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Old 01-11-2012, 02:28 AM
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Lemur866 is offline
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Originally Posted by Untoward_Parable View Post
the owners of the combines and the land were very rich, but sure they didn't actually drive them themselves, that's peasant work. Whichever mechanism you use to control the means of production and therefore select for yourself as much benefit as is possible from it is only specific to time, place and culture, the result is the same and not that hard to understand.
How do you "control" the means of production when every good or service you can imagine comes pouring out of a magic box at the touch of a button? Actually, you have your robot butler press the button for you, no sense getting off the couch.

Yes, there will be things in scarce supply in the future world of the future, and the people who control or supply those things will be fabulously wealthy beyond the dreams of the Pharoahs, or the Gateses. But these fabulously wealthy masters of the future universe won't be wealthy because they own worthless factories, any more than the megawealthy of today own vast agricultural estates. The objects won't mean anything, the boxes that make objects won't mean anything, and so the megawealthy of the future won't concern themselves with worthless junk like material goods that any hobo can have.

This is why the spartan aesthetic of Star Trek makes perfect sense to me. Why would people who come from a society where any good you want can be materialized out of a magic box care about decorations or fine clothes or fancy silverware or fast cars? You want a diamond necklace just ask for one, and when you're done you throw it away. And the fact that you can have one anytime you want one means you won't ever want one.

It isn't hard to see that the wealthy are those that control scarce goods and services. If goods are pouring out of robot factories, then those goods have little value relative to other things. We see the effects even today. 300 years ago a man who had a dozen suits of clothes was incredibly wealthy. How many pairs of shoes and pants and shirts do you own? Nowadays you can't pawn your overcoat to buy food the way they do in old movies, because your old overcoat might sell for a few dollars at Goodwill but you'll never find a pawn shop willing to buy your warm coat made of space age polymers for more than a few cents.

Just because you produce something that everyone wants and needs doesn't make you rich. I can think of dozens of products that you use every single day and would die without, yet you pay a pittance for them. Again, supply and demand. It doesn't matter that you'd die without air, the air is all around you and you don't need to pay for it.

A future where the ultra-wealthy have a stranglehold on a few jealously guarded automated factories is about as plausible as a future where the ultra-wealthy declare that they own the air, and have installed choke-collars on everyone, and if you don't pay your air bill the collar strangles you to death. In this scenario the wealthy don't really own the air, they're just able to kill you if you don't obey their every whim.

And a world where there are automated factories that produce essentially free goods, yet the supply of goods is artificially limited by the powerful makes no sense, because what do the powerful get out of it? They don't get more goods for themselves, they get less. A world with a million capitalist oligarchs who own everything and 7 billion beggars who own and produce and consume nothing makes no sense. An industrialist only has wealth when people buy his products. An industrialist who has no customers isn't an industrialist, he's a guy with a pile of junk in his backyard. There are billions of people who want the stuff, but have nothing the industrialist could want in return. Therefore since they have nothing of value to him, not even their slave labor, there's no point in producing the goods. He shuts off his factory, closes the gates, and throws away the key, because his factory is now worthless. His "control" and "ownership" of this factory didn't allow him to trade his goods for anything of value to him, and so his goods have no value and the factory has no value.

But can't we imagine that a couple of body servants to the old industrialist breaking in to that worthless factory and turning it back on? After all, they're utterly destitute, since no work they can do can compete with automation. So they could use clothing to cover their naked bodies, and some sleeping bags since they're living on the streets, and maybe some shoes, and some food would be nice too. So this factory, valueless to the industrialist, has value to the neo-peasants. And what the heck, they keep the thing running full blast, because, get this, it costs them nothing to keep it running.

It works just like file-sharing. It costs you nothing if some random dude from Russia or Florida makes a copy of your copy of Justin Bieber's latest. After all, you didn't pay for it yourself, you copied it from some other random dude. The marginal cost to you of creating another copy is zero. This is the key concept. When the marginal cost of production is zero, you might as well leave the tap open for anyone, especially if never have and never had any hope of getting any return from that production in the first place.

There are people around the world who make a living writing. Yet here I am on the Straight Dope, writing for free, in fact I'm paying a tiny amount. And I'm not trying to restrict how many people read my inane ramblings, in fact, the more people who read what I write the happier I am. And this is because I know I could never ever hope to charge people for what I write. There are people who can, but I'm not one of them.

And so, when industrialists cast aside their worthless factories and give up their dreams of amassing wealth by producting worthless material goods, those factories will still be there, and could still produce worthless material goods that are vital to the survival of billions of people. It's just that no one will be able to make money buy supplying those vital goods to those billions.