Why a worst-case plan? There is a general but tacit assumption among TPTB (the powers that be) that our current economic design is the best of all possible designs, because, hey, it seems to be working for them and "if it works, don't fix it." But they're having a harder and harder time finding sustainable investments and millions of other people aren't doing OK. So it's getting harder and harder for TPTB to convince us (& themselves) that we're in an economic recovery, albeit "slow," "weak," "jobless," "wageless" or "stumbling".... So just in case the current "recovery" is actually a chronic recession like the Great Depression of 1929-1941, but with decades of spindoctoring skills to keep us asleep to the fact, even people who think we're in a real recovery would probably agree that it might be just plain common sense - and good insurance - to design a worst-case plan.
What is economic design? One definition is: economic design answers the question, How do we get Wartime Prosperity without the war? Wartime Prosperity depends on a perceived labor shortage back home (as during World Wars I and II) to get employers bidding against one another for good help, harness market forces in raising real wage levels and restore the ability of the workforce plus its dependent consumers to purchase its own output, since the export solution doesn't work when everyone's trying to use it. But recent "wars" are just too small and robotized to counter decades of mounting labor surplus and create that magic wage-hiking labor shortage. So the world-war 'solution' is no longer working. Similarly modern medicine is just too good to allow Plaguetime Prosperity to work, so far.
Economic design also answers the question: How little to we HAVE TO change to reverse the economy's downward spiral? What is the minimum necessary modfication, in what smallest-possible part of the core design of the economy, to get the whole juggernaut spiralling upward again instead of accelerating downward (though the diagonality of the downward spiral allows repeated declarations of recovery on the cyclical but brief up-arcs).
Here's another angle on this question: many nations are doing better than the USA in the current recession. Germany is surfing with its Kurz-arbeit (short work); the Netherlands is surfing not by redefining "full time" downward so much as beefing up part time; the Basques only allow a one-to-five(?) ratio between lowest and highest paid in their big Mondragon cooperative. But the design details often rely on cultural homogeneity and solidarity that cannot bar their designs from universal application. How do we boil down their designs to the essentials and get their results across more diverse populations and without needing their population homogeneity and solidarity? THAT is the job of the economic designer.
Another angle: the right wants no regulation; the left wants any, even many, regulations. How close can we come to a single all-sufficient regulation, so well-designed and positioned in the body economic that it can safely supercede all, or most, others? The Single All-Sufficient Control (SASC) is the holy grail of economic designers - they are always questing for this SASC - always, you might say, on a SASCwatch (oooo).
So back to intelligent design (no relation to covert creationism). The gradual improvement of the windmill in Holland, the trial-and-error development of the steam locomotive by Stevenson, Kirtley, Mallet and Webb, Thomas Edison's stage-by-stage invention of the light bulb, and Nicola Tesla's development of power generation all testify to the persistence and energy required for the design process, a persistence and energy that have been missing from field of economics. Indeed, we apply design principles in every other field - aircraft, computers, engineering - that are never applied in economics. Most of economists' effort to be limited to rationalizing the status quo for the topmost brackets, no matter how dysfunctional the overall economy is becoming, systemwide. Thus economics has gone from 50% theology when Joan Robinson wrote Economic Philosophy in 1962, to 70-80% today, with tremendous strides sideways in the development of obscurantist and intimidating econometrics.
So what does economic design do? It asks, what are the minimum necessary modifications to our economic core that can reverse our downward economic spiral? And once that is accomplished, it asks, what are the minimum necessary modifications to reduce ecological impact and secure and lengthen economic sustainability?
So what is (or should be) "economic design"? It's halfway between very long-range forecasting and economic science fiction (a very rare genre in sci fi, judging from the only two episodes in the entire family of Star Trek series to be classifiable as such: "Past Tense" in 1995 on Star Trek - The Second Generation and an episode about unionizing Quark's bar on Star Trek - Deep Space 9). Not too many people get into it because it involves a rare skill - operating on one's own retinas. But at a time when mainstream economics ignores worktime as an economic variable, let alone a control variable, let alone the logical control variable for macroeconomics, we could hardly spend our time better than designing a new worktime economics centered on the uncoordinated supply of labor hours vs. employment hours in the immediate "market term."
