Part 1: The Economics of Ieik, Part 2
Saturday, July 7, 2018
Welcome back to my miniseries within a miniseries! The main topic is how the Galan economy works, but currently we're approaching that question by way of looking at how the simpler and precursory Ieikili economy worked.
Last week I gave a broad-brush description of the economy of Ieik: enlightened, friendly, altruistic, interdependent, and what we would describe (though the Ieikili themselves would not) as pro-austerity and anti-materialistic. I explained how basic economic transactions worked there and how other fundamental economic conflicts played out.
Today I continue by taking a look at how economic structures were organized in Ieik. For this, I've identified seven categories: workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, business entities, money, regulation, and finance. In this week's article we'll be looking at the first of these: workers.
Economic Agents: Producers
Immediately, we come upon a question: What did the Ieikili do with their time? Did they "go to work" like we do? And did they treat what we would call their "work life" separately from other segments of their life?
People and Their Societal Attitudes Toward "Work"
Throughout most of our history on Earth, our survival has necessitated that almost everyone devote an enormous portion of their waking life to work. In recent decades, technological advances in the developed world have taken away most of the danger and physical arduousness of work, but not the need to continue working. Incremental gains in labor ethics notwithstanding—such as overtime pay, the 40-hour workweek, and the two-day weekend—most of us still spend most of our waking adult lives working, because we have to. And we treat our work lives very differently from our off-the-clock lives.
On Relance there are some important differences. The younger and more primitive societies on Relance fairly closely resemble those of Earth's developing world and pre-industrial past: agrarian and brutal. But Relancii civilization as a whole is much older than ours, and the older nations have the benefit of having most of their quality-of-life-based scientific and sociocultural advancements behind them. Plus there are the various disciplines of numeneering, and of course divine providence, that ease the burdens of labor. So some of the Relancii people—including the Ieikili in their day—have not needed for "work" to be as all-consuming as it is for us.
There are of course many types of work that still did need to be completed in Ieik, and the relative dearth of mechanization and automation does make many tasks harder. Though if you look closely, you'll find that things aren't usually as bad as they may seem, for even without electrification and electric appliances the Relancii people, and especially those in stabler, wiser societies like Ieik, are good at cutting down on menial toil and degrading or dangerous tasks. How they do it is a discussion for another time, but for our purposes here we can say something fairly radical:
In Ieik, "work" was very different from how we conceive of it. Most Ieikili performed a greater variety of labor than we typically do—they were generalists, both of necessity and because it is more rewarding to generalize—and they didn't separate their work from the rest of their lives, as we usually do. In English, of the many noun definitions of "work," we have one particular definition of that refers to an entire dimension of our lives: going to an office or store, clocking in, performing a narrow set of activities for compensation, clocking out, and leaving that place.
The Ieikili didn't have that particular definition of "work." They would have seen it as unhealthy and against viutari nature to compartmentalize themselves in that way, whereas in America we glorify it as a way of increasing productivity and the generation of wealth. In Ieik the greater priority was always quality of life—not economic gain, and while those two concepts do share the road together for quite a ways, they eventually diverge.
In Ieik work tasks were usually interspersed with rests, socialization, and recreation, and, although there were plenty of dedicated places for work, one was not expected to become a different person—an obedient employee—during their time working there. People retained much of their personality, their idiosyncrasies, and their mannerisms. Conflicts of personalities were resolved by means other than forcing compliance and subservience by subordinates.
This raises the question of why modern workplaces in the developed world on Earth stamp out the humanity of their workers. The answers to this question are consistency, productivity, and customer service. (People don't like a servant who isn't friendly.) But although there is some merit to those justifications, the rationale is not decisive, and Ieik simply went in another direction from the one we chose, prioritizing the retention of individuality and character. That doesn't mean there weren't times when workers were told to be friendlier, or work harder: On the contrary, such demands were not uncommon—and you also have to remember that Ieikili society bred a strong work ethic into its people from a young age. But, at the end of the day, Ieik chose a way of life where it was generally okay not to smile on the job if you weren't feeling like smiling. And people knew each other. They would talk. It wouldn't make sense to "be yourself" with your friends in one room, then all go into the next room and suddenly put on airs.
