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Beta Colony and Switzerland

Lois Bujold has referred to California -- or California before it got "wonky" -- as the inspiration for Beta Colony. "Very politically correct, very liberal, with some hidden illiberalities." Big on sexual freedom and education -- 60s and 70s California, and Pat Brown's California of the nearly free colleges, not the dying school system of Proposition 13 California. And in universe Beta is an America colony, and the only American colony.

Nonetheless, the more I learn about Switzerland and think about Beta, the more the two seem to line up in my head. Coincidence, my selective filters, or the natural result of highly democratic states? You may judge.

Switzerland is famously the only direct democratic country in the world; day to day government is conventionally representative, apart from a collegiate seven-person executive, but the people have a real power to check laws and propose their own, voting 4 times a year on maybe an average of 12 referenda or initiatives per year.

Beta's government has never been relevant enough to be even sketched, apart from being democratic of some sort, but we know that "Betan votes" are proverbial to both Aral and Miles, and Miles considers it radically egalitarian compared to other "so-called democracies" like Vervain. Cordelia's crew votes to ignore its captain's orders. An easy way of cashing this out would be that most democratic planets are representative democracies, while Beta has a strong direct component -- at least Swiss in level, if not stronger.

It works in another way: while the US itself has no federal direct democracy, half of its states do, more so than most other countries. As an American colony it's reasonable for Beta to start with such mechanisms; as the only American colony, it's reasonable for it to be unique in this.

Beta is famously advanced and a leader in research, as advanced as Earth -- the richest and most populous planet -- with key discoveries such as uterine replicators and artificial gravity, a persistent lead in weapon design, and a leader in biotech.

Switzerland is not so famous, but when I dug around regarding the "in five hundred years Switzerland invented the cuckoo clock", I found the Swiss have many famous scientists and engineers to their name. More rigorously, look at Nobel laureates per capita: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Nobel_laureates_per_capita Of countries big enough to be significant, Switzerland and Sweden have a sizable lead, 24% more than Denmark or Austira. A third more than Britain, twice as many as Israel, nearly three times as many as Germany or the USA, which I would have thought led in research funding.

Swiss arms I don't know much about, but they have an export industry up to 0.42% of exports, largely to advanced countries like the US. They also have an ongoing fight about selling arms to countries low in human rights, and whether they should be loser about selling defensive systems. I imagine that's a recurrent fight in Betan politics as well.

It's also got lots of top biotech firms, and a large precision manufacturing sector.

Welfare and Jobs:
Welfare states aren't particularly uncommon, but Beta is indeed fairly generous: Hathway tells Baz, an immigrant, that he can register at a Shelter to get food (and presumaby shelter). He seems about to indicate that getting work is easy too, though gets cut off so we're not sure if there was guaranteed work or just a matchmaking service. From Cordelia we know that at least public comconsole access -- like library computers? -- is a right; I imagine someone writing after 1991 would make it more like public wireless broadband.

Switzerland is also generous, though perhaps not exceptionally so. Of more note is employment: unemployment rates of 1-3%, youth unemployment of 3% -- extraordinary for Europe -- and the second highest OECD employment-population ratio, just behind Iceland. So it's not just a matter of people lazing off; they actually do find jobs.

Mark calls Betan dollars hard currency, in distinction to Barrayaran marks. The author's model for this is almost certainly the US dollar.

Swiss francs are also considered hard currency. As a small country its money doesn't have a big role in foreign reserves, but it is respected, and was a refuge in the eurocrisis until the central bank threatened to print francs as needed to protect their trade balance.

Interestingly, democratic Athens also had hard currency, with wildly popular and widespread coins of reliable silver content, and a brand maintained at public expense. Along with being a center of culture, philosophy, and perhaps what passed for Greek science, and having safety nets for its citizens...

Switzerland is fairly friendly to refugees it lets in, but rather slow to give out citizenship, and increasingly prickly about immigrants in general (now 25% of the country.) We don't know Betan policies, except that Beta controls total population growth even at the level of individual births, which is like regulating immigration from the next generation.

Switzerland is famously neutral, with universal male conscription. Beta is odd... in the first book, we see it not being neutral, and coming to Escobar's aid. But we also see that it didn't have an expeditionary military, and had to make one up out of the BAS and thin air, without even ready uniforms. So it would seem to have been neutral and demilitarized for a long time. Perhaps it had in-system forces fortifying the wormholes, but clearly no force projection. Of course Switzerland was born in the middle of the wars of Europe, while Beta grew for two centuries in total isolation, and after that could simply fortify a few wormholes with the best weapons in the galaxy.

Prostitution, drugs, and suicide:
Beta colony has legal though heavily licensed prostitution -- Licensed Practical Sexuality Therapists, who need an associates degree in psychotherapy. Not high status, "not dregs", a personal service job like being a hairdresser. Drugs don't really come up, apart from "creme de meth" [sic], which we saw on a ship docked *at* Beta.

Prostitution is simply legal in Switzerland, age 16+ until late last year, now 18+. Brothels, unions, etc. Zurich is experimenting with its own drive-in sex boxes, to get streetwalkers off the street. Drugs aren't particularly legal (compared to Portuguese decriminalization), but Zurich has also experimented with a park safe for drug users, and national policy aims at harm reduction more than punishment. Switzerland has had assisted suicide since 1941, with "suicide clinics" in Zurich.

