Could the Star Trek economy really work?

Jun 13 JDN 2459379

“The economics of the future are somewhat different”, Jean-Luc Picard explains to Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact.

Captain Picard’s explanation is not very thorough, and all we have about the economic system of the Federation comes from similar short glimpes across the various Star Trek films and TV series. The best glimpses of what the Earth’s economy is like largely come from the Picard series in particular.

But I think we can safely conclude that all of the following are true:

1. Energy is extraordinarily abundant, with a single individual having access to an energy scale that would rival the energy production of entire nations at present. By E=mc2, simply being able to teleport a human being or materialize a hamburger from raw energy, as seems to be routine in Starfleet, would require something on the order of 10^17 joules, or about 28 billion kilowatt-hours. The total energy supply of the world economy today is about 6*10^20 joules, or 100 trillion kilowatt-hours.

2. There is broad-based prosperity, but not absolute equality. At the very least different people live differently, though it is unclear whether anyone actually has a better standard of living than anyone else. The Picard family still seems to own their family vineyard that has been passed down for generations, and since the population of Earth is given as about 9 billion (a plausible but perhaps slightly low figure for our long-run stable population equilibrium), its acreage is large enough that clearly not everyone on Earth can own that much land.

3. Most resources that we currently think of as scarce are not scarce any longer. Replicator technology allows for the instantaneous production of food, clothing, raw materials, even sophisticated electronics. There is no longer a “manufacturing sector” as such; there are just replicators and people who use or program them. Most likely, even new replicators are made by replicating parts in other replicators and then assembling them. There are a few resources which remain scarce, such as dilithium (somehow involved in generating these massive quantities of energy) and latinum (a bizarre substance that is prized by many other cultures yet for unexplained reasons cannot be viably produced in replicators). Essentially everything else that is scarce is inherently so, such as front-row seats at concerts, original paintings, officer commissions in Starfleet, or land in San Francisco.

4. Interplanetary and even interstellar trade is routine. Starships with warp capability are available to both civilian and government institutions, and imports and exports can be made to planets dozens or even hundreds of light-years away as quickly as we can currently traverse the oceans with a container ship.

5. Money as we know it does not exist. People are not paid wages or salaries for their work. There is still some ownership of personal property, and particular families (including the Picards) seem to own land; but there does not appear to be any private ownership of capital. For that matter there doesn’t even appear to be be much in the way of capital; we never see any factories. There is obviously housing, there is infrastructure such as roads, public transit, and presumably power plants (very, very powerful power plants, see 1!), but that may be all. Nearly all manufacturing seems to be done by replicators, and what can’t be done by replicators (e.g. building new starships) seems to be all orchestrated by state-owned enterprises such as Starfleet.

Could such an economy actually work? Let’s stipulate that we really do manage to achieve such an extraordinary energy scale, millions of times more than what we can currently produce. Even very cheap, widespread nuclear energy would not be enough to make this plausible; we would need at least abundant antimatter, and quite likely something even more exotic than this, like zero point energy. Along this comes some horrifying risks—imagine an accident at a zero-point power plant that tears a hole in the fabric of space next to a major city, or a fanatical terrorist with a handheld 20-megaton antimatter bomb. But let’s assume we’ve found ways to manage those risks as well.

Furthermore, let’s stipulate that it’s possible to build replicators and warp drives and teleporters and all the similarly advanced technology that the Federation has, much of which is so radically advanced we can’t even be sure that such a thing is possible.

What I really want to ask is whether it’s possible to sustain a functional economy at this scale without money. George Roddenberry clearly seemed to think so. I am less convinced.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that there have been human societies which did not use money, or even any clear notion of a barter system. In fact, most human cultures for most of our history as a species allocated resources based on collective tribal ownership and personal favors. Some of the best parts of Debt: The First 5000 Years are about these different ways of allocating resources, which actually came much more naturally to us than money.

But there seem to have been rather harsh constraints on what sort of standard of living could be maintained in such societies. There was essentially zero technological advancement for thousands of years in most hunter-gatherer cultures, and even the wealthiest people in most of those societies overall had worse health, shorter lifespans, and far, far less access to goods and services than people we would consider in poverty today.

Then again, perhaps money is only needed to catalyze technological advancement; perhaps once you’ve already got all the technology you need, you can take money away and return to a better way of life without greed or inequality. That seems to be what Star Trek is claiming: That once we can make a sandwich or a jacket or a phone or even a car at the push of a button, we won’t need to worry about paying people because everyone can just have whatever they need.

Yet whatever they need is quite different from whatever they want, and therein lies the problem. Yes, I believe that with even moderate technological advancement—the sort of thing I expect to see in the next 50 years, not the next 300—we will have sufficient productivity that we could provide for the basic needs of every human being on Earth. A roof over your head, food on your table, clothes to wear, a doctor and a dentist to see twice a year, emergency services, running water, electricity, even Internet access and public transit—these are things we could feasibly provide to literally everyone with only about two or three times our current level of GDP, which means only about 2% annual economic growth for the next 50 years. Indeed, we could already provide them for every person in First World countries, and it is quite frankly appalling that we fail to do so.

However, most of us in the First World already live a good deal better than that. We don’t have the most basic housing possible, we have nice houses we want to live in. We don’t take buses everywhere, we own our own cars. We don’t eat the cheapest food that would provide adequate nutrition, we eat a wide variety of foods; we order pizza and Chinese takeout, and even eat at fancy restaurants on occasion. It’s less clear that we could provide this standard of living to everyone on Earth—but if economic growth continues long enough, maybe we can.

Worse, most of us would like to live even better than we do. My car is several years old right now, and it runs on gasoline; I’d very much like to upgrade to a brand-new electric car. My apartment is nice enough, but it’s quite small; I’d like to move to a larger place that would give me more space not only for daily living, but also for storage and for entertaining guests. I work comfortable hours for decent pay at a white-collar job that can be done entirely remotely on mostly my own schedule, but I’d prefer to take some time off and live independently while I focus more on my own writing. I sometimes enjoy cooking, but often it can be a chore, and sometimes I wish I could just go eat out at a nice restaurant for dinner every night. I don’t make all these changes because I can’t afford to—that is, because I don’t have the money.

Perhaps most of us would feel no need to have a billion dollars. I don’t really know what $100 billion actually gets you, as far as financial security, independence, or even consumption, that $50 million wouldn’t already. You can have total financial freedom and security with a middle-class American lifestyle with net wealth of about $2 million. If you want to also live in a mansion, drink Dom Perignon with every meal and drive a Lamborghini (which, quite frankly, I have no particular desire to do), you’ll need several million more—but even then you clearly don’t need $1 billion, let alone $100 billion. So there is indeed something pathological about wanting a billion dollars for yourself, and perhaps in the Federation they have mental health treatments for “wealth addiction” that prevent people from experiencing such pathological levels of greed.

Yet in fact, with the world as it stands, I would want a billion dollars. Not to own it. Not to let it sit and grow in some brokerage account. Not to simply be rich and be on the Forbes list. I couldn’t care less about those things. But with a billion dollars, I could donate enormous amounts to charities, saving thousands or even millions of lives. I could found my own institutions—research institutes, charitable foundations—and make my mark on the world. With $100 billion, I could make a serious stab at colonizing Mars—as Elon Musk seems to be doing, but most other billionaires have no particular interest in.

And it begins to strain credulity to imagine a world of such spectacular abundance that everyone could have enough to do that.

This is why I always struggle to answer when people ask me things like “If money were not object, how would you live your life?”; if money were no object, I’d end world hunger, cure cancer, and colonize the Solar System. Money is always an object. What I think you meant to ask was something much less ambitious, like “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” But I might actually have a million dollars someday—most likely by saving and investing the proceeds of a six-figure job as an economist over many years. (Save $2,000 per month for 20 years, growing it at 7% per year, and you’ll be over $1 million. You can do your own calculations here.) I doubt I’ll ever have $10 million, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have $1 billion.

To be fair, it seems that many of the grand ambitions I would want to achieve with billions of dollars already are achieved by 23rd century; world hunger has definitely been ended, cancer seems to have been largely cured, and we have absolutely colonized the Solar System (and well beyond). But that doesn’t mean that new grand ambitions wouldn’t arise, and indeed I think they would. What if I wanted to command my own fleet of starships? What if I wanted a whole habitable planet to conduct experiments on, perhaps creating my own artificial ecosystem? The human imagination is capable of quite grand ambitions, and it’s unlikely that we could ever satisfy all of them for everyone.

