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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 monoply 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?

[ATO] Yes, exactly.

[RH] And our answer is a worker council might try and do that, so let’s not be naive and consider it to be impossible. Oh, but it would be it would be anti-social behaviour, it wouldn’t be nice, you’re not supposed to. Let’s take the hard-nosed I-don’t-want-to-be-naive attitude toward this.

If you take the hard-nosed attitude in capitalism you either nationalize or you regulate. When you take it in our system, there is also a response to prevent the behaviour but it’s a different response. The different response is if we catch you doing that it’s against the law. The question becomes devising whatever penalties there would be for a worker council that was doing that. Essentially we have a system that has rules, and one of the rules is when you participate during the annual planning process you are directed, explicitly, to take these prices as givens when you’re doing these various responses. If it’s discovered that you’re not doing that then you’re basically not participating in the annual planning process in good faith and according to the terms of being allowed to participate.

Basically, there have to be rules for who gets to participate in the annual planning process. One is you have to be an approved worker council. And suppose one way you can get disapproved is oh when the industry checked you out when you said you wanted to be a worker council, you said you wanted to be a worker council producing steel but you have no engineers. I mean, in your group and you don’t have any qualified engineers, you have no credibility. So you can be disapproved as a worker council to take part in the annual participatory planning process because you don’t have any credibility that you could actually do what you’re making these proposals about. So we’re not going to let you mess up our planning process.

Another way you can get disapproved is – we talked about it before – that you said you were going to make the shoes people wanted and but you kept sending the yellow toed shoes even though nobody was picking them up, and you just didn’t care. So you can get disapproved as being a worker council for that kind of behaviour.

This is another kind of behaviour you can get disapproved for. If you’re caught during the planning process trying to manipulate the modifications of the indicative prices in the way that monopolies do in capitalist economies, if you’re caught doing that then that’s grounds for some sort of penalty, or fines, or reprimands, or you can simply be decertified as a worker council that we’re going to allow to participate.

[ATO] That makes sense but can I just ask to my mind the hard bit there is not deciding what the penalties are, it’s …

[RH] How do you know if a worker council is doing that?

[ATO] Yes, and can I just elaborate that on a little bit? Why do I think that that might be difficult, or why am I having trouble imagining that? It’s that …

[RH] I can answer your question. Why would you think it might be hard to identify that? It is hard to identify. It’s the same hard job that regulatory agencies have when they regulate natural monopolies. I’m not claiming that it’s not a hard job, but it’s the same kind of hard job that we have to deal with through regulation [in capitalism].

When you nationalize you don’t have stockholders who have an incentive to try and get higher dividends. When you regulate in capitalism you still have stockholders, so the regulators have an opponent that has a clear incentive. I don’t think in the participatory economy there is a clear incentive for the worker councils to engage in this kind of illegal behaviour that is of the same magnitude that there is for a natural monopoly that we have allowed to be a privately owned, a for-profit corporation. Because we have those in the united states

[ATO] Look, we’re dealing with a hypothetical perverse incentive which I think it is reasonable to say would not be on the same order of magnitude as exists under capitalism. Because you have much stronger forces driving things towards that kind of strategic behaviour, trying to hack the system basically. But I think you make a fair point about saying well look this is just the problem of regulation. And I think that that pretty much is the answer to that.

The reason I thought it would be difficult is just because essentially it’s saying that there is a rule that you cannot engage in, effectively, strategic behaviour. You need to take these prices as givens, these indicative prices as givens, and it just seems to me that it’s very difficult to ascertain what is genuine, legitimate, engagement with [the planning process]. What that proposal would be and then what is an illegitimate proposal.

[RH] I’ll admit to some propagandistic element to the response that I’ve given to this question in the past. Because one of the things that I’ve done – and I don’t think it’s totally illegitimate – one of the things that I’ve done is say hey in market systems you really have a serious problem with lack of competitive market structures. And one of the advantages of a participatory economy is we don’t have to worry about the fact that maybe we would have industries where the number of worker councils is not sufficiently large so that you would call the industry competitive.

And particularly when we when you look at the modern trend, and it basically is a modern trend in technology, where the efficient number of firms in an industry from the point of view of technology shrinks. It has been shrinking over time. So, if you’re looking ahead and you see the reality of where the technologies are leading us, well then if you have a system where there is no problem when there’s a monopoly, and there is no problem when there’s oligopoly, it doesn’t matter to us if the industry structure doesn’t have many, many, many, many, worker councils in it.

