10A078 Communists in Maine by Jim Davies, 11/19/2010

Twenty years after it was abandoned in Petrograd and Moscow, Communism is being tried again in Portland, Maine - according to a segment on PBS' News Hour on Wednesday. The problem perceived is that with lots of people out of work, many cannot afford to pay for things they need doing, at previously prevailing rates; and the solution found is the "Portland Hour Exchange" founded by Richard Rockefeller. Yes, from that family.

The idea is that members of the Exchange each donate an hour of their time, working at what they do best - probably, using skills exercised when last employed. That and all subsequent donations are logged in PHE's computer as a credit of a "time dollar" and the donor is then free to claim a time dollar from any other member, who will apply his skills as needed. It's a way for craftsmen and others to exchange services without using money - a form of barter. While it is certainly interesting and may be useful for a while in the current emergency, I predict it will eventually fail.

Strictly, a barter system uses money in no form at all, and so is horribly inefficent - a seller of beef, needing to find a plumber, must search for a plumber needing beef, and vice versa. PHE removes that obstacle, which would be crippling on a small, local scale, by its concept of the "time dollar." That's money, in a strange form - though Rockefeller said (perhaps having consulted one of his well-placed friends) that the IRS would not regard such transactions as taxable. If the PHE plan were to catch on big-time, I suspect the IRS might change that ruling in a hurry.

I call the PHE "Communist" because even though it's voluntary (so not strictly Communist at all) it sets out to equalize rewards, as does any system of progressive taxation or wealth redistribution - such as the one by which we are surrounded. That's the ridiculous aim of all socialism - to each according to his need, from each according to his ability. It works in an emergency - all of us would freely "pitch in" to help any way we can the victims of some disaster, for a while and without expecting payment - but in normal circumstances it does not. Why not? - because neither skills nor ambitions are equal. Some people have developed skills much more valuable than others. In the temporary PHE experiment, an hour of a physician's time is priced the same as an hour of a handyman's; that's Communism. It failed in the Plymouth Colony, it failed in the Soviet Union, and it will fail wherever it is tried; for ultimately it turns everyone into slaves, and humans don't function when "owned" by someone else.

Of course, the PHE plan could be modified, so that a physician's hour gets credited with two "time dollars", or three, or 7.9, or whatever. Eventually, if everyone were free to bargain for what his labor was worth, the system would approximate to a free market. But then, PHE would not be needed; a simple exchange of cash would be far simpler. And if some external crisis occurred again, the many prices of labor would adjust - downwards! - until equilibrium were found. Mr Rockefeller's ingenuity would not be required.

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