With so many exceptional policies enacted in 2009, the consumer vouchers issued by Taiwan and Germany haven’t received much attention. These were promoted as emergency measures, not as long-term arrangements, though they demonstrate an undeveloped dimension for market systems. But of course this dimension is inconceivable within the stifling horizon of neoclassical economics. That legacy from the age of the steam engine maintains the physicists’ law of conservation, where the total energy in a system is considered determinate and unchanging. It’s basic concepts like money supply, interest rates, taxation, trade balance, and employment, are little more than crude metaphors for fuel, gears, choke, exhaust, pressure etc. (“economy’s heating up boys, better get those interest rates on!”) Voucher systems could offer the chance for a practicable escape from the straitjacket of thermodynamic thinking.
Scholars of all stripes have endorsed the surpassing of thermodynamic models in the sciences for decades. They’ve produced a litany of names for “the next paradigm”: the non-linear, the complex, the far-from-equilibrium etc. But it seems that perhaps these proclamations got ahead of themselves. Cosmology danced off triumphantly leaving institutions behind in the 19th century! Postmodern humanities scholars especially dismissed the thinking of their administrators, yet rarely challenged them directly or proposed any alternatives. The realm of “theory” became an experimental fantasy for the avante garde, while the reality of institutional life was left to Victorians. Its high time to renovate the institutional axiomatics, and perhaps the first order of business is to surgically remove the law of conservation.
The law of conservation assumes the isolation of energy within closed systems. This works fine if we are talking about combustion engines, but not if we are talking about, say, the body of an animal. The total amount of energy inside a body is just not relevant for understanding how it works. There are countless kinds of energy that coexist in the mysteries of physiology, like hormones, sugars, movement, heat, fats, carbohydrates, anxiety, elasticity etc. These are expended in different ways, they are never clearly segregated, and their aggregate total in joules is not important. Rather, a body’s efficiency concerns its ability to convert between different forms of energy in a rhythmic manner. Relevant problems are about getting the right kind of energy burning at the right time, not about the total amount in the body.
Neoclassical economics is like a parody of engineering. For example, an engineer designing a hydroelectric dam focuses on the relation between water pressure, turbine movement and electricity. The problem is to maximize electrical output, and they can devise a methodology to accomplish that. But the economist is highly equivocal about the relationship between finance, industry and commerce – how exactly were these ontologically disparate pieces suppose to fit together? Unlike the engineer, the economist has no model to connect these elements. Terms like GDP collapse the sectors together, equalizing all dollars whether they’re used to buy bubblegum or credit derivatives. The economists’ perverse trick is to represent all dollars together like drops of water in the ocean. This diabolical ruse wipes out the horizon of conceivable policy options, and leaves the impression of an unstable environment where money courses under natural forces unaffected by human intentions. This conflation of all money forces populations into a defensive posture, which is a typical effect of alienated Victorian techno-epistemology. Neoclassical economics paints a hostile and unpredictable world where capital courses en mass, and survival depends on constant adjustment to its lunar fluctuations. Confusing radically different kinds of money nullifies public discussion and leaves a muddled delirium where antagonistic participants compulsively imagine they’ve discovered something outrageous. There is probably nothing to discover where confused neoclassical concepts are still blocking the view.
This uncertainty gets further magnified where the money in circulation is fiat currency, that is, money with floating values unpegged to any particular commodities. A Peso’s value relative to everything else could change at any moment. And although this metaphysics has been well normalized, it still makes investors twitchy people. They are afraid to lock their money in anywhere, because they know all the tables can turn before they get it out again. This puts the fiat world in a state of actual turmoil, where money jitters back and forth, not knowing whether it’s coming or going.
It’s interesting that during the crises, when values were so unstable and money was threatening to fly away, some countries issued restricted currencies or vouchers. That allowed governments to specify what money could be used for. Vouchers can be highly targeted, one class of people is paid in them and another class is licensed to redeem them for a more liquid currency. There is no way anyone can interfere with their value. This is money that only moves from point A to point B. There is certainty about where money is, and what it is going to do. Without this power, governments can inject money into the system, but nobody will know where it goes. And money today is pervasively inclined towards the short-term speculation.
Vouchers open another dimension of market possibilities. They insure that exchanges take place between certain groups of people. Lets consider a case where this might work. During strife over fiscal cuts, a class of public employees could be given the option to move onto a voucher system, agreeing to limited choices for where they could spend part of their income. Some class of private businesses would could receive these – perhaps people coming off social assistance – and they would have the power to cash the vouchers in for dollars. By paying public employees in vouchers, the government ensures support for struggling classes of society, removing the need for social assistance. This introduces strong qualitative or structural difference into forms of pay-roll. It also moves discussion beyond the boring impasse of liberal vs centralized economies, to consider singular forms of competition accessible to properly represented populations.
Without the vouchers, the public employees would spend their incomes at multinationals, and send the money out into the financial neither-world, enriching investors in gated resorts. So the voucher could be an infrastructural shell that protects populations against the onslaught of corporate controls. The voucher makes money pass between particular factions. It could be set up thematically around any market premise: buy-local, buy-green, buy-fair etc. And vouchers could be issued for online purchases, and used for international exchanges. Instead of buy-Canadian vouchers, Canadians might hold buy-Vietnamese vouchers. The idea is to create more stable markets by regularly issuing money for specific people and things. Someone (I can’t remember who) has called this “string finance”, a model where money is bound on strings. Note that around 40 million Americans are currently using food-stamps.