An Economist Nitpicks Sci-Fi: Employment in The Expanse


James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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61 Responses

  1. Avatar Daniel Abraham says:

    Worth noting that “basic” in The Expanse isn’t basic income, but a controlled, non-monetary system of delivering shelter and food to an otherwise indigent population (with all the efficiency and humane, informed decision-making that centrally planned economies lead to).Report

  2. Avatar Joe Sal says:

    Salient points. I do have a questions on the productivity references. Do you see that if a person works on a dedicated level and achieves long term capital formation, that possibly could be as (or more) productive in relation to efficiency as someone who is highly productive, but is unable to achieve long term capital formation because of the parameters of the system?Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      I’m not sure I follow. What do you mean by achieving capital formation?Report

      • Avatar Joe Sal says:

        Exchanges that lead to ownership of assets, or equipment, tooling, transportation, facilities that add efficiency, and stability, to a producers operation.

        Producers can be productive, even highly productive within a process, but the process can be very limiting without the ability to achieve capital formation.

        An example might be a lumber jack that can harvest five trees a day with an axe, and that may be highly productive for the process of harvesting with a axe, but with enough wealth from previous work a chainsaw can be purchased, and fuel, allowing the ability to harvest ten trees a day.

        If the lumber jack were in a system that he was unable to collect or hold the wealth from the process, he would fail to achieve capital formation that could improve his efficiency.Report

        • Avatar James K says:


          Ah, yes I see. Absolutely, the ability of a society to form capital is vital to its ability to increase its productivity. It doesn’t have to be the lumberjack who owns the chainsaw (the lumberjack can afford to rent it an still make more money on net), but if no one can produce or own chainsaws then there will be problems.Report

          • Avatar Joe Sal says:

            Lets put aside for a moment, the rent, money on net and banning ownership. I understand the vantage points, but want to discuss more the direct parameters of capital formation.

            If we look at the social systems that create the fees, licensing, regulation, and taxes, how do these affect the ability to achieve capital formations? It typically degrades the ability of producers to achieve capital formation.

            So what I suppose happens is there is a ‘social’ load that a system has to endure. The heavier the load the more difficult it is to achieve (and maintain) capital formations.

            To the system that is highly loaded, add the possibility for producers to defect out of producing. The incentives quickly build in favor of defecting.Report

            • Avatar James K says:


              I tend to think of it the other way – in a political vacuum it is extremely difficult to form capital – its too easy to lose your investment to predation, which makes most investments pointless.

              The question is, what institutional structures are good at promoting capital formation? Defensible property rights is a very important institution for promoting capital formation (Hernando de Soto has done some good work on this). There is also the basic-level institutional competence Adam Smith called “the tolerable administration of security and justice”, adequate law enforcement, a semblance of rule of law, that kind of thing.

              But yes, as well as promoting capital formation, a state can also inhibit it: be it through expropriation, corruption, very high tax rates or bureaucratic obstacles.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                I would propose their are no political vacuums, just difference in the type and degree of ordering. If a rigid order is well defined and the monopoly of force well known, it makes success of predation through institutions certain.

                If the ordering is spontaineous and unknown it makes the outcomes of predation uncertain.

                I’m not dismissing rule of law, defense of private property, security, enforcement, or justice here, just the way the ordering is achieved.

                So to make my point, I would say the best defense against predation of capital formations is uncertainty that the predator will either face success or annihilation.Report

              • Avatar James K says:


                I would propose their are no political vacuums, just difference in the type and degree of ordering.

                Fair enough.

                I would say the best defense against predation of capital formations is uncertainty that the predator will either face success or annihilation.

                I don’t quite agree for two reasons:

                1) While an uncertain chance of success is better than as certain chance of success, it is inferior to a certain chance of failure. What matters is not so much how uncertain the outcome is as the likely outcome of the predation – the less likely predation is to succeed the less people will do it.

                2) Polycentric power bases with conflicting goals and incomplete information is a recipe for war. The most peaceful environments are the ones where everyone knows who would win if a fight broke out.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                1)Have you found a monolith of power base where predation doesn’t continue in at least the magnitude it existed without the monolith? Have you found a monolithic power base that doesn’t command and control an economy?

                2)since man has found that he can create social constructs, has there ever been anything other than polycentric power bases engaged in some type or intensity of war?

                I read much behind the theories of these things, I just question the premises.

                I guess my shorter point would be that Hobbes may be finished with the free market, but the free market is not finished with Hobbes.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                1) Sure – central government is far from perfect, but its a lot better than feuding warlords. We’re nowhere close to “solving” government (assuming that’s even possible), but things are definitely better than they used to be.

