Immediately after the Scottish Independence referendum Nigel Farage complained that the UK government “made a promise to maintain the Barnett Formula whereby the UK taxpayer spends £1,600 more on every Scot than on every English person”. This kind of factoid is the sort of thing that immediately pisses people off. The problem is that it’s a nonsense figure that refers to nothing meaningful and hides far more important information.

If government spending consisted entirely of paying money directly into people’s pockets then he might have a point. Some is spent that way, of course, but, as everyone is well aware, a huge chunk of government spending pays for goods and services. There would be no point in the government paying people just to pay taxes. The government wants certain things done. For example, a large part goes to the NHS. The NHS then translates that money into a health services. The taxpayer then receives those services, not the money. The NHS provides those services by spending it’s budget on provisioning the goods and services necessary to provide health services. Ultimately the money it is budgeted ends up in the revenue stream of companies that provide it goods and services, some of which will end up in people’s pay packets and some of which will end up in share holders’ and owners’ pockets. Those share holders and owners could be anyone, anywhere. They could, and statistically are likely to be, in London. They could be in the US. The fact that the initial spending is geographically, in a sense, in Scotland has almost no baring on how the money filters down to people.

Another fact is that cost structures vary. So, say for the sake of argument, that for some reason transporting things is more expensive in Scotland. Maybe because of all of the hills. That means that provisioning of services to the public via the public sector will incur higher costs, say, to pay for extra fuel. That extra payment would show up, again, in the revenue stream of a company, in the case a multinational energy company. Or more precisely some weird holding account system somewhere so that shareholder profits can be maximised. Again, where the money ends up is a matter of topology of the economy, which has almost nothing to do with geography.

It might be, arguably, more reasonable to look at spending per head at the whole-nation level, but that figure is largely meaningless as it could be anything. Working out where money really ends up would, as far as I can tell, be perfectly doable. What makes it hard is that we would need access to data on where companies spend their money and, specifically, who all the shareholders are. That data might be available, partially, through public audit records, but we have no intention of really knowing because that might be too revealing. It’s far better to use nonsense metrics like spending-per-head.

Put plainly there is a good chance everything you have been told about how our country, or other similar countries, function is pure fiction. Like a lot of my posts, I think, I’ll start by saying something that seems, at first, ridiculous and counter-intuitive but bare with me…

I am going to talk about three functions of the government: taxation, spending and borrowing (a.k.a. government / public debt). The biggest lie we are told, and largely believe, left to right, is that these three things are interrelated. In reality they are not operationally related in any way. They are related in the sense that they form parts of a strategy employed by the same governing body i.e. the government, but they are completely distinct mechanisms that exist to meet distinct objectives. Those objectives, again, form parts of an overall objective, but that is at a strategic level, not an operational one, and completely different to what we are told.

The intuition goes that government spending is funded by taxation and shortfalls met by borrowing; adding to the public debt. The debt must be financed by future taxation or more debt. The government cannot spend without raising finance from taxation or borrowing. This intuition relates to nothing in reality, and is based on straight-up lies and a few misrepresentation of facts.

Taxation and Spending

The government’s ability to spend is in no way linked to tax receipts. Have you ever gone to a cash machine and got a second hand note? No? Why? Banks buy cash from the Royal Mint. They don’t buy second hand ones, they want new ones. If you take your cash to the Treasury to pay a tax bill they just throw the money away. It doesn’t go into a pot or an account or a fund… it just ceases to exist. The treasury could keep it and they could reuse it, if they wanted to, but they don’t have to and usually don’t. Why? Pounds are of no value to the UK government. They can issue as many of them as they wish, whenever they like.

If the government wanted to build a hospital or pay housing benefits, or whatever, they just credit bank accounts and pounds appear. That’s it.

Debt and Spending

So if the government can (and does) simply issue money when it spends why are we told that the government incurs debts? The government does incur debts, that’s true, and those debts do show up on the government’s balance sheets because they are financial entities that need to be tracked. The government, however, doesn’t need to incur debt to spend. It’s ability to spend is not linked, at all, to the sum of it’s debt and tax revenue. The idea that the government incurs debt to allow spending is, again, a pure lie.

Why does the government Tax, Spend and Borrow?