Likewise, in Ieik you were not expected to work yourself ragged day after day, no matter what "business" goals existed. In extraordinary situations there were exceptions, but the general rule was for society to work such that people didn't hate their lives. There was no Sunday night dread for the Ieikili, the way we know it. No fear of going having to go off to do several days of garbage to make somebody else rich.
Work in Ieik served two primary purposes: societal need, and personal enrichment through the application of Kindred skills—reaping the rewards of learning, doing, and providing. Most people in Ieik respected work, as we do, and had a strong work ethic, as we do, because it represented the cultivation of excellence and the contribution of value to society, as it does to us.
People in Ieik didn't generally have "jobs" as we commonly use the term. A "job" implies that powerful compartmentalization of one's daily life that I've already explained the Ieikili dismissed as unhealthy. The Ieikili were more likely to do jobs than to have them. Even those who were in what we would call a traditional employment relationship would conceive of doing work for the boss rather than having a job. Much of the reason we have such a sophisticated conceptual space for our time spent at work is because of the stress and suffering it causes us to spend so much time doing something we'd rather not do.
In Ieik it was very different. Most work was not so stressful when it could be continually surrounded by the mitigating factors of more natural behavior and a more natural environment.
And the work itself was usually more rewarding, as Ieikili labor was structured such that routinely did a better job of engendering mental stimulation, feelings of worth, and a sense of empowerment in workers.
Difficult or undesirable labor in Ieik was rewarded with having to perform less of it, and with the accrual of greater mana, which I'll discuss later. (It's not what you're probably thinking.) So, whereas in America the most handsomely rewarded jobs are often parasitic, in Ieik it was the other way around: The people who did the jobs no one wanted to do were greatly appreciated for their hard work, and were very well-compensated for it.
Specialization of Labor
The amount of work in a typical Ieikili villager's life was roughly comparable to how it is on Earth, with a good chunk of most waking days given to performing necessary (or highly useful or beneficial) tasks, chores, errands, and so forth. Domestic labor alone could fill up hours daily.
Beyond domestic labor, Ieik's closest similarity to our world of work is that the Ieikili people usually developed specializations of labor, like we do (and, really, like every society does). In The Great Galavar we hear of Javelin thinking about her future after demonstration, where she mentions teaching athletics and learning carpentry. You may remember that she didn't base it in terms of how lucrative those specializations were; rather, they were extensions of her interest.
(RANT: That's different from how most people in America think about it: Most of us don't have the luxury of choosing work that matches our interests. We go with whatever we can get. We might broadly choose a particular industry, but virtually no one gets to pick their job.
Yet the Ieikili did. Now, not entirely. You can assume that Javelin wasn't speaking purely from a personal standpoint. You can assume that, in order to have developed an interest in carpentry in the first place, she must have had interactions with carpenters by that point, and, through them, she would probably have a vague sense of viability—i.e., an invitation to apprentice or at least an abstract awareness of demand. Javelin is the kind of person who would have had many interests; her choosing athletics instruction and carpentry among those interests is an implicit acknowledgement of the demand for that kind of work.
And, while a sample size of one person is dubious, I can tell you by virtue of being the author that most of the Ieikili did take into consideration what we would call the awareness of economic demand, as opposed to developing specializations purely for the love of it. In Ieik this was less formal and structured than it is for us, governed by the deep-rooted imperative to be useful and contributive to society.
Nevertheless, people generally did, to a far greater extent than we enjoy, choose their jobs. The reason we don't have that luxury in America isn't really an economic one. It's because of modern hiring practices, which are adversarial, myopic, denigrating, and caught up in the same trap of "needing to increase productivity" that most other paid work is. Having emerged from older times, when social mores, familial obligations, and economic stratification prevented most people from freely choosing their jobs, we now are deprived of choice by the modern HR department, answerable to the insatiable demands of shareholders and executive leadership, who demand that it isn't enough simply to hire qualified (or unqualified but trainable) people—that, somehow, the process of hiring must always improve.
The Ieikili weren't that stupid, or that greedy. And, thus, the Ieikili had much broader freedom to choose their jobs. END RANT.)
But let's step back for a minute: This idea of a job entailing "specialization"...how necessary is that?
