Monday, May 29, 2017

Multiple utopias

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, dystopias, utopias

Has Western society already become a plutocracy? A passel of disappointed Democrats, decrying the country's first billionaire President, and further decrying the number of billionaires and near-billionaires he has installed in his cabinet and other executive posts, seem to think so. Of course, they conveniently ignore that their own plutocrat, who has managed to avoid "personally" amassing too many millions, has instead created a pay-for-play foundation with, to date, close to a half a billion dollars that "everyone knows" is to be used for political purposes, a "charitable" foundation that spends three or four times as much on said plutocrat's travel and hotel expenses as on the foundation's purposes as stated in its charter. At least the plutocrat who made it into office is honest about his great wealth and doesn't play poor-face.

In a true plutocracy, only the plutocrats own anything. How close is America to that?
  • The "one percent" of Americans own 38% of all wealth in the U.S.
  • The richest 10% own just over 75% (or, you could say, "the next 9%" own "the next 37%).
  • The poorest 50% own 1%.
  • The "middle class", the remaining 40%, own just under 24% of all wealth.

Thought that is not quite full-on plutocracy, it is pretty dramatic inequality. This "wealth inequality" is greater than "income inequality", because below the median income (around $50,000 per household in recent times), it is hard to accumulate wealth, while for "upper middle class and above" (about $200,000), most income can be socked away and add to accumulated wealth, and for a genuine plutocrat, tremendous luxury can be enjoyed while spending only a few percent of income as great wealth continues to multiply.

Let's look at that $200k threshold. For someone working a 40-hour week, it would be nearly $100 per hour. Someone with a modicum of prudence can live quite well on less than half of that, and save the rest, which after taxes exceeds $60,000 yearly. About every 16.7 years, even if investment income is nil, another million dollars accumulates. If investment income is instead in the 4% range, then during the second 16.7-year period, another million will accumulate from the compounding alone. Now, there are numerous "professionals" out there who demand fees of several hundred dollars an hour, and probably earn half a million to a million yearly. Then there are CEO's of top corporations who are routinely paid a million per month. I consider that excessive.

My own take on earnings that exceed one or two dollars (2017 dollars) per minute: The only guy to whom I will pay as much as $400 per hour (an average lawyer's fee in this area), without feeling resentful, is the dude who can go in with a screwdriver and side cutters and defuse a bomb. (Before you cry "sexism", I'd pay it to a similarly skilled gal with screwdriver and side cutters. Doesn't matter to me.)

I conclude that we are well on the way to plutocracy replacing democracy in America. Don't think the current President will make that go any faster, he won't. But had the Democrat won, she'd have pushed it in that direction much, much faster! America would have become "Godfather country" in pretty short order.

OK, so what will things be like in a full-blown plutocracy? Cory Doctorow thinks he knows, and it forms a society universally called "default" in Walkaway, a Sci-Fi novel of the sorta-near future. The hyper-rich who run everything are called "zottas" (I guess that is a combination of "zetta" and "yotta", the two largest prefixes in the metric number system. "Yotta" means a trillion-trillion, or 1024, and "zetta" is 1/1,000 the size , or 1021.) Either way, I suppose a zotta is rich enough to treat the odd billion dollars as pocket change.

In the face of zotta-controlled wage-slavery for those few who are ambitious enough to work, and a grinding welfare state for the rest, increasing numbers of people have been walking away, going to unoccupied areas and learning to live without "default society". They are not as badly off as things may seem. Technology has kept pace with the times, and nearly all human needs can be "fabbed" (an advanced form of 3D printing) from suitable feedstock. That goes not only for vehicles and houses and furniture but even more so for many foods and medicines, and also recreational drugs. Walkaway society is a society of abundance. No more zero-sum. If you take my sandwich, and I can throw leaves in a hopper and fab another in five minutes, why should I care? If I do feel a bit put out, I can make ten sandwiches and throw them at you…or ten darts, if I want to do something more than just shame you.

The political discourses that the author uses to point up the differences among default and walkaway philosophy make this a rather dialog-heavy book, sort of like the Foundation books by Asimov. Abundance philosophy has the potential to create genuine utopia, but human nature is not used to it, and there'll be tremendous growing pains. Part of the dramatic thrust of Walkaway is about such growing pains. Another big part is what we might call "World War W", as "default" tries to regain control of "walkaway".

This is intensified because the walkaways possess sufficient technology to be winning the race to produce effective scanning and simulation of a person, so that they can be reincarnated in software after dying. A lot gets glossed over about this, and that's OK, because there are significant questions to address, such as, "How will a person who wakes up in silico react to the knowledge of being dead?", and "Can the scan of a person become enslaved?". Two questions that I wondered about, that are barely touched upon: "How will the simulated person communicate; is there a need to emulate the signaling systems of the Occipital and Temporal lobes of the brain, and translate machine video and audio signals to and from appropriate optic and auditory nerve signals?", and "What will replace the endocrine signaling of the body with which the brain/mind was accustomed to relate?".

Such a book raises many questions and answers few. This one had the obligatory happy ending, but it didn't have to. The downfall of a plutocratic culture takes longer than a generation. They tend to leave little but scorched earth behind. The end of Walkaway has a continued coexistence, at arms' length, of the two cultures, with default becoming the secondary, left-behind one. I found that puzzling.

Those who know me may well wonder why I subjected myself to a book containing explicitly erotic scenes. There are but a handful, and I know how to skim past what I don't want to read. Whether you roll your eyes at this and say, "Yeah, sure," or not, you're entitled to believe what you wish.

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