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The Basic Political Bargain

At Arc Digital, I wrote a piece on welfare systems and The Expanse. You don’t need to be familiar with the series to read that post or this one, and there will not be any substantive spoilers in the post. I ask that you use the spoiler tag liberally in the comments. The series is about space haulers, interplanetary geopolitics, and a strange blue goo. My Arc Digital piece is more about the economics and politics. Earth in The Expanse has a very strong welfare net, called Basic Assistance, with roughly half of the world’s population permanently on it. I spend much of my post writing about housing before turning to some of the political repercussions:

There are reasons that the government might not want to pay for [infrastructure in non-urban development], and might even prohibit its construction. There would probably be a lot of new laws and regulations directly aimed at those living on UBI. With Basic, nearly everything becomes a political question. If they’re choosing your menu for you, what kind of menu are they choosing? If they’re picking your entertainment options, what sort of content do they approve or disapprove of?

It’s a technocrat’s dream. The indifference or contempt shown to the recipients of Basic by the characters of The Expanse?—?not to mention the lessons we have learned here on Earth whenever technocrats get the opportunity to plan the lives of the ordinary?—?strongly suggests there would be a lot moralizing involved.

An advantage of UBI, taken by itself, is that it manages to avoid almost all of this. The political liability of UBI is that it undercuts the ability of the government, and by extension other citizens, to do any of this. Consider the degree of resentment that lead to Mitt Romney’s misleading 47 percent comment, or the popular maps showing which states benefit the national treasury and which states don’t. Consider how strongly arguments for regulation of consumer goods are leaning on how much healthcare money is being spent treating related illnesses, and imagine the same thing happening with the decision to have children.

If government services incur obligation on the part of the citizenry, imagine what happens when the government subsidizes an entire lifestyle, year after year, and generation after generation, for a substantial portion of the population. And imagine a nation or world drawn into two parallel societies, possibly separated by geography in tens or hundreds of miles, where one has food and shelter at the pleasure of the other. These issues would get worse, not better.

The politics of such a world really are fascinating. The planet is administered by the United Nations, and I almost wonder if democracy itself couldn’t handle this. How democratic the UN is or isn’t is uncertain. The Secretary General is an elected position, though who elects them is uncertain, as is how votes are counted. No political parties are ever mentioned for Earth. It’s also not clear how the planet is subdivided, though it appears the United States proper doesn’t exist anymore and also that there are autonomous zones suggesting a degree of versatility and flexibility.

In any event, from what I recall roughly half of the population lives on Basic Assistance. If the planet is democratic, that creates some really interesting political dynamics. If you have a political party or perpetual coalition representing (mostly) those on Basic and another representing mostly those who work, if there are elections who wins them is almost entirely a function of how exact that “half” number is, or how the votes are calculated and if they’re calculated in such a way that benefit one side or the other. Given the lack of autonomy those on Basic are given (the government literally decides where they live, and they can be moved and if they don’t go they’re off Basic) it suggests that whatever political system they have it favors those who work, or the 50% is closer to 40%.

Given our response to the Trump Boxes, it seems unlikely that such a political arrangement would work any other way. Which is to say, if those on basic are so restrained, it must be because they lack democratic influence. Perhaps it changes over time, but the response to Trump Boxes demonstrate it’s actually a pretty tough sell. The resentments I talk about in the Arc Digital piece suggest to me that it wouldn’t be straight UBI, but it also seems unlikely it would be this controlling, either. And in addition to such a controlling system being the outcome of a lack of democratic influence, it also suggests that if anything I understate the degree of resentment from the ants to the crickets. They’re downright punitive.

Which, in the context of the universe, actually sort of makes sense. Some of the punitiveness we have in the present day is because of the sense that they could be working but choose not to (or choose not to put themselves in a position where they could work). While that’s not true in this case where there are literally not enough jobs to go around, there is probably a sense that they could go to Mars. And probably some desire that they do.

Apart from my natural interest in housing formations and issues (costs, city vs rural, etc), this is one of the big reasons I focused so much on housing in my piece. There may be a way that everything doesn’t end up strictly segregated by work status, but I have not been able to figure out any apart from a policy of social engineering to make it so. That wouldn’t exist on a planet where the unworking are treated as they are in The Expanse. It’s unlikely to exist even in one where they are more generous with a UBI. In fact, keeping them away may be a part of the grand bargain that makes UBI feasible to begin with.

In any event, feel free to comment on the Arc Digital piece here, in addition to this one of course. Please use the spoiler tag.

Feature Image from The Expanse TV Show.

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95 thoughts on “The Basic Political Bargain

  1. As per my comment here, I agree that a UBI is the best way to do this kind of welfare if we don’t want it to devolve into culture war fodder.


  2. I really enjoyed this and the Arc piece is even better, thanks!

    The first thing that came into my head is licensing laws. In the Arc piece you mention in-home child care and prostitution – but I suspect in this future world of UBI, there would be very strict rules and regs on pretty much every conceivable money-making enterprise and it would be hard, well-nigh impossible to bootstrap oneself off of Basic with under the table money. I envision strict rules about licenses, accreditation, having bonds/insurance, not to mention demands for very strict tax codes governing it all. Having untrained teenagers running dangerous lawn equipment or probably-senile grandmothers looking after the neighbor’s precious children in exchange for money would very likely be illegal in this kind of world. Only the highly trained, accredited experts could mow lawns and babysit.


    • Thanks!

      I could see things going a couple of ways. My first thought is that most of this stuff would be under-the-table. Much like unauthorized immigrant labor is now except you’re dealing with a much larger number of unauthorized workers. My second thought is that it might be so common it is accommodated somehow. From a political standpoint, both people on assistance and people at the lower end of the working spectrum would want this to happen.