What is the basis of our economic design? An all-points-priority, strategic, worktime history, which has come, astonishingly, to be completely ignored by every standard economist, economics department, business school, and financial analyst in the developed world, and by every general (non-labor) historian (including general economic historians, such as the late Charles Kindleberger of the U.S. and earlier William Cunningham and J.H. Clapham of Britain, and even by some labor historians, such as Francis Folsom, "Impatient Armies of the Poor," 1991). Just try to find entries like "workweek" or "hours of labor" in their indexes. The history of worktime has been ignored by every general historian, that is, except Benjamin Hunnicutt of the University of Iowa with his masterful Work Without End, 1988, which is our main history source for this website.
As you may have gathered, it is the mission of this website to correct that blindered thinking on the part of those we have naively trusted to run our affairs responsibly and intelligently. That mission involves elaborating the basic 'storyline', philosophy, definitions, goals, scientific interconnections (e.g., with ecology) and database for this long-neglected but utterly critical path for meaningful human progress - instead of merely more technological glitz and quantitatively, but not qualitatively, extended human lifespans.
America's founding fathers, the framers of the Constitution, were political designers - they designed a new polity or political structure. They designed their values into political institutions. In the new (21st) century, we must apply this approach to our economy, difficult though that may be because of its being closer to determining our viewpoint - even more like operating on our own retinas. The many versions of the sentiment, "It's becoming appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity" (Einstein) reflect the relative primitiveness of our social software in contrast, say, to our computer software. Many of us are fed up with this design gap, but it's so easy to just "jump on our white horse and ride off in all directions." It actually takes a lot of 'sheer plod' to get anywhere on the project, and for sure "it's nasty work but somebody's got to do it."
What is the Holy Grail of economic designers? The Holy Grail of economic designers is the single all-sufficient control, for current levels of rising expectations and technological advance.
What is the chief R&D technique in economic design? In a word, BGOs (blinding glimpses of the obvious), one after another. Ask the obvious question, accept the obvious answer, then ask the question behind the question (i.e., the next obvious question). Build on the obvious. Stop fighting it, undervaluing it, demeaning it, dismissing it. There's even a book out on this approach, Robert Updegraff's The Power of the Obvious (Executive Press: Littleton NH, 1972), and it quotes George Bernard Shaw, "No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious." We get help on this from various techniques from the science of linguistics, such as identifying and completing gaps in paradigm. Examples: seniority vs. GAP, where GAP would equal "juniority*" (*unattested); forefront vs aftrear*; length vs. shortth*, width vs. narrowth*; height vs. lowth*; weight vs. lightth*; velocity vs. tardocity*.
Of course, the BGO technique in economic design has to be coupled with a secondary R&D technique; namely, an appreciation of the inconspicuous. But that usually means, don't limit your search to where everyone else is looking. Remember the Emperor's "new clothes"? Remember the sighted man in the land of the blind? Look into the areas most people are overlooking or taking for granted. Then sit back and watch for the obvious. One helpful tactic is to regard every problem as containing within it the germ of its own solution. Our task is to "see" that solution within, just as Michaelangelo's task was to "see" his David or Moses sculpture in the uncarved blocks of marble before he sculpted them.
Today, incredible as it may sound and contrary to economic history (no other science has as wide a gulf between its historians and its theorists), virtually everyone is treating worktime as a constant or at least as a totally negligible variable. Time is a pervasive dimension. It's too glaringly present. And most of us want it to stay part of the woodwork. This is a big mistake for economists and fatal for economic designers.
Thus it is not coincidental that our economic design is contrarian, and countercyclical in two ways -
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