A warning to anyone worried about spoilers: This thread is basically full of them, and you kind of need to have played the game to get anything I’m talking about.
In a previous thread, I talked about how the game discusses several topics incidental to the main plot of the game, including the (lack of) role of the European Union and Russia in the world, but at the same time admitted that while those could give some sense of an Amero-centric worldview, they could also be excused as simply not relevant to the plot, which also didn’t really cover much of America outside Palo Alto, California, and Alaska, for that matter. (You could hypothetically live elsewhere, but the living conditions outside your own residence are never discussed.)
By contrast, economics is probably the second most important theme in CoR, behind only the nature of robotic intelligence, itself. Much of the plot of the game is driven by what impact Artificial General Intelligence would have upon human society, and it’s almost entirely expressed in economic terms. The game even goes so far as to expressly link the war that marks one of the largest dramatic high points in the game to the economic pressures of an increasingly globalized economy, “cheap” robotic labor, and the unemployment that causes.
It is for that reason that it is more than slightly disconcerting that economics is treated so haphazardly in the game. The game seems to treat the economic stability and consumer buying power of the vast majority of humanity as somehow completely decoupled from the economic stability of the marketplace as a whole.
First, I should give some (unfortunately rather lengthy) context for whose works I’m drawing upon: For a much more in-depth look at how technological change has wrought social, economic, and even philosophic changes to society, I again want to point to the fantastic book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which is an economic anthropology book covering the changes in the medium of exchange of the marketplace, and the social consequences thereof, but also covers the ways in which society has run in cycles regarding its economic foundations. For a much shorter and probably more aesthetically entertaining take on the problems this game tends to gloss over in particular, the documentary, Inequality For All, which largely consists of Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich giving a lecture on how decreasing wages and middle-class buying power, along with an income-inequality gap translate directly into an unstable marketplace and a propensity for more frequent market “bubbles” that lead to recessions or even economic depressions.
To start with why key consequences of the economic impact of robots are glossed over, let’s start with something seemingly relatively benign: During the Mark interview, the only answer you can give that saves your chances of getting your doctorate is to say something to the effect of, “Nobody complains anymore that scribes have been replaced with scanners.” While true, and perhaps purposefully a little glib as a means of taking a stab at a player character who is frequently described as out of touch, this is a statement that ignores a much larger and far more consequential point this game never really seems to acknowledge; Technology doesn’t simply “steal jobs”, it enables the development of new jobs.
Let’s take the foundation of all economic development, and indeed, permanent civilization, agriculture. It’s not discussed nearly enough, but the single greatest effect the Agricultural Revolution had besides the development of permanent settled towns was the precipitous decline in the Quality of Life of the peoples who were subjected to “civilization”. In fact, by some estimates, it took until the 18th or 19th centuries for human society to actually spread enough benefits to enough people that the overall quality of life of living in a “civilized society” could actually outweigh the losses in health, resource availability, and reliability of food supply that simply living as hunter-gatherers could provide. (Compare this to the simple +50% food production or whatever most 4X games give to it before never mentioning it again… But then again, Sid Meier doesn’t care about humanity…) For reasons that take too long to explain for the purpose of this thread, (but Debt explains fantastically,) agriculture was also the cause of sexism, class division, organized warfare, epidemic diseases, and even racism. However, that’s not really the main point I want to get to; What I really want to talk about is the division of labor that occurred as a direct result of technology and agriculture.
