Econ-SF: a selection of works and authors

Meanwhile, I started reading Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. It’s great, but… no economics so far. I am well into the first book, so I guess it will not make the list.

is Ecotopia of any interest anymore (or not sci-fi enough for this discussion)?? My 15-year-old daughter got into it the same way I did…
:relaxed:

I have not personally read Ecotopia, @rachel, so I cannot comment. Do you recommend it?

I don’t think you can be "not SF enough, since we were ever interested about imagining completely different economic systems, whoever does the imagining. Since the beginning of the 20th century economists have been moving away from this work (and so have “non-genre” novelists): we got interested in SF because a very few SH authors seem to have picked up the torch.

of course, I would recommend it!
there were actually two books from the 70s -
Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging…
but, maybe it is more social and environmental, rather than economic, in scope, too… and all here on earth.
Here’s the wikipedia

ciao for now!

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A post was split to a new topic: Econ-SF reading group: let’s choose the first title

Interesting … I think I disagree about Red Plenty!

First, I think he’s careful to withhold judgment about shadow pricing. He’s all about saying “what if?” and then withdrawing (which makes it great for discussion, right?). But also, we are acclimatized to assume that shadow pricing and centralized control would have been a disaster, so I think he does nudge us to try to imagine it working. He invokes this brief window in the 60s when Soviet planners were preparing to set aside their abacuses in favour of these new magic calculating machines filled with mysterious promise; when Khrushchev was in charge and wanted to beat capitalism at the things the capitalists said they were best at (material abundance for ordinary people); and when mathematical economics was flourishing and people like Kantorovich were proposing radical new reforms to how centralized planning worked. But then that window closed: Krushchev was deposed, Kantorovich’s ideas were not really adopted, and … well, lots of stuff happened. The direction changed. I think Stufford is asking us to imagine what might been.

I would love to find out more about shadow pricing, by the way. I don’t think Spufford really explains it – something about calculating the value of commodities (or actually, factors of production) in terms of their opportunity cost, and getting each producer to maximise profit. But I don’t really understand how it works. I know there was also the socialist calculation debate in the West, and market socialists like Oskar Lange proposed something which I think was similar, wasn’t it?

Second, bureaucracy as such is also not Spufford’s major focus, is it? It’s true that, in that excellent chapter describing the material balances method of central planning (the system that haphazardly grew up during the Stalin years), there are thousands of folders and an extremely onerous decision-making process.

But it felt to me like his focus was really on: (a) the artistry and imagination of the planner (who is able to sort a problem out much more quickly than the mathematicians have “proved” would be necessary); (b) the fact that these decisions emerge from the personal power of an official, rather than the impersonal power of his office; © the possibility that this process is ripe for some kind of techno-scientific rationalization, and especially …

(d) the vast network of informal decision-making that is neither bureaucratic in the strict sense, nor market-based. Maybe this is really the same point as (b). By “bureaucratic in the strict sense” I mean formal, legalistic, to do with the application of rules (whether those rules are applied well or poorly). Spufford seems way more interested in things that don’t have formal procedures: the negotiation, the bluffing, the tricks, the favours, the threats, the kindnesses, the artistry, and as you say, the power games.

We could call all that “corruption,” but I think we might miss some of the interesting questions if we did that. It might be better to think of it as “embeddedness” (term associated with Karl Polanyi): the way that economic decisions are always shaped by the non-economic context in which they occur. This theme of embeddedness runs throughout the subplot about the vicose factory, first when we see things from the planner’s perspective, and then from the perspective of Chekuskin the fixer or ‘pusher’ (tolkach). Tolkach deal-making, Spufford says, is halfway between a purely commercial black market, and a “thoroughly mystified” gift economy consisting of a “backscratching of many overlapping circles of friends.” For the tolkach, “The money was there, the price of a transaction had to be paid, but the object was to find non-money reasons for the transaction to take place.”

You could question to some extent whether shadow pricing IS entirely “centralized.” Isn’t it an attempt to synthesise a centralized plan with a certain amount of de-centralized decision-making?

