Parecon and Science/Technology
This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope
Like every label for a complex personal and social practice the word science is fuzzy at its edges making it hard for us to pin down what is and what isn’t science. Nonetheless, for our broad purposes, we can assert that science refers to an accumulated body of information about the components of the cosmos and to testable claims or theories about how those components interact, as well as to the processes by which we add to our information, claims, and theories, reject them as false, or determine that they are possibly or even likely true.
My personal knowledge that the grass I see from my window is green is not science, nor is my knowledge that my back was hurting an hour ago, or that my pet parrot Zeke is on my shoulder. Experiences per se are not science, nor are perceptions, though both can be valid and important.
It isn’t by way of science that we know what love is or that we are experiencing pain or pleasure. It isn’t science that tells a Little Leaguer how to get under a fly ball to catch it. Science doesn’t teach us how to talk or what to say in most situations, nor how to add or multiply numbers.
Most of life, in fact, including even most information discovery and communication, occurs without doing science, being ratified by science, or denying, defying, crucifying, or deifying science.
And yet, most knowing and thinking, and especially most predicting or explaining, is much like science, even if it is not science per se.
What distinguishes what we do every day from what we call science is more a difference of degree than a difference of kind. Perceiving is perceiving. Claiming is claiming. Respecting evidence is respecting evidence. What distinguishes scientists doing these things in labs and libraries from Mr. Jones doing these things to choose the day’s outfit and stroll into town is science’s personal and collective discipline.
Science doesn’t add new claims about the properties of realities’ components to its piles of information and its theories, nor does it assert the truth or falsity of any part of that pile, without diverse groups of people reproducing supporting evidence and verifying logical claims under very exacting conditions of careful collection, categorization, and calculation. Nor does science advance without reasons to believe that what is added to the scientific pile has significant implications vis a vis the pile’s overall character, history, and development.
As Einstein taught and is generally agreed, what makes a theory more impressive is greater simplicity of premises, more different kinds of things explained, and its range of applicability. What is most happily added to science’s knowledge pile is checkable evidence or testable claims or new paths connecting disparate parts that verify or refute previously in doubt parts of the pile or that add new non-redundant terrain to the pile, in turn giving hope of providing new vistas for further exploration.
If we look in the sky and say, hey, the moon circles the earth, it is an observation, yes, but it is not yet science. If we detail the motions of the moon and provide strong evidence for our claims about its circling the earth that is reproducible and testable by others, we are getting close to serious science, or even contributing to it. If we pose a theory about what is happening with the moon, and we then test our theory’s predictions to see if they are ever falsified or especially if they predict new outcomes that are surprising to us, then we are certainly doing science.
Webster's Dictionary defines science as "the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena."
The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as "a branch of study which is concerned with a body of demonstrated truths or observed facts, systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truths within its own domain."
72 Noble Laureates agreed on the following definition: “Science is devoted to formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain the observed phenomena."
And Richard Feynman one of the foremost physicists of the twentieth century pithily sums up the whole picture: “During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas - which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science."
We can say with confidence that the type of economy a society has can affect science by affecting the information that is collected and the claims about it that are explored, the means and procedures utilized in the collection and exploration, and who is in position to participate in these processes or, for that matter, even to know about and be enlightened by science’s accomplishments.
There are at least two individual and two social motives that propel science.
First there is pure curiosity, the human predilection to ask questions and seek their answers.
Why is the sky blue? What happens if you run at the speed of light next to a burst of light? What is time and why does it seem to go only one way? What is the smallest piece of matter and tiniest conveyor of force? How do pieces of matter and conveyors of force operate? What is the universe, its shape, its development? What is life, a species, an organism? How do species form, persist, get replaced? Why is there sex? Where did people come from? How do people get born, learn to dance, romance, try to be a success? What is a language and how do people know languages and use them? What is consciousness? When people socialize, what is an economy, how does it work, and what is a polity, culture, family, and how do they work?
Inquiring minds passionately want to know these things even if there is nothing material to be gained from that knowledge, rather like someone passionately wanting to dance even if no one is watching, or someone passionately wanting to draw even if no one will put the results on a wall.
