Barrel Strength

Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

Barrel Strength - Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

Distributional Coalitions: Tribes,Classes, Lobby Groups

The intrusion of messy reality into economics generates most of its intellectual issues. The world escapes the simple axioms of market exchanges mediated through freely negotiated prices. An American economist called Mancur Olson wrote “The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation and Social Rigidities” in 1982. It discussed issues not within the scope of either monetarists or Keynsians, namely how economies do not work according to the ideas of either schools.

For Olson, the question to be answered was why some economies were performing better than others after World War 2. Why, for instance, was Britain in such a mess (pre-Thatcher) and Germany and Japan increasing in wealth by leaps and bounds?

Olson observed the behaviour of what he called “distributional coalitions”, which are normally economic associations but which can morph overtime into castes, tribes, or even races. Usually we call them “special interest groups”, and usually we think of them as things like the dairy farmers, or other organized economic groups with formal legal status which seek legal or regulatory privileges (professional associations, banks, etc). Olson pointed out that they are usually small, they exercize disproportionate power, they reduce efficiency in the economy, they slow a society’s adaptation to change, and once successful, are exclusive and seek to limit the diversity of incomes and values of their membership.

His final rule of interest groups was:

9. The accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution.

Olson pointed out how expensive it is for anyone to discriminate racially (or any other way) as individuals, but by contrast, how rewarding it is to discriminate when it is done collectively. South Africa, in the apartheid days, could engineer much higher standards for whites by keeping blacks out of skilled and semi-skilled work.

Moreover, a racially, linguistically and culturally distinctive group finds it easier to maintain a multi-generational coalition. “The linguistic and cultural similarities will reduce differences in values and facilitate social interaction, and … this reduces conflict and makes it easier to generate social selective pressures.” (p.159)

And here is the kicker: if you can reinforce the “distributional coalition” with inbreeding – marrying within the tribe, the class, the group, the caste – you will make the group work better over time. This is called “endogamy”.

Unfortunately, the promotion of prejudices about race, ethnicity, culture and intergroup differences in lifestyle will also make the coalition work better. The inculcation of these prejudices will increase the probability that the members will follow the rule of endogamy and strengthen selective incentives by interacting socially only with their own group, of their own accord.” (p160)

A good deal of whatever I learned as a kid from the osmosis of attitudes about the other tribe in Quebec, the French Canadians, reflected this truth of behaviour, and they had stronger if not deeper prejudices against us “English” (not a  tribe, really just a foreign bourgeoisie). A distributional coalition can be an ethnic majority as well as an ethnic minority. I am not saying that the prejudices of each tribe were unfounded; I am saying that looking at each group, the English in Quebec, or the French in Quebec, as a distributional coalition, generates some insights. It suggests that wherever you see strong barriers to intermarriage, you might be in the presence of a distributional coalition, as well as that of a tribe, caste, or religion. It also suggests that when barriers to intermarriage are falling, a distributional coalition is fading out.

Olson was suggesting that racial and other forms of discrimination can work as the enforcers of the privileges of a “distributional coalition”, but note that, in his view, he makes no assertion that we have some innate drive to discriminate  – an issue on which he is silent. He says that maintaining  in-group marriage (maintaining racial, tribal or religious boundaries) will strengthen the distributional coalition over time, indeed, it is the only way to maintain it over long periods of time.

In conclusion, Olson’s views balance the problems caused by instability against the problem s caused by distributional coalitions.

On the whole, stable countries are more prosperous than unstable ones and this is no surprise. But, other things being equal, the most rapid growth will occur in societies that have lately experienced upheaval but are expected nonetheless to be stable for the foreseeable future.

In short, they have had a chance to purge themselves of distributional coalitions.

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone has 481 servants

Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is an important book, which describes the effect on humanity of the burning of fossil fuels. Largely its effect is benign and constructive. It has largely abolished the grinding poverty of all ages before Europe in the 19th century.

Every one of us has more servants at our disposal than Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, who had some 481, I seem to recall from Ridley’s book. The point of burning fossil fuels is to increase the energy available to each man, woman and child on the planet, both personally in what one can consume individually but more importantly, systemically in what society can use, such as streetlights, elevators, subways, heating and air conditioning of public spaces.

