From Keynes to “Star Trek” to the modern world.
The shadow of Keynes is never far away when debating economics in science fiction. It is probably because Keynes understood all too well that economics and science fiction were joined at the hip. Their province was the future, in general, and the future of society, in particular. That is why Keynes engaged in a bit of science fiction himself, as a direct rebuke to his fellow Englishman, popular author, inventor of modern science fiction and erstwhile radical, H.G. Wells. To this day, his brief but incredibly prescient article,
The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren
, sets the terms of the debate.
In that short opus, published in 1930 (in the opening round of the Great Depression), Keynes observed that what he called ”the economic problem’ would be solved in less than a century. In his view, that economic problem, the compulsion to make choices in the face of scarcity, had been humanity’s great affair since the beginning of history. Thanks to the miracle of compounding growth, society would soon reach a point where hitherto unfathomable abundance would become the norm rather than the privilege of a few.
Keynes had the intuition that human actions, our desires, our wants, our motivations, would be profoundly altered as a result. Overcoming the economic problem would condemn to obsolescence the entire panoply of economic behaviours that shaped our existences. Utility maximization and rational choice in the marketplace would no longer provide a usable premise for the dismal science’s computations.
The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren
belongs to science fiction because of that anthropological leap. It very much describes the psychology of science fictional characters such as the forever famous Mr. Spock, whose unflappable logic is only matched by his stoicism and his absolute disregard for earthly pleasures. Economic competition is utterly meaningless to Mr. Spock. He has a much more interesting mission in life, exploring the galaxy. As far as humans are concerned, Keynes’ predictions are in fact very close in spirit, if not to the letter, to Star Trek’s vision of a plentiful, post-scarcity society – what I callTrekonomics.
Even more pointedly, if we take a step back from Hollywood’s romance of space travel, with its gizmos and its aliens, we may soon come to the rather disquieting realisation that we already live in Keynes’, and therefore Star Trek’s, cornucopia. It is, however, a local and limited version of it. Economic bliss is just very unevenly distributed, to paraphrase science fiction grandmaster William Gibson.
The evidence is all around us.
First, over the past three centuries, Europe and North America have escaped the tyranny of nature. This escape from necessity was painstakingly documented by the great economic historian and Nobel laureate Robert Fogel. He coined a term for this process: “techno-physio evolution.” Fogel collected data about people’s heights and weights over time. He concluded that rising prosperity, brought on by capitalism and the industrial revolution, had negated the worse effects of resource scarcity and adverse natural conditions. The augmentation of human labour by science and machinery had led to unprecedented gains in health and longevity in the West. The same could be observed in today’s South Korea, for example, which zoomed from the most abject poverty to one of the most advanced and wealthy countries in the world in less than half a century.
But that is not all. At a more basic level, we have indeed solved Keynes’ nagging “economic problem,” the struggle for subsistence. According to the World Bank and the USDA, in advanced economies, the share of household income devoted to food expenditures (both at home and away from home) is considerably smaller than in poor countries. This chart produced by the Gates Foundation is telling:
Keep in mind that in the developed world, a good half of food expenditures are in essence discretionary (spent on restaurants and on-the-go snacks). For all intents and purposes, in developed countries Keynes’ so-called “economic problem” has been overcome, and then some. The amount of calories available to the average US or UK consumer is well above the daily recommended 2000/day: the cost of maintaining our biophysical functions is now marginal.
Food availability and healthy bodies are but proximate indices of the effects of techno-physio evolution. Our current state of plenty, at least in the developed world, goes well beyond nutritional safety. It could be said that the wealth of our nations – public health and public infrastructures, education, safety and good governance – is also a direct consequence of techno-physio evolution.
Our cornucopia, however local and unevenly distributed, has even started to transform our most fundamental behaviours. While there is an entire industry devoted to exposing the excesses of the rich and famous, these excesses are by nature very limited. Paroxystic consumption and competitive destruction of wealth are not only frowned upon, but also they are not widespread activities even among the most fortunate. If anything they are legacy behaviours, nothing but symptoms of a profound psychological difficulty to adapt to radically improved economic conditions. All in our programming, millennia of evolution, compel us to struggle for subsistence. Yet, as Keynes suggested, these inherited skills and learned habits are now largely useless.
As a consequence of techno-physio evolution, we are witnessing the emergence of properly post-economic behaviours. These include the kind of social activities that have strong positive externalities but are not easily accounted for with the usual metrics and leading indicators. Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson have attempted to quantify the economic value of mass online gift-giving such as Wikipedia or Google (whose search results improve as its user base grows, thanks to beneficial network effects). They come up with about $US400B per year for the U.S. alone.
Another oft-overlooked example is the invention of TeX by mathematician Donald Knuth in 1978. TeX is a free software package that allows computers to correctly render mathematical formulas. By giving it away, Knuth essentially hastened the demise of the scientific publishers’ monopoly on the dissemination of knowledge. From the early 80s onwards, anybody with a computer could compose and print their scientific papers, and thus distribute them widely. TeX is at the heart of ArXiv.org, the largest repository of pre-publication scientific articles: every scientist in the world can post their research on ArXiv.org and give and get feedback. In the same vein, the combination of TeX and the internet enabled the rise of open-source, peer-reviewed scientific journals such as PLoS (the Public Library of Science). PLoS went from 138 published articles in 2006, to more than 30,000 in 2014. All the works are published under the Creative Commons Licence, which allows for free use by third parties with proper authorial attribution.
Free software has indeed allowed for an exponential intensification of scientific exchange. Donald Knuth, an unsung hero and benefactor of humanity, could have become a billionaire many times over had he turned TeX into a commercial software product. Instead, he let the benefits of his invention accrue to all.
Similarly, but perhaps in a more pedestrian way, the rise of social media has created new spaces for exchange in which competition revolves around the accumulation of followers as social currency. Reputation, the recognition of one’s peers, is fast becoming a strategic asset. From the halls of academia to the darkest recesses of Reddit, people from all walks of life now share ideas and products of their imagination in order to establish their worth in the eyes of the world. A parallel, non-monetary economy is developing right in our midst, and we barely notice it as we ourselves are active and engaged participants.
These new forms of sociability and of non-monetary exchanges lead to the inescapable conclusion that our species might not require that much re-engineering. Once general automation finally devalues most goods and makes most luxuries uninteresting as status signals, there will still be plenty to compete for. The very definition of status is already shifting towards the more abstract and the more elevated. Instead of collecting objects and financial resources, one will be compelled to accumulate public prestige and beneficial achievements.
In time, with Keynes’ “economic problem” behind us, we might all become like the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, who lives forever beyond need and thus has the freedom and the drive to change the world for the better.
In some small ways, we already are.