Some things are just inherently scarce. I already mentioned some earlier: Original paintings, front-row seats, officer commissions, and above all, land. There’s only so much land that people want to live on, especially because people generally want to live near other people (Internet access could conceivably reduce the pressure for this, but, uh, so far it really hasn’t, so why would we think it will in 300 years?). Even if it’s true that people can have essentially arbitrary amounts of food, clothing, or electronics, the fact remains that there’s only so much real estate in San Francisco.

It would certainly help to build taller buildings, and presumably they would, though most of the depictions don’t really seem to show that; where are the 10-kilometer-tall skyscrapers made of some exotic alloy or held up by structural integrity fields? (Are the forces of NIMBY still too powerful?) But can everyone really have a 1000-square-meter apartment in the center of downtown? Maybe if you build tall enough? But you do still need to decide who gets the penthouse.

It’s possible that all inherently-scarce resources could be allocated by some mechanism other than money. Some even should be: Starfleet officer commissions are presumably allocated by merit. (Indeed, Starfleet seems implausibly good at selecting supremely competent officers.) Others could be: Concert tickets could be offered by lottery, and maybe people wouldn’t care so much about being in the real front row when you can always simulate the front row at home in your holodeck. Original paintings could all be placed in museums available for public access—and the tickets, too, could be allocated by lottery or simply first-come, first-served. (Picard mentions the Smithsonian, so public-access museums clearly still exist.)

Then there’s the question of how you get everyone to work, if you’re not paying them. Some jobs people will do for fun, or satisfaction, or duty, or prestige; it’s plausible that people would join Starfleet for free (I’m pretty sure I would). But can we really expect all jobs to work that way? Has automation reached such an advanced level that there are no menial jobs? Sanitation? Plumbing? Gardening? Paramedics? Police? People still seem to pick grapes by hand in the Picard vineyards; do they all do it for the satisfaction of a job well done? What happens if one day everyone decides they don’t feel like picking grapes today?

I certainly agree that most menial jobs are underpaid—most people do them because they can’t get better jobs. But surely we don’t want to preserve that? Surely we don’t want some sort of caste system that allocates people to work as plumbers or garbage collectors based on their birth? I guess we could use merit-based aptitude testing; it’s clear that the vast majority of people really aren’t cut out for Starfleet (indeed, perhaps I’m not!), and maybe some people really would be happiest working as janitors. But it’s really not at all clear what such a labor allocation system would be like. I guess if automation has reached such an advanced level that all the really necessary work is done by machines and human beings can just choose to work as they please, maybe that could work; it definitely seems like a very difficult system to manage.

So I guess it’s not completely out of the question that we could find some appropriate mechanism to allocate all goods and services without ever using money. But then my question becomes: Why? What do you have against money?

I understand hating inequality—indeed I share that feeling. I, too, am outraged by the existence of hectobillionaires in a world where people still die of malaria and malnutrition. But having a money system, or even a broadly free-market capitalist economy, doesn’t inherently have to mean allowing this absurd and appalling level of inequality. We could simply impose high, progressive taxes, redistribute wealth, and provide a generous basic income. If per-capita GDP is something like 100 times its current level (as it appears to be in Star Trek), then the basic income could be $1 million per year and still be entirely affordable.

That is, rather than trying to figure out how to design fair and efficient lotteries for tickets to concerts and museums, we could still charge for tickets, and just make sure that everyone has a million dollars a year in basic income. Instead of trying to find a way to convince people to clean bathrooms for free, we could just pay them to do it.

The taxes could even be so high at the upper brackets that they effectively impose a maximum income; say we have a 99% marginal rate above $20 million per year. Then the income inequality would collapse to quite a low level: No one below $1 million, essentially no one above $20 million. We could tax wealth as well, ensuring that even if people save or get lucky on the stock market (if we even still have a stock market—maybe that is unnecessary after all), they still can’t become hectobillionaires. But by still letting people use money and allowing some inequality, we’d still get all the efficiency gains of having a market economy (minus whatever deadweight loss such a tax system imposed—which I in fact suspect would not be nearly as large as most economists fear).

In all, I guess I am prepared to say that, given the assumption of such great feats of technological advancement, it is probably possible to sustain such a prosperous economy without the use of money. But why bother, when it’s so much easier to just have progressive taxes and a basic income?

Because ought implies can, can may imply ought

Mar21JDN 2459295

Is Internet access a fundamental human right?

At first glance, such a notion might seem preposterous: Internet access has only existed for less than 50 years, how could it be a fundamental human right like life and liberty, or food and water?

Let’s try another question then: Is healthcare a fundamental human right?

Surely if there is a vaccine for a terrible disease, and we could easily give it to you but refuse to do so, and you thereby contract the disease and suffer horribly, we have done something morally wrong. We have either violated your rights or violated our own obligations—perhaps both.

Yet that vaccine had to be invented, just as the Internet did; go back far enough into history and there were no vaccines, no antibiotics, even no anethestetics or antiseptics.

One strong, commonly shared intuition is that denying people such basic services is a violation of their fundamental rights. Another strong, commonly shared intuition is that fundamental rights should be universal, not contingent upon technological or economic development. Is there a way to reconcile these two conflicting intuitions? Or is one simply wrong?

One of the deepest principles in deontic logic is “ought implies can“: One cannot be morally obligated to do what one is incapable of doing.

Yet technology, by its nature, makes us capable of doing more. By technological advancement, our space of “can” has greatly expanded over time. And this means that our space of “ought” has similarly expanded.

For if the only thing holding us back from an obligation to do something (like save someone from a disease, or connect them instantaneously with all of human knowledge) was that we were incapable and ought implies can, well, then now that we can, we ought.

Advancements in technology do not merely give us the opportunity to help more people: They also give us the obligation to do so. As our capabilities expand, our duties also expand—perhaps not at the same rate, but they do expand all the same.

It may be that on some deeper level we could articulate the fundamental rights so that they would not change over time: Not a right to Internet access, but a right to equal access to knowledge; not a right to vaccination, but a right to a fair minimum standard of medicine. But the fact remains: How this right becomes expressed in action and policy will and must change over time. What was considered an adequate standard of healthcare in the Middle Ages would rightfully be considered barbaric and cruel today. And I am hopeful that what we now consider an adequate standard of healthcare will one day seem nearly as barbaric. (“Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?”)

We live in a very special time in human history.

Our technological and economic growth for the past few generations has been breathtakingly fast, and we are the first generation in history to seriously be in a position to end world hunger. We have in fact been rapidly reducing global poverty, but we could do far more. And because we can, we should.

After decades of dashed hope, we are now truly on the verge of space colonization: Robots on Mars are now almost routine, fully-reusable spacecraft have now flown successful missions, and a low-Earth-orbit hotel is scheduled to be constructed by the end of the decade. Yet if current trends continue, the benefits of space colonization are likely to be highly concentrated among a handful of centibillionaires—like Elon Musk, who gained a staggering $160 billion in wealth over the past year. We can do much better to share the rewards of space with the rest of the population—and therefore we must.

Artificial intelligence is also finally coming into its own, with GPT-3 now passing the weakest form of the Turing Test (though not the strongest form—you can still trip it up and see that it’s not really human if you are clever and careful). Many jobs have already been replaced by automation, but as AI improves, many more will be—not as soon as starry-eyed techno-optimists imagined, but sooner than most people realize. Thus far the benefits of automation have likewise been highly concentrated among the rich—we can fix that, and therefore we should.

Is there a fundamental human right to share in the benefits of space colonization and artificial intelligence? Two centuries ago the question wouldn’t have even made sense. Today, it may seem preposterous. Two centuries from now, it may seem preposterous to deny.

I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we are obliged to give our children food and water. Yet if we were in a desert, starving and dying of thirst, we would be unable to do so—and we cannot be obliged to do what we cannot do. Yet as soon as we find an oasis and we can give them water, we must.

Humanity has been starving in the desert for two hundred millennia. Now, at last, we have reached the oasis. It is our duty to share its waters fairly.

Trump will soon be gone. But this isn’t over.

Nov 8 JDN 2459162

After a frustratingly long wait for several states to finish counting their mail-in ballots (particularly Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona), Biden has officially won the Presidential election. While it was far too close in a few key states, this is largely an artifact of the Electoral College: Biden’s actual popular vote advantage was over 4 million votes. We now have our first Vice President who is a woman of color. I think it’s quite reasonable for us all to share a long sigh of relief at this result.

We have won this battle. But the war is far from over.

First, there is the fact that we are still in a historic pandemic and economic recession. I have no doubt that Biden’s policy response will be better than Trump’s; but he hasn’t taken office yet, and much of the damage has already been done. Things are not going to get much better for quite awhile yet.

