Thursday, May 8, 2014

From Coruscant To Tatooine in Less Than 12 Parsecs

I met a stranger from a distant land. He told me of grand spaceports, shining plinths, vertiginous superscrapers, and a furious economic bustle that lifted my mercenary heart. His was a spacefaring race, you see. Deep in the hearts of the Galactic Barquentines his folk used to ply the starscape nestled the key to space travel: a core of refined phlebotinum.

Alas, the stranger's heart was heavy. In his land, the stellar vessels were lovingly crafted in his home country of Mungertopia, but every dry dram of raw phlebotinum was to be found in one place and one place only: the neighboring nation of Spivonostan. The Mungertopians were brilliant, productive engineers and scientists, notable for their grace, courage, and professionalism. Contrarily, the Spivonostanis were dour, dull, and poor. Phlebotinum mining had crowded out their traditional way of life and thanks to the conversion of (nearly) all of their physical capital, they were entirely dependent on trade with the Mungertopians to maintain their national income. This, the stranger said, weighed on his conscience. Commerce with his people had the effect, even if unintentional, of sowing dependency in the Spivonostani culture. It was exploitation, so he claimed.

"Hold on a minute," I rejoined. "Isn't there a decent case that they're the ones exploiting you?"

"Huh?" He sounded puzzled and a little amused, as if he was caught between two possibilities: I was either trying to make a dumb joke or our meeting had turned my thoughts to jelly. Either way, there was patient pity in his reply. "We're rich, they're poor. We have an advanced economy, they produce just one thing. They're, in your own words of euvoluntary exchange, desperate to trade."

"But you can't make your spacecraft fly without what they have. Consider yourselves enlightened. Where I come from, our political leaders have installed puppet governments just so we could put cheap bananas on our cereal in the morning." I reminded myself of the embarrassing news coverage I watched as a boy of Operation Just Cause and the terrible rout of Noriega. "Look, your economy is just as dependent on theirs as theirs is on yours." I was warming to the topic. "The trade may not be fully euvoluntary, but it's at least voluntary, right? You said it yourself, the alternatives would be to return to their traditional ways, making both your lands worse off." I wanted to insert a pregnant pause, but he mistook my silence for an invitation to rebut.

"But all that wealth ends up in the hands of the oligarchs that own the mines." I could almost feel the indignation spill from his clenched hands. "They own the mining equipment, they keep wages low, they buy up any patch of land that has even a remote chance of having a vein of phlebotinum underneath it. Trading with these people empowers these oligarchs. It's immoral."

"So you're worried about the inequality in Spivonostan?" I was careful to be a little vague here, intentionally not specifying exactly what sort of inequality he found worrisome.

"That's one part of it, yes. The average Spivonostani earns but a tiny share of the massive gains from trade generated by the phlebotinum economy." I could tell that he was on the cusp of making a common error: comparing his own situation with that of the target of his pity. Luckily, he caught his mistake and proceeded, "I'll grant that they're better off mining phlebotinum on the evidence that they've chosen to do so without being coerced beyond the promise of what we Mungertopians can offer in trade, but Justice demands that gains from trade be proportional. Isn't that what your Aristotle said?"

"It is. Where I come from, prudent, thrifty foreigners save and borrow in the hopes of migrating to my prosperous country to create a better life for themselves and their family. Can't the Spivonostanis do the same?" My pride and prejudice have a hard time passing up an opportunity to flog open borders, after all. "Wouldn't free migration at least mitigate some of the exploitation problems you cite?" I hoped that some elementary economics was part of his education. "Good outside options should help increase the reserve wages of the workers in Spivonostan."

"Would that this were true, young man." I was a little taken aback at being called young by this dude who looked barely out of his twenties. Maybe they've solved the aging problem in Mungertopia. I shrugged it off. "Our land is poisonous to the Spivonostanis. They can't survive here." He sounded forlorn, as if this were old, painful news. "This is a technological problem, not economic, not political, not even philosophical."

At this, he bid me a brief farewell and got back inside his wee spaceship. I watched the "my other ship is a Corellian Corvette" bumper sticker dwindle in the distance as he flew off. And I pondered.

