Like many people, I'm trying to distract myself from the unfolding horror story. But like many people, I've been unsuccessful.
While I think money is the bee's knees, being fungible and countable, and allegedly encouraging objectivity over cronyism, the fact is... we all know this system is not only broken - it's nonsensical.
What if everything had to have a financial transaction associated with it in order to determine its value? How does a mother take care of her new baby? If a young mother dies? If a father becomes injured? What happens when someone has no remaining family to care for them and they just get old? Wait - who cleans the house? Does purchasing? Cooks dinner? Obviously, unless you're wealthy enough to actually hire servants for all these chores, there is a lot of off-balance-sheet productivity in any family. This has been said... old news, right?
But here's the elephant: we've created an economic system that excludes the labor that's required to survive! There's a whole volunteer market... but it isn't tracked, at all.
So here's the good news: we still have assets. Tons of 'em.
And what's really interesting particularly in Europe and the United States is that we keep building them - maybe even more and faster in an "economic downturn"; in fact there's a huge effort of open source that is is just another form of volunteerism.
For those who are unaware, open source means people work on developing software, for free. Why? For the same reasons people do other volunteer work: to help build their own reputation as a good person who pitches in, because they feel spiritually fulfilled doing so, to have a structured opportunity to learn something new... sometimes even for their own mental health if they need a distraction and to feel more connected to other people.
Yet it's important to keep in mind that these are all things that contribute, eventually, to any commercial product: reputation, knowledge, and an ability to connect with people who need things. Whether we do that at home or through volunteer organizations or open source movements is irrelevant - that's where the precursors to capital are created.
So it's not that we need regulatory oversight or socialism - it's far more than that. We need a way to measure these precursors. We need an entire social system that's focused on building the precursors to creativity, which are the precursors to productivity.
It's also necessary to monitor what the yield is: what if we have a lot of creative people around but nothing is created? There's something wrong. But we need both sides: how much should we expect to be created, and how much has actually been produced.
So the first point I'm making here: The open source movement plus volunteerism is the proto-economy; the one where these precursors are constructed out of thin air. So long as that economy is healthy, there is underlying reason to hope. We can focus on how well we think we'll convert our intangible assets to tangible ones.
The second point: How do we make this proto-economy efficient? And how do we keep people volunteering for a little bit longer? At Mobilize, I was introduced to a gigaom startup, OStatic, that had an interesting mechanism for facilitating solutions to both these issues in the open source space -- again, just a subset of volunteerism as a whole.
OStatic organizes open source output and creates mechanisms by which competitive solutions can be evaluated. Meanwhile, it addresses the second issue -- creating some financial return (fungibility of cash can't be dismissed!) -- to help volunteers be able to find the time to continue volunteering. The mechanism is simple and exists elsewhere: allow people to put some of their purchases towards open source projects.
Now. Think for a moment, let's blow this up: what if the way one section of the economy worked was that people volunteered time in various un-profitable pursuits, and in order to compensate them, we designated some of our money directly to those services? It's like sales tax, except instead of going to governments it goes to a market for volunteer labor.
I can see positives there, I can see negatives there, but one thing I definitely see is a mechanism for accounting for at least some types of volunteer labor. Can you see others?