Taking ‘gifting’ outside the liberal market paradigm

Eric Harris-Braun added an interesting comment to Gregory Rader’s previous article on asymmetric gift accounting, which is worth upgrading to article status in its own right. Here it is:

“What I would like to add to this is that the language of “gift-based markets” keeps us in the old paradigm. “Gift” is a term created by that paradigm which hides a whole range of possibilities. This is because it carries very specific meanings of a certain kind of asymmetry, namely that the giver (for various reasons, usually altruistic) is not supposed to expect anything in return. In the current paradigm we are so focused on value-for-value exchange transactions that define marketplace exchanges, that the only other option appears to be some kind of gifting to account for when the value isn’t equal.

But we are actually quite familiar with many asymmetrical value building transactions that aren’t gifts: grades, credits, degrees, certifications, licenses, buy-10-get-1-free-cards, etc.. What we haven’t seen is that they are actually part of a unifiable pantheon of wealth-building information systems, in which monetary currencies and gifting are but two very small portions of the spectrum of what’s possible.

Two things have helped me open up to the realms of possibility: 1) thinking about the form of measurement used in transactions, and 2) how these forms relate to the systemic realities of the level of wealth the transaction is there to help build.

Some examples:

Money: Monetary transactions are measured by rational numbers. Rational numbers are appropriate for parts and products of systems, i.e. the stuff that is divisible in a way that doesn’t damage the integrity of the system. These are the aspects that are appropriately commodifiable (i.e. gallons of milk, hours of ditch digging, etc), and thus make sense to think of as tradable wealth.

Facebook “likes.” These are nominal measurements. Here, you “measure” your relationship with some web-page/photo,etc by naming it something that you “like.”
Zagat star ratings. These are ordinal measurements. Here you measure your relationship with a restaurant by ranking it against other restaurants.

These kind two types of measurement make sense in the context of whole-system to whole-system relations. Your liking of website, or of a restaurant is not divisible (i.e. representable with rationals). We can think of these forms of wealth as acknowledgeable and rankable, but not tradable.

In traditional economics the value of these subjective relationships are often called “intangibles.” But the truth is that they are anything but intangible as we have direct sensory experience of them. They are only intangible to economics, because economics measures everything with money, i.e. rationals.

Notice also that neither “likes” nor star ratings are “gifts” in any traditional sense. But both are huge wealth builders as Greg aptly points out.

One of the core aims of the MetaCurrency Project is to include in its “meta-ness” the capacity to define currencies that use all these (and other) forms of measurement. This will expand the expressive capacity of our transactions to address and simultaneously build all the levels of wealth in systemically appropriate ways. We are trying to break the stranglehold that the word “exchange” has on us, so that we can start to think in terms of full system wealth.”

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