Borrowing

So, if the government doesn’t need to tax or incur debt to spend why does it tax and incur debt? In order to understand this and to see what the core of the misunderstanding is (and how it’s exploited) you first have to realise that the government is not part of the economy in the way private firms or people are. If the economy were a game the government would be in god mode, if the financial system were a game the government would be the score keeper. The government has it’s own rules and it’s own limitations, of course, but those rules and limitations are not commercial or market based and fall outside of what is generally referred to as ‘the economy’. Much of the confusion about all of this comes from the insistence that the government is part of the economy and is like a firm or a household.

The government does have to interact with the economy if it has any chance of doing anything effective. Once it interacts, it’s actions take on the form of economic or financial operations. This is why the government incurs debt. Or at least debt is one of the ways it chooses to interact with the economy. It lends, it borrows, it buys, it sells. It has bank accounts and asset sheets. The government debt is really just one channel for controlling the level of reserves (bank money) in the economy and controlling interest rates. It shows up as a ‘debt’ on the balance sheets. The government is constrained by the basic principals of accounting, which is why it can be said to have a balance sheet with a huge liability on it called debt.

The mechanism of government debt is familiar to you: it’s a huge collection of savings accounts. A savings account is when you give someone some money, they keep it for a while and then give you it back with interest. The treasury offers this service to banks in the form of bonds. The treasury sells bonds to banks and receives money (reserves). When the bond matures the government will buy the bond back at the sale price plus interest. The government does this to effectively bribe the banking sector into temporarily giving up some of its reserves for a short time. This, in financial terms, reduces the banks liquidity (that is their money is tied up and therefor less liquid). It also gives the government a channel to pump new reserves into the banking sector in the form of interest payments on the bonds. Banks buy government bonds simply because they can earn more interest than whatever else they were doing with the reserves. Doing so ties up their reserves. That’s why they offer savings accounts to us. We send money to the bank, the bank sends the money to the treasury (by buying a treasury bond), they take a cut of the interest earned and give us what’s left in the form of interest payments to us.

So, all in all, the  total government debt is the sum total of our savings accounts. It’s our asset and the government’s liability. That’s it. Not a big terrible monster that’ll engulf the world.

The government chooses to give the banking sector a high interest / low liquidity option and chooses the terms. It’s debatable whether it is necessary to do so and how it should be done. What isn’t a matter of debate, however, is that firstly the government can continue making interest payments of any amount forever and never become insolvent. Secondly, it can do so without ever needing to increase taxes. And thirdly, it chooses the interest level it pays, and can choose any, including zero. One of the (intentional) effects of the government doing this is that it sets the minimum interest that can be earned lending reserves out. This is because if a bank can get 5% interest by giving their reserves to the government why would they give them to someone else for less? In this case the government is intervening in the market to push the interest rate above zero. Note that the government could, I think, stop doing this. We would still have savings accounts because the banks could still offer them. It’s just that the base interest rate would be at it’s natural value: nothing.

Taxation

The primary function of taxation is to create demand for the pound. That’s it. So long as the tax burden is big enough to ensure sufficient demand for the pound then taxation is doing it’s job. The government could arguably choose, far valid reasons, to increase taxation if it needs to suck money out of the economy (for example if the economy is expanding too quickly) but of course that’s never given as a reason to increase taxes. The secondary function of taxation is to steer economic activity, for example, putting taxes on certain things to reduce demand for them. These two functions are distinct. For the first, the overall number is what’s important, for the second it’s the specifics that are important.

There is a very clear indication that this is true. No matter how broke the UK government says it is, no matter how committed to austerity they are or how desperate they are for cash, have they ever even mentioned the possibility of you paying your tax bill with gold, or dollars, or bit-coins? Why not? They could spend those things, right? Surely everyone has old gold stuff they can get rid of to pay tax bills or fines. So why don’t they? Well, if they did they would risk destroying the economy, literally. Using the tax system to raise demand for bit-coins instead of pounds would risk making pounds worthless. The government wouldn’t have to radically increase it’s spending as the value of pounds drops. In the worst case the value could drop to zero and the government would cease to function. Public services would fail and the country would be a mess*. Sovereign currency systems that fail to maintain a tax burden always collapse.

