Part 1: The Economics of Ieik, Part 1
Saturday, June 30, 2018
Longtime readers have probably wondered how the Galan economy works. It's a good question. For many years I wondered too, trying out different ideas.
What I eventually discovered, but have never fully articulated until now, is that—surprise!—economics are complicated, and the operation of a society's economy is a dazzlingly thorough description of that society: its principles, daily life, lamentations, motives, and aspirations. In practice, economics may be a better conceptualization of sociology than sociology is.
But we'll get to that.
So...Gala. Is Gala some United Federation of Planets socialistic utopia without money or greed? Is it a gleaming capitalist paradise free of corruption and profiteering? Is it something else? And, most importantly, if you want a sandwich and can't make one at home, how do you get one?
To understand the economics of Gala, we begin by looking at Gala's main precursor: the Village of Ieik. Ieik's economy was much simpler than Gala's, and also different enough that it's an interesting topic in its own right while nevertheless being comparable enough to the Galan economy to serve as a good introductory point of analysis.
So join me this week, and next week, as we look at Ieik's economics.
An Overview of the Economics of the Village of Ieik
The Village of Ieik, which provided the largest initial source of people and culture for the City of Sele, was an enlightened society that falls broadly under the umbrella of what we now conceptualize as "post-scarcity." In Ieik, there was no destitution. There was no economic struggle for survival. Everyone who grew up there was born into a world where they would never face economic oblivion. No one would starve to death. No one would die of homelessness. No one would forsake medical care for the expense of it. There was no way for a person to end up in one of those scenarios; they need only knock on literally anyone else's door. Meanwhile, God provided most of the food and raw materials, and, while there was still much viutari labor involved in the preparation and refinement of these things, there was never a question as to their obtainability. Infectious diseases were muted due to the small population (in the six thousands during Galavar's childhood), a lack of intermixing with other peoples, and the extremely cold climate. Natural disasters were muted too.
Yet, at the same time, physical survival was not effortless. The Sheer—the endless, freezing wind—was deadly if not properly respected and prepared for. The world of the Ieikili was very small, anthropologically speaking, with little exposure to outsiders. And resources were never ample enough for excess. Instead, in Ieik there was a permanent conviction in austerity. People lived in a lifelong state of near-deprivation. What few possessions they did own were deeply-held prizes, rich with personal meaning and cultural value. There was very little in Ieik that was considered disposable. They were the ultimate recyclers. In fact the Ieikili didn't even maintain a landfill, incinerating what little real trash they produced.
This combination of living conditions—divine stewardship, guaranteed welfare, a rich culture, permanent but consistent environmental hostility, and the embrace of austerity—bred a familial communalism and interdependency in the people. This was not a society where people needed to lock their doors; most doors didn't even have locks. This was not a society where people needed to fear thievery, for there was not much to steal that one did not already have access to themselves as a citizen, except for personal possessions, and, most of the time, those was irrelevant as thievery targets, for who would covet another person's history? It did happen; thievery did occur; but very infrequently. For there was another factor marshalling the Ieikili's norms: In a remote village with only a few thousand people...people know each other. You can't hide from your victims. You can't flaunt anything that you do steal. And if you earn the ire of your whole village, well, the handful of people who ended up getting to that point and didn't want to live it down, tended to end up leaving.
In a similar vein, the "we're all stuck in this hellhole together" mentality of pettiness, cruelty, and vanity that usually render small-town dynamics so toxic were virtually unknown in Ieik, where the people as individuals truly did apply themselves to the pursuits of good citizenship, and enjoyed great freedom to choose their peers. There was little forced association; loners were free to be on their lonesome; people didn't have to interact with those they didn't like. The toxicity that so often marks our societies on Earth depends in significant part on not just personal failings but forced social relationships, like family relationships, where people have no choice but to accept the company of people they despise. In Ieik, that sort of forced togetherness was rare.
Individual Economic Conflicts in Ieik
So, how does all that translate into what we more traditionally limit ourselves to thinking of economics as comprising?
Well, in Ieik, there was money. I'll just get that question out of the way right now: There can be no such thing as a society without money. Irrespective of the form it takes, "money" is the transmissible mode of value. Wherever value exists, there will be money.
But I'll return to that later. The first thing to inspect here is the issue of economic conflicts. Specifically, I want to look at the most fundamental form of economic conflict: the transaction. Why do economic transactions exist? First and foremost, they are a matter of subsistence. But, beyond subsistence, they exist because economics are a manifestation of people's desires, with subsistence merely being the foremost desire. Any fictional (or actual) economic system that does not make this its central consideration will become implausible.
