Trope-a-Day: No Poverty

No Poverty: Played straight in the Empire – and indeed the entire Core Economic Zone.

Well, at least as far as absolute poverty goes. Let us consider, for example, the hypothetical lowest-income citizen-shareholder in the Empire, someone who certainly doesn’t exist, having never had a single original, marketable thought in their entire life, possesses no skills, and who has never found any way to make themselves useful to any other sophonts whatsoever.

That guy, whose only source of income is the Citizen’s Dividend, can still afford a good-sized, luxurious home to live in, and – for less than the price of basic cable *here*, at that – an energy-and-cornucopia-services subscription sufficient to fabricate more food than he could ever eat, more clothing than he could ever wear, and a wide range of other assorted consumer goods even if they’re last year’s relinquished-copyright model; along with information-services access, basic-coverage tort insurance, and comprehensive medical.

That’s only going to stop being true if he manages to screw up deliberately and dramatically – and, given the generosity of Imperial bankrupty/debt law designed to encourage entrepreneurship and leave people able to function and earn more money to pay their debts in future, in fairly exotic ways. (And this is itself unlikely, inasmuch as That Guy is likely to receive a friendly visit from the Guardians of Our Harmony seeking to cure his obvious craziness even before taking it to the next level.)

tl;dr It is within delta of functionally impossible to have less than a well-off middle-class lifestyle in the CEZ in general and the Empire in particular.

Now, to mention what the trope page says is rarely mentioned, if you’re the type to concern yourself with relative poverty, then you can still find plenty of material to get hot and bothered about. The Empire got to its poverty-free post-material-scarcity state of awesomeness through the vigorous and rapacious practice of free markets and greed, and isn’t planning to change any time soon. As such, were anyone to bother computing its Gini coefficient or other such measures of economic inequality, it would undoubtedly cause some serious palpitations and flabberghast, the fantastically wealthy Numbers owning private luxury moons, and so forth.

It’s just that no-one *there* gives a damn, because the traditional ways of “legally stealing” your way to wealth are all illegal, and because it’s hard to convince people who live in big houses and own magic boxes that can make heaps and heaps of anything for twenty bucks a month that they’re being Horribly Oppressed by the 1%, the Man, or pretty much anyone else. At least, it is without idiot primate status-game instincts to help you.

Finally to note, this is something that I do pretty much try to take lightly, at least inside the CEZ. After all, to the lucky people from there, the magic box that makes whatever you want just as soon as it occurs to you to want it is the natural state of the universe, belike.

Of course, when they have to deal with the people from outside there, or, dearie me, with the people from the Unemerged Markets, they have the most terrible – “No comconsoles?” – problems in understanding exactly what the heck this poverty thing is. (See much more under Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense.) Not having a cornucopia machine of your very own is about as far as the non-cosmopolitan imagination gets.


(No, don’t worry, I’m not turning into a political blogger, here.)

But I did read an interesting little hypothesis which means I may need to revise my little internal guess as to what the Empire’s Gini coefficient, or your preferred measure of income inequality, is.  (I say internal guess because, well, in-world, no major public body bothers computing any of those measures.  As economic statistics goes, it falls into that category labeled “thoroughly uninteresting”.)

Said internal guess, by the way, has generally been “in the range that makes professional egalitarians blanch and cross themselves”; it’s just that in a society where the most “poor”, “oppressed”, “miserable” people you can find (as a group) live in what would be McMansion-equivalents (if one could strip the term of the implications of both inferior design and construction, and pseudoaristocratic contempt for the parvenu), own multiple cornucopia machines and autominions, and travel to other star systems for business and pleasure, it’s hard to work up too much outrage about teh ebil rich without embarrassing yourself.  Even if the directors of the “Big 26” starcorps and their peer group are using personal lighthugger staryachts to travel between their private vacation moons.

Anyway, money quote:

Now for the fun part.  Imagine people become more egalitarian, to the point where they heap scorn on the rich and successful.  What is the effect on inequality?  By the previous logic, the effect is directly counter-productive.  The more you scorn rich people, the more people you scare away from high-income professions.  The more you scare away, the lower their supply.  And the lower their supply, the higher their income!

Lesson: If you really want a materially more equal society, stop beating up on the 1%.  Do a complete 180.  Smile upon them.  Admire them.  Praise them.  Sing songs about how much good they do for the world.  The direct result will be to raise their status.  But the indirect result will be to pique the envy of status-conscious people, increasing the competition among the top 1%, and thereby moderating income inequality.

On the other hand, if you want to increase material inequality, by all means heap scorn on the rich and successful.  Try to fill them with guilt and self-loathing.  The 1% who remain will find that living well is the best salve for their consciences.

…which argument has some interesting consequences for a society which loves, honors, and near-worships  excellence, success, and yes, wealth in the way that the Imperial mainstream does.  I may need to trim back that Gini a bit after all.

(Of course, the effect would be rather less marked than in an equivalent human society, simply because one of the major psychological differences between eldrae and humans is that the former are not hard-wired to obsess over primate relative status hierarchies.

But then, thinking in terms of absolute status rather than relative status – and therefore not being inclined to practice the negative-sum games in which you can improve your position by worsening those of other people – is one of the reasons why their society has the attitudes it does in the first place, this one included.)