Binary Economics in a Nutshell
in a Nutshell
By Norman G. Kurland
Many other writers on "worker ownership," "broad-based capital ownership," and
"participatory economics" have trivialized and marginalized Louis Kelso as merely
"the inventor of the ESOP" and as just another advocate of "the ownership solution"
to the flaws of global capitalism. (One notable exception is William Greider, who
gives a generally accurate description of Kelso's paradigm in his 1997 best-seller One
World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism.)
A more careful examination, however, reveals an elegant system of interconnected
principles that bridges classical, Keynesian and other schools of economics.
Furthermore, Kelso offers a new "post-scarcity" paradigm for analyzing and
correcting structural economic defects that foster such seemingly intractable
problems as global poverty, environmental destruction and the widening gap
between the haves and have-nots.
In Kelso’s system "binary" means "consisting of two parts." Kelso divides the factors
of production into two all-inclusive, physically interdependent and marketquantifiable
categories -- the human (which he calls "labor") and the non-human
(which he calls "capital"). The central tenet of binary economics is that, through the
property (or ownership) principle, these two "independent variables" can link
marketable outputs from the labor-capital mix directly to incomes distributed
according to market-quantified values of all "labor" and all "capital" inputs.
Some critics have argued that things such as land or entrepreneurship should be
recognized as distinct productive categories. This, however, misses a key point of
Kelso's "ownership economics" -- namely, that there are only two modes by which a
person can legitimately contribute to production and thereby be entitled to a
commensurate distribution: (1) through his own human inputs ("labor" of whatever
form), or (2) through his own non-human inputs ("capital" of whatever form).
Binary economics attributes most of the increases in the labor-capital mix of the
modern world to capital assets in the form of ever-improving technologies, structures
and system designs, and far less to any increased productiveness of human labor.
Classical economic theory, on the other hand, regards all output and earnings
derived from capital enhancements as if they were produced by “increased labor
productivity,” thus rationalizing higher and higher pay for less and less human effort.
Binary economics holds that broad-based affluence and economic freedom, as
opposed to financial insecurity and economic dependency for the many, would be
made possible through the widespread ownership of constantly improved capital
assets, including system changes, that are added to produce more and more
consumable goods with less and less human input and resources.
In contrast to traditional schools of economics which assume that scarcity is
inevitable, binary economics views shared abundance -- sustainable economic
growth and the equitable distribution of future wealth and income throughout society
-- as achievable by connecting every person through private ownership of property in
ever-advancing technologies, institutional systems and structures.
Professor Robert Ashford was the first to identify three concepts within binary
economics that set it apart fundamentally from all preceding economic approaches:
“binary productiveness,” “the binary property right,” and “binary growth.” In their
book Binary Economics: The New Paradigm, Robert Ashford and Rodney Shakespeare
describe these three distinguishing concepts as follows:
1. Binary productiveness. This states that while humans contribute to economic
growth through all forms of labor, capital assets such as machines and technological
processes are making an even bigger, ever-increasing contribution to overall output,
in relation to that contributed by human labor.
2. The binary property right. This refers to the right of every person to acquire, on
market principles, private (individual and joint) ownership of wealth-creating capital
3. Binary growth. This holds that economies grow steadily larger as private capital
acquisition is distributed more broadly among the population on market principles.
This concept also focuses on the importance of unleashing the unutilized or
underutilized capacity of all economic systems to produce in greater abundance.
These components interact and reinforce one another, allowing for maximum rates of
sustainable growth within a modern, globalized economy.
Binary economics recognizes a natural synergy, as opposed to an unavoidable tradeoff,
between economic justice and efficiency within a global free marketplace.
Rejecting pure laissez-faire assumptions, binary economics is based on four pillars
of a truly free and just global marketplace: (1) effective means for
democratizing ownership of capital, including universal access to money and capital
credit for financing growth and transfers of productive assets, (2) the restoration of
and universalized access to the full rights of private property, (3) limited economic
power of the state (whose main role should be to promote justice by eliminating
special privileges, monopolies and other barriers to equal participation) and (4) free
and open markets for determining just wages, just prices, and just profits.