      The other possibility is that you still have this degree of large scale unemployment even after all childcare needs are met. I could maybe envision this for dedicated help (nannies, etc) but I think there would still be a market for “Look after him while I go to the store” type cases. Though that would require them living nearby, which presents some economics problems. So maybe there are just day care centers everywhere? I’ll have to think on that.


    • There is a scene late in season 2 where a character meets a ‘man on the street’ (pretty much the first of these we meet on Earth). He’s around 40 years old (iirc) and says he has been on the waitlist for a real job since he was 18. So he gets by as a grey market medical professional.


  3. I’m envisioning government housing with a drop-in daycare in every one, public schooling beginning at birth, and yet people still in dire need of childcare having to haul their kids everywhere. “Why do you even NEED childcare? You are on BASIC!” It could even be a sign of a person’s economic class if they’re at the store with their child instead of having it safely sequestered at home with the nanny (and if this seems farfetched, try walking into Trader Joe’s with 5 children in tow even in this decade, OMGosh the withering looks)

    AKA “People with Basic have all the time in the world to mow their own lawn”


    • Here it sort of depends on whether we’re talking about Basic or UBI.

      With Basic, I would assume that there is no child care provided for those living on it. There might (would probably?) be some sort of bartering among people on basic. It could be as simple as “I look after your kid and you look after mine” or other favors (cleaning house, walking dog, etc). It wouldn’t be money, though, because they get things from the government instead of money.

      With UBI, there may be money to pay people but probably not much of it. So probably unlicensed day care. No way their kids get to go to the same day care as the full-time working folks. There might also be favor-trading here, too.

      In a hybrid system (more likely than either of the two above) what you envision may well be right. If a lot of people aren’t working, though, I do imagine it won’t be as difficult to find people willing to look after your kids than it is now. The main question being what you can give them in return.


      • Humans in their infinite cleverness will do all these things and several others we can’t even dream up. That’s the fun of the genre is imagining the possibilities. Thanks again for a great piece!


      • There’s a few things about kids that are unclear. We see some of the offspring of the Earther elite characters, who seem to arrived in the usual way. James Holden, though, one of two main non-elite* Earth-born characters has an unusual parentage situation. Otoh, there’s like 30 billion people on the planet (I believe), so they are coming from somewhere, and unlikely from a space stork.

        *though is Holden probably still elite, relatively speaking? especially compared to the stories Amos Burton tells about Baltimore?


    • That thought had crossed my mind, too. While Mars seems a straightforward parliamentary system, Earth’s governance is a real mystery. I doubt there is actual disenfranchisement, but It wouldn’t surprise me if whatever they had really strongly favored the working the way that supranational organizations tend to.


        • It would also depend on what candidates were put forth. If they were sucky choices, more people might not be motivated to get off Basic; if there was at least one clearly good choice, they probably would. (Or if there were one absolutely-horrific choice and one somewhat-okay choice, I’d HOPE people would be motivated, but who knows)


          • There are a couple of somewhat related questions that we’d probably want answered:

            Do we want Basic to be unpleasant?

            Do we want Basic to be pleasant?

            I’m pretty sure that everybody would say something like “of course not! That’s a straw man!” to the first question. To the second? That’s where I think we’ll start hearing hems and haws.


            • Do we want Basic to be unpleasant?

              Kind of.

              If the economy is able to function with full employment (and this IS THE WAY TO BET considering our historical examples with vast improvements in productivity and even our current experience with a “resource free” economy)… then Yes.

              It’s possible and expected for functional people to get a job. It’s expected there will be really good reasons for the exceptions which doesn’t include “those aren’t my priorities”.

              Having said that, just as our “basic” (right now) means “better than anyone got 200 years ago” I’d expect in 200 years whatever they consider basic will be better than what our rich have now.


            • “We must make Basic unpleasant, or else people will loaf on it without wanting to work.”

              “Not true, look, here is a woman on Basic who supplements it by working part time.”

              “WHAT! That’s cheating, it is against the rules to double dip!. She must be punished by cutting off her Basic!”


        • So are you saying that there’s a political majority among an electorate that excludes those receiving it, for a Basic that is below $B but not above? (Obviously there is certainly a level $L above which that majority doesn’t exist but below which it isn’t guaranteed.)


  4. How is it decided who is on Basic and who isn’t?

    Semi-related, I was speaking with some educators from England and they gave me a fascinating new perspective. They noted that childcare is essentially free with extended hours for most people (those making under 100,000 (not sure what denomination) they said). “How progressive!” we Americans thought. They want on to explain this was done to get people to go back to work so they could pay taxes.

    It made me wonder how many other seemingly very progressive policies in other nations are actually more complex or nuanced than that. And what the perception of our complex, nuanced system is to those not familiar with it.

    Would conversations around childcare in America shift if the primary argument in favor of more affordable childcare was not, “It’s right for families!” and more “It gets parents to be makers not takers!”?


    • The books indicate academic performance and an interesting work requirement, along with the usual thing about influential and well-to-do families making sure their kids aren’t.

      The word requirement is that to get into college you have to work for two years to show that you have a work ethic that would make the government paying for your education a good bet. The jobs aren’t good (customer service is the only one shown), but my guess is that’s a part of where parental connections come in to play.

      The character Kolohe refers to elsewhere seems plenty smart and capable. My guess is that he’s an example of someone whose parents weren’t connected and/or didn’t know how to work the system for his benefit when he was 17.


    • There’s an economic argument to be made for day care, though the counterargument is “If you aren’t contributing to the economy enough to be able to pay for day care, then it’s a net loss for the state.”

      Both cases are oversimplified. Countries with free childcare also have more robust welfare states, so you run into situations like Nordica where women are actually more likely to work less because they can afford to, instead of using the state to work more. So it’s not clear how well that translates. On the other side, childcare costs are pretty variable and we might lower operational costs if we made it a priority, making it so more people are able to earn more than the cost of taking care of their children.


