In the virtual world of EVE Online, the economists and policy makers have the advantage of being able to manipulate the world such that the economy will work, rather than trying to manipulate the economy so the world will work.
Warning: in this post, I present a bunch of assumptions in the guise of an information dump, and then ask a question. I'm looking for some interaction with other people who are paying attention to various perceived problems in the economy.
But back to the scheduled programme…
The basic ISK cycle from an individual pilot's perspective is this: earn ISK, spend ISK. When it comes to the "earn ISK" side of the cycle, some people will look for ways to make ISK from the things that they enjoy doing. Other people will engage in the activity which returns the greatest ISK for the time spent acquiring it, in order to have ISK to spend on the activities that they enjoy doing. Except for people ganking hisec mission runners, it tends to be difficult to make ISK via PvP.
Some players have a major goal each month of earning enough ISK to pay for their PLEX, and thus the major driver to their ISK-earning activities is to find a way to make the most ISK possible for the time that they invest in the ISK-making activity. When it comes to "press button, receive ISK", the stand-out obvious candidate activity is participating in hisec incursions.
Here are the rewards for hisec incursions: participating in a group activity with a bunch of folks who just want to shoot the breeze, earning in the order of 100M ISK/hr, and being able to fly pimped out PvE ships without keeping one eye on local and the other on D-scan†. Incursions in hisec are a primarily social activity, which also happen to generate a copious volume of ISK.
Here are the rewards for null sec incursions: participating in a group activity with a bunch of folks who are keeping a paranoid eye on local, intel channels, D-scan and alliance voice comms; earning in the order of 150M ISK/hr at peak productivity, being able to fly pimped out PvE ships if they have a dozen alts watching the systems three jumps in any direction; and waiting for the inevitable CTA to drive off an enemy roaming gang.
My experience with nullsec belt ratting was that a poorly fit Drake could pull in about 60M ISK/hr in a -0.8 system while there were no reds for three systems away, no CTAs, and no alliance members competing for the spawns. The moment there are reds reported in intel, the only option is to warp to a safe (either dock in a station or warp to the safety of a POS bubble). Hanging about in a belt to kill just one more rat would result in a rat scramming you for long enough that the enemy gang will be in your belt, sending you home to your medical clone. The usual breakdown of my time in null sec was about 40% ratting, 40% safed-up due to roaming gangs bigger than any defence fleet we could muster, and 20% of the time being part of a roaming gang myself.
So for the average Jo in null sec trying to grind ISK for that PLEX or a supply of PvP ships each month, their income from incursions will end up being closer to 50M/hr on average if they stick to it. Put yourself in that position: wouldn't you be driven to find the most effective way to fund your subscription or ship supply? As a nullsec resident in this situation, what do you do? Do you hang about in null sec, spending 40% of your time parked and idle watching the minutes of your play time roll past while you're being unproductive, or do you head to hisec where you can safely and reliably make 100M ISK/hr for as long as you can keep your eyes open and mouse buttons clicking?
It turns out that a significant number of null sec residents hit the hisec incursion trail (if people like Zagdul are to be believed, and if the people I routinely fly incursions with are any indication of the general population of incursion runners).
What happens from the rest of null sec's point of view? A small percentage (significant number, we're talking hundreds of pilots, but a small percentage of all null sec) of pilots disappear from your region. Instead of having, say, a reliable 50 in local, your little section of space ends up having only 40 in local - and the ones who disappeared are the ones who were least worried about losing ships. The concentration of risk-averse null bears has increased because the people who are willing to lose ships are off restoring their ship replacement fund. So there are fewer roams, there is less motivation to intercept interlopers. Your patch just doesn't seem as interesting any more.
So you log out. And the number of online players in your home patch of null sec plummets. Nullsec goes stale. People unsubscribe. EVE dies. All this because hisec incursions are far more profitable than any ISK-making activity in null sec.
What can be done to bring those ISK-grinding folks back to null sec? Does anything need to be done?
† is is an accepted truth of EVE Online that living in null sec requires at least three eyes.