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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 6 – Monopoly & Essential Sectors

Editor’s Note: discussion topics include monopoly & oligopoly, how to regulate monopoly in capitalism, how to regulate monopoly in parecon, how to organise strategic & essential sectors (like health) in parecon.

[After The Oligarchy] Hello fellow democrats, futurists, and problem solvers, this is After The Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel.

Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, and author of many books, but today I’m interviewing him as co-originator with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (or Parecon).

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is the third in a series of interviews with Professor Hahnel about participatory economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. If you haven’t watched the first two interviews check them out here.

It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book so I recommend that you familiarize yourself with participatory economics to understand what we’re talking about. You can do that by visiting participatoryeconomy.org. You can also read Of the People, By the People (2012) for a concise introduction to parecon. And Professor Hahnel has a new book coming out in a few months called A Participatory Economy (2022).

Robin Hahnel, thank you for joining me again.

[Robin Hahnel] Great to be with you again.

[ATO] The next question is a bit different, it’s about monopoly and strategic sectors. For example, what about natural monopolies in parecon? These would be things like electricity, [methane] gas, water, sewage, transport, communications, health, mining, etc. These are sectors of the economy, these are production processes, where … electricity production and distribution is a classic example; it doesn’t make sense for there to be three companies with three different electrical grids, for example. And which are also of strategic, vital, importance. That society be provided with a reliable supply of electricity, where there aren’t blackouts, where it has an appropriate cost, and so forth. So, there are sectors like this which are natural monopolies, and either you end up with a situation – where you have a market system – private monopolies, or a situation where the solution is for the state to take control of these and nationalize them.

So, is there any opportunity in parecon to charge monopoly rents? And what if natural monopoly worker councils don’t treat indicative prices parametrically? Let’s deal with the first question then come back to the second. And if you could just explain what a monopoly rent is to people.

[RH] We have an answer. Every economist knows that only if you have competitive market structures could you make any case that you’re going to get efficient outcomes. As soon as you have a market structure that’s not competitive in a capitalist economy, what will happen is in the most extreme cases a monopoly, and a natural monopoly is sort of the most likely real world example to end up with, one company is the only company that’s producing this product.

As soon as you have that, there is a perverse incentive for that company to produce less than the socially optimal outcome, and therefore to drive its price up. So, two things happen. It reduces the amount that it supplies. That also means it reduces the number of units it’s going to sell, so that’s a negative effect on revenues. On the other hand, every unit it does sell is going to sell at a higher price, and that’s a positive effect on revenues. And the problem is the positive effect is larger than the negative effect leading to a predictable sub-optimal level of output.

Now there are two solutions to this in a capitalist economy. One is to nationalize the natural monopoly and not have it maximize profits but to maximize net social benefits, that is produce the amount that actually is the efficient amount. And the other solution is to regulate the monopoly and say well there’s only one of you but we’re going to set up a regulatory agency. And the regulatory agency’s job … Most people think the regulatory agency’s job is to keep them from price gouging but what economists understand is, no, the regulatory agency’s job is not really to keep them from price gouging, it’s to force them to produce more than they would otherwise be willing to produce if they weren’t regulated. And then the price will take care of itself.

That’s how it works, and one of the problems that defenders of modern market capitalist economies are faced with is in theory they know their economy is only efficient if all industries are competitive. But in reality, what has happened over time is the number of non-competitive industries, and it’s usually not a monopoly, a natural monopoly, it’s an oligopoly. But the same logic applies to oligopolies and economists all know this. So, on the one hand in the real world markets become less and less competitive, and yet defenders of market capitalist economies continue to insist that these are the most efficient economies.

We have a solution in a participatory economy. And the solution takes a very simple form, which is any worker council in our economy is supposed to take the indicative prices as givens.

[ATO] Can you just explain to people briefly what the indicative price is?

[RH] Right, so for instance if you have a natural monopoly let’s choose electricity. During the planning procedure that natural monopoly is quoted a price per watt of electricity and then responds with its output proposals.

[Editor’s Note: During annual planning, worker councils and consumer councils make production and consumption proposals for the year. These proposals are aggregated by the Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) which feeds back new ‘indicative prices’ to producers and consumers according to a rule chosen to encourage the balancing of supply and demand. This continues for a number of rounds (iterations) until a feasible plan is reached.]

Now, the thing that a monopoly does that’s inefficient is it doesn’t look at market price and take it as a given. Instead, what it does is it asks well wait a minute I’m looking at the entire demand curve. I’m not going to take the price I’m quoted as a given because I can see that if I reduced my supply I could drive that price higher. So, in effect what monopolies are doing is they are not taking prices as givens. They are recognizing that their monopoly status permits them to affect what the price is going to end up being.

These are worker councils in a participatory economy, and there just happens to be one that’s producing electricity in a given region. They don’t have stockholders that are telling them to maximize profits, instead they are certainly supposed to be obeying the rules of the system and one of the rules is when you make your proposals you respond to indicative prices as the given price. You do not calculate ‘but I could affect that price by my response in this round’. Aha, what would prevent one from doing it?