      • Yea, it just struck me that the framing over here tends to be, “Look at all these amazing countries! They love moms and parents and families and kids! Free childcare!” That doesn’t seem to be the reality. I mean, the product is the same but the rationale is very different and that is important for a few reasons.

        Maybe that was obvious to others but somehow it wasn’t to me.

        If anything our thinking tends to be the inverse: everyone is working so we need childcare. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.


          • Two quibbles with the linked article, though I enjoyed reading it and it does lay out its points:
            1) Subsidizing child care is not going to make it any less expensive, its just laundering the cost through the government. Paying via taxes instead of directly is mostly a shell game so the cost is hidden, but it is not going to “lower” it.
            2) Much of the issue with the cost of childcare is regulation driving up that cost (see things such as degree requirements for day care workers in some places), further government interference is going to make that worse not better.


            • 1) The two ways it could make childcare less expensive is by scale or uniformity. Experience gives us reason to be skeptical of both – especially the first – but they’re both possible. It would depend on the implementation.

              What I mean by “uniformity” here is that in some areas day care costs so much because parents are in a race to get their kids into the best programs and it creates something of an arms race. It’s sort of like colleges. The fact that poor people can’t afford to go there is actually something worth paying for, to some people. However, if there is a legit free option, that could actually manage to defuse it. Like, it’s worth paying an extra couple hundred dollars a month to price people out but it’s not worth paying $1200 a month for something you could be getting for free.

              I don’t know daycare and preschool economics to know how much that is the case. There are things it would intuitively explain, but it’s speculative.

              2) That goes back to implementation. I would definitely worry about loading up on requirements and the like and that making matters worse.Or I could see the government holding itself to less of a standard because it’s the government and doesn’t need the oversight as badly. In any event, the role that regulation plays in pricing can be empirically investigated as regulation varies wildly from state to state from (IMO) far too little to far too much.


              • On your first point what public centers would do is knock most of the residential day care operations out of the game. I actually think this would lower the cost. A big part of the premium paid for private centers is the fact that they aren’t in the basement of some old lady who barely speaks English, and in a sketchy neighborhood to boot. Where I live those operations are going to be in the 1k to 1200 per month range for full time care of a child under 2. Centers are minimum 1700 but on average 2k, topping at about 2200.

                Now many of the nicer private centers have other bells and whistles that contribute to the price but the simple fact that it is a center is what’s setting a high floor on one hand but also allowing in-home operations to charge a premium. Throw public centers into the mix and suddenly the current prices become a lot harder to justify.


              • What makes child care expensive in the USA versus the third world is liability insurance.

                In Latin America is fairly common for women to set up informal day care centers, taking five or six children from working mothers from the neighborhood. Normally the care giver is a mother herself and the children are in the same age range as her child.

                If they had to carry liability insurance they could not offer this service. She would lose the income and the chance to stay home with her child and the other women would lose the chance to go to work. Lose lose


                • The other driving cost is real estate. Finding a space that can meet the regulatory requirements and be convenient for parents can radically drive up the cost.


                • It probably varies by state/city, but center-based daycares are generally regulated differently than home-based daycares. Which doesn’t mean “unregulated”… just different.

                  I’m now tasked with compliance in my new role. NYC (which has its own separate layer of regulation via the Department of Health) has not just child:teacher ratios but also child:space ratios. Every child requires 30 square feet of space.

                  So you have an obscenely expensive real estate market, you’re limited in how many children you can put in a space (and I’ll argue that the restriction is too tight), and you’re required to have a certain number of adults whom you are paying a wage that accounts for the obscene cost of living in the area. Throw that all into the mix and it makes it very hard to keep rates affordable.

                  On the other hand, NYC also has PreK-for-All (a guaranteed free seat for all children who turn 4 in the calendar year… though you are only guarantee certain hours free (I believe 8:45-2:45 but don’t quote me on that)). They’re moving towards the same for 3-year-olds, which they’ve unironically named 3K-for-All (WHY? WHY? WHY?!?!?!?!). Right now they have seats guaranteed in certain neighborhoods but plan to expand the program to the entire city eventually.

                  The DOH is beginning much more stringent enforcement of their codes and regulation. More conspiracy minded folks (I’m on the list servs… eep!) are convinced it is to drive us out of business and get everyone into the public arena. I’m… not sure what interest that serves. But they believe it wholeheartedly.

                  Some of the regulations are silly, some onerous, some very legitimate. On these list servs, there is a bit of an air of, “Well, sure… THOSE people OVER THERE obviously need to be regulated but why us?” Um, no. If regulation is necessary, it needs to be enforced uniformly. Or, if there are going to be separate tiers, it needs to be for reasons other than, “But we’re rich.”


    • If you aren’t already familiar with it I would suggest the book Seeing Like a State. The basic premise is that many things that seem unconnected, poorly thought out, etc. are really great for gov’t to tax things. Standardizing, so to speak. Not exactly what you are talking about, but something you might find interesting.


      • Yes, Seeing Like a State is important.

        One thing does occur to me regarding his thesis: how much does big data change things? If the “state” doesn’t need to use gross homogenization, but can have “finely grained” (but still abstract) knowledge, what does that look like?

        Which seems pretty topical.


        • Topical… maybe.

          I am generally of the opinion that full AI’s (of dreams/nightmares) are no replacement for the hive mind of humanity. The crunching of Big Data only gets so far and will never replace the instincts that make Home, Love, Hate, Loneliness and every other human emotion. Any AI will only make straighter lines and taller buildings while fully failing at creating the glory and horror of Picasso and Flannery; those things that are beyond logic.


