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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Toward a new theory of value

Stephen Hawking, world-renown physicist and truly funny Big Bang Theory guest star, said the following yesterday: "If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution."

The observation isn't new; it only made the press because Hawking said it. Indeed, my short story in Antipodean SF (see short stories page on my blog for the link) deals with just this post-employment future. Sure, my take on this dystopia revolved around the need for work in order to feel truly human (the humans were committing suicide because of lack of work--Gee, I can manage to be dark even in a truly silly humor piece), and I have still another take on the post-employment era currently making the rounds and being considered at science fiction magazines, but I too was treading on well trod ground.

Nonetheless, I feel we need to re-examine what we mean by something having value. Classically, there are two options: the labor theory of value and the price theory. In Marxian thought, the value of an object is that of the labor put into making it. Starhawke, the Wiccan priestess, in her science fiction novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, amends this conception in a useful way: value is the combination of the labor put into it, the earth's natural resources used to make it, and the ancient value of previous people's labor that went into it. When a capitalist buys or sells an object, the margin is the "surplus value." In this theory, capitalists exploit labor by living off the surplus value of the objects labor creates.

The price theory of value says something is worth the price it will bear on a free market, given full information and an educated consumer. (There are many subtle variants that I will not go into. Into which, I will not go. Whatever. Former students take note: a preposition is a word you never end a sentence with.) This theory has dominated discourse over the last few decades.

To me, both are equally stupid in their extremes. I own a house. (Actually, the bank owns a house. What was that 1960s line about not needing the cops to control the middle class because they were already controlled by home mortgages?) Let's say that house was in Flint, Michigan, and nobody wanted to buy it, given the corrupt government-elicited lead contamination of the drinking water and the general lack of employment in a rust belt city hit hard by the post-Reagan looter ethos of American economics. Does that mean it has zero value? Maybe I couldn't even give it away, but it is still a home that I would be living in.

On the other hand, much labor went into the flip-phone I abandoned a couple years ago when buying a smart phone was actually cheaper than continuing service on my 2-G network, but I can't say I saw any value in keeping it. They wouldn't even take it for recycling where I lived. So it had a negative value. So much for the Marxian view.

The post-scarcity economy, on the other hand, will probably need a completely different metric for value, unless of course, as Hawking predicts, capitalism will continue its trajectory toward corrupt, cronyist plutocracy. But just for the sake of argument, let's say a brighter future is possible. What would determine value?

This issue has come to a head in arguments made by opponents of some of the ideas of US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It is argued that health care and college education should not be free, because if it is free, nobody will value it. The meme going around the Internet shows teenagers worthy of a walk-on role in a sequel to Idiocracy and questions whether it is worth giving a college education to those who obviously didn't value their free public education. With health care, the argument is that patients would see doctors needlessly if there were no cost to it, adding to the societal cost of a Medicare for all program.

I pity those making these arguments. To them, everything must have a dollar-delimited value. Have they never thought deeply, developing an idea, without being paid for that idea? Have they never enjoyed the serenity of a walk in the trees in a (free-admission) park? Have they never watched a brightly colored bird in flight? (Presumably, the bird didn't charge)

Do they value their children in dollars? For how much would they sell one?

As college goes, the monetization of education in the US has been damaging. Students opting for majors directly linked to high compensation professions (e.g., finance) tend not to question fundamental issues in society the way liberal arts graduates do. Our world is heading for ecological and economic collapse--we need free thinkers doing the questioning.

Yet, I think Hawking is fundamentally off in his thinking. There is a tremendous need for labor. Even looking solely at the US, we need a lot more family/child counselors, a lot more people involved in environmental conservation, a lot more educators, a lot more health professionals willing to provide needed care without the currently obscene rates of compensation. Once these immediate needs are met, perhaps a lot more artists, writers, performers, thinkers could be funded.

But what our society needs in terms of labor is either not well compensated or not compensated at all. The wealthy are either those who can steal (or engage in the moral equivalent of theft), the descendents of those who stole, the sycophants and servants of those who steal or have stolen, or the beneficiaries of institutional/societal theft. They tend to have no intention of voluntarily abandoning their control over society's wealth, capital and resources.

Hawking is correct that only through redistribution of wealth can we avoid a cruel, evil dystopic future. And maybe it's unfair to criticize social media utterances that are purposely brief. But in my eyes, labor is part of what makes us fundamentally human. What is needed is the marshalling of resources to fund jobs working for the common good and working for a better future for our children.

Please share your thoughts and reactions either in the comments box or on my Facebook page. (Please friend or follow. Join the conversation.)

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