– By J.W. Fox –
There are countless books about Star Trek out there, but if you were interested in reading about the economics of the future, there is only one. Academic and longtime Trekkie Manu Saadia examines the economic system of the United Federation of Planets in his book Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek. As a fellow Trekkie and policy nerd, this was the perfect book for me. Well-written, easy to read, and insightful, I highly recommend this book for Star Trek fans, whether hardcore or casual.
Describing and assessing the economic system of the Federation was not an easy endeavor. Gene Roddenberry was no economist and never sought to lay down, in detail, the political and economic systems of the future. Manu Saadia scoured the TV shows and movies for any discussion on the Federation economic system, including the reboot movies. Saadia’s extensive knowledge of Star Trek served him well. He managed to put together a basic model of the economy, allowing for a thoughtful look at how we will live and work in the future.
So what economic system do the citizens of the Federation live and work in? In a way, they don’t have one at all. Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. In the future, resources are not scarce at all, negating any reason to study economics. All citizens have free and easy access to food, clean water, housing, household goods, clothing, and anything else they need. Energy, information, communications, and all other high-tech services we pay for today are made so plentiful they are provided for free as public goods. Saadia calls it a post-scarcity society.
No Cash? No Problem
The most interesting feature of this post-scarcity society is the absence of money. Such a thing would be impossible today. As Saadia explains, the only way that a society could abolish currency is if all basic goods and services were provided for free. Before the advent of currency, citizens had to barter with one another, which requires each party to have something the other wants. That isn’t practical today; most retailers do not want or need anything from a middle class suburban family. Sure, some barter still takes place today but for the vast majority of commerce that takes place, a medium of exchange is necessary, aka cash.
Of course, if goods and services are being provided without charge, there is no need for a medium of exchange, nor barter. What does that mean? There would be no need for stock markets, Wall Street, currency exchanges, or banks. The entire financial sector would vanish. The Occupy Wall Street Movement would be thrilled!
Who is manufacturing all these goods for free? Is it the government or some altruistic non-profit organization? Neither. Whatever you need can be produced by a magical device called a replicator. These devices are incredibly easy to produce and use. Once a family has one, they never have to step foot in a store again. They are fairly common devices, easy to build or replicate. In fact, it is likely replicators reproduce themselves, which means only one needs to be built to supply an entire population with replicators. No government welfare program or national replicator bureau need exist. The replicator is considered a public good, one provided for free for all, hence no company builds and sells them.
Saadia compares replicators to the GPS system. President Reagan ordered the military’s GPS to be made available to civilians in response to the shooting down of a Korean airliner. The civilian aircraft accidentally wandered into Soviet airspace, who was already on alert thanks to the US bomber patrols in the region. Had the airliner had access to the GPS system, the crew would’ve realized they were straying into Soviet airspace and avoided the tragic accident. Today, nearly everyone has access to GPS but are charged virtually nothing directly (aside from taxes paid to keep system operating). In the future, devices like the replicator would be made available without charge to all, satisfying virtually all material needs for citizens.
There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch
One important note: today when people discuss free public services, they are not really free. For example, when Bernie Sanders promises free college education for all, what he means is it will be free to the student. Someone else will pay for it and it ain’t cheap. Education is an expensive government service. Sadly, such services are often mediocre, or downright garbage. It also isn’t always equally distributed among the citizenry. Some public schools are high quality, while others have abysmal records.
If a public good or service requires mass amounts of tax revenue to fund, it isn’t free. In the future, the cost (as in time and energy, not cash) of all public goods and services is so tiny, that there is no need for high taxes or vast government bureaucracies to manage them. Until we reach that level of technological supremacy, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Obviously we cannot provide things for free in the same way. We don’t have replicators first of all, and second we don’t have limitless raw materials. Replicators require huge amounts of energy, raw atomic material, and information. New technologies could solve the energy and information problem, but there is still the issue of raw materials used by replicators. The magical replicators need matter that it can transform into the desired item for the user. An easy solution to this is interstellar exploration. Earth might not have enough raw material, but the galaxy does.
That handles basic goods, but what about services? Raw materials aren’t as important. Services require specialized knowledge and skills.The two most important (and expensive) services today are healthcare and education. On the USS Voyager, medical services are provided by a hologram. Most ships and stations have humanoid doctors as well. Whenever they become overwhelmed with patients, they can get the assistance of hologram physicians. Same goes for teachers. While skilled professionals will still need to be trained, a greater amount of their discipline will be automated.
Today, many people can learn through online courses, with one instructor teaching hundreds, even thousands of students. While not an ideal means of learning, it provides a glimpse of how the cost of what is an expensive service today, could shrink to almost zero in the future.
Tragedy of the Commons
One of the problems with providing something free to the public is the potential for overuse, abuse, and freeloading. If you’ve ever used a public bathroom you know the problem. Some people overuse or damage a public good to the detriment of others. The term refers to the small fields in the middle of medieval towns where farmers could let their livestock graze while they ran their errands. If farmers decided to take advantage of the common and let their livestock graze there all the time rather than graze on their own land, the field would eventually become depleted. The over exploitation by a few harms the public as a whole.
