Can We All Be Rich?

It’s a comment Presidential wannabe Mitt Romney got reamed for last fall, and it even finds its way into far-right Tea Party manifestos: the notion that our society can make everyone wealthy.

I thought about this as I watched another meditation on this notion from last fall, the dsytopian sci-fi thriller In Time. Written and directed by Gattaca‘s Andrew Niccol (I consider the latter film one of the best sci-fi movies ever made), In Time failed to resonate with critics though was a moderate box-office success — no thanks to me, who gave it a miss in theaters. But in spite of its tepid directing (Niccol’s measured, deliberative pacing doesn’t work as well here as in his earlier films) and needlessly Michael Bay-like action-adventure plotting, well, I maintain this is the most brilliantly conceived filmed sci-fi dystopia since 1999’s The Matrix.

It’s all in the premise: In Time posits a future world where the genetic code has been cracked so completely that we can control aging. Nobody ages past 25, but there’s a cruel caveat: you have to earn your “time” beyond that, and time left to live — eerily displayed on people’s arms as a glowing green “life clock” — has become the currency of the age. Just at the reimagined Battlestar Galactica brought us a contemporaneous, Western-style society with spaceships and polytheism, so too does In Time deliver up a world nearly like our own, but with a completely different medium of exchange standing in for present-day money. My back-of-the-envelope calculation from the film, based on “four minutes [of life] for a cup of coffee” and 100 years being considered a fortune, puts 1 minute as roughly equal to 50 present-day cents — which means a day is worth about $700, a month about 20 grand, a year at just over a quarter-of-a-million. When a bank safe containing a “time capsule” (which can be delivered into a person, and can be transferred from individual to individual) is revealed to contain a million years ($250 billion), it elicits gasps — and a boast from its owner/tycoon on how it’s not his first.

It’s interesting that the movie came out within a month of Occupy Wall Street: both push the revolutionary premise that “there’s enough for everyone” if only the rich would quit hoarding it. But where the Occupy movement (or at least some of its supporters) and In Time part ways, it’s in the notion that everyone can be rich. In sci-fi-land, it’s the wealthy members of the establishment who claim that time isn’t infinite, that distributing it to the unwashed masses will “crash the system.” In our present-day world, it’s liberals claiming that not everybody wants to be rich, but most everybody wants a job, a roof over their head, and some degree of security — what I always call a “basic minimum” and agree that every First World country ought to and can provide its citizenry. Bill Maher famously claimed, “of course everybody can’t be rich; who’d be left to do stuff for rich people that nobody wants to do?”

Actually, that’s an excellent point: In Time never quite explains the mechanism by which its “currency” is produced. Does it require energy? Manufacturing? Even if we assume it’s nothing more than a digital countdown, and that the complexity of genetic aging processes can simply be switched on and off — not as far-fetched as its sounds, given research into telomeres — what are the raw economic costs of producing other goods and services to society? This is the basis of economics, at least as I understand it: the medium of exchange reflects, or should reflect, the aggregate cost of producing the stuff we use. As long as these products require human labor and — yes — time to create, an economic system involving scarcity (whether it’s monetary or temporal) seems inevitable.

But this begs the next question: what if stuff costs nothing, or next to nothing, to make? Well, speculative fiction addresses that too… I’m thinking, particularly, of Isaac Asimov‘s robot novels.

In these — starting with The Caves of Steel in 1954 — Asimov imagines a far-ish future (around 1,000 years) where groups of settlers had colonized a bunch of worlds with the aid of robots. But unlike Blade Runner‘s maniacal, malfunctioning replicants, these robots have been (successfully) engineered to be docile, helpful, near-indestructible servants — happy, willing, perfect slaves. They are self-repairing, self-manufacturing, and can (and do) produce all the goods and services anybody could ever want. In contrast to overpopulated, impoverished Earth (gotta have one of those for contrast), these off-world colonies are paradises of wealth. There, too, people live for centuries (though not forever — the prospect of genetic agelessness was unknown to Asimov in 1954) and population is voluntarily held in check. Everyone lives in mansions surrounded by flotillas of well-meaning servants, and does what one likes. Everyone is, indeed, wealthy.

And yet, the Spacer worlds (as they’re known) are far from utopian: jealousy, intrigue, even murder (the premise of at least one of the books) are present. It seems, in eradicating poverty and disease from these brave new worlds, future humans had forgotten to engineer away the not-so-better angels of our nature.

So maybe that’s where real-life activism and speculative fiction come together: technology can solve our problems (though it can also make them worse) but technology alone (or, for that matter, political policy) isn’t enough. As an unrepentant idealist, futurist, and geek, yes, I hold out hope that our scientific advances can improve our world. But we need to change, too. Many of us accept a certain degree of inequality in our lives (this very interesting blog post deals with such notions and how they fall on the political spectrum) — those who take initiatives, who work harder, ought to reap a greater reward — but a society based entirely on one-upsmanship, on reinforcement of inequality, on scarcity as a self-reinforcing idea… that’s a society which, sadly, too many of us have decided to accept.

And here’s where I rejoin my Occupy cohorts, and almost anyone who doesn’t accept our world at face value: I don’t think our current state, our current way of being, is static and inevitable. It may take time — more than on most people’s clocks — but I for one believe we can change, and shouldn’t throw up our hands and refuse to try.

I’ll take a million years, too, if that’s on the table.