                2) It’s a matter of degree – there’s a lot less war than there used to be.Report

  3. Avatar Kimmi says:

    You should hear the explanation one of the DS9 writers came up with for the Ferengi…
    (who, you’ll recall, still trade in hard currency, despite the presence of replicators).Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    If the issue is comparing the number of people on Earth with the number of people on Earth who have jobs, shouldn’t the appropriate analysis be (N+U)/(N+U+E)?Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      Unemployment is qualitatively different from being not in the labour force, and has fundamentally different causes so it would be rare to lump the two together in the same category.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      In the scenario presented, the assumption is that anyone who actually wants a job can have one; so “U” and “E” are equivalent in the analysis.Report

  5. At the start of this aritcle I thought how much fun a similar analysis of the economics of Isacc Asimov’s Foundation series would be. I learned a great deal about the development of economic systems from those books. The Spacers were like Fuller Brush salesman, hawking one planet’s wares to another, which led to a galactic economic system eventually managed by the largest bureaucracy fictional mankind would ever experience.

    As for this article, one thinks of the New Deal, while well-intentioned, created an underclass stuck in the “loop” of unemployment and undereducation.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      I’ve actually never read Foundation (I’ve read a lot of Asimov’s short stories, but not his novels). I’ll admit that the idea of psychohistory really bothers me, which is one of the reason’s I’ve never read it, but I agree it would be a good topic for discussion. Perhaps I should read it.Report

  6. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Not only can conflating economic activity with personal virtue cause serious social problems…

    Something that should be beaten into people’s heads from a very early age.

    PS Excellent piece, thanks for taking the time to write it!Report

  7. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Interesting discussion piece. Random thoughts…

    Most science fiction authors believe in a concept that can be summarized as “for a given lifestyle and technology, the planet has a carrying capacity.” They speculate about what a nominal carrying capacity — in The Expanse, 30B people on Earth — requires in terms of lifestyle and tech. Here the authors’ hypothesis is that 30B requires cheap energy (fusion), heavy automation, and restriction of lifestyle (Basic Assistance) for many/most. This hypothesis is really common in science fiction, and has been for a long time. Consider Asimov’s Caves of Steel books. Asimov’s Earth resembles that of The Expanse, with heavy automation and lots of lifestyle restrictions — his equivalent of Basic Assistance is not pleasant. The Spacer planets, OTOH, have truly lavish lifestyles and restrict population in one fashion or another. Interestingly, we’re within spitting distance of the 8B that Asimov considered grossly overpopulated when he was writing in the 1950s.

    Another way to state it is that most science fiction authors believe Malthus is right in the long run that there are resource limits. Also scientists, see eg Tom Murphy’s Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist. Assuming small growth rates in energy release other than normal incoming solar, tides, and small amounts of radioactive decay (fossil fuels, fission, fusion, solar arrays in orbit microwaving power down, etc), waste heat alone means unsustainable surface temperature increases in a remarkably short time — a few hundred years [1]. No greenhouse gas effect required, just simple thermodynamics and exponential growth. That topic is occasionally addressed — Niven’s Puppeteers moved their home planet twice to deal with the waste heat problem (and still ended up with serious population control). Sources like solar and wind, with relatively low return on energy invested, reach limits. High quality energy production will reach limits; what then?

    Science fiction authors also like overshoot stories — what if population overshoots the carrying capacity and Bad Things happen? Slow poison from pollution; resource wars; population crashes in various ways. Even cultural adaptation that assumes cyclical planet-wide booms and busts, a la Niven and Pournelle’s Moties. When economists do it, the profession generally seems to pile on scorn. We’re just reaching the point where the oft-derided Limits to Growth model funded by the Club of Rome says things are going to get interesting.

    It’s not strictly a lump of labor fallacy. Rather, assumptions that consumption must be limited, which implies that production must be limited. Add automation and you get some form of two-tier society — the rich will always be with us. Are the rest on Basic Assistance? Cast loose to live in global slums? Something else? Or alternatively, a sharply limited population with high wealth for everyone?

    [1] Extend the growth rate from the past 350 years, and surface temperature reaches 100 °C in about another 350 years.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      I don’t think waste heat would raise the planet’s temperature enough to measure. The combined electric power output of the entire planet is 0.00157% of the amount of sunlight we receive at the top of atmosphere. Allowing that production is only about 33% efficient (multiplying current energy production by three because it all becomes heat), and upping the population to 50 billion still only raises human generated heat to 0.028% of the solar energy we receive.

