A Game of Shares
Thoughts on how stock trading and ledgers influence the world of HSD
note – this was written before Sound and Silence was released, and that book has a lot of info on the economics of Sol. Maybe I’ll expand this eventually…
Whether they know it or not, every Vector–well, every Vector with a ledger, and by obvious extension every Vector of importance–is a stock trader. From the day they’re born, Vector’s ledgers make constant investments, a system that provides a a base standard of living and something like a retirement system. As long as Vectors live, they’re a financial asset to their companies, who realize some trickle of income from their ledgers.
If this was a closed system, it would stagnate–like the classic 1912 get-rich-quick hoax, “rat farm and cat farm.” “We breed rats for the cats to eat, skin the cats for fur, sell the fur, and give the cats to the rats to eat.” MarsCo began its existence as an economic biodome, an absolute monopoly that completely owned its consumer base. Within 300 years it had spun off ASR and Pulse, the two oldest children with deep family rivalries, and was facing competition from other megacorps as well. MarsCo’s wealth and influence is vast, and presumably in earlier Sol, it was even more powerful (vectors spreading from Mars and the diversification of the other megacorps would both undermine its power base). And, importantly, MarsCo was unregulated, no laws exist in HSD to break up a monopoly or prevent anti-competitive practices. Either MarsCo is too big to be threatened by its competition, or the benefits of competition outweigh the costs. Competition between megacorps is the churn that keeps Vector society from entropy and stagnation. We can guess that MarsCo did not see competition as a problem, but a necessary good.
It’s even theoretically possible to purchase MarsCo! As a publicly traded company, it could be acquired by a group with the tenacity and resources. Highly theoretical, but technically possible. This may have been how the single-species corporations of the Genotype era were able to thrive: a stronger monoculture and combined purchasing power.
Corptowns, Corpornations, the Ledger, and the social welfare net of Vector society all suggest that there’s a strong advantage for corps to take care of their employees. Cynically, this doesn’t seem to exist in the 21st century United States, at least, where layoffs are ways of building shareholder value and public health care is a political poker chip.
How does competition and churn directly benefit the megacorps, and how can that be applied to increasing the FAE (Fun And Excitement) of an HSD Campaign? Here’s some ideas.
The 99% Vote
Want to change a corporation? Vote. But there’s a tradeoff.
Broad generalities, let’s pretend it’s true:there are two distinct types of stock. Common Shares are slivers of a corporation that carry a small amount of income, and give their holder a “one vote, one share” decision in governing the company at elections. Preferred shares give their holder a larger portion of the company’s income–in fact, owners of preferred stock may get dividends before common stock holders. But they can’t vote. The tradeoff: more money, no participation.
It sounds like over centuries, the default stock in HSD has become preferred stock, or something like it. Typical shareholders (Corptown inhabitants, corporate employees) get a share of the revenue of their town and corporation, but their role in governing the corporation is mostly symbolic, vestigial. Participation traded for security.
Perhaps one of the benefits the Corporate Masters receive for providing a rich bounty of cheap apartments and soylent green is the proxy vote of their constituents. Written into the contract between employer and mook, or corporate landlord and corpornation or corptown citizen, the benefit of supporting a citizen or employee appears to be stronger control over their own interests.
“By the act of living there, vectors all have a piece of the pie.” (HSD1.0 p.32)
“Most corporations have had to serve as both representative and employer, and as such ahve become significantly more accountable to their employees. Those corps that ignored the needs of their citizens were removed, often violently, until they got the message that certain behaviors were not going to be tolerated.” (p.31)
“Somewhere out in the big empty is a Corp waiting for a citizen like you, and they’re all eager to bring in newcomers, if only to sap them from their enemies.” (p. 31)
Of a corptown/Corpornation: “Representatives and storefronts, factories, even embassies from other corps all coexist within [corpornation] borders, forming a colorful mosaic of capitalism….At the top of the heap is the Corp that runs the corpornation itself, to whom all others pay rent for the privilege of doing business…”
What we see is a robust sense of give and take in the corporate world. Corpornations encourage citizens to live within their borders, creating something like indentured servitude for employees. Advanced education is expensive, and payment tends to take the form of work. For the bulk of the world, the basics seem to be more than enough. For a constellation of reasons, corps support their citizens, even non-paying ones…why?
