Review of Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty — The Resilience Imperative

Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty. The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy (New Society Publishers, 2012) 400pp.

This book starts with a macroscopic analysis of where the existing corporate capitalist economy goes wrong — the pathological effects of debt-based currency, a GDP that counts waste as “growth,” etc. — and proceeds to outline a detailed blueprint for a resilient alternative. This latter blueprint, in a series of detailed chapters, examines the authors’ proposals for a sustainable successor society.

Most of the proposals are things readers in the green, decentralist and alternative economics communities are probably familiar with: basic guaranteed incomes, barter currencies, taxation of land value and extraction, community land trusts, employee ownership and self-management as the standard business model, etc. Each of them, by itself, involves the kind of fundamental structural change you could spend days imagining the effects of. Taken together, their cumulative effect is the a model of society that makes a “petty bourgeois socialist” like me salivate, and would make P.J. Proudhon and Henry George jump up out of their graves and shout “Hallelujah.”

In the course of each chapter, the authors examine the pathological effects of a particular structural privilege or monopoly — and in particular, it’s contribution to the cost of living. At the end of the chapter, they present the savings from the average family’s expenditures that would result from their proposed reform, along with a running total of the cumulative savings from previous proposals in the book. By the end of the book, that amounts to a huge portion of average household expenditures.

I have a few quibbles; I’m an anarchist, after all. Although the guaranteed basic income coupled with Pigouvian taxation would be a vast improvement on the present system, my preference is for

1) letting the full deflationary effect of technological progress and the abolition of monopoly run their course (with a much bigger likely reduction in GDP and prices than even Lewis and Conaty envision);

2) distribute the hours of necessary labor as widely as possible through a drastically reduced work week; and

3) support the elderly and incapacitated, and those whose productive activity is difficult to monetize, through cost- and risk-pooling mechanisms like communal primary social units (cohousing projects, extended family compounds, urban communes, intentional communities, squatter communities, and the like).

Second — a quite minor quibble — I’m skeptical about the authors’ claim that an end to the subsidized corporate food system would significantly raise household food costs. For one thing, I think a lot of food production would be shifted out of the cash nexus altogether, and into the informal and household economy. And even if it takes more labor to grow a tomato in a raised bed than on a mechanized plantation, I still think the total labor involved in growing it via soil-intensive cultivation at the actual site of consumption is probably less than that required to earn the money to pay the price of agribusiness produce (including all the embedded costs of long-distance distribution, high-pressure marketing, batch and queue processing, etc.). Ralph Borsodi’s analysis of the economics of home production is still valid, eighty years later.

Third — much more important in my opinion — is their treatment of the idea of “free markets.” For example, here’s their take on the neoliberal policies of recent decades: “When government got out of the way and the free market was unleashed, once again the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”

No. Neoliberalism involved simply weakening some secondary restrictions on the state’s primary grants of privilege to big business and the plutocracy.  These primary grants of privilege — the most fundamental structural feature of our economy — were left in place and strengthened. Without all the government-enforced or -provided subsidies, regulatory cartels, artificial property rights and artificial scarcities that now exist — subsidies to extractive industries, the state-enforced banking monopoly, absentee titles to vacant and unimproved land, and “intellectual property” [sic] among them — Fortune 500 corporations and the entire billionaire class would melt like garden slugs with salt on their backs.

One thing I especially appreciate is they grok the concept of resilience in its essence, not just some accidental features of it. Their seven principles of resilience on pp. 19-20 include things like redundancy, modularity, and tight feedback loops that should be familiar to readers of John Robb or John Boyd.

If you’re the kind of person who’s review in the first place, it’s a safe bet this is the kind of book you’d enjoy. I know I did.

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