Spending

Perhaps the most surprising thing about all of this, the thing that might be hardest to swallow, is that government spending doesn’t cost you anything. Of course the government could demand tax revenue to cover the cost of spending, in which case you are being charged as a result, but there is no inescapable reason why it has to cost you anything. At all. For example, the government pays for a hospital to be built. A new hospital is built. Did that cost you anything? It is possible that the resources being used to create that hospital are in limited supply, so the government bidding for them could push their price up. If you need those resources then you will have to pay a higher price (which is a very loose conception of ‘cost’). If you are selling those resources you will earn more. If you earn more you will have more money to spend on other things. If the resources used are not in limited supply then new resources will be sourced, in which case there couldn’t be inflation because there would be an increase in both supply and demand. This rough outline is about as far as mainstream (and Austrian) economic theory gets you. There are also lots of other indirect costs and savings that are hard to quantify but very important. For example having an extra hospital could save countless worker-hours lost through illness. The point is that it depends on the situation and the complexities of who supplies what to whom and why and the spending habits and interests of those whose incomes are altered. Unfortunately economists as yet have provided no way to model this outside of ludicrously unrealistic and simple thought experiments carried out in their individual heads, so don’t have much to add to the matter.

 

 

*Incidentally, if this were to happen, many economists would point to the inflation, blame it on government spending, and say “We told you so! Government spending causes inflation!”, not realising that the order of causation is the other way around.

 

I generally agree with what Harris said in The Moral Landscape. I thought a lot of the bad press he got over it wasn’t deserved simply because his book was largely a set of thought experiments; interesting as academic pursuits. As far as applying them to the real world goes not much was given. It’s defensible that what’s moral is an empirical, and therefor scientific, question, but what tools does that give us in the real world? I don’t know. 

So it’s interesting to look at how Harris himself approaches real-world issues just to see how it links back to his book. I’m not really sure how it does and what he has said gives the impression that if his position is based on his moral theorising it has left him unable to see an invasion as an invasion. In this blog post he starts out by arguing something like “in wars all bets are off, people do bad shit”. Maybe, but applying that to what’s happening in Gaza is extra-ordinarily misleading. He made this point in response to Israel’s record of war crimes. The vast detail he doesn’t mention is that all the terrorism and crimes against Israel that are given as pretexts to murder are the result of it’s invasion, blockade and siege of Palestine. Even the existence of Hamas itself is arguably the result of Israel’s war crimes. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” 

You have to ask yourself, given Harris’ recent history as a champion of reason: what is the reasonable response to terrorism? Is it murdering people who had nothing to do with it? If there is a way to stop it without killing people should that be the first option open to a reasonable mind? International law is clear on this. Another detail Harris ignores. Israel has the right to defend itself and everyone with any understanding of terrorism or security or the situation in Palestine understands exactly how Israel can stop all the terrorism right now: call off their invasion, blockades and sieges and go home inside Israel’s borders. They accidentally did this already. Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, which Israel totally violated by implementing blockades, another war crime, during which Hamas completely stopped rocket fire into Israel. So they could just do that, forever this time. Even if Israel was justified in using aggression, which it’s not, it would still be guilty of breaching the Geneva Convention, which explicitly forbids transfer of population into occupied land. You have to understand that war is declared against states, not people or land. The threat is the state and once the state is pacified the threat is gone. Even declaring war doesn’t give a state de facto right to take any region over.

Harris’ entire thesis in The Moral Landscape is that morality comes down to suffering versus well-being. With that in mind read the following:

Consider how we behaved in World War II: We did things that would now constitute the worst war crimes imaginable—the firebombing of Dresden, the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We literally burned hundreds of thousands of noncombatants alive. Was all that carnage strategically necessary? I don’t know—probably not. And we certainly couldn’t behave this way today without invoking the wrath of billions of people. However, the crucial question is, what sort of world were we trying to create? What were the real intentions of the U.S. and Britain with respect to Germany and Japan? Well, you saw our intentions after the war: We helped rebuild these countries. Out of the ashes of this war, we created the allies we deserved. The truth is that we wanted to live in a peaceful world with thriving economies on all sides.

He seems to have stopped slightly short of saying burning people to death is OK so long as you have a nice idea in mind, OK so long as we “create the allies we deserved.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t mean that. Even to argue that intention is the crucial question seems to be a total deviation from his moral theoretics. It’s not the issue of killing people nor the issue of whether any of it was strategically necessary that’s central, we should look away from that, it’s the issue of intention that is crucial. 

