Humanizing our economies

August 28, 2002
Inevitable. That’s what we are told about our economic systems and their effects. When we protest, we’re asked, ‘But what other way is there?’

In The Job Market of the Future James Cooke Brown answers that question boldly, laying to waste the assumptions of our current economic systems. Brown launches a proposal to replace our current labor market economies with an invention he calls “the job market,” a system of money and employment which, he argues, will allow us to bring our economies under the control of human values, rather than being carried on the back of the business cycle to extreme poverty or wealth, unsupportable economic growth and needless waste.

Brown (1921-2000) is a writer and inventor who created the board game “Careers,” the logical language Loglan, and wrote the futurist novel The Troika Incident (Doubleday, 1970.) In that novel, Brown first introduced the idea of the job market. The current work develops the job market idea for the real world.

In “job markets,” as Brown defines them, it is the worker who chooses the job, and the employer who must make the job attractive. This shift is accomplished by transferring the power to set wages out of the hands of employers and placing it in the hands of the job market, a market administered by computer. The computer is instructed to slice work orders–whether from public or private firms–into jobs of the shape and size desired by workers, leaving no customer (job-seeker) unserved.

Desirable jobs, with many takers, are assigned lower pay rates. Undesirable jobs are made more attractive by higher pay rates. The employer who wishes to keep labor costs low is well-advised to improve his or her conditions of work. He or she is ill-advised to discriminate in any non-performance related dimension (such as race, sex, education, or disability) because each narrowing of the possible pool of workers means the employer will pay more for their labor.

The job market is instructed to ensure that everyone seeking a job can find one. It does this by cutting the hours of work until jobs are fairly distributed to all who want work, a practical implementation of U.S. labor leader Samuel Gompers’ dictum, “So long as there is one worker who seeks employment and cannot obtain it, the hours of labor are too long.” In job markets, increases in productivity created by technology accrue to the benefit of all workers in the economy through an increase in their hours of leisure.

Ordinarily, we would fear that shorter hours would mean pay would go down. But pay, too, is revolutionized. Instead of a currency which floats and inflates due to speculation and the extension of credit, Brown proposes the “credit hour.” Credit hours reflect the work done in an economy, and thus those earning them can be assured they will not inflate. In fact, the value of credit-hour money increases as productivity increases–something we would expect but rarely experience in labor markets.

Credit hours also treat the labor of each person equally, making international trade in credit hours the fairest yet seen by the world. An hour’s work by a Jamaican, a Canadian, an Indian and an Indonesian would have equal value in a system of international credit-hour trade.

Democratically-set instructions guide the computer which runs the job market. What should be the ratio of highest to lowest pay? What should be the maximum length of the work year? Do we want more leisure or more production? These questions would be debated and decided by the public. The experience of being tossed around on rough economic seas, which we have no power to predict let alone control, would be a thing of the past. Economic life could finally, Brown argues, be tuned to human needs.

Very nice, you say, but impractical and politically unfeasible. Brown addresses both charges, taking on the practical side with an inventor’s zeal and providing exhaustive answers to the thorny questions which would arise for job market computer programmers and planners in such an economy.

He also addresses the political dimension, identifying the benefits of job markets to each of the players in our current economic systems. He argues that job markets can work in economies regardless of the ratio of public to private enterprise. And he walks us through one possible scenario for the transition to a job-market economy in a small social-democratic country.

Many economists argue that humans are naturally self-interested or greedy and that current economic macrostructures simply reflect this immutable fact. Brown argues that there is good evidence emerging from evolutionary biology that while humans are very attuned to the costs to us of economic transactions, we are also guided–not inconsistently–by altruism, for reasons easily explained by the lives of our ancestors. He asserts that the pricing of labor and goods in a job market will seem fairer and more natural to us because the human cost of each job, as judged by its occupants, will at last be accurately reflected in the pay.

Some readers will recognize the work of 19th century American futurist Edward Bellamy in this description, and Brown credits Bellamy (Looking Backward (1888) and Equality (1897)) with the invention of the job market idea. High speed computing, Brown argues, has now made possible what could only be speculated about in Bellamy’s day.

The author, who died in 2000 at age 78, traced his interest in the job market idea to his experience as a demobilized U.S. Army Air Force veteran at the close of World War II. The critical question of how to re-employ U.S. veterans seemed designed for job market logic, but computers capable of running such a project had not yet been invented. A tireless polymath with a Ph.D. in sociology, philosophy and mathematical statistics, Brown invented the board game “Careers,” and the logical language “Loglan.” He first developed the job market idea in his utopian novel The Troika Incident (Doubleday, 1970.) In the world of 2070, his time-traveling astronauts report, job markets are the prevailing economic system.

After developing a complete working computer grammar for Loglan, the first for any speakable language, in 1991 he turned towards another invention that Troika readers had urged him to flesh out, the job market. The current book is the product of that effort.

Jenny Brown is the daughter of James Cooke Brown.  She edited the ms. after her father’s death.

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