A “computational” or “natural” economy is a framework for a new economic system which attempts to reconcile the environmental, physical, and social needs of humanity with the opposing needs of our current economy. Building on the work of Herman Daly, Robert Costanza, Johann Rockström, Jacque Fresco, Robert Ayres, as well as a multitude of scientific disciplines, a natural economy is a non-monetary, steady-state, anti-hierarchical method of allocating resources and physical space. It contains as its goals: Setting an adequate standard of living that is met for all people, aggressive enforcement of fairness (as in max-min fairness), keeping exploitation and energy levels under environmental limits, and meeting rigorously measured demand using a minimum number of resources. This requires a rather large change in both economic and social structure, but it is one with a high payoff.
It’s difficult to begin discussing these ideas with anyone who isn’t already familiar, because I am usually cut off by the immediate argument that planned economies cannot possibly work, which I will address now. A computational economy is not a planned economy; it is simply far more designed than a capitalist or socialist economy. Free market proponents claim that the economic calculation problem is best solved by having no design in the economy, letting individual preference and personal wealth accretion dictate every decision. However, this does not necessarily result in good decisions or a stable economy (see black markets). The Soviet Union seems to be one of the favorite nations of free marketeers, because they are able to claim it as proof that planned economies are doomed to fail. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not predicted, and the reason is still not clear. What is clear is that its support of the Eastern Bloc and attempts to keep up with the capitalist arms race contributed significantly. It is not clear, however, that its economic model did so, and to claim it unequivocally did so is disingenuous, wishful thinking.
Even in a mixed economy, the rules, or “institutions” as economists call them, are simply reactionary fixes, which usually have a certain guaranteed amount of deviance (analogous to a covert channel problem). There is nearly always someone out there not knowing, ignoring, or working around the rules, and often doing so is much more highly rewarded. Wal-Mart is notorious for bending the rules in order to get their labor subsidized by welfare, for example. Not only are there people not following the rules, there must be some establishment that enforces the rules, and it won’t always be successful. There have been dozens of recent industrial disasters, including Fukushima Dai Ichi, and Deepwater Horizon, which together have contributed the two biggest environmental disasters in human history to the two biggest oceans on the planet. There were laws in place that would have prevented these tragedies, if laws were actually capable of doing so. In both cases, the operators were supposed to perform safety inspections and maintenance, but chose instead to save money by being negligent and reckless. After the fact, there has been no reaction from the law enforcement body significant enough to repair the truly staggering damage from either of them. BP even has the audacity to complain that it’s paying too much.
It’s well-known that money as a reward does not result in effective, creative work. That people have both creative and unskilled jobs that pay is not due to the incentive of money as a reward, but rather the implicit death threat that capitalism makes on everyone: Get a job, or you’re going to have no place to live, no water to drink, no food to eat. There are so many efforts to feed, house, and clothe people, except for redesigning the economy to ensure that everyone gets a basic standard of living. Imagine if some technology were created that allowed your job to be done by unskilled laborers being paid far less than you. How long would you survive on just what you have now? This actually happens, and though the common response is that the newly unemployed person should get an education to gain a useful skill, this is just an excuse. Either the education is at the unemployed person’s expense, or the cost of education is socialized. If you’re socializing something as high cost as education, why would you argue against the socialization of basic needs? It may not be good for growth, but it certainly would be good for the economy. Unconditional basic income has worked wonders in multiple experiments, and would serve as an important first step in the transition to a more sensible economic system.
Marketing has become increasingly important in driving the growth of our boundless economy. The purpose of marketing is to change people’s behavior to buy something they ordinarily wouldn’t. It’s a strange sort of doublethink that we would value marketing so highly, in an era where our biggest problems are too much trash, overexploitation of resources, excessive pollution, and global poverty. If the economy can’t be successful without a huge amount of production that wouldn’t ordinarily occur, how can it be said to be efficient or based on voluntary transactions? How can a so-called scientist sit there and say that the basis of any economic system is dealing with scarce resources and unlimited wants, when marketing makes it clear that the reality at hand is that human wants are scarce and must be created? Why would the selling of things that people don’t need ever be prioritized over our home planet, breathable air, or allowing people to have a basic living standard? We start companies and then try to maximize the number of products or services pushed out on people. This creates a world of products that are rarely ever used, and by only one person or household, or used only once and then thrown away. Companies attempt to minimize the price of their product, but that means that each product is low cost, rather than all products being low cost. This combination of individual low cost and the need to sell as much crap as possible is symbolized truly well by the giant whirlpool of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
A truly efficient economy based on voluntary [trans]actions would allow people to freely use the product or service, and fulfill that demand at the lowest cost. This acknowledges both the ecological reality that we must operate under constraints, and the sociological reality that more problems happen when peoples’ status in society is unequal. Modern culture regards violence as a natural tendency in humans, but the reality is that violence is strongly predicted by several factors that are recent and avoidable: Lead poisoning, social inequality, and patriarchal society. A natural economy would attempt to rectify all of these factors structurally, as opposed to institutionally. Punishing people with violence for being violent has always been a ridiculous prospect, and is clearly not something that is ever going to rid us of crime. We should always have the goal of no more police, and that can be attained through aggressively moving to a functional social system, rather than aggressively punishing deviant individuals for whom the system has failed.
