Adios, El Bonko.

For a long time, I have had a notion for to write about the post scarcity world (or verse ) typified by the Culture. A couple of days ago, @Frances_Coppola was tweeting about Citizens Income schemes. Today, I found my battered and dogeared copy of Excession. Crom had obviously spoken unto me and I should finally write up that post I was thinking about, joining the dots between the various post scarcity utopiae and the direction in which we’re heading, which, I would call a ‘global non-scarcity plus local scarcity dystopia” if I were trying to be accurate and for which I probably have a simpler, more anglo saxon name.

The starting point is a very simple observation about markets, which is that they function as a mechanism only when there is scarcity. Markets cannot function in a situation where there is no need to ration. In a situation of global non scarcity, there are no allocation problems as anyone can just take exactly as much of what they want without affecting anyone else. In other words the marginal cost of consuming anything is zero (global non-rivalry). As price would tend to get driven down towards marginal cost, markets would have terrific trouble in pricing anything, at least if they are competitive. (Markets not being competitive is one of the ways to have giga production of free stuff and yet markets existing. c.f. Peter F Hamilton, or better still Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan graphic novels, which everyone should read immediately.). This, incidentally is the natural state of affairs in one set of industries (those that solely produce and distribute information), and has had many solutions in the past (advertiser paid three cornered markets, US TV; public funding via tax, most of European TV until the 1990s; Public funding via licence , UK TV; Conditional Access mechanisms, most premium tv; these are just examples from one subsector of the information industries. None of them are perfect, all have at one time or another been considered viable second bests, and all rest on creation of artificial scarcity via intellectual property rights or other legal mechanism).

In the Culture, there is no practical global scarcity. This, believe it or not, is entirely possible once you start to consider the very long term economics that only apply to societies at this level of energy yield. The Kardashev Dyson scale, for instance categorises civilisations by their exploitable energy resources, such that:

  1. At KD 1, a civilisation has fully exploited all global energy resources available to a planet. (we currently estimate Homo Sapiens to be somewhere between KD.65 and KD.8 , these estimates themselves are subject to much variation as it’s not always possible to estimate how much energy is available or usable prospectively as opposed to retrospectively).
  2. At KD 2, a civilisation has energy exploitation equivalent to a solar system. Note that although the energy yield is an order of magnitude higher, the long climb from KD1 to KD 2 will mean that at some stages available energy will exceed energy usability and therefore there will be global non-scarcity of energy within some periods of the transformation from KD1 to KD2.
  3. At KD 3 a civilisation has access to energy equivalent to a galaxy.
  4. K and D did not do this themselves, but one could extend the KD scale to 4 (supercluster of galaxies) and beyond, to ∞ (Universal energy use, practically godhood).

On the path between KD states there will be stages when energy is cheaper to get hold of than there is use for it. Consider landing on a fertile, but empty continent. Or for that matter what happens when we start to build colonies at the Lagrange points who will get energy to cheap to meter as Space is full of it and there is no pesky atmosphere in the way.

But this does not imply that there is no local scarcity. Even on masaq orbital or the GCU:Of Course I Still Love You  you would have pockets of local scarcity. Consider a performance by a noted mezzo soprano. There would only be as many seats in the front row as there are seats in the front row. That means that the seats are bargainable over. Or consider the reputation of a person. Again, this can be a reasonably scarce, and bargained over good. What is required, however is that two parties have something that is “locally scarce” to the other party, and a valuation in terms of exchange.

It also requires that both parties are free to trade, and this is a second dimension of the Culture argument that needs to be considered. The Culture disperses power, imperfectly for sure, but to some degree and in some way reminiscent of Murray Bookchin’s post scarcity anarchism. The analysis of post scarcity has to consider this second dimension, because if stuff is not scarce but power is (i.e it’s tightly held), you just end up at another system of control that replaces markets as allocation system with access to a Commissar of some kind. So it makes sense that Banks’s utopia is libertarian and decentralised.