You see, we here in the affluent West are awfully accustomed to being the Mungertopians. We're in the "first world", we're comfortable, we're rich, and we can afford the luxury of indulging condescension towards the rest of the world. But if the Singularity folks are right, we'll sooner or later find ourselves in the shoes of the Spivonostanis and it will be our brain emulation (or maybe AI) descendants who'll be trading asymmetrically with us. And it's worth considering if we want ourselves or our flesh-and-blood descendants to end up the butt of condescending paternalism of the sort we find in the new imperialism.

Why is it worth considering? Because one of the answers to Andrea's Question is that ideas, particularly given weight and time to germinate, can influence attitudes. A revival of bourgeois dignity can help not only boost human flourishing here and now, but it can underpin the approach our mechanical descendants have towards our meatier progeny. The only downside might be to stick a thumb in the eye of our contemporaries who so greatly enjoy fancying themselves to be better judges of our behavior than we are.

Of course, given the right temperament, that might be a virtue rather than a vice.


  1. So the inequality argument is silly, of course; but a more sophisticated understanding of the evolution of governing institutions might not be. Let's take the simple Acemoglu and Robinson inclusive-v-extractive institutions argument.

    Phlebotinum may not have been worth extracting until Mungertopia made it scarce. Pre-trade, the Spivonomists may have been moving towards a set of inclusive institutions, but the demand for Phlebotinum from Mungertopia put the Spivonomists on track for extractive institutions.

    How does the potential to make foreign governments more extractive enter into the Euvoluntary calculus? Do those generating demand for the extracted product have responsibility beyond the only-trade-with-consent factor?

    1. Recall Aristotle: the scope of Justice is limited by the extent of the governed. You ask a vital question, but it's one best answered by the Spivonostanis themselves. I think the best we can do from this distance is to use rhetoric that supports the foundation of inclusive institutions.

  2. True, but what if the extent of the governed is influenced by trade? If Spivonistan had been a loose confederation or a set of autonomous groups, perhaps Mungertopia's demand for Phlebotinum would encourage the creation of a state by hook or by crook.

    I'm also not convinced by Aristotle's claim. I more prefer Smith's formulation: a violation of Justice is something that would generate resentment in an impartial spectator. I'll have to listen to Adam's podcast before I judge one way or another.

  3. The argument here seems pretty cut and dry when government intervention is the alternative in question, but what about when private industry offers the alternative?

    To extend your example, suppose a new upstart mining company, run by some young unshaven Mungertopians in thick-rimmed glasses and tight jeans, pops into the market with "exploitation-free" phlebotinum. The proceeds are carefully distributed and the workers are paid well and given better conditions. But of course the price is a bit higher.

    What argument do we now have for the potential consumer of this west-coast phlebotinum? Does the argument before that the exploitation is not problematic mean that we tell this consumer that they are wasting their money?

    Well, back down from that in a moment. Perhaps the extra funds are a good thing, even if their lack isn't evil. Perhaps we should tell our consumer to think of their extra cost as a charitable donation (one that I'd be willing to bet ends up being more efficient than your typical non-profit donation). But then let's say the marketing here works. Everyone buys in to our gluten-free phlebotinum. The other providers either drop out of the market or adopt similar programs. Does this mean our remarkable charitability is now common morality? How do we expect someone in this new market would view the miserable person who goes out of his way to buy cheap, "exploitative" phlebotinum? Does broad disdain for this now-exceptional consumer choice codify a new morality?

    And now let's get really weird: suppose Harry's fairganic phlebotinum gets caught reverting to the old ways. CEOs are pocketing more of that markup than we thought, and most of the advertising copy about sunshiny Spivonostani employees is just made up. Shocked consumers might change their preferences quickly, but now the dam has burst. People are reading the labor policies of these crunchy phlebotinum miners, and the results are complicated. Some companies don't promise what others do. Some promise things that people argue over the value of. Some are so vague nobody's really sure what's happening again. Now that the market has already established a preference for moral phlebotinum, doesn't regulation on how moral that phlebotinum must be improve efficiency? Regulation means consumers expend less resources thinking about their options while still having the same level of protection from ex-post regret. True the busy parent of 3 who barely looks at the phlebotinum jar before snatching it off the shelf becomes accidentally more in line with the new morality, but more importantly, Hippy Joe saves himself three weeks of research into phlebotinum mining practices and just leaves it to the regulatory institutions, freeing him up to be otherwise productive.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?