Lecture 4: Consumption Values
In this chapter we do for consumption what we did for production last chapter: move from our general encompassing values to more precise evaluative norms and aims for consumption per se. First, however, here are answers to the questions raised last lecture.
Answers to Lecture 3 Questions
The topic of lecture 3, remember, was production values and we began by discussing the norms we want to have guide our design of workplace relationships. We started with equity (of material and circumstances), solidarity, diversity, and participatory self management, plus efficiency (in the sense of attaining desired outcomes with as little waste as possible) and we tried to move from these broad aims to more specific aims for workplaces.
To do this we listed seven ways of dividing up tasks in the workplace. And I requested that you evaluate these from the perspective of our values. Here are my brief responses, then...
In the abstract, I guess I would say this is pretty equitable. Everyone gets the same circumstances. Likewise there is no hierarchy, though I am not sure how decisions would be made. I dont know whether there is a solidarity of misery or not. There is no diversity.
In practice, it is of course absurd. (Nothing says my questions have to be sensible.) First, there is no such thing as allotting work to that each thing to be done is divided into identical tasks for all people in the workplace. But even ignoring problems like that, the other difficulty is that while abstractly equitable the option pays no attention to the unique interests, desires, and potentials of the actors. I guess someone might like the peculiar combination of things they would have to do, but most people wouldnt, to differing degrees. Anyhow, this is really pretty stupid... It is equitable, in a sense, but horribly inefficient due to misutilizing everyones unique capacities, and so on.
The idea here is supposed to be that the only things that matter are (a) how long we work, and (b) how much we produce.
How long matters, in this view, because we all so uniformly and completely dislike work that doing one thing or another makes little difference. The only thing that matters to us is when we get off.
How much we produce matters, however, because our boss wants profits, or society wants more output, or whatever.
As to being equitable, assuming that with this option we actually wind up doing only what we are best at, unless the claim about everyone hating all work equally is correct, equity disappears. One person is best at something pleasant, another person happens to excel at something quite onerous. Likewise for some having more power, some less, precluding self management and solidarity. There could be variety, however.
Also this option is impossible for reasons like those that apply to number one, but that is beside the point.
This option is strange to evaluate on equity grounds. If we are all doing precisely what we want, to the degree we want, it is hard to see how we could call it inequitable. After all, you couldnt change its equity characteristics, or any other characteristics, without forcing someone to make a choice other than they wished to.
Seems obvious, doesnt it?
However, a problem arises.
What jobs do people choose from? We have fudged the issue by not commenting on this in the definition. We cant each do whatever we want, or there will be no output because what you want, what I want, and what she and he want may not match. If I want to go left on the assembly line and you want to go right, or I want to do one sequence for some function, and you want a different sequence, we get a mess. So presumably this option comes down to meaning from among the available job options, we each do what we want. Well, nice, but what if we all want one option, and not any other? So it might mean from among all the options, subject to the constraint that things get done, we each pick what we want. Well, fine, but when our choices wont get stuff done, who changes? And, most important and least often addressed, who (or what) sets up the options to choose among in the first place? Let me repeat that: who (or what) sets up the options to choose among in the first place?
Without more detail this seemingly ideal option may not be equitable, certainly has said nothing about self management (even though it seems to emphasize that), will be diverse, however, and if it fails on any other counts, wont be solidaritous.
Not too bad, at first glance. But again, we have this problem of where the options that we negotiate among came from. If they are very unequal, then however we decide to divide them up, someone gets a raw deal and equity is gone. More, if we didnt set them, then we arent self managing. If they arent unequal, and we did decide the options, well, then we may be unto something...
This is what, in fact, advocates of market post capitalist economies advocate, I believe. The market induces this type of job structure, and this type of competition. The outcome is inequitable by virtue of different people enjoying or suffering differential quality of life at work...and is obviously also anti solidaritous as people compete, etc., and fails to have self management, for many, anyhow, as some jobs will command and others obey.
If we are talking simply equity, I think this is hard to criticize. Thus, I say I will do the harder, more onerous job, but I want more pay for it, or to work less hours for the same income. The idea is that we balance not just quality of life at work, but the sum of quality of life at work and quality of life in consumption. If the former is lower, we reward more income so the latter can make up for it. This option is not to be sneered at, I think, so long as we are only talking equity. Notice, it means the person in the pleasant or uplifting job gets less pay than the person in the dangerous or boring one.
And this option certainly allows diversity and doesnt have to preclude solidarity either, it would seem. But on self-management it likely fails. For if people are choosing among options that have widely differing empowerment effects, then even if we balance for quality of life by rewarding those who take the worse jobs with more income, the differential impact on peoples abilities to participate in decisions, on their knowledge and skills, and so on, will mean a divergence from self management. A group will rise to positions of dominance in decision making, and then, in time, will decide to redesign the remuneration scheme in its own interest.
This seems rather equitable. By the way we define the jobs, the outcomes are equitable. By the way we choose jobs, we preserve diversity and allow for the possibility of self management. Absent inequality and competition, solidarity is possible.
We can also be flexible on the hours, rewarding more or less income as one chooses to work more or less hours. I also asked you to:
What does this mean?