A second personal motive for science is individual or collective self interest. Knowledge of the components of reality and their interconnections sufficient to predict outcomes and even to impact what happens can not only assuage our curiosity, it can increase the longevity, scope, range, and quality of our lives.
What is the cause and cure for polio or cancer? How do birds fly? How does gravity work? Curiosity causes us to open the door to the unknown with gigantic desire and energy; but we drive whole huge caravans through the doors of science in part because of the benefits we gain.
The benefits can come from the implications of the knowledge itself, but also from remuneration for scientific labors or achievements. There can be material rewards for gathering information and for proposing or testing hypotheses about reality. Pursuit of these rewards is also a motive for doing science.
Likewise, the benefits to be had beyond the satisfaction of fulfilling one’s curiosity are not confined to material payment. One can attain status or fame, and doing science is often at least in part driven by pursuit of the social prizes, notoriety, stature, and admiration that accompany discovery.
Science and Economics
An economy can plausibly increase, diminish, or just push people’s curiosity in one direction or another. It can affect as well the ways that scientific knowledge can directly benefit people, and, of course, the remuneration and other material rewards bestowed on people for doing science, as well as the social rewards they garner.
We can see all of this in history too. For a long time science as we define it did not even exist. There was mysticism and belief, sometimes approximating truth and sometimes not, but there wasn’t an accumulation of evidence tested against experience and guided by logical consistency.
Later, societies and economies propelled science and oriented it in various ways. At present, tremendous pressures from society and particularly from capitalist economy, both propel and also limit the types of questions science pursues, the tools science utilizes, the people who participate in science, and the people who benefit from or even know of science’s results.
British journalist George Monbiot reports that “34% of the lead authors of articles in scientific journals are compromised by their sources of funding, only 16% of scientific journals have a policy on conflicts of interest, and only 0.5% of the papers published have authors who disclose such conflicts.”
In the pharmaceutical industry circumstances are arguably worst in that we find that “87% of the scientists writing clinical guidelines have financial ties to drug companies.”
More subtly, commercial funding and ownership affect what questions are raised and what projects are pursued. If patent prospects are good, money flows. If they are bad, even when reasons of general curiosity or improving human welfare warrant a line of inquiry, funding is hard to come by.
At the most horrific extreme, citizens may wind up “guinea pigs as in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment between 1932 and 1972, or in experiments between 1950 and 1969 in which the government tested drugs, chemical, biological, and radioactive materials on unsuspecting U.S. citizens; or [as in] the deliberate contamination of 8000 square miles around Hanford, Washington, to assess the effects of dispersed plutonium.” On a larger scale, in the
I recently sat on an airplane next to an MIT biologist interested in human biological functions and dysfunctions. He was not at all political or ideological, but he had no confusions about the way things work. “What we do, what we can do, even what we can think of doing,” he told me, “is overwhelmingly biased by the need for funding which, nowadays, means the need for corporate funding or, if government, then a government that is beholden overwhelmingly, again, to corporations or to militarism. More, the corporations plan on a very short time horizon. If you can’t make a very strong case for short run profits, forget about it. Find something else to pursue, unless, of course, you can convince the government your efforts will increase killing capacities.” My travel neighbor’s attitude shows the deadly combination of market competition and profit seeking plus militarist governments at work (and anecdotally reveals as well, that everyone knows what is going on).
Parecon and Science
What would be different about science in a parecon? Four primary structural things would change, which in turn have a multitude of implications.
Each parecon scientist will work at a balanced job complex, rather than occupying a higher or lower position in a pecking order of power.
Each parecon scientist will be remunerated for duration, intensity, and to the extent relevant, harshness of their work, not for power or output, much less for property.
Each parecon scientist, with other workers in his or her scientific institution - whether it’s a lab, university, research center, or other venue - will influence decisions in proportion as he or she is affected by them.
The level of resources that parecon’s scientists are allotted to engage in their pursuits will be determined by the overall economic system via participatory planning, again with self management.
