How the founding fathers & mother of economic democracy changed the world
Boredom had felt like the worst-case scenario, but that was before control. Lydia’s new boss was a micro-manager – that beautiful breed of bureaucracy that sees work like they see their breakfast: only valuable if they directed every detail into place with their own hands. In Lydia’s case, having everything she produced, wrote, and expressed sent back with comments was disempowering and a little humiliating. More than once this new man had reworked her efforts in front of people Lydia respected, saving no space for rebuttal in his matter of fact surgery. Having tried strenuously complying with his principles as far as she could gather, phoning it in to just get to the comments, and avoiding her new jailor at every opportunity, it was time for a change. Lydia had been working at Hauwitzer for almost five years, and while she believed fervently in the mission, she felt she was no longer contributing to it. Rather, she had become a supporting cast member (perhaps even a stage hand) for a lame high school theater performance that even the parents would go to great lengths to avoid. How did this happen? Lydia wracked her brain to try to understand how she could have avoided this swampy morass of authoritarian management, wondering if better communication with the even-higher-ups or more dedicated work could have prevented the arrival of her personal work vampire. The truth was, she was going to have her blood sucked one way or another by the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) company turned wanna-be SaaS (software as a service) and air quality monitoring company. The unbelievable post-pandemic contracts were drying up (high rise owners were sick of paying for viral air removal services as the painful memories faded) and the uninspired leaders of the company were failing to turn their lucky break into a sustainable edge in the market. “Over-paid and under-creative” was what Gibralter always called them. Lydia’s work husband (best friend at work, fellow in coffee consumption) had left the company six months earlier and couldn’t stop obnoxiously crowing about his new co-workers and organization. “Gib” (with the same Gif/Jif pronunciation debate that fueled many a meme-battle between the two of them) was pretty cynical about Hauwitzer now that he had moved on to other pastures. Lydia could only agree vigorously and sadly – she was locked in to an unusually generous pension and healthcare package that made it feel irrational to even consider new employment.
Jeffry was almost done with his day. Almost. Another gagging day of “content moderation”. He couldn’t look at another dick pic or short video of someone cutting their own finger off, at least not until tomorrow. Predator drone pilots complained about PTSD because they were enacting the plots of the horrible videos they watched, but they didn’t have to see as many different kinds of human misery, ego, and destruction as Jeffry did. “What the fuck is wrong with the world”, Jeffry wondered for the uncountable-th time. To make matters worse, Jeffry wasn’t even an employee of the contractor he worked for – an Uber-like scheduling platform called him to work at odd hours, though he wasn’t allowed to work more than ten hours in a day (something like the driving hours limit on truck drivers, where one’s faculties erode beyond the point of recognizing moose in the road or naked pictures that violate the Ts & Cs). Jeffry thought a lot about Ts and Cs – he felt like the terms and conditions of his work were even worse than those faced by the data extraction victims that were the members of the social media sites he monitored. Jeffry’s data was harvested to, but it was to generate his algorithmic star rating that couldn’t result in higher pay but could result in his immediate firing or pack docking. Not to mention the other algorithms that were being trained on his long-suffering visual and auditory trauma to take his job (imminently if the third quarter’s big tech calls with investors were more factual than usual). Hounded by his imminent loss of employment and pay, Jeffry almost didn’t notice the email notification that usually pleasantly interrupted his content machete work. It was a message from someone that had apparently read his blog posts about the growing imbalance between technology and its users. Something about starting a political party. Nobody (other than his brother and a couple friends, who mostly did so ironically) read his blog that was worth engaging with, as far as Jeffry knew. He deleted the email and started on his final batch of human-digital-garbage, needing to re-read the legalese to determine if a panda face-swapped with a Ukrainian politician pointing at his pants with a photoshopped foam finger violated the rules.
