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: 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.

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.

Air Ain’t Free

“Charges in place? Conduits sealed? Okay, go ahead and open it up.”

The heavy wrench descending, clangingly, on the sealed emergency hatch once, twice, three times before the seal broke, a wave of fouled air rushing out past the linobir enforcer and hsis men. Beyond, the milling crowd, faces pale and dark and congested with nerves, eyed them uneasily and decided not to make a break for it.

“All right, which of you self-fuckin’ dock-rats claims t’be in charge of this section?” hse bellowed. “He’s got some things to ‘splain and so have I. Speak out, if breathin’ this crud hasn’t rotted your brains too much to parse plain Trade.”

Hser eye fell on a pair of scruffy deshnik arguing with one of his men, brandishing a smart-paper token.

“She’s got a pass? Any of the rest of you recognize this one?”

“Sure, boss, up on Thirty with the Torashanika clan.”

“Then get out of here – Just you, kid. He ain’t got a pass… No arguin’. You got three choices. You can stay here and kiss space with the rest of ‘em when their time comes, or you can run back to your clan-group and try an’ talk ‘em into buying out his life-debt.” Not that there was much chance of even a desperate clan-group doing that for a casteless deshnika flesh-peddler. “Or you can try and get past me an’ I’ll paint the deckhead with your brains. Estrev always gets his cut; no exceptions.”

“Listen up, the rest of you clut-grubbers! I speak for the drift-estrev, and the drift-estrev is not happy. You’re breathin’ his air and burnin’ his bunkerage, and what’s he getting back from you? Nothin’ but dioxide, taint, and an infestation of this pink shit.”

The linobir kicked at a squirming tendril of the ubiquitous hab-slime with a mid-limb.

“Now the estrev says you’ve got two cycles to pay off your life-debts and figure out how to make him value your worthless selves, or else I get to take the four pounds of trinol packed into these joints and blow your shit-house sewerslum right off station-end. Tell whoever’s hidin’ back there and breathe deep while y’can.”

“Close it up, boys. Message delivered.”

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.


(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.)