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The Madness… oh, come ON!

So it’s now week 4, at least for me. And yes, it’s getting ugly – but I still think the ugly has more to do with the mandatory lock up than with anything else. I mean, the last time I looked my state has 1/6 of the estimated workforce having applied for unemployment, and that money has to come from somewhere.

Unlike some folks seem to believe, money always has to come from somewhere. When governments are involved, the somewhere is invariably taking it from someone else because governments do not produce.

Short-short bit of “economics for writers” which is horribly inaccurate when it comes to real-life economics, but works just well enough to be plausible when used in fictional background: money has no inherent value. It is a way of keeping score and a convenient means of measurement that allows trade to happen with reasonable efficiency. That’s it. Even if the money is in the form of large gold coins, it’s still not worth anything in and of itself. The reason gold is valuable is that it’s rare, not easy to fake (the softness alone is a bit of a giveaway), even harder to destroy (it takes a damn strong solvent to affect gold), doesn’t tarnish, and it looks pretty. All of which are part of why gold ended up being a default currency for a long time.

The fact is, even when the money isn’t physically there, people use it as a notional measure of value. And value isn’t intrinsic to anything, it’s a combination of factors not least of which is how much someone is willing to exchange to have a thing. If some crazy idiot want to spend millions to buy a turd coated with gold, that turd and its gold coating is worth millions. If nobody wants to buy it, it’s not worth the paper spent wiping after dropping it.

This is something a lot of people forget, I suspect because by the time you get to paper money, you’re several layers of abstraction down, and we humans have this tendency to reify our abstractions. It makes life much more convenient and allows us to do a lot of things you can’t do when you’re operating at the level of trading goods and favors, things that wind up increasing the total amount of value a lot more than just producing more can do – or even more than producing more thingies, transporting them, and selling them.

Abstractions let you make whole careers out of being an intermediary between transactions, and do it without increasing costs much for anyone else. That’s how the oh-so-convenient card readers in just about every modern store work, after all. Each transaction costs a small amount, but when there are millions of them happening every day, boy does it add up. You can’t do that with goods, or with gold coins, or paper money. But when you move the abstraction to something that’s mostly numbers in computers, boy can you make out like bandits.

The truly fun thing with playing with ideas like this is that no matter what happens, and despite the squawks about people not knowing how to handle an economy based on abundance, or about the next Great Depression being just around the corner, you start to see that there will always be something that’s in huge demand but has limited supply. That something, whatever it is, will be what gets used as the convenient marker of wealth.

In societies that are mostly subsistence farming, conspicuous consumption (in the form of throwing huge parties where massive amounts and variety of food can be found) is a common one. Later it’s gold and luxury goods. These days it’s often being fit, tanned, and having clothes that fit perfectly (I wonder if this is the reason a certain person is so loathed. The fake tan color practically screams “does not have money or time to get a real tan” even if that isn’t true) because people working normal jobs just don’t have the time to get the first two, and they don’t have the funds for the third. In the future, who knows? Could be that going somewhere the food is cooked and served by actual people will be a luxury signal. Or maybe in space traveling societies the luxury will be water. Or breathable air.

43 Comments
  1. The governors as mad, and it’s going to make the populace mad as well. I used to object to characters that were otherwise intelligent and responsible doing something inherently stupid to make a scene or plot move. Now? I’m seeing otherwise intelligent people who have been staunch supporters of the ideals of a free republic arguing that the government should be able to keep people locked up indefinitely. It’s like I’ve walked into an alternate reality.

    April 9, 2020
    • Kate #

      You and me both. We’re seeing Black Plague levels of panic for something with flu/pneumonia levels of mortality. This is not a good thing, particularly when US reported fatalities are still in “mild flu season” range.