Second, while Biden is a pretty good candidate, he does have major flaws.

Above all, Biden is still far too hawkish on immigration and foreign policy. He won’t chant “build the wall!”, but he’s unlikely to tear down all of our border fences or abolish ICE. He won’t rattle the saber with Iran or bomb civilians indiscriminately, but he’s unlikely to end the program of assassination drone strikes. Trump has severely, perhaps irrevocably, damaged the Pax Americana with his ludicrous trade wars, alienation of our allies, and fawning over our enemies; but whether or not Biden can restore America’s diplomatic credibility, I have no doubt that he’ll continue to uphold—and deploy—America’s military hegemony. Indeed, the failure of the former could only exacerbate the latter.

Biden’s domestic policy is considerably better, but even there he doesn’t go far enough. His healthcare plan is a substantial step forward, improving upon the progress already made by Obamacare; but it’s still not the single-payer healthcare system we really need. He has some good policy ideas for directly combating discrimination, but isn’t really addressing the deep structural sources of systemic racism. His anti-poverty programs would be a step in the right direction, but are clearly insufficient.

Third, Democrats did not make significant gains in Congress, and while they kept the majority in the House, they are unlikely to gain control of the Senate. Because the Senate is so powerful and Mitch McConnell is so craven, this could be disastrous for Biden’s ability to govern.

But there is an even more serious problem we must face as a country: Trump got 70 million votes. Even after all he did—his endless lies, his utter incompetence, his obvious corruption—and all that happened—the mishandled pandemic, the exacerbated recession—there were still 70 million people willing to vote for Trump. I said it from the beginning: I have never feared Trump nearly so much as I fear an America that could elect him.

Yes, of course he would have had a far worse shot if our voting system were better: Several viable parties, range voting, and no Electoral College would have all made things go very differently than they did in 2016. But the fact remains that tens of millions of Americans were willing to vote for this man not once, but twice.

What can explain the support of so many people for such an obviously terrible leader?

First, there is misinformation: Our mass media is biased and can give a very distorted view of the world. Someone whose view of world events was shaped entirely by right-wing media like Fox News (let alone OAN) might not realize how terrible Trump is, or might be convinced that Biden is somehow even worse. Yet today, in the 21st century, our access to information is virtually unlimited. Anyone who really wanted to know what Trump is like would be able to find out—so whatever ignorance or misinformation Trump voters had, they bear the greatest responsibility for it.

Then, there is discontent: Growth in total economic output has greatly outpaced growth in real standard of living for most Americans. While real per-capita GDP rose from $26,000 in 1974 to $56,000 today (a factor of 2.15, or 1.7% per year), real median personal income only rose from $25,000 to $36,000 (a factor of 1.44, or 0.8% per year). This reflects the fact that more and more of our country’s wealth is being concentrated in the hands of the rich. Combined with dramatically increased costs of education and healthcare, this means that most American families really don’t feel like their standard of living has meaningfully improved in a generation or more.

Yet if people are discontent with how our economy is run… why would they vote for Donald Trump, who epitomizes everything that is wrong with that system? The Democrats have not done enough to fight rising inequality and spiraling healthcare costs, but they have at least done something—raising taxes here, expanding Medicaid there. This is not enough, since it involves only tweaking the system at the edges rather than solving the deeper structural problems—but it has at least some benefit. The Republicans at their best have done nothing, and at their worst actively done everything in their power to exacerbate rising inequality. And Trump is no different in this regard than any other Republican; he promised more populist economic policy, but did not deliver it in any way. Do people somehow not see that?

I think we must face up to the fact that racism and sexism are clearly a major part of what motivates supporters of Trump. Trump’s core base consists of old, uneducated White men. Women are less likely to support him, and young people, educated people, and people of color are far less likely to support him. The race gap is staggering: A mere 8% of Black people support Trump, while 54% of White people do. While Asian and Hispanic voters are not quite so univocal, still it’s clear that if only non-White people had voted Biden would have won an utter landslide and might have taken every state—yes, likely even Florida, where Cuban-Americans did actually lean slightly toward Trump. The age and education gaps are also quite large: Among those under 30, only 30% support Trump, while among those over 65, 52% do. Among White people without a college degree, 64% support Trump, while among White people with a college degree, only 38% do. The gender gap is smaller, but still significant: 48% of men but only 42% of women support Trump. (Also the fact that the gender gap was smaller this year than in 2016 could reflect the fact that Clinton was running for President but Harris was only running for Vice President.)

We shouldn’t ignore the real suffering and discontent that rising inequality has wrought, nor should we dismiss the significance of right-wing propaganda. Yet when it comes right down to it, I don’t see how we can explain Trump’s popularity without recognizing that an awful lot of White men in America are extremely racist and sexist. The most terrifying thing about Trump is that millions of Americans do know what he’s like—and they’re okay with that.

Trump will soon be gone. But many others like him remain. We need to find a way to fix this, or the next racist, misogynist, corrupt, authoritarian psychopath may turn out to be a lot less foolish and incompetent.

What meritocracy trap?

Nov 1 JDN 2459155

So I just finished reading The Meritocracy Trap by David Markovits.

The basic thesis of the book is that America’s rising inequality is not due to a defect in our meritocratic ideals, but is in fact their ultimate fruition. Markovits implores us to reject the very concept of meritocracy, and replace it with… well, something, and he’s never very clear about exactly what.

The most frustrating thing about reading this book is trying to figure out where Markovits draws the line for “elite”. He rapidly jumps between talking about the upper quartile, the upper decile, the top 1%, and even the top 0.1% or top 0.01% while weaving his narrative. The upper quartile of the US contains 75 million people; the top 0.01% contains only 300,000. The former is the size of Germany, the latter the size of Iceland (which has fewer people than Long Beach). Inequality which concentrates wealth in the top quartile of Americans is a much less serious problem than inequality which concentrates wealth in the top 0.01%. It could still be a problem—those lower three quartiles are people too—but it is definitely not nearly as bad.

I think it’s particularly frustrating to me personally, because I am an economist, which means both that such quantitative distinctions are important to me, and also that whether or not I myself am in this “elite” depends upon which line you are drawing. Do I have a post-graduate education? Yes. Was I born into the upper quartile? Not quite, but nearly. Was I raised by married parents in a stable home? Certainly. Am I in the upper decile and working as a high-paid professional? Hopefully I will be soon. Will I enter the top 1%? Maybe, maybe not. Will I join the top 0.1%? Probably not. Will I ever be in the top 0.01% and a captain of industry? Almost certainly not.

So, am I one of the middle class who are suffering alienation and stagnation, or one of the elite who are devouring themselves with cutthroat competition? Based on BLS statistics for economists and job offers I’ve been applying to, my long-term household income is likely to be about 20-50% higher than my parents’; this seems like neither the painful stagnation he attributes to the middle class nor the unsustainable skyrocketing of elite incomes. (Even 50% in 30 years is only 1.4% per year, about our average rate of real GDP growth.) Marxists would no doubt call me petit bourgeoisie; but isn’t that sort of the goal? We want as many people as possible to live comfortable upper-middle class lives in white-collar careers?

Markovits characterizes—dare I say caricatures—the habits of the middle-class versus the elite, and once again I and most people I know cross-cut them: I spend more time with friends than family (elite), but I cook familiar foods, not fancy dinners (middle); I exercise fairly regularly and don’t watch much television (elite) but play a lot of video games and sleep a lot as well (middle). My web searches involve technology and travel (elite), but also chronic illness (middle). I am a donor to Amnesty International (elite) but also play tabletop role-playing games (middle). I have a functional, inexpensive car (middle) but a top-of-the-line computer (elite)—then again that computer is a few years old now (middle). Most of the people I hang out with are well-educated (elite) but struggling financially (middle), civically engaged (elite) but pessimistic (middle). I rent my apartment and have a lot of student debt (middle) but own stocks (elite). (The latter seemed like a risky decision before the pandemic, but as stock prices have risen and student loan interest was put on moratorium, it now seems positively prescient.) So which class am I, again?

I went to public school (middle) but have a graduate degree (elite). I grew up in Ann Arbor (middle) but moved to Irvine (elite). Then again my bachelor’s was at a top-10 institution (elite) but my PhD will be at only a top-50 (middle). The beautiful irony there is that the top-10 institution is the University of Michigan and the top-50 institution is the University of California, Irvine. So I can’t even tell which class each of those events is supposed to represent! Did my experience of Ann Arbor suddenly shift from middle class to elite when I graduated from public school and started attending the University of Michigan—even though about a third of my high school cohort did exactly that? Was coming to UCI an elite act because it’s a PhD in Orange County, or a middle-class act because it’s only a top-50 university?