So let’s talk about intentions. The current escalation in Gaza started with the abduction of some teenagers from Israel. Actually, not exactly… they were abducted form the occupied West Bank, not Israel. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and ordered a search in Gaza. Israeli soldiers started arresting people in Gaza, something like 800, no-one has since mentioned this, the biggest kidnapping ring in history. Not surprisingly this investigation pissed people off. You can imagine what would happen if foreign soldiers showed up in New York and arrested 800 people. Shortly after it was discovered that he knew that they were dead before starting the investigation. It was then revealed that his own people thought that the culprits probably weren’t receiving orders from Hamas; which was later confirmed. People get kidnapped and murdered all the time, do countries usually go to war over it? Why does Harris, a self defined supporter of reason, have nothing to say about such unreasonable behaviour? And if we are supposed to be interested in intentions: what are the intentions powering Israel’s actions? It seems murderous irrational belligerence. 

My last post argued that the thing that issues money, whatever it is, necessarily runs a deficit (given the normal definition of ‘deficit’.) Some will disagree with what I posted on the grounds that I misrepresented how money is created. The will argue that banks create money, and lend it to us and the government.

It could be argued, given a narrow view, that banks create money in the sense that if you go to a bank and ask them to lend you a grand, you get a grand to spend. It’s more accurate, however, to say that banks create spending power, or what economists call demand, not money. The create promises to provide pounds, not pounds. In order to see why you just have to look at any bank’s accounting system.

Firstly, banks can create money. Anyone can. That’s why I’m talking about Pounds, not money in general. There is a key difference. Pounds are issued by, and can only be issued by, the British Government. That’s really what a Pound Sterling is. So why do some people believe that the thing that issues pounds has to borrow them? Who knows. I suspect, mostly, propaganda. Anyway, what happens when you borrow a grand?

The bank creates a deposit account with a grand balance. To the bank this is a liability, because you can demand it at any time. The transaction also creates a debt, of a grand, issued by you. The bank now has a liability and an asset, each worth exactly the same. The bank’s balance sheet total is unchanged. You, if you are keeping standard accounting records, now have an asset in the form of a deposit account and a liability in the form of the debt you owe the bank, both worth the same, so your balance sheet total stands unchanged. 

The situation has created no money. Neither yours nor the bank’s balance sheet has changed. Further, if we add interest in then not only has the bank not created any money but it’s also absorbing money from you. This shows up on the bank’s cash-flow account in the form of interest payments over time. So balance sheets are unaffected while the bank’s cash-flow is net increased while yours is net decreased. So how can this create money? It can’t. You have to pay more money back, where do you get the money? Other bank loans? Pay from employers? Where do they get it? People like you? Other banks? There is no part of this in which banks create pounds because they simple can’t. Of course this is obvious when you realise banks are businesses. If they could issue pounds why do they bother doing anything? They could just issue themselves profits. They could open themselves huge deposit accounts, but if you look at the above that would result in net zero on both balance and cash-flow accounts. Ultimately banks are interested in making useful money, like Pounds, which they can’t create. 

What if you go to the bank and withdraw your grand? Simple, the bank gives you some of the cash it had lying around. Where did it get that cash? It bought it off the Royal Mint, paid for out of their reserve account at the Bank of England. Similarly, if you want to send your pounds to another bank (for example if you bought something of someone that has a bank account in that bank) your banks sends reserves to the other bank. In both cases the banks loses both an asset (reserves) and a liability (part of your deposit balance), worth the same amount: the amount you withdrew or transfered. Net zero to the balance sheets, but your bank retains your interest cash-flow. Banks can’t issue themselves reserves. They get reserves, ultimately, from the Treasury. Usually this is achieved by the bank buying bonds off the Treasury that pay interest.

Many have a bizarre interpretation of banking by looking at the fact that the treasury issues bonds and conclude that the treasury is ‘borrowing’ and running a deficit to fund spending, while the money creator is really the Bank of England (funnily also a branch of the government anyway), which runs no deficit, and that the treasure simply prints cash and mints coins. The BoE runs no deficit because it is funded by the Treasuries deficit, issued via bond sales. The treasure creates the pounds that the BoE puts in commercial banks’ reserve accounts. The process of creation takes the form of bonds, that’s all. 

