Slave Lives

Wisdom from Phil Salin

Reported by John Walker

Phil Salin In each of our long and tedious traverse through life, we're lucky if we have the privilege to encounter at least one Wild Talent—a person so endowed with the ability to see things as they are and project their consequences into the future that you feel yourself in the presence of what, in ages before rationality rang down the curtain on the miraculous, one would have called a seer. This was the case when I made the acquaintance of Phil Salin, initially as a spokesman and negotiator in Autodesk's alliance with the Xanadu project, and then Autodesk's investment in the American Information Exchange (AMIX) which he invented—the world's first electronic open auction market for knowledge. A few years after Autodesk terminated its involvement in Xanadu and AMIX, I remarked “In 1989, we had the prototypes of both the World-Wide Web and eBay working in our laboratory and we walked away from both of them because they weren't within our ‘core competency’”.

Meeting Phil Salin was a life-transforming experience for me, not just for the ventures he introduced me to, but mostly the pellucid way he explained the difficult concepts of economics and management that this programmer and engineer only dimly grasped. Here, I want to present just one heuristic I learned from Phil Salin: “slave lives”.

Suppose Pharaoh decides to build a pyramid. Let's say this will take on the order of ten years with an average workforce of 15,000 people. Assuming the workforce were slaves, who were not compensated other than sustenance for their work (this has been disputed—some argue those who built the pyramids were skilled labourers paid for their work), then we might compute the number of slave lives consumed in building the Great Pyramid as 15,000 people times 10 years divided by a generous 30 year work career of a labourer in Old Kingdom Egypt. This works out to be 5,000: five thousand complete lives of slaves consumed to build the Great Pyramid.

Now, Phil Salin asked, how does this apply in today's world? Well, we take the cost of some great “public enterprise”, divide by the lifetime earnings of the median taxpayer who funds them, et voilà, the slave lives consumed in realising them. Let me begin with the one he originally cited to me: the grotesque and detestable “International Space Station”. This monument to pork, crony capitalism, civil servant space cadets, and marooning human destiny in low earth orbit has cost, to date, around US$150 billion (in rapidly-depreciating 2010 greenbacks, including all contributions by international partners).

To convert this into Salin's slave lives, let's look at the median personal income in the United States, which works out to be on the order of US$29,000 a year. (There are many ways to interpret these data, but for this kind of broad brush analysis the details matter but little.) Assume each of these median income workers earns that median salary over their whole working career, and that they work from age 20 through 65, or 45 years. Their total career income, assuming, as with slaves, it was entirely appropriated by the state, is then US$1,305,000. (Amazing, isn't it, that after a century of debasement of the currency the median wage-earner is paid more than a million funny-money dollars during their career?)

We can now compute the cost of the International Space Station in slave lives: divide the total cost of around US$150,000,000,000 by the lifetime labour of a slave: US$1,305,000, and we discover that the entire lifetime efforts of around 115,000 people have been consumed to build this “space station”—or about 23 times as many slave lives as were consumed in building the Great Pyramid.

The measure of “slave lives” is particularly useful when dealing with those who argue certain “public expenditures” are so small as to be negligible. There has long been a great debate over public funding of collectivist propaganda on the airwaves. It appears that as of 2010 the Corporation for Public Brodcasting had a federally-funded budget of US$422 million. So let's work it out: US$422,000,000 divided by a slave life of US$1,305,000: three hundred and twenty-three slave lives—working their entire lives for no other compensation, to fund Elmo and Big Bird. Would you consign 323 people into lifetime servitude to subsidise puppets? There is no moral difference whatsoever if the funds are coercively taken in nibbles from a larger population.