We Live in a Post-Scarcity Society

by lsusr5 min read30th Oct 202122 comments

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Historically, a normal human population hovered on the edge of starvation.

It's hard to comprehend how important food staples used to be. In Edo Japan, wealth was measured in koku (石). One koku is (in theory) enough rice to feed one man for one year. The amount of koku a daimyo controlled was basically how many people he owned because a region's food staple production determined its carrying capacity and the human population grew until it hit carrying capacity. In other words, we bred until we were on the edge of starving to death. Most wars have ultimately been fought over land because land determines food production and food production was a matter of life and death.

Cheap food causes cooperative ethics

Adam Smith expressed a similar sentiment in 1776. [Edit: The information contained in the below quote is of dubious veracity. See comment.]

The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. In the neighborhood of Canton, many hundred, it is commonly said, many thousand families have no habitation on the land, but live constantly in little fishing-boats upon the rivers and canals. The subsistence which they find there is so scanty, that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship. Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries. Marriage is encouraged in China, not by the profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. In all great towns, several are every night exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this horrid office is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence.

China, however, though it may, perhaps, stand still, does not seem to go backwards. Its towns are nowhere deserted by their inhabitants. The lands which had once been cultivated, are nowhere neglected. The same, or very nearly the same, annual labour, must, therefore, continue to be performed, and the funds destined for maintaining it must not, consequently, be sensibly diminished. The lowest class of labourers, therefore, notwithstanding their scanty subsistence, must some way or other make shift to continue their race so far as to keep up their usual numbers.

But it would be otherwise in a country where the funds destined for the maintenance of labour were sensibly decaying. Every year the demand for servants and labourers would, in all the different classes of employments, be less than it had been the year before. Many who had been bred in the superior classes, not being able to find employment in their own business, would be glad to seek it in the lowest. The lowest class being not only overstocked with its own workmen, but with the overflowings of all the other classes, the competition for employment would be so great in it, as to reduce the wages of labour to the most miserable and scanty subsistence of the labourer. Many would not be able to find employment even upon these hard terms, but would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence, either by begging, or by the perpetration, perhaps, of the greatest enormities. Want, famine, and mortality, would immediately prevail in that class, and from thence extend themselves to all the superior classes, till the number of inhabitants in the country was reduced to what could easily be maintained by the revenue and stock which remained in it, and which had escaped either the tyranny or calamity which had destroyed the rest.

An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

If you went back in time and asked an ancient person what a magical "post-scarcity society" looked like he or she would describe a world with lots of food.

And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey;

—Exodus 3:8 King James Bible

In ancient times, "post-scarcity society" meant a world with enough food for everybody. I buy 50-pound bags of rice for $50. If I ate nothing but rice it would cost me $450 per year. The US GDP Per Capita is $64,000. By the standards of medieval Japan, we have 100× the economic production of what people need.

Thrift stores throw away clothes more comfortable than all but the finest medieval silks. The Internet provides higher quality information and entertainment for free than anything available in medieval times. Smallpox is extinct.

Our norm of what constitutes "basic life necessities" has expanded. It includes health care, meat, milk, sewage, soap, hot running water, education, Internet, cars and nice clothes—half of which were unimaginable to medieval peasants. The whole package can be bought for less than half the US per capita GDP.

We take for granted things that medieval kings would have considered effeminate luxuries, like whole buildings heated to spring temperatures year round. And if things go well, our descendants will take for granted things we would consider shockingly luxurious. There is no absolute standard for material wealth. Health care is a component of it, and that alone is a black hole.

Why to Not Not Start a Startup by Paul Graham

The fact there is enough to go around doesn't mean it actually goes around.

If we flattened wealth inequality without destroying the economy AND we cured all diseases AND we invented cold fusion AND we established world peace AND population growth stayed low then we still wouldn't be producing enough value to exhaust interpersonal competition. Somewhere in the multiverse, a human-like species is employing slave labor to build a Dyson Sphere that mines cryptocurrency.

Even the citizens of Kardashev Type III civilization can't all date Emma Stone and/or Keanu Reeves at the same time.

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The fact there is enough to go around doesn't mean it actually goes around.

[Distribution of Wealth in the United States 2017]

Nit: IMHO consumption distribution would be much more relevant than wealth. You can imagine a society where everyone gets and consumes enough materially (for some definition of "enough") – which counts as 0 wealth, but some of its members also own stocks...  

(Lacking decent consumption data, income would probably be a much closer approximation than wealth). 

True, and income distribution is far less unequal. 

Post-scarcity doesn't neccesarily mean lots of stuff, just that we don't count it.

There was an episode of Doctor Who where in the future space station people thought about money and distances in how much oxygen tasks would take. Living on planet earth I do not count how many breaths I take. It doesn't mean that I breath in an infinite amount of oxygen. If I wanted I could breath more and theorethicdally it could give me a little more brain thought cycles. But it is not a relevant constraint so I don't keep count.