Economic transactions—the exchange of something of value for something else of value—are intertwined in almost all social behaviors, and manifest in most customs. Whether we're talking about working a job, or going to the theater, or buying a cake, these socioeconomic activities entail at least one exchange of value between two or more parties, and without these exchanges the activities that depend upon them would rarely have the conditions to be able to occur in the first place.
Don't make the mistake of assuming that most social activities in our own society which are not dollar-valued are not evertheless socioeconomic in nature. "Free and unpaid" social activities such as domestic labor, doing favors for a friend, and going for a walk in the park all have an economic component: The first two activities yield value without the use of money, and the last one wouldn't be possible without the economic activities that enable a "park" to exist. (Notice also that, in the first and third examples, no other person besides oneself is required to directly participate in the activity.)
Economic transactions are a function of desire, which is close enough in meaning to interchange here with the economic concept of "demand." There is no need to scrutinize why demand for a certain thing exists: It doesn't matter. It simply exists. And the Village of Ieik was not immune from this fundamental disposition of sapient, civilized creatures.
In Ieik, most economic transactions occurred without the exchange of money. The radical difference between Ieik and an American small town is not that in Ieik one could go into a restaurant and eat without paying. The radical difference is that Ieikili culture could support this kind of behavior in the first place. And it was able to do so for the reasons I described previously: Ieik was a safe, post-scarce society with a small population where children were instilled with a love of learning and goodwill. As we will see later, when I discuss Galan economics, it is not a coincidence that those factors produced the Ieikili economic system. And, as we will see, the Galan economic system has many key differences.
Now, why did I initially refer to "economic conflicts," if so far I have only talked about their prototypal form, the transaction? It's because there are some other conflicts also worth considering here, all of which stem from the principle of demand. I can phrase them in the form of three questions:
What if you want a cake and there is no baker?
What if there is only one cake and two different people want it?
What if the baker only accepts payment in the form of other cake?
Before we rise to the grandiose level of conflicts like classes pitted against classes, it's essential to consider the basic economic conflicts that occur between individual agents.
In Ieik, when you're sick you could see the healer. But this assumes healers would exist, which isn't logically guaranteed. What is the incentive to be a healer? If left purely to people's career desire, there could potentially be too many healers, or, more relevantly, too few. What then? Well, the case of too many healers is an interesting one as well, and I'll discuss some of its implications later, but for now let's consider the case of too few.
In the free market, consumer demand produces medical personnel. Not immediately of course, but as quickly as the market is able to react. In Ieik, perhaps surprisingly, there was no regulatory or cultural barrier to this. In Ieik, a demand for more medical professionals would, in the short term, produce a great deal of volunteers and novice assistants, and, in the longer term, produce more chemists, healers, physicians, and surgeons.
So, for as much as I've said that Ieik lent itself to a culture of austerity, if there had nevertheless been more demand for cakes at some point than there were cakes available, people would have baked more cakes: Existing bakers would've increased production, or others would into baking, or both. And this economic knock-on effect would have gone all the way down the supply chain, with an increased demand for flour, eggs, whisks, and ovens.
Now, in Ieik, the raw inputs for those things were limited: Eggs were actually quite scarce. Suitable metals were not plentiful in the underlying ore. Which brings us to the second question: What if there is only one cake and two different people want it?
When demand for a thing outstrips supply, there are usually only four ways to get the thing: first-come, first-serve (including reservations); lottery; price increases; and rationing. In Ieik, the resolution to this type of economic conflict was usually done through the first mechanism: Those who came first were served first. In many situations this was handled through reservations, and frequently it was the case that purveyors would bump up a reservation on the basis of merit, such as getting a cake for a special occasion versus getting a cake just for the noms. The discretion of the purveyor was highly respected in Ieik, so, if one's request for a reservation was turned down, they'd have been likely to take it better than, say, an average pompous American would.
In Ieik the lottery mechanism occurred also. Notably, there was a lottery element in the village's governance, with citizen representatives being chosen at random (from a pool of pre-qualified candidates). Certain luxuries were also allocated on the basis of the lottery, though often with fairness elements that increased the number of winners.
But it was Ieik's take on price increases that probably weighs the most heavily in your thoughts: And this brings us back to the fact that many socioeconomic activities in Ieik occurred outside a formal exchange of money.
