Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I've been hearing the term "technocrat" more and more. The new Italian prime minister is frequently defined as a technocrat. In fact, the new administrations of Greece and Italy are being defined as technocratic. In common usage, technocrat refers to an administrator or executive who has received technical training and education in a specific field. The administrator is chosen based on knowledge and competence rather than by popular election.

I've also heard the term technocrat and technocratic used a lot by economists such as Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong.

The irony is, the real technocrats - those who defined the term - believed that economics was a pseudoscience and modern economics a completely unsound system! In fact, economists and technocrats were diametrically opposed! The real technocrats felt that the modern money system was an unstable collection of medieval folkways without a rational basis, subject to arbitrary rules and animal spirits. They believed in establishing a rational, scientific economy based on measurable qualities such as energy and production, rather than debt and prices. Thus, I wrote the following comment on Paul Krugman's blog in response to this post:

I object to the term Technocrat. I think the actual Technocrats are rolling in their graves! The term Technocrat comes from a movement during the 1920’s and 1930’s whose ideas were based on alternative economists like Thorstein Veblen and Frederick Soddy. The actual Technocrats felt that business and finance were Ponzi schemes that actually got in the way of producing goods and services for people’s actual needs. They noted that making money and making goods were often at loggerheads – making money depended on scarcity whereas modern production methods could turn out everything people needed in a short time frame. They also noted that as production went up, profits and therefore purchasing power declined, so that people could not buy what they were producing. They were also among the first to note that money is actually debt, and that while debt must increase exponentially, actual economic production is under no obligation to do so; and in fact is constrained by resource limits and the laws of thermodynamics, leading to an inevitable crash. One of the early Technocrats was M. King Hubbert, the predictor of Peak Oil. They were also among the first to see automation and efficiency taking a toll on employment – something we’re seeing even more today.

The real Technocrats proposed abolishing the money system altogether and putting engineers in charge who would produce goods for human needs rather than profit. It was a centrally controlled system, which is why their ideas disappeared after the War. They were also ignored by “conventional” economists. But for a time during the last Great Depression, they were extremely popular, with chapters all over the U.S. and Canada and fairly good media exposure. It’s a fascinating period of history that’s been almost completely forgotten, but I advise anyone to study it. A good place to start is an article by Eric Zencey on Soddy in this very paper (the Zeitgeist Movement’s proposals are a modern update).

I think given the state of business and finance these days, not to mention environmental problems and resource shortages, many of the criticisms of the Technocrats – the REAL Technocrats – are being borne out.

When I wrote the comment there were 3 comments, yet I ended up as comment 120 or something like that. Whew! Anyway, Wikipedia defines technocracy this way:

Technocracy is a hypothetical form of government where technical experts are in control of decision making in their respective fields. Engineers, scientists, health professionals, and those who have knowledge, expertise or skills would compose the governing body. In a technocracy, decision makers would be selected based upon how knowledgeable and skillful they are in their field.

Technical and leadership skills would be selected through bureaucratic processes on the basis of specialized knowledge and performance, rather than democratic election by those without such knowledge or skill deemed necessary. Some forms of technocracy are envisioned as a form of meritocracy, a system where the "most qualified" and those who decide the validity of qualifications are the same people. Other forms have been described as not being an oligarchic human group of controllers, but rather an administration by science without the influence of special interest groups.

Imagine, government administered by people who know what they're doing, and without influence from special interest groups. I can already hear the epithet "unelected!, unelected." Because look how well our multi-billion dollar corporate-funded elections are working. Imagine what else that money could be used for. When you actually listen to what the now-forgotten Technocracy movement had to say, you realize how ahead of their time they really were.

And why do we have two political parties anyway? Is running society for the good of the people really just a matter of personal taste or opinion? I'll have lots more to say on this in the future. Suffice to say, economists are NOT technocrats!

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