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on March 16, 2013
Unjust Deserts
This book offers up a valuable potential `society changing' idea whose time has come. The hard part is in deciding whether to honor the clear facts and heed the logic that the historical facts and philosophy would suggest
The facts are that the miracle of modern engineering and economic advance is not all modern, though some of it is. Our modern new gadgets and inventions are modern adaptations and improvements to ancient developments. The computer of today results from the abacus, and math concepts and electrical wizardry of previous generations, developed largely through combinations of past genius and government support of yore. They are refinements of electrical calculating machines from scores of years past. They use silicon chips that were decades in discovery and improvement.
The free market did not develop such developments alone, nor did sole genius. Government money financed much the R&D for wartime and other government needs. The societal infrastructure was essential in the development process over centuries.
The same logic holds for airplanes of aluminum, and for the development of and aluminum extraction and alloys in general. The beginning of our use of aluminum goes back to Archimedes day. It took government expense of large sources of electricity resulting from government projects like Hoover dam to supply electricity in huge quantity before aluminum could be widely extracted from clay and used to develop modern light weight air frames
It also took large scale public investment to develop and design many other features used by modern aviation to improve efficiency so that the planes can fly and perform sufficiently well to meet commercial and military needs.
The stories abound with the authors giving credit to social groups including government for many developments that came to us through the gifts of history
Rarely do the claimed genius inventors deserve credit for their inventions. Alexander Bell for example was a genius but so were others who simultaneously invented telephone. Bell won a race to the patent office, and so fame but only at the expense of failing o give credit to others who made progress lo this end long before he did. That would include inventor discoveries of electricity like Benjamin Franklin.
A vast majority of our modern technological, medical, aviation and similar developments trace their capacity back to a wide range of historical discovery such as math, geometry, language, government standards of measures, legal systems that protect rights and so allow developers to assert their energy and talent with faith that their inventions will be protected from interlopers who claim the benefits.
The publicly financed schools, colleges, libraries, trade and professional journals all play important roles in the creative effort. They do so at public expense. Yet the public gets no direct credit or remuneration for their contribution. Since the public includes most of us, and our ancestors from whom we inherit, the question is raised, should the public at large get any portion of the largess since the public advances of history have made our modern industrial system possible

The book addresses the question from a historical perspective as well as from philosophical and moral question. What are the `Just deserts' of the public for having lent the knowledge, the educational and the development of the scientific and technological base for all of our modern miracles?
If society is entitled to its just deserts, in what manner should it receive it? Do we need an estate tax to recapture for public benefit what rightly is attributed to public contribution? Would a graduated income tax be appropriate with the portion going to the government, and money designated for educational purposes so that all citizens have good schools with highly trained teachers, all made safe by rigidly enforced safety standards?
This is a very provocative book with highly relevant social moral questions that need to be addressed
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on May 21, 2009
The purpose of this book, as I see it, is to make the case that the vast disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens is wildly disproportionate to their contributions and is therefore unjust. The case is built by
carefully documenting how technology and knowledge generally are cumulative over time, so that inventors or enterpreneurs stand on the shoulders of the entire history of their predecessors and make only a small marginal contribution to innovation. If the authors had a sense of humor, they might have entitled the book: "You Don't Learn Less".

In format, the book reads like a cross between a doctoral dissertation chapter reviewing the relevant literature and a legal brief. The authors want to convince readers of their thesis that the accumulated resources in technology , infrastructure, education, dissemination, et al are in effect a free lunch for would-be innovators. To make sure we understand this fairly obvious point, they assiduously mention almost everyone, especially Nobel Prize winners, who ever had a similar or supporting thought, not unlike a legal brief citing any previous case with a supportive or even tangential holding. I felt I was being submitted to an intellectual bludgeoning when they pretty much had me at hello.

