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Central Planning and “Team Human.” Are we able to steer the ship, while letting markets do their creative thing?


Scientist, tech consultant, best-selling author and futurist David Brin discusses central planning vs. market forces and the problems at either extreme. (Visit the CONTRARY BRIN blog to read David's latest posts. For his books and short stories, visit his website.)


Central Planning and “Team Human.” Are we able to steer the ship, while letting markets do their creative thing?

Courtesy of David Brin

Before getting down to the matter of central planning vs. market forces -- an argument that's raged since ancient Egypt — I need to point out something regarding our current Constitutional Crisis over Congressional powers of subpoena and oversight. Never mind that the GOP used those powers endlessly in 25 years of Clinton hearings (that examined every pore, file and tax return, finding literally nothing). Now that scrutiny might shine on Republicans, Chief Justice John Roberts & co. must prevent a tsunami of light from eviscerating the oligarchy.**

In fact, it's arguable that this is none of the Court's business!

Consider how John Roberts just established precedent that legislatures have sovereignty rights that Courts cannot interfere with. (In this case, a sovereign right to deny voters any rights at all.) Yes, Roberts made that ruling as a last-ditch effort to preserve Republican gerrymander cheating…

… but amazingly, this bit of utter sophistry – The Roberts Doctrine — is one that House leaders could now exploit. Indeed, there is a way — I believe — to pull a judo move on the administration's stonewall tactic and get those subpoenas enforced.

The chief element of my proposal would be surprise… it might only be done once… and hence I've restrained myself from describing it in detail anywhere, before floating it past a member or senior staffer.

But one Democratic candidate has noticed what I am noticing. In a field of very bright folks, Julián Castro has been the one smart enough to look to the Fourth Branch of the U.S. government. I'd be happy to explain things to some smart staffer. Though alas, everyone seems so sure they have a clear view of things. What does anyone need outside perspective for?

The recurring power fantasy

Central planning vs. Markets? 

You – yes you – are so sure you know all about this and have a firm 'side.' Can you pause to broaden it, a bit?

Central control over an economy is the great dream of all oligarchies. Even 'good' lords aim to justify their continued reign by the simple recourse of delivering good statecraft. Early Bronze Age societies succeeded at managing primary economies (hydraulic empires) with the super technologies of their day – irrigation and roads, boats and basic literacy by a few hundred priests and scribes. Around 1200 BCE they hit a wall of competence and it all crashed down.

The classical powers that followed were more resilient and advanced. The Persian empire and Roman Pax had advanced primary economies, but finally hit their own wall, partly through incapability to adapt to environmental effects they were wreaking.

The third wave built a secondary economy of infrastructure and iron and coal, which Marx analyzed — at first with real cogency, until he began believing his flatterers. Alas for his predictive reputation — the worker's revolution was supposed to happen in advanced economies like Britain or Germany, not the most primitive — Russia and China. 

Lenin made excuses and declared that a socialist state can dispense with Marx's final stage capitalism, after all! It can plan a major secondary industrial economy as well as Adam Smith's competitive-blind capitalism. And for a while it seemed true! Soviet planners commanded "get a hundred train cars of cement to this dam construction site or you'll be shot." And to visiting western observers, it seemed effective! Dams sure got built.

"I have seen the future and it works," commented one visiting American.

(Elsewhere I show, in some detail, how probably the closest acolyte to Karl Marx, using his catechisms to predict an opposite future, was Ayn Rand.)

Economies at the third level

Alas for the communist experiment, we were transitioning to a tertiary economy driven by consumers. While dams and highways are one thing, the Soviets hit their "wall of competence" when it came to centrally designing a refrigerator anyone would want.

The Japanese took these lessons to heart, with the next planned economy, incorporating what seemed an impossibly competent combination of overall planning with fluidity of market allocation among obedient but competitive companies, all propped-up by American indulgence toward predatory mercantilism. Led by MITI, Japan blew past the Soviet wall… only to hit its own wall, in the 1990s.

Now it is China, led by brilliant former engineers, who are taking all the lessons from the USSR and then Japan, modifying them with vastly improved planning models, again relying upon the multi-trillion dollar subsidy of predatory mercantilism. The whole world benefits (except for the pollution and oppression). 

But again, we are endangered by the smugness of those who proclaim "this time there's no wall!"

No wall? Is central planning becoming plausible?

History shows several things. First that every pyramid-shaped human society (that’s 99% of them) was ruled by oligarchies that were at-best moderately delusional and usually outright hallucinatory, confident that they knew exactly how to Guide the Allocation of Resources (See where I define and explain GAR.)

Second, as we’ve seen, these GAR fetishists always hit a wall of incompetence… though we have to admit, modern tools have let that wall shift substantially.

Third, introduced by Adam Smith, the alternative notion was to let the dispersed wisdom of vast numbers of private players coalesce – both cooperatively and competitively – through our arenas called Markets, Democracy, Science, Justice and Sports, where no one can suppress criticism, the only known antidote to error. 

By flattening all power structures and ensuring freedom of knowledge and speech, these arenas proved to be magnificent at piercing delusions… bad products, bad policies, bad theories, bad behaviors and bad ideas. The result? More success than all of the rest of human existence for half a million years.