As a result pareconish science will no longer be a handmaiden to power and wealth on the one hand - indeed these won’t even exist in centralized forms - nor will those involved in scientific pursuits earn more or less remuneration or enjoy more or less power than those involved in other pursuits.
A scientist who makes great discoveries within a parecon will no doubt enjoy social adulation and personal fulfillment for the achievement, but will not thereby enjoy a higher level of consumption or greater voting rights than others. Likewise, a scientific field will not be funded on grounds of benefiting elites as compared to advancing human insights for all.
Will there be huge expenditures on tools for advancing our knowledge of the fifteenth decimal point of nuclear interactions or the fourteen billionth light year distant galaxy even before we have figured out how to reduce the hardships of mining coal or containing or reversing its impact on the ecology, or before we develop alternative energy sources?
Will research be undertaken on grounds of military applications instead of on grounds of implications for knowing our place in a complex universe?
These are questions that will arise and be answered only when we have a new society. What parecon tells us is the broad procedure, not the specific outcomes, that people will choose, though we can certainly make intelligent guesses about the latter, too.
When the latest and greatest particle accelerator project was being debated in the U.S., a congressman asked a noted scientist who was arguing for allocating funds to the super collider, what its military benefits would be. The scientist replied it would have no implications for weaponry, but it would help make our society one worth defending. The scientist’s motivations and perceptions failed to impress the Congress, which voted against the project.
Do we know that in a parecon the participatory planning system would have allotted the billions required? No. We don’t know one way or the other. But we do know that the final decision would be based not on the project’s military benefits, but rather on how the project would contribute to making society a more desirable and wiser place.
So parecon in no way inhibits scientific impulses. Instead it is likely to greatly enhance them both due to having an educational system that seeks full participation and creativity from everyone, and because parecon will allot to science what a free and highly informed populace agrees to. Science in the sense of creatively expanding the range and depth of our comprehension of the world depends on real freedom, which is to say real control over our lives to pursue what we desire - which is what parecon provides.
Technology is similar to science in its means of pursuit and logic of development. Those who work to produce technology or applied science in a parecon will have the same influence, conditions, and income as those who do other endeavors. The critical difference will be how society decides which technologies are worth pursuing.
Capitalism pursues technologies when they can yield a profit or help elites maintain or enlarge their relative advantages. As a result, capitalist technological innovations reflect the priorities of narrow sectors of the population, not generalized human well being and development.
In the U.S., for example, technological nightmares abound. Indeed, the whole idea of high tech and low tech is revealing. Something is high tech if it involves huge apparatuses and massive outlays of time and energy, thus generating many opportunities to profit. Something is low tech if it is simple, clean, and comprehensible, and generates fewer possibilities for profit. Why can’t we change the standards so something is considered high tech if it greatly enhances human well being and development, and something is considered low tech if it tends toward the opposite effect?
Smart bombs, in their deadly majesty, are now considered the highest of high tech. The sewage system, mundane and familiar, is considered low tech, at best. Yet the former only kills and the latter only saves.
The pursuit of new drugs with dubious or even no serious health benefits is considered high tech. Working to get hospitals cleaner and bug free is considered low tech - relying largely on medical hygiene norms. The former helps the rich and powerful accrue more wealth. The latter would help all of society accrue longevity and a better quality of life, but might actually diminish profits. Capitalism celebrates the former and prevents the latter.
In the U.S., the pursuit of industrial technology is overwhelmingly about profits. This has diverse implications. U.S. technology seeks innovation to lower market-determined costs which in any event ignore the adverse effects of production on environment and workers. Thus technologies that use fewer inputs at lower costs are sought, but technologies that spew less pollution or impose less stress on workers are not sought unless owners are forced by social movements to pursue them.
U.S. technology seeks to increase market share by convincing audiences to buy products regardless of the value of the innovation or its social cost in byproducts. Gargantuan resources and human capacities go into designing packaging and producing advertising, often for entirely interchangeable and utterly redundant or even harmful products. Everyone knows this. Within our system, it is just another nauseating fact of life.
