Future Lefts - "We're back, And We're Bad!"

Published: Thu 22 Mar 2001 10:09 AM
FuThursday 22nd March, 2001
We’re Back, and We’re Bad (in a descriptive slang way, not a pejorative sense) “Conference Edition”
Hello! It’s been a long time between drinks for Future Lefts, but the long wait is finally over. Awake from thine intellectual slumber all ye beasts of the Net! Things however are going to be a little different. Future Lefts will now be published fortnightly, but to compensate, will be a little larger than it has been in the past. This can either be seen as a comment on this Editor’s laziness as compared to the superhuman endurance of his predecessor, or as a pragmatic concession to the tyranny of time
There will also be an effort to more clearly delineate the serious from the silly. In the past I know that as a contributor, I have muddied the waters of serious political discourse with some fairly fatuous, snarky commentary. While I will defend the place of fatuous and snarky writing on the web, provided it’s funny (and particularly in Future Lefts), I will attempt to make very clear the divide between this and the serious stuff.
There will also be an attempt to look far and wide for serious political commentary, and I invite anyone reading this with a well thought out opinion to contribute. Once the Soprano’s begins again on Tuesday’s I will probably accept any piece of tosh you throw my way in order to maximise my viewing time. This week however, there is very little tosh. Indeed, I am very pleased to be able to include an article by renowned Economic Historian Keith Rankin that explores the developing theory of Public Property Rights. It’s utterly refreshing to read something like this that is quite outside of any current, stale paradigm – I invite your responses.
This issue is going to skimp on all the other usual features. By calling it a “conference edition” I get to this you see. By putting a conference advertisement in it seems that one can then do away with most of the other features without being criticised for rank idleness. The general sense of rush and activity that the word ‘’conference’’ conjures up seems to provide a smokescreen for not writing any more. So, there is just Keith’s article, a title saying ‘’news roundup’’, a taste of a new feature, and a website of the week to keep you going until next time. Hope that’s OK.
Conference Advertisement:
When: This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday ie) tomorrow, which is very soon I know Where: Wellington, which is probably very far away Why: Because you’re committed to the development of an active, powerful Youth wing of the NZLP that will resist the tendency of the Parliamentary Party to make policy concessions that may engender middle class electoral support at the expense of the values of Democratic Socialism.
“But it’s tomorrow, I live in Opotoki, can’t get off work at such short notice, but really want to go”: Go into your fridge, pull out some cheese, and then leave it in the sun for a day or so. The result is ‘tough cheese’ – you wouldn’t have to eat this on Saturday night for dinner, but could instead be having drinks and nibbles in the Speaker’s luxurious flat, if only you had responded to the ad in the Young Labour Newsletter about a month ago!
But seriously folks, I hope to see as many of you at Conference as possible this weekend. It is always a fantastic opportunity to meet new people and share ideas.
I know it’s only in a couple of days, but if you have any questions about conference, or want an agenda e-mailed, contact me at
Public Property Rights, by Keith Rankin 20 March 2001
There is a more sustainable, more relaxed, route to egalitarian prosperity than the maximum growth maximum employment ("labourism") option. The key concept is that of public property rights.
There is no theory of public property rights to compare with the neoliberal theory of private property rights. But the many strands are all there, in some cases in triplicate. They cut across the left-right divide of western politics.
The most important strands have been there for a very long time. Some of the most important ideas came from a group of eighteenth century French political economists - indeed the first group of économistes - known to English speakers as physiocrats. They could be called advocates of "naturism" (physiocrat means 'rule of nature'); that would help us to appreciate the difference between them and the later Anglo-Scottish classical political economists who were advocates of "capitalism".
Unfortunately the word naturism has been seconded for other purposes. In a recent article I used the term "environmentalism" as a modern alternative to capitalism and labourism.
