Star Trek As Fantasy

Frustrated that science fiction rarely makes economic sense, I just wrote a whole book trying to show how much consistent social detail one can offer, given key defining assumptions on a future scenario. Imagine my surprise then to learn that another book, Trekonomics, published exactly one day before mine, promises to make detailed economic sense out of the popular Star Trek shows. It seems endorsed by top economists Paul Krugman and Brad Delong, and has lots of MSM praise. From the jacket:

Manu Saadia takes a deep dive into the show’s most radical and provocative aspect: its detailed and consistent economic wisdom. .. looks at the hard economics that underpin the series’ ideal society.

Now Saadia does admit the space stuff is “hogwash”:

There will not be faster-than-light interstellar travel or matter-anti-matter reactors. Star Trek will not come to pass as seen on TV. .. There is no economic rationale for interstellar exploration, maned or unmanned. .. Settling a minuscule outpost on a faraway  world, sounds like complete idiocy. .. Interstellar exploration … cannot happen until society is so wealthy that not a single person has to waste his or her time on base economic pursuits. .. For a long while, there is no future but on Earth, in the cities of Earth. (pp. 215-221)

He says Trek is instead a sermon promoting social democracy:

At times Star Trek comes across as an earnest public intervention, admonition rather than entertainment. Some even see it as preachy or hokey. I prefer to call it overly sincere. (p.185)

Star Trek is not about humanity’s interstellar future. Star trek is a romance of postwar social democracy. .. We will need comprehensive and global redistribution of wealth, along with the local democratic institutions to implement such a program. In a nutshell, that is Star Trek’s romance of social democracy. The Federation can maximize the welfare of everyone, regardless of rings, talents, or appetites, because it has made the decision to make most services and products available as public goods. (pp. 233-235)

Okay, but amid all that advocacy, we were promised some economics, right? Saadia says the economics is in the implications of the right combination of culture, politics, and replicators:

The replicator, an automation that produces everyday things on demand .. [is] the heart of Star Trek’s economics. (p.75) .. The production of all the basic necessities of life, from food and clothing to toys and machines, is completely automated. (p.83)

Now replicators have limited abilities, and they require work:

Your ownership [of a replicator] means in fact your are responsible for its operation and maintenance. .. It is a cost to you, if only in time. (p.39) Replicators do not have the ability to make living tissues or organisms. (p.69)

Replicators only make small things, they need maintenance, and they need inputs of materials, energy, and real estate. A great many important things in Star Trek’s Federation, like starships, mines, power plants, and big organizations need people to create, maintain, and run them. Most people work:

The Federation’s 99 percent .. is surprisingly bereft of free riders. (p.46) Nobody works harder than an Starfleet engineer. But engineering is above all an intellectual endeavor. Figuring out what is wrong with the pattern buffers or the network relays takes years of education and experience. (p.83)

On the show, we don’t see people say “Oh dear, this is getting important, let’s get humans out of the way and have faster more effective robots take over here.” Instead it seems that humans really do contribute usefully, in ways that robots can’t beat. So obviously then it matters how labor and other resources are allocated in this world. Alas, while Saadia is he clear that prices are not used to allocate resources, he is vague on what does. From TomXP411 on Amazon:

That author never really delved into the economy itself. .. For example, he briefly describes how the replicator makes food, and how we’ll all have one, and that this means we won’t have to buy things. But he doesn’t really talk about the inputs needed to make the replicator work: feedstock, energy, patterns, and maintenance. He basically says “robots will do it”, and moves on. .. How do the shipyards decide what ships get built? .. According to the Star Trek technical manual, things like ships and buildings are too big for replication, so we still need labor for projects like that. .. How do the Risans decide who to grant reservations to so that the planet doesn’t have a centuries-long wait list? .. He doesn’t talk at all about how labor is allocated, how capital is allocated, or how people make the decisions to allocate resources like energy, materials, and even transport.