If the gap between these two classes is such a wide chasm, how am I straddling it? I honestly feel quite confident in characterizing myself as precisely the upwardly-mobile upper-middle class that Markovits claims no longer exists. Perhaps we’re rarer than we used to be; perhaps our status is more precarious; but we plainly aren’t gone.

Markovits keeps talking about “radical differences” “not merely in degree but in kind” between “subordinate” middle-class workers and “superordinate” elite workers, but if the differences are really that stark, why is it so hard to tell which group I’m in? From what I can see, the truth seems less like a sharp divide between middle-class and upper-class, and more like an increasingly steep slope from middle-class to upper-middle class to upper-class to rich to truly super-rich. If I had to put numbers on this, I’d say annual household incomes of about $50,000, $100,000, $200,000, $400,000, $1 million, and $10 million respectively. (And yet perhaps I should add more categories: Even someone who makes $10 million a year has only pocket change next to Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.) The slope has gotten steeper over time, but it hasn’t (yet?) turned into a sharp cliff the way Markovits describes. America’s Lorenz curve is clearly too steep, but it doesn’t have a discontinuity as far as I can tell.

Some of the inequalities Markovits discusses are genuine, but don’t seem to be particularly related to meritocracy. The fact that students from richer families go to better schools indeed seems unjust, but the problem is clearly not that the rich schools are too good (except maybe at the very top, where truly elite schools seem a bit excessive—five-figure preschool tuition?), but that the poor schools are not good enough. So it absolutely makes sense to increase funding for poor schools and implement various reforms, but this is hardly a radical notion—nor is it in any way anti-meritocratic. Providing more equal opportunities for the poor to raise their own station is what meritocracy is all about.

Other inequalities he objects to seem, if not inevitable, far too costly to remove: Educated people are better parents, who raise their children in ways that make them healthier, happier, and smarter? No one is going to apologize for being a good parent, much less stop doing so because you’re concerned about what it does to inequality. If you have some ideas for how we might make other people into better parents, by all means let’s hear them. But I believe I speak for the entire upper-middle class when I say: when I have kids of my own, I’m going to read to them, I’m not going to spank them, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to change my mind on either front. Quite frankly, this seems like a heavy-handed satire of egalitarianism, right out of Harrison Bergeron: Let’s make society equal by forcing rich people to neglect and abuse their kids as much as poor people do! My apologies to Vonnegut: I thought you were ridiculously exaggerating, but apparently some people actually think like this.

This is closely tied with the deepest flaw in the argument: The meritocratic elite are actually more qualified. It’s easy to argue that someone like Donald Trump shouldn’t rule the world; he’s a deceitful, narcissistic, psychopathic, incompetent buffoon. (The only baffling part is that 40% of American voters apparently disagree.) But it’s a lot harder to see why someone like Bill Gates shouldn’t be in charge of things: He’s actually an extremely intelligent, dedicated, conscientious, hard-working, ethical, and competent individual. Does he deserve $100 billion? No, for reasons I’ve talked about before. But even he knows that! He’s giving most of it away to highly cost-effective charities! Bill Gates alone has saved several million lives by his philanthropy.

Markovits tries to argue that the merits of the meritocratic elite are arbitrary and contextual, like the alleged virtues of the aristocratic class: “The meritocratic virtues, that is, are artifacts of economic inequality in just the fashion in which the pitching virtues are artifacts of baseball.” (p. 264) “The meritocratic achievement commonly celebrated today, no less than the aristocratic virtue acclaimed in the ancien regime, is a sham.” (p. 268)

But it’s pretty hard for me to see how things like literacy, knowledge of history and science, and mathematical skill are purely arbitrary. Even the highly specialized skills of a quantum physicist, software engineer, or geneticist are clearly not arbitrary. Not everyone needs to know how to solve the Schrodinger equation or how to run a polymerase chain reaction, but our civilization greatly benefits from the fact that someone does. Software engineers aren’t super-productive because of high inequality; they are super-productive because they speak the secret language of the thinking machines. I suppose some of the skills involved in finance, consulting, and law are arbitrary and contextual; but he makes it sound like the only purpose graduate school serves is in teaching us table manners.

Precisely by attacking meritocracy, Markovits renders his own position absurd. So you want less competent people in charge? You want people assigned to jobs they’re not good at? You think businesses should go out of their way to hire employees who will do their jobs worse? Had he instead set out to show how American society fails at achieving its meritocratic ideals—indeed, failing to provide equality of opportunity for the poor is probably the clearest example of this—he might have succeeded. But instead he tries to attack the ideals themselves, and fails miserably.

Markovits avoids the error that David Graeber made: Graeber sees that there are many useless jobs but doesn’t seem to have a clue why these jobs exist (and turns to quite foolish Marxian conspiracy theories to explain it). Markovits understands that these jobs are profitable for the firms that employ them, but unproductive for society as a whole. He is right; this is precisely what virtually the entire fields of finance, sales, advertising, and corporate law consist of. Most people in our elite work very hard with great skill and competence, and produce great profits for the corporations that employ them, all while producing very little of genuine societal value. But I don’t see how this is a flaw in meritocracy per se.

Nor does Markovits stop at accusing employment of being rent-seeking; he takes aim at education as well: “when the rich make exceptional investments in schooling, this does reduce the value of ordinary, middle-class training and degrees. […] Meritocratic education inexorably engenders a wasteful and destructive arms educational arms race, which ultimately benefits no one, not even the victors.” (p.153) I don’t doubt that education is in part such a rent-seeking arms race, and it’s worthwhile to try to minimize that. But education is not entirely rent-seeking! At the very least, is there not genuine value in teaching children to read and write and do arithmetic? Perhaps by the time we get to calculus or quantum physics or psychopathology we have reached diminishing returns for most students (though clearly at least some people get genuine value out of such things!), but education is not entirely comprised of signaling or rent-seeking (and nor do “sheepskin effects” prove otherwise).

My PhD may be less valuable to me than it would be to someone in my place 40 years ago, simply because there are more people with PhDs now and thus I face steeper competition. Then again, perhaps not, as the wage premium for college and postgraduate education has been increasing, not decreasing, over that time period. (How much of that wage premium is genuine social benefit and how much is rent-seeking is difficult to say.) In any case it’s definitely still valuable. I have acquired many genuine skills, and will in fact be able to be genuinely more productive as well as compete better in the labor market than I would have without it. Some parts of it have felt like a game where I’m just trying to stay ahead of everyone else, but it hasn’t all been that. A world where nobody had PhDs would be a world with far fewer good scientists and far slower technological advancement.

Abandoning meritocracy entirely would mean that we no longer train people to be more productive or match people to the jobs they are most qualified to do. Do you want a world where surgery is not done by the best surgeons, where airplanes are not flown by the best pilots? This necessarily means less efficient production and an overall lower level of prosperity for society as a whole. The most efficient way may not be the best way, but it’s still worth noting that it’s the most efficient way.

Really, is meritocracy the problem, or is it something else?

Markovits is clearly right that something is going wrong with American society: Our inequality is much too high, and our job market is much too cutthroat. I can’t even relate to his description of what the job market was like in the 1960s (“Old Economy Steve” has it right): “Even applicants for white-collar jobs received startlingly little scrutiny. For most midcentury workers, getting a job did not involve any application at all, in the competitive sense of the term.” (p.203)

In fact, if anything he seems to understate the difference across time, perhaps because it lets him overstate the difference across class (p. 203):

Today, by contrast, the workplace is methodically arranged around gradations of skill. Firms screen job candidates intensively at hiring, and they then sort elite and non-elite workers into separate physical spaces.

Only the very lowest-wage employers, seeking unskilled workers, hire casually. Middle-class employers screen using formal cognitive tests and lengthy interviews. And elite employers screen with urgent intensity, recruiting from only a select pool and spending millions of dollars to probe applicants over several rounds of interviews, lasting entire days.

Today, not even the lowest-wage employers hire casually! Have you ever applied to work at Target? There is a personality test you have to complete, which I presume is designed to test your reliability as an obedient corporate drone. Never in my life have I gotten a job that didn’t involve either a lengthy application process or some form of personal connection—and I hate to admit it, but usually the latter. It is literally now harder to get a job as a cashier at Target than it was to get a job as an engineer at Ford 60 years ago.

But I still can’t shake the feeling that meritocracy is not exactly what’s wrong here. The problem with the sky-high compensation packages at top financial firms isn’t that they are paid to people who are really good at their jobs; it’s that those jobs don’t actually accomplish anything beneficial for society. Where elite talent and even elite compensation is combined with genuine productivity, such as in science and engineering, it seems unproblematic (and I note that Markovits barely even touches on these industries, perhaps because he sees they would undermine his argument). The reason our economic growth seems to have slowed as our inequality has massively surged isn’t that we are doing too good a job of rewarding people for being productive.