BTW, interesting note on bureaucracy:

“They acted as progress-chasers, fixers, censors, seducers”: but not, by design, as bureaucrats, in one very specific sense of the word. The Soviet Union had regular campaigns against ‘bureaucracy’, hard though this is for an outsider to make immediate sense of in a system where every employee was a state employee. ‘Bureaucracy’ as a Soviet pejorative implied coldness, impersonality, slowness, trivial rulefollowing. Apparatchiks were supposed, by contrast, to be quick, ‘conscious’, lively, free to engage in brilliant improvisation to get the job done by any means necessary. See Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism, pp.28–35. And there was some support for this model of power at the receiving end: it was the aim of anyone dealing with an official to try and get themselves treated po-chelovecheski, ‘like a human being’, on the basis of an emotional recognition rather than some cold rule. See Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours. The result was that Soviet bureaucracy, while pervasive, did not exhibit some of the classic features of bureaucracy elsewhere. It was not predictable and rule-governed; thus, by a neat circle of cause and effect, you had to approach it personally, emotionally, looking for the individual with whom to make a relationship.

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There is stuff in there about ridiculous inflexible rules as well … like something about pricing in a certain sector mainly being determined by weight, so the old machinery being actually more expensive than the new more efficient machinery! But the absurd outcomes are not only the function of narrowly conceived regulations followed to the letter by fearful, resentful, unimaginative bureaucrats. There’s much more to it than that :slight_smile:

Very cool post, @jolwalton. I guess my lack of interest for Red Plenty in this context is:

  • Semi-formal networks of people with some kind of privileged access to resources hustling and scratching each other’s backs to get the job done is a vivid, realistic economic system. But it is hardly “completely different from what we have now”. It’s a large part of how the world works.
  • Shadow pricing is at least a somewhat different basis for an economic system. In the early 1990s a movement calling itself “environmental economics” tried to revamp it to hold up environmental and other public goods, for which a market price does not exist. But Red Plenty does not build a world in which this system works. The 1990s real-life version also tanked, because it turned out that, if you ask people to state their willingness to pay for things, the results would be subject to all kinds of cognitive biases. For example, respondents would be willing to pay more to say a single seagull from poisoning after a tanker’s oil spill, than they would to save the entire seagull species (real example).

So, the book is enjoyable, but its pathbreaking potential in economics is, in my view, small.

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Just discovered a very short work by Vinay (here as @hexayurt ) that should qualify as economic scifi. Let me throw it into the mix: “The Unplugged”.

It’s from 2006 and speculates about 2030 … quite interesting as we’re halfway there now. Would be interesting to hear Vinay’s “updated” vision for 2030 :slight_smile:

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Great catch! And yes, there is a distinctly economic element here: Vinay imagines a different form of saving (“three months of salary”) as a switch towards this different “Ricardian” economy, underwritten by natural capital + labour. Quite some economics there.

Nice! I’m a big Bukky Fuller fan and have myself reference him in playing with speculative worlds. Look forward to diving in further

I have added The Fifth Season to the list on the suggestion of a science fiction writer i’ve been talking to on twitter.
I’ve asked them to look over our listing as currently stands and suggest if we’ve made any glaring omissions.

The Future of Money Award is filled with excellent design fictions, presented as short films. E.g. Sunnyside is reminiscent of Doctorow’s Whuffie in a lot of ways:

http://futuremoneyaward.com/

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I wrote a small piece of economic future fiction a few months ago. Since economic sci fi is such a small (but strategic!) niche, I thought I’d share it here. It’s basically a history of the 21st Century from the perspective of 2068:

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I’ve just come back to this whilst thinking about the content of Autonomous.
It made me wonder if there should be a space on this list for HIGH RISE by J.G. Ballard. It’s much more dystopian than others on the list, but it think there’s probably a stronger economics argument in there that may be worth a dive into.