Conclusion: Again, I'm not saying Lois had Switzerland in mind; that seems very unlikely. I'm just struck by the parallels between the most democratic world of the Nexus, the most democratic country of today, and (less documented here) the most democratic city-state of Greece: welfare *and* hard currency *and* scientific advancement (it's the Nobels/capita that really sparked this piece) and, of course, reluctance to share or dilute their highly valuable citizenship.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/388689.html#comments


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 19th, 2014 12:17 pm (UTC)
I assume by "hard currency" she means a stable currency? (Really, that means price stability, since if there's economic growth the money supply has to grow with it.) I don't recall that specific passage personally (unless it's in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, which I've not read yet), so I'm going by context in your post.

Mentioning that, though, makes me wonder about Jackson's Hole. It has no formal government at all, as I recall, so I'm wondering how their money works. Given that the planet runs on unbridled commerce, and has no authority that issues or controls a currency, I'd guess that they use a mix of foreign currencies and non-liquid commodities. Such a system would (a) give Jacksonians something of a hedge against sudden inflation or deflation of any given currency, (b) allow Jacksonian business cartels to deal with a wide variety of payment methods from their client base, and (c) facilitate profit through arbitrage (e.g. profiting off of exchange rate fluctuations).

Another thought: Beta Colony explicitly has private businesses and a market economy. ISTR, vaguely, some stuff in one of the books involving ownership shares in a Betan corporation, too. I'm wondering if there's a Betan stock market (almost certainly), and what it looks like.
Mar. 19th, 2014 04:11 pm (UTC)
I decided that Lois meant hard currency the way we mean it IRL: a currency that is stable, isn't eaten away by hyperinflation, that holds value over time, whose government (generally?) allows free exchange, and which is widely accepted for exchange or - depending on circumstances - to with which to buy goods directly.

To your thoughts about Jacksonian currency, I imagine the Houses have their own currencies as well. While no decent House would be so stupid as to reneg, the relative value of a House currency would be determed by the market (natch) based on House political stability, amount being made, and economic stability/reliability/breadth of economic operations. IOW, very much like the British North American colonies (the further south one goes, the more true this is) and the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation.

Edited at 2014-03-19 04:14 pm (UTC)
Mar. 19th, 2014 06:42 pm (UTC)
Sounds good, except I'd go with a scrip/company store side to the Houses. They're pure anarcho-capitalism with no labor laws, after all; throw in every labor abuse we have or had...
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:02 pm (UTC)
It could be both scrip/company store (to pay employees) and House currency. I can see someone important negotiating for hard currency or House currency (which can be used in other places on JW, such as another House's bordello, medical center, or haberdashery), whereas common labor is stuck with scrip.
Mar. 19th, 2014 06:41 pm (UTC)
It's in _A Civil Campaign, during the couch showdown scene.

'"I don't care if the boy has a million marks," Da began, sturdily and, Kareen suspected, not quite truthfully.
"Betan dollars," Tante Cordelia corrected absently. "Jacksonians do insist on hard currencies."'

We quickly learn that a dollar is four marks, so it's possible Lois meant 'hard' as in 'valuable' or 'strong', but the text does not commit us to such a mistake. I think an analogy of Beta being a well-run developed country with high-demand exports like the US (ahem) or Germany or Switzerland, and Barrayar being a Third World autocracy with high inflation or estimated risks thereof, fits pretty well.

For the Houses, well, we've got textev right there. I imagine Jacksonians not in a position to insist may get paid in House scrip, usable at the company store, if they're lucky enough to get paid at all.
Mar. 19th, 2014 03:30 pm (UTC)
re drugs on Beta: smoking is common enough that Cordelia doesn't notice anything seriously amiss IIRC in CORDELIA'S HONOR when a psych interviewer is smoking during an interview, but she is apparently personally unfamiliar enough with mind-altering substances that she doesn't notice right away that the secondary smoke is delivering some form of truth-drug to her.

The whole episode suggests to me that Beta has plentiful, lawful light drugs and sufficient medical tech to not worry about long-term damage from delivering them by smoking, but people who somehow get or make the hard stuff and develop disabling addictions fall under the mandated care of public health, and are treated until they are judged well (enough to give retroactive consent, at least).
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:34 pm (UTC)
IRL note. If direct democracy means initiatives and referendums, there had better be some rules against corporations hiring signature collectors. And when an initiative is really from the people, some control on corporations crushing the cause with expensive (and probably dishonest) advertising; eg Prop 522 in Washington state.

With representative democracy, the candidate has a track record, so you more or less know what you're getting. With initiatives and referendum, each election is a one shot pig in a poke, labeled and/or decided by money.
Mar. 19th, 2014 07:41 pm (UTC)
Money's an influence, not a determinant. I doubt Swiss money wanted shareholder votes on CEO compensation, or for Switzerland to shut down EU migration.

And I can spin it the other way: with representative democracy there's just one election to buy every few years, and a small number of people to bribe to get what you want, vs. having to 'buy' a dozen elections a year or more, and not having anyone you can bribe to reliably get laws made.

'track record' vs. 'pig in a poke' isn't a valid comparison. People vs. written laws. If the voters well don't read the laws, well, then you *can* say they get the government they deserve.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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