Indeed, it seems like the problem may be much simpler: Labor supply exceeds labor demand.

Take a look at this graph from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

[Beveridge_curve_data.png]

This graph shows the relationship over time between unemployment and job vacancies. As you can see, they are generally inversely related: More vacancies means less unemployment. I have drawn in a green line which indicates the cutoff between having more vacancies than unemployment—upper left—and having more unemployment than vacancies—lower right. We have almost always been in the state of having more unemployment than we have vacancies; notably, the mid-1960s were one of the few periods in which we had significantly more vacancies than unemployment.

For decades we’ve been instituting policies to try to give people “incentives to work”; but there is no shortage of labor in this country. We seem to have plenty of incentives to work—what we need are incentives to hire people and pay them well.

Indeed, perhaps we need incentives not to work—like a basic income or an expanded social welfare system. Thanks to automation, productivity is now astonishingly high, and yet we work ourselves to death instead of enjoying leisure.

And of course there are various other policy changes that have made our inequality worse—chiefly the dramatic drops in income tax rates at the top brackets that occurred under Reagan.

In fact, many of the specific suggestions Markovits makes—which, much to my chagrin, he waits nearly 300 pages to even mention—are quite reasonable, or even banal: He wants to end tax deductions for alumni donations to universities and require universities to enroll more people from lower income brackets; I could support that. He wants to regulate finance more stringently, eliminate most kinds of complex derivatives, harmonize capital gains tax rates to ordinary income rates, and remove the arbitrary cap on payroll taxes; I’ve been arguing for all of those things for years. What about any of these policies is anti-meritocratic? I don’t see it.

More controversially, he wants to try to re-organize production to provide more opportunities for mid-skill labor. In some industries I’m not sure that’s possible: The 10X programmer is a real phenomenon, and even mediocre programmers and engineers can make software and machines that are a hundred times as productive as doing the work by hand would be. But some of his suggestions make sense, such as policies favoring nurse practitioners over specialist doctors and legal secretaries instead of bar-certified lawyers. (And please, please reform the medical residency system! People die from the overwork caused by our medical residency system.)

But I really don’t see how not educating people or assigning people to jobs they aren’t good at would help matters—which means that meritocracy, as I understand the concept, is not to blame after all.

The cost of illness

Feb 2 JDN 2458882

As I write this I am suffering from some sort of sinus infection, most likely some strain of rhinovirus. So far it has just been basically a bad cold, so there isn’t much to do aside from resting and waiting it out. But it did get me thinking about healthcare—we’re so focused on the costs of providing it that we often forget the costs of not providing it.

The United States is the only First World country without a universal healthcare system. It is not a coincidence that we also have some of the highest rates of preventable mortality and burden of disease.

We in the United States spend about $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, the most of any country in the world, even as a proportion of GDP. Yet this is not the cost of disease; this is how much we were willing to pay to avoid the cost of disease. Whatever harm that would have been caused without all that treatment must actually be worth more than $3.5 trillion to us—because we paid that much to avoid it.

Globally, the disease burden is about 30,000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) per 100,000 people per year—that is to say, the average person is about 30% disabled by disease. I’ve spoken previously about quality-adjusted life years (QALY); the two measures take slightly different approaches to the same overall goal, and are largely interchangeable for most purposes.

Of course this result relies upon the disability weights; it’s not so obvious how we should be comparing across different conditions. How many years would you be willing to trade of normal life to avoid ten years of Alzheimer’s? But it’s probably not too far off to say that if we could somehow wave a magic wand and cure all disease, we would really increase our GDP by something like 30%. This would be over $6 trillion in the US, and over $26 trillion worldwide.

Of course, we can’t actually do that. But we can ask what kinds of policies are most likely to promote health in a cost-effective way.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest improvements to be made are in the poorest countries, where it can be astonishingly cheap to improve health. Malaria prevention has a cost of around $30 per DALY—by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation you can buy a year of life for less than the price of a new video game. Compare this to the standard threshold in the US of $50,000 per QALY: Targeting healthcare in the poorest countries can increase cost-effectiveness a thousandfold. In humanitarian terms, it would be well worth diverting spending from our own healthcare to provide public health interventions in poor countries. (Fortunately, we have even better options than that, like raising taxes on billionaires or diverting military spending instead.)

We in the United States spend about twice as much (per person per year) on healthcare as other First World countries. Are our health outcomes twice as good? Clearly not. Are they any better at all? That really isn’t clear. We certainly don’t have a particularly high life expectancy. We spend more on administrative costs than we do on preventative care—unlike every other First World country except Australia. Almost all of our drugs and therapies are more expensive here than they are everywhere else in the world.

The obvious answer here is to make our own healthcare system more like those of other First World countries. There are a variety of universal health care systems in the world that we could model ourselves on, ranging from the single-payer government-run system in the UK to the universal mandate system of Switzerland. The amazing thing is that it almost doesn’t matter which one we choose: We could copy basically any other First World country and get better healthcare for less spending. Obamacare was in many ways similar to the Swiss system, but we never fully implemented it and the Republicans have been undermining it every way they can. Under President Trump, they have made significant progress in undermining it, and as a result, there are now 3 million more Americans without health insurance than there were before Trump took office. The Republican Party is intentionally increasing the harm of disease.

The real cost of high rent

Jan 26 JDN 2458875

The average daily commute time in the United States is about 26 minutes each way—for a total of 52 minutes every weekday. Public transit commute times are substantially longer in most states than driving commute times: In California, the average driving commute is 28 minutes each way, while the average public transit commute is 51 minutes each way. Adding this up over 5 workdays per week, working 50 weeks per year, means that on average Americans spend over 216 hours each year commuting.

Median annual income in the US is about $33,000. Assuming about 2000 hours of work per year for a full-time job, that’s a wage of $16.50 per hour. This makes the total cost of commute time in the United States over $3500 per worker per year. Multiplied by a labor force of 205 million, this makes the total cost of commute time over $730 billion per year. That’s not even counting the additional carbon emissions and road fatalities. This is all pure waste. The optimal commute time is zero minutes; the closer we can get to that, the better. Telecommuting might finally make this a reality, at least for a large swath of workers. Already over 40% of US workers telecommute at least some of the time.

Let me remind you that it would cost about $200 billion per year to end world hunger. We could end world hunger three times over with the effort we currently waste in commute time.

Where is this cost coming from? Why are commutes so long? The answer is obvious: The rent is too damn high. People have long commutes because they can’t afford to live closer to where they work.

Almost half of all renter households in the US pay more than 30% of their income in rent—and 25% pay more than half of their income. The average household rent in the US is over $1400 per month, almost $17,000 per year—more than the per-capita GDP of China.

Not that buying a home solves the problem: In many US cities the price-to-rent ratio of homes is over 20 to 1, and in Manhattan and San Francisco it’s as high as 50 to 1. If you already bought your home years ago, this is great for you; for the rest of us, not so much. Interestingly, high rents seem to correlate with higher price-to-rent ratios, so it seems like purchase prices are responding even more to whatever economic pressure is driving up rents.

Overall about a third of all US consumer spending is on housing; out of our total consumption spending of $13 trillion, this means we are spending over $4 trillion per year on housing, about the GDP of Germany. Of course, some of this is actually worth spending: Housing costs a lot to build, and provides many valuable benefits.

What should we be spending on housing, if the housing market were competitive and efficient?

I think Chicago’s housing market looks fairly healthy. Homes there go for about $250,000, with prices that are relatively stable; and the price-to-rent ratio is about 20 to 1. Chicago is a large city with a population density of about 6,000 people per square kilometer, so it’s not as if I’m using a tiny rural town as my comparison. If the entire population of the United States were concentrated at the same density as the city of Chicago, we’d all fit in only 55,000 square kilometers—less than the area of West Virginia.
Compare this to the median housing price in California ($550,000), New York ($330,000), or Washington, D.C. ($630,000). There are metro areas with housing prices far above even this: In San Jose the median home price is $1.1 million. I find it very hard to believe that it is literally four times as hard to build homes in San Jose as it is in Chicago. Something is distorting that price—maybe it’s over-regulation, maybe it’s monopoly power, maybe it’s speculation—I’m not sure what exactly, but there’s definitely something out of whack here.