Hello @GrahamCaswell, I have read your piece, thanks for sharing it. It reads more like a futurism exercise than like SF to me: some future studies folks like to run workshops where they start from a “best ( or worst, symmetrically) case scenario” and then ask the question “how did this come to pass”?

Your scenario is unusually well-developed, but still I am left with the curiosity of the process that led to such positive developments. The only antecedent you mention is a Republican pro-climate candidate gaining the primaries; this, one imagines, is not something that just randomly happened, but the outcome of American business re-assessing their strategic position, and deciding to swing their support to such a candidate. In turn, their new strategies are probably based not just on altruistic considerations (if those were important, they would be weighing in already), but on some kind of realignment of economic incentives. But we do not see these.

Does that make sense?

Hello Alberto,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful response to my post. It’s deeply heartening to know that some people are taking these ideas seriously. The reason my post seems unusually well-developed is because in some ways it’s happening already.

The idea of taxing carbon and distributing the proceeds of that tax equally to everybody as a ‘carbon dividend’ is well established and has extensive political and other support from across the political spectrum. It is the (Liberal) Canadian federal government’s ‘backstop’ policy: it is supported by Exxon, Shell, Unilever and many other giant corporations (see https://www.clcouncil.org/founding-members/); it is supported by the (Democrat) California Leglislature and by the US Green Party; it is supported by James Hansen and many (possibly most) senior climate scientists, and by a wide variety of climate activist organisations from both the Right and the Left and neither/both (notably the Citizens’ Climate Lobby - see https://citizensclimatelobby.org). Not least, carbon dividends are the defacto climate policy of the non-Trump, non-Tea Party GOP (see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/science/a-conservative-climate-solution-republican-group-calls-for-carbon-tax.html).

I chose Curbelo for my imaginary story because he is the leader of the Climate Solutions Caucus of the US Congress, which now includes 88 congressional representatives (44 Democrats and 44 Republicans) - over 20% of the US Congress (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_Solutions_Caucus). While the Climate Solutions Caucus doesn’t formally support carbon dividends, it was established by Citizens’ Climate Lobby with Curbelo and so is saturated by that policy. Curbelo is also young, upcoming, anti-Trump and supports sane, bipartisan policies not only on climate but on immigration and other issues. I have no idea what his political ambitions are, but he would be a natural presidential candidate for the scientific, rational, responsible and genuinely conservative remainder of the US Republicans, and a realistic potential challenger to Trump. Whether such a challenge would succeed is, of course, another issue.

In terms of the wider picture of what I have called the ‘Commoner Movement’ in my story - that is also happening already to a certain extent. As you have an interest in these matters I am sure you are familiar with the emerging policy movements on Land Value Tax, QE for People and a Basic Income, and with growing interest in the concept of ‘the Commons’. I have been immersed in these issues for five years now and engage almost daily with many of the key people involved, and I can assure you that there is plenty of evidence of overlap between them - in both the thinking (and actions) of the individuals involved, and in terms of the deeper philosophical and political-economic ideas. Three of these real, implementable policies (CD, LVT, and QE4P) are potential funding sources for the other (UBI) and this synergy is not completely unnoticed. Leading economic thinkers (Kate Raworth, Mariana Mazzucato, Francis Coppola, Steve Keen, Scott Santens, and many more) are already connecting these threads (at least in their private and social media conversations). Much of my time is spent encouraging these connections and trying to connect the silos of each individual policy movement under the organising concepts of the Commons and Raworth’s Doughnut. You can find much more about my thinking on these matters from my website at www.grahamcaswell.com.

From what I see, our world is ending. Most serious is climate change - and it may already be too late. Work/income disruption, housing costs and financial dysfunction are leading to the destabilising of politics and thus of our ability to even focus on our core, structural economic problems, never mind address them. And change depends on politics, politics is based on ideas and, in my opinion, these are the ideas that can save us. I think a structured process leading to a meeting/retreat of key figures can come up with a coherent political narrative (like Fredrich Hayek did with Mont Perlion). I also think such a coherent political narrative can be spread rapidly with a focused, coherent, contagious, professional and thus reasonably well-funded online effort.