          • — I see it this way. One of the problems with “high modernism,” as it’s presented in Seeing Like a State, is the degree that states needed to abstract down complex local situations into simple models, which in turn could be tabulated. It failed. With big data approaches, by contrast, the models are no longer so simple. We can process a deluge off data, including much the “central authority” may not have expected to be useful or needed. But as long as the data is available, then the algorithms can learn from it.

            This is new.


            • It is certainly possible, but color me skeptical. In the end, the needed data is determined by a person. If it is an algorithm, it was set by a person. Ect. And when it comes to an AI, my mind assumes the above issues, unless it is a strong AI* then its interests would probably have nothing to do with human needs or wants.

              *for lack of a better term for an AI that is in complete control of its facilities.


            • I don’t know enough to comment on AI and complex algorithms, so I may be misunderstanding your point. But I’ll point out another detail treated by Seeing Like a State, and that’s the notion of “legibility,” i.e., what the state can see (“read”) is therefore controllable by the state. In other words, the more complex situations that AI and algorithms make more possible to grasp still fits in with Scott’s theory about legibility. I’m not sure if that’s still “high modernism” or something like “high (post)modernism” (or something else), but I think it dovetails with your point.

              I hope I’m being legible clear. :)


              • — Exactly.

                My question is, is there a sweet spot between too much “forced legibility” and “just enough legibility” gleaned from big data approaches.

                Take his example from the book, the (if I recall correctly) German forestry policies. They needed tree growth to be legible, so they created a monoculture with trees planted in rows. It failed. But what if they had big data approaches with advanced sensor arrays in the forest regions? Could they achieve a working balance between “decent lumber production” and “stable local ecology”?

                I think we probably can. Now, generalize.


                • I’ve recently been wondering about how the historically-correct observation that planned economies are not particularly well at the distribution of resources with both the internet and the surveillance state, and all the resources we can throw at data.

                  I mean, this question already existed. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, computers and data collection had already gotten good enough that it was no longer utterly-misproducing things like it was 20 years earlier, even if it was bad at future trends.

                  But now? Where it’s so cheap for _third-parties_ to track everything that everyone is? Surely the government, with government operated stores, could track demand changes extremely well.

                  Indeed, a planned economy would probably be _more_ accurate at meeting everyday demands than the idealized responsive market economy, which frankly has a few notable failure modes. (For example, successful businesses become larger, so they thus find themselves unwilling to change as the market demands…which results in other companies supplanting them, but such a process is not instantaneous.)

                  Something to think about when dealing with China.

                  Granted, planned economies have _other_ problems, like lack of innovation for new products and little incentive to increase efficiency, but it’s probably time to cross ‘Communism can’t even figure out the correct amount of toilet paper to make’ off the list.


                  • I’ve wondered this too.

                    In the same way we hear anecdotes about how Facebook and Amazon know a woman is pregnant before she does based on Big Data analysis of patterns, its not inconceivable that algorithms could predict consumer demand better than the vaunted entrepreneur, or manage supply lines better than a human manager.


                  • Indeed, a planned economy would probably be _more_ accurate at meeting everyday demands than the idealized responsive market economy,

                    Venezuela is the example of what happens in practice, as opposed to theory.

                    A lack of information is only a small part of the problem. Everyone knows that food rots if it’s left unharvested on the farm. The bigger problem is misallocation of resources because everything is now a political decision.

                    I get to decide the price of eggs, I decide that price based on what will be good for me, not what will maximize good for the economy.

                    it’s probably time to cross ‘Communism can’t even figure out the correct amount of toilet paper to make’ off the list.

                    ??? Was this a joke? Google “Venezuela toilet paper”.






                    • What is going on in Venezuela has nothing to do with the government not knowing the correct amount of toilet paper to produce. Also, Venezuela isn’t communist. Venezuela is socialist.

                      The story so far in Venezuela: Part #1: The government stupidly put price controls on toilet paper below the cost of manufacture, so companies stopped making it.

                      So what Venezuela sorta demonstrates is that price controls are a pretty stupid way to try to manage an economy in any manner but the _extremely_ short term. Because, if the government keeps prices capped below cost, people will stop making the stuff. This is not anything to do with lack of information about the demand for toilet paper, it’s due to…well, utter economic stupidity, I guess. (I mean, we stupidly have some price controls in this country, and they are indeed stupid, but we at least try not to demand people sell things below cost!)

                      I don’t know what you call such a dumb system of price controls, but it’s not even actually socialism, much less communism.

                      Under communism, companies are not expected to ‘make money’. Companies don’t really exist in communism except to delineate stuff being made in one place vs. in another. Toilet paper doesn’t have a ‘price’ under communism at all. Under communism, the government would be producing toilet paper and then _giving it to everyone_, not selling it.

                      Under socialism, the government would operate the factories and sell the goods…which is the next part.

                      Part #2: Venezuela, being socialist, then decided to nationalize the toilet paper (and other basic goods) factories after they had totally broken the free market with price controls.

                      While this also didn’t work, I assert it could have, if done anywhere else. While my point was about communism being able to correctly calculate demand, there’s no reason it wouldn’t also apply to socialism being able to calculate that also.(1) Government-owned and -run factories should basically be the same.

                      So why didn’t it work in Venezuela?

                      Because Venezuelan society and government is so utterly corrupt from top to bottom that it is apparently not possible to take a government official, put them in charge of a toilet paper factory, and not have them and everyone else steal half the toilet paper on the way out the door, and then not have the truck drivers steal another half.

                      Likewise, Venezuela has moronically manipulated their currency where it’s apparently worthwhile to exchange it using official government rates, import stuff with it, and then re-export the stuff.

                      This is all laid out in the links you provided, and, again, has nothing to do with lack of information about anything. It’s because Venezuela is almost unimaginable corrupt.