We have an answer. And I’ve portrayed that as an advantage. But in an attempt to be brutally honest with people, I believe what we have is a system where the incentive to try and manipulate a price on the part of a worker council in the participatory economy would be far less than the incentive to do so for a capitalist firm. And then I think we also then face a situation that is no different from the situation that regulators face [today] which is we would have to detect whether or not a worker council is behaving in that way. We would have to suspect it, we would have to do an investigation, we’d have to look and see. And in that case, the actual policing, you’re policing against agents who have a less powerful incentive to misbehave. And yet you still have to have policing, and the policing probably doesn’t look that different from the kind of policing that takes place [in today’s] regulation.

Because there’s an accusation, and there’s an investigation, and there’s a finding. The accusation has to be somebody thinks there’s reason to believe that a worker council that is the sole supplier of something is not taking the price signals being set out on the rounds of the annual planning procedure as indicative and givens, but is manipulating. They are participating in annual planning by sending responses that are an attempt to manipulate what that next price signal is going to be. You have to be willing to put worker councils on some sort of trial, which is what regulators do. It’s not really called … I mean, regulation isn’t usually a court case. It’s not part of our judicial system. But it effectively is its own judicial system. That’s what regulation is about.

So, I make no claim that in a practicing real world version of participatory economy that you would not … You would have to have procedures for triggering an investigation when there’s any suspicion that this is going on. Now, you don’t have to be suspicious if there are three thousand worker councils who are putting in proposals about shoes. But it would be wise to every once in a while to be suspicious about the only worker council that is supplying electricity. Whether you call that a regulation or whatever you call it is a question of semantics.

[ATO] Can I ask a follow-up question about that? And then another question about monopoly but in a different direction.

The follow-up question is about the SB/SC = 1 constraint [for an enterprise]. The break-even constraint, social responsibility constraint, the idea that a production proposal by a worker council must represent at least not being a greater cost to society than it is a benefit.

[Editor’s Note: In Parecon, an enterprise must have Revenue ≥ Cost. Otherwise, during the annual planning process, its production proposal will not be approved. In other terminology, this is equivalent to requiring that an enterprise achieve Social Benefit ≥ Social Cost, or SB/SC ≥ 1].

What is meant to happen is that if that SB/SC ratio is less than 1, the proposal will be denied. But I’m just wondering in the case of – you gave the example there – if you have 3,000 worker councils producing shoes, if one worker council’s proposal is denied, no problem, there are 2,999 to replace them. But if you have one worker council which is producing, say, bauxite, in practice how can their production proposal be denied? Because who takes their place? That just means that the bauxite production grinds to a halt for that year. So, how to approach that?

[RH] Well that’s interesting so you’re basically saying our procedure says you haven’t made an acceptable proposal yet …

[ATO] Yes.

[RH] And the workers at the bauxite mine, their response is … It’s ‘make my day’, I’m thinking of the Clint Eastwood movie. But that’s not really the right one, it’s not ‘make my day’ … ‘Yeah, so what? Yeah, so whatcha gonna do?’ Well, we’re not going to be able to let those workers be the sole producer. They’re not going to be the ones making bauxite anymore.

This is always a delicate question that socialists never liked asking about their economy, which is ‘well, but is it going to be okay for workers to go on strike in your economy?’ The answer in theory is there never would be a reason for workers to go on strike, because as long as workers are doing reasonable things and they’re being rewarded reasonably, then there would never be any reason for them to go on strike. And somebody who’s a very real world oriented person would say ‘yeah, but what if they do anyway? And do your police beat them over the head or what?’.

[ATO] Yes, that’s a good question.

[RH] So, I think in effect you’re asking me a question where you’ve got some workers at a bauxite mine and they know they’re doing something that’s socially irresponsible, and now we’re into policing and punishing in the real world. I think those are important issues and it’s important to handle them well, but I get to excuse myself as but I’m just the economist. I’m not in charge of a humane system of criminal justice.

[ATO] Well let me refocus the question because I’m not really talking about that. I’m not talking about what the punishment is. The solution there is – in the abstract, nothing about the practicalities – according to the rules of parecon, proposals where the SB/SC ratio is less than 1 are considered socially irresponsible. There’s an appeals process, but assuming that the appeals process doesn’t grant the appeal, that it’s actually a bad proposal, it’s an ineffective use of resources; the solution there is if you have this worker council, they’re totally intransigent and they’re not willing to change anything, well that worker council needs to go and needs to be replaced by somebody else who is given the legal right to use those resources.

[RH] Right. And you posed an example that’s particularly difficult. The answer when there are other worker councils in the industry is well we know these other worker councils can manage to use these resources in a way that is socially efficient. And so the fact that you can’t, we have somebody else who can.