This suggests that a more efficient housing market would probably cut prices in California by 50% and prices in New York by 25%. Since about 40% of all spending in California is on housing, this price change would effectively free up 20% of California’s GDP—and 20% of $3 trillion is $600 billion per year. The additional 8% of New York’s GDP gets us another $130 billion, and we’re already at that $730 billion I calculated for the total cost of commuting, only considering New York and California alone.

This means that the total amount of waste—including both time and money—due to housing being too expensive probably exceeds $1.5 trillion per year. This is an enormous sum of money: We’re spending an Australia here. We could just about pay for a single-payer healthcare system with this.

Migration holds together the American Dream

Sep 29 JDN 2458757

The United States is an exceptional country in many ways, some good (highest income), some bad (highest incarceration rate), and some mixed (largest military). But as you compare the US to other countries, one thing that will immediately strike you is how we are a nation of migrants.

I don’t just mean immigrants, people who moved to the country after being born here—though we certainly are also a country of immigrants. About 99% of the US population descends from immigrants, mostly European—there aren’t a lot of countries that can even say the majority of their population migrated from another continent. Over 45 million Americans are foreign-born, which is not only the highest in the world; it is almost one-fifth of all the immigrants in the world. We experience a net inflow of immigrants averaging over 1 million people per year, by far the highest in the world. Almost half of the increase in our workforce over the last decade was due to immigrants.

But the US is full of migration in another way, which may in fact be even more important: Internal migration, from country to city, from one city to another, or from one state to another. Every year, about 12.5% of Americans move somewhere; about 10% move to a different state. No other country even comes close to this level of internal migration. According to the US census, about two-thirds of moves are within the same county, and yet each year there are ten times as many Americans who moved to a different county as there are immigrants to the United States. There are more cross-state migrants to California and Texas alone than there are immigrants to the entire country. There are about as many people who move each year within the United States as there are foreign-born individuals total.

This internal migration is central to the high productivity of the American economy. Internal migration is central to the process of urbanization, which drives a great deal of economic development. It is not a coincidence that the United States is one of the world’s most urbanized countries as well as one of the richest, nor that the ranking of US states by urbanization and the ranking of US states by per-capita income look very much alike.

Income_Urbanization

On average, increasing a state’s urbanization by 1 percentage point increases its average per-capita income by $270 per year (in chained 2009 dollars); since most of that increase is going to the people who actually moved, this means that the average income increase as a result of moving from the country to the city is likely over $20,000 per year. To put it another way, if Maine could become as urbanized as California, we would expect its per-capita income to increase from about $39,000 per year to about $54,000 per year—which is just about California’s per-capita income.

Indeed, migration is probably the one thing holding up our otherwise dismal level of income mobility, which still trails behind most other First World countries (and far behind Denmark and Norway, because #ScandinaviaIsBetter). Canada also does extremely well in terms of income mobility, and Canada also has a high rate of internal migration, with almost 1% of Canadians moving to a new province in any given year. Canada is probably what the US would look like with a European-style social safety net; our high internal migration rate might actually get us better income mobility than is currently achieved by say France or Germany.

Indeed, migration may be the main reason there is still some vestige of an American Dream. It’s not what it used to be, but it isn’t yet dead either. Two-thirds of American adults have more real (inflation-adjusted) income than their parents. Intergenerational income mobility in the US grew quickly in the 1940s and 1950s, grew more slowly in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been stagnant ever since. While the odds of moving to a different income bracket have remained stable, income inequality has increased over the last 40 years, which means that the differences between those brackets have become larger.

A more nuanced “Carousel of Progress”

Aug 11 JDN 2458707

I recently got back from a trip to Disney World; while most of the attractions are purely fictional and designed only to entertain, a few are factual and designed to inform and persuade. One of these is the “Carousel of Progress”.

The Carousel of Progress consists of a series of animatronic stages, each representing the lifestyle of a particular historical era. They follow the same family over time, showing what their life is like in each era. When it was originally built, the eras shown were 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s; but over time they have updated the “present day” stage, and now they are 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1990s. The aim of the attraction is to show how technology has made our lives better.

The family they show is upper-middle class; this makes sense, as most of the audience probably is as well. But to really understand the progress we have made, we need to also consider the full range of incomes.

In this post I will go through a similar sequence of eras, comparing the lifestyles of not just the middle class, but also the rich and the poor.

In what follows, I’ve tried to create that, using the best approximate figures on standard of living I could find from each era. The numbers are given in my best guess of the inflation-adjusted standard of living; obviously they’re much more precise in the 1980s to today than they are for earlier eras.

I’ve summarized all these income estimates in the graph below (note the log scale):

 

Carousel_of_Progress

This means that, after a bumpy ride through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, we did actually raise the floor—the poor today are about as well off as the middle class in ancient times. But we raised the ceiling an awful lot faster; the rich today are something like a thousand times as rich as the rich in ancient times.

 

50 AD: Roman Empire

Rich: Patrician

Life is good! My seaside villa is one of the finest in Rome, and my industrious slaves fulfill my every need. At my personal zoo I recently acquired a lion and an elephant. I dine on only the finest foods, including wine from my personal vineyard. An aqueduct feeds directly into my personal baths. The war in Gallia seems to be going well; I look forward to my share of the spoils.

Wealth: $4 million

Income: $200,000

Middle class: Plebeian

Things could be worse. My family has a roof over our heads and bread on our table, so I’m grateful for that. But working all day on the farm is exhausting, and we can’t afford servants to help. My oldest son is a gladiator, though so far he has not attained the highest ranks of the profession. My youngest son was recently drafted into military service in Gallia; I pray for his safety.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: Proletarian

Wealth: $0

Income: $1,000

Living in a hovel I don’t even own with my four children and begging on the streets isn’t an easy life, but at least I’m not a slave. Most of our food is provided by public services. With the war raging in Gallia, one of our small blessings is that we are actually too poor to be drafted into service.

1000 AD: Medieval England

Rich: Duke

While living in a castle is nice, I sometimes wish an end to the frequent raids and border skirmishes that made these high walls necessary. Still, I can’t complain; I own plenty of land, and have plenty of serfs to work it. I am in good favor with the king, and so His Majesty’s army has helped protect my lands against invasion. I have all the feasts, wine, and women a man could ask for.

Wealth: $2 million

Income: $100,000

Middle class: Knight

I can’t complain. It is an honor to be a knight in His Majesty’s army, and I am proud that my family was able to earn enough wealth to buy me a horse, a sword, and the training necessary to reach this rank. I own a little bit of land, but my lord has called upon me for a new campaign, I’m hoping to buy a larger estate with the spoils I earn from it. My family has plenty of food to eat, though if the well runs dry I’m not sure where we’ll get more water.

Wealth: $5,000

Income: $5,000

Poor: Serf

Live grows harder by the day, it seems. My lord keeps demanding more and more work from us, but already the land is producing as much as it can bear. Though we are responsible for planting and harvesting the wheat, often the bread never makes it to my family’s table.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1600 AD: Renaissance Venice

Rich: Noble

With the advent of global trade and colonization, wealth has flooded into Venice, and I have had the chance to claim some portion of that flood. I dress in the finest silks, and eat exotic foods from lands as distant as India and China. Servants fulfill my every need. How could life be better?

Wealth: $10 million

Income: $1 million

Middle class: Merchant

I am a proud member of the trader’s guild. Though it our trade ships that carry wealth from across the seas, we often find that wealth passing on up to the nobles, leaving little for ourselves. Still, I have my own land, my own house, and plenty of food for my family.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: The Pebbles

I had a good job working in construction until recently, but I was laid off. I could no longer afford my rent, so now I live on the streets. I feel as though I work constantly but never can find a way to get ahead.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1750 AD: Pre-Revolutionary France

Rich: Noble

Viva la France! Life is better than ever. Servants do all my work, while the wealth produced by my fields and factories all goes to me. I barely even pay any taxes on my grand estates.

Wealth: $20 million

Income: $2 million

Middle class: Bourgeoisie

I live reasonably well, all things considered. My family has a home and enough food to eat. Still, taxes are becoming increasingly onerous even as the nobles become increasingly detached from the needs of common people like us. Still, we may as well accept it; I doubt things will change any time soon.

Wealth: $15,000

Income: $15,000

Poor: Peasant

Life is hard. I work all day on the farm to make wheat, and then the nobles tax it all away. We have to make our own clothes even as the nobles luxuriate in silks from around the world.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1900 AD: United States

Rich

My coal mine has been a roaring success! I am now one of the richest men who has ever lived. I even have my own horseless carriage. Servants are getting more expensive these days, though; even though I’m richer than my grandfather I can’t afford as many servants.