I would like to dwell for a moment however on the downside of the life of ease brought to us courtesy of fossil fuel consumption. I am not for a second proposing that a more virtuous existence can be found – on a broad social basis -  by using less energy. Personal abstention may well by fine, such as living by a lake in Finland or Canada at a low level of energy consumption, and some tribes, such as Amish and Hutterites, manage with a much more selective uptake of technology. For me, and for billions of my fellow humans, living with less energy when you need it constitutes poverty. We all desire to escape from it, and the enlightened wish to rescue their fellow humans from the disease, ignorance, brutality, and hopelessness that seem to be the essence of poverty.

If Theodore Dalrymple is right in his many castigations of the culture of poverty in the British idle classes, there is something to be said for a more stringent existence. His argument is that the former white working class of England and Scotland has been ruined by technological change leading to unemployment, and then, by a process of subsidization of this idleness, made available by general modern levels of taxation, and the prosperity on which taxation depends, the welfare state is producing people who do not believe in anything, do not toilet train their infants, do not believe in education, deliberately make bad choices in their sexual partners and produce more welfare children by several absent layabout fathers, avoid marriage, do not pick up the garbage they leave in their front yards,  do not cook and do not know how to cook, and, in short, are engaged in terminal cultural decline, abetted by a middle class industry of social minders whose jobs would disappear if the lazy fuck-heads would get religion, sober up, put on a white shirt, and look for a job.

In essence,  Dalrymple’s critique of poverty in the United Kingdom is that it is a spiritual and intellectual impoverishment brought about by modern wealth, that can afford to keep 15% of the nation idle and dissipated, and do nothing about it. By doing nothing I mean: do not attack it directly with spiritual and rigorous measures, by shaming, by forced work, by authoritarian interventions, by evangelical Christianity.

Two works by authors of entirely different dispositions have also addressed this problem. One is the socialist historian Richard Tawney, whose The Agrarian Problem in the 16th Century observed that, in Elizabethan England, some 20% of the population were beggars, wandering the roads and committing crimes, and threatening the social order. Tawney decried the Protestant Reformation and the effects of enclosures – denying the poor access to common land on which to graze their animals or plant a crop – as the basis of the crisis. Monasteries and Catholic orders had done what they could to alleviate the condition of the poor. The same layabouts as populate the lowest classes today were not contained at home with television and alcohol in the sixteenth century. With the abolition of the alms-giving institutions by the Reformation, the underclass was set loose to wander. The second historian who has addressed the issue of what England did with its illiterate layabouts – albeit in a different time – was Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American, whose book The Demoralization of Society and others has argued that the “Victorians” have been unjustly maligned for their efforts to rescue the lowest classes of England by a program of virtue.

… the Victorian virtues – prudence, temperance, industriousness, decency, responsibility – were thoroughly pedestrian. “They depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money. They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints – and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones.”[15] Himmelfarb has argued “for the reintroduction of traditional values (she prefers the term ‘virtues’), such as shame, responsibility, chastity, and self-reliance, into American political life and policy-making”

So does Dalrymple.

Once again I find myself starting out by thinking one thing and realizing that it is an error. Maybe, I thought,  the problem of a layabout lowest class could be fixed in an environment where there was less available energy, where obesity was a disease of the idle rich rather than the idle poor. Maybe, I thought, when people actually have to work to eat, the habits of virtue could be instilled. Yet a few minutes of thinking remind me that poverty is not a matter of lack of wealth – if it were it could be and has been fixed. Poverty is a spiritual condition. When everyone has a shelter, a television set, heating, and the possibility of education, the fact remains that a significant proportion of the population dwell in darkness, and seem to prefer to live that way.  They are subsidized to remain that way. Removing the subsidies would put them on the streets, like the sturdy beggars of Elizabethan and later epochs of English history were, without solving the problem.