Oliver woke up with a spitting headache; surges of pain seemed to splatter against his skull from the inside. Why had he gotten so drunk with his investors? After another contentious board meeting, he didn’t have any agency left in his body to exert. Rejecting one of the shots of gin was beyond him by 11pm. Laying off 45 people later. Suddenly Oliver was awake. Hot shower. Cold breakfast. Sitting on the train to the office, he wondered how he ended up in this situation. Two and a half years ago Oliver wouldn’t have even considered trimming headcount the company still needed to placate an acquirer only the investors wanted to jump into bed with. Such is the life of a startup CEO who has lost control of the cap table (the spreadsheet that dictates who gets to call the shots on the future of a company). The 24-line Excel file had tipped against Oliver and his fellow founders 6 months previously. It was too hard to say no to the extra capital that really did make things easier then. Now he was about to watch the company he had helped build turn into a public relations bump for a massive conglomerate and see his job as leader transform into a cross between internal cheerleader and middle manager. This is what Hayek must have meant by The Road to Serfdom. Or maybe what the Surveyor felt right at the beginning of The Castle – unconsciously entering a world not chosen and nearly impossible to understand. Oliver would have to wait to get his money for two long years (the length of his earn-out payment stream) and then he could build a company the right way. Such a waste.
Alejandro was getting ready to order another sweater – damn personalized ads! He tried out that new browser that doesn’t let Google turn you into an eyeball-buying-machine, but he kept getting sucked in to sites that had sent him that exact right email (the unsubscribe button always seemed to be too far down the page to reach). It was time to hit the Buy button when he noticed the retailer was offering an extended warranty on this sweater. What the fuck would I want that for?
Now as much as Alejandro was a sucker for ads that seemed like they were meant for him, he loved reading the fine print. Diving into the terms and conditions of this prospective sweater warranty led him to the top of a rabbit hole. Not only did the sweater manufacturer offer an app that could evaluate the continued tightness of the wool weave from a picture, they had apparently created an insurance product that would enable him to get a brand new sweater the moment that weave reached a certain looseness level (assuming the many other criteria of the policy were also met – supposedly the app could also tell if you ever put this highly shrinkable sweater in the drier). Alejandro was usually more concerned with the rattyness that starts to show up after a sweater has had a little too much love than weave looseness, and what kind of fool buys a warranty for something he can self-insure without even thinking about it? Probably a lot of fools, Alejandro thought. The automatic payment of claims from a verified sweater too-loose analysis was pretty fascinating.
Next day shipping selected and warranty checkbox unchecked, returned to the day’s legal reviews.
Lydia was staring at her laptop’s scratched-up exterior as she packed it into the box that would relieve her of the chains. Her last two weeks had been something of a blur. The emotionality of the quitting. Meeting Alejandro, Oliver, and Jeffry. Raising the grant money to start the organization that each of them was convinced could re-make the face of the world. How did the scratches get here? Maybe it was chopping carrots on top of it when her cutting board was covered in garlic. But she didn’t actually do that. Too responsible. Now was the time for letting go, not for reminiscing. A ritual was needed, but it would be unwise to burn the laptop in the box; too many complications with the old employers, who were intent on getting their broken down Windows machine back. Now it was the time to contemplate the definition of done and think through how they were going to get where they wanted to go. Active, public growth stage management, an idea that has finally come to its time. An age that hated complexity was about to get its elegant explanation for biology and resentment and companies.
It really was mostly about terms and conditions. The things we agree to as citizens of a particular society. The emotions tend to obscure this fact. It’s a fact, though. Our rhythms are governed by these detailed, numbered, legislated documents that translate into money and power and health realities. Jeffry and Alejandro fought bitterly and beautifully about these terms and conditions for something as pedantic and new as the GMOI. Growth Management Organization, International (the international was added for obvious reasons, and the Europeans still probably wouldn’t like it) had just enough funding to exist for a year, and the team had to figure out how to make that year count, in addition to creating the organization’s genetic code from scratch.
In Oliver’s living room, the plan was taking shape. Lydia kept teasingly calling him Olivier, in between Jeffry’s story-bouts, recounting the mad things he had seen on the screens. Beyond the banter, it was becoming clear from the team’s research that most organizations with their particular type of aim either fizzled out or turned into the Soviet Union via a Communist International. So they needed a way that was more than just a lame forum for rich people to talk about how awesome philanthropy is at easing the guilt of the successful (Davos, Aspen, Jackson Hole, obviously etc.) and less than a violent revolution. None of the group was into violence, not even the awfully scarred Alejandro (so much credit card debt). It turned out that what the group was hoping to build was more like a guild or insurance company or university or credit union – sort of a non-governmental Norwegian sovereign wealth fund. But in spite of the beautiful couches that Alejandro recognized from a How to Spend It article he’d drooled over in the Financial Times, Oliver’s barely-accredited-investor level wealth wouldn’t put the group over the hump to co-operative hedge fund status. Leverage was what they needed. Leverage, more cash, viral network effects fame with greater than TikTok time resonance. Sort of like Facebook if Facebook was trying to help people, rather than anoint one nerdy young man as a king. Everything it’s not makes it everything it is, according to an almost Kanye lyrical wisdom nugget (Lydia pulled that one out).
