Saturday, October 29, 2011

alternatives to the current economic system, and constraints thereon

Responding to a question posed on LinkedIn, "What's a better alternative to the current global economic system?"

I'm tempted to say no alternative is possible, by which I mean that only incremental change can happen. The system we have is both enormously complex and intolerant of wholesale meddling. In the unlikely chance some fundamentally different system could be agreed upon, with a switchover date, you'd have people dealing in futures based on how long it would be before the alternative would collapse and we'd be back to business as usual.

Even incremental change directed away from the essential nature of the system as it currently exists is quite difficult. The system serves the interests of those able to apply leverage, both economically and in the sphere of public opinion, and fighting this is roughly equivalent to swimming upstream. Nevertheless, there are some things that might be done.

The existence of a malnourished, hopeless underclass is in no one's interest. It saps the spirit of a society and creates an element of instability that occasionally erupts as mob violence. This problem could be eliminated overnight through a guaranteed minimum income, or the equivalent in subsidies for food, housing, clothing, health care, and connectivity, with bonuses for self-improvement, and only a fraction of a dollar taken away for each dollar earned. The cost of this would be relatively small, compared with other ways we spend our money, and also small compared with the consequences of the loss to the economy of so many consumers, whose purchases help drive demand and therefore the profitability of business, and in any case measures of equal scope will become necessary as automation further reduces the percentage of the population that need work to maintain a given standard of living for the society as a whole. Raise the standard of living, and that percentage comes back up, but with constraints; some may need to retrain for two or three years for every year their skills are marketable.

In a world where corporations and individual fortunes transcend national boundaries, but taxation doesn't (except as nations themselves are expected to contribute to international funds), there are many ways to escape paying taxes, and the responsibility to do so has fallen out of fashion. While at this moment it might seem politically unachievable, vesting the power of taxation in some world-wide entity that also transcends national boundaries would help level the playing field, and, for example, diminish the pressure on local authorities to provide incentives that undermine the value of new enterprises located in their districts, and to overlook abusive practices.

Corporate personhood is also due for reexamination. While some of the consequences of this legal fiction make sense to me, corporations having the rights and responsibilities of the ownership of land, buildings, and machines, for instance, others do not. Intellectual property is a gray area for me. On the one hand it makes sense that a corporation ought to derive preferential benefit from research it conducted in-house or funded, while on the other hand it makes sense that the overall benefit would be greater if that research had been conducted according to academic norms of openness, at public expense. I don't believe corporations should be allowed to intervene in any way in the political process, neither directly by officially supporting or opposing parties, candidates, or ballot issues, nor indirectly through PACs, nor by compensating employees or officers who do so on their own time and/or out of their personal funds. On the other hand, I don't believe in the taxation of corporate income. Real estate and other property, yes, even liquid assets, but not income. Taxation on income should be deferred until it becomes the income of some real person, whether through payroll, stock options, or dividends. Regarding taxation of funds earned abroad and repatriated, presumably they've already been taxed by the countries in which they were earned, so it makes sense that they should be taxed here at a reduced rate, if at all.

To some these will sound like radical suggestions. To others they will seem far too tame. Such is the way forward.

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