As Cornucopia came into visual range I slowed the spaceship down and asked Lorna for more information. “It’s a flat world, alleged to be the flattest in the galaxy”, she told me.
“It doesn’t look like it”, I replied, “It’s almost entirely spherical, apart from that knobbly part on the right, but maybe that’s just an extra-large mountain range”. I had seen some odd shaped planets in my travels, a few of which could almost be called flat at a pinch, but this certainly was not one of them.
“No, no Troon. It’s economically and technologically flat. It means there are no tariffs to trade anywhere across the planet’s surface, there is a flat tax rate, and by rights at birth everyone is given an electronic implant that provides them will access to all the information that exists on the planet, including all the buying and selling possibilities on their world at every instant”, responded Lorna, with only a hint of exasperation in her voice, probably to keep me on my toes.
“If that’s a flat world, what’s a round world then?” I asked Lorna, hoping to catch her out.
“They are actually called silo worlds”, Lorna replied coolly, now with a trace of condescension in her voice profile, doubtless to gently remind me to maintain a constructive disposition with her at all times. “As it developed economically and technologically, Cornucopia went flat, as opposed to creating trade islands separated by tariffs, or making technology available only to the elite, or restricting the availability of information to ordinary people, or creating complex tax systems where it’s almost as advantageous to work round the tax code as it is to create value from goods and services. Worlds of those types typically contain economies that are separated to one degree or another into discrete units frequently based around political boundaries which the Terra School of Galactic Economics labels ‘silos'”.
“You said Cornucopia is one of the flattest of the flat worlds?”
“Based on all the data available to me in my data-banks, using the Friedman scale it scores 0.2. That’s virtually frictionless. I can find no planet with a lower Friedman score. It seems that here the availability of information is near perfect as everyone has the birth implant with equal information access, and the flat tax rate is 1.5%. It’s levied automatically and instantaneously on every transaction. People hardly notice it.”
“Thanks for the lecture Lorna, we’re about to find out what it’s actually like. Freetown spaceport have hailed us and the landing sequence has started.”
Well flat planet or not, outsiders still needed to read forms and complete declarations before being allowed onto Cornucopia. It’s the same everywhere, no planet or planetary system has yet been prepared fully to automate immigration procedures ever since the human race fragmented into different cultures with, in many cases, wildly different beliefs and ways of life as it expanded throughout the galaxy. Mostly relations were respectful between the various pools of humanity, however from time to time fanatics emerged who felt it was their duty to overturn another’s belief system, or even to annihilate it. It still took human intervention to help identify these cases, the machines alone had difficulty in keeping up with the remarkable creativity of the human mind in coming up with different ways to find the usually innocuous activities and beliefs of other people as objectionable.
Unlike many other planets however Cornucopia’s requirements for off-worlders to adhere to were relatively simple, demanding only that we recognise their flat tax as being due automatically on any trade, that we undertook to share information fully and freely, and that whilst our credit would be backed by the Cornucopian Free Trade Bank during our stay (the premium for which was included in the visitors’ entry fee), failure to respect a contract freely entered into carried the punishment of forfeiture of trade rights for a period in proportion to the size of the default, and not less than two days. The notes to the entry forms were keen to emphasize that since someone with no trade rights could not acquire anything on Cornucopia, not even food, water or shelter, and furthermore whilst they lacked trade rights would be ostracised by any Cornucopian, this was a more serious penalty that it might at first have appeared. Additionally, an outsider would not be permitted to leave the planet during the forfeit period, so escape from an abandoned contract was not possible either. I had no plans to break any Cornucopian laws however, my main interest as always was to find out how their society works and whether it makes them happy, so I agreed to the terms and the authorities promptly allowed me to leave my ship and step onto Cornucopian territory.
My first intention was to head to a bar. Whilst I would not deny that I like the odd drink or two, the main reason for this was that throughout the galaxy in my experience it is in bars where you get a feel for the truth of a place most quickly. Not flashy bars though, the type where the latest fashion says you must be seen like the Nebulocon in Almath City on planet Maia (although I have had some great times there, but that’s a different story). Instead I needed to find a quiet bar where regulars go to nurse their drinks and their thoughts and if anyone is listening, to tell them their troubles. The problem is these bars are usually harder to find, they blend in to the landscape as if camouflaged to protect their customers’anonymity.
I asked the information desk at Freetown spaceport where I could find one of these quieter types of watering hole. The female Cornucopian behind the counter looked at me in surprise. “You didn’t collect your outsider’s out-plant sir?” she asked.
They had told me on entry it was important on Cornucopia, but I had not paid much attention. “The out-plant will tell you everything you need to know, please give me your outsider registration and I will give you a hand held out-plant that you can use for the duration of your stay here. Enjoy our planet sir.”