      April 9, 2020
      • The problem with that contention is that it simply isn’t true. We’re looking at a probable mortality rate among confirmed cases of around 2% or more, whereas a particularly lethal flu year will claim 0.15% of the infected. While that’s still not even to Spanish flu levels, it’s still pretty bad, even when granting that the number of actual cases is certainly higher than the number of confirmed cases, by at least a factor of two.

        I expect that the claims and counter-claims regarding how many people actually were infected will be the main point of dispute when people write the histories of this pandemic.

        April 9, 2020
        • And then there are those of us who point at the number and say “Over 97% survival rate”. Even on the global scale, it is around 94% (I haven’t looked at the latest numbers. Depressed enough as it is with all this negativity.) of the *confirmed* cased. Those are good odds. If a doctor tells you that you have about 95% chance of full recovery, you would not be worried.

          To quote an old Bing Crosby song:
          You’ve got to accentuate the positive
          Eliminate the negative
          Latch on to the affirmative
          Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

          You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
          Bring gloom down to the minimum
          Have faith or pandemonium
          Liable to walk upon the scene

          April 9, 2020
          • TRX #

            I know that song… but only the Greg Keeler parody version! I didn’t know it was a parody…

            April 9, 2020
        • Especially because there will be a knock-down-drag-out battle over “when did it arrive in [country]?” Anecdata suggests November in the US, but the official classifications are maaaaaayyyyyybe late December, otherwise mid-January. An early date will really futz the percentages.

          April 9, 2020
        • Reziac #

          https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

          Using this Handy Chart with its sortable headers, one can determine that the deaths per million across western Europe (which mostly did “let it run” until it was too late) average around 200 per million (vs 45/M for the U.S.). Plug their ratios into the U.S. and remember it’s for only the first quarter of the year, so multiply by four, and without mitigation you get around 250,000 dead Americans (not counting those who die because the hospital was full) for the full year. Vs around 59,000 for the year if our current numbers continue.

          Which scenario d’ya suppose is political suicide? who do you want in charge afterward?? because that’s what we’re really deciding.

          April 9, 2020
        • Kate #

          The claims and counter-claims over the confirmed are going to be ugly, yes. One of the reasons I’m not particularly concerned about fatality rates is that I suspect the US is managing to both over-report AND under-report so there’s no way to say how accurate the numbers are.

          We’re over-reporting in that anything that matches the symptoms is being considered as a possible case. The confirmed cases are still a matter of a test with (I think) a 70% accuracy rate, which means the true number of cases could shift a lot in either direction.

          We’re under-reporting in that I guarantee you that there are a LOT of people with the symptoms who are not going to doctors and not getting tested. So again, no way to tell what the real numbers are.

          Another big reason I’m not hugely concerned is that this is an illness that tends to be fatal for those with underlying health issues. One of the biggest groups fitting that description is the homeless, who are also in situations where they can’t exactly quarantine themselves. We are not seeing daily bleeding-heart reports of homeless people dying on the streets because of this disease, ergo, it can’t be as terrible as claimed.

          Yes, I expect it to end up with “bad flu season” death figures (in the order of 60,000 deaths). I don’t expect it to go anywhere near Black Death level (upwards of 1/3 of the population – which for the US would be in the order of 7.5 million deaths, mass graves, bodies left to rot because there’s nobody healthy enough to bury them, and entire towns wiped out.

          April 9, 2020
        • snelson134 #

          Of course we are, since LITERALLY no one in NYC is dying of heart attack or stroke any more according to the causes of death being recorded. It’s all WuFlu all the time.

          Anyone who believes those numbers needs to have a guardian appointed to manage their finances.

          April 9, 2020
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      The rational for permanent lockdown is due to factors largely caused by cities with mass transit, and international traffic. Therefore, if lockdown is to be permanent, funding to offset the costs of the lockdown should be provided by the subpopulations with direct access to those risk factors.

      Heavy tax on businesses and people in cities with mass transit, international airports, and or which are not turning over illegals to the feds. To include cutting off welfare to inhabitants of those cities who are too poor to pay the tax.

