An Economist Nitpicks Sci-Fi: Employment in The Expanse
There is a long and glorious tradition of nitpicking science fiction among fans of the genre. I personally derive a lot of my enjoyment of a work from engaging with and thinking about the setting of the work, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard, especially among readers of fantasy and science fiction.
Typically, it is the science of science fiction that gets the most attention but I’m far less qualified than the likes of Phil Plait or Neil deGrasse Tyson to go into the scientific inaccuracies of fictional works. Instead, I wanted to focus on something that is both less often covered and more in my wheelhouse – the economics of science fiction. In addition to getting to pedantically analyse another’s work I’m hoping I’ll be able to shed some light on current issues in economics.
Before I get into the work itself, a note on spoilers. I will be covering the setting of The Expanse, but not the plot. The setting details I will discuss reflect the state of the setting at the start of the first novel, so you won’t get spoiled on plot or character details by reading this post. But since the setting details I discuss are necessary for the post to make sense, I will be revealing these setting details without spoiler markings. This would only be a problem if you want to read the Expanse totally blind, but if you do then you shouldn’t read this post at all. I will ask commenters to tag all plot or character details as spoilers though. I myself have read the first four books, and am up-to-date on the TV adaptation.
The Expanse is a series of novels written by a pair of authors under the name James S A Corey. So far, 6 Expanse novels have been published. It has also been adapted for TV by Syfy, and the show is currently into the content of book 2.
The setting is “near-Earth” – thanks to efficient fusion drives humanity has colonised our solar system, but there is no faster-than-light travel. Held in Einstein’s iron grip, after centuries of space travel humanity hasn’t settled much further out than Jupiter – there are a few outposts further out than this and the Mormon Church has commissioned a generation ship, the Nauvoo, to carry them to another star, but the trip will take them centuries and no one else is seriously considering interstellar travel.
Politically, the two major players in the system are Earth, led by the United Nations, and the Martian Congressional Republic. There are also the Belters, the people who live in the asteroid belt or on the far-flung outposts, but they lack the unity or political clout to assert themselves much.
The relationship between Earth and Mars is officially peaceful, but tense. Both have designs on controlling the system, and are more-or-less equally matched. Mars has a much smaller population than Earth, and has much less in the way of native resources – Mars is still uninhabitable, leading this population to live in domes and underground habitats. They make up for this will a massive cultural drive to achieve and technological superiority – it was a Martian that invented those fusion drives that everyone uses.
Earth by contrast has a massive population, in fact it is severely over-populated – earth’s population exceeds 30 billion. And very few of those people have jobs, which is the aspect of The Expanse I want to talk about.
Less than half of Earth’s working-age population has a job, employment and education opportunities are restricted to those who have the drive to work (a year’s work experience is required to receive higher education). The rest subsist on Basic Assistance, the details of this policy are a little vague, but it is implied to be a basket of goods rather than a cash Universal Basic Income. But the what interests me less than the why – why does Earth have such a high unemployment rate?
Well, technically Earth probably has a near-zero unemployment rate, so let’s start by defining terms. Official labour force statistics divide working-age people into three categories:
- Employed (E): Those who have a job.
- Unemployed (U): Those who don’t have a job, but are actively looking for one.
- Not In Labour Force (N): Those who don’t have a job and are not actively looking for a job.
The Unemployment Rate is defined as the percentage of people in the labour force who are unemployed (U/(U+E)). It’s unlikely that people on Basic are looking for work as they have no chance of getting it, so there is probably very little unemployment on Earth. Instead, what we need to focus on is the labour force non-participation rate, the fraction of working-age people not in the labour force (N/(N+U+E)). How did Earth end up with a non-participation rate over 50%? Here are some suggestions in what i consider ascending order of plausibility
Hypothesis 1 – Too Many Cooks
The first thing one might think is that this is a product of overpopulation – there just aren’t enough jobs for so many people. While this is a common way to look at unemployment, it doesn’t match the realities of the labour market. The demand for workers is not fixed, but rather depends on the demand for the goods and services the workers produce – you hire workers because you have work you want them to do. And the demand for goods and services is, in part, a function of how many people there are to demand goods and services, workers should defend their rights at all times I suggest to check out workers comp attorney idaho to get more information on workers’ rights.
This misconception of employment is common enough that there is a name for it – the Lump of Labour Fallacy. Since labour demand scales dynamically with population, mere population increase wouldn’t explain why so few people have jobs. After all, Earth’s population increased massively over the 20th Century, and that didn’t cause massive unemployment.