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Interviews Post-Capitalist Vision

Robin Hahnel Interview on Participatory Economics – Part 1B – Consumption, Consumerism, Advertising

Editor’s note: discussion topics include whether consumer councils in Participatory Economics (parecon) are incentivized to oversell, whether worker councils in parecon can oversell, conspicuous consumption, whether parecon would reproduce a ‘throwaway society’, whether consumer federations in parecon would compete, plan adjustments during the year, and the scope for rising living standards within ecological limits.

[After the Oligarchy] Hello everybody, this is After the Oligarchy. Today I’m speaking with Professor Robin Hahnel.

Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, co-founder with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (Parecon), and author of many books.

Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is Part B of the first in a series of interviews with Professor Robin Hahnel about participatory economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book, so I recommend you familiarize yourself with participatory economics to understand what we’re talking about.

The discussion will also continue on the forum of participatoryeconomy.org.

Okay so the next question, staying on consumption, is about excessive consumption and the possibilities of this in participatory economy. So, firstly on the side of consumer councils, since consumer federations organize consumption – for example through shopping centres and online shops – consumer federations will decide how to present and, in general, ‘market’ goods and services. Will there be any incentive to oversell? For example, to convince people to buy things they don’t need or want.

[Robin Hahnel] Okay so I warned you before that you had picked the two things that I am the least … well, are my least favourite subjects.

[AO] Well your intellectual honesty is always appreciated – that’s how we like to do things here. But just whatever comes to mind is good enough.

I’ll give you my best answer, but I’ll preface it by saying that I don’t shop right. I don’t go shopping, I hate shopping. I have always found somebody else who will do the shopping for me. The only thing I enjoy shopping for is … I cook and I go into stores and I shop for food. [But not] clothes, [nor] anything else. There was a time when I would go into bookstores but now we don’t read books anymore, they’re all online. So I am not a shopper.

And at one point, there were three female students in one of my classes and we had done a little section on participatory economics. And they came in during office hours, three of them together it was like a delegation, and they came in and they said ‘well, Professor Hahnel, there are a lot of things we really do like about what you’re proposing here. But there’s one thing we just don’t like: you don’t seem to understand the pleasures of malling it.’ And at first I didn’t even understand what the word [was], I didn’t know what they were what they meant when they said ‘mall’. And they meant going to a mall and seeing and being seen, and spending four hours, you know, after school or after work at the mall. And that they were basically telling me some of us really like that, and we just want to know whether we’re going to be able to do that in a participatory economy.

And I had to say ‘well your dream is my nightmare’. I mean the fact that I would be trapped in a mall for five hours is sort of the worst thing that could ever happen to me. And so I’m going to admit to you that anybody who enjoys the pleasure of shopping, at least this person who designed this economy did not have you in mind. Because it’s the farthest thing from my mind.

But I do just think that structurally, almost by accident, I was concerned with the perverse incentive for sellers to lie to people about how good their products are. And that’s a huge feature of capitalism. I thought well, why don’t we reverse who is in charge of explaining to people what the properties of different options are? Why don’t we put the consumer federations, why don’t we assign them that role? Rather than put producers in the situation where they’re constantly trying to convince somebody to buy something, [where] they’re over-selling the value to the consumer. Let’s get the incentives right.

So the proposal was … I mean, people do need to find out about products. Now, at this point I don’t know how they do it because now everybody’s buying online. Nobody goes to the malls anymore. But at the time we were originally writing this, we said well we can still have malls. I mean, I was trying to get my poor students, I was trying to convince them to support participatory economics, it was shameless. That’s what I was trying to tell them. You can still go to the mall, but the mall is going to be run by your consumer federation. And they’re going to have all sorts of things that are new things on display there. And maybe you can impulse buy, if you want to impulse buy. Or you can just go and see it.

I know that in Cuba they did set up … they weren’t shopping malls, but they would periodically put on sort of a big show where they would display items that were going to be new items that were going to become available. And they would put them on show, and people would visit, and that’s how they would become aware of what was going to soon become available, if they wanted to find out what was coming.

So our suggestion has been that that should be the approach. And then the question is well if it’s the consumer federations that are in charge of … first of all, the consumer federations are going to have their own research and development units that are responsible to them for doing research into new consumer products. Why don’t we want the consumers to be in charge of looking into new consumer products instead of having the producers be the ones that are doing all that research? So we essentially said let’s reverse who’s in charge of that research. Let’s reverse the whole question of who is in charge of presenting and showing people what is available, A.K.A. advertising.

My father was a miserable employee in the advertising industry, so I grew up very aware that there are two supposed purposes of advertising: one is a legitimate public service, which is making accurate information about product availabilities and capabilities available to the public; and the other is tricking them into buying things they really don’t want. So the goal here is … we do have a legitimate service that needs to be provided, and that is information. But we want to do it in a way that we don’t have a terribly perverse incentive about who’s in charge of it and what their motivations will inevitably be.