Frederik Pohl's Great Fiction and Sketchy Economics
Science fiction writer Frederik Pohl has died. As longtime readers know, I’m a huge fan of “golden age” SF, though unlike most such fans, I didn’t really transition to the modern era -- a little Orson Scott Card, Connie Willis or Neal Stephenson, sure, but I don’t read modern science fiction writers as widely or as voraciously as I read their predecessors.
But for all that, I won’t eulogize Pohl here. Kevin Drum has done a fine job, and I don’t have much to add. The reason that I’m posting is that Pohl’s passing made me think of the first book of his I ever read. It's not his best, but it does have a sort of interesting economic take-away for me. At least, now it does. At the time, I took away something very different.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. "The Coming of the Quantum Cats" was the first Frederik Pohl book I ever read. My father, who was my pusher -- pardon, the person who introduced me to science fiction novels -- bought it for me when it came out. That was 1986, so I would have been 13 years old.
The book is a good enough yarn with a neat premise: People find a way to punch through the walls of the multiverse and enter alternate universes where things are slightly different; hilarity ensues. But what I really remember is the opening, set in a quasi-fascist world ruled by Arabs. No, this wasn’t anti-terrorist frenzy (recall, this was 1986, when terrorism was something that happened very far away). Rather, it was my first introduction to what I came to call "Econoia": the fear that some foreign group had secured a permanent economic advantage over us and would shortly be reducing a once great nation to an also-ran pawn.
In Pohl’s world (or one of them), Arabs ran the U.S. because they had all the oil. Remember, this was 1986. For more than a decade, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries had been using its cartel power to set oil prices at nosebleed levels…which is one of the reasons that the 1970s was, economically speaking, such a dismal decade. Things had improved a bit in the 1980s, as economies became more fuel-efficient in response to the high prices. Nonetheless, Saudi princes had become unimaginably rich thanks to their good fortune in controlling a country that was 1) sitting on a huge amount of oil and 2) otherwise a largely unpopulated desert. They were swanning around New York and London, buying huge chunks of real estate and otherwise acting a bit like, well, American millionaires did around the turn of the 20th century. Frederik Pohl was not the only person to conclude that they would therefore shortly achieve the sort of dominance that the U.S. had enjoyed in, say, 1955. I certainly believed it, when I read Pohl’s account.
In my defense, I was 13.
What’s remarkable about this is that just as Pohl published this book, OPEC’s dominance was undone. Higher prices had encouraged not only conservation, but also exploration. Oil companies put tremendous resources into finding new fields, drilling new wells and finding ways to refine stuff that previously wouldn’t have been economic, like Venezuela’s heavy, sulfurous crude. Oil prices were already declining from the 1980-ish spike caused by the Iranian revolution and then the Iran-Iraq war. But in 1986 they collapsed as all that new supply began pouring onto the market. Although Saudi princes were still rich, there was no longer any suspicion that they might end up owning Manhattan.
Of course, the vanishing of Saudi Econoia left an empty niche. Almost immediately, a new strain sprang up to fill it: Japanese Econoia. The Japanese were able to muster collective will to solve problems, unlike stupid Americans, with their democracy and their consumerism! They worked so hard they often died at their desks! Also, they took care of each other and their lifetime employment showed that they were loyal to their workforce, unlike greedy Americans, with their hostile takeovers and their layoffs! They were fiendishly, diabolically clever, which is how they managed to get a jump on us at Pearl Harbor. Plus, everyone was willing to sacrifice his or her own personal good for the team. I mean, haven’t you heard of kamikazes? How on earth could the U.S. compete against this mighty economic war machine? Soon the Japanese would finish the job they’d started at Pearl Harbor, except that they wouldn’t even have to invade; we’d sell ourselves to them, one famous building, one mighty company, at a time. This was the subject of a bunch of nonfiction books, but also movies and novels, most notably Michael Crichton’s "Rising Sun."
Crichton, like Pohl, had almost comically bad timing. "Rising Sun" was published in January 1992, as Japan was preparing to enter the multi-year slump that was dubbed “Japan’s lost decade” before we knew that it would top 20 years. Japan still makes great cars and top-notch electronics, but there’s no longer any worry that it will dominate the global economy; the real worry is that it will collapse and take half of Southeast Asia with it.
I read "Rising Sun" when I was in college. I also found it plausible. In my defense, I was an English major. Also in my defense, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I remembered the Saudis, you see.
Over the ensuing years, there would be other candidates for Rising Economic Power that Would Finally Unseat the U.S. For a while it was Germany -- all that teamwork, and labor councils, and social investment and planning, unlike stupid, short-sighted, greedy capitalist America. For the last decade, of course, it’s been China.
And for all I know, China will knock us off the double throne of Biggest Rich Country and Richest Big Country. Nothing lasts forever, after all. But I took a few lessons away from my long ago readings in Econoia:
1) The power experiencing the fastest growth, or the most dominant economic position, at this moment is not necessarily the power that will be enjoying those things. Or as my grandmother once remarked, the wheel goes ‘round and ‘round, and sooner or later, the fly on top is going to be the fly on the bottom. Don’t mindlessly extrapolate today’s economic miracle into tomorrow’s king of the world.
2) The moment at which you are most sure that the economic takeover is inevitable seems quite likely to be the moment at which it is all falling apart
3) The characteristics that seem to guarantee dominance often contribute to the disintegration. When the price of oil fell, oil-dependent Middle Eastern states found themselves under deep economic, political and social strain. When Japan’s real-estate bubble collapsed and economic growth slowed, its banking system (and government) kept pumping money into giant moribund firms rather than recognizing the losses, which starved the rest of the economy of capital that might have created more balanced, sustainable growth.
4) Nothing is as clever, organized or inevitable as it seems.
Of course, the clever, organized and inevitable foe who takes over your economy makes for a much better story than muddling through. Frederik Pohl was not, perhaps, a great economist. But he was a very good writer, and the book was an entertaining read. He will be greatly missed.