Remember, in a participatory economy nobody owns the bauxite deposit. That’s something that worker councils that are going to propose to be mining operations, they are bidding for the right to use [those resources].

So, basically we are saying well you can’t make good use of it but we already know there’s some others who can. Now, you made a particularly difficult example because in your example there is no other worker council that can readily step in and use this resource better than you apparently can. Because our other response is also to say well why wouldn’t you have a trial period where you got a bunch of worker councils, they’re doing the same kind of thing and this one just can’t get a proposal in that seems to be socially responsible. There has to be some reason for that. So, you can let them operate for a period of time, and you can send people from the other worker councils in the industry that seem to know how to do this better over to work and find out what’s going wrong there. And you can send some of them over to the exemplary [enterprises] that are having no problem.

But you’ve created a situation in which none of those things can happen because there’s only one, which is why it becomes a police issue immediately. It’s why the logic leads to a police response.

[ATO] Well, let’s try to avoid that for for the moment. You raised a good point there which is … The issue is the show must go on. Whether it’s bauxite or whatever it is, this must continue to be produced. If we’re wanting to produce it … it could be, well hopefully not natural gas, or fossil gas, people talk about ‘natural gas’, it’s the branding it makes it sound warm and bucolic. But anyway, the show must go on. It’s unrealistic to expect that we can bundle together a worker council, and swap these guys out and swap these guys in, in the month, few weeks, or whatever, of the annual planning procedure.

Now, what you could say is maybe it’s the case that …

[RH] I have an answer. Suppose their proposal is one where their social benefit to social cost ratio (SB/SC) is only 0.8. And we can’t replace them with another worker council during the month of December. One answer is that your average income is only 0.8 compared to worker councils in every industry that have an SB/SC ratio of 1. I mean, that’s one of the advantages of essentially connecting those SB/SC ratios to the average income of a worker council. So they would continue to produce and they would be punished through lower average consumption for their members for the fact that we couldn’t replace them.

[ATO] Can I make a recommendation in addition to that though?

I think that is good but what I was going to say was: it’s decided in the planning procedure there isn’t an alternative, it’s not practical, we cannot substitute a more efficient worker council for this inefficient worker council in this small time period. So what we do is we say look you will continue to produce for the next year. However, at that point you will be replaced. We’re going to make preparations to replace you next year, and your income will be lower.

In that case it gives them an opportunity to get their act together, it enforces the constraint. Because we need to avoid that slippery slope of ‘now we can get away with production proposals in the red and just take lower income’. That might be something that could work and then if they don’t get their act together, well you’ve had a whole year to find a replacement if necessary.

[RH] I’m very happy with this solution. I think we now have a solution to the problem of what about a bunch of workers who are very, very, stubborn. I mean they might feel that they had legitimate grievances over long periods of time, and therefore they have got what we might call attitude problems. And I think we have a solution that didn’t require a billy club.

[ATO] Well that’s always good. I mean, we’ve had plenty of that in human history, so if there’s one problem that doesn’t involve smashing in somebody’s skull with a truncheon. I can tell you that those truncheons hurt a lot.

[RH] You know, as soon as I said ‘billy club’ I thought that there are so many words that you never think about. And then clearly there must be some historical reason that these things in some people’s culture got called billy clubs. And you know what’s wonderful about the internet? You can google it and find out why was that called a billy club? And I’m sure there was some strike someplace where the word billy came out of.

But yes, it’s a problem that will probably arise from time to time and leftists have to learn how to cope with being able to think in very utopian ways about better futures and at the same time not lapse into pretending that in real world practice problems won’t arise that are going to require responses. Leftists haven’t been very good at that historically. That’s one of our failings. One of our failings is on those grounds.

[ATO] Absolutely. It’s equally important to be visionary and pragmatic. There’s an unfortunate tendency, and it’s understandable, for us to polarize into either being almost totally visionary or almost totally pragmatic. And, really, being purely visionary isn’t that visionary and being purely pragmatic isn’t that pragmatic. So we either say here are my ideals and so help me I will not compromise on them for any reason, even if that means that they’ll never actually be implemented. And on the other hand we say we say look this is the real world, and in the real world you’ve just got to leave your principles at the door in order to create a principled society, and just be as brutal in implementing that as possible.

It is very difficult but we need to do that and we’re running out of time as a civilization. So we really better start doing it.

So, the last question about monopoly is: aren’t there some goods or services, or sectors, that are so important that they demand additional oversight and control by society as a whole? Healthcare is an example. And that is a case where the need to provide an excellent service preponderates over worker council autonomy, or at least it is very important. Energy is another example because of climate change. And the usual socialist solution is nationalization. So is this the parecon solution? And what, if any, differences are there?

