Archives: Wealth Creation

I find the concept of Juristic Personhood to be really interesting.

That’s the practice of assigning some or all of the legal standing of a human being to a non-human system, like a corporation, in order to, as I understand it, simplify questions of ownership around the materials used by that corporation in its business, as well as to protect the actual humans who form that corporation from individual liability in the event of the corporation’s failure.

Juristic Personhood has been a tremendous benefit to economic development. I like to think of it as a way of constructing artificial super-beings which we can dress ourselves in to engage in economic tournaments with each other. Giant, semi-autonomous mecha power-suits built of laws and strategic plans. But enough of my fevered imagination.

I’m not going to go into the old slander of a corporation, considered as a person, exhibiting the symptoms of clinical sociopathy. Clearly the fictional beings we’re calling Juristic persons aren’t fully valent human personalities. They’re creatures with something like a quarter or an eighth of a brain… just the deep, autonomic and reptilian bits. You wouldn’t call a reptile a sociopath, it’s just a reptile. That’s the level our current, very useful, Juristic Persons exist on.

Kaa - South American Boa Constrictor
This picture of a boa constrictor linked to from Mozambique – Moments’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. As we talked about yesterday, if consciousness can be expressed as a set of rules, and a Juristic Person is essentially composed of rules, should the rules become comprehensive enough, and independently operating, we might be able to build up our Juristic Creatures to more full personalities, with real social imperatives. We could give them the corporate equivalents of the pre-frontal lobes, instead of limiting them to reptilian nervous systems.

The difference between this Juristic Person (JP) and the standard concept of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) is that the JP comes already plugged into a Darwinian environment – the economy. It has a food: capital. It has a metabolism: production/service provision. It has a means of storing excess energy: wealth. It can thrive or perish in this environment, which is rich in variety and opportunity and hazard. It’s more than a metaphor, it’s a real environment that has been winnowing the existing reptilian species of JPs for centuries now. It’s still an economic age of dinosaurs, a Juristic Park. If there is a revolution in wealth creation coming, I think it will involve our JPs evolving into something more mammalian.

Here’s where thinking out loud is going to carry me into absurd extremes, but it looks fun over there, so let’s go!

Given enough elaboration, and enough automation, I think we’ll be able to build corporations that require few, if any, human beings in the system. I believe we’ll eventually figure out ways for the various kinds of corporate guidance (the jobs of executives) to be derived using analysis of historical cases, existing market conditions and built in corporate goals, that will provide steadier, more beneficial leadership than the hodge-podge of people currently involved. A corporation is essentially a machine that produces wealth, and I think that eventually we’ll be able to program these machines to run better on their own than they can with a human’s hands on the wheel.

Eventually, if you can suppose an autonomous JP that achieves the semblance of consciousness, given the already extant legal definition of a corporation, might not a fully automated, conscious appearing wealth generating system with legal “personhood” be able to stand beside a natural human being in the world’s esteem?

This thing would exhibit signs of intent and comprehension, it would be making a positive contribution to the wealth of the society around it, and it already has a framework in which it’s legal rights can be equated with personhood.

This is a true form of Revolutionary Wealth.

I didn’t think it up, though. Alot of the above is elaboration on ideas presented by Charles Stross in Accelerando as a concept called Economics 2.0. As he imagined it, it wasn’t the best thing for anyone who couldn’t keep up.

But more on that later.

Another of the more actually revolutionary wealth creation ideas in Charles Stross’ Accelerando is the early career of the character Manfred Macx:

Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with wacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty,after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything.

Charles StrossAccelerando

The idea here I think is that by doing the most possible to increase the wealth of your environment, you yourself are lifted up with the general increase. In a way, you can’t get poorer than the world around you.

Of course, this wouldn’t necessarily work in the very specific sense as it appears in this novel without a great deal of other technologies and circumstances. Manfred is able to copyright ideas on the fly in pretty much real time, and has a crazy network of associates he can funnel them through, and lives in a world where corporate entities can be created that are only various layers of software programs managing accounting, licensing and distribution tasks for intellectual properties that they “own”, with no actual human in the loop… even granted all these things, Manfred’s strategy depends heavily on both his unique (on the verge of supernatural) ability to coin profitable notions, and upon the reciprocal kindness of the targets of his charity.

However, I think there really is something in this idea. If the ambient wealth of a system is high enough, there develops a floor below which it is very hard to descend. To a large degree poverty in the United States is wealth almost anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to put a price on things like general lawfulness, peace, toleration and spontaneous creativity.

I had a friend from Kenya who once told me that it was kind of amazing to her that she could drive, a single woman alone, the entire distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco without having to worry in the slightest about bandits blocking the road.

It sounds almost absurd to an American ear, I think. Highway bandits? Really? Yes, really, in more of the world than you might think. But here, it’s not a problem at all. You are pretty much assured peaceful transit between any to points within the whole continental US. That’s a kind of ambient wealth. It directly improves the quality of everyone’s life.

To shift this notion into the ecological sphere, think of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

You might rephrase that economically by saying “A thing is profitable when it tends to enhance the wealth of the whole economic community. It is unprofitable when it tends otherwise.”

