When we sit down to write a novel, we start with a blank page. The world we create can take any shape we like. It doesn’t need to have our rules. It doesn’t need to have our history. The only constraint is our lack of imagination.
Oh, but what a constraint this is. Our imaginations aren’t very good at conjuring up worlds dissimilar to the ones we know. When we create new lifeforms, they tend to look and act pretty much like us. When we predict the future, we tend to be too optimistic about some kinds of progress and technology, while being way too pessimistic about advancements we can’t seem to imagine. True world-building is hard. In reality as well as in fiction.
If you created a world from scratch, what kinds of rules would you create? How different would it be from our world? How different from the American constitution?
We change our rules slowly and begrudgingly, even when the answer is obvious. It’s partly because our imaginations are poor, and partly because of the heavy weight of existing systems and biases. Many of the American founders wrote poetically about the equality of all men, but pragmatically settled on a compromise with the southern states to retain slavery in their new government. Again, a blank page isn’t as blank as we imagine. We bring all our old thoughts and knowledge with us.
How would we structure our government today if we were starting from scratch? Would we really come up with an electoral college, where votes count more based on land area rather than people? Would we enshrine gun rights in a world where governments have tanks and flying bombers? Or would we need to arm people with tanks and nukes to keep ourselves safe? Would we make voting as difficult as it is today? Or would we make it more difficult? Would we lay out our infrastructure based on car ownership? Or some other means of transportation? What would our cities look like? How would the internet work?
What we have today is a mish-mash of what’s come before, much of it hammered roughly into place. For a country based on cries of equality, we’ve had to constantly amend our constitution to include more people in that universal claim. The Supreme Court has several times declared that we aren’t all equal. Wouldn’t this be one of the first unbendable rules we’d create?
The reason I read and write science fiction is that the genre allows us to explore these questions. The future as a blank canvas … this is what I spend a lot of my time thinking about. Inspiration often comes from questioning something we all take for granted. My newest short stories came about as I questioned the notion of inheritance. It started with this idea: What if we had an inheritance tax of 100%? What if every penny you owned went to the state the day you died?
The reaction most people have to this question is anger and barely controlled violence. People want to leave their things to their loved ones, and they often rely on acquired inheritance to pay off lifelong debts. But let’s think about it for a moment. Because everything would change if we couldn’t control where our money went after we died. And if we had all the things we could fund by wiping out generational wealth.
First, let’s think about the children of wealthy parents who balk at the notion of not getting a huge lump sum one day. For most of these kids, a 100% inheritance tax would be a massive gift to them. Rather than hoarding away their money in large piles until the day they died, wealthy parents would suddenly feel the pressure to provide more to their kids while they are still alive. The threat of losing it all to the government would loosen most pursestrings immediately. And wealthy kids don’t seem to get that many of them will be in their 60s, 70s, or 80s by the time they inherit anything. With a total inheritance tax in place, parents would be transferring money to their kids immediately, funding college, investment accounts, providing housing, everything they can. So the fears of trustfund kids is unfounded. The results would often be the opposite of what they imagine.
Now think about it from the wealthy parents’ point of view. I had a long talk with a friend of mine who grew up poor and had to fight and scrape for everything he has. So did his wife. Both were successful and managed to save and acquire several million dollars of combined assets. They have three kids, and they wrestled with how best to make sure their kids didn’t suffer undue hardships, but that their kids also learned the lessons of independence that they had. How could they take care of them without spoiling them?
Their solution was to let the kids know from the earliest of days — as they were first learning about money as kids — that they would be taken care of until they graduated high school, and that their college would be paid for, but no other money would be coming their way. They’d be on their own. They’d need to plan for their futures. Don’t expect a windfall late in life, and don’t expect handouts or help with the bills throughout life. Here are some solid values and lessons, here is a college education, you can handle this, prepare yourselves.
It seems like a fair balance. A complete inheritance tax would annoy the vast majority of wealthy people, but some would probably find on further reflection a hidden benefit or two. Questions on how not to leave too much would no longer drive a wedge between family members. Everyone would know not to expect a windfall late in life.
Those are the outlying cases, of course. The people who have vast sums. Wouldn’t this really punish those who have very little and rely on inheritance to get out of debt late in life? This is where our lack of imagination traps us inside a system that benefits the wealthy few. Those of us who know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck will suffer a system that gives us a glimmer of hope for a big payout one day. A lottery win. A wealthy aunt or uncle. We want a big pile shoved our way. Why? Because housing is expensive, healthcare is onerous, and college debt is crushing.