If I may borrow freely from the Wikipedia article on Theodore Dalrymple,  the pen name of Anthony Daniels,the problems look like this:

  • The cause of much contemporary misery in Western countries – criminality, domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, hooliganism, broken families – is the nihilistic, decadent and/or self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live. Both the smoothing over of this behaviour, and the medicalisation of the problems that emerge as a corollary of this behaviour, are forms of indifference. Someone has to tell those people, patiently and with understanding for the particulars of the case, that they have to live differently.[15]
  • Poverty does not explain aggressive, criminal and self-destructive behaviour. In an African slum you will find among the very poor, living in dreadful circumstances, dignity and decency in abundance, which are painfully lacking in an average English suburb, although its inhabitants are much wealthier.[16]
  • An attitude characterised by gratefulness and having obligations towards others has been replaced – with awful consequences – by an awareness of “rights” and a sense of entitlement, without responsibilities. This leads to resentment as the rights become violated by parents, authorities, bureaucracies and others in general.[17]
  • One of the things that makes Islam attractive to young westernised Muslim men is the opportunity it gives them to dominate women.[18]
  • Technocratic or bureaucratic solutions to the problems of mankind produce disasters in cases where the nature of man is the root cause of those problems.
  • It is a myth, when going “cold turkey” from an opiate such as heroin, that the withdrawal symptoms are virtually unbearable; they are in fact hardly worse than flu.[19][20]
  • Criminality is much more often the cause of drug addiction than its consequence.
  • Sentimentality, which is becoming entrenched in British society, is “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality”.[21]
  • High culture and refined aesthetic tastes are worth defending, and despite the protestations of non-judgmentalists who say all expression is equal, they are superior to popular culture.[22][23][24]
  • The ideology of the Welfare State is used to diminish personal responsibility. Erosion of personal responsibility makes people dependent on institutions and favours the existence of a threatening and vulnerable underclass.
  • Moral relativism can easily be a trick of an egotistical mind to silence the voice of conscience.[25]
  • Multiculturalism and cultural relativism are at odds with common sense.[26]
  • The decline of civilised behaviour – self-restraint, modesty, zeal, humility, irony, detachment – ruins social and personal life.[27]
  • The root cause of our contemporary cultural poverty is intellectual dishonesty. First, the intellectuals (more specifically, left-wing ones) have destroyed the foundation of culture, and second, they refuse to acknowledge it by resorting to the caves of political correctness.
  • Beyond and above all other nations in the world, Britain is the place where all the evils summarised above are most clearly manifest.

Even with 481 servants per person, as measured in terms of kilowatts of disposable energy, poverty is not being cured. Trying to fix poverty by wealth transfers alone is yet another case of what I call trying to lift the gross national product with a set of tongs. Some seeds fall on stony ground, as we are reminded by Jesus in another context.

Dear Ottawa Citizen

Dear Ottawa Citizen:

I once ran into a Webster. You may recall the rich fellow who owned or ran the Globe and Mail, I can never remember which. Maybe his dad owned it and he ran it, back in the 1980s. We were chatting on the deck of the Club when I adverted to the paucity of comic strips in the then Globe and Mail.  I said that the comic strip contains more concentrated thought than found in op-ed pieces and reportage. He looked at me as if I had emitted a loud  fart.  The conversation did not last long. He clearly thought me a lesser species of human for believing as I did. And I thought him a tedious little pill, and much of the reason why the Globe was then so dreadful. (It is only slightly less so today).

So I will not take up much of your time either, for I still maintain that a good comic strip expresses deeper, more concentrated, and more amusing thought than almost all editorial content, except maybe Robert Fulford, George Jonas, or, on a good day, Conrad the Magnificent. I maintain that George Will, or George Orwell, might come close to Garfield on a good day or Shoe (now resurrected).

Clearly the people who redesigned the Ottawa Citizen thought that we would not notice the poverty of the comic strips that have largely replaced the better ones that went before them. And just as clearly the people who did this are like cooks who cannot taste  food, wine critics who hate wine, dreadful dreary post-Calvinist anhedonic, secular humanist dweebs without wit, taste or humour. Recognize yourselves?

Do you think I actually read your newspaper for the views of Kate Heartfield? I have read 100 times more serious books than she has lived years, and that is no stretch. As to the rest of your columnists, I can get them in the National Post, and if I can’t, I shall just invite Brian Lee Crowley over to dinner.