Well, we say we want the economy to promote solidarity. So, what does that mean in a workplace? What conditions promote solidarity? It seems to me that the answer to this is that we need a workplace organization and process which gives each worker empathy for the situation of others, gives each an interest in all others having as good a situation as oneself, gives all the workers an interest in innovation that doesnt pit different groups against one another, and so on.
Heres something to think about. Suppose in my workplace we are deciding between two possible innovationsone effects the quality of life in the foundry, the other effects it in the promotion department. What is the solidaritous dynamic, and the anti-solidaritous dynamic for resolving this choice?
We said in lecture 3, also, that we want each actor to have a say in outcomes proportionate to the effects the outcomes have on that actor.
And I asked:
It tells us it is nonsense. We dont have each person vote equally on when I will go to the bathroom, or whether you will put your phone on the right hand or the left hand side of your desk. Why? Because these decisions dont impact everyone to the same extent, nor do all but a very few decisions, in fact, which is what one person one vote does. Assessing this is as easy as pie. We eliminate on option for decision making as incompatible with our goal. The hard part is to see this, to register it, and to then abide it, not continually glancing back and saying, okay, lets decide by a one person one vote ballot.
This is obviously ruled out as well. If a subset of workers have power, then unless one believes decisions impact only on them, one has abrogated the goal of each actor having a say in decisions proportionate to the effect of the decisions on them. Obviously it isnt only a few people in the workplace who are affected by decisions about how everyone works, with what tools, at what pace, making what products, and so on. So, another option is gone. Not maybe gone. Not reduced in its merit. Simply eliminated.
Well, if people in neighborhoods, or consumers wherever they may be are also to have proportionate say in decisions depending on the extent they are affected by them, clearly they will have to have input, by one means or another, in many decisions about the workplace. To rule them out is itself ruled out by our goal.
I will answer this from my perspective later.
The answer here is also simple. It depends on what we mean by efficiency. If we mean maximizing output while minimizing (monetary) cost, that is one thing, and it will conflict with many of our other aims. But if we mean attaining the aims we seek with minimum waste of anything we care aboutwhich is what we ought to meanthen it is merely a shorthand way of evaluating our attainment of all our other values.
One of the major achievements of bourgeois propaganda has been to establish the idea that economics is about quantities and particularly profitsthus the strange and horrible meaning given to the term efficiency. If, instead, we say economics is about meeting peoples needs and developing their potentials, then, of course, we get a very different definition of efficiency. Efficient for one goal, an economy will be inefficient for many others.
There is another way to understand this strangeness about the economics profession. Imagine, for a moment, that we create a scholastic department in universities throughout the country whose purpose is to comprehend and teach about procreation. Now imagine that these departments developed an extensive toolbox of concepts and analyses for the purpose, and that these made no reference to the human well being and development of mothers or children. Instead, they focus only on, say, the amount of oxygen or other nutrients used during the birthing process, etc. This would surely be strange. Or imagine a scholastic study of medicine which paid lots of attention to the techniques, the biological theories, the buildings and tools, but said almost nothing about the effect of medicine on sick people. While not exactly analogous to the economics profession, these failings are similar to studying economics without concepts that focus on the effect of economic structures and choices on economic actors, particularly workers. And so it is that the word efficiency comes to have no connection whatever to the human implications of economic activitysave in the sense that maximizing profits itself has, of course, many human implications.
Well, time to move on to the new content for lecture 4.
Consumption is not something I think it makes sense to beat to death. We do it for our own reasons. To enjoy, learn, whatever. And the economist isnt supposed to try to second guess that. We need to remove biases built into the economic structures that distort or otherwise constrain our preferences, and we need to be sure that the value of what each person is free to consume is such that the overall impact is to promote our favored values. In this lecture we seek to refine our goals, this time for consumption, beyond the very general aims of equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and (we now understand, a summary of all the others) efficiency.
So the real focus for this discussion needs to be income, or how much we deserve to consume; what we as consumers need to have in order to be able to do our consuminghowever much it isresponsibly; and how much control we should have over what we get. How much does each person get to have out of the total that is produced by all peoples work? What information does each person need, to make sensible consumption choices? What determines what is available and so how much say do we each have over what we get, including over what is available?
Think of income as a claim on social product. Whatever income you get, or I get, or anyone gets, indicates how much of the product you, I , or anyone is entitled to have. The idea is we can each have a bundle of stuff, and its value has to equal the amount our income says we are entitled to. As to how this allocation occurs and how we can measure this value, that comes later. For now the question is, instead, what share in the whole should we each have?
Historically there are not too many answers offered for this question.
So, we all now know the drill.
Before we figure out actual institutional structures for a good economy, we have to know, in some more detail than just broad sweeping goals, what we want them to accomplish. And that is what we were up to last week, and now this week too.
But what about the second issue raised above. What information do you need as a consumer to be able to do your consuming effectively and responsibly?
Again, we can think of some possibilities...
Please notice, this whole discussion does not occur at the level of we are too consumerist, or we eat too much, or such like. You might want to indicate why that is...
Well, there are quite a few questions here. But, for now, if you have the time for it, try to answer, as best you can. Try also to utilize what we have already covered in answering the new questions. As usual, next lecture I will give my own responses and during the week, if you offer up some questions, or some replies that warrant comment, I will respond.
Dont despair. Soon we will come to institutions.