In Star Trek it is clear the tragedy of commons issue is solved. The solution is creating a public good so plentiful and resilient, that it is impossible to overuse. In Star Trek, matter/anti-matter reactors and fusion power plants generate such enormous amounts of energy that no individual could ever deplete it through his use of a replicator. In the commons analogy, it would be like a town common spanning thousands of square miles. Even if every farmer left his cattle there all day every day, they would never be able to deplete the grass on the vast common.
Life in a Post-Scarcity Society: No More Keeping Up with the Joneses
Many TV commercials use the sales tactic known as “keeping up with the Joneses.” The idea being that your generic neighbor, the Joneses, have a new consumer product, say a big screen HDTV and you must have it too. You wouldn’t want to be the family on the block with an inferior television. What would your neighbors think? Luxury goods brings status and prestige in our consumerist society.
The tactic pits consumers against one another in a race to procure as many luxury items as possible, all for the sake of impressing one another. Expensive consumer goods,whether they be TV or designer clothes, are largely status symbols. People like to have them because it conveys to others that they are wealthy, successful, and can afford to spend disposable income on such items. A blue collar worker drives a Toyota Corolla, while a 1 percenter drives a BMW. Both are cars, but only one is a BMW.
Well, in the Federation there is no cash, nor is there any point in joining a race to procure luxury goods. Everyone has equal access to them thanks to the replicator. In other words, BMWs for all. Consumerism would collapse, along with the advertising industry.
Some of the dialogue in Star Trek implies that no one bothers trying to acquire wealth or status symbols. Saadia argues that such a utopian fantasy isn’t realistic. Humans can be jealous of one another and compete for things other than money. Popularity, professional recognition, prestige, and physical attractiveness are just some examples of how we measure ourselves against one another. Abolishing money would eliminate one but not all sources of envy.
Strive for Full Unemployment
If nobody has to work to pay the bills or put food on the table, what do we do with ourselves? Unfortunately, the picture we see today isn’t pretty. There are two stereotypes of the unemployed. Individuals who live off their already accumulated wealth are largely seen as spoiled brats, wasting their treasure on recreation and excess. Then there is the stereotype of the welfare recipients who refuse to look for work, instead spending their government checks on TVs, beer, and expensive clothes. Are they what a post-scarcity society would look like?
Star Trek does not depict a society of spoiled brats or lazy freeloaders. Federation citizens do not take advantage of all the free stuff to sit around and do nothing. They find meaning and purpose in productive and noble pursuits. It seems all of humanity will see life as an endeavor to find meaning. Victor Frankl, author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, becomes the most influential thinker in the future. Today, most follow the Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure” instead.
So, if nobody has to work, will we all shift from the will to pleasure principle to the will to meaning? Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future is one where humanity doesn’t bother wasting their existence chasing pleasure, but Saadia believes that is overly optimistic. Inevitably there will be spoiled brats and slackers who won’t bother searching for meaning.
How Do We Become The Federation?
The final chapters of Trekonomics discuss how we can become the Federation. Unfortunately, Saadia doesn’t have much to offer here, nor does Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was not an economist, and never intended for Star Trek to be a “how to” guide on human civilization becoming utopia. It was about the utopia itself, after we have overcome all our problems and plagues of today. Saadia acknowledges this fact but still unfairly criticizes Star Trek for creating an unrealistic path to utopia.
There is one anecdote from the Star Trek timeline that gives a hint of how Earth became a utopia. In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the crew explains to Zefram Cochrane that first contact with an alien race changes everything. Humanity is galvanized to pull itself up from the dirt and put an end to war, poverty, and prejudice. Saadia mistakenly concludes it is the FTL warp drive that changes humanity. This completely misses the importance of first contact with an alien species and the impact of cultural and technological exchange that followed. As it is explained in the movie and in certain episodes on TNG, when we learned we were not alone, it created a powerful new imperative to unite as a civilization, an endeavor we are struggling to achieve today. The minor differences between human cultures become insignificant once we discover there are entirely distinctive civilizations out there.
Saadia’s critique is made worse by the fact that he fails to propose any solutions of his own with any detail. He writes, “In a nutshell, that is Star Trek’s romance of social democracy. The Federation can maximize the welfare of everyone, regardless of origins, talents, or appetites, because it has made the decision to make most services and products available as public goods.”
In other words, we just need to follow the principles of social democracy and we’ll get there. That is not the message I got from the first eight chapters of the book.
Throughout the book, Saadia makes it pretty clear technological innovations is what made the Federation’s post-scarcity society possible. We did not just decide to be a post-scarcity society. It is as if these technologies are going to innovate themselves, we just have to “decide to make stuff free.” As explained above, public goods aren’t free and cannot be free without technological breakthroughs. It seems to me, developing those technologies ought to be our primary goal, not policy decisions.
While the final chapters are problematic, the first eight chapters are fascinating and worth the price of the book. Trekonomics is a great read for Trekkies, casual fans, futurists, and anyone with any interest in economics.
Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.