No, the chief pleasure of your paper was the morning comic strips. At their best they were good for about three hoots and a guffaw. On a bad day, a tight smile or two.

So, to make up for the comic shortage, I have discovered the most wonderful site on the Intertubes. It is the Seattle-Times’ general comics page, where, thanks to programming languages which I do not have to know, I can get Garfield, The Wizard of Id, Sally Forth, Dilbert, Doonesbury and many more for a) free and b) without subscribing to your paper. And, what’s more, I can get them without having to recycle newspaper by stepping outside in February and stuffing the always inadequate recycling box at -10C in my slippers, pajamas and overcoat  before the almost equally annoying garbage service comes every two weeks. I shudder to recall taking the paper recycling to the curb on garbage day this past winter.

You have also eliminated the New York Times’ Sunday crossword which, by the same token, I can get at the Seattle-Times, for free.

So I am asking myself, why do I need a physical paper? To support local journalism? To support my local community? To please everyone but myself? How many journalists and newspapers are necessary? I am already hyper-informed by the Intertubes.

My cable television subscription just took a huge hit thanks to Netflix. You are next.

Slowly I am being drawn into the implications of the Internet. As a friend once said, I want ONE electronic subscription that brings me the Globe and Mail, the Post, the Toronto Star, and a local paper, the Daily telegraph, the Manchester Guardian, and so on, with full rights to copy them. Not six. Not 12. One subscription.

Who could have foreseen the implications of TCP/IP? And the world wide web?

I digress. I am cancelling my Ottawa Citizen subscription. You can, I suppose, fire Heartfield or the person who cut the comic strips and pour their salaries and benefits into more and better comic strips, but you will have to make the announcement fast. My forty year long association with you is about to end.

Thank you  for causing me to change.

Sincerely,

 

Dalwhinnie

 

Fat Tony advises the Ontario electorate

Well folks, one of these days the call will come from New York. Mssrs. Samuelson, D’anunzio, McWilliams  and Feinberg, your four leading lenders, are getting a little anxious about the 288 billion dollars you owe them. Revenues are down, expenditures keep on increasing and the debt is reaching levels that alarm people whose smallest unit of money is $500 million. They would like to talk to you. It is your fifth week in office and your loans are coming up for reconsideration. Off you go to the Big Apple. On the 89th floor of Plutocrat Towers your four leading bankers have overcome their normal distaste for one another and for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to meet in the same room. They are there to give you the news, which is that your credit is cut off unless you do something now. Whaddya mean now? I mean by Friday they want to hear what your plan to rescue the Ontario economy is. It is Tuesday. They set the meeting for 10am so you would have to get up at 5 am to make your flight. They were quite specific.

It happened to Chretien; it will happen to you. Oh, you think Chretien was inspired to cut Canada’s spending because he converted to Adam Smith? Fuck that. He got the call from Wall Street. He had been advised for quite a while in the Wall Street Journal about the northern peso.He got the message.

It will happen to Hudak, that nice dyke lady (what’s her name?) or to Andrea the fat Croat. The only uncertainty is which one.of them. The call will come from New York City and that will be it. Over. Finito. Pay up.

The only difference between that grinning Hudak guy and the other two broads is that he knows he is going to get the call if nothing is done; Andrea the Croat and the nice dyke lady have not got a clue yet. The people who really run the world are going to start to be concerned, and when they say your interest rates will go through the roof they are in effect calling the loans.

At that point, who’re you gonna call?

You’re gonna call the finance minister and tell him or her to call his people in the department and whack 35% out of this year’s spending. 35 fucking percent. Got that? It will make Hudaks’ proposed 100,000 civil servants laid off over several years look like the benign course correction it is. This will be 100,000 civil servants this week. And maybe next week, too. You’ll need earth movers to bury the dead, for sure.

So take my advice, people. The next Premier of Ontario will either get that call or she will not. The one who does not get the call is the one who has already started to make the moves that prevent that call. You don’t want to take that call, but you must. They are your bankers and they own you. And if the nice dyke lady and Andrea the fat Croat don’t get the message, they soon will. Trust me.

