Paul Krugman: The macroeconomics of ‘The Expanse’

Paul Krugman

The fate of the republic hangs in the balance, but there’s nothing I can do about it today. So let’s have a bit of escapism, econogeek style.

I suspect that long-time readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of the TV series “The Expanse,” which was on Syfy for three seasons, canceled, but picked up by Amazon. Actually, the series seems to be a favorite of many social scientists, like international relations expert turned part time pundit Dan Drezner. Linguists love the carefully designed creole spoken by the Belters, who live on various asteroids.

Warning: I’m most of the way through the fourth season, and what follows will include slight spoilers, although probably not enough to matter.

Anyway, Drezner is enjoying the show’s take on interplanetary diplomacy, with the three-cornered cold war among Earth (which seems somehow to have acquired a world government, with the secretary-general of the United Nations the most powerful person on the planet), the Martian Congressional Republic, and the Belters.

If you ask me, the show also deserved a place in Aisha Harris’ article on the “new pop culture optimism.” The 23rd century is full of greed and violence, much of it perpetrated by evil corporations; but it appears to be colorblind, gender-neutral, and LGBTQ-tolerant. There’s an interracial romance at the show’s core, multiple strong women (Avasarala! Bobbie Draper! Drummer!) and a key positive role played by Pastor Anna, who’s married to another woman.

But enough about humanity. Let’s talk about macroeconomics!

Earth appears to be suffering from mass technological unemployment. Half the population is unemployed and living on Basic, which apparently consists of in-kind provision of housing, food, and other necessities. (Kind of like a global version of Trump’s idea of replacing food stamps with food boxes.)

But are robots really the problem? For the first three seasons, Mars stands in stark contrast. It’s a mobilized, full-employment society where everyone is working either on supporting a military strong enough to stand up to Earth or on the long-term goal of terraforming the planet, making it suitable for humans.

Over the course of Season Three, however, the cold war was (mostly) resolved, while the protomolecule (don’t ask) seemed to have opened access to hundreds of habitable planets, making terraforming Mars seem pointless. And in Season Four, Martian society is in deep trouble. Unemployment is rife thanks to the winding down of both military spending and terraforming, with some ex-military Martians who can’t find jobs turning to crime.

So, my question: If Earth has mass unemployment because robots can do stuff, making human workers unnecessary, what were all those fully employed Martians doing?

In fact, the emergence of high unemployment on Mars after demobilization and the end of terraforming makes it seem as if the real problem wasn’t technology, it was secular stagnation — a situation in which private spending is consistently too weak to employ the economy’s resources, except during unsustainable asset or debt bubbles. Japan has been suffering from secular stagnation since the 1990s; a number of economists, myself included, believe that the whole advanced world now has much the same problem.

What’s the solution to secular stagnation? The answer, according to people like Larry Summers, is a big increase in public spending on infrastructure: roads, bridges, ports, and, if you happen to live on a planet without breathable air, terraforming.

The point is that when you’re in a secular stagnation economy, virtue is vice, prudence is folly, and good news can be bad. Even wasteful government spending can be a helpful stimulus. Before the outbreak of peace, Mars was a healthy society because it had a grand project; when that grand project became unnecessary, instead of freeing up resources to do other things, things got much worse.

So “The Expanse” is basically a show about the need for higher public investment. Well, and also monsters, alien technology, and space Mormons.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled 21st-century doom and gloom.

Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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