Now whatever the Federation is doing, the results are supposedly phenomenal:

The rate of technological progress and productivity growth is likely much higher in trekonomics than in any other type of society. .. When Starfleet or the Vulcan Science Academy needs a nagging engineering problem solved, .. [they have] decisive advantages overall the other civilizations of the galaxy. (pp.62-63)  The Federation can truly buy anything at any price, including influence and loyalty. It can probably buy all its enemies outright, and lend or bribe its way to total galactic domination. (p.201)

Since many other competing civilizations also have advanced tech, including replicators, the Federation’s advantage must go beyond replicators. This advantage is all the more dramatic given that the Federation, but not others, forbids any genetic enhancement of people. The key:

Romans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and all other minor warp capable civilizations do not share the Federation’s foresight and altruistic values. (p.119)

Other civilizations allow private property in replicators, but the Federation does not:

You may decide to restrict access to your replicator unless you get paid in kind. .. You would probably lose your replicator by court order. (p.39)

The sense of security everyone gets from knowing that everyone (nearby) will always have all their basic physical needs met, even if they choose to never work, supposedly changes human psychology noticeably:

Starfleet people display a level of poise and mental stability that is beyond anything we know or experience. .. They would not bicker among themselves, they never would display prettiness or gratuitous meanness, let alone unchecked aggression. .. A lot of that can be attributed to opulence. A world without even a hind of poverty or economic scarcity literally changes its inhabitants brains. .. It has been shown that the many stresses associated with poverty have a direct and measurable physiological impact on children’s brain development. ..  Class distinctions, profit seeking, and conspicuous consumption make absolutely no sense to them. .. Once untethered from economic inequality, .. issues of good and bad are no longer mired in pettiness. .. Justice .. ascends to the higher realm of philosophical and ethical pursuits. (pp.166-176)

Perhaps out of gratitude for this security, people feel strong obligations to do all the shit-work that needs doing:

What if there are not enough people willing to spend some quality time on a mining asteroid. This is where ethics comes into play. The deeply ingrained civic sense of every Federation member leads enough of them to respond to the call of duty. (p.31)

Apparently it isn’t enough for a civilization to be rich enough that few lack for basic physical goods. People could still fear that maybe somehow, they might lack something later. So the absolute guarantee that everyone can always use replicators as much as they want seems key here. But according to Saadia, even this isn’t quite enough. One more key ingredient is required: academic-math-like prestige. I kid you not:

Mathematics is believed to be the most meritocratic of all scientific disciplines. No gimmicks, no machines, no labs, no outside funding, very little politics. It’s just you and a blackboard. Diplomas, academic position, and fame do not matter. (p.37)

Science, as a collective institution, certainly makes a lot of mistakes. However, over time it has developed much better procedures than most other institutions to investigate and correct those mistakes. .. It is very likely that science serves as a model for most other domains of activity in the Federation – but with varying degrees and standards for objective judgment. .. in the arts, culinary, or otherwise, reputation is build on the subjective judgment of the public and of the other specialist practitioners. (p.35)

The reward for winning in the marketplace consists of merit, prestige, and recognition. (p.34)

Anyone can become captain, provided hard work, dedication, and a few lucky breaks. You rise on your own merits. Everybody gets a fair shake. The system is not rigged. (p.60)

Experts are trusted .. because any one of their findings must withstand the unsparing review of millions of other equally qualified experts. .. Scientific, diplomatic, or technical expertise is trusted because it is largely free of outside sponsors. (p.132)

To increase the effects of prestige, its incentives are cranked up high:

The competition between all these high achievers is never petty or impolite. But that doesn’t not mean that it is not merciless. (p.36) The constant striving for recognition and social currency has a darker side. One has to work without respite. It is easy to lose yourself in dead-end projects, and the ladder is drowned and seemingly has no end. .. Performance anxiety is a common mental illness. (p.57)

Apparently, insecurities from having your status always at risk don’t undermine the huge security gains from everyone having access to replicators all the time. Also, apparently, you do the things that most benefit the Federation because doing so gives you the most prestige. Once profit distortions are out of the way, a powerful academic-math-like prestige process is free to precisely and accurately evaluate everyone’s contribution to society, and spread that info to everyone.

And at this point I just can’t keep a straight face. Academic math is your model for allocating resources efficiently?! I have seen the more mathematical parts of academic economics, physics, computer science, and statistics close enough to be able to tell you that they don’t even do a particularly good job of allocating people to tasks with their narrow scopes. There is plenty of politics, and academic position matters a lot. Yes, since academia fundamentally functions to credential impressiveness, academics are ranked reasonable well on that. But their choice of problems to solve is only weakly influenced by larger social benefit.