I wasn’t much interested in fiddling with the out-plant, and in any event I had contact with Lorna via my communicator if I required more general information, so I shoved it in my coat pocket and asked the question again. The girl shrugged, blinked hard and her eyes seemed to defocus, and then she told me that the type of place I wanted was probably to be found in the area just to the south of the spaceport where there were a number of well-established smaller bars frequented by both locals and off-duty spaceport workers on their way home. “I say ‘probably’ sir because you have not configured your out-plant with your profile so I can’t tell with much precision what it is you want”, she added with what sounded like mild disgust that anyone could be so simple and backward as me.
That was enough for me, so I turned heel and marched out of the spaceport terminal. Out on the roadway in front of the terminal I paused to see where the Cornucopians were heading. Many of the figures were recently arrived travellers, who were getting into hover vehicles which shot abruptly upwards as soon as the doors swung closed. They disappeared into the sky with a blaze of exhaust like a flock of startled birds. Some others climbed into ground vehicles that mostly headed off down the roadway towards what looked like an elevated expressway that passed the spaceport. Of most interest to me however were the stragglers walking across the forecourt towards nearby buildings that looked like offices, no doubt companies that provided services for Freetown Spaceport.
I checked with Lorna who confirmed that these buildings were indeed to the south of the main terminal and I followed the walkers. It wasn’t long before the office buildings started to give way to a more residential looking area, and then I saw what looked like a suitable bar. It was sandwiched between what appeared to be an amusement arcade on one side and a block of apartments on the other. The banner above the dilapidated door announced it’s name as ‘The Winner’s Curse’, and underneath in smaller letters ‘Freetown’s best kept secret’. As I approached a weary looking man shuffled along the pavement until he reached the door and then turned and leaned his shoulder on the metal surface to swing it open before disappearing into the interior gloom.
When I too went inside the first thing that confronted me was a cloud of green vapour hanging in the air. I squinted through the verdant mist and saw several people sitting at the bar, and a few more slouched at tables to the right of it, one or two of whom were smoking what looked like root vegetables that were the source of the fug. I went up the bar and asked for a drink.
“You’ll have to be more specific than that”, said the barman, “We can provide you with any one of over a thousand different drinks to suit your mood, so what exactly do you want?” I fished the out-plant out of my pocket and typed in ‘most popular alcoholic beverage on Cornucopia”, whilst the barman drummed his fingers. “I’ll have an erfoom.”
“Pale, thin, or dark?” I was asked immediately. I gave up trying at that point and just said “dark” at random. I was poured a large glass of what looked like stout from a tap. It seems some things don’t change much anywhere, and the popularity of beer is one of them.
I sat at the bar for a bit sipping my erfoom and trying to get a handle on what has happening in different parts of the room. There were two middle-aged looking Cornucopian men sitting together at a table talking quietly to one another. I strained to try to hear them but their voices were too soft so I got up and approached them. “Gentlemen”, I introduced myself, “I am an off-worlder as you have probably already surmised, and I am keen to learn more about your esteemed society.” I usually go a bit over the top in these situations as flattery is in order on first contact when suspicions are at their highest. “I apologise for disturbing you, but would you mind if I joined you for a few minutes?” The man on the right, thick set, bearded and wearing what looked like a tweed jacket, nodded and said “That will be fine, welcome.” I noticed that the man on the left was dressed in the uniform of a Cornucopian immigration officer, and he too nodded but without saying anything.
“My name is Troon, and I am a traveller”, I told them both as a first hack at the ice. “But I don’t like just to see the sights, my main interest is in learning how people live.” In my travels I have found that this is the greatest flattery of all. Everyone wants to tell their story, to be identified as an individual whose experiences matter to others. If the experiences that those others are intrigued by are simply the meat of everyday living, with no pressure to come up with the exceptional in order to sustain interest, then a gift has been given and is usually reciprocated with the information desired.
“I’m Handor”, said the bearded man, “And this here’s Baldur” he said of his companion. “We’d be glad to tell you about life here, it’s what we often talk about anyway when we get together in this bar.”
“How frequently do you meet?”
“Oh once or twice a week. I’m a lecturer in meta-economics at Freetown University whilst Baldur works in immigration at the spaceport. We get together for a drink and chat on days when our work ends at the same time. My job is more predictable, university hours, but Baldur does shifts and if his shift ends at an hour when he knows I’m done he gets in touch and we often end up here.”
“Meta-economics, that sounds interesting, can you tell me a little about it?”