This is why the talk of ‘government debt’ is misleading. A large chunk of the government’s deficit takes the form of debt in accounting terms because that’s how the Treasury choses to control the reserve level in the banking sector, it’s not even funding spending, the Treasure can just spend pounds out of nothing, this is how it pays for… everything. If the government wants to pay benefits, build a hospital or a road or a train track or a tank, it just puts money directly into a bank account: no borrowing. The ‘debt’ part of the deficit is just the sum total of treasury bonds issued by the Treasury. The interest that the Treasury pays on those bonds is just the total cash flow of new money creation (minus money created through real government spending), and is entirely optional*. The government could pay zero if it wanted to, and it can pay whatever it wants because it can just create the pounds to pay for it. There is no funding / debt servicing problem. It’s just a matter of choosing the rate at which to create new money.

*in fact the Treasury only pays interest on these bonds to limit interest rates. If you take out a saving account your bank funds that with a Treasury bond. The bank wants to make a profit so it takes a chunk of the interest it earns and gives the rest to you. If the bank took no cut at all, then you would get what the Treasury is paying, so that is effectively the limit your savings account will pay (unless the bank decides to run a loss).

The key to understanding how our economic systems work is really to realise that most of what is said about it is irrelevant bullshit. The more I learn about our money systems the more I realise that it is, as a high-level system, not very complicated and easy to understand. That isn’t the same as saying it isn’t complex or that it’s easy to predict. You shouldn’t confuse complicatedness with complexity. Take, as analogy, the weather. Weather systems are complex but despite that you can still take it for granted that it’s colder when it rains. There’s no hidden property of weather systems that messes up that simple rule, and you don’t need to model precise rainfall to come to that conclusion (except, perhaps, rain falling through a volcano eruption).

Which is why, to me, the title of this post isn’t controversial. It fact it’s about as insightful as saying “circles lack corners.” It’s really just a deductive statement about what the words in it mean:

The thing that issues money, whatever it is, is running a deficit.

This throws a spanner in the cogs of those who take the position in favor of what is called either monetarism or austerity, depending on your memory span. Everyone aggress that we need money. It seems a pretty effective means of resource management. No-one has had a better idea. But, many are ideologically apposed to state spending. At the extreme end there are those who want a metal standard implemented in order to make it impossible for the government to run deficits over the long term, requiring them to fund deficits with surpluses.

Imagine: The gold standard is in effect. You go into your garden, stick a shovel in the ground, and pull a pound’s worth of gold out of the earth. Let’s say you have a magic machine that turns it into a pound coin for free. Now, it’s not in circulation until you circulate it. You have two options: spend it or give it away. Pick one. You just ran a £1 deficit.

I think the first instinct, for most, would be to point out that you bought a pound’s worth of stuff. That is true, but that would be a real asset. Real assets aren’t part of a deficit, which makes sense given that they have no price until they flow. A deficit is negative cash flow. Money in minus money out. Of course the word ‘deficit’ can be used to mean anything, but it has a technical definition, and that is the definition used when people refer to the government’s deficit. If you don’t believe me go and check your government’s treasury FAQ.

The eagle eye might be drawn to the point that, although you lost £1, you gained £1 to start with, so your cash-flow is zero. This is shady given that the pound doesn’t sit anywhere on a cash-flow account, you didn’t gain it through a transaction, you just issued yourself it. Anyone can issue themselves money whenever they want, it doesn’t usually show up on a cash-flow account. But even if that argument holds then you’ve just proved that the government isn’t running a deficit, because it creates the pounds that fund it, else how could it spend them?

 

I recently, finally, got an analogue synth after only ever using digital ones. I have always been a bit suspicious of digital synths. There was always something off about them. Now that I have had the chance to use an analogue synth first hand I have had my suspicions confirmed: analogue synths sound better by far.

Now, some digital synths are designed to do things that only digital synths can do, so comparing those to analogue synths is a bit unfair. It is true that digital synths have a wider range of timbres and easily do arbitrary control routing; limited only by software architecture, CPU and UI/EX, but digital synths all suffer from the same artifacts.