                      1) In fact, toilet paper use is incredibly easy to calculate anyway, it is almost completely invariant, and the stuff sits forever so just overproduce slightly and keeps some around. So the idea that any government has _ever_ miscalculated it to the point of shortages is just silliness, and honestly it’s kinda idiotic to use as an example. It is much more likely that any true ‘production shortages’ of toilet paper by a government in the past are the government being unable to afford the materials or workers or something, not any miscalculation. (Whereas what is happening in Venezuela is, at this point, a ‘theft shortage’.)

                      Actual miscalculations between production and demand would show up in something like cars or computers or air conditioners or housing, things people might reasonably change the amount that they purchase from year to year. Not something that every person is going to basically use the exact same amount of every single day of their entire life.


                      • Of course, it is possible to argue that ‘All communist and socialist countries are so corrupt they cannot function’, which…well, probably is not true because ‘China’ is a pretty good counter-example.

                        But even if it is, it doesn’t really have much to do with my point that planned economies surely can calculate what people want now. For the longest time, part of the argument against planned economies was that the free market supposedly brought ‘demand knowledge’ and without this knowledge provided by the market, in a planned economy government would _accidentally_ cause shortages simply because it was bad at knowing how to allocate resources.

                        Aka, even a perfectly run planned economy would have ‘stupidity shortages’, where people would be under-supplied (or over-supplied) with goods because of the lack of knowledge by the government. They would setup a factory to provide X nails, and ship half of them to one location and half to another, and first location needs about three times as much nails, and the second location doesn’t need nails at all.

                        These were the consistent stories about how communism worked, how it wouldn’t work even if everyone was idealistic. You needed markets to regulate things, where factories were operated because someone was buying those nails, and more nails needed would result in more factories, and less nails in less factories, and planned economies were total crap at this.

                        And…I can’t even imagine how this lack of knowledge could exist in the modern world. Like I said, I can’t even imagine how it would be true at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with any sort of modern procurement system, but it’s even harder to see how it could be true in the world of Big Data where companies, via random aggregation of third-party data, can calculate at the _individual_ level that you’re about to buy some deodorant.

                        This sort of stupid lack of knowledge is a true thing that really happened in the early days of communism, but it’s probably not 1959 anymore. *checks the date on his cell phone* Nope. Not 1959.

                        Now, this doesn’t mean that planned economies can’t be so inherently corrupt they cannot actually provide those things, and additionally, the people in charge might just decide not to provide those things anyway despite knowing the demand is there.


                        • Not just corrupt with regard to financial interest, but also political interest. Basically it would have to be setup so that if the AI says 3 tons of nails need to go to Puerto Rico now, then 3 tons need to get loaded and moved now. If someone over-rides that decision, they’d better have a really good damn reason to do so, and that reason can’t be, ‘well, the people of PR didn’t support Trump in the election, so no nails for them, post hurricane’.

                          Kinda like that bridge between NY & NJ.


                          • If someone over-rides that decision, they’d better have a really good damn reason to do so, and that reason can’t be, ‘well, the people of PR didn’t support Trump in the election, so no nails for them, post hurricane’.

                            Yeah, but that, to me, feels like a ‘democracy’ problem more than a ‘communist’ problem. It’s a problem that could happen faster in a hypothetical ‘communist democracy’ than in other democracies, but that’s mostly because the government is doing more so has a lot more pressure points.

                            But in any location where the government is actually powerful enough to harm areas or people (Which is basically any modern government.), that government can be used vindictively.

                            As demonstrated by Trump cutting funding for that bridge.

                            Or, the thing I thought you were talking about for a second, Bridgegate. There are a lot of places in the US you can utterly screw over with traffic control.

                            Fun fact: ‘Constant construction’ is a common tactic in rent-controlled buildings to drive out tenants that landlords need permission to do it. So I’m sure some local government has harassed people with the same sort of concept. ‘Let’s keep repaving the street’.

                            In fact, stupidly-planned road construction (They started at the back exit, a steep hill. And then idiotically left that hill blocked off as they moved down the street, so everyone behind them was trapped.) would have trapped me on my street on Monday, if I hadn’t seen it coming and moved my car a street over.

                            Weirdly, I think somewhere in there is the difference between how liberals and conservatives think about the government.

                            Conservatives think it is possible to stop or at least reduce any possible harm done by the government by reducing the power of the government, or restricting it.

                            Liberals are pretty sure the government, at any size, can totally screw up anyone’s life *cough*policeviolence*cough* and there’s really no way to make that ‘impossible’, so the important thing is changing its desire to do that through policy and incentives.


                            • The more, as you say, pressure points a government has, the more ability it has to screw with people. The more ability it has, the more likely it is that only the most egregious abuses will ever become public knowledge and be subject to any hope of correction from ‘democracy’. Reducing the number of pressure points means abuses of the existing ones* are not so easily lost in the noise.

                              Also, messing with government controlled supply chains for political reasons isn’t a ‘democracy’ problem, it’s a power problem. Can you truly think of a political system in existence today (or from history) that would not employ the ability to mess with supply chains to punish a disfavored group?

                              *I’d argue that government already has too many pressure points, which is why we have serious problems with our criminal justice system.


                              • Reducing the number of pressure points means abuses of the existing ones* are not so easily lost in the noise.

                                I honestly don’t see how. All that means is that the abuses of the system are confined to a very few pressure points, which often results in the system just _deciding_ to ignore all those specific sort of abuses via bogus justifications.

                                I.e., the aforementioned criminal justice system.

                                There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason that less places for applying pressure would result in less pressure. It seems just as likely it would merely result in _more_ pressure at a few specific places, causing more actual damage than if it was spread out. (Like, oh, how the criminal justice system causes various communities to be completely broken.)

                                It could even be argued with more places that abuse can enter the system means that _everyone_ has more incentive to police it, whereas right now we’ve pretty much got it limited to the powerless.

                                Granted, in communism, it’d probably be the same thing, but I’m not following how it’s worse.