In war time when you go buy food you might be limited to food stamps ie rationing is effect. Then food supply would become scarce. During peace people are less concerned whether you are overeating or not (or like your doctor rather than your milk seller cares).

With internet we used to pay per data transferred. Now it is more common to pay for a speed. In that regard we have moved to post-scarcity data amounts (evebody gets infinite data as long at they don't hog the bandwidth out from others)

Interpersonal competition is not the most natural part of economy. If we systematically outlawed pay-to-win then the coupling would be signficantly lessened. And its already the case that areanas that enforce equality are better status grabs than where you can influence the outcome by outside factors. Boxing is by weight class. Most motorsports have technical rulings which means expensive parts don't confer an autowin advantage.

We are totally in a mode where advantages in one field are mostly convertible to advantages to other fields rather than empowering humans to the point where personal fit or aptitude would be the relevant limitors.

Post-scarcity doesn't neccesarily mean lots of stuff, just that we don't count it.

Wouldn't not counting be the result of there being lots of stuff? Your examples are cases of there being more stuff than people want on average. 

Interpersonal competition is not the most natural part of economy. If we systematically outlawed pay-to-win then the coupling would be signficantly lessened. And its already the case that areanas that enforce equality are better status grabs than where you can influence the outcome by outside factors. Boxing is by weight class. Most motorsports have technical rulings which means expensive parts don't confer an autowin advantage.

Economy is not about status, at least not for the most part. If I "pay to win" by buying tasty, prepared food, it's because I want to enjoy it and have more time for other things, not because I want to prove something.

The threshold of bothering to keep track is hit sooner than other conditions that are sometimes treated as thresholds that make economic analysis make sense. For some that an amount is finite means that there is a division problem associated with it. Closely related thing is an assumption of infinite greed ie insatiability of needs. While you are very far of being bale to satisfy needs and frequently encounter new needs that are no where near satisfiability it might make sense as a modelling assumption that needs can't be made go away by meeting them. However if the infinite greed assumtion was true then every buffet should go out of business as all customers draw infinite food from them. In practise however people don't draw much more than if they paid for fixed portions (althouht being banned from that kind of establishment for being a statistical outlier happens). One way of looking at this is that hunger is a thing that can hit satiation within a meal.

The latter quoted section responds to the post section under the piechart how given much relaxation scarcity mechanics would be in play. I agree that those components are not integral to economy and thus the conclusion that is supposed to be inescable is very escable. Even if not all transactions are not of that feature I think the dynamics are like two blokes trying to have the optimal car to woe women and the woman impression metric is monotonic in the amount of cash spent on car. PvP where you can improve you chances by putting in more money so all sides sink very much of what they have. If sexual selection based on wealth signals would not make sense the dynamic would break. If it would be efficient to impressed by other factors the dynamic would break (such as drive a boring car to signal confidence). Being a a milloinare CEO can invoke reverence for power but it can also invoke disgust for evil The Man. The desirability or permissibilty of these kinds of pissing contests is atleast an open quesiton for me, far from a constant of nature.

Regarding the Adam Smith quote, a comment on the history forum Hitorum indicates that it's misleading as a characterization of Chinese poverty,

Adam Smith did not even visit china, so he had no idea about the social fabric of canton, or the reason why those people in canton were poor and living in boats.

Those boat people were not ethnic chinese. They were the tanka, aboriginal natives of southern china pushed to the sea by chinese colonization. They were by law and by tradition segregated and banned from living on land and marrying chinese. They were forced by law to live in boats, and earn money through prostitution to foreigners, heavily discriminated against and despised by normal chinese people, forced into poverty by their ethnicity like gypsies in europe...

This is an excellent example of why hearsay and second hand accounts are unreliable.

This seems pretty solidly wrong to me. Indeed we live in a society that produces outrageously huge amounts of stuff. But I don't think scarcity is about how much more stuff we have than in the past. I think post-scarcity means that there is nothing in particular that you have to do, no essential-to-survival resource that you have to compete to attain.

I also agree that the political Overton window of what constitutes "basic life necessities" has gotten pretty far from literal survival, but most people still need to spend a huge fraction of their life working in order to pay for a place to live. (Arguably, someone could choose to work no job and therefore be homeless and they still probably wouldn't literally die quickly, but they would still have to spend a large fraction of their time finding food, water, shelter etc, and their life expectancy would be far shorter.)

...Most people still need to spend a huge fraction of their life working in order to pay for a place to live.

(Arguably, someone could choose to work no job and therefore be homeless and they still probably wouldn't literally die quickly, but they would still have to spend a large fraction of their time finding food, water, shelter etc, and their life expectancy would be far shorter.)