On Opportunity, Education, and Social Mobility:
Some useful comparison points: in the US, about 33% of people attain a college degree, and 10% or so get a postgraduate degree. In 2014, about 60% of the US population was employed, and half of those were making under $15 an hour. Do with this information what you will. Increasing the flow of money from the rich to the poor and strengthening the social safety net, as happened in Denmark, seems to increase the potential for social mobility, but decrease the incentive to reach for opportunity. The United States tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of a very few; levels of higher education in the US are generally quite high, but social mobility in the US is very low.
In the “default” HSD setting, there appears to be a strong social safety net. Vectors can’t easily starve or go homeless, and the continual operation of their ledgers takes care of many day-to-day public services (likely basic transportation, toggle communication services, etc.) Low-paying jobs in the Corp seem to be nearly guaranteed. But the gaps between the haves and have-nots are vast. How this plays out locally varies–MarsCo, slow to act and with a mother complex, may never push someone off the dole. MarsCo’s hierarchy is vast and notoriously difficult to navigate. It seems likely MarsCo corptowns would have a glut of unambitious citizens, doing what they could to do just a bit more than get by. Spyglass and Pulse thrive on reputation and personal challenge, and likely they’d swing more toward a sink-or-swim model with a weaker safety net and more ambitious populations.
A Vector’s Ledger continually makes investments and trades on behalf of its owner, and is not directly owned by any one corporation (or it’s held by MarsCo under a neutrality clause). The Ledger itself continually ticks away, buying and selling without direct input from its owner, although the financial risks you can take during the “check your ledger” process (HSD1.0 p.130) involves active manipulation of the ledger algorithms and intentional trading.
Vectors themselves are as much product as person, and the MegaCorps benefit, presumably quite strongly, for providing the basic necessities of life for vectorkind. One way in which they likely benefit is through second-hand shareholder influence in the form of proxy votes and shares. In exchange for the base vector standard of living, the perks of a high-end lifestyle on a BlueSky, or the retirement benefits provided to older vectors, the voting rights and corporate governance benefits of being a shareholder are by default inherited by the owners of a CorpTown and by a Vector’s direct employers. How these proxy shares are divvied up is tied into the black box of the Ledger algorithm, but it would likely be a form of payment for services rendered to the Vector, a sort of write-off for the expenses of wages and standards of living over and above subsistence.
Interestingly, there’s an aside on “debt” (Ext1.0 p.61) suggesting that by relieving the populace of a corptown of debt, a rival corp can acquire the company that left them in debt, and this “benevolent takeover” is a common practice. Somehow, providing for a customer base that’s in dire need gives an aggressive company a degree of ownership of the vectors’ previous corpornation: a strong indication that the relationship of provider-relationship-owner that a corp enjoys over its citizens gives them control over the vector’s shares.
As a potential plot model, I’d like to take an “illogical extreme” trip to the 1990s and TSR’s “Planescape” RPG. In this game, the campaign’s main setting was a city hovering in the middle of two dozen heavens, hells, and afterlife realms, balancing very carefully between good and evil. This city – Sigil – was a prize for every major god, and if enough of the citizens were coverted to good or chaos or order or Natural Law, the city at the center of the unverse would slide into one of the dozen afterlife realms. The citizens of a corpornation are shareholders, and their landlord corp or megacorp houses them as a bullwark against hostile takeover.
The subsidiary corps are a low-hanging fruit. A small corp is spun off as an independent venture. In the transition time between spinoff organization and stand-alone operation, the dominant shareholder is the parent corporation. Over time, shares are distributed downward and outward, into the safety and inertia of a content population. In this transitional period, a rival faction could capitalize on the uncertainty of the new organization and relatively small shareholder base to steal enough of the subsidiary’s shares to significantly affect its direction and policies, and command their own influence within the parent corp.
In the United States, the deaths of the rich and famous is potentially an occasion for some profound redistribution of wealth. In the absense of lawyers and loopholes, as much as 40% of a millionaire’s estate will go back to the state.
