Red Plenty

book by Francis Spufford about Soviet Union's attempts at Planned Economy. ISBN:1555976042

Jo Walton review: What it’s most like is reading an extended version of one of Neal Stephenson’s more adorable infodumps, only with footnotes and a proper end. Or it’s as if a non-fiction writer got carried away when giving examples and started to make them into actual stories with characters... I find it seems more constructive to think of the book as non-fiction, because it’s a thesis that is being examined. That thesis is that a whole lot of people, some of them very intelligent, believed that they could make a command economy work. They were wrong. The book delved into why were they wrong, what went wrong, and the question of whether it could be otherwise.

Crooked Timber did a "seminar" series, which is also available as free EBook. (Though there are a couple late bits on the site which don't seem to be in the EPub.)

  • Cosma Shalizi explores: That dream did not come true, but it never even came close to being implemented; strong forces blocked that, forces which Red Plenty describes vividly. But could it even have been tried? Should it have been?
    • (summary) Planning for the whole economy would, under the most favorable possible assumptions, be intractable for the foreseeable future, and deciding on a plan runs into difficulties we have no idea how to solve. The sort of efficient planned economy dreamed of by the characters in Red Plenty is something we have no clue of how to bring about, even if we were willing to accept dictatorship to do so.

    • There is a fundamental level at which Marx’s nightmare vision is right: capitalism, the Free Market system, whatever you want to call it, is a product of humanity, but each and every one of us confronts it as an autonomous and deeply alien force. Its ends, to the limited and debatable extent that it can even be understood as having them, are simply inhuman. The ideology of the market tell us that we face not something inhuman but superhuman, tells us to embrace our inner zombie cyborg and loose ourselves in the dance. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or running screaming.

    • But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market (BigWorld, Disputation Arena). We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision7 or through other institutional arrangements8. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

    • His responses to comments. I should re-iterate that Kantorovich-style planning is entirely possible when the planners can be given good data, an unambiguous objective function, and a problem of sufficiently limited scope.

    • I should re-iterate that Kantorovich-style planning is entirely possible when the planners can be given good data, an unambiguous objective function, and a problem of sufficiently limited scope

    • Moreover, what counts as "sufficiently limited" is going to grow as computing power does. The difficulties are about scale, not principle; complexity, not computability.

    • I took it to be obvious that what I was advocating at the end was a rather old-fashioned social democracy or market socialism

    • I think it is a horrid mistake to think or act as though the level of inequality is constant, or that current institutional arrangements within capitalism are either unalterable or very good

    • I don't see, though, that it's so obvious how to make things better now. It's pretty clear, I hope, that defined-contribution, 401(k), retirement plans have been a colossal failure

    • but going back to the sort of defined-benefit pension plan which presumes long-term employment by a single stable firm is also a non-starter. (Indeed the one good thing about 401(k)'s was that they didn't tie workers to one firm.) I'm not saying there's no solution, but if there's an obvious fix I don't see it.

    • Or, again, the inequalities in public education in this country are obscene

    • does anyone seriously want to say that coming up with viable institutions to strengthen workers' bargaining power is straightforward?

    • I cheerfully accept correction that profit is not the only unambiguous objective function which could guide planners; that was sloppy writing on my part.

    • Look, I didn't make up "shadow prices"; that's standard terminology

    • Perhaps-relatedly, I fail to see how token distribution, with tokens exchanged for goods and services, is not a market

    • The most important issue raised, I think, was the claim that Cockshott has shown that central planning is computationally tractable after all. I don't agree, but unfortunately, there's going to need to be a bit more math.

    • And so to Cockshott. I have not had a chance to read Toward a New Socialism, but I have read his 1990 paper, and I'm underwhelmed. It is not about solving the planning problem. Rather, it is about solving a simple system of linear equations,

    • For Cockshott's algorithm, or any other linear-equation solver, to be of real relevance here, we need to presume that

    • What is bad is completely assuming away having to chose what to make and having to chose how to make it.

    • Parallelism is very important

    • to get any real speed-up here easily, your constraint matrix CC needs to be not just sparse, but also very specially structured, in ways which have no particular plausibility for economic problems

    • Stafford Beer and Allende's Chile I don't know enough to have an opinion about what was tried, or what its prospects might have been, in the absence of Pinochet and the CIA. The little of Beer I have read was not particularly impressive, but no real basis for judgment.

    • Innovation: This is obviously hugely important, but I didn't say anything about it because I really don't understand it well enough.

    • whether this can only be arranged by giving a slightly-random selection of inventors really huge pools of money after the fact is not at all clear.

    • Post-Scarcity: For the linear-programming objective function, vTyvTy, we need some constraints, or else the optimum is going to be "produce infinitely much of everything".

    • which means non-zero (shadow) prices for at least some things.

    • We could imagine, however, replacing this objective function with one which allows for satiation

    • I don't see anything self-contradictory in this vision. It does seem to either presume complete automation, to the point of AI, or being able to count on volunteered human labor

    • This brings me to non-market signals. I think it would be a very good thing to have many different ways of getting feedback from consumers to producers about what to make and how, beyond the market mechanism.

    • The real question is rather "what should people pay attention to?", and there non-market signals about what other people have found worthwhile can be very helpful indeed.

    • you can't eat attention, and producing content in the first place is costly

    • the capitalist solution has been intellectual property, i.e., abandoning free markets and economic efficiency; that, and/or advertising. But there are many other possibilities. We could accept amateurism, people producing these goods in the time left free from their day-jobs. We could also try patronage, perhaps distributed from many patrons, or creating jobs where some production is part of the normal duties, even though the output isn't sold (as in science).

    • To repeat a point from the original post, we already allocate some services with positive cost along non-market lines, and rightly so (e.g., the services of the public schools, the police, the fire department, ...). All the examples like this I can think of are ones where we need (and employ) very little feedback.

William Timberman: What I found myself wishing, after reading this masterpiece, is that someone would write a Red, White and Blue Plenty of equal persuasiveness covering the years 1932-2012 in the United States.

Scott Alexander review: The Soviets had originally been inspired by this fear of economics going out of control, abandoning the human beings whose lives it was supposed to improve. In capitalist countries, people existed for the sake of the economy, but under Soviet communism, the economy was going to exist only for the sake of the people. And instead, they ended up taking “people existing for the sake of the economy” to entirely new and tragic extremes, people being sent to the gulags or killed because they didn’t meet the targets for some product nobody wanted that was listed on a Five-Year Plan. Spoiling good raw materials for the sake of being able to tell Party bosses and the world “Look at us! We are doing Industry!” (theater)

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