U.S. technology likewise seeks to increase coordinator class and capitalist domination of workplace norms by imposing divisive control and fragmentation regardless of the harsh implications for subordinated workers. The point is that under capitalism there won’t be funds to research new workplace organization and design aimed at workplace well being and dignity. There will be no effort to enhance the knowledge and power of workers, but exactly the opposite.
U.S. technology also seeks to ward off avenues of innovation that would diminish profit making possibilities for the already rich, even at the expense of lost public and social well being for the rest of society. Don’t even think about replacing oil as our main source of fuel as long as there are profits to be extracted from its use. The economy will rebel against serious pursuit of wind, water, geothermal, and other approaches that would decentralize control and diminish specialization that benefits elite sectors, and that would challenge the current agendas of major centers of power.
U.S. technology also seeks to implement the will of geopolitical war-makers by providing smarter bombs, bigger bombs, deadlier bombs, and vehicles to deliver them. So if you are a young potential innovator, there will be enormous pressure on you to study certain disciplines, develop certain skills, and nurture certain aspects of your personality, if you want to make it. And then once you have accumulated these talents, there will be enormous pressure to utilize them. It is even evident throughout popular culture just how much this is all taken for granted. The only thing people doubt is that there is any alternative.
Economics and Technology
As historian and philosopher David Noble urged in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, “No one is proposing to ignore technology altogether. It's an absurd proposition. Human beings are born naked; we cannot survive without our inventions. But beneficial use demands widespread and sustained deliberation. The first step toward the wise use of our inventions would be to create a social space where these can be soberly examined.” Additionally, this space has to not only prepare people to soberly examine options and welcome them to doing so, it has to remove incentives and pressures that run counter to their applying as their norms ones that support human well being and development. Does parecon do all that and therefore contribute to desirable technological development?
Imagine a coal mine, a hospital, and a book publishing house in a society with a participatory economy. Inside each there are people concerned with evaluating work conditions and proposing possible investments to alter production relations and possibilities. These are not being done in pursuit of greater profit - a goal that doesn’t exist in a parecon - but in pursuit of more efficient utilization of human and material inputs to provide greater fulfillment and development among those who both consume and produce workplace outputs.
The coal mine has a proposal for a new technique, made possible via new scientific or technical insights, that would ease the difficulty of coal mining and increase its safety, or, if you want, that would reduce the pollution effects of coal mining.
The hospital has a proposal for developing a new machine that would make healing more effective in certain cases, or one that would make certain hospital tasks easier.
The book publishing house has a proposal for a technological change or new equipment that would make the work of preparing books a bit easier.
And let’s add two more proposed innovations, as well: first a social investment that would allocate resources to some military experiments and implementation of a new weapons system on the one hand, or, second, the allocation of resources to an innovative new set of machines and work arrangements that would produce quality housing at low cost with reduced environmental degradation.
What are the differences between how a capitalist economy and capitalist workplaces and consumers address these possibilities, and how a participatory economy with pareconish workplaces and consumers address these possibilities?
In capitalism, as we have seen, various affected parties will weigh in on the choice to the degree they even know the decision is being made. Capitalists and coordinators will be privy and will have access to the levers of power. They will consider immediate implications for themselves - largely in terms of profit possibilities but partly, particularly for the coordinators, in terms of implications for their conditions and status. They may also consider longer run implications of their decision for the overall balance of class and social forces.
Innovations bettering the situation of workers or even consumers will be rejected unless, and to the extent, they are also profitable for owners and to the degree the more general benefits don’t raise profitability problems. Technical innovations will be appreciated for lowering costs incurred by the owners - perhaps by dumping costs on others - and for increasing control and subordination on behalf of the lasting preservation of favorable balances of power.
In the capitalist workplace, in fact, innovations that cost more and generate less gain in output, but that provide greater control from above, will often be preferred over innovations that yield more output per asset, but empower workers. The reason is that in the latter case the gains may ultimately be distributed, due to workers’ increased bargaining power, such that the overall result for owners is a loss rather than a gain, even though the result for productivity as a whole is positive.