                                • More incentive, perhaps, but much harder to police.

                                  And an increase in incentive is not a guarantee. I’d say it’s actually pretty unlikely because the people exercising pressure points aren’t totally stupid (see, again, the CJ system).

                                  Giving the government fewer pressure points means they are forced to use the few they have more widely or give lie to the reality that they are not using them fairly/equally.

                                  See: Terrorism and how the government decides to bring those charges, or even just talk about them to the media.


                          • The actually problem with centrally planned economies even with super duper data aggregation systems is that everyone wants everything, and they want it now, but prices actually let you know what a person wants, what they really really want.


                            • The actually problem with centrally planned economies even with super duper data aggregation systems is that everyone wants everything, and they want it now, but prices actually let you know what a person wants, what they really really want.

                              I’ll tell you what I want, what I really want. Wait, no.

                              That’s only a problem in some sort of idealized perfect communism where no money existed. I don’t think that has ever happened. Pure communism always has a problem with lack of value-indication anyway on the employment end.

                              And thus communism almost always ends up with money anyway, which was used to purchase things, which would allow the government to correctly calculate value to people.

                              And, honestly, I’m not sure the problem ever was ‘lack of knowledge’ anyway. I’ve read a few things that indicated the problem in the Soviet Union, which is where this stereotypical problem was, wasn’t really any sort of inability to ‘figure out’ what people wanted anyway. I mean, after twenty years of people standing in line for cigarettes, you’d think at some point the central planners would go ‘Oh! We should produce more cigarettes!’. It’s not really rocket science…and somehow the Soviet Union managed that.

                              The planning did have some lag, and distributing things correctly was a nightmare. But the major problem was that the people in charge didn’t give the slightest damn what households wanted, and spent all their time caring about how much grain or steel or whatever was produced. Everyone knew there were domestic shortages, and no one cared.

                              I mean, my point still stands, there have been two-ish large increases in knowledge since the allocation disasters of early communism…databases/procurement systems in the 80s, and predictive systems recently. But those might be the last 25% of a solution that the Soviet Union could have accomplished with 75% correctness if it had wanted to…but it didn’t want to.


                              • But the major problem was that the people in charge didn’t give the slightest damn what households wanted, and spent all their time caring about how much grain or steel or whatever was produced. Everyone knew there were domestic shortages, and no one cared.

                                This is my point. The needs, desires, and incentives for the central planners don’t line up with the population as a whole, much less duplicate what the market wants to do.

                                More information clearly isn’t a solution for this issue. Which means you can claim the Communists can now make enough toilet paper after the Communists stop having toilet paper issues, not after they have enough information to do so.


                      • What is going on in Venezuela has nothing to do with the government not knowing the correct amount of toilet paper to produce.

                        Yep, but that’s my point.

                        Also, Venezuela isn’t communist.

                        No True Scotsman

                        Everyone (including themselves) had no problem calling them a successful implementation of communist/socialist ideals until they burned the economy down.

                        Venezuela, being socialist, then decided to nationalize the toilet paper (and other basic goods) factories after they had totally broken the free market with price controls. While this also didn’t work, I assert it could have, if done anywhere else. …it is apparently not possible to take a government official, put them in charge of a toilet paper factory, and not have them and everyone else steal half the toilet paper on the way out the door, and then not have the truck drivers steal another half.

                        The actual price of paper is X, the gov controlled price is X/10, so it’s hugely in that gov official’s self interest to steal the paper and sell it on the black market. And that gov official (or his friends to whom he’s giving kickbacks) sets the official price for paper, so this situation is NOT a train wreck from his point of view, it’s wonderful.

                        If the system requires saints and angels to make it work, then the problem is with the system and not some specific gov official.


    • I’m planning to promote that on Twitter next.

      What’s interesting is that had forgotten all about it (hadn’t seen The Expanse) and I ran across it when doing my research. If you search (no quotes) “the expanse basic assistance” it’s on the very first page! I thought maybe it was the algorithm showing favorites since I am on the site a lot, so I did it again through a Proxy and a browser I wasn’t signed into and it was still on the first page.


  5. On Star Trek forums I used to ask questions like:

    “If they live in a post-scarcity society, why don’t all the red shirts have their own starships?”

    “If they are beyond money and only work for self-improvement, why is the Enterprise always rescuing miners on godforsaken planets? I’m from Appalachia and I have yet to see someone working in a mine in pursuit of self-improvement.”


    • Yeah, Star Trek was contradictory that way. But mostly it didn’t really portray the workings of the economic system since all you saw was the Space Navy flying around doing Space Navy stuff. Voyager seemed to rely on barter to get supplies but that was vaguely portrayed. DS9 had the shops on the Promenade and you had to pay for your drinks at Quark’s so pretty standard commerce.


      • Star Trek, and especially DS9, works real well as a Communistic system. Only the military have air/spacecraft. On DS9 the military is in charge and there’s a pretty open Black Market system. Personal connections are really important, witness the Commanders girlfriend is a Black Market trader and Quark feels on occasion he’d better prove himself useful to the powers that be.


    • “If they live in a post-scarcity society, why don’t all the red shirts have their own starships?”

      For the same reasons everyone doesn’t have a house on the beach and everyone doesn’t get to bang a supermodel. Different resources become scarce.

      We are already living in a “Post-Scarcity” society by many measurements, especially those of history.


      • I related the “post-scarcity” part to the fact that they’re beyond the need for money. A lot of die-hard Trek fans think that replicators eliminate the need for any tracking of wealth because people can just “print” anything they want.

        So I would throw curveballs at their arguments, like “What is a replicated Babe Ruth rookie card or Mona Lisa worth? Absolutely nothing… How do you buy that house outside the entrance to Star Fleet Academy, the one that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and was built by George Lucas and owned by Captain Pike? There can only be one of those no matter how many replicators you have.”

