by Tom Pike
Tom Pike believes the social sciences should provide just as much SF inspiration as technology. His latest story, “Direct Message,” seeks to explore the implications of UBI, and you can read it in our January/February issue, on sale now!
Stories in Analog are supposed to examine the ways a specific innovation would change society. But innovation does not have to be technological. Hard SF should explore the social sciences with the same enthusiasm as it explores the Solar System. In “Direct Message,” the idea I wanted to explore was economic.
Why is it that we declare some people and some regions to be “poor,” when poverty and wealth are fictions we have mutually agreed upon? What other choices might we make, and how might those change our world?
There is growing interest within economics in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which basically says that, because a government defines the value of money, constraints upon how it can spend money are largely imaginary or self-imposed. According to MMT, society can define the amount of money it has, and could pick an amount sufficient to rebuild decaying infrastructure, lift people out of poverty, or mitigate the climate crisis.
Ultimately, digitized fiat currency is just numbers on a spreadsheet. MMT suggests that there is nothing stopping us from editing these numbers except a social taboo against doing it. (One interpretation of “Direct Message” could be that the narrator hacked their bank account to give themselves more money from nowhere, concocting the “alien DM” story as a cover.)
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a related concept, scaled down to the individual: we choose what amount of money a person “starts off” with. Why have we decided they start off with $0? Why not decide that they have earned enough to afford basic necessities by virtue of their inherent value as humans? What does it mean to have the right to “pursue happiness” if one cannot actually afford to do so?
With UBI, people would still work and earn money to buy luxuries and entertainment. But supporters of UBI believe that housing and food are human rights, as much as free speech or assembly. We have the means to provide housing to all: in most major American cities, there are more unoccupied homes than unhoused people. We have a distribution problem, not a supply problem.
Why is it easier for some of us to imagine we can break the laws of physics than to imagine a society where we provide for the needs of human beings?
There are “Economics 101” arguments against MMT and UBI, but there are courses in economics beyond 101. There is also a long history of mainstream economic theory being used as a tool to launder reactionary policies designed intentionally to make the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer. So much of the economic canon was written in bad faith that we cannot simply accept it as truth. We have to question it, and two ways we can do that are through science and science fiction.
A typical sci-fi story asks the reader to accept that faster-than-light travel is possible. Why is it easier for some of us to imagine we can break the laws of physics than to imagine a society where we provide for the needs of human beings? We need stories that ask these questions.
Although we have data from pilot studies to suggest that UBI works, I do not know if MMT would work in real life. But it is not necessary to settle the matter via argument. It is time for economics to follow in the footsteps of other social sciences, like linguistics, and actually become an experimental science.
Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) present a testing ground for economic theories. It may be unethical or difficult to test large-scale monetary experiments in the real world, but MMOs limit the impacts of experimental policies to digital worlds and those who have opted to participate in them. Still, the things we can learn from them are applicable in the real world, since MMO players spend real money on fictional artifacts, and an exchange rate can therefore be established with real currencies.
Economists have studied Everquest, which once had an economy larger than some countries; World of Warcraft, which pioneered new concepts in epidemiology; and Eve Online, which confirmed that deregulation leads to income inequality and large-scale fraud.
But these games were designed first as games, and later studied. Academic institutions and governments have not contracted game studios to build games with the intention of testing specific theories. They should start.
It is time to start thinking of economics as an experimental science. The first step in any experiment is forming a hypothesis. “Direct Message” suggests as a hypothesis that MMT might alleviate avoidable human suffering. I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and neither does anyone else.
Let’s test it.
From a letter to the editor I sent on Sunday:
I enjoyed Tom Pike’s “Direct Message” in your January issue, but must object to the Ibocaan’s nonchalance about causing inflation by creating new money (end of page 92). Even if one does not believe that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, just editing the number in the narrator’s bank account would likely cause inflation, depending on how it was spent — obviously easier to detect with the initial suggestion of $700,000,000,000,000 than with the eventual $60,000. If the money were spent to win eBay auctions, it would raise effective inflation for the auction losers who would have to bid elsewhere, sometimes for more money. If it were spent in a supermarket monitored by government inflation trackers, it might cause the supermarket to run out, and (especially in the more lucrative case) perhaps raise prices to cope with increased demand, which would raise the official inflation rate.