Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Zeb Baccelli
Yesterday contributor Zeb Baccelli discussed capital concentration in relation to economic inequality. Today he suggests what else is needed to bring about a distributist society.
Directly distributing capital
Countering capital concentration is only half the solution to the distributist goal of widespread capital ownership. The positive half is actually getting capital into the hands of each worker. I've already identified one way to do that - mandatory equity for all employees. The American Solidarity Party supports worker-owned cooperatives, but an employee equity mandate would give that support real teeth. Worker ownership is not just a nice idea, it's a requirement of justice.
We can also distribute capital to individuals directly by transfer payment. A substantial bit of real capital should be provided to every adult at the beginning of their career. It's nice to be born into a family business that you learn as you grow, and then help take over as an adult. But that's not a realistic opportunity for most children, and wouldn't be for those born to parents in worker-owned cooperatives either. If every citizen had, say, $50,000 seed money available for use pending approval, using something like the same process as loan approval but with no repayment needed, everyone would have an opportunity to launch into an ownership economy without usury. Even if it were used on a prudently considered home purchase, this would allow stability of place and economic freedom to resist the forces of capitalism that turn people into atomized wage slaves.
Free post-high school education and training would lift a heavy burden from the working and small-business owning classes, and it would widely distribute one of the most useful forms of capital. "Human capital" (a problematic phrase, but makes sense when talking about skills and qualifications rather than about people) is especially valuable in a distributist sense because it can never be alienated from the worker: you can't sell off your welding skills to pay for a kidney transplant. Wherever you may need to travel, that training accompanies you, and your employer must pay enough to access it.
This sort of capital distribution is especially amenable to cheap, local-scale solutions. Currently professional accreditation programs (i.e. universities) have become a sort of cartel designed to create scarcity and drive up costs, thus supporting a massive industry of accreditation suppliers, and a constrained class of accredited elites. This drives up the costs of all kinds of professional services (medicine being the most obvious). And it keeps many talented people out of the most respected and high paying vocations. The state has participated heavily in creating this state of affairs, and it could do much to reverse it. We probably all know more than one disgruntled philosophy or English MA who can't find an academic job, but who could lead a book discussion more worthwhile than any intro-level Gen-Ed class in a seven hundred student lecture hall.
The Saxifrage School in Pittsburgh was (as far as I know it is currently stalled out) an attempt to create an accredited asset-free college program. The idea was students would meet with instructors in public spaces such as libraries and coffee shops. The professors would be free-lancing, so the only expense would be paying for the professor’s time and the administrative cost of the program. The government could facilitate and fund such decentralized educational programs as they do state schools. Everyone who wants to get two years of liberal arts and/or two years of vocational training (white or blue collar) should be able to get it for free, and we could do it a lot cheaper than the current university system by using existing resources in our own communities.
Expanding the commons
In our agrarian past 'the commons' was land available to all for grazing, hunting and gathering fuel. The commons provided a resource for people who had lost all private property, enabling them to survive and get back on their feet. We should expand the concept and the content of the commons in ways suitable to our modern context. I think we can turn some expensive goods into public goods provided to all free of charge. We already do this with many of the goods businesses depend upon, like roads, fire fighting, crime prevention, trade regulation, and primary research. Let’s do more of the same for workers. What are expensive goods that don't work well as market commodities which we could add to the commons?
I've already explained why and how post secondary education should be added to the commons. Let me reinforce that bit by noting that education is often bought with little to no price-based rational analysis. No 18-year old knows if $100,000 of debt is worth it, nor are they likely to make a prudent decision at that age anyway. And frankly parents are hardly in a better position to make the evaluation, even the few who are in a position to pay. It just doesn't make sense for education to be a market based commodity. Prices become distorted by lack of information, prevalence of irrational decision, and collusion between supplier and regulators. Rather education should be in the commons, available freely to all who can make the most of it.
Health care is another socially-created good that does not work well as a market commodity. Very few people have the resources to pay for it personally when needed, and when it is needed no one is able to make a free and rational decision about what health care to get. You're basically the victim of a stick-up at that point. A personal anecdote: in the early days of starting my business I was providing for a wife and two kids on income of about $30,000 a year and simply could not afford health insurance. One day I received a visit from the appendicitis fairy and was rushed to the emergency room. I was never asked what treatment I wanted or told any prices, but to be honest, I would have said yes to anything, especially once the euphoria of the first dose of pain medication set in!
When I received $12,000 of bills from about six different providers, I was lucky enough to negotiate major reductions and assistance on all of them except the anesthesiologist. When that bill went to collections I had many entertaining conversations with debt collectors arguing about whether we should negotiate the price after the fact. Considering that when service was rendered I was on death's door, under the influence of drugs and had no recollection of being offered a choice of services or told their price, I thought we could make a deal. Those conversations ended only when I was doing well enough to just pay the bill in order to save my credit score. A more prudent person, foreseeing this possibility, would never have started my business. They would have chosen a job with Monsanto, something which offered health insurance. We can change that calculus. Free universal health care would allow many more workers to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs or just be independent homesteaders without the fear of losing employer provided health insurance. And it would allow small business owners to survive, both literally and financially, a surprise injury or illness. We should stop hedging about this as a ‘possible option to be explored’ and fully support free universal single-pay health care.
Finally and most controversially, we should support Universal Basic Income without reservation. UBI would enable employees to stand up for better pay and working conditions because they can hold out longer during a strike or period of unemployment. It would enable entrepreneurs much more freedom to strike out on their own, sustaining them during the lean start-up years that crush many new businesses. It would support homesteaders on the path to economic independence. And for the unsuccessful business owners who lose their personal capital to bad luck or poor management on the first try, UBI would give them a surer way to build up capital and try again, wiser for the experience.
Although as distributists we should want wage labor to be a minimal part of the economy, there will always be a role for it, especially as a way for new workers to enter the economy before they become long term owners in their own business. UBI would allow the wage labor market to be a truly free market. No one would be coerced into taking an exploitative job by material need, and businesses would not have to pay an arbitrary minimum wage. If, say, we had a UBI equivalent to $10/hr full time (or whatever covered the necessities of a modest but decent life), a business could offer $2/hr for an unneeded but valued greeter position. That would allow someone who has few skills a chance to participate in work life and improve their financial situation through their own effort. At the same time no one would be forced to take demeaning or grueling jobs at low pay simply because they lack the credentials for more respectable and high paying work. With a UBI we might find that a business has to pay just as much to get someone to clean the toilets as to design the website. Our current system values white-collar work at the real expense and dignity of blue-collar workers. But manual labor, be it cleaning the toilets or raising children, is what allows the website designer to work at all. The world has existed without website designers; we cannot survive as a species without waste management. UBI would make us acknowledge the real value of all jobs, as opposed to our current system which artificially inflates some while denigrating others.
In these two posts I’ve laid out some concrete policies distributists should advocate to bring about the goal of widespread capital ownership. We should counter capital concentration by mandating public and employee equity in corporations and by limiting companies’ ability to own property; we should directly distribute capital through mandated employee equity, transfer of funds for capital purchase, and free education; and we should expand the commons to include education, health care and universal basic income. Some of these ideas might seem distant and far-fetched, but it is only by boldly naming our destination and then taking the first incremental steps directly towards it that we will ever arrive.
Tara Ann Thieke