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.


(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.)

A Sermon on Wealth

Wealth is not virtuous.

Wealth is virtue.

Does gold have value?  Does silver, or polished kal-gems, cogs or brights or stones or staves, bars or bills, serren-shells or scrip, shares of stock or notes of hand?

Can shining metal feed you?  Can a mound of scrip build a home?  Will all the kal-gems in the world purchase an ounce of honor?

The worth of wealth is not in its substance, but in ourselves; for each bar and coin and note is a frozen promise, a claim on the goods or works of he with whom you choose to redeem it.

And only the finest of our goods and works may sustain our wealth, for none but a fool will purchase ash-crystal in the place of true fireglass; thus wealth is harmony.

And those who deal falsely find themselves shunned by those who give true value to wealth and their markets emptying around them, as those who enrich themselves by fraud and theft find their false profits will not serve them; thus wealth is integrity.

And those who hoard the symbols of wealth for their own sake find nothing but stagnation; thus wealth is right action.

Therefore honor those through whose hands wealth flows most, for in supporting this virtue, they are those who have served us best.

– Word of Covalan, Commentaries