[RH] Let’s do schools, and clinics, and hospitals, rather than an electric utility monopoly. Think of all the constituencies involved with schools. You have the teachers, you also have the actual students, who might be kindergarteners and who have parents.

When we’re making shoes, there are the workers in the shoe factory, and then the other people involved are the people who want shoes and wear shoes and the consumers who buy the shoes. Now, the consumers who buy the shoes, they want quality and they want variety. So it’s not like they don’t have an interest in what’s being produced. But their interest is rather easy to identify. And we can figure out how to get that interest represented in a more or less straightforward way; whereas the workers’ interest is in they don’t really much care whether they make yellow shoes or red-toed shoes, but they do care about how they make it and the work process.

But it’s a more complicated situation when you think of schools. And the consumer in this case, the students, and perhaps their parents depending on age, they should be more involved in the actual decisions about the workplace. Not that the teachers shouldn’t be involved, but it’s a more complicated situation.

And I would argue that health care is somewhat similar. Now, one way to think about this is that the consumer’s interests just dig deeper into the production process, and you have to figure out how to accommodate that differently. So, the procedures we use for deciding how to make shoes are probably going to be somewhat different than the decisions we make about how to run our schools and how to manage our schools, and how to manage our healthcare industry.

There’s no need to get into the sorry state of the healthcare industry in the United States, which is an abomination. And we don’t even have to get into the difference between the Canadian healthcare system, which is a thousand times better, and the UK healthcare industry which goes back to right after World War II.

[ATO] I think it was 1948, yes.

[RH] Okay, 1948. I mean, the Canadians don’t have a National Health Service the way that the UK does, and there are lots of people who study the pros and cons of those different models.

What you’re asking is, well, what would it look like in a participatory economy? My sense is that you still have worker councils. That’s the sensible way to enfranchise the teachers, the doctors, the nurses, etc.

Now, in the case of both of those you don’t have paying customers. So the students aren’t paying, and the patients aren’t paying. Paying in the sense that they’re not [paying at the point of consumption] …

I was in Cuba and during a visit my wife had to have an appendectomy. And at the end of it I told him ‘look, I’ve got I’ve got health insurance back in the United States. So give me a bill and I will take it back with me, and I’ll find out how much my health insurance pays for this. And I’ll send you the money. There’s no reason that your Cuban medical service should provide this to my wife without compensation.’ And they said ‘oh fine’. And then we’re leaving the hospital and all of a sudden, we were out the door and I realized they hadn’t handed me a bill. So I walked back in and said ‘hey, remember you’re going to give me the bill and I’m not going to actually pay it right now? But when I get home I’ll file this through my insurance and we’ll see what they [say].’ And they acted very embarrassed and said ‘well we understood, and when we told you that we thought we could do it. But we have no way of doing it. We have no charges for any of these things, so we didn’t know how to draw up the bill.’ At which point I just thought ‘god this is wonderful, exactly how it should work’. So I am imagining something that’s like that. The students aren’t paying.

But that’s not an answer to the question well where is the demand going to come from for education and for healthcare services? And the answer is for the healthcare services, it has to come from consumer federations. It’s basically being paid for as a public good through our consumer federations. And for education, it has to come from … Well, it’s public education. Where do public schools get their money? They get it from tax dollars as part of the quote-unquote, in our case, local political system. France has a national educational system so it’s not a question of local government funding local education, it’s national, whether it’s elementary or whatever. All those options are available. But, in any case, whether it’s local government, state government, or national government, it’s government. And that’s what’s determining the total demand for educational services.

My answer is I still think we have worker councils. How those in the worker councils in these two areas relate to their ‘customers’, those they serve, is more complicated. And that extra complication needs to be reflected in a greater level of participation about the particulars. I mean, we want parents going into elementary schools and participating in PTAs [Parent-Teacher Associations] about how the school is running, and whether it’s running well, and is running in the way that they feel their kids [need]. But the people who wear the shoes made in my worker council, we don’t need them coming into the shoe factory. And I don’t even want them coming to my worker council meetings. So, there’s the difference. That you actually want consumers present during the meetings that are talking about what’s being produced and how it’s being produced in these settings, whereas that’s not necessary for so much of the economy.

[ATO] Yes exactly. I was going to say, we were talking before in our last interview about worker self-management, and you were talking about the notion proposed by some people about having external board members in an enterprise. So you have the workers – the worker council – and then there are seats on the board of that enterprise of people who don’t work there.

[RH] And I’m opposed to that in general, but here’s the situation where obviously it has to be.