This is a really interesting question, because it forces us to confront some pretty fundamental questions about how societies work and what "specialization" really means. In our economy, the forces of economics push most people to perform a small number of tasks, over and over again, for as long as they hold a given job. There are some people whose roles entail a bigger number of tasks, or more variety in the tasks, but they are the exception, and, even for them, their tasks are deeply confined and repetitive compared to the diversity of their off-the-clock behaviors. Do the economic pressures that promote specialization doom all societies to force narrow (and therefore frequently miserable) labor upon workers?
First of all, this is slightly spurious as a question, because plenty of people enjoy well-defined, narrow, highly-repetitive tasks. I sure don't, but many people like it very well, and some even prefer it to a job with more variety. (It's also slightly spurious in that narrow tasks aren't necessarily boring, though, over a long period of time, virtually any narrow set of tasks will become boring to most people.)
But, putting that aside, second of all, the answer is no. Specialization does not necessarily force people to be shoehorned into ever-narrower roles.
Our contemporary economic system makes a powerful supposition about businesses devoting themselves to one or more specific products and services, usually (but not necessarily) in one specific industry. Specialization is baked into the equation.
The reason for this is that specialization serves one of the most powerful economic forces of all: efficiency: If there is a way for Company X to produce 10 units of Product A in one configuration, P, and 100 units of Product A in another configuration, Q, at the same cost either way, then there is an overwhelming economic incentive to do business in Configuration Q, producing the 100 units. Why? Because then Company X can sell them at a fraction of the cost, increasing your profit margin. And if they don't, Company Y will, and they'll put Company X out of business by taking their customers away.
It seems inevitable, right? The problem is that I lied: I said "at the same cost either way." And what we're really talking about in that example is "making people's jobs miserable" (producing 100 units) versus "making people's jobs not miserable" (producing only 10 units). The reason most people's jobs today are miserable is because it's more efficient this way.
And that's not nothin'! The Ieikili understood this. This is where the concept of externality comes in: Companies in our society may be able to cut costs and be more efficient by making their employees suffer, but there is a cost to making people suffer. Yet the cost isn't directly reflected in the company's price of doing business, and so companies generally get away with it. That is called a market externality, and the classic example is pollution: It's cheaper on a balance sheet not to mitigate pollution, and so, for a long time (and still today, to the fullest extent allowed by law (and sometimes beyond the law)), companies would just dump their waste, spew it into the air, whatever.
But costs must be paid by someone, and society paid. And the environment paid. Fish died; children got cancer; it was rough.
Making work miserable warps society. Specialization is one of the pathways by which this occurs, by making jobs incredibly awful by making them extremely specific and repetitive and grueling, because this is efficient.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Societies have the power, both legally and culturally, to resist (in degrees, at least) most economic pressures from asserting themselves in their purest, basest forms. Society can agree that it's not necessarily worth it to produce 100 units in Configuration Q. Laws can be passed restricting this, putting a floor on the race to the bottom. Cultures can stigmatize companies who try to go too far. These are efficacious solutions!
In Ieik, specialization seldom led to misery—that is, it seldom led to a task that was mindlessly narrow and repetitive. Instead, the manifestation of specialization in Ieik was much more humanistic ("viutaristic"?), treating workers with an inherent, unspoken dignity. So, although roles were still confined by specialization—a baker would spend a lot of time baking, after all, and doing all the particular tasks of baking—the needs of the psyche were taken into account. It is the difference between being a baker, with everything we think of that role entailing—mixing water and flour, shaping dough, baking, etc.—and being a "baker" by standing in front of an assembly line and squeezing together one round frozen circle of dough to another round frozen circle of dough, ten thousand times a day, every day.
(Sidenote: There's a reason that blue collar union work in America created such a prosperous middle class. That work is mind-numbing, exhausting, and frequently dangerous (especially back in the '50s.) Labor unions fought for better conditions, higher wages, pensions...all sorts of benefits that made these jobs appealing enough that millions of people sought them, and those who got these jobs rarely left them. This is another way of making miserable work more bearable, but it's not a route the Ieikili took, because financial incentives were not generally available to them, and because, regardless, they would still have considered the work itself unhealthy. And they would have been largely right. It's not a coincidence that America's hardworking blue collar employees developed so many problems in their personal lives. Anytime you're spending most of your waking life doing something that stresses you out, you're going to pay a price.)