Chretien was called in to Wall Street, and look what happened.

Fat Tony‘s advice is: don’t be a turkey. A turkey thinks every day is a great day to be a turkey, until one day the food stops and he is beheaded. Just because they are lending money to Ontario now, does not mean that Ontarians are not turkeys.

 

Bad science

As I have been wont to say, man-made global warming has been the new cholesterol. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The new study’s conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with modern nutritional science, however. The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.

Sound familiar? After cataloguing the bad or defective methodologies of the early studies (sample bias, inadequate samples, etc.) the Wall Street Journal article states:

But there was no turning back: Too much institutional energy and research money had already been spent trying to prove Dr. Keys’s hypothesis. A bias in its favor had grown so strong that the idea just started to seem like common sense. As Harvard nutrition professor Mark Hegsted said in 1977, after successfully persuading the U.S. Senate to recommend Dr. Keys’s diet for the entire nation, the question wasn’t whether Americans should change their diets, but why not? Important benefits could be expected, he argued. And the risks? “None can be identified,” he said.

In short, every attempt to get away from animal fats has led to the use of vegetable oils and other carbohydrates which, in turn, have had their own deleterious effects on human health, including obesity, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide (of all things!).

Seeing the U.S. population grow sicker and fatter while adhering to official dietary guidelines has put nutrition authorities in an awkward position. Recently, the response of many researchers has been to blame “Big Food” for bombarding Americans with sugar-laden products. No doubt these are bad for us, but it is also fair to say that the food industry has simply been responding to the dietary guidelines issued by the AHA and USDA, which have encouraged high-carbohydrate diets and until quite recently said next to nothing about the need to limit sugar.

“Seeing the economy grow weaker and people poorer under the influence of green energy policies has put warmists in an awkward position”.

Well not yet, anyway. They still are fanatically determined to save us from fossil fuels. Oh, an woodsmoke from stoves.

 

Exodus from France, exodus from Quebec

An interesting video news article on the exodus from France of the ambitious, the bright, and the monied. I observe that  Quebec has been going through the same, but that the exodus did not matter to the native population because it was composed mostly of Protestants and Jews (furriners). It took a while for the exodus to start among the ambitious, bright and monied among the French-Canadian populace, whom we can now observe in Toronto, Vancouver, and elsewhere.

If there is one thing we all hope for, for Quebec, it is that, when it separates, it will get real fast: 1) reduce its Marxist unions to impotence, and 2) adopt English as an official language. The opposite will happen at first, until the bills have to be paid. President Pierre-Karl Peladeau will smash a union or two.

BNN reports:

Montreal, home to Air Canada and Canadian National Railway Co., has seen the number of top 500 Canadian companies based in Quebec’s largest city decline to 75 in 2011 from 96 in 1990, according to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian research organization.

It would be interesting to know how many of Canada’s top 500 corporations were headquartered in Montreal in 1960. 40%? 50%? 60%?

Dark Enlightenment

For those who are curious about the places where you really should not go on the Internet, to taste the dubious fruits of seriously reactionary thought – I do not mean conservative, I mean reactionary – you can start with this rather dispassionate survey here from Vocativ, which is an interesting site in its own right.

What is the Dark Enlightenment? As the term suggests, the Dark Enlightenment is an ideological analysis of modern democracy that harshly rejects the vision of the 18th century European Enlightenment—a period punctuated by the development of empirical science, the rise of humanist values and the first outburst of revolutionary democratic reform. In contrast, the Dark Enlightenment advocates an autocratic and neo-monarchical society. Its belief system is unapologetically reactionary, almost feudal.

Having braced yourself for your encounter with stuff so far from electoral politics that it has disappeared through the event horizon, the  definition of which is surprisingly apt:

a boundary in spacetime beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer…

you may now safely observe the blogs I am about to direct you to. Start with Occam’s Razor, which is frankly anti-democratic and reactionary, and in particular to “The Dark Enlightenment/NeoReaction gets Mainstream Notice”.

There are enough links for and against for you to follow that you can waste your time productively in the murkier recesses of reaction, and hysteria about reaction.

