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Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek

by Manu Saadia

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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996219,853 (3.84)2
_Saadia proves that Star Trek is an even more valuable cultural icon than we ever suspected.__ Charlie Jane Anders, former editor-in-chief, io9 What would the world look like if everybody had everything they wanted or needed? Trekonomics, the first book from financial journalist Felix Salmon's imprint Pipertext, approaches scarcity economics by coming at it backwards _ through thinking about a universe where scarcity does not exist. Delving deep into the details and intricacies of 24th century society, Trekonomics explores post-scarcity and whether we, as humans, are equipped for it. What are the prospects of automation and artificial intelligence? Is there really no money in Star Trek? Is Trekonomics at all possible?… (more)
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Holy cow, what a surprise. I really want expecting much from this book but it wowed me big time. It's thought provoking and just really damned interesting. If you like science fiction, read this. It made me interested in economics! ( )
  jamestomasino | Sep 11, 2021 |
As a lifelong Star Trek fan who has been reading economists Brad DeLong (who provided the Introduction) and Paul Krugman (who provided technical commentary) for years and years, this was so well-targeted at me it might as well have been a photon torpedo (sorry). I couldn't have been more interested in an explanation of the economic logic of the post-scarcity paradise depicted in the best televised science fiction franchise of all time. While the commendably enthusiastic fandom is not matched by comparably rigorous economics, frequently coming off like a mixture of enthusiastic episode recaps and rants about contemporary political issues among some brief discussion of how the TNG warp speed limit reflects intro-level economic concepts like negative externalities, this book is a lot of fun. Overall Saadia provides, as Krugman once wrote in his paper "The Theory of Interstellar Trade" about the proper method of calculating interest rates at near-light speeds, "a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics".

If modern philosophy is a "series of footnotes to Plato", then modern science fiction is a "series of footnotes to Asimov". Star Trek has never been shy about acknowledging its debt to the master, but it was famously less rigorous about exploring how future society actually worked: sometimes characters act like they've never heard of money, sometimes they treat it as a necessary evil, sometimes they're as impeccably capitalist as you could ask for. How does society work with an absence of currency? Do other forms of status/hierarchy become more important without money? What's the status of human labor? How does copyright work when everyone's working for free? Is the replicator all that's necessary to enable post-scarcity? Are there natural limits to economic growth? How would one resolve collective action problems with truly alien species? These are explored narratively in the episodes, but I'm not only curious if the Federation is truly in a stable equilibrium, but about how humanity got to that point in the first place. After all, human beings in 2016 are vastly richer than our ancestors of 300 years ago (Saadia discusses John Maynard Keynes' excellent 1931 essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren", which addresses many of these same issues), yet we've hardly eliminated many of the traits that are inconsistent with the Star Trek life. How did that phase transition occur?

That's a tall order, and honestly I didn't expect the equivalent of the economic development history of the United Federation of Planets. There are many questions about how the Federation functions internally, what about externally? Saadia is at his best when he's comparing the Federation to its neighbors; most interesting are the comparisons between the economies of the Federation and the Borg (similar post-scarcity economics, vastly different social structures), and the Federation and the Ferengi (polar opposite economies, gradually more similar social structures). It raises the question of why, if the Federation's model is so great, then all the other spacefaring species at roughly similar levels of development aren't following it? Despite being peaceful, the Federation is forced to go to war with other belligerent powers quite often, and in the kind of winner-take-all total wars that define a civilization, even small inefficiencies can doom an otherwise perfectly capable society. We see the Federation win all kinds of battles against the Borg thanks to the power of the main characters, but honestly it seems that if they really wanted to, the Borg could just crush the Federation. Is Trekonomics really a dominant strategy against antlike communism, or do our heroes just have plot armor? Similarly, given the information-aggregation superiority of the price system over the unpriced barter system of socialism, what really prevents the Ferengi from bribing or buying people and resources out from under the Federation?

One could go on in this vein. Taking the economics of a TV show seriously is silly, but if you're a fan of the show, and even more importantly, the kind of future the show represents, you can have a lot of great conversations about its treatment of utilitarianism, artisanship, distribution, personal fulfillment, and everything else that becomes possible when instead of chasing full employment, you pursue "full unemployment". There's no shame in thinking about the kind of society you'd like to live in, and Star Trek presents the kind of hopeful vision of the future that will still prove powerfully attractive many years into the future. Saadia doesn't answer every question, but he presents a lot of fun debate material. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Would be more interesting for someone who watched *all* of star trek. Misses the opportunity to go into areas not shown by star trek where the system doesn't work. Its all rainbows and sunshine, like star trek, with instances of wholly unjustified liberal smugness. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
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. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
  rmgalliher | Jan 7, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Manu Saadiaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wyman, OliverNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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_Saadia proves that Star Trek is an even more valuable cultural icon than we ever suspected.__ Charlie Jane Anders, former editor-in-chief, io9 What would the world look like if everybody had everything they wanted or needed? Trekonomics, the first book from financial journalist Felix Salmon's imprint Pipertext, approaches scarcity economics by coming at it backwards _ through thinking about a universe where scarcity does not exist. Delving deep into the details and intricacies of 24th century society, Trekonomics explores post-scarcity and whether we, as humans, are equipped for it. What are the prospects of automation and artificial intelligence? Is there really no money in Star Trek? Is Trekonomics at all possible?

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