Wealth: $1 billion

Income: $100 million

Middle class

“Well, the robins are back. That’s a sure sign of spring. What year is it? Oh, just before the turn of the century. And believe me, things couldn’t be any better than they are today. Yes sir, we got all the latest things: gas lamps, a telephone, and the latest design in cast iron stoves. That reservoir keeps five gallons of water hot all day on just three buckets of coal. Sure beats chopping wood! And isn’t our new ice box a beauty. Holds 50 pounds of ice. Milk doesn’t sour as quick as is used to. Our dog Rover here keeps the water in the drip pan from overflowing. You know, it wasn’t too long ago we had to carry water from a well. But thanks to progress, we’ve got a pump right here in the kitchen. ‘Course we keep a bucket of water handy to prime it with. Yes sir, we’ve got everything to make life easier. Mother! I was reading about a fellow named Tom Edison, who’s working on an idea for snap on electric lights.”

Wealth: $18,000

Income: $18,000

Poor

I live on the streets most of the time. I eat food out of the garbage. What little money I have is earned by begging. I’m not proud, but it’s all I can do to survive.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1920 AD: United States

Rich

Life is sweet. My electric company is raking in the dough these days; seems they can hardly find enough copper to lay all the new cables we need to supply all the folks buying into our grid. I have four automobiles now—all top of the line of course. The times, they are a-changin’: Can you believe they gave women the vote? Eh, well, I suppose they can hardly vote worse than us men do already.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

“Whew! Hottest summer we’ve had in years. Well, we’ve progressed a long way since the turn of the century 20 years ago. But no one realized then that this would be the age of electricity. Everyone’s using it: farmers, factories, whole towns. With electric streetlights we don’t worry so much about the youngsters being out after dark. And what a difference in our home. We can run as many wires as we need in any direction for Mother’s new electrical servants: electric sewing machine, coffee percolator, toaster, waffle iron, refrigerator, and they all go to work at the click of a switch. Take it easy! You’ll blow a fuse! Queenie! Leave ’em alone. Well, the days of lugging heavy irons from the old cookstove to an ironing board are gone forever. With an electric iron and electric lights, Mother now has time to enjoy her embroidery in the cool of the evening. Right, Mother?”

Wealth: $20,000

Income: $20,000

Poor

Life on the streets is still hard, but at least they’ve got these new soup kitchens to feed me and my family, and with running water in the city we can sometimes get clean water to drink. That newfangled electricity stuff is supposed to be the bee’s knees, but we sure can’t afford it.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1940 AD: United States

Rich

My steel company is doing extremely well, particularly with the war in Europe raising the price of steel. We just bought our very own airplane; isn’t that marvelous? With Britain under siege and France already fallen to the Krauts, I think we’re gonna end up in the war soon—FDR certainly has been making noises to that effect. If I were poor, I’d be worried about my sons getting drafted; but I’m sure we won’t have to worry about that. No, I’m just looking forward to my stock returns when they start churning out tanks instead of cars in Detroit!

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

“Well it’s autumn again and the kids are back in school. Thank goodness! Here we are in the frantic forties and the music is better than ever. And it’s amazing how our new kitchen wonders are helping to take over the hard work. Everything is improving. Electric range is better. Refrigerators are bigger and make lots more ice cubes. But my favorite is the electric dishwasher. Now Mother spends less time in the kitchen and I don’t have to dry the dishes anymore. Oh, I spend a lot of time here. Have to. Now that television has arrived, Grandma and Grandpa have taken over my den. Television has changed our lives. It’s brought a whole new world of culture into our home.”

Wealth: $24,000

Income: $24,000

Poor

The Depression was hard on everybody, but I think it was hardest on us poors. This New Deal business seems to be helping out a lot, though; on one of the new construction projects I was able to find work for the first time in months. I’m worried we’re going to be brought into the war soon, but if I get drafted at least that means three squares a day.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1960 AD: United States

Rich

Running an oil company is not for the faint of heart; they keep adding more onerous regulations every year. Still, profits are bigger than ever. I just wish Uncle Sam would stop taking such a big cut; Commies, all of them. I can barely afford upkeep on my yacht these days with all the taxes.

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

We just got a color TV at home, and we’ve been watching around the clock. We get all four channels! And my new T-bird is a real beauty; paid a fortune for her, but worth every penny. Society is improving, too; with Rosa Parks and whatnot, I’m guessing things are about to get a lot better for colored folks especially. After that, I’m thinking it’ll be the gays’ turn next; I wonder how long that will take.

Wealth: $30,000

Income: $30,000

Poor

Life is still hard, but I think it’s better now than it’s ever been, even for poor folks like me. Thanks to Welfare, I’m not even as poor as I could be. It’s tough to make ends meet, but at least I can afford a place to live and food to eat. And I’m pretty healthy too: Antibiotics and vaccines mean that we are finally safe from some terrible diseases, like polio. It seems crazy: Just a generation ago the President had a disease that now even folks like me are protected from.

Wealth: $0

Income: $6,000

1980 AD: United States

Rich

They told me I was crazy to invest in these “personal computing machines”, but I saw the writing on the wall. Computers are the future, man. They’re gonna be everywhere, and do everything. We’re gonna have robots and flying cars, and if I have anything to say about it, I’m gonna own the factories that make them.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

We have our own PC now. I use it for work, but my kids use it mostly for computer games. I still can’t beat my daughter at Pong, but I can at least hold my own at Pac-Man these days. I hear that programming skills are going to be in high demand soon, so I’ve been trying to teach the kids BASIC.

Wealth: $50,000

Income: $50,000

Poor

Nixon’s Welfare “reform” really hit my family hard. If I don’t find work soon, they’re going to cut my benefits; but if I could find work, what would I need benefits for? Jimmy Carter made some things better, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be re-elected. Can you believe that old actor Ronald Reagan is running?

Wealth: $0

Income: $8,000

2000 AD: United States

Rich

I sure played my cards right in the stock market, buying those tech firms just before the Internet boom really hit. Now I have my own jet and I’m thinking of buying a yacht. Maybe I’ll diversify into real estate; it looks like housing prices are heading north.

Wealth: $10 billion

Income: $1 billion

Middle class

Our home has almost doubled in value since we bought it; we took some of that out as a home equity loan, which helped us buy laptops for our kids. It’s amazing what they can do now; we used to have a big clunky desktop, and these little laptops would run circles around it. We also installed a 56k modem; I’m a little worried about what effect the Internet will have on the kids, but it seems like that’s where everything is going.

Wealth: $60,000

Income: $60,000

Poor

I hate working in fast food, but it beats not working at all. I really wish they’d raise minimum wage though; once you figure in inflation, we’re actually making less than people did ten years ago. I think I qualify for Welfare or something, but the paperwork has gotten so crazy I couldn’t even deal with it. I’m just trying to get by on what I make at the burger joint.

Wealth: $0

Income: $10,000

2020 AD: United States, Present Day

Rich

I knew my app startup would be a success, but even I couldn’t have predicted we’d make it this far. Bought out by Apple for $40 billion? I could hardly have dreamed it myself. I am living the high life; I’ve got my own helicopter now, and a yacht 50 feet long (#lifestyle #swag!). I just upgraded my Google Glass to the new model; it is awesome AF. I think I might move out of the Bay Area and get myself a mansion in Beverly Hills.

Wealth: $20 billion

Income: $2 billion

Middle class

Why is rent so expensive? And how am I ever going to pay off these student loans? After college I managed to land an office job because I’m pretty good with Excel, but it’s still tough to make ends meet. Smartphones are cool and all, but it would be nice to actually own my own home. I think my parents had planned for me to inherit theirs, but we lost it in the subprime crash. Eh, things could be worse. #FirstWorldProblems.

Wealth: $62,000

Income: $62,000

Poor

Things were really bad a few years ago, but they seem to be picking up a little now; I’ve been able to find a job, at least. But it doesn’t pay well; I can’t barely afford rent. I don’t have what they call “marketable skills”, I guess. I should have gone back to school, probably, but I didn’t want to have to deal with student loans. Maybe things will be better once Trump finally gets out of office.

Wealth: $0

Income: $12,000

2040 AD: United States, Cyberpunk Future

Rich

I guess I picked out the right crypto to buy, because it gave me enough to buy my own AI company and now I’m rolling in it. My new helicopter is one of those twin-turbofan models that runs on fuel cells—I was sick of paying carbon tax to fuel up the old kerosene model. I just got cybernetic implants: No phone to carry around, nothing to get lost! I hear they’re working on going to neural interface soon, so we won’t even need to wave our hands around to use them.

