Econ-SF: a selection of works and authors


Yes, I have read Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. He was talking about an economy which was 8x his by 2030. We already have a society 8x his, but we are working – not 3 hr/day, but still much less than they did in his time. In 1930 people worked an average of 69 hours a week; now the average work week in the US (including vacations) is about 33 hours.

Thing is that we need more. And by that I don’t mean only “stuff” – possessions. Yes, our houses are twice as big – well, if you lived in the average British hovel in 1930 you’d have wanted more space too. We have hugely better medicine – yes we spend too much for it in the US, but on the plus side life expectancy at birth has risen from 61 to 79. We have refrigeration – that deserves a place all to itself – food storage, air conditioning – considered to be the most important invention of the industrial age – maybe excepting the steam engine. We spend the great majority of our incomes on services – housing, transportation (cars mostly), education, medical, legal & financial – and far less on food and clothing than in 1930. Keynes did not take into account just how much income would be needed to make the lives of average Britons good – as it turns out, it needed to increase more than 8x to push hours down to 3/day.

IMO, though, what is needed is not more income as such, but primarily different organizational arrangements – I think we need more communities, so that people’s sense of belonging can be enhanced, and mutual support structures can be strengthened. And I doubt that government can do that. It might be that social media can help with it, but evidence I have seen suggests that rather than creating a sense of community, people who spend more time on social media actually feel LESS integrated into a community. Equality of opportunity is important. Technology can be helpful, but I think the future is people rubbing up against each other and figuring out how to get along. But hopefully in smaller groups, in which people know and support each other.

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I don’t know if any Edgeriders participate in medieval re-enactments or anything similar; here in Texas I work at the Renaissance Faire on weekends. There is a remarkable community spirit among the people who work the Faire, most of whom are marginal or work as drones in the outside society. Inside, though, they are special, and they are known and loved. Many or most are artisans or makers. This leads me to think, for example, William Morris’ vision in News from Nowhere may be applicable. Morris goes on about how much work people want to do without pay, and I have doubts about that, but the desire to create is real. So… bits and pieces from here and there…

The problem is that a lot of our labor and GDP go towards waste production – inefficient use of inputs, administrative overhead, guard labor, planned obsolescence, bad urban design, etc. – or to supporting the recipients of rents. We could probably cut the work week below 20 hours just by eliminating all the waste and parasitism.

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Wow, @petussing, great post! I agree with your approach to carefully unpicking the different factors that play out in making Keynes’s prophecy incorrect. We could even go further, and break down the 1930-2020 period into sub-periods: maybe some of the objective betterments that you note (longer lifespans, larger homes etc.) were mostly in place in, say, 1975, and after that the prosperity engine stalled. Or maybe not.

Is this contractual hours or actual timekeeping? Also: where do you take your stats for 1930 hours worked?

There seems to be some consensus around that. Once basic (Keynes-levels) needs are met, communities seem to be the context for people to try out different arrangements and different life choices. Going vegan, or running, or giving up flying, or zero-waste grocery become easier when done as groups. After all, we are an eusocial species, and good collaboration is our superpower.

In economic terms, this should mean we must be potentially quite good at “managing the commons”, as Ostrom says. This would allow us to build an economy centered on public and common goods, which would be way more efficient than one based on private goods.

We have an economic theory that matches poorly our biology: it would work much better if we were evolved from lone predator species, like hawks or sharks, instead of from pack scavengers. It focuses on competition when we are good at collaboration, and models us as atomistic individuals, making rational decisions in isolation, when we operate as part of social units.

I would not exoticize this stuff. We had a palette of “fuzzy” and communal land rights in medieval Europe, as explained by Scott in Seeing like a state. Freehold ownership of land was invented as a way to simplify tax levying. We, in Europe, did not lose traditional patterns of land rights because we are disconnected from indigenous knowledge; they were literally pried from us, kicking and screaming, by the King’s taxmen and their goons.

Basically the people who dissolved communal tenure, enclosed the land and imposed fee simple ownership in England went on to do the same thing throughout the colonial world.

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Breaking news: we are rolling out the Science Fiction Economics Lab. All contributors to this resource are warmly invited! Updates are coming in email form. This is where you sign up to receive them:

@matthias @alex_levene @jolwalton @sz_duras @joelfinkle @Kaibeezy @LStewart @anonandon @OmaMorkie @Enro @ralmond @rachel @GrahamCaswell @JGG @kevin_carson @phm @petussing @oliiive @Azraq @johncoate @yannick @mariacoenen @filip @jaycousins @danohu @amiridina @OmaMorkie @Caszimir

Yes following this up @alberto, i hope to find the time to partake in these sessions. I like the mindset of it and I hope I can find time to look into star trek deep economics sub reddits because there is some real gold in that :wink:

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Actually, @yannick, I was thinking about you. Do you think your BIFFF crowd woiuld be interested in the Sci-Fi Economics Lab? How can we get the word out to them?

@alberto serious, we could look into a masterclass in salle 3 at the festival around that thematic, depending of course if that thematic emerges in one of the main selections. :slight_smile:

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Ping @irene_1

It is so bloody complicated. It is useless to say “capitalism good, socialism bad” or “communal land good, enclosure bad”. All these institutions are part of human social evolution; they have positive and negative effects, they generate unexpected and varied responses from people. The enclosure movement enabled the large-scale agriculture which allowed Europeans to feed themselves. Small farms are not very productive. Obviously there was a lot of destruction as well. Hardin in his paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968 advocated privatization to save common resources. He was right… sometimes. Elinor Ostrom later talked about negotiating communal strategies – that also works… sometimes, and she defined propitious circumstances. Attaching “good” and “bad” labels just remove essential options from the table.