The essential contention of the reactionaries is that there exists an established church of opinion, which is called the Cathedral, whose laws are to be obeyed.  The laws of the Cathedral are the summary of the generally anti-white, anti-Christian, and antinomian beliefs that animate contemporary political discourse. Whether you agree with the reactionaries or not, you will probably recognize that the Cathedral represents  the core beliefs of the far political Left.

I exclude from the category “far Left” people who might want more government spending, or higher taxes, or less social inequality. Many people to the left of me are in the zone of reasonable political disagreement. I am talking about the people whom I believe to be morally deranged by anti-white racism, anti-male sexism, and anti-Christianism, among other symptoms.

The Left is hysterical about the existence of political differences. It drives them bonkers that there can be difference of opinion on, say, anthropogenic global warming, and people writing in the obscure corners of the opinion environment who believe that liberal democracy is heading us all straight to hell, or keeping us locked up there, as the case may be.

I remain much more confident about the capacities of public discourse to hold back and eventually reverse the Leftist tide, than either the reactionaries doubt or the far Left fears. In this I may utterly mistaken. I am creature of the Enlightenment in many senses:  I have no use for atheism,  I remain confident that reason will prevail, and these two beliefs are not contradictory. I am also confident that representative democracy is the only one suitable for sustaining self-government. I am a conservative, rather than a leftist,  because I believe we must govern ourselves well or else we shall be governed by others, and that requires serious education of the soul. I am a liberal, rather than a reactionary, because I believe that, more often than not, we are able to govern ourselves.

 

Happy delving into the depths of genuine political debate. Do not forget to come up for air.

Links:

http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/12/the-dark-enlightenment-is-new-right-lite/

http://dailycaller.com/2013/11/08/its-not-racist-to-seek-an-exit/

http://davidbrin.blogspot.ca/2013/11/neo-reactionaries-drop-all-pretense-end.html

http://anarchopapist.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/the-rightist-singularity/

13 words that will kill municipal liberalism in US

Following is the opinion published yesterday by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in Detroit.

Nothing distinguishes pension debt in a municipal bankruptcy case from any other debt…

City workers and their unions have carried on over the last several years as if the pension debt was sacrosanct. That delusion is over. This ruling might be overturned, but if it is upheld then it will enforce a degree of fiscal prudence that is unimaginable to the liberals.

The municipal governments cannot print money to overcome this hurdle and their ability to sell municipal bonds is limited by their credit ratings, which in turn limits pensions funds from buying bonds with such poor ratings. For the financial conservatives, instead of rejoicing, they should reflect on the fact that this is the equivalent of dancing on the grave because it will bring a lot of financial pain. For the liberals it will be yet another chance to employ their sophistry.

The wealth of networks, the hive mind, and the future of [mass] production

One of the more interesting books published  in the past ten years was that of a law professor called Yochai (pronounced Yohai) Benkler. His book was called “the Wealth of Networks”. Its contention was simple. The Internet is allowing for the return of a way of forming wealth that had all but disappeared from modern life: the free association of people contributing their time to a shared project.

Open-source software is an obvious example. A group of people devise an open standard; other people contribute continually via public discussion.   The economist asks why anyone would contribute free labour to a project.  It is obvious that when the costs of participation are low enough, people will freely contribute hours of labour to collective projects: for honour, for prestige (the same thing almost), for a sense of belonging to something important, even great. Among the many collective works shaping the world today are Wikipedia, Linux, Apache software, and a host of open-source codes.

CV1_TNY_11_25_13Viva.indd

The particular wealth-creating capacity of the Internet is not merely to facilitate trade and intellectual exchange, argues Benkler. Its genius is to allow for the conditions necessary for a group of volunteers to devise something complex and important: rather as if a group of amateurs could assemble a cathedral, a warship, or a car. In the conditions of production that prevailed until very recently, people lacked the tools of communication that would allow for mass participation, long-distance, specialized, and most important, voluntary association of a kind that would permit things to be done easily, without resort to the market or to the corporation.