Communities should be designed around socialization: Community kitchens rather than private kitchens, community recreation centers, community manufacturing, computer labs, and so on. This encourages the open design process that has been found so effective, even in a capitalist system, at providing high levels of customization and low costs. Community kitchens could be co-located with dining halls, where people can collaboratively plan and cook meals. This model could be used so extensively that everyone could comfortably live in a small room or micro-apartment. After all, it’s not the size of a micro-apartment that’s the problem, but the lack of access to the utility that’s normally provided by private possessions. It wouldn’t be so bad to live in an apartment without a kitchen if you were a short walk away from a kitchen that’s nicer than any kitchen you’ll ever have, where you can even get a serving of a meal that someone else is cooking.
In contrast with the restaurant model, this strips away most of the economic activity involved in cooking and turns it into a primarily cultural activity. This is precisely the opposite of what has happened over the last century or so, with art and culture becoming increasingly commodified. Openness increases health standards since there’s no hiding filth in a kitchen that anyone can enter. Most importantly, it eliminates the subjugation of people into service in a restaurant. If someone wanted to run something like restaurant service, they could easily do so, but they wouldn’t be forced, or forcing someone else, into doing it for them or the restaurant to survive. The early stages of the transition, away from private meals and restaurants, towards community meals and shared dining, is already beginning. In terms of economics, the only thing that needs to be done is ensure there is enough equipment for the highest number of simultaneous users, which is always less than the total number of users. The latter would be the number of kitchens produced in an ideal private society.
One of the major criticisms about post-scarcity economies is that there are still scarce commodities, like beachfront property or rare art. However, this criticism has an implicit assumption that any of those things should belong to one person. There is no reason that only one person should be allowed to set foot on a certain part of the Earth. If a piece of land is highly desirable, then it should be shared even more than land that isn’t. If a piece of art is highly valued to our culture, then it should be seen by everyone. Our current society takes exactly the opposite position: The best things are to belong exclusively to those who are best able to get the most for themselves. This sort of cutthroat, violent outlook on society is at the root of many social and environmental problems. Letting go of the idea that things belong to people is the first step to a better world.
The separation of production and consumption results in inferior products with more guesswork involved in their creation. On the other hand, open design processes result in products that fulfill all the needs of the users, since they are (at least partially) designed by the users. They tend to result in quicker adoption of standards, which perhaps counter-intuitively results in immensely higher diversity of products. Computer hardware, for example, is highly standardized which results in infinitely many different configurations. Smart phones are highly proprietary, which means there is no inter-compatibility for phone hardware and so only the configurations that large companies create ever exist. It results in extreme fragmentation discourages users from fixing problems with the hardware, leaving them to just grumble about it and replace it with something different, which merely has different problems. This is an absurd runaround that will probably not end any time soon, while squandering valuable resources in the process.
One of the differences between my philosophy and that of The Venus Project, The Zeitgeist Movement, or Singularists about solving similar problems, is that they all see a primarily technological problem, while my goal is to allow a post-scarcity economy with no specific level of technology. Scarcity doesn’t have to mean not everyone has a Tesla Roadster or Google Glass, it should primarily mean that everyone gets a fair shot at living. After everyone is able to eat a wholesome meal, sleep under a roof, and not walk around naked, then you can start worrying about how we’ll possibly have enough for everyone to live forever in the ever-important immortal cyborg bodies. The strong focus on high technology and technological solutions by all three groups, to me, shows a tacit aloofness for the actual well being of people, as well as a sort of overly optimistic techno-fetishism. However, technology does not fix the environment or reduce growth, because these are not technological problems. Believing that electric cars and solar panels will fix our environmental problems may sound reasonable, except that it’s not gas-powered cars or fossil energy that’s the problem. It’s too many gas-powered cars and too much fossil energy for the constraints that we should be operating under. This and social problems such as increasing wealth inequality are caused by too much focus on always getting more and newer things for ourselves, and will not be solved simply by having the capability to produce more things. We are conditioned into always feeling like what we have is not enough, which means no amount will solve that problem. What will solve that problem is realizing that some of us have enough, some of us have far more than enough, but most do not, and we should take care of them the way we take care of ourselves.