Economic development

As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

The level of technology in Flat Black is at least as good as that which Earth had developed by 2353: tech level 8 on the ForeSight scale, TL 10 in GURPS terms. But economic development is far from uniform, and high-tech manufacturing is concentrated. Half a dozen colonies produce technology that never made it to commercial production on Old Earth. Another dozen each have a degree of economic development equal to that of Earth in 2353. But many colonies are a little less well developed than that, and most at a bit poorer again, with stragglers all the way back to very poor indeed. The ten most poorest worlds in Flat Black are as poor as the most disadvantaged and war-torn countries in Africa in 2014, and like the people of the Central African Republic the people there subsist by swiddening and hardscrabble agriculture no more complex or rewarding than that in pre-Roman Gaul or Germany.

As we see with very poor countries on Earth in 2014, an economically undeveloped economy cannot manufacture sophisticated products for itself. Even if it has minerals or rare crops to export it seldom manages to import a great deal of high tech gear; the poorer it is the less tech it can import, the more it relies on local products, and the cruder those products are. For want of anything better, people in very poor colonies turn for their daily needs to methods of production much like mediaeval or even early Iron Age agriculture. They live in thatched mud huts. They cook over open fires. Most of their possessions are made by handicrafts. They use hoes or animal traction to raise their food. They might use a mobile phone to market their catch, but they fish from curraghs that were obsolete a thousand years ago. That isn't really an Iron-Age economy (especially as the rich and the government typically have high-tech supplies), but for most of its people it might as well be.

Characteristics of poor worlds

Low population and remoteness
The only condition that imposes a fundamental difficulty for a colony in achieving the level of development of Old Earth is that it doesn't have enough people to fill the necessary specialisations of a high-tech economy or consume the products of high-tech manufacturing at minimum efficient scale. Even that can be circumvented by specialisation and trade, except where the colony is remote from high-tech suppliers and markets. Population of about 4.3 billion ought to be sufficient; somewhat wider markets are needed to absorb interstellar transport costs.
The cause most strongly correlated with poverty is war. War kills and maims skilled workers while diverting them from their work. It destroys infrastructure, buildings, plant & equipment, and even improvements to land. It delays young workers' acquisition of productive skills: prolonged, it can produce a generation with no skills other than violence and destruction. It often leaves in its wake banditry and piracy, lawlessness, kleptocratic government, and new permanent frontiers as barriers to trade. A colony that fights a victorious foreign war pays a heavy price; a colony that fights a war on its own soil is generally ruined. The Empire prevents interplanetary war, but can do little about war between colonies on the same world and almost nothing about civil wars.
When the government
Extortionate bureaucrats
Barriers to trade
Deficient transport infrastructure
Inefficient courts
Dysfunctional finance and barriers to foreign investment
Theft, robbery, and kidnap
Perverse policy incentives
Incompatible standards

Descriptions of development levels

In an SF or general-purpose RPG such as ForeSight or GURPS there is a system of tech levels designed to indicate what gear is available, and that is based on the order in which things were invented (or at least, came into use) in history up to the date of publication of the game and in a speculative history from there. That's not ideal for describing the conditions on colonies in Flat Black. In the first place, it's possible that a thing that was invented late might not require a complex economy to produce it: in Flat Black ready-to-use antibiotics, antivirals, and other drugs can be grown in a garden; epoxy and kevlar are plantation crops like coffee. For a more mundane example, efficient earthenware wood stoves that were designed by rocket scientists using computers can be made using methods that go back to the neolithic. Secondly, in Flat Black interstellar trade ensures that most types of gear (except for weapons) are available on every world, for a price.

Rather than refer to technology levels, Flat Black describes economies in terms of their development level, or DL. Each development level corresponds exactly to a tech level in ForeSight, and therefore to a period in the development of technology. But, unlike a TL, that doesn't define what gear is available and in use: people import what they can't make. Instead it describes the methods of production that are in wide use on the world. Those in turn determine the way that people work, how much they produce and therefore how much they can afford to import, and the real exchange rate — what imports cost in terms of wages. Like a poor country on Earth in 2014, a very undeveloped colony in Flat Black doesn't actually use Roman kit and equipment. High-tech imports will be expensive and scarce; imported commodity garments will be status symbols, imported pocket gadgets will be vital life-transforming tools. Local products will often be of hybrid tech, such as a TL 2 dugout fishing boat with a TL 6 electric outboard motor, or a tablet computer assembled at DL 4.0 with a TL 5 injection-moulded case, TL 6 multi-touch screen, and TL 7.5 photonic logic. Low DL colonies don't look like France in AD 1220, they look like Sudan in 2014.