But that very success generated another bad idea! While flattened power and distributed agency helped these arenas to achieve fantastic success, oversimplifiers turned Smith’s rejection of GAR into a different and just-as-stupid cult! FIBM or Faith in Blind Markets became an incantation, citing Adam Smith for something he never asserted and in fact actively loathed: the idea that society should assert no goals, have no hand on the tiller, insert no values into the mix of incentives that millions consider, in making market decisions.

(In case you missed it or skimmed, that just now was a key paragraph and you ought to at least understand it, even if you disagree.)

In other words, FIBM fanatics claim we should charge into the future lobotomized and blind, considering only what's right in front of us, pondering no long range goals other than the next quarterly profit statement. Indeed, under the Friedmanites, industrial ROI (return on investment) planning horizons shrank from ten years, to five, all the way down to 90 or even 60 days.

Of course the net effect is ironic. It has been to shove all decision making power into the ample laps of a narrow oligarchy, a caste of 5000 golf buddy CEOs and Wall Street arbitrageurs, along with foreign and domestic mafias, all of whom chant slogans of FIBM, but in fact aggressively behave like all past lordly classes… grabbing the power to do GAR.

Reiterating, they do not argue against command-allocation of resources and endeavor. They just want that the power of command allocation be theirs. The "C-Word" — Competition — falls from their lips, even as they strive to crush it.

In fact, the true friends of flat-fair-creative-productive markets have been the moderate or “rooseveltean” liberals who knew that Marx was right about a few things, like the tendency of corporate lords to consolidate into monopolies, duopolies or other market wrecking patterns of theft. Or that when parasites pull money out of the economy, it does not get invested in risky R&D or capital production equipment, but squirreled into rentier-passive asset bubbles that slow money velocity down to near zero. Exactly the achievement of every “Supply Side” (voodoo) vampirism of the last 40 years.

Dig it. While Republicans rage at regulation and the far-left sniff at "competition," It is only Regulated Competition that delivered the cornucopia fostered by the Rooseveltean social contract of the Greatest Generation. A contract whose dissolution is the one shared goal of every Republican policy.

Adam Smith would have no trouble with anti-trust laws, or with a society insisting that “externalities” like environmental effects get incorporated into the prices of goods available for consumer choice, so long as those incentive adjustments are flat, fair and predictable over spans that markets can adapt to.

Now, back to the present day and the central planning advocates in this world.

They truly believe this time they’ve got it

Elsewhere I appraise some of the rationalizations that are now pouring from Chinese intellectuals, justifying the claim that only a centralized, party-ruled state can possibly (1) manage a modern economy, (2) distribute wealth properly as jobs disappear to automation, and (3) exert control over the new AI entities we are about to produce. These missives by Chinese scholars are typified by a recent one by Tsingua University professor Feng Xiang, which I critique here.

The crux: It has always been an appealing dream to plan an economy and an ideal state. That alluring notion may have long term merits – certainly we've become a lot better at it — but we must also remain aware that till now there have always been "walls of incompetence." Moreover, there is a tendentious wish for this dream to come true, on the part of those who envision themselves as the "world directors" (from Huxley's Brave New World.)

The opposite notion has its own cult following: that central planning cannot work for long. That it is a chimera and a meddling tendency that interferes in Smithian market wisdom. 

All too often these folks are even worse! Because their rationalizations almost always excuse consolidation of allocation power in the hands of a small, incestuous and shortsighted oligarchy of owner-lords. Exactly the same old GAR approach but in feudal form, like the last 4000 years.

Adam Smith himself favored some degree of planning when it comes to overall priorities and goals, while leaving most allocation decisions to very well-informed and liberated citizens. In other words, as those computer models keep improving, there is no reason why they should have to be monopolized by top party officials or oligarchs. 

What if we all had them? A world market economy in which every citizen and consumer knew almost everything, with super models and analytic engines at beck and call? It's an image I don't see much discussed. Yet, it would still aim for that sweet spot, between fallible-but-necessary foresight and the flat-competitive interplay that gave us everything we now have.

We're told we must choose between two models: on the one hand proponents of centralized state planning who are clearly very smart and who have yet to reach their 'wall,' but who rationalize despotism while ignoring how much of their mercantilist success came because of western indulgence…

… versus a clade of would be oligarchic lords who claim to champion open-competitive-Smithian markets, while hypocritically joining with world mafia forces to send wealth and power disparities skyrocketing toward French Revolution levels. Their sycophant-flatterers are proved wrong, of course, when these would-be aristocrats cannot perceive the foolishness of waging war upon all fact-using professions, nor can they stretch their minds to ponder the word "tumbrels."

No, my friends, face it. Were he alive today, Adam Smith would be a Democrat. And the #1 (of many) silliness of democrats is that they don't proclaim it.


Read also David Brin's Heinlein’s Future History: Coming True Before Our Eyes

Picture of Pyarimid by Francesco Gasparetti from Senigallia, Italy – Piramide Cestia, CC BY 2.0.

Pictures of Adam Smith and Karl Marx via Wikipedia


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