Or take another case. Why is there such a disproportionately large allocation of social resources to military expenditure and research in the U.S., as compared to what is spent on health care, low income housing, roads, parks, and education? Diverse explanations are offered for this bias. Some say it is because military expenditures provide more jobs than social expenditures, and therefore are better for the economy. But this is clearly wrong; in fact, the reverse is overwhelmingly the case. The technology-laden production of bombs and planes and associated research requires only a fraction of the labor per dollar invested that producing schools and hospitals requires.
Others say it is because of the massive profits that accrue to aerospace and other militarily involved industries, which obviously lobby hard for government support. But this too is false. The same, or indeed equally large other industries, would make the same kind of profits if expenditures went to housing, road repair, and other infrastructural work undertaken to fulfill government contracts. It is highly interesting that in the aftermath of obliterating the social structure of Iraq there is a tremendous flurry of interest among multinationals to rebuild that country, yet there is no similar flurry to rebuild the inner cities of the U.S. itself. What makes blowing up societies, or even just stockpiling the means to do so, or reconstructing societies other than our own - at least up to a point - more attractive as a path of major social commitment than reconstructing and/or otherwise greatly improving the social conditions of poor and working class communities throughout the U.S.?
The answer is not short-run profits. These can be had in all the competing pursuits. The same companies or equally large ones could make huge profits building schools, roads, and hospitals in cities throughout the U.S., just as in Iraq.
What causes the military investment to be preferable to the social investment isn’t that it is more profitable, or that it employs more people - both of which are false - but that the product of military investment is less problematic. While social investment betters the conditions, training, confidence, health, and comfort of most working people, it also contributes to their ability to withstand unemployment and to form and advocate their own interests, and it thereby increases their bargaining power. In turn, having increased bargaining power means workers will be able to extract higher wages and better conditions at the expense of capitalist profits - and that’s the rub.
It isn’t that owners are sadists who would rather build missiles that sit in the ground forever than build a school that educates the poor because they revel in people being denied knowledge. It is that owners want to maintain their conditions of privilege and power, and they know that distributing too much knowledge or security and well being to workers is contrary to doing so.
How is parecon different? In a parecon, proposed technological investigation, testing, and implementation are pursued when the planning process incorporates a budget for them. This involves no elite interests, only social interests. If military expense will benefit all of society more than schools, hospitals, and parks, so be it. But if the social expenditures would benefit society more, as we can reasonably predict, than priorities will dramatically shift.
But that is the relatively obvious part. What is really instructive is to look at the other choices mentioned earlier. In a parecon how do we assign values to the costs and benefits of an innovation in a workplace?
A new technology can have diverse benefits and costs. If it doesn’t require any inputs or expenditure but it does have benefits, of course it will immediately be adopted. But suppose there are high costs for materials, resources, and human labor. We can’t afford to do everything so choices must be made. If we produce another toothbrush, something else that would use the same energies and labors goes unproduced. On a larger scale, if we make one resource and labor claiming innovation, some others will have to be put off. How is the choice made?
The claim is that in a parecon the criteria for evaluating expenditures are how they will increase human fulfillment and development and that people must have a say proportionate to the degree they are affected. Without re-describing participatory planning in full, it may help to point out one very revealing aspect.
If I am in a capitalist coal mine contemplating an innovation that would make coal mining less dangerous, and you are in a capitalist book publishing house contemplating an innovation that would make work there more pleasant, we each want the innovation in our own workplace for our own well being. Neither one of us has any reason at all to be concerned about conditions beyond our workplace, nor do we have any means to know what is going on regarding worker fulfillment in other firms. We battle for our investment - actually, we try to accrue profits to pay for it. We don’t give a damn about other firms and, indeed, if we are to gain maximally, we should waste no time fruitlessly worrying about them.
Now suppose the workplaces are in a parecon. Things change very dramatically. The coal miners have a balanced job complex as do the publishing house workers. It isn’t just that each person in the coal mine has a job comparable to all others in the coal mine, or that each person in the publishing house has one comparable to everyone else in the publishing house, it is that all of us, taking into account our work inside as well as our work outside our primary workplace, have a socially average job complex. I do some coal mining and some quite pleasant and empowering work in my neighborhood and you do some publishing house work and some largely rote and tedious work in your neighborhood and we have, overall, comparably empowering and fulfilling labor.