The physiocrats - founded by French doctor François Quesnay - have fascinated 20th century scholars of economic thought; scholars ranging from Marxists to Georgists (modern followers of Henry George) to far-right libertarians. It is the physiocratic theory of surplus value that has much to offer us today, in an era in which the global economy is far from small relative to the global environment. Further, the physiocrats' theory of property rights was equally applicable to public property (the domain of the sovereign) as to private property (the domain of the private landlords).
An important addendum (in the laissez-faire spirit of the physiocrats) to this eighteenth century chapter in the annales of political economy lies in the writings of Thomas Paine. For our purposes, the most important of the writings of this refugee from British censorship is a pamphlet called Agrarian Justice. Paine claims that, in nature, all property was public. With "civilisation" came "privatisation", and with privatisation came capitalist economic development.
This process was half good, Paine claimed. 50 years later (1847) French socialist Proudhon reiterated such claims. "Property is theft", Proudhon said. Economic society built on private property was half bad. These writers did not advocate the confiscation of private property. Rather Paine at least claimed that a significant part of the revenues accruing to formerly public property should be returned, equally, to each member of the public.
For the physiocrats, this flow of revenue (the income of the sovereign) would represent 33% of the produit net, what we today would call gross domestic product less losses to the natural capital that we call the environment.
In today's context - given that both industrial and democratic revolutions separate us from the original physiocrats - we can say that at least (and probably very much more) than one-third of the global (and each nation's economic cakes) should be returned equitably to the public owners of property that is in the public domain.
(As an aside, New Zealand's chief engineer in the 1870s, having finished building the Rimutaka Railway north of Wellington, published an important but little known communistic version of capitalism on his return to Britain. John Carruthers' project began with papers presented to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1877 and 1878 and published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. His analysis - which favours a 100% public distribution of the proceeds of capitalism - is a logical conflation of the "commercial" and "communal" systems that one British scholar, Professor Ian Steedman, has called "Victorian market socialism".)
The political economists of past centuries emphasised questions relating to the distribution of the "common wealth"; or, as with the classical school (within which many modern scholars include Karl Marx), the distribution of income between the classes.
In the twentieth century, big questions of income distribution became unfashionable. The more conservative elements of economic thought emphasised equilibrium and static efficiency, while the more progressive elements looked to the sources of economic growth and dynamism.
As a result, the substantial literature on entrepreneurship, uncertainty, intangible capital, ideas and knowledge - which by and large falls outside of the still dominant neoclassical (son of classical, purged of Marxism) paradigm - has so far had little to say about distribution to the public owners of the assets that this literature emphasises. The public domain (the physical, intellectual and social environments) continues to be treated, implicitly, as a free resource that renews itself naturally. (The reality is that the public domain is renewed and extended by something that is still alive and well called the gift economy.)
The most recent synthesis of these elements - new growth theory - continues the 20th century vice of analysing intangible assets as sources of growth only, and not as sources of income. But the connection between growth and income shares will soon be made. Indeed, we are coming to realise that, when the public can profit directly from the assets that are held in public ownership - as occurs with the Alaska Permanent Fund - then the assets are managed in such a way that maximises their contribution to sustainable economic growth.
The new paradigm - a paradigm that I believe will come to dominate 21st century economic thought - only needs more work done on the nature of the gift economy that parallels the market economy and a few good writers who can synthesise the strands of the paradigm in such a way that captures the imagination of a generally conservative public. The Internet is already starting to boost our appreciation of the gift economy.
The new paradigm will treat income tax as an economic return to public property; to property in the public domain.
Contrast with the existing paradigm of tax minimisation. The United States' knowledge economy has yielded trillion dollar tax surpluses by 2001. So the new unelected president plans to give it back to the people. Fine, it's theirs. But, thanks to a combination of class greed and a lack of recognition of public property rights, millionaires will get many thousands of dollars of public income as a "tax cut", while many poor people – equal co-owners of the America's public capital – will get nothing.