“In pre-stellar history meta-economics was initially taken to mean the mathematization of economics. To begin with it was wildly popular and in many quarters economics was considered a science, with equations that described different supposed equilibria and macro-behaviours. However this approach also proved to be dramatically unsuccessful, culminating in escalating economic and financial crashes in the first half of the twenty-first century. The problem was that the mathematics provided an illusion of control and this had such appeal to policy makers that the equations typically took precedence over the observable facts. Today we still have a role for mathematics in economics, but as servant and not master. In the meta-economics world we see economics as a form of social studies or comparative moral philosophy. A vast number of different forms of economies have developed in the milliards of human systems across the galaxy. The foundations and principles of these economies vary accordingly. In meta-economics nowadays we study these different economies and try to understand what fundamentally drives them.”
Baldur, who still hadn’t said anything, looked bored, I guess he had heard it all before. He pulled out one of the root vegetables, which on closer inspection resembled a cigar made out of something like spinach, lit the end and started adding to the haze of green smoke hanging in the air. Still, I had quite a find with these two Cornucopians as between them their professional knowledge and experience promised to be highly informative about life here. I pressed on with Handor whilst Baldur was preoccupied with his cigar.
“I wonder why you chose to study meta-economics when you live on Cornucopia. From what I understand about your economic system here the equations should work for you, no?”
“You’re right, we have what would once have been labelled a very ‘rational’ economic system here, and the equations work well most of the time. However they don’t always work as expected and in addition to that people aren’t always particularly happy. This is what got me involved with meta-economics in the first place. I thought ‘what use are equations that don’t always work?’ It’s would be like having equations for gravity that work most of the time but not always – no-one would accept that as a valid theory of gravity. So I was interested to know if mathematization could ever reasonably be applied to economics, of if other models should prevail, and if so what sort of models. I also wanted to understand why efficient economic systems don’t necessarily make people happy and what could be done about it.”
“Well I can tell you why people aren’t ecstatic”, Baldur suddenly announced in a gruff voice that caught me by surprise. I had wondered if he was ever going to say anything. He put his cigar down in what I can only assume was an ashtray but looked more like a bag of rice and fixed his eyes intently on mine.
“The problem here is that it’s too easy to get anything you want. Once you have a little money – and anyone who is prepared to work can get that because we have a very efficient jobs market because of our full transparency of information – you buy whatever it is you want first. Then when you want something else, you sell what you have and buy whatever it is that you now want. There’s always a price for everything in Cornucopia and our implants make the market readily available to us at all times. Sure you lose a little each time you buy then sell, but not much because all the information is available to everyone instantaneously so the difference between the buying and selling price is small.”
“But that sounds amazing. If you can get anything you want, why are people not so happy?”
“You don’t know how empty and boring it becomes until you try it for a while. Of course you only own each item temporarily before you exchange it for the next, but you quickly find that none of these possessions gives you much lasting pleasure. In fact, just the knowledge that you can get things easily makes them somehow less attractive. And if you can get them, so can your neighbour, so we are denied any possibility to feel superior to our fellows on account of what we own.”
“But that sounds like a virtue, the system keeps you from false pride.”
“Maybe, but most Cornucopians don’t realise this because they have never thought to feel superior in this way. However my job is to interview off-worlders that our immigration systems flag up as a potential risk. The interviews are extensive and include questions that help us to build a psychological profile of the applicant. So I get to find out what makes off-worlders from different environments tick, and I have noticed that many of them are driven by a need to try to get ahead of everyone else in what they perceive to be their peer group. Those that succeed appear to get considerable pleasure from it. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, I don’t really make judgments like that, but the pleasure some receive from it is evident.”
“Can’t Cornucopians get ahead as well?”
Handor cut in now. “It’s difficult when everyone has the same access to markets and the same information. Some people do, but it takes a lot of time and energy. They are continuously working the markets in all things, trying to sell goods at the higher price and buy goods at the lower price. Many build algorithms to automate the process for them, but as the markets are so efficient, to maintain any sort of advantage these algorithms have to be continuously refined. Over time you can accumulate enough scrapings to have more than anyone else, but doing that is not much of a life.”
“What about earning more from your work?”
“Most of the jobs on Cornucopia are service jobs since manufacturing is almost completely automated. The skills for these are fairly easily acquired, our implants give us everything we need to learn about any profession, and as Baldur said the labour market is very efficient. This flattened out wage differentials decades ago.”
“How about entrepreneurs, inventors of new products? Surely they must get rich.”
“There’s not much incentive for them. There are no patents on Cornucopia, that would be against our principles of transparency and availability of information. There is very little home grown technological or commercial progress on Cornucopia compared to other systems I have studied. But it’s not a problem, we see enough off-world tech to copy it when it makes sense for us. It just gets injected straight into the economy which adjusts very quickly to the new development, almost as if it had always been a part of it.”
I had assumed that life would be happier on Cornucopia than the picture Handor and Baldur painted, after all the planet was called Cornucopia and was known for its abundance. Not that a planet’s name is a particularly good predictor of the local situation I realised on further reflection. After all the inhabitants of Hedonia were forever bickering and fighting wars against each other, whilst the citizens of Dismalia apparently took the view that life could only get better and were so irrepressibly optimistic about the future that they had become famous in the guide books for their smiling and laughter.
