A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said: Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (
So, coming quite late to the party, but there are a couple points here that are worth addressing:
First off, transmission bits are far, far cheaper than physical travel. I just can't understand how this could possibly be ambiguous. For starters, that's an economic reality now. And it's obvious from the text quoted. The whole point of starships is to set up a comms beacon.
Second, this is far into the future, and people are still traveling with traditional drives. This means starship propulsion has hit the dreaded law of diminishing returns, and no viable replacement tech exists (or has been found so far). Any increments (And there likely will still be), will be minimal compared to the cost, and at some point might even stop being economically viable themselves.
And third, the whole economic issue. Go to any growing city. Start driving through one of the main roads, heading away. Once you stop seeing buildings, and start seeing open space. Stop and look. Most likely, (and assuming you're not in a national park or something of the sort), all that land has an owner. A wealthy one. Or is in the process of being gobbled up by said wealthy owner. Even (especially!) if there is still a lot of room to grow within the city. You can still find undeveloped lots within the city limits, and you can still tear down old houses and make high-rises, that will give you a handsome profit in just a couple years for that money.
But people have different investment horizons. That wealthy owner of outside land? That worthless land will make a fine, fine suburb or industrial park. And in a couple decades, when the city reaches there? the return is going to be massive. More than any bond, safer than any stock. It's just, well, slow money. It's speculation, pure and simple. And with essentially immortal people, a payoff measured in millenia makes sense.
It's the tiny people, the immigrants, who carry the risk. They'd be leaving settled worlds, with functioning economic engines (which, as you note, are not crowded) that allow them to be more productive than they'd otherwise be. And unlike the investor class, they are risking it all. They're literally uprooting their lives. What if the colony fails or develops slower than expected? They lost centuries of advancement, their place, their savings, and livelihoods for nothing.
Another good parallel: Companies. Why did people invest in google or facebook when altavista and myspace still had marketshare to grow? Why do people try to make the next youtube or whatsapp or whatever? And why do those startups poach talent with bonuses and stock and stuff like that, instead of the talent paying for the position?
Thanks for the interesting take!
Re Bitcoin, wasn't this written slightly before Bitcoin blew up? I mean I know it was around, but not very well known. Early adopter of embryonic bandwagon.
Also, I know he does describe interstellar colonization as a Ponzi scheme, but I suspect we're supposed to take that with a pinch of salt. The difference between some kind of Ponzi / pyramid / bubble set-up and what happens here is that the star systems REALLY DO GET BUILT: rather than fictive capital with no basis in "the real world," entire worlds are springing into existence here. Say slow money IS some kind of bubble which eventually bursts. The worlds it financed might have to seriously re-think their economies, but they don't vanish along with slow money.
The book has an epigraph from Graeber & in some ways is pretty explicitly a response to Graeber's Debt. It is significantly less critical than Graeber of debt institutions, but I felt like it followed Graeber in looking at history through the lenses of sociology and anthropology, and discovering that the debt/equity distinction is not always as straightforward as it appears in law and finance.
Anyway, it's certainly not banker-bashing (not that there's anything wrong with banker-bashing).
Most likely. If they are stuck at 1% of the speed of light then apparently their engines aren't advancing anymore, and no, they're not increasing engine (or power plant) efficiency because if they had more efficient engines they would use them to increase the speed.
the high apparent innovation rate in this civilization conflicts with long starship flights. Innovation is the rate at which you get better outputs for the same inputs. The faster is innovation, the less durable you want your capital equipment to be, since you expect better new designs soon. But starships are very durable capital equipment; the opportunity cost of sending out a starship using old tech would be huge compared to waiting for better tech.
Maybe the high innovation rate happens in sectors other than starship tech?
"And once you got growing out there you’d keep going until fast growth opportunities ran out, forcing you to start the cycle over again. As long as fast local growth is possible, local investments should easily beat starship investments."
Shouldn't it be possible to want to 'claim' nearby star systems even if you expect growth to be slower - because you expect that if you don't claim it now, then someone else will, and they'll get the entire star system?
The people with the most motivation to travel would be those who live near the bottom of the social ladder.
The problem is that these people can't afford the ticket.
They can't finance their travel with debt: since travel costs are so high, there can't be much trade between star systems, which means there is no efficient way of moving wealth between star systems, thus these people can't repay their debt.
This is a premise in a number of SF stories: Grafenwalder's Bestiary in Galactic North, and in Altered Carbon.
Maybe you could have a trade in prestige goods, like what pre-Columbian native American societies would do in parts of North America. Just having some rare and/or unique treasures from another solar system might be a status symbol, since it means you could mobilize enough resources to actually charter a starship and send it there to get the stuff.
"Even if potential world-creators don't care about the people they have the ability to create, presumably some trade could be worked out such that world-creation benefits both parties."
Well, that was the part in question, due to the transportation constraints. But maybe some types of info goods are realistic, e.g. scientific collaboration that benefits from being spread out in space, or computational tasks that use the extra resources for parallel computing.
"Basically, a universe with a trillion people is better of than a universe with 7 billion"
That's a philosophical value judgment that has little to do with efficient markets. A non-existing entity is not a market participant. Once it is created it no longer needs to consent to its creation since it already exists; before that it can't consent.
>No economic value
Creating new people has economic value for the people who have been created. Even if potential world-creators don't care about the people they have the ability to create, presumably some trade could be worked out such that world-creation benefits both parties.
Basically, a universe with a trillion people is better of than a universe with 7 billion, and assuming efficient markets, the more populated world would come about.
The population itself has economic value as long as someone is willing to pay for its creation. Tribalists and ideologues of all stripes may pay to have more minds of their tribe/ideology in the universe. Utilitarians may pay to have more happy beings in the universe. Egocentric individuals may pay to have more copies of themselves in the universe. "Travel" of digital minds does not require the destruction of the original.
Which has no economic value because they're stuck at 1% of the speed of light, those worlds might as well not know about each other's existence and nothing would change in the lives of the 99%. This is incidentally a rebuttal to Robin's remark about the opportunity cost of not sending the most advanced ship there is or not (perpetually) waiting until a more advanced one is available: when it comes to speed they seem to have hit a wall so newer ships don't bring much to the table (I doubt they're still making breakthroughs in creature comforts).
More worlds = more population, no?
"Also, this scenario seems to have star systems sending out more starships while they still have lots of room to grow fast locally – the systems we see are not very congested or used up.
Instead, it seems to me that most starship revenue must come from selling travel."
Yes, if there's no way to send spice/dilithium/unobtanium from fringe worlds to core worlds then the fringe worlds don't have much to offer except for fresh air and a fresh start so travel would be the only thing they can sell (I assume new stories will stop being interesting after many worlds have been settled), that is if people don't have a problem with dying and being replaced with a mental clone.