Advances in human evolution have always, like biological evolution, been rather trial-&-error and hit-or-miss (see our backgrounder, The Football of Time). We stand on the edge of much more efficient progress, but always with the caveat, "Be careful what you wish for."
What should we be careful of? Two things, surely, are the use of incentives and the contradictions in human nature, such as the need to deny every step forward or at least balance it with a step backward. Or at least convince ourselves that we're offsetting it so we're actually performing a neutral move. But then, how can we design, not just the next great social system, whether political, economic, ecologic or a mix, but dig down to discover and design a general process by which transitions from one system to a better one are smooth and non-traumatic?
Most people who think about it at all probably think that the New Deal and its successor programs represented the latest greatest Big Leap Forward for our species in terms of substantive problem-solving and "moral progress" and not just technological whizzbang. But Jimmy Carter's presidency taught many of us that that well of progress had run dry and the Democrats were by then just running on the fumes of the New Deal. A bored and emboldened Right revitalized old-fashioned selfishness and greed, beat Jimmy Carter with a movie star (Reagan), and commenced a now 25-year-old march back to the 1920s.
Progressives had failed. They'd failed to free themselves from the makework of the New Deal and the old and new Left. And they'd failed even to note that the most efficient and eclipsed policy during the Great Depression, a sort of neglected and abused Cinderella of the New Deal, offered a third way+.
Why a worst-case plan? Just in case the current jobless "recovery" is really The Big One; that is, a chronic recession like the Great Depression of 1929-1941, but with decades of spindoctoring skills to keep us from thinking of it as such. A chronic recession means no recovery without world war - unless we design an intelligent way to get the wartime prosperity this time without the war and waste. Even people who disagree we're still in recession can agree that a worst-case plan is good insurance.
What is "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. Example: seniority vs. GAP (where GAP would equal "juniority" = unattested).
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. 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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