[ATO] Yes. In the case of, say, health, this is a life-or-death matter. It’s extremely important, really one of the most structuring factors in people’s lives is their health. So, this is a case, as opposed to, say, shoes. I mean, we all want to get the shoes that we want, but it’s just not as high a priority as health, for example. Same thing with education, schooling.

[RH] I think the general principle that we’re always shooting for is decision-making input in proportion to the degree that you’re affected. I think that’s the right goal to shoot for. But we’re picking cases in real economies where applying that principle comes to rather different conclusions about who is involved and precisely how they’re involved.

I would say the same thing about patient care, that one of the problems is that patients are too disenfranchised in a lot of medical systems. Even in terms of how many times a day is somebody checking on me when I’m lying in the bed, or whether or not I’m allowed to go down to the cafeteria, and things like that. I think one of the places where most current medical care systems fail us, from the perspective of the people having decision-making input in proportion to the degree they’re affected, is precisely that patients in healthcare systems are too disenfranchised and too uninvolved in the decision-making process. And one would hope to seek ways to correct that.

[ATO] I think that is a formulation which makes sense. It’s nice to summarize that in a general principle, and I think it clarifies things.

Now, to keep going and maybe do one question about competition. But I don’t want to …

[RH] I remember the question about competition now and I liked it. By the way, I was thinking about my answer to the competition question. My facetious answer was going to be well doesn’t it always just come down to what words you use to describe it? On the one hand, you can call it socialist emulation, and then, on the other hand, you can call it competition. But I do think there’s a very real issue. Because, ultimately, it’s a question of in one’s own mind what does one think one is doing? Do I think I’m competing with you? Or do I think that I am basically engaging in behaviour so that you and I can figure out how we best want to cooperate?

I don’t want to pretend things are what they’re not by putting prettier words on them. On the other hand, this is a case where I really do believe that we’re going to start doing things in a certain kind of way, and in capitalism we do things in a way where people are very aware that what they’re doing is competing against one another. They’re not competing with one another they’re competing against other. And yet, the goal in my mind is always no we don’t want to set things up so that that’s people’s perception of what they’re doing. The world doesn’t have to be that nasty, it doesn’t have to be that oppositional, confrontational, antagonistic.

[ATO] I think that’s part of it, though, if you don’t mind me coming in. Look, I think this is a very important topic and we can schedule a discussion and start with this. But what I’d say to that is that you make a very interesting point, I think that’s a very good point. But I’d say that there’s also the matter – and I think this is perhaps more important – that there are objective patterns, relationships, behaviours, which we could group together and we could call that competition. We could call it whatever we wanted, but we could call that competition and we could call something else cooperation. And that there are objective characteristics here that might be of interest to us, that we might think are beneficial. For example, to make it concrete, we might say we want cooperation if enterprises have knowledge about a production process; that it would make sense, in the ideal case, if this was shared.

[RH] They would share it immediately.

[ATO] Yes. And that this would make society more efficient and therefore raise the standard of living. The point for me is that I think they’re related. Even if people feel like they’re competing, that act of cooperation, objectively you might say, it’s still happening. Now, I think the two go hand-in-hand. So. I think that there are other elements.

[RH] That’s probably a good subject for to beat around for 20 minutes or half an hour at least, so let’s do another session.

[ATO] Okay, that’s good.

[RH] The other thing is, besides Saint Patrick’s Day, we’re in the middle of March Madness and I think I’m winning my betting pool. I have to go check on all the basketball scores.

[ATO] Well, just in terms of sport, Ireland beat England in rugby last week in Twickenham in England, so that’s really …

[RH] All the Irish are very happy at the moment.

[ATO] Yeah, that’s the match of the year.

[RH] But can you beat the South Africans and the Kiwis in rugby?

[ATO] Well, sometimes. But, you know, as long as you beat the English, that’s fine in my book.

[RH] Oh, I understand, yes. My approach to sports is also like that. In American football we always play my arch-enemy twice in a 16-game season. So there are 16 games and we play the arch-enemy twice and, in my mind, if we win two and lose 14 it’s been a totally successful season. It was the right two.

[ATO] Yeah no exactly, those are the ones that count.

[RH] I am very vengeful in my sports attitudes. I do have to admit to that.

[ATO] Well that’s what it’s about. And particularly if you’re a leftist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and everything, that’s your opportunity to just be as kind of bigoted and primitive as you want, and just it’s all just about destroying the enemy.

[RH] Well, I mean, there was no greater empire by a smaller little country than the English empire at one point, in fairly recent history. And so as an absolutely committed anti-imperialist, with enough Irish ancestry so that I can throw that in the boot, I am always willing to kick the English. Always willing to kick the English.

[ATO] That’s gas.

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