The plan was thus: start a credit union for people with under half a million dollars in total assets, only (Oliver would plow just enough of his net worth into the organization to make it so he could join too). Start lending at a miniscule interest rate and enter a “currency” into circulation; this would be tricky. The promises to pay would be resolvable only to people part of the credit union – people with under $500k in the bank, in property, etc, essentially creating an economy that would have trouble getting its wealth siphoned off by the wealthy inscrutables. The actual mechanisms here would need some work. Could someone buy Lays potato chips from a corner store, or would the goods also have to be coming from a non-half millionaire? Complicated. Keeping out of the federal financial regulator’s sights would be challenging as well. Public relations and unpaid lobbying would be part of the game from the beginning. Next, the credit union would create an investment fund that would follow all the rules of its internal currency in making its investments, but these investments would be in real dollars. All four of our heroes had stopped talking to their economist friends long before this, so there was no one to pollute the dialogue with “wisdom” from the priesthood. The parent company would start offering insurance, capitalizing its own mutual insurance company (or reciprocal exchange, more research needed on taxes and levels of engagement) and using the excess premiums to build up the investment fund. Eventually, in whichever locales happened to have the greatest number of members, the organization would start funding (and owning the outcomes of) infrastructure projects, air & water quality lobbying, and healthcare facilities. All members would have access to health insurance at lower and lower rates as the investment fund matured and grew. Cyber security and data privacy services (including an independent search engine, browser, and mobile phone operating system) would be available to all members.
Where the hell is the reduction of the growth muscle memory, here? Jeffry was asking about the forest after so much tree discussion. It’s a matter of incentives and management strategy – Oliver was a bit condescending for Lydia’s tastes. Why do regular people care about economic growth? They’re invested in it. Pension funds, 401ks, every company they buy things from – each element is healthier when the whole system is creating more revenue and net income. Why, though? Because there are so many people taking so much out of the system; cautiously, creatively, extravagantly. And so many people are spending so much more than they have on so many things they don’t need – something about ‘to please people they detest’. If the goal wasn’t to have more stuff, work, time, and retirement savings, but instead to have a better and better life, we would design for completely different things than the blunt force total output maximization. We’re looking for something that looks more like optimization, and we’re not at all interested in Marx’s recommendations. So how does it happen? It’s about getting people together and creating a new set of principles, rules, rituals, aspirations, and heroes. It’s not a cult because everyone expects to get a compelling value from it – loans, insurance, services (and we will become bigger than that magic 2000 number quickly).
She was the talker, but everyone seemed to follow along. Create a new cultural paradigm while building a successful mega-organization. No problem, right?
It was day ten in the courtroom. Who ever heard of a collective action by banks and insurance companies against anything but financial regulation and taxes? But here they were, the lawyers for the biggest financial organizations in the world, arguing until they were even greyer in the face to the nine justices in front of them that the fastest-growing financial organization outside of East Asia was engaged in anti-competitive practices. One percent interest rates? No fees? Extra “cash” that could only be spent inside a certain ecosystem these players didn’t control? Not fair! So when the justices finally lost their patience with the horde of thousand dollar per fifteen minutes lawyers and adjourned, no one expected anything better than seven to two against the largest beneficiaries of government largesse outside of the military-industrial complex. The foursome, as their colleagues and the press had come to refer to the intrepid group, were having lunch in the Rayburn building when they heard the verdict. 8-1. And checking their phones for the latest from the strangest conglomerate since Mondragon, it was obvious that the case had backfired on the superfinanciers. Greatest numbers of new accounts opened in their four-year history every day for the last eleven. Everyone was aglow from the numbers, the case, and the recently penned Economist editorial that claimed they had figured out the solution that Karl M. hadn’t fully thought through. This crew was not done yet, though. Another living room planning session brought the focus squarely into the realm of the political, the governmental, the dangerous.