However there is absolutely no funding and support out there for such ideas and activities - especially outside of a very rarified formal academia. Personally I am in the process of trying to kill my passion for these endeavours and block my mind to the truths I know so that I can focus on getting whatever paid work I can to keep the electricity on and have some sort of social and self respect. It is easier to get funding to paint a mural about climate change than it is to work on the political-economics behind it. Grants are available to insure coastal holiday homes and to buy €100,000 electric cars - but none to work on and promote the core ideas behind why those grants are there in the first place. The bigger and more important the ideas, the less funding is available. And in my opinion none are bigger and more important than these. To me this is absolutely and utterly insane and shames everybody with spare money, and particularly those gatekeepers well paid to work on climate, homelessness, austerity and all the rest. But that’s the blinkered, self-interested and risk-averse world we live in.

My apologies for the whinge. It comes from the feeling that I am wasting my time even talking about these issues when I should be focusing on unrelated paid work. This is not self-pity (I am luckier than most - I have secure housing and even live beside a beach!). But when faced with the multiple tradgedies in the news each day, the accelerating decay of our politics, and an awareness of the mass horrors to come, it strikes me as insane that the deep and core ideas behind it all are so irrelevant and ignored - especially in the practical ways (i.e. money) that count the most. I think it is a stupid, self-destroying, blinkered, idiotic and sheer waste.

My story about how we might live in 2068 and how we might get there is a positive one, but it is only one of the many futures we can choose for ourselves. All the pieces are there, waiting to be connected and expressed. If just a small fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the funding and support flowing to the symptoms were directed to the core causes and solutions I think we could have a real chance. But that’s just my opinion.

Thank you very much for your response to my story and again, my apologies for the negativity.

Best regards,

Graham

P.S. In terms of why US business currently supports carbon dividends and would support a candidate like Curbello, they do so because they recognise reality and see this carbon pricing policy as a way to keep the market free. This is also the reason for the substantial support by many rich and powerful business people for a Basic Income and, to a much lesser extent, for LVT and QE for People. These policies provide universal financial and other security for every man, woman and child while keeping the market free and within the ‘safe space’ of Raworth’s doughnut. They support both the Left’s core value of universal security and the Right’s core value of freedom (especially market freedom). These policies are also firmly grounded in the universal value of equality of treatment for all.

Noted. Are you American? From where I stand, American consensus around hydrocarbons, fracking, cars, aircon, golfing in deserts – even coal, for the love of Chtulhu – seems unbreakable. But I live in Europe, what do I know. Maybe it would only take a deep conversation at a critical cocktail party, and everything would change.

No need to apologize. This is Edgeryders. We know dread.

I’m Canadian-Irish, mostly Irish and living in Ireland. I’ve followed US climate politics closely for many years and have lobbied in Ireland for carbon dividends as a member (and Irish coordinator) of Citizens Climate Lobby.

To expand on the quote above, there are essentially 3 ways to price carbon. The first, trading systems, has been tried and found not to work very well. That leaves straight carbon tax (even if imposed as a ‘price floor’ on trading systems), and there are 2 models of carbon tax, differing by who gets the money. The first, tax-and-subsidise, involves government taxing carbon and then spending the money on carbon saving programs. Everybody’s costs and prices go up, and the government decides who gets the money. The second way to tax carbon is by returning the proceeds of the tax equally to all. That way everybody’s costs and prices go up, but everybody also gets a cheque in the post. Most people come out ahead (making it politically possible), the poor benefit the most (satisfying the socialists), and the government is largely kept out of it (satisfying the capitalists). And the core human values of freedom, equality and fairness are reinforced.