      Changes in land use, and thus albedo, would have a much greater effect than the waste heat.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        I’ve explained it poorly. High-quality energy consumption has increased at 3% per year for 350 years. Today that amount of energy, expressed as a fraction of total sunlight at the top of the atmosphere, is 4.7e-5 (because, as you note, even the useful stuff ends up as heat). Assume the growth rate continues for another 350 years. Consumption will be

        4.7e-5 * 1.03**350 = 1.46

        1.46 times total sunlight. In 400 years, 6.4 times. In 450 years, 28.1 times. Doesn’t matter what the albedo is, that’s a problem. It’s also silly, so something else is going to happen. What and when are matters for speculation.Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          Well, 350 years ago we consumed virtually no energy, so the 3% annual increase from nearly nothing doesn’t indicate that much. I’d look at how current US and European consumption has flat lined or decreased, and take that plateau as a data point on how much energy a person in a very rich country will ever need to consume. It indicates that we only need so many lights and so much heating and air conditioning, etc. Plus, that value will probably drop as we switch to LED lighting and other such things.

          Judging by energy consumption per capita, we’ll probably top out between 5 and 10 kW per person. That would put the energy use of 50 billion people living at US or European standards at about 250 to 1000 TW. That would be 0.14% to 0.28% of the solar energy received. By then we should be running plants at least at 50% efficiency, so the 50 billion people might produce 0.3 to 0.5% as much energy as we receive from the sun.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            Me, I think population growth will top out. I think per-capita energy use will top out. I’m asking for people to point me at mainstream economic growth theories that claim those will top out, and at least speculate on conditions (and preferably time frames) when such will occur. I think overshoot is likely, and that political reactions to that will be ugly.Report

            • Avatar James K says:


              That’s not how economics works. Growth theories are explanations of how economic growth works, not how much growth to expect in future (you’d need to know too much to be able to use a growth theory to generate forecasts). As an aside, these theories are woefully undercooked, we’re not even close to being able to work out how to turn low growth economies into high growth ones, which gives you a good idea of how poorly growth is understood.

              What you want is a growth forecast, and no one in their right mind would try to forecast growth that far out – 10 year forecasts are barely better than wild guesses, a 100 year forecast would be utterly meaningless.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                “how to turn low growth economies into high growth ones”
                … let the Powers that Be fuck them. Sex sells, after all.

                (Actually, just pulling GDP numbers, Ethiopia is running 11% GDP growth a year? How in the world are they pulling that off?)Report

            • Avatar George Turner says:

              I don’t think you need to look at economic theories that predict those things will top out. I think you’d look at other sciences that would say those would top out.

              For example, people of Walmart aside, you can be assured that per capita calorie intake won’t keep going up. There’s only so much food a person is going to eat in a day. We know pretty well how much that is.

              For energy, cars are going to get more efficient, not less, and people aren’t going to drive more and more hours each day, without bound. At most they could drive 24 hours in a day, but no more than that.

              One of the “slow downs” in the heavy appliance sector was realized to be the norm. The previous high growth rates were sales to people who didn’t already have a washer, dryer, or dishwasher. Once everyone has those, they don’t run out and get two of each. A house in the year 2300 isn’t going to have 6 washing machines, 5 dryers, 4 dishwashers, and 8 refrigerators.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      Environmental constraints are an issue I didn’t get into because they don’t explain why there are no jobs for most of the population – environmental constraints will limit population, but wouldn’t cap the rate of labour force participation.

      Also, reading the linked article the physicist is overplaying their hand a little:
      1) There is no law of economics that requires growth can continue forever. Politics has an incentive to maintain growth
      2) Even if there were, that doesn’t mean there’s anything we can or should do about it right now.
      3) Hard limits on resources tend to be less hard than people first think. A 19th Century physicist would have been talking about how combustible fuel was the binding constraint – the idea of a power source that violated the Law of Conservation of Energy (as it was understood in the 19th Century) like nuclear does would have been dismissed as fantasy. If we can move most of our manufacturing off-world then waste heat will be much less of a problem. And if it still is, you just ship hot water or steam up into space, let it freeze and send it back down as ice. That’s a solution I came up with within a minute of reading the article, so I don’t think its unreasonable to assume this is something we can work our way around to a very large extent.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        With apologies in advance for being rude, it’s okay for an economist to criticize physicists because 19th century physics theory was incomplete, but not for a physicist to criticize an economist for the same reasons? Or for an economist to speculate about a magic heat pump but not for others to speculate on what conditions would support an Earth population of 30 billion?

