What the economics of Star Trek can teach us about the real world

The Washington Post | The Switch  |Original Source

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Almost fifty years after Captain Kirk first took the U.S.S. Enterprise on a voyage to explore strange new worlds, the Star Trek universe is more expansive than ever. It’s been the subject of serious study by political scientists, sociologists, even religion researchers — a sign of how deeply influential the show and its ideas have become. Star Trek posits a world in which hunger, war, and poverty have been eliminated — a utopia that isn’t just free from want, but also free from capitalism and even currency.

But for all its staying power in the rest of academia, Star Trek is almost nowhere to be found in economics, according to Manu Saadia, author of the forthcoming book “Trekonomics.” We sat down with Saadia this week to talk about the book and his analysis of the Star Trek economy. Also joining us was Fusion senior editor Felix Salmon, who’s working with Saadia to print the book using the crowdfunding publisher Inkshares. (We’ll note in the text when Salmon chimes in, but otherwise, the rest is Saadia speaking.)

How did Trekonomics come about?

I think it was back in 2013 there were a bunch of posts on Medium about the economics of Star Trek by some very smart people. I happen to have a couple of friends who used to work on the show, and we knocked out a few beers and were like, “Hey, have you seen those?” and we started looking around for an actual book that covered the whole subject, and didn’t find anything. My friend who used to be a writer on Star Trek said, “Why don’t you do it?”

What’s the book about, in a nutshell?

It’s a description of the economics of Star Trek. And I’m trying to stay very close to the canon — the 600-plus hours of TV shows. It’s a discussion of the very commonly discussed topics behind it, and also a discussion of how likely it is to happen, or rather what are the requirements for this to happen.

So for someone who isn’t a Star Trek fan or who doesn’t follow the show, how does this book make economics relevant to them?

What happens in the economics of Star Trek is that automation has taken over. And so I think it matters because we talk a lot about, well, the robots are coming and they’re coming for our jobs. I was reading yesterday that Dartmouth has a contest for a robot to do creative writing. So the robots are really coming. We have to think deeply and seriously about what that means for work, and what is the meaning of work in society as a result of technological change.

[Felix Salmon jumps in here.]

There’s something else, which I think is really important here. If you are in economics, what you are thinking about is basically the way society works under scarcity. And it’s hard to understand the way society works under scarcity unless and until you actually spend a bit of time understanding how a society might work without scarcity. And that’s exactly what we have in Star Trek.

What’s the biggest change we’d see in a post-scarcity environment? How would our lives change?

Manu Saadia: There’s no longer any necessity to work to sustain oneself. Machines complement our work as humans and allow us to escape the most dreadful effects of scarcity. Poverty, hunger, all that.

Instead of working to become more wealthy, you work to increase your reputation. You work to increase your prestige. You want to be the best captain or the best scientist in the entire galaxy. And many other people are working to do that, as well. It’s very meritocratic, similar to my friends who are mathematicians or scientists. And it’s extremely hard.

The nature of work is no longer tied to conspicuous consumption, or the necessity to actually feed yourself or to make money. Work has become something that allows you to increase your reputation, or your reputational capital. That’s how it’s depicted in the series.

That sounds similar to what other science fiction universes have predicted. When you get approval from other people, it allows you to spend it and gain real-world resources.

[Salmon jumps in.]

What’s amazing to me is that this is an amazing time to think about this. We’re beginning to get a few hints of what the post-money, reputation-based economy might look like, if you look at things like Instagram, Vine, places where people put a huge amount of work into basically just gaining a certain amount of reputation. It’s fascinating to see. Or even Wikipedia, for that matter. The Internet has begun to give us a hint of how much people will work, for no money, just for reputation.

Manu Saadia: What really struck me when I was doing the research was how much Star Trek is actually indebted to Isaac Asimov. Asimov invented the “nice robot” with the three laws designed to prevent them from turning all Terminator or Frankenstein on humans. The cycle of novels that begins with “The Caves of Steel” and continues through the 1980s and “The Robots of Dawn,” he describes a society where in space you have all these planets that are inhabited by people who live with robots and they’re pretty idle and life is very good, and they’re very opulent. Their goal in life is to do beautiful things and to make beautiful things.

That’s very much what you see in The Next Generation. Asimov was really the first to think through a society where the problem of labor has been overcome, and Star Trek picked up where Asimov left off.

If your argument is that Star Trek reflects a post-scarcity world, what explains the Ferengi — an alien species obsessed with the acquisition of material wealth? Is only the Federation post-scarcity?

The problem of the Federation is that even though it’s post-scarcity within the Federation, it still has to deal with the outside, and they don’t have the same values and they don’t have the same views or ethics or interests. And so the Federation actually lives in a world that has lots of scarcity, which, in a way, prevents it from realizing a fully post-scarcity society. The Ferengi are my favorite — there’s one episode where you see Quark, the Ferengi bartender on Deep Space 9, admonishing Commander Sisko. Sisko says, “Once, we were like you — greedy, blah blah blah.” And Quark is like, “Well, we’re nothing like you — we’ve never had slavery, for one.”

Ohh, burn.

It has a name in the history of economics. It’s called doux commerce, the “soft commerce.” It’s the 18th-century idea of “wars will be softened by trade.” The Ferengi represent the ideal side of that debate, which is that commerce is great, commerce makes people happy, commerce makes people peaceful. Commerce makes people not want war. And it’s the idealistic view, current today among our libertarian friends.

[Salmon chimes in.]

They’re basically like, 16th-century Venice.

Manu Saadia: Yeah, they are — and it’s very deliberate. The Ferengi complicate the story and make it much more varied and they allow us to see how a post-scarcity society would actually interact with people who are still in a market economy. And what’s very interesting over the whole arc of “Deep Space 9,” just by osmosis and contact with the Federation, the Ferengi slowly evolve and their values change and it turns out they actually have a very strong moral fiber. And they represent what’s most honorable about capitalism.

How much of the book have you written at this point?

It’s pretty much done, but it never ends. At some point someone’s going to take it away from me. I’m still wrestling with the last couple chapters. The “Is it possible?” part.

In the first chapter you address the difference between luxury goods and strategic goods. When there are only so many bottles of Chateau Picard, you can just choose a different type of wine and satisfy your desire for wine that way. But then what happens to more limited goods, like vacations on Risa, how do you deal with those?

The case of Risa is interesting. For those who don’t know the series, Risa is the pleasure planet of the Federation. It was invented by Gene Roddenberry — there’s an interview of the writers saying Gene was like, “Yeah, we need Picard to f**k a little!” (Laughs)

On Risa, the Risans are sex workers, except they don’t get paid — they do it for fun. So a lot of people flock to Risa for their vacations, and there’s limited space. But in general, I’d say this: You don’t have to schedule your vacations, because you’re not really employed in anything. So if there’s no spot when you come, you can always come back later. That’s fine.

The other one is that if you show good reputation and you’re famous, like Captain Picard, it’s somewhat easier to secure a spot when your ship comes into orbit. So there is an element of connections, and building good relations — you have to talk your way into getting a spot.

For more regular folk, it’s probably first-come, first-serve, but you don’t have the same time constraints as today. And if people are still denied space when they show up, they probably say “Eh, there’s a lot of other things to do with my life.”

In a world where you can have anything you want, at any time, without any additional cost? Losing your spot on Risa just does not have the same ring to it. It’s okay. You can do it later. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around it because we just don’t live in that world. And honestly, sometimes I’m like, “these people are weird.” They really are.

We’ve talked about the economics of “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space 9.” I’m interested in how the economics present themselves in each of the Star Trek series. I’m curious how you’ve seen it evolve.