Wealth: $40 billion

Income: $4 billion

Middle-class

I used to have a nice job in data analysis, but they automated most of it and outsourced the rest. Now I work for a different corp doing customer service, because that’s the only thing humans seem to still be good for. I have to admit the corps have done some good things for us, though; my daughter was born blind but now she’s got artificial eyes. (Of course, how will we ever pay off those medical debts?) And I really wish someone had done something about climate change sooner; summers these days are absolutely unbearable.

Wealth: $65,000

Income: $65,000

Poor

Wealth: $0

Income: $15,000

I lost my trucking job to a robot, can you believe that? But how am I supposed to compete with 22 hours of daily uptime? Basic income is just about all the money I have. I haven’t been able to find steady work in years. I should have gone to college and studied CS, probably; it seems like salaries in AI get higher every year.

How much wealth is there in the world?

July 14 JDN 2458679

How much wealth is there in the world? If we split it all evenly, how much would each of us have?

It’s a surprisingly complicated question: What counts as wealth? Presumably we include financial assets, real estate, commodities—anything that can be sold on a market. But what about natural resources? Shouldn’t we somehow value clean air and water? What about human capital—health, knowledge, skills, and expertise that make us able to work better?

I’m going to stick with tradeable assets for now, because I’m interested in questions of redistribution. If we were to add up all the wealth in the United States, or all the wealth in the world, and split it all evenly, how much would each person get? Even then, there are questions about how to price assets: Do we current market prices, or what was actually paid for them in the past? How much do we depreciate? How do we count debt that was used to buy non-financial assets (such as student loans)?

The Federal Reserve reports an official estimate of the US capital stock at $56.2 trillion (in 2011 dollars). Assuming that a third of income is capital income, that means that of our GDP of $18.9 trillion (in 2012 dollars), this would make the rate of return on capital 11%. That rate of return strikes me as pretty clearly too high. This must be an underestimate of our capital stock.

The 2015 Global Wealth Report estimates total US wealth as $63.5 trillion, and total world wealth as $153.2 trillion. This was for 2014, so using the US GDP growth rate of about 2% and the world GDP growth rate of 3.6%, the current wealth stocks should be about $70 trillion and $183 trillion respectively.

This gives a much more plausible rate of return: One third of the US GDP of $19.6 trillion (in 2014 dollars) is $6.53 trillion, yielding a rate of return of about 9%.

One third of the world GDP of $78 trillion is $26 trillion, yielding a rate of return of about 14%. This seems a bit high, but we’re including a lot of countries with very little capital that we would expect to have very high rates of return, so it might be right.

Credit Suisse releases estimates of total wealth that are supposed to include non-financial assets as well, though these are even more uncertain than financial assets. They estimate total US wealth as $98 trillion and total world wealth as $318 trillion.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around all of these figures, but I think these are close enough to get a sense of what sort of redistribution might be possible.

If the US wealth stock is about $70 trillion and our population is about 330 million, that means that the average wealth of an American is $200,000. If our wealth stock is instead about $98 trillion, the average wealth of an American is about $300,000.

Since the average number of people in a US household is 2.5, this means that average household wealth is somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000. This is actually a bit less than I thought; I would have guessed that the mythical “average American household” is a millionaire. (Of course, even Credit Suisse might be underestimating our wealth stock.)

If the world wealth stock is about $180 trillion and the population is about 7.7 billion, global average wealth per person is about $23,000. If instead the global wealth stock is about $320 trillion, the average wealth of a human being is about $42,000.

Both of these are far above the median wealth, which is much more representative of what a typical person has. Median wealth per adult in the US is about $65,000; worldwide it’s only about $4,200.

This means that if we were to somehow redistribute all wealth in the United States, half the population would gain an average of somewhere between $140,000 and $260,000, or on a percentage basis, the median American would see their wealth increase by 215% to 400%. If we were to instead somehow redistribute all wealth in the world, half the population would gain an average of $19,000 to $38,000; the median individual would see their wealth increase by 450% to 900%.

Of course, we can’t literally redistribute all the wealth in the world. Even if we could somehow organize it logistically—a tall order to be sure—such a program would introduce all sorts of inefficiencies and perverse incentives. That would really be socialism: We would be allocating wealth entirely based on a government policy and not at all by the market.

But suppose instead we decided to redistribute some portion of all this wealth. How about 10%? That seems like a small enough amount to avoid really catastrophic damage to the economy. Yes, there would be some inefficiencies introduced, but this could be done with some form of wealth taxes that wouldn’t require completely upending capitalism.

Suppose we did this just within the US. 10% of US wealth, redistributed among the whole population, would increase median wealth by between $20,000 and $30,000, or between 30% and 45%. That’s already a pretty big deal. And this is definitely feasible; the taxation infrastructure is all already in place. We could essentially buy the poorest half of the population a new car on the dime of the top half.

If instead we tried to do this worldwide, we would need to build the fiscal capacity first; the infrastructure to tax wealth effectively is not in place in most countries. But supposing we could do that, we could increase median wealth worldwide by between $2,000 and $4,000, or between 50% and 100%. Of course, this would mean that many of us in the US would lose a similar amount; but I think it’s still quite remarkable that we could as much as double the wealth of most of the world’s population by redistributing only 10% of the total wealth. That’s how much wealth inequality there is in the world.

“Robots can’t take your job if you’re already retired.”

July 7 JDN 2458672

There is a billboard on I-405 near where I live, put up by some financial advisor company, with that slogan on it: “Robots can’t take your job if you’re already retired.”

First, let me say this: Don’t hire a financial advisor firm; you really don’t need one. 90% of actively-managed funds perform worse than simple index funds. Buy all the stocks and let them sit. You won’t be able to retire sooner because you paid someone else to do the same thing you could have done yourself.

Yet, there is some wisdom in this statement: The best answer to technological unemployment is to make it so people don’t need to be employed. As an individual, all you could really do there is try to save up and retire early. But as a society, there is a lot more we could do.

The goal should essentially to make everyone retired, or if not everyone, then whatever portion of the population has been displaced by automation. A pension for everyone sounds a lot like a basic income.

People are strangely averse to redistribution of wealth as such (perhaps because they don’t know, or don’t want to think about, how much of our existing wealth was gained by force?), so we may not want to call our basic income a basic income.

Instead, we will call it capital income. People seem astonishingly comfortable with Jeff Bezos making more income in a minute than his median employee makes in a year, as long as it’s capital income instead of “welfare” or “redistribution of wealth”.

The basic income will instead be called something like the Perpetual Dividend of the United States, the dividends each US citizen receives for being a shareholder in the United States of America. I know this kind of terminology works, because the Permanent Fund Dividend in Alaska is a successful and enormously popular basic income. Even conservatives in Alaska dare not suggest eliminating the PFD.
And in fact it could literally be capital income: While public ownership of factories generally does not go well (see: the entire history of socialism and communism), the most sensible way to raise revenue for this program would be to tax income gained by owners of robotic factories, which, even if on the books as salary or stock options or whatever, is at its core capital income. If we wanted to make that connection even more transparent, we could tax in the form of non-voting shares in corporations, so that instead of paying a conventional corporate tax, corporations simply had to pay a portion of their profits directly to the public fund.

I’m not quite sure why people are so much more uncomfortable with redistribution of wealth than they are with the staggering levels of wealth inequality that make it so obviously necessary. Maybe it’s the feeling of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, or “running out of other people’s money”? But obviously a basic income won’t just be free money from nowhere. We would be collecting it in taxes, the same way we fund all other government spending. Even printing money would mean paying in the form of inflation (and we definitely should not print enough money to cover a whole basic income!)

I think it may simply be that people aren’t cognizant enough of the magnitude of wealth inequality. I’m hoping that my posts on the extremes of wealth and poverty might help a bit with that. The richest people on Earth make about $10 billion per year—that’s $10,000,000,000—simply for owning things. The poorest people on Earth struggle to survive on less than $500 per year—often working constantly throughout their waking hours. Even if we believe that billionaires work harder (obviously false) or contribute more to society (certainly debatable) than other people, do we really believe that some people deserve to make 20 million times as much as others? It’s one thing to think that being a successful entrepreneur should make you rich. It’s another to believe that it should make you so rich you could buy a house for every homeless person in America.
Automation is already making this inequality worse, and there is reason to think it will continue to do so. In our current system, when the owner of a corporation automates production, he then gets to claim all the output from the robots, where previously he had to pay wages to the workers—and that’s why he does the automation, because it makes him more profit. Even if overall productivity increases, the fruits of that new production always get concentrated at the top. Unless we can find a way to change that system, we’re going to need to redistribute some of that wealth.

But if we have to call it something else, so be it. Let’s all be shareholders in America.