Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Rising Tide that Floats all Boats

Another of the more actually revolutionary wealth creation ideas in Charles Stross' Accelerando is the early career of the character Manfred Macx:

Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with wacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty,after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything.

Charles Stross - Accelerando

The idea here I think is that by doing the most possible to increase the wealth of your environment, you yourself are lifted up with the general increase. In a way, you can't get poorer than the world around you.

Of course, this wouldn't necessarily work in the very specific sense as it appears in this novel without a great deal of other technologies and circumstances. Manfred is able to copyright ideas on the fly in pretty much real time, and has a crazy network of associates he can funnel them through, and lives in a world where corporate entities can be created that are only various layers of software programs managing accounting, licensing and distribution tasks for intellectual properties that they "own", with no actual human in the loop... even granted all these things, Manfred's strategy depends heavily on both his unique (on the verge of supernatural) ability to coin profitable notions, and upon the reciprocal kindness of the targets of his charity.

However, I think there really is something in this idea. If the ambient wealth of a system is high enough, there develops a floor below which it is very hard to descend. To a large degree poverty in the United States is wealth almost anywhere else in the world. It's hard to put a price on things like general lawfulness, peace, toleration and spontaneous creativity.

I had a friend from Kenya who once told me that it was kind of amazing to her that she could drive, a single woman alone, the entire distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco without having to worry in the slightest about bandits blocking the road.

It sounds almost absurd to an American ear, I think. Highway bandits? Really? Yes, really, in more of the world than you might think. But here, it's not a problem at all. You are pretty much assured peaceful transit between any to points within the whole continental US. That's a kind of ambient wealth. It directly improves the quality of everyone's life.

To shift this notion into the ecological sphere, think of Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

You might rephrase that economically by saying "A thing is profitable when it tends to enhance the wealth of the whole economic community. It is unprofitable when it tends otherwise."

It's kind of an expansion of the frame in which profit is understood. You have to try to factor in an economic action's effect on the whole econosphere, not just the local measure. I don't mean this in a levelling sense. I don't think this means wealth must be artificially re-distributed. I think it's provably true that a system that allows certain large concentrations of wealth is healthier, and raises the common wealth higher, than one in which some notion of equitable distribution grinds the whole system into a dull poverty. But I do think you need more and more to look at, and attempt to calibrate the economic value of, a much wider frame of reference.

The common anti-Wal-Mart argument illustrates this idea. I don't personally have an opinion if this argument is valid in this specific case, but it does seem likely in principal. A company, in an effort to maximize profits, undercuts all its competitors prices. To do this, it must underpay all its workers. People generally initially benefit from the lower cost of merchandise until the undercutting puts competitors out of business, and most of the local workforce has to accept lower wages, either from the victorious merchant or from competitors who have to roll back wages to stay in the game. Eventually, peoples' incomes are choked to the point that the cheaper prices are no longer a luxury for them but a necessity, and they can afford even less of the reduced goods than they could at the start. This isn't good, ultimately, even for the company, as it is smothering its own customer base.

So it seems, at least to me, that there really is something economically defensible in the idea of making others wealthier to make yourself wealthier. Kind of an economic golden rule.

A revolution in capitalism (and I must stress I am a HUGE FAN of capitalism) might be a kind of Comedy of the Commons, where the system, in accounting for wider econospherical effects, might tend to value higher those concerns that contribute most to the common wealth, lifting all boats.

Sure, it's Utopian - but striving for the Utopian is how the quotidian is improved.

No comments: