Labor Theory of Value

(I was going to post the next chunk of Before the Phoenix today, but it’s not quite ready yet. So, here’s a quick wee thing instead…)

In the Conclave of Galactic Polities, Ambassador llin-Terl-an of the Palnu Sodality put forward a measure – supported by others of the Socionovist Association – proposing a system of voluntary interpolity fund transfers for the support of those individuals deprived of employment by imported cornucopia and other “industrial magic” automation technology.

Speaking for the Empire, Presiding Minister Calis Corith pointed out that his polity had, by the definitions contained within the proposal, all-pervasive deployment of industrial magic and an employment rate of zero, and thanked those supporting the proposal for stepping forward to financially ease the citizen-shareholders’ negative-value labor deficit at what would surely be a great cost to themselves.

The measure was tabled for further study.

– from the Imperial Infoclast

Questions: Economy and Habitats

Got some more questions! Jamie asks:

It strikes me as odd that at the technological level the Eldrae work at that they appear to be working under an ideal capitalist system in an era of post scarcity technology. How is wealth determined? What is the currency based on? What kinda of inequality is there if any?

Well, the thing to bear in mind about “post-scarcity” societies is that virtually all of them are actually only “post-material-scarcity” (or “nearly-post-material scarcity”, which is how I’d describe the Core Economic Zone polities and regions in the Eldraeverse.) Some things tend to remain scarce – ideas (especially if we assume that inventors, designers, authors, and so forth like to be paid for their work for reasons over and above what the money can buy them, which as an author, I’m pretty sure of), personal services, availability (only so many people can attend X event), etc., etc.

This is true even if we step out of my universe and examine the ur-post-scarcity example, Iain Banks’s Culture, in which a plot driver running through many of the books is the competition to get into Contact, or Special Circumstances, which by no means takes even all the qualified people who want to get in. In Look to Windward, we also see the case of a live concert timed to match the light from a particular supernova – and thus obviously limited to only that one particular place and time and audience – cause such perceived scarcity that even the people who are very smug about “money is a symptom of poverty” immediately reinvent scarcity economics and trading favors in the quest for tickets.

So that’s why they still need an economic system. (Well, that, and nearly-post-material-scarcity only means that mining, generating, and manufacturing is super-cheap, not free, because it still takes energy and thought to do – thermodynamics, it is a bugger. People may only be paying the equivalent of $20/month, easily covered by the Citizen’s Dividend, for the right to manufacture a giant pile of consumer goods every day, but that trivial cost is still there on the back-end.)

As for capitalism – well, now, I find that something of an unfortunately loaded term in *here*’s politics, so I try not to use it to describe things *there*. Their system is both propertarian – inasmuch as it esteems private property, and makes great use of property rights in various areas – and agorist – making use of free markets (which, given their views on the essential nature of consent, is close to the only ethically permitted option).

When I say “loaded”, of course, one of the things I mean is that people assume that capitalism includes only for-profit corporations (which the Empire’s system doesn’t – as the link above says, CEZ economies have an extensive agalmic component, and usually support healthy gift economies, open source communities, alternative internal economic arrangements (co-operatives, ecodemocracies, etc., etc.), the bounty economy, the street performer protocol (like Kickstarter), etc., with wage-based employment (which is almost nonexistent outside indenture – see here, here, and here). It is, if you will, also a free market in free market types.

…and it stays that way, essentially, ethical issues aside for the moment, because the Empire got to become a wealthy nearly-post-material-scarcity civilization by being organized that way, and the wise man does not kick away the ladder that got him where he is today. Especially if he’s still standing on it.

As for how the currency’s based, there’s a good explanation of that here (look down in the article; the first part covers why it’s Very Much Not Gold). It’s essentially fiat, but a peculiar kind of independent fiat designed to match the currency base accurately to the production capacity of the economy (because inflation is a form of robbing creditors to pay debtors, and deflation is a form of robbing debtors to pay creditors, and that is just not on, no sir).

As far as inequality is concerned, I can do no better than point you at the explanation here: Trope-a-Day: No Poverty.

The other thing that seems odd is that they are very planet focused and mentions of space habitats of all shapes and sizes seems rare. How common are Eldrae habitable worlds? What makes planets more useful than more energy and resource efficient habitats? How have they varied the basic habitat designs?

Um, not sure where you’re getting that from. I seem to recall more than a few mentions of one habitat or another, and canonically about three-fifths of the Imperial population are spacers, only two-fifths living on planets. (By no means all of which are habitable, if by that you mean “shirt-sleeve habitable”; most of the populated planets in the Worlds are partially-terraformed Mars-type worlds, which are actually much easier to deal with than existing garden worlds, habitability-wise.) There’s a certain bias towards garden worlds in the Thirteen Colonies, back in the Imperial Core, because of the preferences of the old subluminal colonization days, but in general, it’s not so; and the list of “habitables” tends to include worlds like Sialhain (Venus-like, colonized in aerostats), and Galine (Titan-like), and so forth.

As for why planets – why not planets? People started out being used to them. Sometimes people like seeing landscapes that someone doesn’t have the architectural plans for, or smelling a few trillion tonnes of aeon-old biomass on the wind. (Or maybe they just like wind, who knows?) Or, y’know, because planets have oceans, and while there are aquatic habitats,  you’re not getting the cetacean uplifts out of the Big Puddles any time soon. It’s not a decision anyone’s making out of questions of efficiency, being nearly-post-material-scarcity, and all; it’s a decision people make because they feel like it, and why not?

As a side note: garden worlds are also extremely useful and valuable because they have ecologies, which are very information-dense. And even in the most crassly commercial sense, an ecology is a giant library-cum-research-program of new biotechnological and nanotechnological tricks to draw from. It’s just good business.

(Outside the Empire and other transsophont cultures, of course, many people live primarily on planets because they’re too Luddite or biochauvinist to modify themselves to live comfortably long-term in microgravity. But, hey, someone’s got to be the meek who inherit the Earth, right?)

Habitat-wise: well, I’m going to keep the details under my hat a bit until we see them in fic, but teaser-wise, what I will say is that while there are some O’Neill cylinders and the like, the majority of them could be classified as modular structures or asteroid beehives, operating in microgravity – and even the cylinders tend to operate under low spin gravity. After all, why live on a faux planet when there are plenty of real planets around? Spacers prefer to live spacer-style among spacer-style architecture, by and large.

Trope-a-Day: Matter Replicator

Matter Replicator: The cornucopia machine or autofac, which can build matter into pretty much any object that you want and have – or can write – a recipe for.

Sadly, they are required to obey the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of mass-energy.  They also tend to incorporate – especially in larger models designed to build larger objects – arrays of specialized nanofactories and macro-scale tools, and require plenty of energy and specialized appropriate feedstocks for whatever it is you want them to build (so mining, refining, recycling, bactries, and the rest of the industrial supply chain haven’t gone away quite yet).  You can make them increasingly general-purpose in these areas at the cost of greater inefficiency – field autofacs are a lot less elegant and more energy-hungry and expensive to run than standard household models.

Living things generally have to be grown in a medical vat instead; simply because most of them tend to die when only half-printed.  Yes, this is exactly as gross as it sounds.  (Also, some dead organic matter – well, let me put it this way.  While you can print up a steak in an autofac, steak is still made in carniculture vats, because first, self-replicating steak is cheaper, and second, it gets boring eating the exact same steak hundreds or thousands of times.  Similar although aesthetic considerations are why vatwood is generally preferred to directly replicated wood – although vatwood planks are seen as input to larger autofacs.)

Nonetheless, they’re more than good enough for post-material scarcity purposes.

Trope-a-Day: Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense

Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Part of the problem – to an extent, sense being defined as specifically those kinds of it that apply in scarcity economies – the Empire and its economic peers have in relating to the rest of the galaxy, specifically those parts of it that aren’t awash in automation, cornucopias, and in any case, cashy money.  Which is to say, those who’ve read history or geography enough to learn about the past or elsewhere can more or less appreciate the notion of poverty as an abstract datum, but, y’know, it feels like poverty ought to mean something like bandwidth limitations, or having a valet-bot with no sense of taste, or having to make do with public-domain fashion, or something.  At worst, the sort of temporary condition that happens on very early colonies or during disasters before you get the power plants and the autofacs up and running (again).

The sort of thing that we would recognize as poverty, either here in the West or worse, in the Third World, isn’t even on the imaginative radar of the modal Imperial citizen-shareholder.  Those who do come to appreciate its existence generally form the core of the faction that wants to see Order, Progress, Liberty and the Imperial Way of Life rammed down the throat of the entire galaxy right the hell now, because gods above and gods below, how can any sophonts bear to live like that?

(This is also the one, incidentally, that supports any number of smugglers willing to take immortagens and cornucopia machines to the Oppressed Masses, and remains terribly, terribly confused that people who have all the means to live in a comfortable not-as-cool-as-ours-obviously but still pretty damn nice Utopia still manage to consistently screw it up.)

Also, apposite and relevant Jeeves and Wooster quotation: “As I stood in my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them. I’d always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves and haven’t got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don’t you know. I mean to say, ever since then I’ve been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick.

What’s In That Bigger Pie?