The corollary to their main thesis is since society has produced most of the necessary conditions for innovation, society, not the innovator, should get most of the recompense. Since this is the most controversial part, I wish the authors had spent more time addressing possible objections. Their one foray into this terrain is to observe that our highest growth rate in US history was obtained with a top marginal tax rate of 91%, but the concern about curtailing incentives runs deeper and broader. This is a country where millions of poor and middle class people reliably vote for a party that blatantly favors the rich. I'm afraid "Unjust Deserts" will not dent that doleful reality.

The main value of the book is that it gathers in one slim volume all the arguments and all the opinions that support their observation about the true source and process of innovation and the implication of who should benefit. It places a firm intellectual stake in the ground for future discussions about what they call "distributive justice". The book is heavy going: you really have to put on your hip boots and wade in. But to reap a harvest, someone's got to do the plowing and plant the seeds. Personally, I feel grateful to the authors for making the effort.
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on December 9, 2013
This gave me a new way of thinking about income inequality. I wish everyone would read it. Especially those who think that they deserve to be rich.
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on December 8, 2008
Arrival timing of this super-illuminating expose of the US economic problems,and their solution, could not have been better. Wealth concentration increases, especially since Ronald Reagan's tax cuts for the wealthy, have brutally damaged the US. College tuitions have soared, middle class income has stagnated, jobs no longer exist, principles in financial dealings have been eliminated, the poor no longer hope,and injustice is the rule for these days.

Wealth disparity between the upper two percent and the remaining population has never been greater. A US nation of masters and serfs is at hand unless wealth concentration is drastically reduced. Outrageous amounts of monetary payments from executive compensation, capital gains, estate inheritance, and other sources to the already super rich have thrown any semblance of economic rationale out the window.

In this book Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly clearly explain why monetary distribution is so lopsided and hubris rules. They explain the injustice of wealth distribution and how it can be eliminated to get the US back on an even keel so all citizens have a shot at a decent life. Surprises abound in this book and make for exciting reading. If you have always been bored by economics, that will not happen here. Every page contains a new revelation and is understandable.

This book is part of the spearhead for economic change in the US. It will not disappoint those who seek to renew this country and its promise.
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on December 12, 2008
Why? Because "Unjust Deserts" is one of the few serious political works that is asking the truly deep, systemic questions about American capitalism. What is the source of our growing wealth inequality? And what is the political case for the redistribution of wealth in 21st century America? Alperovitz and Daly argue that up to 90% of private earnings derive not from the conservative mythos of individual ingenuity, effort and investment - but from the unjust appropriation of our collective inheritance: namely, the scientific and technological knowledge that has built up over millennia. Before you dismiss this as just too radical a thesis for this day and age, consider the words of Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world: "society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." Really? Then doesn't society deserve a very significant share of what he has received? Or, as author Barbara Ehrenreich has put it: "Our celebrated entrepreneurs and moneymen are hoisting a cherry to the top of an already existing sundae - and then laying claim to the entire ice cream parlor." One can only hope that this extraordinary book lands on the desks of some of President Obama's financial advisors.
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on December 10, 2008
I agree with the endorsement of William Galston that "you will see the world differently after you have read this book." Unjust Deserts turns the whole debate about growing inequality and "socialistic" taxation on its head by demonstrating that, in contrast to the highly individualistic way we think about and talk about economic differences, the creation of wealth in today's economy is highly socialized and only a small fraction of what we "earn" and "own," likely less than 15 percent, comes from conventional economic activities such as labor effort and employer investment. Most of it comes from productivity gains generated by accumulating knowledge, a collective asset. In a clear and logical way, they further explain what this means for how we think about distribution and inequality. Marshaling the Bible, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and even the young Winston Churchill to their intellectual cause, the authors argue that, in an advanced economy like ours, a much larger share of income and wealth, particularly at the top, is morally accessible to serve the needs of society--a startling turnaround of the rhetoric and reality of the last thirty years.
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on November 21, 2008
You will be angry after reading this book. Alperovitz and Daly create a convincing argument that is difficult to deny. Exhaustively researched and yet so readable, the premise is that, "all of this knowledge-the overwhelming source of all modern wealth-comes to us today through no effort of our own." So if most of what we have today is attributable to advances we inherit in common, why is this gift of our collective history not benefiting all members of society. The top 1% of US Households receives more income than the bottom 120 million. Do they deserve it? Does a CEO of a major corporation deserve compensation 431 times that of an average worker? This book could not be timelier given the current state of the economy. If you weren't already angry at the unjust income distribution in this country and the fact that such a small percentage of Americans basically wallow in wealth while the rest of cant make ends meet, you will be very angry after reading this book. This is a readable, not just for economists, guide to getting back what is rightfully ours. This book doesn't just lay out the cold hard facts but also gives solutions. I am more convinced than ever, that not only are we getting shafted, but we can also now fight back. I highly recommend Unjust Deserts to anyone who is sick and tired of economic injustice and is ready for solutions.
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on March 15, 2009
First for those who attack the authors for misspelling 'deserts' need to get educated. The word 'deserts', in the sense of 'things deserved' has been used in English since at least the 13th century.