It’s kind of an expansion of the frame in which profit is understood. You have to try to factor in an economic action’s effect on the whole econosphere, not just the local measure. I don’t mean this in a levelling sense. I don’t think this means wealth must be artificially re-distributed. I think it’s provably true that a system that allows certain large concentrations of wealth is healthier, and raises the common wealth higher, than one in which some notion of equitable distribution grinds the whole system into a dull poverty. But I do think you need more and more to look at, and attempt to calibrate the economic value of, a much wider frame of reference.

The common anti-Wal-Mart argument illustrates this idea. I don’t personally have an opinion if this argument is valid in this specific case, but it does seem likely in principal. A company, in an effort to maximize profits, undercuts all its competitors prices. To do this, it must underpay all its workers. People generally initially benefit from the lower cost of merchandise until the undercutting puts competitors out of business, and most of the local workforce has to accept lower wages, either from the victorious merchant or from competitors who have to roll back wages to stay in the game. Eventually, peoples’ incomes are choked to the point that the cheaper prices are no longer a luxury for them but a necessity, and they can afford even less of the reduced goods than they could at the start. This isn’t good, ultimately, even for the company, as it is smothering its own customer base.

So it seems, at least to me, that there really is something economically defensible in the idea of making others wealthier to make yourself wealthier. Kind of an economic golden rule.

A revolution in capitalism (and I must stress I am a HUGE FAN of capitalism) might be a kind of Comedy of the Commons, where the system, in accounting for wider econospherical effects, might tend to value higher those concerns that contribute most to the common wealth, lifting all boats.

Sure, it’s Utopian – but striving for the Utopian is how the quotidian is improved.

I’m still a bit underwhelmed by the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth. There may be better insight to come in it, but right now it seems to be lagging conceptually when compared to a couple of science fiction novels I’ve been reading.

One of the new-wealth concepts that the Tofflers’ mention is the idea of “prosuming”, by which they mean non-monetarily re-imbursed volunteer or amateur activity that either has an effect on the monetized economy or enhances the overall social wealth. An example of this might be online communities like youtube or flickr, or the extravagantly helpful digital art instructional forums of CGTalk. Very few of the content providers to these websites see any financial reimbursement for their time or personal expense in creativity. They do, however, enhance the general wealth by creating a vast, deep resource of images and advice for anyone interested in looking, and they have generated a tremendous amount of wealth for the individuals who invested in the structural creation of these forums.

Benjamin Franklin; Founding Prosumer

We can see this happening now. It’s not new however. You can look to any good biography of Ben Franklin to find out about some two century old examples of the same phenomenon:

…he formed a number of his colleagues into the Junto, “a Club for mutual Improvement.”

From this group, motivated by the wish to do good and an inclination for making profit, there was to grow a variety of public institutions…

…Franklin then proposed something more ambitious: a subscription library which could be joined by anyone prepared to pay an entrance fee and an annual subscription…

The next public innovation which he sponsored concerned the City Watch, which, he wrote, “I conceiv’d to want Regulation.” … (Franklin) proposed a regular force of watchmen who would be paid by householders, the payment being proportional to their property.

In 1736 he proposed the formation of a thirty-man (fire) brigade whose members would meet once a month “& spend a social Evening together, in discoursing and communicating such Ideas as occur’d to us upon the Subject of Fires as might be useful in our Conduct on such Occasions.”

Much the same practice of first sounding out informed opinion through the Junto and The Pennsylvania Gazette was followed when he proposed improving the paving, lighting, and cleaning of streets, the foundation of a city hospital and of the College which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. More important, however, was the American Philosophical Society, and inter-colonial Junto… “…formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men, residing in the several Colonies… who are to maintain a constant Correspondence…” The members were to meet at least once a month and discuss the correspondence received. Their subjects, it appears from Franklin’s letter, covered almost the entire field of human knowledge, ranging from botany to geology, art and industry… Franklin himself offered to serve as secretary until someone else could be found.

– Ronald W. Clark – Benjamin Franklin: A Biography

Ben Franklin’s mad fit of colonial prosuming spawned police departments, fire departments, libraries, universities, hospitals, and learned societies. All of these things were begun as amateur volunteer efforts, but became the foundations of professional institutions as the colonies matured into a nation.

Part of the reason this could happen is, these things didn’t exist yet in colonial America. There was not sufficient centralized authority to impose solutions to these difficulties, so Franklin and his associates devised solutions on the fly.

Colonizing the Internet

The dramatically easier exchange of information made possible by the internet is kicking off another era of amateur volunteerism, as it provides a sophisticated and largely unregulated forum in which individuals can make the world over new. It fosters societies of like minded people to pursue objectives that might have been impossible a few years ago due to the improbability of them actual meeting and forming societies. It allows detailed, specific information on how to do things to be democratically distributed. It has much potential that has still not been tapped, with plenty of room for building new institutions from the ground up.

Again, I guess, it seems like this aspect of wealth creation isn’t really a new revolution… it really seems analogous to the amateur volunteerism required by undeveloped frontiers of the past.

I went on about Ben Franklin a bit more than I at first intended, so I’ll save the more innovative examples of new-era wealth creation from science fiction novels in the next post.