Cyberpunk Economics
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By The Colonel

For the purposes of verisimilitude it's worth taking a moment to think about the economics of a Cyberpunk setting - or even equivalent tech Punk Punk for those who don't like wetware and virtual reality. Most of the original cyberpunk aesthetic was born out of the urban collapse of the 1970s which seems to have been (temporarily at least) averted in most of the developed world … given where we are, how do we now get there from here?

First we need to consider what we need for a cyberpunk style dystopia - we need a weak state, powerful corporations, massive inequality and endemic crime. How do we achieve them?

First, we need to weaken the state - which would seem on the face of it to be the opposite direction to the way things are currently going - but it's worth remembering that an authoritarian state is not necessarily a strong one: laws that cannot be enforced are more or less irrelevant. The key to this is probably to look at the position of Detroit and, on a larger scale California - places where government spending far outweighs its receipts. This can be through a variety of reasons, but the key is to assume that it has become more or less ubiquitous by the time the setting becomes dystopic. Broadly, the government is more or less broke and struggles to fund even basic services - hence urban blight, police who lack the ability or will to patrol large areas of their cities, that sort of thing. This does not necessarily mean that the cyberpunk society is low tax - indeed cash strapped governments are quite capable of driving aggressive tax increases which can make legitimate business very expensive. This both increases poverty for the majority of people and drives the growth of the black and grey markets… not only that, but the net effect is usually to reduce the state's income still further by repressing tax producing activities.

This brings us to the corporations - obviously they are thriving despite this apparent squalor and have reverted to a very C20 way of doing things. How and why? The first thing to understand is the phenomenon of regulatory capture - in this case, with corporate lobbyists arranging for legislation favourable to big business (which should be a fairly easy sell as a background concept) - which will include IP legislation and general regulation that requires large legal and compliance departments to meet and hence reduces the chances of smaller and leaner companies eating their lunch - your business model cannot be demolished overnight by a silicon valley startup if that startup needs to employ a vast army of HR professionals, lawyers and compliance specialists before it can start coding. Instead, the guy with the big idea has to sell out the corporation with the regulatory muscle to get the idea to market. Hence the C20 business methods - we've returned to a capital intensive way of doing business. Regulatory capture and a multi-national business model can also help to ensure that big corporations avoid paying tax on as much of their money as possible - failing that, poorly paid public officials can be bribed (remember the state is short of money and may bounce the occasional paycheck).

High unemployment also helps - poor public education (only getting worse because the schools are underfunded) and immigration by large numbers of people, coupled with offshoring and automation of even white collar jobs keep a lot of people poor. High welfare spending may be part of the reason the state is short of money … indeed, if things get bad enough, any welfare spending may have this effect given the number of people it must cover. This helps the corporations as even relatively skilled labour can be kept on low wages and insecure contracts … or easily replaced … and the threat of taking what work they do provide elsewhere can be a powerful bargaining chip with government. Expect a lot of exclusive zero-hours contracts (perhaps with subsistence level "retainers") to ensure that the corps have a pool of labour to hand when they need it, without actually keeping people in work. Obviously the key players will be paid well - or, at least, given a massive benefits package that is sheltered from tax - and even those employed at lower levels may receive benefits that will be a real shock to lose (company medical, dental, housing, schooling … transport…)1. Payment in company scrip may also be very much a thing. Ironically, high minimum wage legislation may help to increase this poverty - again, it will encourage employers to pay the minimum possible number of hours and reduce the chances of a marginal position being kept open - this could also lead to the cyberpunk staple of ubiquitous vending machines (originally a carry-over from a heavy Japanese flavour in early cyberpunk): where a low wage economy might have a clerk manning a counter, a high wage one will replace him with a machine. You can still have the roadside (or gutter-side) stall … outside the policed areas, as part of the grey economy and run by someone self employed2.

All those desperate people, discouraged from legitimate work by heavy taxation, lack of opportunity and barriers to entry will naturally gravitate to the aforementioned black and grey economies - and a lot of business may be done in undeclared "alternative currencies" that aren't declared for tax purposes. Barter may also be popular. Expect there to be a lot of one man bands and small businesses that fly beneath the radar of state and corporation alike, but any attempt to make more than a bare living or to become a significant employer to be stamped on by one or the other with alarming speed. Enforcement can be expected to vary as well - violate the corporation's IP and either the police or a PMC will descend on you with great weight, whereas de-facto slavery or crimes of violence that don't touch on anyone "important" may be tossed to the back of the pile. Again, suitable corruption may also help - to the extent of allowing blatant contempt for what legislation there is (lack of environmental compliance is a genre favourite … although you can expect the corporation responsible to have a spotless environmental compliance system and audit history on paper). Federal agencies may also descend like thunderbolts, apparently at random, with very little legal restraint and a great deal of violence (again, not hard to suspend disbelief for this) in the same jurisdictions where the normal police wouldn't dare drive, let alone set foot. Expect ubiquitous surveillance of everything in the legitimate sphere, but very rarely for the benefit of those surveyed - the corporation will know everything that happens in their enclaves and on their secure intranets, and the government in the policed parts of town or on the internet, and God help anyone who thinks, does or says anything the appropriate power disapproves of in their own domain, but the two might well not share much, if anything, with the other and once you get into the slums the panopticon breaks down almost completely.

For the additional violence beloved of much cyberpunk, it's pretty simple to have the place awash with black market weapons - both commercially manufactured and made in backstreet armouries. Legal purchases of weapons may be expensive and highly restricted - this will only serve to highlight the dystopia - and expect most corporate outlets not to sell them at all, but black market dealers can be expected to be just below the surface, ready to buy and sell for ready cash (albeit probably on a huge mark-up).

Speaking of violence … acquiring the services of a black market doctor is likely to be a key early objective unless the PCs have a patron who can do it for them - public health facilities are liable to be expensive, crowded and prone to report gunshot wounds to the police (who may not do anything3, but may leak the information … one way or another4 … to someone more proactive), and private ones are likely to be even more so on both counts5. In some settings, black market doctors will also buy "post consumer" bodyparts … natural or synthetic. And, of course, they will install that military grade cyberware that you stole (or ripped out of someone else) … albeit possibly not very skilfully6.

More generally when it comes to buying and selling "treasure" from encounters, poverty and restricted options also allow the PCs a ready market for "vendor trash" - if the GM allows it, PCs may be able to make a few dollars stripping the dead of their clothing for resale to some fleamarket dealer7. For added irony, high end electronic goods may be so heavily protected as to be worthless for anything but parts.

Further Game and Story Ideas

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