In the earliest agricultural societies, crop yields were terribly low per capita. Farmers worked with wooden tools because steel was too rare and expensive, even where it was discovered, for mere peasants to use it, crude iron too brittle to plow a field, and copper or bronze (also too expensive) too soft, and could only work about 3 acres of land. The class division was one of almost every single human being outside the ruling/priest classes forced into farming, where they had to be self-sufficient for nearly every need because no humans could be spared for any other economic activity. Nevertheless, with a few basic tools, this could be increased to one person being able to harvest 5 acres in the Classic Age. With advances in the Middle Ages, this could rise to nearly one person per 10 acres, but in practice, the customs of inheritance actually drove farmers to the smallest or most marginal plots of land one could possibly survive upon, (with excess having to go off and fight in wars to make a living, or at least die and not need to eat anymore,) resulting in a lower total per capita yield until the blessing-in-disguise of the Bubonic Plague redistributed the land. Even with those advances, however, ever since the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago until about 250 years ago, (the Industrial Revolution,) over 90% of the population of the planet was engaged in agriculture as their primary job. It was only with self-propelled tractors (originally, coal-fired,) made cheaply enough for a farmer to afford one that this ever started to change. In modern times, a tractor can drive itself based upon GPS, and use satellite imaging to micro-target precise fertilizer mixtures to the specific elemental composition of the soil. A single farmer is capable of farming hundreds of acres alone, provided it is a machine-harvestable crop. (And those crops that aren’t machine-havestable certainly seem to just be begging for some kind of hexapodal monkey-bot that can pick beans or bananas without destroying the plants they harvest from…)
So, what does this mean with regards to scribes and scanners? Farmers were not educated or made literate. It was seen as a cruelty to do so, because it would only give a child the impression that they might possibly be something OTHER than a farmer. Scribes were always a rich man’s (emphasis on man’s) luxury, as it took a social class that stripped the excesses of thousands of farmer’s work and pooled them into a degree of excess food that could afford to feed people dedicated solely to the copying of texts. In practice, this was usually fed by the tithing to the Church, although aristocrats would sometimes deign educate themselves on topics of scholarship, rather than war. It was only by the printing press “stealing the jobs” of the scribes that any form of universal literacy program could ever be conceived of taking place.
So what does this mean technology really does when it “steals the jobs” of workers? It usually means it liberates the people to actually take a better job. Unless we’re direct descendants of royalty or members of the church, we’re only granted the capacity to piss away our leisure time reading things because machines stole the job of desperate subsistence farming away from us.
Beyond that, it usually means people, as a whole, become far wealthier, or at least, inundated with more stuff. The driving question behind Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was of a native New Guinean asking why Europeans had so much cargo that they brought with them to New Guinea when the New Guineans had so little relative cargo of their own. Capitalism requires the constant expansion of the economy to sustain itself, and to do that, it requires a constant increase in the per capita productivity of the workers that comprise the society. Technology by and large supplies that: One worker produces far more widgets now than they once were capable of producing, as hand-labor has given way to assembly lines that have gradually become automated. Per-worker, more and more goods are produced, which in turn, at least hypothetically, should mean that a greater and greater share of the goods should return to the workers. After all, one of the largest costs of goods is always its labor, (even raw material costs are mostly a reflection of the labor taken in extracting them, and any machine capital needed to extract those resources is usually ultimately derived from the labor somewhere down the line of that machine’s construction,) and so reducing the costs of labor reduces the costs of goods, allowing relatively lower-income people to afford those goods. Where once people had to stitch their clothes by hand and pass them down generation by generation, they now can buy socks in value bundles by the dozens for a trivial amount of money and throw them away when they get their first holes.
The jump from farmer to factory worker to information worker has also not only allowed the average human to have a chance at education, but essentially demanded an ever-rising minimum level of education for entry into the marketplace. This, in turn, is precisely why government has almost universally funded free public universally available education, first starting with elementary school, but eventually working its way up to high school, and, inevitably, will include college education. In fact, countries like Germany already offer it, and the fact that America is falling behind in educating its populace is probably the largest part of why it’s losing its lead on the global economic stage.
In Inequality For All, one of the segments in Robert Reich’s lecture to his class is one where he polls his students on where his students think the money spent making an iPhone goes. Most votes go to China, because that’s where people always talk about things like iPhones being made, but the greatest amount of money, 36%, goes to Germany, with another 16% going to Japan, and only 3.6% going to China. China is merely where an iPhone is assembled, (something that takes moderately-skilled labor,) it’s in Germany and Japan that an iPhone is made, because that’s where the highly skilled labor it takes to make the delicate, highly sophisticated electronics that run an iPhone.