      April 9, 2020
      • This, exactly – those cities with mass transit and a lot of international travel, or a lot of people who interface with international travelers are the hot-spots. Not Podunkville, with houses on acre lots and lots of tiny local businesses.

        April 9, 2020
    • That’s the difference between fiction and reality. Reality doesn’t have to make sense.

      April 9, 2020
  2. I’ve read several wonderful rants about fictional worlds and economics. For some reason fantasy worlds seem to get a lot of the brunt of the writers’ ire, but Star Trek has come under fire for the same thing. What is the medium of exchange and why?

    A whole lot of medieval European history suddenly got clearer when I learned that even some monarchs rarely saw a gold coin in their lives, and those were the size of a man’s thumb nail. Once the Roman mines on the Rio Tinto in Spain failed, and without Irish gold, all the gold in Europe came from “recycling” Roman and earlier artifacts, or was imported from Africa. Silver was the coin of choice, and even then new silver strikes were amazingly rare. Kutna Hora in Bohemia, one or two small veins in the Harz Mountains in Saxony, the mines near Freiburg, Germany, and a few mines in the eastern Alps were almost it. Most silver coins were the size of a thumb-nail or smaller, and you could buy a whole lot with one of them. Knowing THAT, the importance of the Italian invention of checks and bills-of-promise suddenly made so much more sense.

    And I giggle whenever I read about someone paying a silver coin for one night’s lodging, a meal, and two tankards of beer. Either inflation (debasing currency) is a national sport, or they’re being skinned by the management.

    April 9, 2020
    • Kate #

      I think the answer to the last paragraph is “yes”.

      Debasing the currency was pretty common, and I’m sure practically everyone made a game of overcharging strangers. Without normalized rates of exchange, them furriners used whatever they had from wherever they got it and largely paid by weight – if they didn’t make a trade based on some notional value (like apparently most of southern Europe kept using the roman coinage values for centuries after anyone in the area ever saw one of the roman coins).

      April 9, 2020
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I don’t know if you read much Japanese light novel isekai fantasy, but while the true answer is telephone, and incestuous inspiration, it is plausible that those worlds are simply also very weird compared to our own when it comes to supplies of metals. They are otherwise very weird compared to our own, and there are a lot of other things that take WSOD.

      April 9, 2020
      • Bob, I don’t read any of the light novels. I tried one or two when they started becoming available in translation, and the genre conventions didn’t appeal to me.

        As long as whatever is valuable makes sense in-world, and is handled realistically for that world, it should work.

        April 9, 2020
      • “They are otherwise very weird compared to our own, and there are a lot of other things that take WSOD.”

        Right? Guys are not reading isekai fantasy for the economic theory, lets just say. ~:D

        April 9, 2020
    • elainethomp #

      TXRed, have you read Gold & Spices by Favier? It’s where I learned how little precious metal there was in Europe till the Spanish started raiding the Americas. and all about exchanges and coins, debased and otherwise, and medieval trade in general. Very meaty book.

      And then there’s Newton & the Counterfieter by Levenson, which goes into great detail the problem the Brits had when they set the value of silver as x and the French had it as Y (worth more). Guess what happened to the British coins? And Newton was made Master of the Miint to solve the problem which he did by among other things doing perhaps the first time&motion study of coin-striking. And tracking down counterfieters.

      April 9, 2020
      • No. All my Medieval economic history is from the north looking south (Hansa) and east looking west (Bohemia, Habsburg and Russian Empires). I know just enough about southern and western Europe to know that there’s a lot I don’t know. 🙂

        I’ll look into those. Thank you.

        April 9, 2020
    • snelson134 #

      Most fantasy worlds also have things to account for this.

      1. They have several races adapted for living underground. I mean, I’m not sure we could build the Mines of Moria TODAY (being neither a geologist nor an engineer, I can only go by what I’ve seen in documentaries about underground facilities). Now, just look at what kind of resource recovery would have been possible with Dwarven engineering here. That would make precious metal somewhat more common, increasing the money supply.