This means that the "price" of these goods and services was also more abstract. Abstraction in price can lend itself to quite a lot of price variance, and variance is the enemy of economic efficiency. The consequence is that Ieik's economy was more stunted than it could have been (though you already knew that, for it is true on many different counts). Where prices did exist, they were almost never adjusted for demand. Most Ieikili would have been horrified at the thought of profiting when it occurred in a situation of many potential customers having to go without. (This aversion, based out of a fundamental regard for one's peers, continued into Galan culture.)
For this reason, there is the fourth mechanism related to price increases: supply increases through means of rationing. The Ieikili frequently rationed scarce goods and services as a way of stretching them so that more people could enjoy the benefit of having at least some access. Very few Ieikili would've been pleased at the prospect of eating a tasty whole roast fowl while knowing most of their neighbors had been forced to go without. Rationing was an accepted aspect of their culture of austerity. However, in keeping with what I've said about Ieik bearing a significant resemblance to a "post-scarcity" society, the scarcity I keep mentioning is mainly limited to things that people don't frequently demand very highly in the first place. Shelter, food, and clothing, while seldom extravagant, were always available.
If you don't know the Ieikili as well as I do, I admit there is a bit of a climb to get to plausibility here: How can a culture persist for thousands of years where everyone is so devoid of material ambition that they're just willing to accept the rationing of luxuries?
My answer to that is threefold: First, those who can't stand it were always free to emigrate. It did happen. Some would move to the Empire. A few even moved elsewhere. Second, Ieikili culture carefully and deliberately redirected most material ambitions into cultural, aesthetic, artistic, or scholastic ones. If you want a roller coaster, what do you really want? Thrill? A high place? Weightlessness? "Fun"? All of those things can be attained without building a roller coaster. The list of qualities that can only be delivered from a roller coaster is vanishingly small. The Ieikili understood this premise deep in their bones—it was one of the hallmarks of their ancient society as the chosen people of the God of Logic and Wisdom—and so they were very practical about it. And third, there really is a plausible possible world where people are like this. Just because it's so unusual to us doesn't mean it's unrealistic.
Now the final question: What if the baker only accepts payment in the form of other cake?
This question addresses the economic conflict that occurs when value is not sufficiently transferable. I've suffered this myself my whole adult life, in that I have continually failed to earn a living from my creative work. This also speaks to the issue earlier of "too many healers": What happens when you want to obtain something of value by exchanging something else of value that the economy in general doesn't actually value?
That's a big question. Thankfully I only have to answer for Ieik. In Ieik, the population was low enough that people did sometimes end up wanting to engage in economic transactions that nobody else wanted to join. The Ieikili had a word this unfortunate circumstance: windyelling. And it was universally accepted that this is a thing people sometimes have to do. Sometimes, even though it is externally pointless, you just have to go and yell at the wind. I'm still going to write, even if no one reads anything I write. It was neither celebrated nor chastised in Ieikili culture; it is treated like the other calls of nature: It just has to be, as part of the viutari condition.
I've technically spoken here to the inverse case of wanting to buy a cake and only having other cake to pay with, which the baker won't accept, but the phrasing I used originally is worth discussing too: What if you need cake to buy cake? This inverse form of the economic conflict is fascinating: It speaks to the conflicts that occur because of exclusivity, which itself usually happens because of some form of tribalism.
But in Ieik, this was virtually nonexistent. While people did generally have the right to refuse to associate, and to refuse service, in practice it didn't come up very often under economic circumstances. You see, when children are raised to be thoughtful beings rather than thoughtless little monsters, the vast majority of them will, in their adulthood, spare a thought for the impacts of their actions. There was practically no economic exclusion in Ieik. Everyone was welcome.
Communal, Friendly, and Enlightened
I like Ieik. There's a lot about Ieik that would chafe on me: Ieik does a better job than America, in some ways, of empowering people to chase their dreams, but in other ways it does a worse job. And, of course, I love the occasional excess and extravagance. But most significantly, my love of food and fat would make Ieik's temperance a real downer. Though I take comfort in anticipating that the Ieikili would recognize the existence of such temperaments, among the sea of diversity that is the Kindred, and make due accommodations.
That's all for this week. Join me next week when I finish up the Ieik mini-miniseries in this miniseries on the economics of Gala. Next week I'll be discussing money, economic entities, and more.
Until then, may you know the subtle wisdom of recognizing that the things we covet can often be had in other ways, and the even subtler wisdom of recognizing that, sometimes, this doesn't matter.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!