While there is a significant amount of labor being done in China, because their labor is so devalued for being lower-skilled, they take home a tenth of the actual money the Germans take. The overall result of technology being introduced over the long term (which the game itself hints at understanding with Irons’s election page) is an overall rise in the wages of individual workers as they need to be further educated and specialized, and as the per-capita productivity rises commensurately.
Because of all this, one end of the possibility space is that of a more-wealthy-than-ever America, where people lose their jobs to factory robots, yes, but are retrained into careers that rely more upon the sorts of creativity that the robots can’t replicate. (This is somewhat hinted at in Elly’s vignette in the Grace ending.) For example, the likes of text-based Interactive Fiction games necessary for training robots in humanity… Following this path, Americans would have a sharp rise in average wages, and be able to afford ever-more stuff to buy from those factories making ever-cheaper products.
On the other hand, the game overtly hints at the other end of the spectrum, where nothing is done to adapt the American workforce to the new economy.
Rising income inequality directly correlates to financial bubbles, and by extension, recessions and even depressions when inequality becomes extreme enough. While this is not seemingly obvious at first, consider, again, what that inequality’s impacts truly are.
The key to understanding why is rooted in the Multiplier Effect. 70% of the American economy is in consumer spending, largely meaning the middle class has to buy a product for that money to be recycled through the economy. (Most of the rest is international trade, which basically means foreign consumers need money, too.) The economy relies upon money getting into the hands of the majority of the populace so that they can then spend on goods that fund companies that pay workers to make things. The faster and more efficiently this system works, the greater the GDP of the nation as a whole. The problem is, the system “leaks” whenever someone saves their money.
Poor people spend their money to the last dime, just to keep the lights on. The middle class, especially in recent years, has also been less than frugal, and leading up to the Great Recession of 2008, were notably spending over 100% of their income, getting leveraged up to their eyeballs. (Fantastic fuel for a market crash…) Meanwhile, the richest strata of society save their money simply because they have nothing left to spend it upon.
Someone who makes 1000 times as much money as a typical middle-class family does not eat 1000 times as much food, they don’t drive 1000 cars, or buy 1000 houses. They also are highly unlikely to hire 999 servants that they then pay a middle-class wage. These are the things that keep the economy going, the reason why businesses expand. Unlike some myths of economics, rich people don’t just buy more factories to start making more things when there isn’t the existing demand to buy their products. When someone doesn’t spend, the economy just stops. In short, they form pools of stagnant money in the economy, incapable of keeping it flowing and making the pie larger for everyone.
They do, of course, use their money for something, however; They invest.
The reason why the stock market has become increasingly divorced from the actual health of the economy over the past few decades is that income inequality has driven up the amount of money that exists purely in the financial sector as a part of a financial confidence game only vaguely tethered to the actual industrial realities of the companies whose stocks are traded.
To give a quick example of what I mean, the 2008 crash supposedly involved the “loss” of a couple trillion dollars, but in actuality, most of that money never even really existed to begin with. The subprime lending trick used to start the downfall is not a unique event in economics, and similar Ponzi schemes, reliant upon essentially setting up fraudulent financial commodities to then sell before the bubble bursts is essentially inevitable in a market over-saturated with investment capital. There is, quite simply, too much money in the hands of the investment class, and not enough actual commercial or industrial activity to invest in. As a result, they tend to just make up new investment opportunities, wholecloth, for as long as they can get away with it. This same pattern can be traced back to the “dot com bubble”, where people were so desperate to find something to invest in related to tech that they didn’t care if the company couldn’t possibly make money, or the “savings and loan crisis” of the Reagan years. I’ll just use a direct quote from the intro of Debt to explain:
As it happened, she didn’t actually know what the IMF was, so I offered that the International Monetary Fund basically acted as the world’s debt enforcers - “You might say, the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs.” I launched into historical background, explaining how, during hte '70s oil crisis, OPEC countries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn’t figure out where to invest the money; How Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called “go-go banking”); How they started out at extremely low rates of interest that almost immediately skyrocketed to 20 percent or so due to tight U.S. money policies in the early '80s; How, during the '80s and '90s, this led to the Third World debt crisis; How the IMF then stepped in to insist that, in order to obtain refinancing, poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education; How all of this had led to the collapse of all the most basic supports for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth. I spoke of poverty, violence, malnutrition, hopelessness, and broken lives.