        I ask those as a systems analyst living in a large developed country where every recession seems to be followed by a longer “jobless recovery”, where the labor participation rate shows little sign of recovering to historical levels, and where an increasing number of people are being shuffled on to “basic assistance” by hook or by crook.Report

        • Avatar James K says:


          I’m merely pointing out that the physicist was failing to put error bars on his model, which is a classic sign of hubris. In my experience, physicists are used to studying much simpler phenomena than social scientists do, which often results in them being much more confident of their predictions than they should be. I was able to come up with a possible solution to heat buildup after thinking about ti for less than a minute, my solution may well not work in practice, but the whole of humanity has more than a century to solve this problem, so I’m not that worried.

          As for what is going on the the US, I don’t know – nobody does. There are theories, but that’s all they are. I’m not trying to tell you I have all the answers, all I’m saying is that I’m not going to pretend I can see the future when I can’t.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            I don’t think we have more than a century to solve anything, really. Not in the numbers that we have now, at any rate. Significant powerful people want a culling of everyone (being rather unthoughtful people, they want to keep people like themselves — and they aren’t terribly intelligent). First World countries have genocide on the books as a “solution” to excess population (and we haven’t even touched on the wall that’s been built so that people will drown rather that emigrate easily).

            In this century, we’ve had at least one event that had a 10% chance of killing all life on earth (and more than that of killing “enough people to matter”). And that wasn’t even disease (I’m pretty sure the CDC has some predictions on worldwide epidemic of death (as opposed to just ‘makes people sick’)).

            With global warming, we’re going to have trouble feeding people (20 years from now, America will be able to support 2/3rds of its current population).

            When the physicists start throwing around hard data, I get wary. Economics is a hard mistress, but if we can’t even feed people, well, stuff’s going to get bad in a hurry.Report

            • Avatar George Turner says:

              How are we not going to be able to feed people? Will the growing season be so long that the farmers get bored and forget to harvest the crops?

              Global cooling: bad for crops
              Global warming: good for cropsReport

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                photosynthesis has a curve where you can easily get too hot for efficient growth, particularly without adequate water resources. Plants just shut down and stop growing when it gets too hot and dry.

                You HAVE seen grass turn brown in August, have you not???

                Twenty years from now, our American growing season is predicted to be 10 days shorter.

                And that’s not even touching the draining of the OgallalaReport

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Current Capitalism as an economic system isn’t functional without growth. Without the expectation that investment is going to lead to profits, rich folks aren’t going to sink money into anything. They treat it like playing tiddlywinks anyway — merely a matter of keeping score.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      What’s especially interesting to me is that more recent history strongly suggests that populations won’t grow uncontrollably and that it’s entirely likely that they’re in danger of stagnating or even flat out declining once a society reaches a certain level of development. It’ll be interesting to see sci-fi that grapples with that new paradigm though I suspect we won’t see a lot of it because, frankly, eliminating Malthusian problems through lack of population growth eliminates a hell of a lot of potential plots.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        Yes, an important thing to remember in projections about How Bad It’s Gonna Get is that it was already supposed to be Pretty Darn Bad. Everyone fretting about overpopulation seems to forget how The Population Bomb said there would be seventeen billion people…in 2005. After which there would be a nuclear war that reduced the global population to less than three billion, falling by about a hundred million each subsequent year until it stabilized at about the five hundred million mark. (That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario it hits twenty billion in the nineties and then everyone dies.)Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Yeah, predictions are hard. Still, I wouldn’t live in Miami if I were you. Shitstorms ain’t gonna be fun.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    On a related note, I always wondered how a state level society would deal with problems typical in fantasy novel like evil wizards, dangerous dragons, or demonic overlords. The usually method of dealing with these problems is by having a plucky band of usually rather young adventurers deal with it. Maybe somebody from the ruling family would be involved to give it a sort of state sanctioned inclusion. We know from real life that governments aren’t too fond of relying on plucky outsiders to their work when they can handle things themselves. Its why King and oligarchs abandoned hiring mercenaries as soon as raising an army of subjects or citizens became a viable option. A fighting force that feels some patriotic loyalty to the country it fights for is going to be more likely to die for the country.

    So how would a state deal with fantasy novel type problems in a way that doesn’t involve plucky adventurers? The closest example I can think of are the City Watch novels of Discworld because they are part of the government of Anhk-Morpork. The issues that the City Watch deals with are usually more on the level of police work than demonic overlord though.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Well, Lee, first you need to read more stuff written by economists. Ya know, like Shadow World.

      Second, level one Adventurers are more like “We’ll kill your magic multiplying rathorde”. Something you could do, but… you’re busy making more money doing something else.

      Third, there’s no real reason to assume that you have a functioning entity like France. Countries are implausible under heavy monster creation/attack scenarios. Shadow World has city-states, where people can retreat behind walls when the monsters get too bad.