By now there were several famous examples of wealthy people who had sold off and then given away enough of their assets to join the GMOI ecosystem. You could buy better stuff. You could stay cooler places. You could get better software. And the insurance was incredible, not to mention the long term care. Stuff that money, regular money, literally could not buy. Now it was time to think big again. The foursome was not done, and it seemed their combination of histories and the fact that there were so many of them at the top was preventing some of the ego- and power-driven catastrophes of other recently powerful founders. Keeping all their net assets below half a million dollars, US or GMOI currency, also helped keep a set of persons humble.
So really, what next? Oliver seemed confused. Lydia was insistent. We’re not even close. Jeffry owned the monologue space this time. It’s really quite simple. The governments that still have a monopoly on violence, justice, and taxation continue to primarily serve the loudest voices in the room, and the amplifiers are still fed by good old fashioned US dollars. So the dollar hoarders still represent the government most places, de facto. Or the powerful by historical fiat. Either way, not democratic. But what is a government, really? I spent so much time thinking about this very question as I reviewed hours and hours of horrific content. It’s control of the important interpersonal stuff, the stuff where compromises are inevitable because it’s zero sum. Nobody cares who breathes more air than anybody else, so neither does the government. But if you try to steal my horde of dollars, I’m going to get pretty fucking pissed. In comes the government. But if it’s the government trying to tax the money away, you’re probably going to be fucking pissed by that too, and if you happen to own the governments decisions with some of your dollars, you’ll probably prevail at protecting the rest of your horde. What’s needed is one of those reality TV shows where hoarders get interventions and then a bunch of people help clean up their houses. If you ask those people in the middle of that show what’s going on, they’d be shouting about the heist happening on their horde. Same deal if you’re rich and the government that you don’t own quite enough of is trying to take any of your pennies. You horde because you basically have this DSM-6 condition and you can’t help it. And you can’t help but do everything in your power to stop it. Now because governments around the world are not going to get on board with getting their most important stakeholders hopping fucking mad, we’re going to have to do a reality TV hoarders special on governments, but instead of with money, with power. Hey government, we’ve gathered all your friends and family here today to stage a little intervention. You’ve been hoarding power for way too long, and even though you had way too much of it well before someone went and invented nukes, you are going to need to be relieved it some of that power if you’re going to stop living in power-squalor and making it smell bad for your neighbors and roommates. I mean, really, how many nuclear submarines do you need to control, Mr. President? I can see the look on your face, Oliver. We said we weren’t going to do a Soviet Union thing. Well, we mostly aren’t. What we will do is work with all the incredible software engineers, local drone manufacturers, and, well, that’s pretty much everyone we need. A little bit of defense and a little bit of offense, if the de-fanging doesn’t totally do the trick. Yes, yes, it’s probably a terrible idea to try to take over the government with a little bit of code and some flying quad copters. That’s not the idea. The idea is a balance of power. We may not be able to quickly take the crappy power pizza boxes with moldy sausage & pepperoni out of the government’s house, but reduce the amount of pizza delivered and build up a hoard of frozen pizzas of our own.
So it went. The cyber security cooperative became known as the most fearsome source of red teams in the world – any IT security leader with an ego that could take a bruising brought the teams in to get embarrassed and plug the holes. Jeffry spent lots of time with the drone company, rejecting requests for cameras on every vehicle (vehicles now, as the group’s autonomous fleet had become the de facto method for transportation in every GMOI community.
Still sounds like a ton of growth, no? Well Alejandro was working on it. Taking several leaves out of the marketing and product playbooks of the ecommerce and advertising giants, he was helping the marketplace group build software that discouraged buying. The software would ask questions like, what do you need this for? Do you have one of these already? (And if it knew that someone did, it would show a picture of the thing they already owned and the date of purchase.) Sales were starting to go down. They weren’t dropping off precipitously, but they were stabilizing in the logistic curve sense.
Every couple of years, Oliver would have a little breakdown. His desire to be CEO again, the big cheese, the main man, would rear up. Fortunately for both Oliver and the rest of the foursome, Lydia always had the right page picked out of Oliver’s autobiography for each type of power freakout – the baseball game where he got hit in the back twice, the horrible day when his family moved and didn’t tell him until the day of (at age seven no less). The English teacher that was ruthless to his writing and catered to his desire to please not at all. It seemed effortless and defused Oliver’s Robert Moses-ist tendencies before they could get rolling. But it was clear that new kind of checks and balances that went beyond the US founders’ monarch to president model was under development. A group with higher levels of executive functioning than a Congress or multi-judge court, but lower levels of Maoism than typical company CEO structures (every individual has the potential to believe that a cultural revolution is the right move under the right circumstances). The balance between speed, aggressiveness, member-orientation, and necessary Machiavellianism was being struck, and the world’s governments were getting nervous.