The unseemly redistribution of wealth, from the workers/producers to the parasitic middlemen employer/investor/landlord class is now being exposed for what it is, an unjust system where greed and unearned income is protected more than earned, honest income.

The system allowing 'legal' but immoral, unjust privatization of common knowledge and common natural resources cannot be sustained without a draconian fascist police state as we are now seeing built in the USA. Unbridled lazy unfair (oft spelled laissez faire) capitalism cannot exist and expand without protection of a coercive police state.

The time of the 'opulent minority' who's true motto is "In Gold We Trust" is running out. It's high time the wage slaves were set free from the control of others, from the rich who declare 'their' money gives them the right as 'employers' to decide who eats and who will be eaten. It's time humans are allowed the basic rights all other animals enjoy - free access to nature's bounty, restoration of the commons.

Benjamin Franklin, arguably the most able and intellectual of all the founding fathers of the USA, recognized the real source of wealth:

"Superfluous Property is the Creature of Society. Simple and mild Laws were sufficient to guard the Property that was merely necessary. The Savage's Bow, his Hatchet, and his Coat of Skins, were sufficiently secured without Law by the Fear of personal Resentment and Retaliation. When by virtue of the first Laws Part of the Society accumulated Wealth and grew Powerful, they enacted others more severe, and would protect their Property at the Expence of Humanity. This was abusing their Powers, and commencing a Tyranny. If a Savage before he enter'd into Society had been told, Your Neighbour by this Means may become Owner of 100 Deer, but if your Brother, or your Son, or yourself, having no Deer of your own, and being hungry should kill one of them, an infamous Death must be the Consequence; he would probably have prefer'd his Liberty, and his common Right of killing any Deer, to all the Advantages of Society that might be propos'd to him."

Franklin thus noted a tyrannical police state was in inextricably linked to the accumulation and maintenance of disparate shares of wealth while candidly admitting such 'unjust deserts' were the product of all society, not the loudmouthed greedy individuals that espoused the lie that THEY earned it. Franklin stated further:

"...the Accumulation therefore of Property in such a Society, and its Security to Individuals in every Society must be an Effect of the Protection afforded to it by the joint Strength of the Society, in the Execution of its Laws; private Property therefore is a Creature of Society and is subject to the Calls of that Society whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing; its Contributions therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a Benefit on the Public, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honour and Power; but as the Return of an Obligation previously received or the Payment of a just Debt."

So while returning such unearned wealth to the rightful owners, the working class, is redistribution, it is not charity. It in reality is the return of stolen property to its rightful owners. Franklin opined that the estates of the rich, being 'unjust deserts', could be called on for the common good, down to the last farthing, the last dollar.

There is a reason the IRS classifies capital gains as 'unearned income' - they are UNJUST DESERTS!

