[ExI] Post-scarcity issues (was Re: Thoughts on Space...)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sun Nov 23 02:35:55 UTC 2008

BillK wrote:
> Hey, I like the stuff you write!    I'll have to start googling for more.  :)
> Of course I like it because your writing agrees with my prejudices.  :)
> I have made the occasional comment along much the same lines in the
> past, but you have provided a much more detailed argument than I ever
> attempted.

Thanks. I put some links below too.

Here are my thoughts on the way the USA spends a lot of its money:
   "How to to find the financing to create a "Star Trek" like society"
This essay shows how a total of $14000 billion up front and at least
another $2085 billion per year can be made available for creative
investment in the USA by adopting a post-scarcity worldview. This money
can help further fund a virtuous cycle of more creative and more cost
saving efforts, as well as better education. It calls for the non-profit
sector to help shape a new mythology of wealth and to take the lead in
getting the average person as well as decision makers to make the shift
in worldview to their own long term benefit. ... This essay will consider 
some major sectors of the US economy in turn and what counter-productive 
subsidies or waste could be easily trimmed, where the amount freed up is 
large enough to make an enormous difference in funding for creative, life 
affirming pursuits. [All figures are ballpark estimates.]
Let us consider ways to free up money for the non-profit sector (or
reducing working hours) by cutting wasteful government and consumer
spending in these areas with (annual estimate of easy savings):
   * Healthcare ($800 billion),
   * Military ($200 billion),
   * Prisons ($125 billion),
   * Agriculture ($40 billion),
   * Transportation ($250+ billion),
   * Housing ($350+ billion),
   * Manufacturing (very variable),
   * Media (very variable),
   * Banking ($14000 billion up front, $320 billion annually), and
   * Education (very variable).
A common denominator in just about each of these areas is the domination
by out-of-date ideologies based on scarcity perspectives and/or the
capture of the government regulatory and funding bodies by narrow
interests who are afraid of losing out by progressive post-scarcity
change (which they fear will leave them impoverished). There is also the
issue of some people desiring to continue to have lots of raw power over
other people's lives (like that of a master over slaves); frankly I
can't address that character flaw other than to point at religious and
humanistic traditions of enlarging one's sense of self to include
community and world responsibilities (including finding joy in helping
the growth of others to be independent decision makers), so I restrict
what follows to monetary aspects of the problem. Ultimately though, raw
power lust has to be dealt with -- and dealing with that I freely admit
will be tougher than the economic aspects of making the case for a
post-scarcity worldview.

It's been said the hardest order to get soldiers to follow in wartime is
to abandon a foxhole in the face of oncoming action. Like a soldier in a
foxhole, the US elites in each sector are about to be overrun by the
sweeping changes happening in our society as its technological capacity
expands exponentially; they will feel safer in their elite foxholes
until their positions are completely overrun by changing times, at which
point they will have no choice but to be swept up in the global changes.
The safer thing IMHO is to abandon that foxhole position sooner rather
than later and try to make the system work for everyone now (which of
course includes themselves and their children).

That essay came out of another SSI list post, by coincidence, around the 
same time as my SPS discussions there, as I thought about possible funding 
alternatives for space habitats than building Solar Space Satellites.

And of course, as Iain Banks says in his Culture novels, "Money is a sign of 
poverty". So, this dwelling on financing is a bit distracting in some ways. 
Still, it helps bridge the gap between scarcity and post-scarcity world views.

I put up more stuff I wrote on post-scarcity here:
   "Paul's Post-scarcity Perambulations"
   "Post-Scarcity Princeton "

A key point on economics in there is: "Capitalism is often it seems all 
about cost cutting. Why do people have such a hard time thinking about what 
happens as costs approach zero, even for improvements in quality? Or why do 
economists have a hard time understanding that many conventional economic 
equations may produce infinities as costs trend towards zero?"

Here was my statement of purpose for graduate school, related to developing 
self-replicating space habitats:
   "Self-Replicating Space Habitat graduate school purpose and plans from 1988"
A key idea from there as I reflected back on my plans: "The good news is 
that now, twenty years later, all or most of the hurdles have fallen that 
otherwise needed leaping before being able to comprehensively design 
self-replicating space habitats, and all the computer and informational 
resources I thought I needed then are now available for cheap or free. For 
example, for only a few thousand dollars, I have the equivalent of an early 
1990s supercomputer in my office with terabytes of storage and a high speed 
color scanner and a network connection and access to Google and Wikipedia 
and so on. So, what I outlined in the 20th century is more and more doable 
in the 21st century for less and less cost. So, item 13 (the major goal) is 
now approachable without needing to do much on the other prerequisite items 
listed. ... Since I wrote all that, I broadened my approach to focus on 
systems that had more a balance of self-sufficiency and participation in a 

So, an approaching singularity is indeed making that project more and more 

> Just a few comments.
> Re all these trillions the US is spending, I thought the crisis was
> due to the US spending money that it doesn't have?  These trillions
> are all confederate money, printed as required and worthless. The next
> few years are going to be thrift years as everybody tries to get
> spending back in line with income. As the US gov has got accustomed to
> a permanent deficit budget, I expect a big upheaval.