If you hunt around online you will find people raving about how particular digital synths so well recreate the classic analogue sounds. To some extent this is true, analogue model synths do a good job of recreating the overall tonal characteristics of analogue synths but they also suffer from some of the following:

  • Aliasing – they all have some amount of nasty harmonic distortion caused by sample aliasing. Some do reduce this to a minimum bit it’s always there.
  • Scratchy transients – they just can’t seem to handle situations involving high/short envelope settings in which you get nasty split, crackly distortion in onset transients. You often want a spike at the onset of a sound to give it a snap that your ear can catch hold of, so you might have a short envelope opening a filter momentarily, but this often introduces some scratchy high frequencies or crackly transients.
  • Gritty high end – By far my most serious complaint. The thing that always puts me off. The high frequency component in every digital synth I have ever used always has a kind of brittle, rough texture. The sound is like subtle bit-depth reduction all over the top end. Digital synths never fizz cleanly and I always find it distracting.
  • Bad aliasing during even subtle pitch modulation – one of the main characteristics of analogue synths is looseness. Pitched oscillators will slide around, if only very slightly. Many will recreate this via slight pitch modulation, say settings an LFO to wobble oscillator pitch or using some pitch shift plug-in, but these, even very subtle, variations immediately incur aliasing with a lot of digital synths.
  • Break down at all extremes – digital synths always break apart with extreme settings. You can’t have LFOs going too fast, fast attack envelopes crackle and spit, high resonance sounds aliased, high register notes sound scratchy.
  • Unstable low end – I have noticed that, to my memory, every digital synth I have used unravels on very low frequencies depending on settings. The low end seems to be detached from the rest of the signal. Maybe something to do with phase coherence of digital filters. Dunno.

It took me about 5 seconds using an analogue synth to hear that none of these problems exist in the analogue world. You can get an analogue synth to play a note at very high pitches and while the sound is whiny and difficult to listen to it sounds pure and intact. The high end is generally exactly as you would want to hear it.

On a subjective note analogue synths also have a kind of unruly quality that not many digital synths really have. With digital synths you set something and the synth hits it bang on every time. Analogue synths (and in fact gear in general) seem to be a bit more squirmy and springy. The sound also has more depth than many, but perhaps not all, digital synths. You can somehow tell that you are listening into a mechanical device, which you are. The sound is coming from a real thing and exists. Digital synths often have a flat, two dimensional quality, as if you are listening to cardboard cut-out impression of a sound.

Analogue synths probably aren’t for everyone. Sound is very subjective and I am only following my own taste. They are also kind of a pain in the arse to use compared to a VSTi. I now have ground loop issues for a start, but I have already had a quick test using the synth in a track and found it just added something great, processed beautifully and joined right in with the rest of the track. It recorded in one take and the result was just… perfect.

One way to measure a civilisation’s developmental progress is to look at the extent to which people’s lives are at the mercy of the environment. We can establish perfectly comfortable living standards in places that at one time would have been inhabitable only with extraordinary effort, or perhaps not inhabitable at all. It’s debatable about how far along that process we are, given that we are facing an imminent existential threat caused by how we have chosen to interact with the environment, but it is easy to see that technological and sociological development, at least in principal, gives rise to the possibility of completely abstracting our survival from environmental variables.

This line of thought is what, to me, uncovers how ridiculous our idea of alien invasion is.

Stephen Hawking recently said “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”, which is almost an exact quote from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Alien invasion would involve traveling a vast distance through space, either requiring a lot of time or a lot of energy, or both. Doing that would require a level of technology so advanced it can produce the required energy and provide such a level of abstraction from environmental threats that survival in space is not a problem. Why would a civilisation capable of that invade us?

Imagine this: You live in a comfortable home in a developed country with a nice job. You don’t need to worry about anything except getting to work on time. You decide to get on a plane, fly to the other side of the planet, taking a piece of wood with a nail in it with you, so you can bludgen a few natives on some desert island somewhere and steal their huts. And you do that because you like the fruit that grows on the few dozen trees outside. Why would you do that? Do you want that fruit that much?

This is the basic premise behind the vast majority of alien invasion narratives, including Hawking’s. The narrative hangs together with a piece of story telling proclamation: they want something we have; either oil, slaves, human brains, water or some vague idea of our ‘resources’. They have the technology to get here and destroy a whole planet but they are still dependent on plundering these basic things out of the ground?

The comparison to the West Indies, and my metaphor, break down for even more fundamental reasons. In those narratives the invader and the victim are both the same type of being. They have the same biology and therefor the same basic requirements. Alien planets are … alien. We have evolved to live in our world, we would almost certainly not find alien planets particularly comfortable, to say the least. What makes those planets beautiful and welcoming to the aliens would make them biologically terrifying to us. So imagine flying to the other side of the earth to live near a sea of acid breathing carbon monoxide near trees of poisonous fruit saturated with germs that can stroll past your immune system unnoticed… that invasion seems less appealing.