The ledger–every Vector’s personal broker and for many, their retirement plan–gives its owner a constant drip that offsets living expenses and the thousands of service fees that would otherwise nickel and dime a Vector to death. We don’t have a clear view of what happens to a ledger upon a vector’s death. Some portion may be passed downward to his or her children, but it would be in the corporation’s interests if their shares were at least in part dispersed into the ether, or passed upward to the corporate to be redistributed again–a sort of capitalist reincarnation.
An “annuity” is a form of investment that, upon X condition, pays Y dividends, until Z timeline. A common structure today: a donor, say, Jaimey, will feed money into a large donation to Goodpeople Foundation. When Jaimey retires, s/he receives dividends from this donation until death, whereupon Goodpeople is finally given the lump sum of the donation.
This may in part be how Vector ledgers operate: the Vector’s time is invested their employer and corpornation, which in turn invests in the Vector again. When the Vector retires, they have a larger portion of their Ledger to draw upon. Since the Ledger grows by slow increments with no effort on the part of its owner, vectors may not be entitled to any share of their ledger upon death. It would certainly benefit the corps to have as much control as possible over these afterlife shares.
In the HSD universe, immortality is vanishingly rare, but not unheard of. Individuals of great importance may have immortality bestowed upon them. The only named example here is a TTI scientist who witnessed the first Whisper invasion, but how important is that scientist compared to the continuity of TTI itself…and who is better-placed to say what’s truly important to TTI than its Board of Directors and CEO?
Imagine a conspiracy of ancient immortals, taking every possible action to preserve their unnatural lifespans. Like Nosferatu, but preserved by their vast portfolios. Every year, the value of their shares is incremented by the services they’ve performed to their corporations, and there cannot be any greater service than leadership.
While the fraction of the corporation contained in an ancient shareholder’s portfolio might still be a tiny wedge of the total value of, say, MarsCo, the number of shares that are actively used in managing the day-to-day affairs of the corporation is also small. And over the years, these ancient shareholders would have a deep reserve of this-and-that shares, interests in the other megacorps, pieces of this and that, vestigial resources from dead and unlisted corps, all safeguards against potential rivals. They’re likely immune to financial instruments, but free agents with little or no corporate oversight (see also, “the PCs”) may be able to take decisive action where investors are too hobbled by corporate red tape to act.
The majority of vectors live under the watchful eyes of a corporate Big Brother. Ledgers are generally regarded as “unhackable,” and by and large that’s a good background assumption for the world. (Paraphrase):The ancient formulas are predictable, anomalies too easily detected.
But that applies to the procedural, low-risk operation of the automatic ledger transaction. When a Vector takes his financial risk and gain into his own paws, they may be operating outside the safe zones and protected shoals of ledger operation, vulnerable to corporate oversight–and interference. A simple higher-risk trade like a PC attempting to optimize their ledger for a little bonus cash might go under the radar. A large transaction, or the high-risk trades of a financial Savant, may draw unwanted attention and meddling.
Ironically, there may be no safer place to twist the threads of financial destiny than, say, The Empyrean. This strange world of bizarre and mythical blips is connected to SolNet, but has little or no corporate control. Even so, it may not be entirely risk-free. After all, a dragon’s got to build her hoard somehow.
Still, grottos, drifting freeholds, and unaligned asteroid bases, may end up being the only places where a large transaction or series of small operations can go unobserved long enough to get the jump on the megacorps. The risks inherent in all these locations, and the challenge of operating outside the perception of MarsCo herself (remember, MarsCo owns every BlueSky station and created the major colonies) are both major plot elements on their own.
This is covered in more depth in “Exotic Options“–a Zombie Corp is a corporation that exists in a brief transition period between being delisted (taken off the stock market), devalued, and destroyed.
In US stock trading, most corporations have finite lifespans, and don’t have the cultural weight of nations and worlds. In HSD, a single corporation can effectively own its own moon, and even a smaller corporation can found and dominate a city. When these corporations shut down, they may live on in a sort of corporate twilight: a brief period where the old corptown rules still hold sway. In some unusual circumstances, a corporation may be disbanded through violence, an anticapitalist revolution. In such a case, violence and revolution may zero out the financial value of the corporation and its shares, but the cultural value might linger for years, or centuries. Like the Priory de Sion or the secret heirs to an ancient fallen empire, ancient shareholders and dedicated paleoaccountants clutch their fading stock certificates, waiting for some impossible resurrection…