On the money supply etc., it is all imaginary, isn't it? Just mostly some 
numbers in a computer, multiplied in a strange way as what I like to call 
"Fractional Reserve Electronic Debt" or FRED. :-) A big burst of EMP and bad 
luck with backups and what do we really have? Just the physical 
infrastructure and people arguing over historic ownership of physical 
assets? So the banking crisis is really a crisis of the imagination. :-) Of 
course, this is not to say imaginary ideas can't have hugh real world 
effects, whether the Salem Witch trials or those missing WMDs in Iraq.

I agree with you about the point on thrift and income and expenses getting 
back together. Still, one issue is that, unlike when you or I run a deficit, 
when the USA runs a deficit it can (in theory) devalue the dollar relative 
to other currencies to get out of it (or have an episode of hyperinflation 
to reset everything related to long term debts, somewhat like a "jubilee"). 
There would be various winners and losers then, of course. I'm not saying 
it's a good idea -- I'm just saying that is one difference of a national 
debt from a personal debt. In the USA's case, devaluing the dollar 
(voluntarily or involuntarily) is a way of taxing the world, and that is the 
special situation the US has been in by having a currency everyone relies 
on. What is happening in the financial crisis is deeper than about a 
trillion dollars in questionable mortgage loans (there has been more than 
enough money allocated for that by the bailout); there are also all these 
other issues of faith in the dollar and the related monetary system as well, 
a positive feedback loop of a flight from investments with panic rushing to 
the exits (which, strangely enough props up the dollar for now as people 
sell things for cash), and issues about currency fluctuations. There are a 
lot of long term trends people have been watching like the rise of China, 
but as with any complex systems, we may see apparent stasis while tiny 
little movements happen that are not very noticeable and then we get a 
sudden earthquake. Or singularity. :-) The USA's continual loss of prestige 
and thought leadership abroad as a slow drip-drip-drip of bad news coming 
out of the USA and its wars hasn't helped either over the last eight years.
Still, all that needs to be offset by the continuous increase in 
technological capacity in the USA and elsewhere. Computers are about 100X or 
so faster for the same amount of money as when Bust took office. That change 
is here to stay. And in eight years, we will see about another 100X. So I 
feel that change in technological capacity is a lot deeper in its effects 
than a simple number which economists factor into inflation/deflation 
figures. So, I feel that those technology changes in a way are propping up 
the USA's economy, since it is hard to discount a place that is continually 
improving in obvious ways (let alone not so obvious ones). Of course, the 
rest of the world is improving its technical infrastructure too, another 
complexity in evaluating the worth of a dollar.

> Re your other tracts, I like the practicality of your discussion. The
> people factor is very important in futuristic proposals.  The
> calculations might be great, but, as you point out, you cannot ignore
> everything else that is going on. If the mass of the population are
> unpersuaded, then the best idea in the world will get thrown away.

So true. For both good and bad sometimes.

For example, I myself now feel (and maybe always have felt) we should do 
space habitats for their own sake -- as an expression of some spirit of 
humanity, and as a work of art, and maybe even some notion of Gaia giving 
birth -- not mainly for economic or survival reasons. But what sells 
something may involve a different emphasis, sadly. That's why I like the 
idea of doing them as a "professional amateur" "free and open source" hobby.
As a labor of love. Just because most of the world doesn't care about them 
much, why should myself and a few others let that dissuade us from doing 
what we can towards them as we have the time? As we approach a singularity, 
there is the prospect of individuals and small groups getting more and more 
possibilities to create amazing things, just because.

I'm reminded of this:
""The guy with the Web site." That's how my friends introduce me at parties. 
I guess that says something about what a rich, multifaceted, textured 
personality I've developed by spending 15 out of my 33 years at MIT. Yeah. 
Anyway, the response from my new acquaintances is invariably the same: "How 
are you going to make money off your Web site?" ... If they knew I'd 
splurged for a $5000 Viking stove, they wouldn't ask if I was going to start 
charging my brunch guests $5 each. If I told them I dropped $20,000 on a 
Dodge Caravan, they wouldn't ask if I was going to charge my dog $10 for 
every trip. Web site hosting can cost less than any of these things; why 
does everyone assume that it has to make money? I did not set up my site to 
make money. I set up my site so that my friend Michael at Stanford could see 
the slides I took while driving from Boston to Alaska and back. It turns out 
that my site has not made money. Yet I do not consider my site a failure. My 
friend Michael at Stanford can look at my slides anytime ..."

--Paul Fernhout

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