Until now, the productive forces of society were organized either into markets, or corporations. Markets occur when people can trade safely, but markets have their own transaction costs. Corporations internalize a bunch of costs, so that you deal with another department of your corporation for services rather than go outside. The boundaries of the corporation are set by the relatively greater expense of dealing with outsiders rather than dealing with people in your corporation. In both cases, the transaction involves money, whether in the form of salaries for the insiders, or fees for the outsiders. Neither form of production runs on voluntary, unpaid association, whose emergence into significance is the change worth noting.

A case in point was raised in the National Post on Thursday in an excerpt from a book by Clive Thompson, “Smarter than you think”. The particular case was the  use of volunteers using their own computers to solve problems of protein folding. The biologists put out the problem for the public to solve, with the assistance of shared software and a scoring system. The project elicited the volunteers’  cooperation, and on the other, competition among them. The results were highly productive, and generated results that astounded the biologists. The same kind of shared use of computers occurs in the processing of possible signals from outer space, which involves a software download which then engages your computer’s idle time to analyze noise from radio telescopes for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Regardless of the possible futility of the idea, the SETI project is only possible because of the processing power of thousands of linked computers.

So far collective projects of this nature have involved the capacities of humans and computers to analyze signals and situations, write and improve software, and to invent processes. What if the next stage involved  the mass production of things? More accurately, what if the next step of collective creation involved the production of  complex objects and machines? What if the cost of producing tangible things, and not just computing, sank to the level at which a father and son shop in Bangladesh or Arkansas could produce a $100,000 gas turbine with only somewhat more effort than $300 bicycle?  What if “mass” production gave way to production at your local garage of complex spare parts that today need to be ordered from a factory or a warehouse?

Possibilities of this sort might suggest that  the era of the mass production factory might be coming to an end. More likely is that its preponderance would decline when every place with a bunch of lathes, a supply of electricity, and some skilled hands,  were enabled to create complex machinery to nanometer accuracy. If they can make Kalashnikov rifles in upcountry Pakistan with current pre-computer technologies, think what the same sorts of handy people could do with open source software driving their lathes.

That time is not far off. I am aware of an open-source software project, to be embedded on a chip, the price of which will be on the order of $30. Its purpose will be the control of complex operations of automated machine production. This is the missing link between higher-order software of the kind that runs our computers and machine tools. To a great extent, there has been no open-source software developed to control complex machine fabrication. It has all been proprietary, and as companies disappear with the regularity of mushrooms, the software they developed is not replaced, thereby idling huge and expensive machines for want of software to drive them. A friend of mine is leading a project whose purpose is to bring the most complex machine operations under the programmable control of users for a price that can be afforded, not just by McDonnell-Douglas, or General Electric, but by father-and-son shops in Arkansas, São Paulo, or Bangladesh.

The move to “print” solid objects is only an aspect of this development, and not the most important. Most useful tools will not be fabricated from injection moulding of plastics. Durable machines need to be made from metal. Here the trick is to get software controlled machinery to produce complex objects to nanometer accuracy, if necessary, and to do so as cheaply or more so than large factories.

Consider what is going on now: mass participation in improving software, which enables us to solve puzzles and problems, such as protein-folding, that could not be solved without mass participation. Next, inject into this picture of innovation and distributed participation the ability of very small workshops to produce useful tools and parts to the most exacting specifications, all across the world. This means that material objects might be subject to the kinds of criticism and orderly improvement, as well as the surprising innovation, that characterizes open source software, and scientific experiments conducted by computer-mediated mass participation.

Wealth creation has largely been conducted through corporations and markets, rather than by means of honour- and prestige- based cooperation. The promise of cheap, open-source software for the control of machines is  twofold: the same kind of innovation that has occurred in software can occur in the production of things and, moreover,  the participation in complex production is democratized to every place it the world with a stable supply of electricity, a few lathes, and a few pairs of hands. It raises the possibility that the driving force of open-source software will transform the productive powers of formerly backward parts of the globe, from Arkansas to rural Russia. As for the advanced portions of the world, maybe Speedy Muffler will get most of its parts for your car from workshops down the street, rather than from hundreds of miles away.

Your local machine shop may become the source of important technical innovation, just as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.