      2. OTOH, what they don’t have is that level of technology applied to things like, oh, agriculture. Which means that you’re stuck with early Renaissance levels of food production and preservation. There’s not going to be a lot of surplus to sell anyone.

      Both of which mean that outsider adventurers are going to get charged through the nose, because they’ve got a large money supply chasing a lot fewer goods.

      April 9, 2020
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      Despite some claims to the contrary, the Federation does have a medium of exchange. There are references to “Federation credits” in a few episodes over the decades, no matter what Roddenberry tried to claim elsewhere.

      April 9, 2020
      • That, and trade does happen, which the Federation engages in; both barter and otherwise; for the Federation crew to at least be able to buy things while on shore leave. It’s also canon that McCoy bought the antique framed glasses that Kirk uses in the movies (and Spock notes that they were a birthday gift when Kirk goes to pawn them in Past San Francisco so they have some money to get around. Kirk’s response is something along the line of ‘that’s the beauty of it, he gets to buy them for me again in the future,’ a quip that makes people wonder if his selling them in the past is how McCoy gets them again later on in the future, ensuring stable time loop…sort of.)

        April 10, 2020
        • Mary #

          The problem with such material stable time loops is that they raise the question of when does entropy get reversed for the object. It has to at some point or else you would end up with a spiral of degrading objects that makes nonsense of the loop.

          April 10, 2020
    • Mary #

      Blame D&D.

      They admitted that the prices were vastly inflated and blamed the constant influx of gold and silver from adventurers. It was so you could put a Smaug-sized treasure in it.

      April 9, 2020
  3. OldNFO #

    Figures lie and liars figure… sigh… In space, water will be the luxury. Even with reclamation, you’re going to have a loss rate that will eventually run the ship out of water.

    April 9, 2020
    • Reziac #

      In my Epic, one political entity is perpetually penurious (it’s their own damn fault) and one of the hallmarks is that their space station showers use not water, but sonics. Much to the annoyance of certain people sensitive to ’em… it’s like showering in a box of hornets.

      April 9, 2020
    • Evenstar #

      So there was a small element of realism in Ice Pirates. Who knew?

      April 9, 2020
  4. I imagined an interstellar empire of AIs. They live in servers attached by entanglement. The Empire exists to do a job, which is keeping demons out of our world. (The odd one sneaks in. They start small but sometimes get worse.)

    So, AIs. They don’t eat, sleep, breed, or eliminate waste. They don’t have physical needs beyond the resources needed to get their job done. Their command of nanotechnology allows them to build whatever they need to complete their jobs, like a server or a drone, out of whatever happens to be lying around.

    What do they use for money? How do they decide who is a Leader and who is a peon?

    As I see it, the indivisible unit of trade is ability. The more able (and more motivated) rise, the less able get comfortable at their chosen level of competence. This lends itself to factionalism, as AIs support their favorites against other faction’s favorites. They have a sort of stock market, where deeds and results are tracked against reputations.

    So, they end up with a hierarchical Imperial structure. This has its good points, as it enables them to amass huge amounts of physical power to deal with the demons when they poke their heads out. ZAP! When the Empire is functioning smoothly, it is almost perfectly efficient.

    Bad points, it lends itself to the same evils as large corporations. Nepotism, toadying, Yes Men, sweeping things under the carpet, the Peter Principle, lip service, going through the motions, keeping up appearances, etc. Sometimes the Empire is not functioning smoothly.

    See if you can imagine what happens when a lazy, venal and not particularly clever low-level minion from the local Empire branch shows up to talk to George McIntyre’s dog. ~:D

    April 9, 2020
    • trx #

      > When the Empire is functioning smoothly, it is almost perfectly efficient.

      Efficiency generally involves specialization, which limits the ability to respond to unforseen circumstances.