How do we benefit from innovations in our workplaces? We all wind up with a balanced job complex. Benefits don’t accrue only in single workplaces, but average out over society. If the innovation in the coal mine makes the work there less onerous, the time I spend outside will change in accord. Likewise if the innovation in your publishing house makes work there even more pleasant than it already was. We all have an interest in technological investments that maximally improve society’s overall average job complex because that’s what determines the quality of the job we each wind up with. This means we have to be concerned with what occurs outside our workplace if we are to advocate what is, in fact, most in our own interest.
In a parecon, what is best for society and what is best for oneself are essentially the same thing, and the norms guiding choices among technological possibilities are, therefore, in accord with all people’s self-managed desires rather than reflecting the preferences of a few who enjoy elite conditions and circumstances. People might have different opinions and estimates of implications, but the underlying values are consistent. Parecon establishes the kind of context that both benefits and is benefited by technology in precisely the humanistic sense one would rationally prefer.
Health as a Further Indicator
A particularly graphic example of the entwined logic of both science and technology and their interface with economics is the issue of health in society. In discussing health and the economy, on the one hand there is the issue of health levels and health care. How do we organize care giving, pharmaceuticals, and associated research? Before that, even, what is the relation of economic life to the degree of health enjoyed or the degree of illness and harm suffered by the population?
On the other side of the same coin, there is the issue of receiving care. Who is eligible, to what degree, and at what personal and/or social cost? What happens economically to people who are unable to work, whether temporarily or even long term or permanently? And finally, does having a worthy approach to health place any undue pressure on economic life that parecon is unable to abide? The logic of all this is very like the logic of our other chapters, however, so we want to stick to a few indicators that bear on not only health, but also the larger science and technology realm.
There is a sense in which the situation of capitalism is well summarized by this quote from Andrew Schmookler: “Which entrepreneur will the market reward better? The one who sells a device that will give many hours of joy over a few years before, for a pittance, it needs to be replaced? Or the one who sells an addictive substance that must literally be ‘consumed’ to be used, and that itself consumes the life of its devotee?”
In capitalism not only accounting but markets favor accumulation and profit making. Not only pharmaceutical companies but even hospitals are generally seeking market share and profit. Potential patients without money get short shift. Potential patients with money should be separated from it. Those who own, whether it be the pharmaceutical companies or the hospitals or medical groups, benefit. Profit is always the operating principle. Gains that aren’t profitable only occur if someone puts up a hard fight against profit-making pressures. Ironically, everyone who reads popular medical suspense novels or who even watches the better legal or medical dramas on TV knows all this.
At any rate, borrowing from Yves Engler’s research, we note that “a report by Health Grades Inc., concludes that there were an astounding 575,000 preventable deaths in U.S. hospitals between 2000 and 2002, many from hospital-acquired infections.” Likewise, “an American study reported in the Chicago Tribune concluded that up to 75 per cent of deadly infections caught at hospitals could be avoided by doctors and nurses using better washing techniques.”
As Engler concludes, “Billions of dollars are spent annually on the development of new drugs and medical technologies, but little is spent on basic hospital infection control - even though this would save a greater number of lives - because there has been little economic incentive to do so. Some company makes a profit when a new MRI machine is purchased, but the bottom line that benefits from better hand-washing techniques is only measured in lives.”
Everyone knows, as well, for example, that the AMA exists largely to protect the monopoly on skills, knowledge, and particularly the credentials of doctors, keeping the total number of doctors down to keep each doctor’s bargaining power up, not least against aspiring nurses.
Engler, again, notes that, “Recent American data, reported in New Scientist July 2003, shows that more than 70 per cent of hospital-acquired infections are resistant to at least one common antibiotic. Infections resistant to antibiotics significantly increase the chance of death.” From where does this resistance come? It is “in large part, attributable to our overuse of antibiotics, which is connected to drug companies' bottom lines.” To sell product there is great pressure to give the drugs even when not warranted, so antibiotics are routinely over-prescribed. This facilitates “the growth of multi-resistant organisms.”