The primary weapon in the government’s arsenal was the same one that the crusty financial institutions had attempted to wield, but now it was the far more sophisticated and creative lawyers from the big tech companies that were working with the USFG to see about breaking up GMOI. Enemies of capitalism, murderers of economic growth, Zapatistas of the North. Every Nixonian, Kochist, Clintonian grand stratagem to befriend would-be enemies to confront a supposedly common enemy came out, along with the knives. The foursome was up against the wall, over a barrel, and in hot water (along with the matching graphics from whatever your favorite continuous news source for dramatic talking heads might be). Just as the antitrust case was working its way beyond the federal circuit up to the nine big cheeses, antitrust was suddenly the last word on the head-lips.
Voluntary Disintegration. noun; the obliteration of a formerly single whole into several constituent parts. Unheard of strategy in most corporate settings as control is prized above even net income, though divestitures of components that are seen as laggards or lacking in prestige have been known to be gift-wrapped and sold to unwitting public investors.
Antonym – Forced Integration. Shorthands in business – private equity roll-up, corporate mergers & acquisitions (M&A).
So GMOI was no more. The foursome had what, retired themselves? Each business segment of the empire was split, not along the segment lines, but totally randomly. Members were assigned to a new credit union/mutual insurer/cyber security provider/housing co-op/tech marketplace based on nothing but a rolling of computer dice, and the empire was suddenly unimpeachable and no longer an empire. As if Rome had balkanized itself at the height of its powers, without maintaining any control over the subsequent units; though these divides would have been hard for the Roman Imperial citizens to understand (as they would have had neighbors part of completely different kingdoms – the GMOI split followed no geography). It was always part of the terms and conditions that the organization could be split and the employees of every unit had developed methods for forking every system and record with no possibility of re-integration (and no loss of service quality). It was as if Rockefeller had said, hey feds, let’s dispense with this Sherman Antitrust Act stuff, I’ll just break things up on my own. We’ll save everyone a bunch of money on lawyers.
The only reason the GMOI founders had waited so long was that it wasn’t costing them any money in lawyer fees. One of the four would show up in court and the veritable army of government lawyers would have to have a long conference to decide how to handle this apparent middle finger to their process. By the time the Supreme Court was asked to hear the case, it was so obvious that it would be dismissed that the government dropped its motions. The tech monopolists were furious when they came to understand the full scope of what had happened. They howled in their board rooms about the value of their vampiric network effects, but something about the psychology of so-called Low Network Worth Individuals had changed. They no longer wanted to take hits of the heroin on offer in the form of over-beautified sex salespeople pimping bathing suits on picture apps.
So it was a different world. No one needed to scream about eating the rich when the rich couldn’t get the delicious goat cheese from that farm a few counties over without a currency that would require them being much less rich. Pretty remarkable. GDP was down. Food production was down (somehow, we didn’t need as much corn as we seemed to be growing before. Energy production was down. Growth was finally entering the slide into the sigmoid. And without total power balance within countries tilted hegemonically toward governments. These strange organizations seemed to respond more directly to citizens’ needs than representative democratic bodies, and they now had the realpolitik strength to act as a true check on every government lever type (without any violence, it turned out).
What did the foursome decide to do? Well, they folded into the communities that seemed to fit them best and maintained their memberships in the organization to which they were randomly assigned during the Great Shattering (shattering in the sense of a crème brulee top, not in the sense of glass). And they made art. Seemingly a higher mode of being that so many of their fellow members had taken on when the rat race had a clear second option. Alejandro was working on a sweater design that would never need to be replaced, never experience pilling, and would work in every weather condition. Jeffry was doing solo improv comedy that made light of the things that he saw during the weirder days of his content moderation (movement and performance as personal therapy, really). Oliver was working with a team of historians to document the founding and shattering of GMOI (and had accepted the offer from a biographer to share his life story’s every detail). And Lydia was raising goats and writing poetry.