I thought about what else makes people happy and quickly turned to the area that the majority of people spend a significant part of their waking hours and indeed lives pursuing in one way or another; romance and the opposite sex. Surely with all its sophisticated systems and efficiencies Cornucopians must have found the best way to achieve conjugal bliss.
“I don’t want to spend too much of your time gentlemen, but I wonder if I could ask you about another area of life on Cornucopia if you wouldn’t mind?”
“No problem”, said Handor, “fire away”.
“First, if it’s not too personal a question, can I ask if either of you are in a relationship or married?”
“We’re both married”, said Handor. Baldur looked as if he hadn’t heard the question and was carefully studying his cigar again.
“Well that’s terrific”, I said with enthusiasm, “I’m not married myself, but it must be a joy to have a soul mate to journey through life with.”
Baldur’s head came up, clearly he had been listening and he appeared even more unhappy than he had earlier. “Look”, he said with unexpected intensity now, “it doesn’t work. Our implants contain matching algorithms. Once we reach the age of twenty they automatically go into action and find each of us our perfect match from amongst the whole population of Cornucopians. Our implants know everything about us by that age, they have been with us from birth and recorded everything we have done in our lives, so in many ways they know us better than we know ourselves; our likes and dislikes, our typical behaviours in any situation, and so on. On a young man’s twentieth birthday here, his implants will search and find the person of the opposite gender that is most like him. That young woman’s implants will do the same thing by the same criteria and so will inescapably match with our young man. By convention on Cornucopia the two must then marry.”
“I don’t understand the problem. It seems to me that you find the perfect match every time, nothing could be better than that. The only difficulty I see is if you are more attracted to your own gender than the opposite gender.”
“We cater for that. I used the example of opposite gender as it is the most common, however the implants know if you are more attracted to the same gender and they will match you with someone with the same orientation in that case. However they still find the people most like each other and that’s the problem. Cornucopians typically accept that their relationships lack interest, passion, fire. They don’t know anything else. Finding the people most like each other and matching them together is logical and makes perfect sense to a Cornucopian. However I interview off-worlders for a living and I build psychological profiles of individuals and their relationships with others. I would not have believed it and I find it hard to convince anyone here to believe it as its too much against our traditions, but I have seen how opposites attract. There’s no mystery in the person who is most like you, you already know what they are going to say and do. And there’s no excitement in a computer system finding that person for you and your simply acquiescing in the process. I have seen how on many other worlds people are free to find their own mates, at random. On some planets they have even banned all forms of computerised matching systems, so it’s pure chance whether you happen to come across someone you have any compatibility with. You have to go out and search, talk to strangers as potential mates without first knowing anything about them. It sounds bizarre I know. But the most important thing I have learned is that our matching of attributes, whilst it maximises peace and harmony, misses so much. Especially it misses complementarity, when you have something your partner lacks, and your partner has something you lack, so you obtain experience of what you lack through your partner and together you are a whole.”
Baldur looked spent, as if he had said his bit and had nothing more to add. I realised that our conversation was drawing to a close and that I was probably in danger of overstaying my welcome. However before I could offer thanks and goodbyes, Handor beat me to it and had one last thing to say.
“Troon, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, but we’ve finished our drinks now and Baldur and I must be moving on. We’ve been quite frank with you, I don’t think I would usually volunteer quite so much to a stranger and I hope you will be discreet about what we have said. I get the strong impression that you have been surprised that life on Cornucopia is not all that you thought it would be.”
I paid for the drinks then all three of us got up and left. As we went out of the bar, Handor and Baldur turned right to go into the establishment next door, the one I had spotted when I arrived here that looked like an amusement arcade. I had thought that Handor and Baldur would be going to their homes now, so I had to know what this place was and I asked them. Handor replied.
“I think you would call it a place of gambling, a casino. You’ve already seen that whilst the way we run things on Cornucopia looks good on paper, in practice when everything is so predictable life is in fact quite dull. So we gamble. You can only do this in certain places licensed by the government, like this establishment. It’s one of the few areas in which the government directly intervenes in our lives, the control of gambling. Baldur and I always go here after a drink in the bar. Almost everyone on Cornucopia gambles. This pocket of uncertainty is a lifeline, keeps us sane.”
I hadn’t expected that. This planet really was full of surprises. I had one last question. “So why is the bar we’ve been in that’s next door to the casino called ‘The Winner’s Curse’? Is that meant to be ironic? I would have though winning at gambling would make people happy.”
Handor smiled enigmatically, “No, it means what it says. It’s part of a saying in Cornucopia. But the reasons behind it are too long to tell right now. Perhaps if we meet again someday I will explain.”