I'll finish by quoting from two writers (Herbert Simon and Gar Alperovitz) who contributed to a "New Democracy" forum, led by Philippe van Parijs' "A Basic Income for All", published in the Boston Review in October/November 2000. And to an article by Ted Halstead about Generation X published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1999.
Herbet Simon (1978 Nobel Prize winner in Economics): "When we compare average incomes in rich nations with those in Third World countries, we find enormous differences that are surely not due simply to differences in motivations to earn. Laziness is not a principal cause of poverty. A more plausible explanation for the differences, in fact the explanation that is universally put forward, is that much greater resources per capita are available to some countries than to others. These differences are not simply a matter of acres of land or tons of coal or iron ore, but, more important, differences in social capital that takes primarily the form of stored knowledge (e.g., technology, and especially organizational and governmental skills). Exactly the same claim can be made about the differences in incomes within any given society. In large part, these differences must be attributed to differences in capital ownership, of which the largest part is social capital… "When we compare the poorest with the richest nations, it is hard to conclude that social capital can produce less than about 90 percent of income in wealthy societies like those of the United States or Northwestern Europe. On moral grounds, then, we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent to return that wealth to its real owners. In the United States, even a flat tax of 70 percent would support all governmental programs (about half the total tax) and allow payment, with the remainder, of a patrimony of about $8,000 per annum per inhabitant, or $25,000 for a family of three. This would generously leave with the original recipients of the income about three times what, according to my rough guess, they had earned."
Gar Alperovitz: "It is striking to note that Van Parijs highlights the model of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which in 1999 allocated almost $1,800 per year to each state resident (roughly $7,000 to a family of four). Alaska Fund income does not depend upon taxation but upon directly capturing returns from the public ownership of capital. Experiments of this kind–and the theoretical work of writers like Kelso, on the one hand, and John Roemer on the other–suggest a need to focus less on the tax/transfer system, and more on various forms of public democratization of capital."
In a Basic Income conference I attended in Vienna in 1996, Alperovitz estimated that at least 90% of the increase in our wealth since the 200 years since Thomas Paine wrote Agrarian Justice is due to public rather than private inputs.
Ted Halstead: "Generation X [has] been put to sleep by the current tax debate. Sooner or later Xers will figure out that America could raise trillions of dollars in new public revenues by charging fair market value for the use of common assets -- the oil and coal in the ground, the trees in our national forests, the airwaves and the electromagnetic spectrum -- and the rights to pollute our air. We currently subsidize the use of these resources in a number of ways, creating a huge windfall for a small number of industries and a significant loss for all other Americans. The idea of reversing this trend by charging fair market value for the use of common assets and returning the proceeds directly to each American citizen plays to a number of Xer political views -- it is populist, equitable, libertarian, and pro-environment all at once."
We can avoid the bureaucracy of charging "fair market value" for the use of public domain assets by simply reinterpreting income tax as a royalty for the use of common assets. A "tax" rate somewhere between 33% and 39% would do for starters.
In the meantime, environmentally sensitive capitalist industries that constitute natural monopolies (eg electricity, water) should be run as profit-seeking publicly-owned enterprises (LATEs or SOEs). Restrained supply and higher prices would return a regular distribution of dividends that, for most members of the public, would more than offset the higher prices most utility consumers would have to pay. Indeed, the scheduled payment of Vector dividends this month to the people of Auckland is a useful though limited example of public property rights in action.
News Roundup
Next week we begin the archaeological study of a once proud breed of creatures, which are now but things of the past:
The Torysaurs!
Next time we profile one of the more agile of the species, the “Ryallasaur”, of the genus “maximus-campus”
Website of the Week:
Enough said.
All submissions should be to the editor, Michael Wood, at
While this newsletter is published in the name of Young Labour, the content is entirely the responsibility of the editor and the views expressed here don't constitute any official position of Young Labour. All contents copyright (c) 2000. Subscribe at
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