Even more dramatically, “half of all antibiotics sold each year are used on animals, according to New Scientist. Industrial farmers give their animals constant low doses of these drugs to treat infection but also as a growth hormone. The administration of low doses is especially problematic since it becomes a feeding ground for organisms to mutate. Data shows a strong correlation between increased use of antibiotics on animals and the emergence of resistant strains in the animal population with mirrored increases amongst people.” Profits of major food companies run up against the health of the populace…and in capitalism the former are likely to win.
To offer one final case study, it turns out that as Steven Bezrucha reports, “about 55% of Japanese males smoke, compared to 26% of American men.” Nonetheless Japan has the greatest longevity for its citizens on the planet, and the U.S. comes in nearly 30th. Bezrucha asks, “How do [the Japanese] get away with winning both Gold Medals? What is loaded in Japan's smoking gun?”
One explanation would be that while smoking is certainly bad for people, other prevalent health conditions in which Japan scores better than the U.S., are significantly more important.
Bezrucha reports that “Research has shown that status differences between the rich and the poor may be the best predictors of a population's health. The smaller the gap [in status] the higher the life expectancy. The caring and sharing in a society organized by social and economic justice precepts produces good health. A CEO in Japan makes ten times what an average worker makes, not the 531 times in the USA reported earlier this year.”
The point here is that an economic system affects health in numerous ways. Perhaps the most important effect the economy has on our health via the environment is the overall environment it establishes for us to live in, endure tension and pain in, or thrive in.
In contrast to understanding the overarching impact of economies, people commonly equate health with health care. But the U.S. spends almost half of all money spent world-wide on health care to serve less than 5% of the planet's people. Despite this, health in the U.S. is not even top notch, much less proportionately better than in other countries. This is partly due to the expenditures mostly benefiting a few rather than all citizens. It’s also due to much of the expenditures being guided by profit motive rather than a desire to improve people’s health. And partly it is due to the fact that other effects of the economy - pollution, tension, inequality - are so harmful. The U.S., for example, with the most prized implementation of corporate capitalist logic worldwide, is also first in voter abstention, homicides, incarcerations, teen births, child abuse leading to deaths, and child poverty, as well as in mental illness, and, of course, in the number of billionaires.
What all this has to do with science and technology is that it demonstrates, again, how science and technology can be misdirected, biased, and perverted by profit and market pressures. What will be different in a parecon?
All of it will be different. Parecon firms won’t operate in a market and will have no incentive to sell other than to meet needs and develop potentials. Addiction will not be profitable; it will only be socially destructive. Deaths that can be prevented will be prevented - people will not be left to die because curing them isn’t profitable.
Research and technology will be directed where it can do the most good, not where it will be most profitable to a few. Parecon will reduce deaths in hospitals due to insufficient attentiveness to hygiene, or lack of staff, and reduce deaths in society due to pollution, dangerous means of transport, insufficient attention to workplace health and safety, addictive consumption of cigarettes or alcohol, and most dramatically, class difference.
There will not only be no impediment to addressing real areas of benefit, there will be every incentive to solve social ills in proportion to benefits that can thereby accrue, not to individuals hoarding property, but to all society.
In a parecon we will have the number of doctors that health warrants. No doctor will have any incentive to try to inhibit the number of people who get medical training. There will be no coordinator class interest to protect at the expense of society losing the productive capabilities of its populace.
Similarly, in a parecon there will be no drive toward workplace speed up and cost-cutting that destroys health. People throughout a parecon will choose to work longer or less long in accord with the quality and richness of their lives thereby afforded, including attention to the health effects. And similarly, the huge gaps in income between owners, coordinators, and workers that generate so much ill health in capitalism won’t exist in a parecon. Everyone will have a balanced job complex and exercise self managing decision making influence. Nor will there be billionaires and paupers due to ownership differences…because no one will own means of production in a parecon.
In a parecon, whether we are talking about the direction or the scale of basic research or about the technology of health care or the social structures that make either science or technology beneficial or harmful, the guiding precepts are the same as exist for other parecon institutions: self management by affected parties in pursuit of well being and development and in accord with equity, solidarity, and diversity.