To make a long story short, being pooled into a tiny collection of hands is where money goes to die.
The widespread unemployment, the abandonment of education, the pooling of money into a few “winners” in the economy, and most definitely, the cessation of consumer spending as exemplified with the 20-year-old cars line described in the game, whether the economy is going to “do fine” or not, are all flagrant indicators of a country slipping into desperate Third World status. When people stop being able to afford those new cars, the car makers collapse, and when that happens, all those industries that support car manufacturers collapse, as well.
Why is it I’m able to make bank selling factory robots to a car manufacturer who wants to expand when nobody is buying any new cars from the old factories? These events take place at basically the same time, especially if you give your company away to charity.
And this is sort of the crux of the problem I have with this game’s take on economics: It sort of understands some of the basic cause-and-effect, but never manages to put two-and-two together. It understands that widespread cheap robot labor would cause unemployment, but then says that the economy is doing great, anyway, as though suddenly having a giant chunk of consumer spending disappear into the ether has no effect upon the economy, whatsoever. It kind of understands that a majority of the population living on unemployment checks and welfare is a bad thing, but doesn’t stop to think about who, exactly, is paying taxes (or buying the treasury bonds necessary to fund a deficit) to actually keep those checks flowing, and why, if they have all the power, they keep letting it happen. It mentions some unrest, but it’s always localized, never enough to actually foment into a real movement.
In the previous thread, @kgold mentioned that there’s only one variable that affects the economy, at all, and it’s basically a measure of the war. Frankly, that basically is the problem I have with the game. The actions you take as a player should be having an impact on the economy, even if it might only be significant locally, and relatively minor globally.
As I mentioned in that previous thread, consider what the impact would be if Ford’s CEO decided to close up shop, and put all the Ford employees, and the employees of the thousands of secondary and tertiary companies that supply those Ford factories out of work just to give it all to charity. It’s a seismic shift in the economics of the area, probably even the nation, but this game doesn’t seem to recognize any possible impact that a billion-dollar company being given sold off root and branch would have. This game lets you barter for cheaper robots to become available to your neighborhood, but has no means of recognizing that an act done ostensibly for the economic welfare of a community might have any impact on the economic welfare of the community. If I set up a massive company that employs thousands of people *IN ***ING DETROIT, and possibly helps pay for the employment of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the secondary and tertiary jobs that factory supports, the game has no interest in depicting any sort of change in the community that my company might bring about. Nothing that should have an economic impact does have an economic impact.
By contrast, the only thing that matters is whether a war is won or not, which seems more than slightly strange. As my economics professor explained to me, simply going to war didn’t end the Great Depression, because for all the economic value a tank has to a nation, you might as well drive it straight into the scrapyard as soon as it’s off the assembly line, because then, it might have some chance of being remade into something economically useful. For all the value of the government employing a worker to make that tank has, you might as well just pay them directly for nothing, because then, they have free time to go get another job that will contribute more to the economy. At best, it can kickstart investment in research for products that would then be useful for the commercial market, (again, airplanes, space ships, and the Internet all owe their existence to military funding,) but everything that is described as economically valuable already exists or could exist without military funding. (You can make love-bots “as companions for all the unemployed people”… AND THEY BUY THEM USING WHAT MONEY?! The game already described the price of your robots as being $1,000,000 apiece in the Galen segment! If they had that kind of money, they probably would have bought a new car by now…)
Nothing about that war involves anything as fundamental to the strength of the economy as the rate of unemployment, so why is it literally the ONLY thing that matters?
What I would have rather seen in the game is some sort of meter involving the unemployment rate or some other simplified, but accurate-enough macroeconomic indicator to declare the health of the economy over the course of the game. If it was visible on the stats page, the player could see exactly why such-and-such a negative event was occurring in the middle or end of the game, and why people were having a human uprising against robots, or why Irons was being elected as opposed to whoever her hypothetical opponent might have been based upon an anti-robot platform. Maybe the robot uprising starts as a reaction to a Neo-Luddite style human uprising, where robots fought back in self defense, but which is avoidable, even with high autonomy and low empathy, if the economy still manages to stay healthy? If wide-scale unemployment persists, where is the financial market crash that such a state would predict? (Games like Fate Of the World outright incorporate it into the economics model as the cost of letting finance become too large a part of the economy, and it’s devastating when it occurs.) Declaring that you were purposefully making your robots stupider to “let humans compete with them better” might have had some effect other than just lobotomizing your robot’s autonomy score for no good reason.