I'd argue that this is mostly exaggerated when taken literally. Jacob Lund Fisker, for example has written about how he spends less than $7,000 a year, and yet still has housing in the United States (which includes the cost of imputed rent), adequate nutrition, a car, internet access, and even healthcare. If we take the results of the RAND health insurance study seriously, as well as the very weak correlation between healthcare consumption and life expectancy in rich nations, then we should conclude that one's life expectancy is not substantially diminished via deprivation from high spending on medical services.

There is a strong correlation between levels of income and life expectancy within nations, but most of this is likely explained by a number of confounders, including intelligence and conscientiousness. In practice, high quality evidence indicates that, for example, reducing smoking and reducing calorie intake increase lifespan, which are easier to do on a fundamental level without money (as you literally cannot purchase more of these goods).

Furthermore, there is a large system of government services available to extremely poor people in the United States (and Western Europe), especially if they are able to move to a different state. For example, in California, you can qualify for Medi-Cal if your income is less than 138% of the federal poverty level, or $17,775. And you would likely also qualify for housing assistance, SNAP Food Benefits and private charity at this level of income too.

On a literal, just stating facts level, the idea that very low income people (in the range of $2500-$5000 per year) in the United States or other rich nations are being fundamentally deprived of their right to life is false. Of course, one could (and indeed should) argue that we ought to aim higher, and ensure that everyone is entitled to a high standard of living. But that's a separate argument.

Attention will always be scarce, and attention is a very significant and valuable resource. That seems to indicate a ‘post-scarcity’ society is fundamentally impossible.

Attention. Bitcoin. Military superiority. Being the prettiest person in the room. Anything where value is defined as winning a competition against other people.

I would imagine that in a early agrigoal society boredom would be a real problem and nobody would mind giving their 2 cents to anybody that would come around. In that setting attention might not be scarce.

Self-driving cars will make transportation less of brainer. Some future technology or accumulation of technologies could impact how much brain engagement is needed for standard conditions. It is not clear to me that available attention must always go down.

We Live in a Post-Scarcity Society

Do you mean "we Americans"? or "we, the people living on the East West Coast"? Because it certainly is not true on a national/worldwide level.

For example, in a "magical post-scarcity society" , you would probably be okay to be (born as) really anybody. You shouldn't really care as much as you might during medieval times for example.

How about right now? Do you care? Are you willing to trade places? I certainly am not.

Furthermore, you picked the worst possible timing for this post. One should not characterize a society based on a single point in time (particularly at the height of the peak). It would be more robust to pick a time of great stress to pass judgement (c.f. how the character of some people strongly changes the worse times get).

For example, would you be indifferent to your geographical or social position this coming winter? (I'm asking, because prices for everything are on the rise. Particularly interesting for this discussion are prices for natural gas, electricity and fertilizer)

Can't live in a post-scarcity society without heating and food...

Anyway, I guess we'll see in one years time how our respective positions aged and/or changed.

One small quibble, you can actually live much more cheaply on rice. A pound of dry rice contains 1600 calories, if you eat 2000 calories a day, you need 5 pounds every 4 days, so a 50 pound bag will last 40 days, meaning you need 9 per year. This has a total cost of $450 at your price. Probably less if you shop around or buy in bulk.

Thanks. In my calculations, I used 600 Calories per pound of rice, which is wrong.

Edit: Fixed the original post.

I'm not sure if this will be taking an incorrect conclusion from the post or not. The moral to the story I walked away with was no society will think itself one that is a post-scarcity one.

Even the citizens of Kardashev Type III civilization can’t all date Emma Stone and/or Keanu Reeves at the same time.

This is not trivial. Genetic engineering/plastic surgery/other forms of self-enhancement can push everyone to pretty much the same ceiling. Of course, "status" itself is kind of a relative "resource," and it can affect "attractiveness," but our society is far from this being its bottleneck.

I also believe that even status is not a conserved resource. As other resources increase and the general population becomes more resourceful, more ethical, smarter, etc, the median/mean of status will also increase. As a matter of fact, people do seem to be respecting the poor, the foreign, etc more nowadays than some centuries before.


Aren't all the dollars of the top X percent more or less frozen in investments? I.e., if the money were to be redistributed, wouldn't the production actually fall, and people be left worse off?

If a companys stock is held by 1 person vs a thousand how does that make the production fall?

Well, one person is much more likely to keep the stock, while some of the thousand will cache out. This seems to me to encourage consumption, discourage investment and labor on the first order, while the consumption itself can encourage investment on the second order. I don't know how these opposing effects will play out in the long run, but the short term effect is most probably going to be high inflation and costly labor.

Caching in will involve transfer rather than destruction of the stock. The stock will have a new owner who has then voluntarily bound to the production. At the very limit the single original owner could buy it back. If he is unwilling because he would run out of neccesity money ie bread then that would transfer the "frozeness" to the new owners.

The stock's value declines (as supply has gone up). So the "frozen" money declines, too.

That the value of the stocks goes down doesnt really impact the operation of the company. Money isn't the same as production the impact would be mostly on the paper side of things instead of real economy.