DL 0.0 — palaeolithic generalists {≈ GURPS TL 0 (early)}
At development level 0 almost all production is done by generalists. That is, a typical product is made by a single person who gathers the materials from Nature, makes his own tools, uses the tools to make the product, and then uses the product himself. There may be co-operation, but there is no specialisation. Typical products include chipped stone tools with wooden hafts and handles, containers made of skin, bark, or plaited fibre, and others strongly reminiscent of the Palaeothic.
• In practice this a rare anomaly. The only examples are found on the marginal fringes of poor worlds: isolated bands of savages eking out an existence off terraformation biota with very poor crop endowments. No colony is DL 0 in 606 PDT, nor was any colony so undeveloped on contact by Survey.
DL 0.5 — neolithic experts {≈ GURPS TL 0 (mature)}
At development level 0.5 there are not “yet” true specialists working full-time in peculiar occupations: everyone still hunts, or everyone still farms. But some people, as well as hunting or whatever, apply recondite skills to making particular products better than others can in quantities larger than they can use themselves, and distribute the surplus (perhaps in trade). Typical products resemble mesolithic and neolithic polished and hafted tools, coiled earthenware pots, etc.
• In practice such poor development is a rare anomaly. The Survey program did find some worlds where wide areas operated at DL 0.5, on the fringes of poor colonies, but no worlds where such poverty dominated. It is even rarer now.
DL 1.0 — village tradesmen {≈ GURPS TL 1 (early)}
At development level 1.0 there are true specialists: smiths and carpenters, potters, and millers, who work full-time at occupations that most people never pursue. Serving populations of only thousand or two they cannot work in crews: one tradesman and one apprentice is about the limit, but they do often have a permanent workplace with massive pieces of equipment such as an anvil, a forge, a mill, a kiln, a potter's wheel etc.. Also, they cannot specialise very far: a DL1.0 carpenter must turn his hand (and his few tools) to house-framing, cabinet-making, joinery, the making of wooden tools, and all the branches of wood-work. At this DL it is common for metalworkers in particular to trade for copper, tin, or iron from well beyond the area to which they supply their wares. Middlling-tech imports are rare and precious: a hand-cranked light or radio receiver, a steel hand-saw, or a stainless-steel multitool can be a prestigious possession. The areas where such low development prevails usually lack infrastructure for cellular communications
• This type of economy still prevails in the remoter regions of worlds that are generally of a higher level of development, but no colony is or ever was marked by this as its general development level.
DL 1.5 — municipal craftsmen {≈ GURPS TL 1 (mature)}
At DL 1.5 there are true towns that act as centres of manufacturing and services for surrounding village communities. These towns support craftsmen who are specialised within broader trades, formally trained or apprenticed, and equipped with specialised tools. Production for long-distance trade is common. A typical product is made by one craftsmen out of materials and components supplied by other craftsmen, and might be carved or painted by yet another. Such economies usually have a full endowment of crop plants, so plant-sourced polymers and high-specification fibres are available, plants provide diesel fuel and lighting oils. But machines are expensive and hard to come by. Boats are usually made of epoxy reinforced with polyaramid fibres, but motors are rare and most owners prefer sails. DL 1.5 economies export plantation products for small returns — expenditures of Imperial aid programs are usually a larger source of foreign exchange — and they import a crucial and luxurious minimum of the cheapest middling tech that will suit their needs. Photovoltaic panels, power tools, electric lights, radio and television receivers, pumps, and electric generators are found in most towns, but not most houses. In areas where someone has installed cellular communications towers, a mobile phone is an expensive but sometimes very rewarding commercial investment.
• This is the lowest level of development to which any colony declined during the Age of Isolation. Survey found about ten colonies at this level of development. A scant handful remain so poor in 606 PDT.
DL 2.0 — urban workshops {≈ GURPS TL 2 (early)}
At DL 2 there are cities, nodes in regular long-distance trade, in which craftsmen work steadily at assigned tasks: one man throwing the big pots, another throwing small pots, another adding spouts and handles, another incising decorations, the master painting the pots, and so forth. Typical products are made in batches all the same, not to order but in expectation of steady sales. DL 2.0 worlds export minerals and drugs, dyes, flavourings, chemical feedstocks etc. from plantations on their cheap land, and also obtain significant foreign exchange from Imperial aid programs. A certain amount of imports make their way into everyday homes, for lighting, television receivers, mobile phones for the middle classes etc. More is used in commerce and manufacturing: GPS receivers for navigators, calculators for book-keepers, bearings and motors for commercial vehicles, etc. Large and wealthy cities often have a few installations such as a fusion power plant, a middling-high-tech hospital, mid-tech water treatment and pumping, cellular comms towers, mobile phones for police…. DL 2.0 economies often contain a few very rich people, often leaders of the kleptocratic class, who import the all the fit-out of a high-tech palace and live DL 8 lifestyles in the midst of poverty.
• There are over fifty colonies at least this undeveloped. All but one of them are in the outer sectors, where they are remote and little visited.
DL 2.5 — high mediaeval {≈ GURPS TL 2 (advanced)}
DL 3.0 — the renaissance {≈ GURPS TL 3}
DL 3.5 — the age of sail, pike, and shot {≈ GURPS TL 4}
DL 4.0 — the industrial revolution {≈ GURPS TL 5}
DL 4.5 — the machine age {≈ GURPS TL 6}
DL 5.0 — the electronic age {≈ GURPS TL 7}
DL 5.5 — the communication age {≈ GURPS TL 8}
DL 6.0 — the robotic age {≈ GURPS TL 9 (early)}
DL 6.5 — the cliché age {≈ GURPS TL 9 (standard)}
DL 7.0 — the micromechanical age {≈ GURPS TL 9 (advanced)}
DL 7.5 — the second cliché age {≈ GURPS TL 10 (delayed)}
DL 8.0 — peers of Old Earth {≈ GURPS TL 10 (standard)}
DL 8.5 — the Suite {≈ GURPS TL 10 (advanced)}

Copyright © 2014 by Brett Evill