        It’s like Gene Rodenberry didn’t know that money is used to keep track of relative values, supply and demand, and as a massively efficient shortcut so you don’t have to barter by arranging swaps 18 levels deep involving a dozen other people, taking six months to figure out who is willing to trade A for B and who will trade B for C, and then C for D, finally ending with P for Q, instead of just selling A for cash and using the cash to buy Q that afternoon.


    • I kinda take that as one of those myths an entire culture believes in and mouths constantly, that isn’t even true.

      “The Prime Directive means we don’t meddle in other cultures” (except for constantly)

      “We’ve evolved beyond the need for money” (why don’t redshirts have their own starships, then)

      Maybe they just think those things are true ideally but where the latinum meets the gold-press the reality is far different.


  6. What I’m getting here from both your Arc Digital piece and ‘s post is that the economics of Earth in The Expanse aren’t fleshed out very well. Better than Star Trek, and more realistic, but still just a rough sketch to set a background for the story they want to tell.

    When I think about UBI or JG, or now BA, I’m always reminded of a short book put out, jeez… 25 or 30 years ago, by Peter Barnes, Capitalism 3.0. It was available then as a free PDF download, may still be if the site is still up. His thesis is that capitalism has different modes, he calls them operating systems (he’s an early SV rich dude). Early stage capitalism, the 1.0 version, is tackling the problem of production and characterized by scarcity. Second stage capitalism, the 2.0 version, is characterized by abundance.

    One indicator he points out to tell the difference between them is the role and nature of advertising. In 1.0 advertising is minimal and mostly just informative, like the blurbs in old timey newspapers telling you that J.M. Smith’s Dry Goods has (finally, rejoice!) gotten in a shipment of fine cloth. Advertising in 2.0 is more aggressive and geared towards enticing you to switch brands or purchase this thing you never really knew you needed (and you probably still don’t, actually).

    Another indicator, although I don’t recall him mentioning it, is the nature of an “economic crisis” in the two modes. A 1.0 crisis is about production and supply; a shortage, a famine, etc. A 2.0 crisis is about demand. The goods are still available, to those with the will and means to purchase them, but demand falls off for some reason. The difference arises from the fact that in a 2.0 economy most people are economically engaged in producing stuff that people may want but don’t actually need, at least not right now, and can thus delay purchasing. Hence, rising inventories, falling profits, layoffs… recession.

    So I see UBI/BA/GJ as attempts at solving the issues of Capitalism 2.0 which are mostly about distribution, of both goods and employment, and maintenance of effective demand. The issues are both practical and moral/spiritual.


  7. What the post-scarcity society will do is challenge our basic assumptions of what “work” is.
    Currently work is a bundle of sticks of meaning. It is a commodity we exchange for capital, but it is also a status marker, and a source of purpose and meaning that defines us.

    It can take on a deep mystical meaning, as how Catholic teaching states that when we work, we are co-creators of our built environment with God; He created the tree, but we fashion it into a table.

    In the story, work seems to be treated the same way we do, thus it is easily understood why those who work resent those who don’t.
    Not wanting to work, even when it isn’t necessary is seen as a moral failing. Even by those who dismiss the mystical meaning of work, for all of human history idleness was a direct drain, a tax on those who work. Every bite of food by the idle was provided by the toil and sweat of those who work.

    But this all changes in a world of automation and AI. If the basics of life are all produced by machines, and those who work are literally producing nothing that is consumed by those on Basic, then what would be the source of resentment?

    The answer to that depends on how we would think about work, when it is decoupled from need? How will we think about status when goods are insanely cheap?

    Already we are seeing wisps of this. There is talk now about valuing “experiences” over goods, where travel and leisure experiences are status items like carriages and clothing used to be. Or how education is a status marker of class even if the financial rewards are less than a tradesman.

    I can imagine a society like the Native Americans, where the land and resources are held in common, but status and meaning are derived from other means


    • It’s also unclear how much ‘post scarcity’ the Earth of the Expanse actually is – and imo, the creators are making a thematic point that the elites think their world is a lot more post-scarcity than the person in the street perceives things.

      There’s certainly a great deal of wealth inequality on Earth, and (at least one) family who is the 1% of the 1%. (One scene, for instance, demonstrates his wealth – his home in a 10 to 15 acre green space in the midst of an ocean of undifferentiated greyish rowhouses that stretch to the horizon)


      • I think one of two things is true. Either (a) they are not post-scarcity or (b) they are but nonetheless keep things uncomfortable for those on Basic because they can.

        I’m not sure which is true, but I think the authors’ intent is #1.


        • There are deifnitely people within the elite that are jockeying for postional goods (and just good old fashioned raw power) but there are also people within walking distance of Earth capital’s Embassy row who live in makeshift tent cities. (Which I think Will saidnon twitter he didn’t find beleivable because of gentrification, but I do because I remember the days of semi-permanent homeless encampments in Lafayette park across the street from the White House) (Bush Sr even had someone by crack there once for a prime time televised address)


          • If we want to address homelessness or the drug problem, we need to address homelessness or the drug problem.

            But if we want to address what a baseline of post-scarcity looks like, we cannot include words like “inequality” unless we’re hoping to end up with something like the Borg.


          • It’s not so much the tent cities that I had a hard time believing, but the existence of people on basic living there. Chris pointed out that the tent people weren’t on basic, which is true, but the guy who helped Bobbie was on Basic. That suggested to me that there was a Basic dormitory nearby. I think they just didn’t quite thing that through. The alternative is that the helper was commuting, which is possible but not probable. I think they just didn’t think it through.


            • Ok, my (mis)impression was that the tent city people were on Basic, that they’d rather live in their tent city instead of Basic housing (which happens in this here world) and they bartered their Basic sustenance allowance in a grey/black market (which also happens in this here world).