There’s also a much more philosophical objection to the idea of comparing our interactions with aliens to our past: aliens may well not think like us at all. The dynamics of human thought that give rise to our patterns of history might not even exist in alien minds. It could be that those patterns are purged from the cosmos by galactic darwinian selection: those races obsessed with imperialism at all costs may well always remove themselves from the universe before ever getting the opportunity victimise other planets. We are almost a case study in that. It could be that getting to the stage to be able to tackle interstellar travel requires a level of social cohesion that would-be invaders just don’t possess.

In my opinion there are only a few simple examples of alien invasion stories that hold any water: those in which the aliens invade not for any economic reason but because it is intrinsic in their nature. One example is the Borg. Another is from Babylon 5 in which the Vorlons find a way to travel to another universe and find a race that considers all other sentient life to be an insult. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a bit of a deviation in that the aliens invade because they see humans as a potential threat. In the original they saw our development of nuclear weapons as an indication of our destructiveness, which just raises the question: why would this be a significant problem to these advanced aliens? In the recent remake the producers reverted to a more standard alien invasion premise: we are are destroying a resource, our planet, and they have to intervene to stop us in order to secure that resource. This just raises the usual questions and further, why did the aliens see their only option to be killing us all with a magic black cloud? Why not get it to wipe out all of our polluting machinery? What’s the worst that would happen? People dying?

There could be realistic examples that are far more complex. A keen reader will have noticed that I could turn this whole argument on its head. If it is more realistic to imagine the alien’s motives to be simply some ingrained and irresistible psychotic behaviour, then it could be argued that that is exactly how humans behaved in the past and so drawing analogies to those events is a valid observation. Sure we can cast our history of conquest into terms of resource and economy, but ultimately we could have found alternatives, we didn’t need to do what we did in order to get what we needed. We chose the psychotic solution from a multitude of possibilities. Perhaps alien invaders would do the same. Perhaps they would hold to an economic model that resonates with their psychotic nature because its the only one that would allow them to act on that nature. And perhaps it would raise obvious questions like: “why did you come all the way here to kill us to steal something you don’t need?” This idea doesn’t quite hold because our invader ancestors conquered places to make someone somewhere rich by gaining control of the sole supply of something (initially land, then fossil fuels). Consumption of oil, and indeed, our need for land can’t exactly be explained in terms of psychotic motivations: we really do need land to live and oil is on first sight a good source of energy. It’s more accurate to say that a small section of society was in a position to act in a psychotic manner to get more of what they like at the cost of the rest, and the rest fit into this system by having valid needs for things like land and energy. The option to gain a fair share of land and enough energy by non-psychotic means we usually kept off the table. The motivation was always economic, by which I mean it was some people getting what they want by exploiting control of the supply of what all people need. Psychosis wasn’t the only fundamental factor, it was more a choice of strategy in response to an economic reality. If you took away that economic reality would the psychotic choice still be on the table?

Is it plausible to imagine a civilization advanced enough to have the technology to travel between stars to murder aliens and plunder their worlds either for some economic reasons that persist despite their advancements or for economic reasons that some of those aliens have developed (by infliction upon themselves without wiping themselves out) in order to engineer a situation in which they can murder aliens and plunder their worlds? When they take our land what will they do with it? Sell it to each other? To do what? Grow food they can’t eat? Set up factories? Why not set them up in space? What would those factories produce? The Roman Empire plundered gold but they only did that because gold what what they made coins out of and they did that because it was a good material to make coins out of. Again, it’s just a substance that is needed for some reason. What substance and what reason would the aliens be captive to? Why? Because they’ve, by some insane marketing scheme, tricked themselves into thinking they need to invade Earth? When the US invaded Iraq they secured oil that Americans bought. What would the aliens secure? Who would buy it and why? Have the aliens sustained a price bubble in the Earth property market? How? Why?

This is why alien invasion stories are always so nonsensical to me. There is never even a partial explanation for why the invasion is happening. It’s surprising that Hawking would enter into such a discussion and make such a simple claim as to assert a similarity to human history.

 

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