from materialism.  (Again, the point here is not that mechanism is wrong per se, only that while it is useful for some purposes, it is not for  all. Some phenomena can also be analyzed with other metaphors, such as organic ones.)

Furthermore, privileging reductionist-level analysis also has a tendency to go hand-in-hand with privileging quantification and measurement.  When a scientist or other analyst is at a high level examining a lower level, it is a good position from which to delineate and define the smaller parts, categorize them, and line them up for the purpose of counting them.  Privileging reductionism thus both narrows things to mechanics and privileges the usefulness of measurement.  

Reductionism, mechanism and “measurementism” turn some people off from materialism and science, since they find these methods of analysis inadequate and incomplete for many phenomena.  Many people, even reasonable people and the science-minded, don’t want to reduce art or emotions to measurable mechanics.  And they are right to detect the narrowness of such analysis and to resist it.  And they don’t have to accept it: non-reductionist materialism allows us to shift our point of view to approach these things rationally as mid-level objects that are just as real as their molecules and atoms, with their own mid-level properties and mid-level relations and interconnections with other mid- and large-level things.  For example, the emotions that lovers feel for each other are real qua feelings; they are not real only as electro-chemical reactions in their bodies and brains.  They are indeed that, and it can be useful to examine the neurochemistry of emotions, but emotions are also real as emotions experienced at a mid-level by mid-level organisms.  Those emotions cause really-existing entities of the universe (the lovers) to interact in certain ways, ways not comprehensible from a microscopic viewpoint.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Non-Reductionist Materialism, Part I: What Is It?

I would now like to discuss reductionism, which I think is one of our society’s conceptual blockages to moral and social progress.  Reductionism is a form of analysis based on taking things apart and examining the small pieces to determine their properties, in order to create a description of how larger things function in terms of their smaller components. It is also sometimes called the resolutive-compositive method: as when one disassembles an engine, resolving it down to its parts, and then re-assembles the engine into its composite form again, to see how the parts work both individually and together.

Reductionism is the predominant method of modern science, especially the physical sciences.  Although the sciences do at times make use of more holistic analyses, and have shown somewhat more willingness to do so since the 1960s, reductionist approaches are, I think, generally considered to be necessary for doing science.  This approach is a very valuable one for many purposes and has produced a great many benefits, and my aim is certainly not to attack science, or to claim that reductionism is methodologically wrong, but only to argue that it is a limited form of analysis that should only be understood as one of the analytical tools in our intellectual toolbox.  Reductionism, when taken to extremes, can lead to a sort of atomistic fundamentalism: the belief that not only is our universe made up of particles (meaning not just atomic and sub-atomic particles but whatever the smallest quantum fluctuations), but that these particles are fundamental, definitive of reality itself. The universe, of course, consists of particles, but they are only units of analysis for one level of observing reality; one can also rationally say that reality consists of larger objects too.  I would like to show that particles are not definitive of reality. More on levels of analysis in a moment.