yardsale on GitHub

Here’s what my little simulation makes me think. Reflect upon the ideas of Richard Skelton and Robert Fitzooth. And maybe upon mine as well.

Here’s a typical screenshot from the simulation after it has been running a while:

a few people have most of the money

In short, after a while, the yard sale simulation winds up with a few people having almost all the money in the world, and one arrogant jerk has about 40 percent of the total wealth of the simulated universe.

What does this tell us about our own world and our own world economic system? One’s first approximation might be to say that it tells us nothing.

But when we think about what is happening in this overly simple game, we see that even when each transaction is decided by a fair coin (OK, stop, after I finally implemented the fair coin will you never let me live that down), once a player loses even once, it is just a bit harder for him to climb back up to even. Even though the rolls tend to balance out evenly, the people who lose early on are very unlikely ever to wind up winners, and the people who win early on are more likely to wind up winners … at least for a while. If the game is played long enough, however … there turn out to be fewer and fewer winners.

Even if the simulation we have is not much like the real world, it sure seems to me that the people who start out on top tend to stay on top. And the game suggests, though does not prove, that intelligence and hard work may not be as important as the people on top would have us think.

Yes, I used to be quite smart, and I have all the advantages of being a white male born into a family that, while not rich by any means, was surely above the mean in income and was able to give me a good education. And I was fortunate—amazingly so—to be invited to a job where I got to learn about computers before most people had ever seen one. And I did work hard. And while I am far from rich, I managed to stay ahead of the curve well enough to drive some very nice cars and to be able to retire with enough money that with any luck at all I’ll die before it runs out. I don’t have enough to invest in my son’s new brewery, but I have enough for an above-average good life.

But it’s easy for me to see that I am profoundly privileged, and to see that while some people around me have come out ahead of me while starting behind, by and large, a lot of what I see in the world looks like luck to me.

I’m thinking, for example, of a very rich man who had to retcon himself into his main company as a founder, which he wasn’t, who later demonstrated publicly everything we need to know about his management skills. Or another self-proclaimed genius who has turned his ill-gotten inherited fortune into a profound mess, through actions that are at least questionable if not obviously illegal. His main skill seems to be something about usually avoiding the blame. Or the guy with the biggest yacht in the world, whose people get 15 minute pee breaks whether they need them or not, and whose drivers are famous for being under so much time pressure that they bring along a bottle to pee in in their trucks.

I don’t know if these people are really somehow “better” than the rest of us, but I do know that, roughly:

  • Half the world’s wealth is held by one percent of the people;
  • Ten percent of the people hold 85 percent of the total wealth;
  • The top thirty percent hold 95 percent of the world’s wealth.

I believe it was the great philosopher Richard Skelton who said “It just don’t look right to me”, and the current world situation just doesn’t look right to me.

It seems to me that we have, in the world today, the ability to see that every single human being, anywhere in the world, could have a decent place to live, enough food to eat, enough medical care to live a healthy and long life, and enough education to be able to enjoy some “luxuries” and to be able to give back to society according to their ability.

To the extent that we have that ability, I believe we are morally obligated, as a society, to make it happen. I emphasize as a society. Yes, as individuals we also have responsibility, and that might include giving and otherwise helping, it might include helping with education, and it certainly includes influencing society as a whole to make it happen.

With most of the available money in the hands of a few, we can see that even the most giving of those individuals are not really applying all their efforts to making lives better, and some of them seem to be working to make lives worse. I am not smart enough to see exactly what we should do, but naively it seems to me that taxing the rich would be a start, in that it would make money available to use to make the lives of others, who need it, better. And even a profoundly larger tax rate would not really interfere with those people’s ability to afford the luxuries they have. They currently “earn” in less than an hour what most people earn over their entire lifetime. And they’re not spending it.

Now, of course all that money is doing something. It’s not quite as if these people are dragons sitting on a hoard of gold. The money is flowing around, doing whatever money does. But what it is not doing is housing people in Seattle, or fixing the water in Flint, or shoring up the electrical system in Africa, or teaching young people of color how to improve their lives, or … or … or … you name it.

So this little simulation, flawed though it is, makes me think about how our current system is serving a few people far better than they could possibly deserve, and providing a huge swath of the world’s people with far less than any human anywhere surely deserves.

I know a lot of the objections, which all sound like “if we gave them more they would still not work and would still amount to nothing”. What evidence there is for things like Universal Basic Income do not bear this out. True, some people do not improve their lives. But most do, and the cost of UBI seems always to be lower than the other costs society bears dealing with the problem in other ways.

I do not have solutions. But “it just don’t look right to me”, and I think we would do well to emulate the life of the man believed to be Robert Fitzooth, possibly Earl of Huntingdon, who made a career of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

Please think about this, and act upon it. Tax the rich; eat the rich: it’s up to you. And vote.

final situation one person has it all