Friday, July 14, 2017

Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia (author), Oliver Wyman (narrator)

Audible Studios, August 2016 (original publication June 2016)

We don't ordinarily think much about the economics of Star Trek when watching an episode or a movie, but when we step back from the stories themselves, it's a pretty interesting question. How does the Federation's economy work? Although there are references to a currency called simply "credits" scattered through The Original Series, that's later retconned to "just a figure of speech." As explicitly stated in Next Generation and Deep Space 9, the Federation operates without money.

How does that work? Can it work?

Saadia says yes, it can work.

The Federation is a post-scarcity environment. They have more than enough food, shelter, clothing, and what in our time are "luxury goods" to go around, and no need to manage their distribution by means of money. This is true in the time of TOS, but even more true by the time of Next Generation, with its replicators able to produce as many of anything at all as may be wanted, as long as the raw matter exists.

There's no need for anyone to be short of anything, whether they work or not.

Yet everywhere we look in the Federation, we see people working hard at a variety of professions and occupations. Mainly, of course, we see Starfleet officers and crew, but also diplomats, scientists, scholars, and artists. We also see dilithium miners, entertainers, and Picard's family of vintners. There are lawyers and craftspeople and the pleasure workers of the pleasure planet of Risa. Sisko's family runs a famous, popular restaurant in New Orleans.

Why are all these people working, when they don't need to?

Not for money, but for reputation, for status, because they enjoy it, and to make life better. Freed of the necessity to struggle for the basics of survival, humans, as well as other intelligent, social species in the Federation, compete for status and the approval of their peers.

Saadia also looks at the problems. Other cultures don't necessarily adopt the same money-free socio-economic system. The Klingons do use money but clearly place a higher value on honor and reputation; this may be why an alliance between the Federation and the Klingon Empire was eventually possible. We don't really know what the Romulans do.

The Ferengi are full-on rapacious capitalists of the most extreme kind.

There are also still luxury goods, though of a different kind--experiential goods, like Risa, or the Sisko restaurant in New Orleans, or Picard wines. Any replicator can provide wine; only the Picard vinyards can produce, say, the 2340 vintage of Picard wines, and only so many bottles of that. Next year's vintage will be different, in ways that can't be fully predicted in advance. Only so many people can be seated and served in the Sisko restaurant on any particular evening. A less obvious point: Only so many people can work at Sisko's for the experience of making and serving fine food.

In Saadia's discussion of all this, he shows a breadth and depth of knowledge of both economics and science fiction. I was impressed that in discussion the antecedents of Star Trek's post-scarcity economy  and the replicator, he mentions not only more well-known writers and works, but also George O. Smith's "matter duplicator" from the Venus Equilateral stories. A discussion of Mr. Data and the uneasy status of artificial intelligence in the Federation includes not just Asimov's sunny early view of robots and the rise of automation, but his later, darkening views on the subject, that robots and artificial intelligence could make humans too safe and comfortable, leading to the stories that eliminate robots from the future of his future history.

The Federation is a near-utopia, and Saadia makes a reasonable case that we can get there--even without the replicator--and indeed that we are already on our way. He also notes, though, that the transition from one type of economy to another is never easy; it is generally brutally hard on a large proportion of the population. We are already producing more and more goods and services with fewer and fewer people. There is less work for people to do--and so, in the midst of plenty, in the richest society on Earth, we have people unable to afford even the basics, because there is simply not enough work available for them to earn those basics.

This is a lively and fascinating discussion, touching on things I've worried about myself, as well as the considerable potential upside if we make this transition successfully.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.