      Adventurers are either “loyal to king and country” (which, yes you can play. What the hell is Lawful Good for, anyway?), or they form a mobile strike force that you really don’t want drinking the entire town dry (See The Seven Deadly Sins).Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I see rough analogues to challenges to real-world governments, especially pre-industrial ones:

      Evil wizards = organized crime or drug lords (esp. if wizards have minions).
      Dangerous dragons = wild animals, like bears or wolves.
      Demonic overlords = invasion by extraterritorial power.

      Which is to say, real-life governments facing these sorts of problems deal with them in a variety of ways, sometimes successful and sometimes not. They can deploy direct violence through their own militaries or law enforcement; they can deploy indirect violence through privateers (the young plucky adventurers in a fantasy novel count here); they might seek to co-opt or incorporate the bad guys into their governmental structure. The latter option would be more feasible in non-democratic governmental structures like feudalism.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      What do modern states do? Send in either a spy or the Marines!Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      That is an interesting question. The standard medieval solution would be to throw an army at it. If that works, then fine. If not, then its difficult to see how a feudal domain would hold up.

      The RPG Adventurer Conqueror King answers the question by reversing it. In that game, adventurers that rise high enough in level tend to become rulers, so it’s still adventurers that handle evil wizards and dragons, but they are doing it on behalf of the state.

      To get a truly non-heroic institutional response you need higher levels of technology. If a dragon attacked the US, you wouldn’t need to find a champion to slay it, you’d just shoot missiles at it until it died.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Magic can take the place of technology in a fantasy setting though. There isn’t any reason why wizards employed by and loyalty to the state couldn’t act as government agencies to deal with supernatural threats, combined with support from the army and navy. If something more investigatory is needed, wizards can double as medieval FBI/CIA.Report

        • Avatar James K says:


          The trouble is that the concept of the FBI / CIA is a very modern one. In the feudal system political power went hand-in-hand with the capacity to use force. In the real world this translated into owning a lot of land – if you could feed a lot of people you could field a large army, which made you powerful. In a world with magic the question becomes is there a way to control magic users or not? If so, you could get subservient mages under the control of feudal lords. If not, then the mages are the feudal lords.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            All this depends on the balance of power between Monsters and Adventurers/Magic Users. Shadow World puts a different spin on things by letting the Monsters essentially “win” (large expanses of “Here there be dragons” with city states inbetween, guarding exterior food supply from a fortified defensible city).Report

  9. Avatar TrexPushups says:

    What feels very weird to me in this scenario is the limit on education.

    If you can afford to hand over the basic resources you can probably afford to hire loads of teachers and create a very highly educated populace

    Any idea why that idea wouldn’t get attempted?Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Educated people are more inclined to revolt against the status quo?Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      There’s nothing definitive in the books, but to me it implies a worldview where the purpose of education is preparing people for work – if that’s what one sees as the purpose of education then educating the unemployable is pointless.Report

  10. Avatar North says:

    I really enjoyed Webb’s meditations on how the economy of the United Federation of Planets actually works (he tries to both adhere to cannon and also economic principles).

  11. Avatar Silver Wolf says:

    That had been bugging me as well and I wished that they had explained it a bit more as well.

    Technology cannot explain it as most space ships would be automated. Space travel, with it’s limited amount of variables, high number crunching, high risk, and enough room for a robust computer would be the perfect place to automate.

    Regardless of the bad policies that you enact, 50% unemployment means that someone notices that something is wrong long before it gets that bad. Especially when you have an exemplar of a functioning economy in Mars. The only way this makes sense is if a corrupt government enacts policies specifically to control the population by creating artificial scarcity. The problem is that creating that much bad policy, the scam becomes obvious to even the most simple minded.

    The only way this works is if the unemployed are mostly well off and happy. Then they don’t care about the inefficiencies.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      What might be happening is something that’s common in the third world. The 50% unemployed aren’t unemployed, they’re just “officially” unemployed. They work in the black market economy, and aren’t part of official statistics. They don’t file income taxes that lists their cash income, and their employment doesn’t meet government mandated employment requirements such as minimum wage, benefits, safety, and all the rest.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      Bear in mind that The Expanse is set centuries in the future. How many of the social expectations we have today are that old? People will put up will all sorts of awful things if they think of them as normal.

      And the books do indicate that basic is not fun for a lot of people.Report

  12. Avatar Zac Black says:

    That was a very enjoyable article; I always love economic analyses of sci-fi settings. This reminds me, I really need to sit down and write that article I keep meaning to put together for this site about the Eclipse Phase setting, as it’s very rich and ripe for dissection by the commentariat here.Report