Tag Archives: economics

It’s about data and smugness.

In practice, I don’t know that mainstream economists really care that much about the “ends” side of things. For instance, when they talk about “demand,” they aren’t talking about how many people actually want something or how badly they want it. For these guys, “demand” is the quantity of a commodity that people are willing and able to pay for, at a given market price. If ten thousand people in a wasteland are dying of thirst, and they have no money and no way of getting any money, what’s the “demand” for a sip of water in this particular market? It’s zero.

I’m talking about mainstream economics here. Since the so-called marginalist revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline has tended to ignore idle speculation about why we value this or that. There are exceptions, like hedonic shadow pricing, or research on entrepreneurship, or maybe some market design stuff. But mostly we’re just too weird and ornery. And besides, everybody’s different! Friedrich von Hayek is the big cheerleader for this perspective. And that shift was part of a bigger shift whereby mainstream economics became increasingly mathematical and “scientific.” The word “science” appears in Robbins’s definition, for instance. Much of the discipline, some would argue, also became increasingly less grounded in reality.

By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like. And how desires might change. And the deeper significance of those changes. When you write a novel, you’re not going to start off saying, “Okay, I am going to assume that my characters preferences will remain fixed.” So maybe that’s one reason the meeting between science fiction and economics can be quite fruitful. Science fiction has the same love for abstraction and modelmaking, and shares a certain sense of what “rigor” is … but it’s fundamentally about actual human experience in a way mainstream economics just isn’t.

The inestimable (and brilliant, and loquacious) Jo Lindsay Walton, interviewed on the intersection of economics and science fiction by Rick Liebling for The Adjacent Possible; a long read, but full of gems.

The above recapitulates, albeit in JLW’s own style, the argument I’ve been making for narrative prototyping in my own academic work: a model must be exposed to the social dimensions which it has necessarily externalised. Human behaviour is inherently unquantifiable — and indeed, the more we attempt to quantify it (and “manage” it on that basis), the more inhumane the results become.

What applies to economics applies equally to infrastructures; it’s wicked problems all the way down, and solutionism is a wicked problem in and of itself (as Keller Easterling also appears to be arguing). Until we understand the role of desire — in the DeleuzoGuattarean sense, but also to some extent in the weaponised-behavioural-psychology-AKA-marketing sense — in sociotechnical change, we will achieve nothing but an accelerating accretion of “solutions” which turn out to be new and intractable problems in their own right.

(See also Tainter on increasing complexity as a strategy for addressing problems arising from existing complexity; to paraphrase very broadly, it works, but it works ever less effectively every time, and only until it no longer works, at which point you’re wandering around the ruins of your civilisation wondering where it all went wrong.)

UBIquitous

Glad to see the debate on UBI is starting to get beyond the surface gosh-wow. From a bit at Teh Graun:

In their incendiary book Inventing the Future, the authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek argue for UBI but link it to three other demands: collectively controlled automation, a reduction in the working week, and a diminution of the work ethic. Williams and Srnicek believe that without these other provisions, UBI could essentially act as an excuse to get rid of the welfare state.

W & S are smart to suggest those provisions, but I’d suggest there are a few others necessary to avoid the trap that the aspiring nosferatu of the Adam Smith Institute are so keen to spring.

So, look: the state sets a standard rate of UBI, presumably on the basis of some basic standard of living; perhaps they even put it on an inflationary ramp so it increases over time. Lovely: everyone can afford the basics, and you can work to level up from there is you want to.

However, if housing provision is still predominantly handled by the private sector, rents would rapidly raise to the highest point that the UBI would bear, coz rentiers gonna extract rents. Ditto privatised medicine. Ditto food production. Ditto infrastructural provision. In an unreformed market economy, whatever the set rate of UBI was would be inadequate very quickly — like, a matter of years rather than decades, if not faster. Because when we talk about markets being efficient, that’s what we really mean: their rapid maxing out of all possible rent extraction in any given system. (Yeah, you though efficiency was all about using less, didn’t you? That’s a useful illusion, which is why you’re encouraged to keep it. But no: market efficiency is exactly the opposite, in that the efficient market leaves nothing unused.)  In a nation of legitimised thievery and tollbooth economics, putting money in the poor man’s pocket serves only to enrich the thieves over the long run; hence the poorly-disguised boners around the C-suite table at the ASI, no doubt.

This is not to dismiss UBI, to be clear; it’s a rational and achievable reform of state welfare systems. But in the absence of land reform, significant regulation of businesses, and the partial or total renationalisation of infrastructure and housing, it will fail, and fail fast. If you want to provide the basics to everyone, you’re going to have to intervene in the systems of provision… and you can bet your bottom dollar that the ASI won’t be genuflecting to that idea any time before the heat-death of the universe.

The Naked Lunch: Christmas and capitalism

Here’s a great opening ‘graph for a seasonal cyberpunk satire:

“I heard my first Christmas music of the year in District 1. It was the 1st of August, 27ºC outside and All I Want For Christmas was drifting out of a market stall dedicated to selling Santa hats.”

Only it’s not from a piece of fiction at all; it’s from the first installment of @iamdanw’s account of his travels across China with the Unknown Fields expedition. Having talked to others who were on the same adventure, the megamarket of Yiwu is likely the least weird part of the story.

Bill Burroughs used the phrase “naked lunch” to describe “[the] frozen moment where everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork”. Dan’s essay above, then, is Naked Christmas — where everyone sees what’s on the end of every supply chain.