How About a Gift Economy Simulation?

simsReader John Frost at the Disney Blog has suggested that some progressive group should write a game that simulates a ‘full cost’ economy — one where the full cost of what each producer and consumer does, including ‘externalities’ (remediating damaged and abandoned land, cleaning up pollution, replacing the capacity of non-renewable resources, eliminating waste etc.) must be paid for. In such a world, the costs of ‘dirty’ and high-consumption businesses and the prices of their products would be much higher, so presumably there would quickly be many fewer cars, much smaller and lighter products, and a great deal more conservation. What would the impact of this be on our per-capita footprint and global warming? On family size and population? On the distribution of wealth? On levels of poverty, population density, violence and disease in our society? My immediate sense is that the world would look a lot more like Scandinavia, where policies, education and social consciousness are closest to such a ‘full cost’ model.

All of this assumes, of course, that a ‘full cost’ world would be enforceable and enforced, that the polluters and wasters and despoilers of this world would actually pay these costs, and pass them along to consumers knowing that it would drastically reduce demand for their products. The alternative is that, as is the case in the US and some other countries, the government would (either because of bribery and corruption or out of ideology) exempt, subsidize or turn a blind eye to enforcement, and that, as in the case of much of the third world, there would simply not be the infrastructure in place to enforce ‘full cost’ regulations, so the status quo would remain or even worsen. My guess is that, if degree of enforcement were one of the controllable elements of the simulation program, we would quickly find the simulated world in a ‘race to the bottom’, as those who complied with the regulations found themselves at a competitive disadvantage relative to the cheats, crooks and evaders.

The ‘full cost’ economy is a mixed one, one where government regulation and government management of some sectors of the economy (generally those which offer the private sector an unsatisfactory ROI) blends with free enterprise in those sectors of the economy which do offer a satisfactory ROI. The problem with this is that what we have today is nothing vaguely like a true Market Economy, even in those sectors where corporations would have you believe market forces hold sway. Oligopoly, massive government subsidies to large corporations, indemnifying corporations from litigation by wronged citizens, ‘free’ trade agreements that prohibit sovereign governments from passing laws to protect the welfare of their people and the environment from corporatist abuses, and other huge distortions have produced what might better be described as a Corporate Welfare Economy.

sims2Suppose instead we ran the simulation on the basis that the organizing and communication power of the Internet and the increasing democratization of knowledge it has brought about could allow us to shrug off this flawed and failed mixed-to-Corporate Welfare Economy entirely, and replace it with the Gift Economy? It might start with the existing elements of the Gift Economy — open source, free libraries of information and entertainment, scientific and social exchanges, Creative Commons, philanthropy and file sharing — and allow the players to represent either the pro- or anti-Gift Economy sources, to see what the end-state might be: A true Gift Economy that completely replaces the existing one, an even more entrenched Corporate Welfare Economy where everything is privately owned and nothing is free, or some kind of uneasy middle ground. Such a simulation would provide:

  • An understanding of when and how (and perhaps even if) a Gift Economy can succeed in the face of corporatist opposition,
  • Some sobering lessons about what the end-state of the Corporate Welfare Economy — a world of staggering inequality, repression and economic slavery — might look like, and
  • A sense of whether a truly mixed economy (one without the distortions that make describing today’s economy as a ‘free market’ ironic if not Orwellian) is actually possible, and, if so, how real capitalism and truly free markets can be kept free of these distortions.

Here’s my speculation on what such a simulation would show:

  1. Size is the enemy: Communities, governments and corporations that are large tend to quickly become bureaucratic and dysfunctional, and then hierarchical, corruptible and anti-democratic. The Gift Economy will thrive in areas where these institutions are small, and struggle where they are large.
  2. Education and culture will be the challenge, not politics, economics or technology: If people believe the Gift Economy will work, it will. If they don’t it won’t. They will believe it if they are shown, if they see it, and if they hear from people who have seen it work. That means it has to start small, and focused, and build on its successes. And like ‘Pay It Forward’ it will require a leap of faith. Everyone is capable of such a leap, but some will lead, and others will follow.
  3. The Gift Economy must be physical as well as virtual: For things that can be shared as bits, virtual is fine, but many of the staples of our economy cannot. Our neighbour gives us fruits and vegetables from her garden, another neighbour shows me how to fix my lawnmower, and we pay it forward by helping other neighbours build their garage, by working together to shovel neighbours out after snowstorms, etc. The Internet can help us organize these aspects of the Gift Economy, but ultimately much of it is local, physical, community-based. So what do we do when there’s snow on the ground and there’s no more fruits and vegetables? Do we still run the Gift Economy peer-to-peer, giving out stuff from our cold cellars and freezers? Or do we start to run co-ops, small community-based stores (in the original sense of ‘places of storage’) and solar- and wind-energy farms? And do we still give goods from these stores free? Without quotas? And to whom?
  4. We need more self-sufficiency and mastery of Gift Economy goods and services: Too many of us have either no area of mastery, or our area of mastery if of no real value in the Gift Economy. Such an economy needs more care-givers, mechanics, and gardeners, and fewer lawyers, accountants and commodity brokers. My guess would be that those of us in the latter category are going to have to learn some humbling new skills quickly. And we’ll be better for having done so.
  5. Communities will become more Intentional: The Gift Economy will allow us (and force us) to rediscover the true meaning of community. And then we’ll realize that the people in the physical community in which we live aren’t really the ideal people for us to live in in a Gift Economy. We need to find people we love, trust and respect. That will require a lot of us to move, and to search to find their true community, their true home.

I know this is a tall order for a software simulation. But maybe it could do more than just show us how (and if) the Gift Economy could work. Maybe it could also show us how to build model Intentional Communities for this next economy.

Oh, and, of course, the software would have to be Open Source!

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2 Responses to How About a Gift Economy Simulation?

  1. Flavio says:

    I like the idea to make this videogame to teach/inform about our real World! Even the US Army has their own violent videogame to get kids into the military! :( Army sucks!

  2. phil jones says:

    I started an alt.economics simulation project (Optimaes) a couple of years ago. There’s a wiki (although it’s currently locked due to spam) :http://www.nooranch.com/synaesmedia/optimaes/optimaes.cgiand you can download a basic simulation. The project is a bit on hold at the moment, but I hope to get back to it later this year. Anyone interested in this area, please get in touch. :-)phil jones

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