              If that’s not the case, that does change things.


    • This only happens in a world where there is work for a portion of the population statistically indistinguishable from zero. Otherwise, I think this is a dream. A noble dream, perhaps, but a dream.

      Even if the number of people who needed to work full time jobs fell to, say, 25% or so… I think that actually gets converted into demands for shorter work weeks than more people not having to work. That may actually be what happens with 50%.

      I am also skeptical that “post-scarcity” is a thing that will be. As says we are arguably there right now, but we don’t see it that way because even if we are fed we are worried about other things. Including, as you mention, travel and “experiences.” I think the trend you refer to actually fits my theory better than yours.

      And there are some things we just can’t meet everyone’s need with. Real estate, of course, being a good example. People will make do with smaller things, but they won’t want them. And location-location-location. There will always be people that people don’t want to live around. And as long as they have to work in order to do so, I don’t think they will look sideways at those who don’t – especially since that group includes the people they don’t want to live with. People being people, they’ll probably unfairly assume that all people on Basic are those people. They’re not likely going to know many personally. Or, rather, they’re not likely to know more of them that (a) they like and (b) are too numerous to say that they are an exception.


      • I don’t really have much of a predictive theory, because I honestly have no way of assessing how the interactions of objective need versus status versus cultural interaction all shakes out.

        Although I an see a world where land and resources are shared, I can also see a neo-feudalism, where a tiny oligarchy owns everything and the rest of people are serfs.

        I agree that automation won’t be 100% of all jobs but it won’t need to be, really.
        Even a 25% unemployment rate in the Depression was cataclysmic, leading to actual fear of violent revolution.

        When 30% of all workers are unneeded and virtually unemployable there will be seismic shifts in public attitudes that I can barely imagine.

        What I am confident in predicting though, is that the changes will be wildly random and seemingly disconnected to any notions of fairness or justness.
        Even now, the idea that if you are diligent and industrious, you will be assured of gainful employment, is self-evidently absurd.


        • I think there would be shifts in public policy – one of the reasons I spend as much time thinking about UBI as I do – but I’m not sure an enduring shift in attitudes towards the recipients.

          At first, yes. At first the people who can’t find work will be our neighbors, friends, brothers, sisters, and children. We know them and know they would work if they could. We know they have a good work ethic and so on.

          But it’s the “enduring” part. Once that’s no longer the case. Once we are segregated into an employed class and an unemployed class with these people over here and those people over there, then it’ll start to change. Support for policies that keep them from reaching for their pitchforks will remain, but for self-interested reasons and with a deliberate eye towards everybody being in their place.


          • It seems clear to me that our attitude towards government assistance depends mostly on who is receiving it, and how we feel about them to begin with.

            Notice how fraud by a welfare mother is so potent an issue that it can swing a generational change of political power, yet fraud by military contractors is and has forever, been greeted by a yawn and a shrug.

            Here are two possible scenarios: One where the elite receive government assistance and the rabble don’t, and its opposite:

            The Peerage System:
            Imagine that algorithm have consumed about 60% of what the Knowledge Professions (doctors/lawyers/engineers) do. Yet these same elites, rather than fight the machines by lowering their incomes, orchestrate a regulatory network of cartels, tax laws and subsidy such that they only need to work 20 hours a week, and spend the rest of the time sailing or golfing.
            They are essentially on a Basic Stipend by any other name; In order to block competition, the laws are structured to reward work for less than 20 hours, and penalize sharply those hours over it.
            Your Stipend is not strictly hereditary, but you can will your place on it so long as your heirs follow the same line of profession.

            Meanwhile, the rest of the population works in bitter competition with the machines, kept cowed by the omnipresent fear of being displaced by one.

            The Roman System:
            Here the Knowledge Elite works full time, but also orchestrate a regime to block competition by the machines as well as a vast military system to produce more and more arenas in which the Elite can practice their craft.
            The rabble are kept compliant through a system of free consumer goods like cell phones and spectacles like free porn and reality shows.

            In the first scenario, The Stipend is seen as a positive enlightened thing to reward the natural superiority of the Knowledge Elite;

            In the second, Welfare is used to keep the stupid and unemployable rabble (who are unable to so much as set an alarm clock) from rioting.


          • This is an argument for making UBI generous. If UBI-Tax is positive for only the lowest class, everyone above will want to reduce or eliminate it. If UBI-Tax is positive for the majority, only the uppermost classes will want to reduce it, and they’d have to dupe a significant number of the rest into voting against their own interests. And we know that never happens.


    • I can imagine a society like the Native Americans, where the land and resources are held in common, but status and meaning are derived from other means

      Food seems like a really basic “resource” (meaning it clearly existed as a concept while land did not) but I’m weak on how they did things. In times of hunger, did all Native Americans go hungry equally or were there winners and losers?


      • In times of hunger, did all Native Americans go hungry equally or were there winners and losers?

        Tribal warfare was common among the Plains groups, believed to be largely over control of hunting and foraging areas. The food sources were drought sensitive; the record derived from tree rings and sediment cores suggests most Plains droughts are local rather than regional in scale. “Follow the herbivores” strategies probably brought groups into conflict. There is some archaeologic evidence that this reached the level of slaughtering entire villages.

        Can’t speak to other regions.


  8. A line I read todayhere on Delong’s site:

    The highly-estimable Steve Randy Waldmann hoists the banner of “employment for societal usefulness, not for profit”.

    got me thinking that this is perhaps the mechanism used for Earth employment in the Expanse, and why there’s such a long waitlist.

    Employment for profit justifies itself. (and we do see evidence of an underground economy), But employment for societal usefulness? *That* needs someone with power, and in power, to justify that job. And if the powers that be have decided, “we don’t need that many jobs to be done, but don’t worry, everyone is getting Basic”, that could explain a lot of how the system operates.


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