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His economic plan: Start from scratch

Capitalism not working for you? Michael Albert may be tilting at windmills, but readers are flocking to his book on a system to spread the wealth and work.

March 16, 2003|Kevin Donegan | Special to The Times

You've heard the stats being thrown around. The top 1% of Americans has greater personal net worth than the bottom 95% combined, says NYU economist Edward Wolff in a 1999 report. One out of three non-elderly Americans doesn't have health insurance, says a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report. One in six children lives in poverty, says the U.S. Census. The majority of Americans work hard day in, day out, just to keep their heads above water, and many don't make it.

In Washington and in statehouses across the country, Democrats and Republicans tweak the edges of the economy with innovations such as earned income tax credits, welfare reform and child-care subsidies, but things don't seem to change all that much. The concern is so great that in a recent poll by Zogby International, two-thirds of Americans agreed that "the income gap between the wealthy and other Americans has become so great that something needs to be done about it."

Michael Albert thinks we should start over.

Albert, with the help of others, has spent much of his life designing a new economy from the ground up. His latest book, "Parecon: Life After Capitalism" (Verso), shot from No. 2,423,754 on the Amazon bestseller list to No. 13 in just a few days after some online promotion. It now hovers in the 400s and will hit bookshelves later this month.

"Parecon" (pronounced par-E-con, the title is short for "participatory economics") is already being translated into more than 20 languages. So why is there so much interest in what seems like such a quixotic undertaking?

Albert, 55, points to popular culture as evidence there is widespread agreement about the evils of contemporary capitalism. "Go into the store and buy the 10 top-selling novels and read them. You'll be flabbergasted at the number of them that include a clear-cut condemnation -- although it's not the authors' purpose -- of one sector or another of modern society and the institutions in it."

He identifies four key values that any economy must address: equity (how much should people get and why?); self-management (what kind of say over their conditions should people have?); diversity (is more variety better than less?); and solidarity (should people cooperate or compete?).

A participatory economy would redefine existing divisions of labor through the idea of "balanced job complexes," whereby each job would contain a balanced share of tasks -- some creative and empowering, some rote and unfulfilling -- required in each workplace. There would be no managers whose primary responsibility is making decisions, just as there would be no janitors whose main job is cleaning up. Each worker would have an equal share of the gravy train and the dirty work, which Albert thinks will contribute to eliminating hierarchy and class.

"Eighty percent of people have their talents and skills crushed out of them ... because we educate people to obey orders and to endure boredom because that's what they're going to face in life," he said.

Participatory economics, which Albert developed with American University economics professor Robin Hahnel, places shared values at the forefront of economic relations. "If humanity should not aspire to create an elite minority joyfully dancing atop a suffocating mountainous majority," Albert writes, "what should we aspire to?"

With his economic system, there would be no private ownership of productive capital, such as commercial property; instead, such assets would be publicly held and run. He points out, however, that he's not talking about a socialist or communist society such as the old Soviet Union, which despite its stated goal of classlessness, did, in fact, produce a class of economic planners whose interests often were opposed to those of workers. His system tries to safeguard against such divisions by using a non-hierarchical, democratic planning process to match the economy's production to people's consumption each year.

Albert also wants a balanced division of labor, wages according to people's effort and sacrifice, and input into workplace decisions based on how much one is affected by them.

For example, if someone wants to listen to music at work, only co-workers within earshot would be consulted. A hiring decision might be weighed by everyone who will work with the new employee. Depending on the issue at hand, some company decisions could be made by majority rule, some by consensus and, perhaps, others by fiat, as long as a balance that respects each person's right to "self-manage" is achieved over time.

"Instead of gargantuan inequity, there would be equity," Albert said. "Instead of 'nice guys finishing last' or 'garbage rising,' there would be solidarity, and social relations would be positive. Instead of class rule, there would be self-management. People would have a say over their own lives."

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