Much of the disparity in sharing the wealth of productivity comes from the legalized theft made possible by extensive privatization of 'intellectual property', a system of copyrights and patents that now has no relationship to the promotion of the science for the common good envisioned by some of the founding fathers and enshrined in the constitution. Originally intended for society to grant provision and protection of a short marketing monopoly to an author, artist, inventor or creator in exchange for eventual addition to the public domain, at the urging of Disney Corp., Congress passed the infamous Mickey Mouse Protection Act which prevents such creations as "Steanboat Willie"/"Mickey Mouse" from being endowed in the public domain as called for in the constitution at any reasonable current, useful time, extending copyright monopoly from 28 years to 'life plus 70 years'. That recently gave birth to the more draconian Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 and the 'secret' Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement now being proposed, which would make criminals of children who do what is natural, share things.

Here again, Franklin enters the fray. As one of the most prolific inventors of his day, Franklin disdained the concept of ownership of ideas. the fact that he formed both the first public lending library in America and first fire department in Pennsylvania exposed his socialist/communist bent eh?

When he was offered a patent on the famous stove that has since borne his name, Franklin placed the design in the public domain, as he did with all of his other inventions, and refused offers by others to obtain patents for him. He clearly indicated in his Autobiography his preference in such matters: "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."

Thomas Jefferson too spoke to how privatization of the commons and the establishment of coercive authoritarian governments to protect such unjust accumulations of property were detrimental to the happiness and freedom of the people as he acknowledged alternative societies:

"I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, & restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere."

'That, on the principle of a communion of property, small societies may exist in habits of virtue, order, industry, and peace, and consequently in a state of as much happiness as Heaven has been pleased to deal out to imperfect humanity, I can readily conceive, and indeed, have seen its proofs in various small societies which have been constituted on that principle.'

But after giving such glowing attribution to the wonderful life available to those that choose, and are ALLOWED, to live in small, communal, sharing autonomous societies, Jefferson continued:

"But I do not feel authorized to conclude from these that an extended society, like that of the United States or of an individual State, could be governed happily on the same principle."

Well, maybe that is the lesson! That happiness does not issue from states and empires but rather is the exclusive domain of small autonomous communal societies!

Exactly what are the benefits of living under the umbrella of a large state/nation/empire, always coercive as that is a characteristic ingrained in such forms? Participation in the redistribution of spoils of war and corporate conquest? Living parasitically on 'unjust deserts' while lying to yourself, your children and others that you 'earned it'?

Or would you wish your grandchildren live in a world that nourishes the small, autonomous communal societies that alone can offer what Jefferson described as "a state of as much happiness as Heaven has been pleased to deal out to imperfect humanity"?

Is it really that hard to decide? to act?
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on October 16, 2012
This is very well stated Communist doctrine. It's basically a justification of Proudhon's "Property is theft", stating the theoretical underpinnings for the attack on property rights.
It covers well Proudhon, Henry George, allusions by Ricardo and classical era economists,
as well as analysis by moderns such as Joel Mokyr. There's very good economic discussions of all factors Land, Labor, Capitalism. References to Marxism are generally avoided. Historical efforts at enforcement of the principles stated herein are ignored as is the anarchy resulting when these principles have been successfully applied.

Alperovitz and Daly follow Proudhon to say that individually held property is an illegitimate capture of public wealth. Increases in labor productivity is not a result of our own efforts. Technical progress due to innovation of predecessors. Our wealth is not due to any effort of our own. Justice demands a trade-off between equity and efficiency. Why should any person receive more than any other? We owe it all to society. Unfortunately, the current administration believes it; our per capita debt is up to $50,000.

There's a good case for the debt owed by innovators to predecessors from the invention of the wheel on, but it hardly justifies the government control advocated by the authors. It's true that Bill Gates's wealth has been built on predecessors throughout history. Gates, Buffet and other wealthy individuals are giving back to society in ways that minimize the involvement of governments. Others are doing the same on a smaller scale while still others, like these authors, claim that the debt is owed to the government. If we buy the author's viewpoint of our debt to society we are left with the ridiculous conclusion that Barack Obama is the legitimate legatee of Johannes Gutenberg.
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on March 16, 2009
"desert, n. . . . (often plural) deserved reward or punishment: as, he got his just deserts." So please get on to real critiques.
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