Beyond that, consider what happens when you actually declare that robots can get paid for their labor. That kind of throws the whole notion of robots being cheaper straight out the door. The notion that they were cheaper to begin with is somewhat dubious if they genuinely cost $1 million, anyway, as, even if you paid a human a pretty cushy $100,000 a year, that’s still 10 years of labor before you even start calculating maintenance and all that bio-diesel. (There’s zero chance you can just fuel an entire world of robots on McDonald’s grease traps without the value of bio-diesel increasing from practically free to one of the most valuable commodities in the world…) Keep in mind, many companies existing in the real world right now are running significantly sub-optimal factories just because the initial cost of capital for changing to a more efficient system is so high. The world depicted in this game depicts the cost of robots being so cheap, they drop human workers overnight. Even if sheer productivity increases (which seems odd for deliberately general-purpose robots with humanoid hands - or worse, guns instead of hands - and which are not necessarily more graceful than human fingers) made up for it, wouldn’t the likes of China and Taiwan have their lower-cost workers more threatened before the likes of waiters lost their jobs?
That raises another question: Would lobotomizing the robots of their autonomy really even help the economic situation of humanity? Again, focusing more upon helping humanity be reeducated into being able to fulfill different jobs than what robots could economically outperform humans at performing is a more sensible long-term strategy. The laws of Comparative Advantage would inherently favor the maximum use of labor to supply goods to the economy, anyway. No matter how inefficient, the comparison of human to robot labor is still one of relative cost-effectiveness, and eventually, the value of human labor is so devalued, or robot labor has such a premium put upon it, that some form of parity is maintained. This would mean most people work dirt-cheap wages to stay under the price of a robot, or work on those jobs robots are fundamentally ill-equipped to handle, although presumably, there would come a point where the marginal cost of a new robot increases to economic infeasibility because of the overwhelming demand for robot labor. (Again, only so many french fries to feed those biodiesel engines…) That is, until such a time as the market reaches absolute satiation of all possible demand for goods.
This, however, brings me to the last major point I want to make, which is that capitalism, itself, is generally based upon the assumption of infinite demand for goods. To prevent a crash, the economy must constantly be growing, meaning an eternal increase in productivity delivering larger quantities of cheaper goods to an insatiable consumer who always has more money to spend upon said goods. With hyper-efficient robot labor, it actually raises the question of when you just simply satiate demand. The answer, generally, is that people start investing in fraudulent market opportunities for more money they can’t spend until a crash occurs, but if the economy does well enough for more than just 1% of the population to hit that point, it would start becoming more abundantly clear to humanity as a whole.
Amusingly, in the Empathy ending, you hint at what Futurama laid out rather explicitly in the Lucy Liu lovebot episode, which was that perfect robot lovers would probably significantly impact the population growth rate of humanity… And, honestly, that might actually be a solution. Much of the developed world is already going through a population contraction, as wealthier families have less children as a result of higher education and labor force participation of women, and also because the high-education demands of a modern marketplace demand more focus upon the education of less children. If super-intelligent robots that are capable of making “Kinkaidian” art take over most human duties to the point that humans become less necessary for all but the most abstract of thought, the human population would honestly be better off contracting peacefully to a point where resource consumption per capita could continue to grow until satiation by simply letting global population decline through a program of “Cheap Lovebots For Everybody!” (A certain line at the end of Caddy Shack comes to mind…)
Even when going so far as colonizing outer space, the use of sentient and semi-sentient robotics would allow tiny numbers of colonists to run whole societies, vastly diminishing the actual need to build such a star empire, and also, incidentally, answering the Fermi Paradox by severely disincentivizing extreme acts of interstellar colonization.