The theory of binary economics is underpinned by three interrelated principles of
1. Participative justice, the input principle which demands as a fundamental
human right, equal opportunity for every person to contribute to the production of
society's marketable wealth both as a worker and as a fully empowered owner of
2. Distributive justice, the outtake principle which holds that the contribution of
labor to the economic process should be compensated at the market-determined rate
(or "just wage") for each particular type of human contribution to the production of
marketable wealth, with capital contributions compensated by the residuals (in the
form of “profits” and “rentals”) from the sales of marketable goods and services.
3. Harmony, the feedback principle that balances and restores participation and
distribution within a market-based economic system to counter monopoly
tendencies. This principle was referred to by Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler as the
"principle of limitation" and by others as "social justice" or “restorative justice.”
Some of the Problems That Binary Economics Addresses
William Greider and the other serious observers of economic globalization make a
persuasive case that all of us live in a global marketplace that seems to be heading
out of control. These observers suggest that mainstream economists cannot agree on
how to address such problems as the increasing income insecurity of most workers in
globalized markets due to what Greider calls “wage arbitrage” (i.e., outsourcing and
shifting of jobs to cheaper labor markets) and how to overcome the widening gap in
capital ownership and economic power between a small elite of capital owners and
financiers and virtually 99% of the rest of humanity.
Binary economists contend that the real problem is not, as cynics suggest, an evil
conspiracy of a governing elite or those who work on their behalf. Rather, the real
problem is the system controlling access to money, credit and capital ownership.
Once the flaws in any system created by humans are discovered, binary economists
argue, that system can be corrected as citizens become more enlightened and
demand new solutions.
Kelso's binary economic system combines the elegance of classical market theory
with classical moral philosophy and the highest spiritual values. He points out
precisely where Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes fell short
theoretically by not recognizing the increasing productiveness of capital as the main
source of economic growth and the most logical source of widespread income
distribution. This conceptual omission by Smith, Marx and Keynes is embedded in all
conventional schools of economic thought, from left to right. Consequently, economic
theorists have been led down the path where few of them can ever make accurate
predictions about the future or offer sound, long-range solutions to meet the dangers
of economic globalization.
Binary economics states that in a genuinely free market economy, people should be
able to contribute to and gain their incomes from the economic process, based on
both their labor and their capital inputs. Most neo-classical and Keynesian
economists would dismiss this postulate as absurd, asserting that this condition
exists already under capitalism.
Because of artificial institutional barriers to broad-based ownership under current
economic policies, however, most people can only expect to legitimate their incomes
through their labor alone. Consequently the market system breaks down, as
government is forced to interfere with the market mechanism and redistribute
incomes to non-owning working people and the unemployed.
As pointed out by Robert Ashford and Rodney Shakespeare in their book Binary
Economics: The New Paradigm, Kelso’s theory offered:
· "a new understanding of the relationship between humans and things as they
work together to produce goods and services";
· "a new explanation for industrial growth, poverty and affluence"; and
· "a new strategy for achieving general affluence for all people on free market
Ashford and Shakespeare offer clear definitions and examples of the Kelsonian
concepts of "productiveness", "binary growth", and "binary property rights". They
also address the fundamental flaw in today's dominant economic paradigms: an
unrealistic, inefficient and blind reliance on "labor productivity" to justify mass
redistributions of purchasing power.
Because of these blind spots in traditional economic theories, all existing systems are
structured to concentrate economic power, spawning corruption, crime, exploitation
and dehumanization of workers, and endemic poverty and powerlessness in our
"global village." If we believe in democracy and empowering every person with rights
and responsibilities to contribute to peace through justice in the world, then clearly
something new is needed.