Hypothesis 2 – Blame it on Bots
So what else might explain the lack of jobs? One possibility is technological unemployment, where technological progress renders workers obsolete. Technological unemployment means different things to different people, and some versions suffers from the Lump of Labour fallacy, just as the overpopulation story does. The mere fact that certain jobs can now be automated won’t cause employment loss at the economy-level. If some jobs disappear that creates opportunities for other industries to hire people who would have been unavailable before. The Industrial Revolution sparked a massive reduction in demand for agricultural labour and that didn’t result in half the working-age population not having jobs.
There is however a version of technological unemployment that focuses less on the jobs than the workers. The story goes that there is a minimum cost of hiring a worker – take the minimum wage and add the administrative and compliance costs of hiring someone and you get a floor for how much economic value someone has to be able to produce to be employable. If improved automation replaces enough possible jobs, so this story goes, then a larger and larger fraction of the population may find themselves unemployable. In this world, the point of restricting education isn’t to ration employment but rather to ensure that resources are only spent on people who will be able to hold down a job.
But this story isn’t dependent on population, only on technology. Which raises the question, what about Mars? Mars has more sophisticated technology than Earth, but has no issues with labour participation. Do they just space their unemployable population? If so, you’d expect Earthers to bring that up every time a Martian calls Earthers a bunch of layabouts on welfare. If Mars can find work for all of its people, then Earth should be able to too. I think we need to look elsewhere for our explanation of why so few Earthers have work.
Whenever one encounters strange behaviour from an economy, it’s at least worth considering whether a government has a hand in it. This is especially true when considering a phenomenon that is present in one polity, while being absent in a similar polity. Since James SA Corey doesn’t explain the details of Earth or Mars’s economic policy (which is hardly a surprise, since I may be the only person who’d actually want to read that), I can’t actually validate any of these possibilities, but since they aren’t contradicted by other details in the text either, they seem more plausible to me than either of the options above.
Hypothesis 3 – Blame it on Bureaucracy
If Earth had much higher minimum wages or much more stringent (and expensive) safety requirements than Mars does it would make a person with a given level of aptitude more employable on Mars than on Earth. This is similar to technological unemployment, but with the added bonus of explaining why Mars isn’t affected. However, Mars is inherently more dangerous than Earth (no air, hard radiation on the surface), so unless Mars has a prodigious workplace fatality rate this seems unlikely. It could be minimum wages, but if minimum wages were causing that many people to be unemployable I’d have expected someone to notice by now.
Hypothesis 4 – The Cycle of Defeat
lets say that a bunch of people lose their jobs due to technological changes. Let’s further say that they are given a choice between retraining to a very different job or going on Basic. A bunch of those workers might well feel that changing jobs is too hard, or messes with their self-concept too much so they choose Basic, and once on Basic they stop looking for work. Over time a larger and larger fraction of people end up on Basic, leading Earth’s government to conclude that there just aren’t enough jobs to go round (they may even believe that technology or overpopulation are to blame). So they start cutting education resources and reallocating the funding to pay for Basic. Which leads to more people on Basic, leading to further cutbacks, and so forth. A misconception about how the economy works leads to spiraling cuts in employment until most of the working-age population are on welfare. By contrast, Mars doesn’t offer Basic as an option to the technologically unemployed, which means they never get locked in the loop. So we have Mars needing more workers while Earth is awash with people they have concluded are useless.
If I’m right about this hypothesis it highlights a couple of interesting points that apply outside of science fiction:
- Mistakes in your model of the economy can have dire consequences. While history is abundant with examples of this, we can see here what a bad idea of economics can do to a society. Earth is only barely keeping pace with Mars when it comes to controlling the system, but they are fighting with one hand behind their back. If they were willing to use their full population, as Mars does, they could easily dominate the system.
- Productivity is context-dependent. There’s a tendency to think of a person’s productivity as how hard they are willing to work. But developing countries are full of hard-working people with low productivity. Without capital, education, training and institutional and cultural support, even the most dedicated people in the world would be unproductive. Not only can conflating economic activity with personal virtue cause serious social problems, it can also lead to people being denied opportunities to contribute fully to their country’s economy, which is inefficient.
- Policy innovations should be tested thoroughly. There are a lot of advocates for Universal Basic Incomes (I’m even one of them) but conservatives do have a point that new ideas can have nasty unforeseen outcomes. So if you’re going to introduce a new policy, try running some properly-controlled pilot programmes before committing (some post-implementation evaluations wouldn’t hurt either). No matter how good an idea looks on paper, anything involving people is going to be much more complicated than you think it will be.
Image: First issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, (January 1930)