Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

NBA Membership vs. Club Ownership

Posted Apr 30, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

The National Basketball Association Commissioner, Adam Sliver, did a couple of important things when he banned the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers from the Association for his taped racist remarks. Silver clearly stated that he was there for the players (and for the rest of us) by protecting human dignity from financial power. He also reminded us that ownership has it limits. More than that, he demonstrated that the rights of membership sometimes should override the rights of ownership. In the current conversation about the role of ownership in a viable economy, this may be a learning moment we should not pass by.

In Civilizing the Economy, I proposed that we switch from an economy based on property ownership to one based on civic membership. If I understand the Commissioner’s position correctly, he actually implemented this proposal. The Association told the owner that his ownership did not give him control of the Clippers, or the Association.   This is not something we hear often in our society.

There is a deeper question. Let me put the question this way? What community do you belong to that will protect your dignity? I think NBA basketball players and coaches now have an answer for that question. Do we? Is that even a good question for property owners? Isn’t our answer that all we need is for the government to protect our property, and we can take care of our own dignity? Or is this only the voice of white privilege? Since we are white and privileged, no one would threaten our dignity, unless someone revealed that our assumed dignity is based on the undignified treatment of others.

As Emmanuel Kant said, there is one thing that does not have a price: human dignity. In fact, some of the NBA players have enough money to buy dignity if it were for sale.   This isn’t about the distribution of income, but abut mutual respect. In the aftermath of this event, we will see if membership retains its control over ownership. If it does, we might learn more about the difference between an economics of property and a civic economics of provision.

Corporations and Chimpanzees

Posted Apr 27, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

As you know the majority of judges sitting on the US Supreme Court have granted the rights of persons to corporations. I wonder if they will soon grant similar rights to chimpanzees and other highly cognizant primates. Charles Siebert’s article in the New York Times Magazine (April 27) provides us with some resources to think about this question.

Siebert’s article focuses on the work of Stephen Wise. Wise has worked with animal rights groups, such as the Nonhuman Rights Project, to have courts recognize highly cognizant primates as “autonomous beings.” Such a status could mean that they should be treated as legal persons—persons with the right to sue their owners for illegal confinement.

“Like humans,” the legal memo reads, “chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”

So far, courts have not granted chimps the legal status of persons with rights, and maybe they will not, but one wonders why it has been so easy for the courts to grant such status to corporations, especially when you consider that these judges themselves are much more like chimpanzees than corporations.

Wise’s intention to establish legal personhood for chimps is to give them the right of Habeas Corpus: the right to bring before the courts a claim of false imprisonment. Legal persons, in other words, have the right, and therefore the capacity, to claim false imprisonment. But do corporations have this right. Can you imagine a corporation suing its owners for its freedom? Do corporations even come close to the status of “autonomous beings”?

So what are some of the similarities and differences between corporations and chimpanzees? They have different origins. Corporations are legal creations. Chimps are natural beings. Both are treated as properties that one can buy and sell, but they are not the same kind of properties. Corporations do not have any of the characteristics of higher primates.   Corporations can be understood as constructions of verbal and non-verbal patterns of communication (see my book Corporate Integrity, 2005). Chimpanzees are fundamentally relational animals, like humans, and live in relationships of trust and fear, of joy and anger. Corporations are also constituted by human relations; relationships that have the capacity of promoting trust or fear.

One more significant difference is that corporations are legitimate in terms of their usefulness or benefits. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are living beings, part of the animal world–on the planet before we were. Instead of invaders of their homeland, we could have been their guests. For us to allow corporations to destroy the planet and to put chimpanzees in prison might be a good indication of how far we are from where we should be.



Piketty’s Capital and a Civic Economics of Provision

Posted Apr 5, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

The key argument in Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has gained much attention of late, as it should.   Quite simply, we are headed for continued disparity between the very wealthy and the rest of us, unless we create international governing schemes that can control the growth and movement of capital.  And the chances of that happening are not very great.  


            As he admits, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even an economist, to figure out the current trends. Capital—things like real estate and stocks and bonds—which can be seen as unearned income, will probably get a return of 4 to 5 percent, while return on earned income such as labor, will probably see an increase of around 1 percent.  In such a future, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.


            This is not the first appearance of this argument.  At the end of the 19th Century Henry George make a similar argument, and actually proposed a similar solution: a tax of capital.  (Progress and Poverty).  Will Pikett’s work become as well known as George’s once was and then as completely ignored?  Hard to know.   What is different is that George actually offered a new way of seeing things, a new story.  Piketty, on the other hand, remains within the story of an economics of property.  As far as we know from this book, he hasn’t taken seriously Karl Polanyi’s 1940 claim that labor, land, and money are not properties.  Labor is a human activity, land is a biotic community, money is a social relation.  


            Even before Polanyi, George argued that land is a commons, something that belongs to all of us.  Therefore, increases in the value of land should be shared with all citizens, in the form of a land value tax.  Not a bad idea, but it would require either the generosity of landowners, which is unlikely, or the activation of citizens to take their democracy and make it work for the majority instead of the wealthy minority.  Something that has not happened yet.  


            There is really nothing surprising that capitalism only work when political leaders represent the interests of all citizens rather than only the capitalist elites.  I don’t think Piketty would disagree with this, but he doesn’t really offer a framework that would energize citizens to direct the economy.  To limit economic analysis primarily to changes in income, with now more and now less going to labor or to capital, may motivate a few to try to improve things, but not many to transform them.


            We need not to think outside the box, so to speak, but to change the box we think in.  Instead of thinking about the distribution of income, we need to think about the distribution of provisions.  Instead of thinking about increasing economic growth, we need to think about protecting the commons we all should share—especially the planet.  Capital, after all, comes out of the commons.  Just as all energy comes from the sun, all capital comes from the commons.  Furthermore, money should not be treated as capital.  It is a means to get what we deserve.  If people are hungry, it is not because of the shortage of food, but the shortage of money to buy food.  So, create the money.  There should never be a shortage of money to buy food, or the other necessary provisions for a good life. 


            Let’s be truthful. Capitalism is driven by fear.  Its origin is the Atlantic triangular trade, where enslaved Africans become the “property” of landowners.  Slaves were not just labor.  They were capital.  Property rights are only the other side of this fear.  As long as we are caught in this box, it is difficult to be too pessimistic. If we can build a new box, based on citizen participation and aimed at making provisions for all, we can have hope.   


Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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