As usual, we regret our inability to provide an adequate economic profile of the Empire of the Star, due to the Exchequer’s ongoing decision to not publish detailed economic statistics suitable for external use, continuing to cite former Chancellor Valéran Quendocius-ith-Lirendocius’s comment that “Publishing such things only encourages damn fools to think they ought to do something about them, and no good’s ever come of that.”

Back-calculation from such internal statistics as are available, such as total collections by the Office of the Imperial Revenue and trade statistics provided by major Imperial trade partners, suggests a gross domestic product of the order of 24.4 quintillion esteyn (317.2 quintillion Accord exvals at current exchange rates); equivalent to a per capita GDP of the order of 9.5 million esteyn (123.8 million exvals).

These figures are highly disputed and subject to error.  In-house and external economists disagree widely on attributive weights, and appropriate means to model factors including but not limited to the sizes and effects elsewhere of the agalmic, prestative, and reputation economies; the proper attribution of value to and the values of externalities positive and negative, household production, and ecosystem services; the Exchequer’s method of computing ongoing net costs of permanent resource consumption; and the effects of post-scarcity production methods on total factor productivity.  Investors are cautioned that such considerations should lead the estimated figures given to be taken as a minimum baseline for comparison; fair-baseline adjusted comparative figures could vary up to 1,000% on the upside, depending upon model selected.

– Investor Watch: State of the Markets, First Exval Bank of Meridian

Trope-a-Day: Conspicuous Consumption

Conspicuous Consumption: Hard to tell sometimes (because Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap), but by and large, what you see is not conspicuous consumption – because they’re not all that fond of consumption – but rather the side-effects of massive for post-scarcity values of massive wealth – noting that gold is a glut on the metals market and diamonds are junk stone readily manufacturable from air by the ton – that renders even tiny improvements in marginal utility worth paying for, coupled with an ideological commitment to beauty and excellence (i.e., the kind of cultural reason they call out as not this trope).  So they’re not, usually, so much status goods to be viewed by others as awesomeness goods to be pleasing to the self.

Granted, the difference can be hard to tell with the naked eye…

Trope-a-Day: Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap

Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: …sort of.  Hydroponically grown food and meat out of the carniculture vats is cheaper, for example, yes.  That’s what mass production is for.

But it’s not like anyone’s going to go broke buying a nat-steak dinner.  Sure, people aren’t going to be eating nat-steak every night, but it’s not like a night out at the Natural Foods Restaurant (“Don’t Eat Vat!, et. al.) now and again is going to be out of reach of anyone with, well, an income.  Because the difference here isn’t that natural foods became more expensive due to environmental degradation, or whatever, it’s that vatfood became dirt cheap.

(Slight exception: well, okay, you can’t fit that many cows into a space station.)

Played straight in most other areas: after all, in near-post-scarcity economics, Baumol’s Cost Disease is in full play.  Cornucopias can make pretty much anything made of common elements of regular matter for trivial amounts of money; people’s time, on the other hand, is expensive.

Which leads to counterintuitive results: diamond, for example, is a practically worthless structural material – and not even a good structural material, being too flammable – because even the simplest assemblers can produce arbitrarily large amounts of carbon-crystal in short order.  Gold is cheap due to automated belt mining.  Anyone can afford to parade around in diamond-encrusted cloth-of-gold pants.  On the other hand, that hand-sewn, hand-embroidered shirt of what, to our eyes, are much humbler materials was orders of magnitude more expensive.  Hand-made goods are practically the definition of luxury.

Empathy Remains Scarce

Interesting comment in this post by Cat Valente over at

On top of that, it’s damnably hard to fashion a sympathetic protagonist out of someone who has never struggled in the way we struggle in our own lives, to present someone who does not come off as a monster of privilege. My hat is off to those who can manage it, to me it seems a miraculous mid-air twist without a net.

Well, in my universe, at least, the answer is simple – they’re not all that sympathetic.  The modal Imperial citizen-shareholder has never experienced any significant amount of war, crime, disease, death, pain, poverty, suffering, injustice, fear, loss, callousness or even inconvenience.  The same is true to a lesser extent – the Empire being the most flagrantly proto-post-scarcity of the set – of citizens of most of the advanced societies of the Associated Worlds.

Their capacity for empathy with those still afflicted with such things, therefore, is highly circumscribed by a lack of imagination, or at the very least a lack of any particular desire to imagine.  That, and that the solutions are always perfectly clear in hindsight, and it does not take much to translate that lack of imagination as to how unclear they may have been in foresight into a stammered “All you of Earth are idiots!”  (There are people who endeavor to point this out to the people who want to make the world better, but it’s not easy.)

So, yes, by and large the average citizen of the advanced future is an accidental total dick when interacting with more trouble-beset folks, even if they are right about How You’re Doing It Wrong.  That’s just sophont nature.

Which is why I’m keeping away from writing this sort of situation.