Some readers can be forgiven for thinking I've "danced around" a GDP that does not really account for digital wealth. Indeed, we may still be years away from having a better accounting in this regard. In an earlier post I provided a basic defense of GDP in terms of dynamism. What about the "potential" GDP of digital wealth? Might its reimbursement ultimately be as spontaneous as its origins, or will monetary compensation remain elusive? For one thing, there are many digital applications needed in both profit and non profit terms, which are waiting for societal forms of organization (let alone legalities) to catch up with the possibilities.
David Henderson (of Econlog) recently reminded his readers that GDP can not be a good measure of well being or welfare, which is what prompted this post on my part. While I linked two days ago to the Surowieki essay which Henderson referenced in that earlier post, I didn't link to Henderson's post or earlier essay, so they are both here.
There is one more link (earlier post) I want to include before reasoning out a few details. Familial responsibilities - which are also capable of providing incalculable well being - have some interesting parallels to the voluntary work that has created our digital wealth infrastructure, in terms of identity and personal choice. Just as digital wealth doesn't readily adapt to formal economic definition, neither do the work options we take on which our families in turn benefit from. In other words, the better part of the responsibilities we take on, are because of what those actions means to us personally.
If this voluntary work was in fact something which we felt compelled or obligated to do, would we still take it on? That answer varies somewhat. And if we did continue in our "obligation", would the work remain as inspired or even original as that which we had taken on voluntarily? While some familial and societal responsibilities are of course more mundane than the knowledge work that creates digital infrastructure, the underlying element of knowledge use and skills choices for identity are still paramount.
That doesn't mean we don't have good reason to work on the maintenance aspects of our lives at the same time. There are elements of everyday and special responsibilities, which fall into categories of personal fulfillment. However, we are far more willing to take on the tasks of the mundane, when we are also allowed a unique role in identity settings, as captured in both societal and familial imaginations. Particularly in family settings, our contributions to well being are still a matter of personal choices which align with the voluntary choices of others.
Once someone gets paid for what may start out as a special favor, a feeling of obligation may set in, causing the way an individual feels about that activity to change. After all, how does this recent addition factor in to the overall limited capacity of one's time? For all the work that digital infrastructure creation implies - for instance - the part that gets volunteered is generally not the ongoing drudgery and maintenance. People contribute to digital infrastructure and then set their mind on the next important priority of their choosing. But plenty of people remain well paid, for the kind of digital maintenance which demands the best part of their time on an ongoing basis. Indeed, digital maintenance is more important to GDP than some forms of maintenance, because of its integral nature to the digital structure.
Clearly, GDP cannot be all things to all people. Just the same, something is indeed presently missing from the measure, which needs to be seriously considered. We cannot ignore the need for societal support which allows us to reach out to others. Nor can we forget that government is presently incapable of providing this for us through redistribution.
What matters is that individuals have some base of stability to work from, for the voluntary responsibilities they choose to take on for others. When individual families can't provide this, communities can create ways to help with some of the more basic missing links. In the same way that a person with limited means of support has difficulty contributing to the well being of their family, too little community support also means that many individuals have no way to contribute to the well being of society, at all.
Some infrastructure is planned ahead of time, while some is not. Just one of the unique qualities of the digital realm is that it was anything but planned, for the most part. Significant parts of the work we elect to take on in the future will likely remain uncompensated, in a monetary sense. Yet many of us will pursue that work just the same, if we can support one another in the ways that makes it possible to do so. Sometimes this will be the work of maintenance, because of the structures surrounding us that we care about. Sometimes, it will be the innovative edge of the knowledge prior, which adds to our own personal identity and life goals. The challenge for us is to make certain that the community and monetary base which allows such voluntary reaching out, is always within reach for those who desire to give freely of themselves.