And I wonder, as you also might wonder, first of all how much more expensive products in our society would be if we did it the way the Ieikili do, and second of all how meaningful the comparison would actually be, given how radically different of a society ours would have to be for such a thing to be socioeconomically feasible. There is an argument that modern society couldn't exist without millions of unhappy workers toiling away at miserable jobs, because it just takes that much efficiency to produce jet planes and 2-day shipping and iPhones and Oreos, but that's an argument I think we would win if we joined it: There's simply too much unapplied wealth, sitting around in various financial instruments whose only purpose and only benefit to society is to grow, and which would fundamentally not work if the gains of that growth were equitably shared among everyone. Moreover, demand is not actually infinite. Maybe we wouldn't be able to buy as much stuff as we do, and, from that, maybe there would be less specialization in terms of product selection and new technologies. But how much less? And how indiscriminately less? Most new products and technologies are essentially junk, designed opportunistically in the knowledge that people can often be sold on stuff they don't really need.
This of course is another one of those rabbit holes that we're not going to get to the bottom of here in Curious Tale Saturdays. But it is interesting.
The Bad Eggs
Where were all the bad eggs, you might be wondering? Or the lazybones? The people who didn't do their part, who shirked responsibility? Who cheated, exploited, misappropriated? Surely these people didn't magically not exist in Ieik. So what of them?
Well, for one thing, there were fewer of them, per capita. And that's not magic. That's one of the many rewards of a society that elevates welfare, including psychiatric healthcare. Many people who aren't willing to work in fact are not able to work, because they suffer from some mental illness that makes it exceedingly difficult to work. In Ieik these people would have had recourse to alternative forms of labor, where feasible, and, if nothing else, would have been understood to have a disability, and less would be asked of them. (And also keep in mind that Ieikili jobs in general were more bearable than ours.)
For another thing, many "bad eggs" are simply people who, without suffering from a mental illness, nevertheless have clear tastes, needs, perspectives, interests, and abilities. In our world people often go bad because there's no place for them, nothing that works for them. "The system" doesn't fit them, and so they're never given a fair shake. In Ieik, society was much wiser about this. With so much accommodation for different temperaments and interests, Ieikili society would make a serious effort to find a way for even the most non-contributive people to do some good. Plus, virtually everyone developed a strong respect for the trait of reliance: You were expected both to rely upon and be relied upon. These two things together—a system that gave people a realistic shot, and which valued interdependency—meant that many would-be bad eggs never went bad in the first place, because their problems were anticipated and accommodated, or at least successfully mitigated.
But these are straw men, not the true bad eggs. So what of the people who nevertheless did go bad, because they were simply rotten?
In a nutshell (eggshell?), most of them were compelled through peer pressure. The thing about an interdependent society is that you get burned pretty fast if you don't pitch in. A lack of mana would make it difficult to obtain useful goods, and the resentment of your neighbors—in a world where the whole world is basically your one little village—isn't sustainable. There were a few hermits and recluses in Ieik, but most of them were largely self-sufficient, and ultimately did exchange something of value to obtain what they needed from others. It was only a small number of people who were truly problematic, and most of them gave in to peer pressure.
Most of the rest left on their own initiative, or were banished. Most banishments were "soft," with the individual going voluntarily on the implicit (or sometimes explicit) understanding that they were no longer welcome. A few of the worst cases were "hard" banishments, with the offender physically removed from the village and warded from reentry. They would be given supplies to travel beyond the wastes, and were expected never to return.
There were also a very few people who managed to survive in Ieik as parasites, often through lawbreaking such as thievery—more often by violating the honor system and accruing fraudulent mana than by physically stealing goods. They were usually eventually caught, but not all of them, and even those who did get caught might have gotten away with it for years first.
Not a Two-Parter After All!
Last week I characterized this look at Ieik's economy as a two-part miniseries within a miniseries. Well, big surprise, it grew larger—it's now looking likely to be a four-parter—so I think I'll recast this, not as a miniseries within a miniseries, but a miniseries within an occasional series. We'll take our look at Ieik, and then, instead of proceeding straight to articles on the economy of Gala, we'll hold off on that for a while and visit other topics first.
That's all for this week. An here's an advisory: As my patrons will already know, the 19th anniversary of ATH is coming up this Wednesday night / Thursday morning. Meanwhile, Season 4 will be ending on July 21, and Season 5 will commence on August 4 after a one-week summer interim.
Join me next week when I look at more aspects of Ieik's economy!
Until then, may your workdays be sweet.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!