This is an article I originally published on Medium. I thought it would be relevant to post it again here because I’ve recently been writing about related topics. Selonomics, at its core, is an attempt to understand the ethics of work, by asking “How much should I work? Can I get more by doing less? When is it really worth it to do more?”
I’m not saying it’s never the case that there are times you really ought to work hard, self actualize, and all the rest, but people often simply assume, as if by fiat, that “working hard and playing by the rules” in all contexts means you will turn out alright. This, I believe, is a notion that should be turned squarely on its head.
In Singularity and The Social Compact, I endeavor to define an Intertemporal Budget Constraint for work given the uncertain expectation of a coming Singularity event, where work should presumably no longer matter. It is a simple thought experiment relating inequality to the technological progress offered by Capitalism.
For example, what if you happened to be a single mother of two earning $40,000 a year, living on government assistance, and decide to vote for the Green Party of Canada? Will the much higher carbon taxes you now pay actually make any difference in your lifetime?
What if, despite your investment, the free market as opposed to government initiatives ends up solving the climate change crisis anyway, by leveraging new (unsubsidized) geoengineering technologies? Well, sounds like foregone income poorly spent!
What if you’re earning $250,000 as a software developer in Silicon Valley? Do the stock options your company gives you, its value which depends on the continued Oligopolistic nature of its scale-free networks, actually earn you a dividend when you discount the increasingly Draconian laws lobbied to Congress on behalf of your investment?
Like most work on this blog, much of it unfinished, this has yet to be formally modeled, but at least I have begun my Investigations and I hope you will follow along.
Singularity and The Social Compact
I’ve always believed that if you propose at least one intangible extreme solution for a given tangible conflict then at least one plausible compromise will reveal itself. Whether or not such a compromise is feasible is ultimately subordinate to whether the solution is accepted by at least one of its contenders.
We actually learn this lesson from King Solomon when he proposes that the child over which two mothers compete for custody shall be cut in two. The true mother, wishing to spare her child’s life, voluntarily concedes custody while the impostor, concerned only by her own yearning for equality, is willing to sacrifice the child to satisfy her ego. Perhaps it is this ability of a King to understand the motivations of two women, not as harlots, but as grieving mothers who operate according to time-tested principles of rational self-interest, that earned him the title ‘the wisest amongst men’.
King Solomon induced the moderate solution he wanted all along by waiting to see how far at least one of the mothers would go to preserve her ego. I propose that the same basic framework can be applied to reveal one’s own innate disposition toward income inequality.
My contention with extreme income inequality comes down to a simple wager. Will I live long enough to life forever? Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Engineering Director, and author of the best-selling The Singularity is Near is convinced that digital immortality is a mere 30 years away (circa 2047 AD):
Even if Kurzweil’s prediction amounts to nothing but a science fiction pipe-dream, biological immortality would mean a very close second-place victory for techno-optimists. Human clinical trials set to completely eradicate aging could begin in as little as 5 years. The process is already proven to perfectly reverse aging in mice. This is no inconsequential feat:
Given the trajectory of our current scientific, economic, and technological climate, betting on the side of rational optimism seems to be an obvious winning play. But what if you bet your entire hand and end up with nothing to show for it?
Let’s look at this from the context of an investment game.
Imagine an investment portfolio composed of two possible ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds):
- The Singularity Fund
- The Fuck Off Fund
A company is eligible to be listed in The Singularity Fund (TSF) if:
- It is operating at a profit in an oligopolistically competitive market, i.e. it is an Uber, Facebook, or Airbnb.
- It leverages returns to scale in such a way that its network infrastructure impedes market entry for most potential competitors, i.e. it is Amazon, or a major telecom.
- Its continued success exacerbates the divide between the global rate of real productivity growth and wage compensation, because the automation products it delivers contribute to the elimination of jobs faster than new ones can be created:
Investment in The Fuck Off Fund (TFOF) simply denotes an investment preference for that which does not meet any of the above criteria, implying either the purchase of a typical blue-chip stock, or merely time invested in one’s family, in one’s social life, personal hobbies, or just about anything else for which you could possibly waste your days on this awful God-forsaken piece of shit planet before you die. YOLO.
Let’s say you have $100 to spend. Every $1 you invest in TSF denotes a 1% increase in your willingness to concede ‘ego’ today in exchange for some future, supposedly infinite payout (entrance to the Singularity). In effect, we’re talking about a kind of Kurzweil Fief, wherein you agree to put in your honest 9–5 grind today (and every day) in exchange for eternal life (at some unspecified future) tomorrow.
Suppose you spend $100 on TSF. This implies that you value your ego at $0 because you believe with 100% confidence that the Singularity truly is near. On the other hand, if you spend $100 on TFOF, you’re effectively saying that ‘no amount of technological candy can buy me; the income and social standing that I have forgone due to recent increases in centralization of power in the economy is not worth what these companies have delivered.’
If you knew with at least some imperfect degree of certainty that the Singularity will occur sometime between now and January 1, 2147 at 0:00:00 GMT, but you just don’t know when, you’d probably spend every waking moment up until your 157th birthday doing everything you can to keep yourself alive long enough to purchase that ticket to H.M.S. Infinity. But given that we can’t predict the future and you nevertheless have to spend all your $100 before you finish reading this article, what distribution of investments would you choose?
Personally, my portfolio looks like 30/70 TSF/TFOF. I am a Java developer; I work with technology daily, I like technology, but I don’t believe in technology. I just don’t care that much for it, and I’m fairly certain it won’t make me immortal. I understand that it increases my quality of life, but I am also entirely convinced that I will definitely die one day soon.
The purpose of comparing your investment in each of the two hypothetical funds should illuminate where on the spectrum of giving a fuck you fall.
For the following question, if you answer in the affirmative you’d probably want to invest in TSF (The Singularity Fund) over TFOF:
Would you rather be making 2017$100K per year as a software developer today or 2017$300K per year in 1973?
If you truly don’t give a shit what progress—by way of Capitalism — has to offer, you might conceivably envision yourself living a life of relative technological squalor so long as you could fulfill the promise of a more prominent social life in the past.
Unfortunately, and unlike Solomon’s Judgement, I feel as though I should refrain from offering anything more than an opinion. I do not feel like I can come to a solid conclusion about the outcome of a repeated investment game in which the future value of maturity of the bond I want is either 1) continually depreciating or 2) infinitely elastic.
Frankly, I’m tempted to believe that income inequality is too high today, and that in exchange for giving up Twitter, PornHub, and Medium.com to live in 1973 with thrice the purchasing power one would expect to have for that particular year in history, I’d happily take my time-traveling disco ball to Studio 54 with the knowledge that I might miss the Singularity altogether.
I think most people would think the same way, so why are we letting inequality happen? What’s the point? Why do those who praise ethical (trickle-down) inequality believe in their pronouncements, or at the very least, that they can get away with increasing inequality without paying up? If we continue to let them, will they continue to offer anything valuable in return?
If you enjoyed this article, sign up below to get email updates (it’s free).