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I like your approach, @petussing. I, too, feel the duty to refuse to oversimplify. And actually there is a difficult argument to make here, which is that the health of a system does not necessarily imply the well-being of its components. In your example, the system is food production, which is made more effective by enclosures. Its component are individual farmers, who might have fared better under pre-enclosures conditions. If you are a humanist (and we all are, according to Harari), your ideology demands that you put the well-being of individual humans before that of the economies they create.

And yes, I am aware this “system-vs-component” stuff looks suspiciously like a rerun of social Darwinism in complex systems sauce. But I see all those power law distributions and positive feedback dynamics everywhere, and wonder: is it not true that being able to support predators is a definition of robust ecosystems? Social Darwinism 2.0 must be falsified or outcompeted, not simply assumed away.

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So it seems to me that we need to think in terms of a system that uses the talents without being harmed by the predations of predators. And it needs to differentiate the varied roles of actors in the system – it is much too over-symplified in the 21st century to think on the basis of a dualistic economy of capitalists and workers, or workers and their vanguard. I’m not an ecologist at all, but maybe without getting bogged down in detailed correspondences we can find a way to think of an economy as being a kind of ecosystem. It’s something I have been playing with, but had not previously put into writing.

What I am supposing we mean by “predators” is people with strong personalities – “natural leaders” is another, more complementary designation for pretty much the same people. They are leaders of a government, of a Socialist revolution, or of large companies – only the details are changed. Their impulse is to take over, because their self-confidence propels them to believe that they have the answers. What is needed is to constrain their desire to dominate by ensuring the framework is oriented toward service. “The one who leads is the one who serves the rest best.” This must be baked into the system.

Roles easily come to mind: those who have the personalities of workers – do a certain amount of work a day, which fulfills the need to contribute to society – otherwise spend time with family or rest. Many of them would become artisans – they would find an affinity for metal or wood or code, or for making their production more efficient. Perhaps someone would listen to their ideas. There are many people are like this – there is no blame – such people are the bedrock of production. There are dreamers, who create art and literature, but also think about possibilities of how to organize society. There are researchers, who are oriented toward doing science, physical or social scientific research. There are entrepreneurs, who are happy to spend 80 hours a week trying to create a new product and find people who want to use it. People who want to serve others directly, as nurses or social workers or psychologists. People who don’t get along with other humans but have an affinity for animals, or for plants, or for fish in the sea. They are our links to the world around us. Explorers.

One sets up an education system around finding and expanding these qualities in individuals, instead of educating industrial workers in one part, and elite leaders in another part, like the old one. Not sending people down “tracks”, but allowing them to explore their own feelings about what they want to do. Really, dreadfully simple. Expensive, because differentiated, but digital technology should reduce the cost. Ultimately the reward in terms of increased productivity would be enormous.

Naturally discrimination on the basis of the normal criteria, such as so-called “race” or other tribal identifications such as religion, or sexual orientation or culture, would be an insidious virus inside such a system which would have to be strenuously prevented. The more problematic kind of discrimination – that of subtly supposing any particular kind of person to be “better” or “more important” – would also have to be suppressed, though that would be harder.

Then you have a web: not only one in which predators are caught, but also one in which the talents of all players are optimized.

No, not at all. The predators of earthworms are not badass earthworms, but birds: an entirely different clade. Nothing earthworms can do is going to be remotely effective against large, scary creatures who can see you from far away, reach you an instant and lift you up like you were nothing at all.

The predators of the Marshallian price-taking businesses operating in a regime of competition are, maybe, large corporations enjoying monopoly power and a privileged access to regulators (FAANG, oil companies, finance etc.). Or maybe they are systems: When the central banker recommends a credit crunch, he says “financial markets will punish us if we don’t”. “Financial markets” in this sentenc are some kind of Moirai, inscrutable, inaccessible divinities who lord over us.

You confuse me. The Fates are the apotheosis of impersonal destiny. Predators are very personal. If you mean that people are being harmed by an impersonal destiny, then it is neither a system nor any individual or set of individuals; not a system because we are humans – we can alter or mitigate systems. The Moirae need no support. I am guessing at your meaning, but if you mean the actions of markets are a systemic form of destiny, then that is what government are for, if they act on behalf on all or even of a select set of humans in the system; quite literally, governments exist to limit the harm those systems would otherwise impose on their constituents. If a government were to exist which acted on behalf of the entire citizenry (which I would argue has never yet existed), it would do its best to protect all its citizens from negative effects of the “Moirae” in that particular economy: if markets, then for example it would re-train workers who were made jobless by technological change to do new jobs (and support them in the interim).

Thought I would drop in a mention of John Muir’s The Velvet Monkey Wrench. Most well known for his books on Volkswagen repair, lavishly illustrated by the great Peter Aschwanden, The Velvet Monkey Wrench was a humorous attempt at what could be called ‘hippie futurism’, detailing a future as imagined by the '60s/'70s counter-culture. Not so much science fiction as it is written in the manner of futurist books of the time rather than a novel but perhaps a bit too fanciful to be called a futurist study.

I’ve got a much loved copy of Radical Technology from the same genre.

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Guys, guys! The crowdfunding campaign for the Sci-Fi Economics Lab is launched. If you don’t live in or near Brussels, you can still be a part of it through live streaming. Get access here: