The Big Idea: Manu Saadia
Posted on May 31, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
In the future, we will have space travel and transporters and tribbles… but will we have a robust and coherent economic system? And if so, what will it look like and how will it actually function? These are the questions that Manu Saadia has asked, and in his book Trekonomics, attempts to answer.
As you may have heard by now, Star Trek turns 50 this year. Over the past 50 years it has become an integral part of our lives. It is a signpost in popular culture, a legit, iconic piece of Americana.
As a result, everything has been written about Star Trek. You’ve got books on the physics of Star Trek, the religions of Star Trek, the philosophy of Star Trek (my favorite: The Wrath of Kant), Trek fandom, Gene Roddenberry William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, etc, etc. Star Trek is a literary genre in and of itself.
I’ve read a lot of these books over the years. After all, I am a dedicated fan. Yet, I couldn’t find a book about the economics of Star Trek. For some bizarre reason that crucial aspect of Trek, perhaps its most singular, had not been covered. To paraphrase the other franchise, this was the book I was looking for.
So there it is. Plumbing. That’s the big idea behind Trekonomics. Plumbing. You can’t see plumbing, you take it for granted, you barely notice it. Yet plumbing is absolutely essential to life in modern society, real or imagined. Economics is the plumbing of Star Trek as much as it is the plumbing of our world. It is what gives them both their unique, distinctive shapes. It is what makes them work.
We all know that there is no money in Star Trek’s 24th century. But it goes far beyond that: in the Federation there is neither hunger, poverty nor any of the economic challenges and rewards that make our 21st century lives so interesting. In Trek’s world, what British economist John Maynard Keynes called the “economic problem,” the necessity to work to sustain ourselves, has simply gone the way of the dodo.
In the book I examine three questions: first, how does economics actually function in Star Trek’s universe? Second: is Trekonomics internally consistent? And thirdly, is it even remotely possible or is Star Trek just another cheesy SJW communist Kumbaya in space?
The C- or the S- words are the elephant in the room when it comes to Trek. Let’s dispose of that once and for all. No, Star Trek is not a communist utopia in space. It is not communist (or socialist) because communism was an economic and political response to Keynes’ economic question – how to best organize and distribute scarce resources. In an over-abundant world such as Star Trek’s, a post-scarcity world, the issue of ownership is moot. It’s very much like Iain Banks’ Culture. Why would you want to own the means of production when the value of the things you produce has converged to zero? Or, in other words, when a replicator can make any gizmo at will, there’s very little point in trying to corner the market on gizmos. Besides, there are much more rewarding things to do with your existence – mapping stellar gaseous anomalies, studying new life and new civilizations, being the captain of the flagship, boldly going etc…
To my great surprise, Star Trek’s economic ideas are remarkably consistent. The show does not break much of what we currently know of economics. Furthermore, it turns out that elements of Star Trek’s speculative political arrangements already exist in our own world – namely, the practice of making some technologies and services free and available to all without restriction, as public goods (think Wikipedia or the GPS). This strongly suggests that post-scarcity is as much a political decision as it is a matter of technological progress. That being said, as Paul Krugman wryly observed at NY Comic Con, what may hold us back on our way to a Trek-like utopia is the human propensity to remain stubbornly unhappy.
Speaking of unhappiness – throughout the years, whenever I got depressed I would usually sit down and watch a few episodes of Star Trek so as to get transported to a better and happier future. Star Trek always had a therapeutic, reparative, function in my life. But not just that: I am the kind of guy whose marriage vows were ‘live long and prosper,’ and who inserted ‘live long and prosper’ in his son’s birth announcement. While I do not usually cosplay, you could say I am a Trekker for life.
This book is a love letter to Trek, if a bit on the wonkish side. It is an attempt to demonstrate that Star Trek’s optimism, so often derided if not summarily dismissed, rests largely on its economic premise; and that said economic premise is the opposite of naive or crazy. I believe that Star Trek truly fulfills philosopher John Rawls’ famous thought experiment on the veil of ignorance: what kind of society would you design if you did not know in advance what would be your place or position in that society? Chances are it would look like the Federation’s utopia, sans the spaceships and the aliens.
That is the value of Star Trek in our world. That is why it has endured for 50 years. That is why it still matters today. Live long and prosper, indeed.
Trekonomics: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
An interesting topic. I will be interested to discover the answer to the question “What motivates individuals to work in dangerous (or, for that matter, any) conditions when there is no economic scarcity?” I also wonder how it counters Mark Twain’s observation – “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.”
This sounds wonderful! It’s always been a question of mine, and anyone who can combine political and economic philosophy *and* Star Trek in a blog post, has to have written a book to make my Trekker heart flutter. I’d bet you’ve even read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and understand it! Flutter, flutter, flutter….
But there was some scarcity, correct? Dilithium crystals were their fuel source and could not be replaced or created – they had to be found. Whenever you have some kind of scarcity then you need some kind of currency to barter for the scarcity, OR you need military power to claim all the scarcity and distribute it based on the whims of the political powers that be.
As a side note, writing a meta book about a geek topic is probably a great way to get an active Big Idea thread. I’m betting you get the most comments of any title this year. Hope that turns into sales for you!
mmug: Motivation by non-financial reward; social approval (people who spend a year working in the dilithium mines are the real heroes!), or access to other non-physical things like cool jobs, choice of education, political influence or stuff like that. Things that are still scarce, in other words.
Looks like a very interesting book. I’m a Trek fan so this one goes to the “must buy” list.
One plausible answer to both questions is technology. A dangerous job that no one wants to do? Have machines do it. Want some land to call your own? Travel to new lands / planets or make some. In reality these issues would not be one dimensional of course, but technology would definitely be a major factor in each. Cultural changes too. But it seems to me that the cultural changes that might be a factor would be largely the result of technology.
The unknown is always with us, and the challenges involved with discovering it. Even if everything you might need here and now is provided for, there will still be frontiers, and people who want to go there simply because it’s there. That edge is where the new value will be found.
I was disappointed in the last Trek-philosophy book I bought; this one, hopefully, will be much better.
Surly, the question is, why, in a world where work is optional would anyone want/need to be a Red Shirt?
er…that should be surely…
I can’t tell TheMadLibrarian, but I wonder if you might be sort of smearing together a principles / importance meaning of “value” with the estimated monetary worth of a thing meaning of value?
I’ve always interpreted the Federation in the Star Trek universe to be a society in which individuals are much more capable, free, to focus on the values you seem to be talking about largely because the monetary worth of things sort of value is largely irrelevant.
Another book for the TBR list!
I like that someone took a hard look at this, because it is very underdeveloped in the scripts. Amazingly, nobody green-lit a story on economics. >;^) I’ve always found that the inclusion of economics tends to ‘ground’ scripts in a good way. Babylon 5’s pilot’s last line was “Babylon 5 is open for _business_”, and at least one of the scripts hinged on military budgets (for housing).
Just to add to the discussion: besides dylithium crystals, “gold-pressed latinum” (sp?) also seemed to be immune to duplication. ::taps temple:: Wait, does that mean you cannot Transport it? There’s an interesting scarcity, the impossibility of Transporting some items.
Personally, I think/believe a talented writer COULD craft an interesting script on ST economics, focusing on the motivations of people in a cash-less society. How did the Federation interface with a super-capitalist society like the Ferengi? BUT, more interesting is the stresses within the Federation, between humans.
I landed here having decided to expand my wordpress horizons and this post has certainly done so. I know embarrassingly little about Star Trek or Economics but your writing has inspired me to read to the end and I agree – the Federation’s world does seem to allow for curiosity, discovery, boldly going where no man has gone before (Yes – I know that much..) in a way that us 9 – 5ers rarely have the energy or opportunity. Thank you – I enjoyed it!
My history prof immediately thought that the Ferengi name came from a similar sounding name that the Chinese had for the Yankee traders once upon a time. Yeah I have always wanted a book like this about Star Trek.
We already see tiny hints of a possible future of little MATERIAL scarcity via replicators. These include 3D printers, which will sure grow (and shrink) in size and capability. In my Confederation series the Confed could transmute anything to anything, the ultimate 3D printer tech.
There are other kinds of scarcity, energy being one of the crucial ones. Again I went to the ultimate in my Confed series, they having discovered long ago how to get energy from “unbending space.” All in the way of exploring a future of no scarcity.
But there still other kinds of scarcity, as several previous posters pointed out. These include physical health, knowledge, emotional satisfaction, social approval – the list goes on. Does this book explore those? If not, who will?
It’s not really a post-scarcity world unless I can walk into the garage of my 67 thousand square meter home in downtown London and take my ballistic hopper to the island where I hunt people. The rocket launch destroys the house of course, but it’s rebuilt by the time I get back.
Shame about the Vermeer and Rubens in the gallery, but it’s not like there’s a scarcity of old masterpieces.
And none of this bloody holodeck nonsense. You don’t get a good hunt unless the prey knows they’re going to really die.
I want the life Queen Elizabeth lives, only without having to hide it.
Looking forward to this, especially if my library gets a copy. (Abundance comes in many forms.)
Much of this also applies to Banks’ Culture novels, which explored the corner-cases and externalities of a post-scarcity society.
One TNG episode describes an academy student as having a transporter ration.
We don’t really know how much energy people who don’t live on Starships can access. After all, the existence of aircraft carriers doesn’t mean that ordinary citizens own jet planes and steam catapults. It seems like on TNG they are always visiting a colony to do something to their energy system that is quite modest on the scale of the energy expended on Starships.
We also know that Captain Picard’s family owns a bunch of wine country on Earth. Surely that is a pretty valuable thing that can’t be replicated, or very likely replaced by land on another planet.
Cool. This goes on the reading list.
At the risk of being pedantic, all we know for certain is that the Picards farm the vinyard and have their family name on the label. We don’t really know what their financial investment, if any, is in the land itself.
Sure, it’s easy to have a utopia when you just decide that scarcity and poverty aren’t going to be a thing anymore. And then they go on to describe exactly why the Trekverse economy should be in shambles. Also, some of these statements sound suspiciously like the rhetoric nowadays of ‘people are poor because they choose to be!’ So classist.
I’m a librarian. If you want your library to get it, request that they purchase it. We do that. There should be a form on their website.
To paraphrase the other franchise, this was the book I was looking for.
Thou Shalt Not mix up the two Star Stories!
I shall counter your error, by invoking a third franchise:
DON’T CROSS THE STREAMS!!!
There is still some means by which that family does this rather than another. The fact that their name is on bottles of real French wine presumably garners them some recognition. It isn’t likely to be a disadvantageous situation; whatever the legal details of ownership.
I dont think the problem of attaining a post scarcity world is technical. I think the biggest hurdle to attaining a post scarcity world is that people are born with a scarcity worldview.