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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 12, 2022

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What are realistic possibilities for Western countries' economic systems if mass automation renders the majority of people unemployed?

  1. Explicit 'Universal Basic Income'. This alone would require a substantial and sliding rise in taxation upon the declining number of people who do work, and possibly upon wealth, but is the advocated solution of many 'neoliberal' commentators. This preserves capitalism and the market economy, but ends labor (beyond the home) for the vast majority of people, who essentially retire upon reaching adulthood. Ends alleged 'dignity of work'. Has problems with economics' most important question ("who live big house?") because it creates a permanent two-caste society in which one class of people who make up the vast majority of the population are eternally poor and live off the state, with no real chance of improving their situation (other than with a generally rising tide), while the other caste live off their capital and own all or most of the resources. Seems likely to fuel class conflict, perhaps successfully given traditional bulwark against socialist revolution (lower-middle class/burghers) no longer exists, nor do stratifications within working class (eg. between working class and underclass/lumpenproles). Might be social problems or dysfunction due to malaise or lack of labor in some communities.

  2. Implicit 'Universal Basic Income' via combination of state subsidies, make-work and public employment. Many Western economies already rely on large amounts of public employment in industries like healthcare and education that is arguably economically unnecessary, or at least would not exist without state support. Some European countries also subsidize students through housing and education costs through PhDs. These programs could all be expanded considerably. Students might do two or three or four degrees each, not 'completing' education until they were 32-35. In addition, governments could fund make-work in private industry, such that the full amount of jobs automated is not necessarily the number of jobs 'lost'. At the extreme end, retirement age could also be lowered. In thirty years, only a narrow band of the population might work between the ages of, say, 35 and 50, and most of them might do state-funded makework, disguised in various ways. Has advantage of allowing for income inequality, preserving mooted sense of worth from a job, and possibly preventing the formation of a two-caste economy as above. Has disadvantage of forcing or socially pressuring substantial chunk of population into arguably entirely unnecessary labor.

  3. Eat The Poor. Catch-all for socialist visions of capitalist dystopia (eg. Manna, Elysium) in which the poor are either slowly or quickly genocided, or waste away in awful conditions on earth while a small number of wealthy capital owners continue humanity. Technically this is possible through a combination of options 1/2 and a ban on non-rich people having children, but I'm thinking of darker futures (for the victims) here. Given the likely abundance possible in post-AGI, the sole purpose of such action would be political control (given that the food and housing needs of the rest of the population wouldn't be much of a burden upon society). It's also hard to see what the structure of the 'elite' would be like. Would people try desperately to hold onto wealth, knowing that they'd die if they lost it? Wouldn't the huge collapse in aggregate demand caused by the withdrawal of billions of people from the market sink a lot of those rich people? Would elites actually live under a form of buy-in socialism while commoners fade away in this scenario? I don't think this makes a great deal of sense. Soft versions of this scenario would involve libertarian/seasteading-esque stuff where rich people build their own societies with a buy-in, perhaps on some tropical island or by bribing the government of a poor country, thereby avoiding taxes needed to fund UBI of options 1 or 2.

  4. Actual Gommunism. Or really, all kinds of utopian state socialism. The state expropriates industry, most private property/capital, distributes resources according to some kind of system. Possibility of more or less state control, might be more like smallheld automated kibbutzes with smaller central administration. If run by humans, vulnerable to same problematic incentives as historical communism, if run by AI, vulnerable to 'who has the most control over the AI?" + AI incentive problems. Even post-AGI, scarcity might still make markets best method of distribution. Socialist experiments with market non-capitalism (ie. not Dengism) haven't historically been particularly successful, although there haven't been many.

I consider further possibilities like ancap/libertarianism unlikely due to lack of public buy-in, others (eg. forms of libertarian socialism or fully no-state communism) unworkable, and others, like retvrning to feudalism or whatever, unlikely or unpredictable enough that they're not worth discussing in this context.

I think the nature of jobs and work will shift, but the marginal value of humans to other humans will on average be higher than the costs of survival. As long as some non-misanthropic humans retain economic value then it will spread outward from them. If AI is the only one controlling economic value, then all bets are off.

A short story to illustrate:

God-Emperor Franz has all the economic value. He wants an advisor and a semi-subserviant friend to talk with about god emperor related issues. Everyone else could be robots and Franz would not care, but it is important that his advisor and friend is a real person. Since Franz has all the economic value he has to pay some amount to share some with his friend so that his friend isn't miserable. Franz shares a minuscule fraction of his economic value, enough to pay for all his friend's food and housing.

His friend has this minuscule salary, but one day Franz discovers that his friend is still not happy. Franz finds out that his friend wants to have a wife and family, but he can't afford them with his minuscule salary. Franz decides that he doesn't want to have to deal with constant requests for increasing his friend's salary. Franz grants his friend .001% of all the economic value. His friend is blown away by the generosity. This is trillions of times greater than the salary he was receiving before.

Many centuries (or millenia) go by, and Franz is very happy being the god emperor, and his friend is happy for many years as well. One day Franz notices that his friend is angry. "What anger's you, friend?" His friend responds "It is just the constant complaining of my second son's 5th kingdom. They ask why they can't receive more of an allotment of economic value. They spit on your generosity, and ask why you can't grant more. Even after I kill all the people of that generation and resettle it with new poors they seem to get the same idea in their heads again and again."

Franz spends some time thinking on this issue. The problem will keep occurring as long as he only gives away a fraction of his economic value. His friend will continue to be upset by people asking for more. However if he gives away all of his economic value he won't be the god-emperor. In the end he decided to give 50%-1 units of his economic value away. He will always be the god emperor with the most economic value. But no one could possibly expect him to give away more.

Franz and his friend live happilly every after. However, on the fringes of the human galaxy, planetary wars are constantly fought and waged over the scraps of economic value flowing outwards from the center. Billions of lives are extinguished every day in the unending wars. But their complains never reach the ears of the emperor or his advisor. The complaints don't even get close, there are at least 6 degrees of separation from anyone that even knows about these complaints and the emperor's advisor. A secret cabal of police and enforcers maintains these 6 degrees of separation at all times. The leaders of this cabal know that if such complaints were ever to reach the emperor ... then the emperor might go looking for a new friend who doesn't want a family.

This is how I see it. After "the moment", your future will be a binary of whether you're inside or outside the circle — whether you know or are related to Emperor Franz. The outsiders go extinct. But for the insiders, it's just a population bottleneck. They gradually dissipate their wealth among relatives, friends, and descendants, spiralling into an unthinkably vast inheritance and patronage network.

So the future is not 5000 tech bazillionaires cackling and drinking space wine served by butler androids. There will still be a society. Its population will have been replaced. A similar thing happened to English lower classes in early modern England, I've read; they were gradually replaced by descendants of the upper classes, excepting some fetching X chromosomes.

This is assuming human civilization doesn't shed humans like the outgrown husk of a germinating seed, of course.

I'd read a short story from the secret police POV. Cool hypothetical world.