      For example, the highly-efficient production and distribution of toilet paper…

      April 9, 2020
      • in two parallel streams, one for consumers and one for business/institutional use. So when people are home more, they’re wiping their butts ore with consumer tp, and less with business/institutional tp. So the shortages aren’t just panic buying and hoarding — there’s a genuine shift in patterns of consumption, and limits to how quickly companies can pivot to respond to it.

        Food distribution shows much the same parallel distribution networks, but with one huge difference: tp doesn’t spoil, but food in the clogged institutional/restaurant stream is spoiling in the field while grocery store shelves are barren.

        April 10, 2020
        • Mary #

          I ran across some tweets about an article — the article was talking about how they were set up to produce ten-pound bags of cheese for restaurants, and the tweets were all about how they wanted those bags.

          April 10, 2020
  5. TheOtherSean #

    We just had an F1 tornado and fun winds, with resulting major power outages, to accompany the coronavirus madness. Work from home doesn’t work so well without power.

    April 9, 2020
    • Yipes! It IS that time of year. I hope no one was seriously hurt.

      April 9, 2020
      • TheOtherSean #

        No deaths or injuries that I know of, but a good bit of property damage from downed trees and utility poles. A neighbor has somebody’s trampoline on their roof.

        April 9, 2020
        • Many years ago, we ended up with a horse (spooked and scratched but otherwise fine) on the porch of our 4th floor apartment thanks to a tornado. (Omaha, 1975). We were all fortunate.

          Glad to hear that only property got hurt.

          April 9, 2020
          • The mind boggles. Now we need the rest of the story.

            April 9, 2020
            • Indeed. The only thing I have heard to equal that was a family in Galveston when the 1900 hurricane was descending. A panicked cow ran into their house and up the stairs. They fed it during the hurricane’s worst on the contents of some mattresses stuffed with dried moss, and were glad of having the milk when it was all over, and they could coax the poor thing downstairs and out of the house.

              April 9, 2020
              • Reziac #

                Ca. 1962, Fargo ND. Tornado picked up a hangar at the airport (left the planes behind) and set it down in a farmer’s field some 300 feet away, tolerably intact. Farmer was like, cool, free barn! Airport sued to get their hangar back. Court sided with the farmer, saying basically it didn’t matter if the wind did it, it was still littering on his property, and therefore his to keep.

                April 9, 2020
          • TRX #

            For some reason that reminded me of when a friend’s mom hit a couple of deer with an airplane. She said the FAA investigator had a perfectly straight face when he asked her, “At what altitude were the deer flying, ma’am?”

            April 9, 2020
          • TheOtherSean #

            Thanks, TxRed. I was actually a bit surprised there were no injuries reported, given the size of some of the downed trees.

            Hang in there, everybody. We will, God willing, be out of this madness in the not-too-distant future.

            April 10, 2020
  6. OK, since the sub-thread is getting long (this is way OT, but heck.) The Horse On The Porch

    In April 1975, my family lived in an apartment complex in west-central Omaha. At the time, the apartment complex looked out over a farm and riding stables, so we had a good view from the 4th floor. DadRed was at work, MomRed was home for some reason. I was watching cartoons on TV. Mom heard sirens, but thought it was the usual last-Friday testing and ignored them. The power cut out, I started to fuss at the lack of cartoons, and Mom saw the riding stable disappear into a blue-black wall. Guess what had just arrived? She raced in, grabbed me, and ran down the stairs to the basement garage.

    When we emerged, our quarter of the building was intact. The other 3/4 was gone. And we had a very befuddled horse on our porch. MomRed checked it over as best she could. When DadRed finally managed to get home, he encouraged the horse through the apartment and down the steps to the garage. The owner came and got it a little later.

    April 10, 2020
    • I vaguely remember a news story about the day “when pigs flew” – something about a pig sailing in through someone’s upper story balcony door.

      A “real” Pegasus beats that all hollow…

      April 10, 2020

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