There’s a moment in the history of Star Trek where you see a real break. And that’s around “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” There’s a joke by Kirk about how there’s no money in the 23rd century. [But] in the early days of the original series, they’re on a space station and they say they’re going to spend their money buying Tribbles. Huh, really?

So there is some currency prior to “The Next Generation,” prior to the 24th century. Then things change. Same thing with the replicator, which is the most important machine. The replicator does not exist on Kirk’s Enterprise. Up through the last movie [featuring the original Enterprise crew], “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” when the Klingons come for dinner, you see there’s a galley kitchen on the Enterprise. There’s no “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”

The first time a replicator shows up, it’s in the third episode of the first season [of The Next Generation]. Then “DS9” comes in. Deep Space 9 is a space station that used to be owned by the Cardassians, who were the occupiers of Bajor, and the Federation takes it over to help the Bajorans rebuild their lives. It’s a situation that’s been very much marred by scarcity, and the Federation has to get its hands dirty with people like the Ferengi.

Then in “Voyager,” they do have scarcity. The ship is flung deep into the Delta quadrant, very far away, and they have to come back. They organize replicator rations because there isn’t enough energy on the ship to continue living the life of a post-scarcity, replicator-aided life.

And then “Enterprise” is a prequel, and in “Enterprise” you see the slow, evolution of humanity toward that moment that in Voyager they call the “New World Economy.” It’s not that easy, the transition toward a post-scarcity economy. They don’t have any replicators. They barely have the transporter. There are accidents. It’s a show that talks more about ourselves than about the distant future where things have been solved.

That frankly made it easier on the writers. Because the plight of the writers on “TNG” or “Deep Space 9” were basically that your characters are perfect. They don’t have any challenges, which is a reflection of the life they live.

With replicators, matter and energy are freely interchangeable, but there are some situations where you have, as you say, replicator rations. Which suggests the Star Trek economy is not really a non-economy so much as an energy economy. Which of our energy economy rules might or could still apply to the Star Trek universe?

(Laughs) That’s the part of Star Trek that — if you try to bring in the real world, it gets complicated. Energy in Star Trek is essentially free, because they have this matter/anti-matter converter thing. Even if you can generate free energy through, say, solar panels, there’s maintenance costs.

But I was looking at these numbers — when you look at U.S. GDP, the part of energy of U.S. GDP is stuck at, like, 8 percent. I’m not saying it’s marginal, but it’s not that high. And it tends to go down as we get more efficient. I don’t think it can get to zero, unless somebody invents fusion reactors. And even then, you still have to bring the electricity somewhere. So energy will tend to get very cheap, but does it get to zero? I don’t know.

With “Voyager,” far away, where you have to hoard your energy, then yes, you have to ration your use of energy. If dilithium crystals are freely available, it’s easier. In the real world? Slightly more complicated, but not out of the realm of possibility. If energy as a share of GDP gets to 1 or 2 percent, it becomes very marginal. Applying Moore’s Law to solar energy production, if it doubles every year and a half, then by the late 2030s we’ll have free energy everywhere around the world.Could there ever be a point where the dilithium supply runs out, and does Starfleet have a plan for that?Substitution, man. Substitution. Starfleet is so good, there are so many nerds and engineers. There’s no peak dilithium. You know why? Because if it becomes too expensive to mine, they will find something else. They’ll put a bunch of Vulcans on the case and they’ll find a solution. And the guy that finds the solution will be a hero. I think that scenario is likely in the Federation.

Dilithium mining is fascinating. The Klingons force their prison inmates to do it for them — a seemingly unnecessary, brutal (and inefficient!) system compared to the Federation’s.

It is. The Klingons, they learn from the Federation, and they get closer and closer the more they progress. But it’s true, having slaves mine dilithium is idiotic. The Klingons are very attached to their old traditional ways. They’re very nostalgic. The Klingons are complicated. They do start with a very inefficient economy, in the name of tradition.

Star Trek offers all these different models of economic behavior according to values in society, and the Klingons are part of that.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.