Let’s go back to our blank page for a moment and talk about building a world. We might build a world like we have today, where most people are born into poverty, where the middle class barely exists anymore, and these people live with the stress of making ends meet, they acquire debt in the form of credit cards, college loans, and mortgages. And when they are sixty years old, they might get a lump sum that erases most of that debt, just in time to build up a tiny lump sum to leave to their kids, who have been struggling and acquiring the same debts right behind them.
That’s one way. Here’s another:
Every person is born into a world where college is free, healthcare is free, and housing is guaranteed. Those debts will never accrue. You’ll never have to make those payments. If any unlucky accident happens to you, you’ll get patched up without a bill. If you want to get a college degree, you just need to make the grades and get admission. If you can’t afford a mortgage or your rent, there are non-stigmatized rooms waiting for you. All of it is funded by a 100% inheritance tax and higher taxes on luxury goods.
What fascinates me is not that the latter system makes more sense, but that human psychology would still have most people choose the former system. Our current system. Even many of those who have to struggle to make those payments, and who acquire those debts, have an animalistic attraction to an unfair system that rewards luck and handouts to a system of equal opportunity. An entire blog post could be written on why I think this is. Part of it is that we live in a diverse society, and for many the assumption is that people of a different demographic will gain more power in this new system. Part of it is the irrational belief people have that it’ll be them who gets lucky and wins a fortune, and they want an unfair system to step inside once they join the club. Whatever these psychological failings, it creates a system that harms those who keep voting to maintain that system.
My upcoming short stories in the Dystopian Triptych coming out next month are about inheritance, and they were inspired by these economic musings. In this future world I’ve built, a medical researcher has discovered a way to unlock a newborn’s full potential. With a bit of DNA manipulation, their every dial and knob is turned up to the max, so you get the most physically and intellectually gifted version of that child and that adult. It’s the gift that every parent dreams of, for their kids to maximize their potential.
Of course, the people who can afford this procedure are already those with the most to leave their kids. The gap between the haves and have nots is going to become a chasm. This researcher quickly realizes this and decides to go rogue. She destroys her notes and takes her procedure underground. She starts giving this gift to the very poor. The idea is to level the playing field. Since we refuse to distribute money fairly, she has found another way to tilt the scales back toward equality. The children of the poor will soon catch up. They’ll become the leaders and the wealthy of tomorrow. And someone else will get this gift of hers.
But of course it’s not that easy. Because the people with money and power aren’t going to stand by while their advantages are eroded away. They’re going to attempt to wipe out these upstarts and steal the process for themselves. They want it all. One advantage is not enough.
The scariest thing about writing these stories is that they feel entirely believable to me. Like the dystopian works I love to read, they don’t seem to have come from a blank page, but from the world in which we live. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about our current systems. If I were designing a world from scratch, it would be a lot different from our world. One of my foundational rules would be that there could be no profit from suffering. Prisons, healthcare, military contractors, could not make a penny. Because the incentive becomes to have more inmates, more procedures, and more war. A lesson capitalism teaches but then does all the wrong things about.
There would be no inheritance in the world I’d build. But there would also not be so much debt accrued by basic human needs. Doing this would prevent money from pooling up in static, stagnant accounts. There would be inherent pressure for that money to flow and change hands, to never sit still, which is what drives a vibrant economy and creates widespread wealth. Right now we have wealthy people buying artwork that sits unseen in warehouses because they’ve run out of viable investments. That does not create jobs. Handouts to the wealthy does not create jobs. More money injected to the bottom is what drives spending and boosts everyone’s fortunes.
In my world, where you were born would be irrelevant to where you can choose to live. As long as you pay your taxes and obey the laws, you can go live anywhere you choose. We hear much about the benefits of competition among businesses, but we rarely espouse the same forces among geography. And we often hear the dangers of allowing new people into our society, but we are free to have as many children as we like. Why do we fear the former and not the latter? I have guesses, and they aren’t flattering.
What about you? What things in our current systems of governance make little sense to you? What kind of world would you paint on a blank canvas? Unleash your imagination. Assume everything you currently believe is wrong. And then start writing.