Here’s where I bring in Ellis: In Transmetropolitan, energy scarcity has been resolved by a solar collector on Mercury that beams power back to Earth. However, the fabricators in people’s homes require “maker codes” to transmute base matter (the stuff used to make stuff is actually called a “base block” in the series), and these are controlled and scarce. For this reason, the market economy of the city can make sense. People have to work to get the credits to buy the new codes to make up whatever they want, and some people have better expertise at making and distributing stuff, so local scarcities can exist within the system. Power is also scarce, so it can be fought over. As a result, there are two conditions that help to generate some kind of market economy that we would recognise. (BTW, I wholeheartedly recommend Transmet as reading. It’s awesome. Consider me a major Fanboy).

After all that, though, I want to return to reality, and the world that is coming to the developed countries (first.). As we get more efficient, our production will get delegated to Robots. Thus, production jobs (which might include jobs that are currently analytical as these are replaced by autonomous decision support systems.) will go. The demand for labour will bifurcate. At the top end of the market, increasing salaries for scarce “stars”. At the bottom, commoditisation and replacement. This means that in the bottom market salaries will be falling: as jobs can be done cheaper by other entities, markets will move to replace those jobs. At the top, salaries will rise as markets seek talent who can create value, largely by replacing workers with machines. In between you will get a zone of brutality where competition between suppliers of labour gets intense. Over the longer period, this intense competition will result in 1) winners pulling the drawbridge up behind them, 2) restriction of access to the superstar market on connections rather than talent 3) permanent rewards to failure as those who have won use their leverage (and the fact that people tend to get embarrassed about having chosen nutters to manage their companies) to extract rents even after failing.

If you think this is an issue, there is one other consideration. Replace the word ‘machines’ with the word ‘Chinese’ above and you have the UK economy in the first decade of the 21st century. The only difference for the majority of an industrial or post industrial society’s population is who is replacing the worker, not that the worker is replaced.

Now think about the potential solutions:

  1. Create public jobs.There are many problems here, not least that you will in some cases be so generous that you wipe out local value creation within an area (I think the evidence points towards this happening already in some towns in the UK). Also, you don’t have to be Hayek to argue that this increases the probability of paying people to tell other people not to do things rather than actually making or creating stuff. Finally, you have all the arguments about how public resources should be extracted and allocated, but you won’t have solved the root problem which is that too few people are getting a share of created value.
  2. Citizens income.This, I think is a bullet that will have to bitten. A citizen’s income, or universal entitlement is not desirable if you want to preserve incentives to work, but at least allows us to look as though we are treating people as ends rather than means. On it’s own it has every possibility of creating a new serf class as people are tied in dependency. Meanwhile it does nothing to help with power inequalities (later, when I slag off the Spirit Level, I’ll bang on a lot more about how we don;t even think about power inequalities properly, but that’s for another day).
  3. Squad rotation.Would we be as gnarled by inequality if it were only temporary? If it meant, for instance that you served as a CEO via some kind of sortition and could only do so for a limited period before you were back on Citizen’s Income/basic Income/ JSA/Supplementary Benefit for those who remember such a thing? In practice, I’d detest a non freedom compliant solution such as this.
  4. Enabling Creative DestructionYes, I’m kind of a Schumpeterian. I bang on about this. But actually a point here is that if we manage on the basis that we can tolerate two different labour markets, as long as the same participants do not keep ending up in the same labour markets, the public wealth could be used to ensure that people are consistently upskilling beyond the level of the current labour market and developing new ideas to make current products or services obsolete. That would help to ensure a turnover between the two labour markets. In practice, however, it requires a perfectly functioning and unbiased labour market (ha-ha !), being able to come to terms with short product development life cycles (because the next new worker is going to be upskilled to improve or destroy your offering on a shorter life cycle than your product development horizon).

The terrible truth about all these potential solutions is that they are awful in one way or another, and likely to lead to  a more feudal world than a post capitalist one. Which brings me back to Banks. Whilst The Culture is definitely well above most utopias in my pecking order, it has the troubling property that it is not ridiculous to call humans pets of the Minds. The degree of complexity, which I’ve just assumed away in all the above, means that production and resource decisions above a certain scale are really properties of how much of its computational power a Mind will allow you to use. In a way, this isn’t much different from George Martin having a distribution system that depends on how much of a castle’s productive capacity a Liege Lord will allow a Bannerman to use. In at least one way, Banks’s anarchy turns out to be semi-feudal. We should be unsurprised that this holds a fortiori in our less perfect world.