Old-style, market freedom-loving American (and other) conservatives who recognise scientific reality support carbon dividends because, while they are even more aware of the importance of a price on carbon than the Left are, they don’t like government, don’t trust government, and don’t think government is efficient or effective at micro-managing the market that we depend on for our modern, globalised, high-tech lives. As somebody whose outstanding electricity bill includes a carbon tax used to give rich people €5,000 grants to buy €100,000 EVs, I tend to agree with them. Government often does not pick-and-choose either fairly or effectively (after all, there’s €5,000 grants for €100,000 EVs, but not a penny for someone who has never owned a car).

There’s no ‘American consensus’ around anything, but polls show people ahead of politicians on climate (especially among the young) and some of the world’s best climate scientists, activists, organisations, businesses, thinkers, etc. come from the United States. Of course there’s stupid, irrational, self-defeating and very powerful US resistance to climate/carbon action, and there’s no guarantee of anything. Maybe America’s future is a decent into a hell hole under Trumpian rule? Who knows? But it’s undeniable that there is a serious policy movement towards carbon dividends coming largely (but not entirely) from the American political center-right (or what’s left of it). I can also tell you from both national and EU-wide experience that there is very little awareness of carbon dividends as a policy option in Europe (although CCL’s 22 European chapters are doing what they can).

I think we need a new term: Political Denial. By this I mean the denial of the reality of politics by academics, NGOs, think tanks, grantees and all the other apparatus of the multi-billion euro climate, sustainability and social transformation industry. The reality of politics is that the Afd are now the second largest party in Germany, that Macron is less popular in France than Trump in in the US, and that the UK has tied itself into a self-absorbed Brexit knot. I don’t know what country you live in but I do know that, whatever country it is, your country too has rising ‘populists’ and a rising anger at the dysfunction and unfairness of the business-as-usual status quo - all overhung by a background of environmental despair. I know that your country’s politics are changing too. That’s because the core causes and the ‘system’s’ inability to address these core problems are similar everywhere.

Maybe it would only take a deep conversation at a critical cocktail party, and everything would change. After all, at a time when the thinking world is screaming out for a “new economic paradigm” one is already emerging in front of our eyes, with existing cross-political and expert support, based on evidence, politically and institutionally realistic and possible, just waiting to be connected into a coherant and widely communicable whole. One consultation and discussion process, one week of focused and facilitated discussion, and one social platform incentivising focused action might have a chance. I mean, if Hayek managed to do it, it can be done again.

But right now there’s more chance of getting funding for “raising awareness of climate through the medium of interpretative dance”, or for walking to the North Pole to draw attention to the fate of polar bears, or for writing an obscure paper about how climate change threatens farmer’s mental health - than there is of getting funding to develop and influence the core political-economics ideas and politics behind climate change itself (and the same goes for inequality, etc.). If there is ever a deep conversation at a critical cocktail party that changes everything, I’ll bet that conversation will essentially be about one person convincing another person that an idea is important enough to let go of a little money. And that idea will be a real, defined political idea encompassing practical, specific, implementable policies.

Because anything else would just be more empty, vacuous, safe, vague, risk-averse, business-as-usual, normal, respectable, mediocre and ultimately suicidal horse manure. And that’s well-funded already.

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A somewhat Quirky little SF series that has a lot of economics in it, is the 'Old Guy" books, by Timothy J. Gawne. On it’s face, it is about a civilization of sentient cybertanks who have moved into a post- scarcity economy (where the cybertanks essentially do stuff to make ‘cool’ points). However it often tracks back to when the human “Neoliberal Economists” were in charge, and details the many devious things these Neoliberal economists did to keep the population in economic slavery, and the great hated the protagonist (Old Guy) has for them. And I mean EXTREME hatred in that the second book is titles “Neoliberal Economists Must die!”

The books are actually a lot of fun, while still staying in the basic parameters of science (as we know it). Honestly, I find them hysterical at times, yet generally learn something from each book as the author explains a lot about how various systems in his worlds work. I find his explanation of dealing with aliens quite credible (everyone keeps to themselves and doesn’t want to exchange much information, as information about a culture can be used against it). And yes, there is another civilization formed out of office copies. You kind of have to be there I guess.

Anyway, other that the above mentioned books these have the most economics in them I can think of.

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