In academia, many important and useful research problems are ignored because they are not good places to show off the usual kinds of impressiveness. Trying to manage a huge economy based only on prestige would vastly magnify that inefficiency. Someone is going to clean shit because that is their best route to prestige?!

Saadia imagines that once profit incentives are out of the way, political conflicts mostly go away, and what remains can be easily managed via altruism and prestige:

Politics in the Federation is more milquetoast, more liberal administration than heroic statecraft. Elected officials may squabble here or there about marginal issues, but it is hard to imagine them representing conflicting interests or constitutions at odds with each other about life-or-death issues. .. Industrial concerns .. might exist if only because large organizations do make some sense when it comes to large-scale endeavors. ..Without profit motives, however, these large entities behave like Starfleet. They are akin to a public agency, one among many others, championing their respective missions, jealous of their turf and their allocation of human resources. In that utopian setup, political conflict can truly be an honest and open discussion between rival interpretations of what’s in the public’s best interest. Consensus can be reached through reason and persuasion. (p.131)

But even when private firm profits are not relevant, government agency battles can be fierce, and reason can be one of the first casualties. Again, this all just looks like fantasy. Forbidding prices, preaching altruism, and praising prestige just doesn’t get rid of conflicts. Nor does it make the problem of allocating resources easier.

And, more important, none of this uses any economics that I know. Neither his speculations on how replicators might change psychology, nor those on how resource allocation would improve if everyone just pursued prestige without prices. All I hear is “adopt my favorite policies, and everything will go great; trust me.”

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  • Heh. Roddenberry was a WWII vet, and pitched Star Trek as “Horatio Hornblower in space”. That is to say there’s no economics to be analyzed about Star Trek because the show has exactly none to offer. It’s about a quasi-military society, set in a sputnik era imagined tech future. It was a fun 1964 idea, and fine for the time. I really liked it! But like all old sci-fi (or quasi sci fi in this case), it has dated badly. Best to do new stuff and build on that obsolete past. Star Wars is in some ways better as it makes no pretense about being fantasy (magical forces, princesses, father-son dynasties, swords, apprentices). The “technology of star trek” is of course another pestilence that can’t be stamped out. Because, well, the economics show a market demand for it. Anyway, sympathetic to your post. Not really saying anything you don’t already know.

    • TheBrett

      Sort of. Roddenberry is the one responsible for the whole “no money in the Federation” thing. He had some rather odd ideas about a futuristic society, to the point where he thought that humans in The Next Generation had somehow outgrown interpersonal conflict.

      • Mahmet Tokarev (Tajik Pride)

        Rodenberry was a utopian socialist and radical blank-slate thinker. It’s not surprising he was grossly ignorant about human behavior, but it is disappointing that a fair number of liberals have not outgrown this sort of fantasy. Occasionally you even see a liberal intellectual reference Star Trek as an influence… not good.

  • J

    Ayn Rand called it: the eternal conflict between those dastardly profit-seekers and the noble elites whose currency is prestige and persuasion divorced from the strictures of practicality.

    • “The businessman and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and the professor.” – California F Scale

      • jhertzli

        Uh oh. The Other Side realized we’d broken their old passwords and they changed them.

  • TheBrett

    I could sort of see the combination of heavy automation and personal replicators essentially giving everyone the equivalent of a “basic income” in terms of consuming goods and services. Keeping track of things would be much simpler since the replicators do all the end manufacturing and recycling – the system just has to move around energy and raw materials, and occasionally assemble components into larger stuff like homes and starships.

    The “prestige” explanation definitely doesn’t hold water with me, unless it came with special privileges Soviet-style. It’s never stated, but maybe Starfleet personnel get special access to scarce goods and land, like if you want a beach apartment in Miami.

    In any case, Branko Milanovic described this type of scenario better.

  • Robert Koslover

    Well, money still exists in the Star Trek universe, even if it is seldom a major topic of discussion. E.g., see

    And perhaps it is worth noting that the Ferengi, who (more or less) generally espouse free markets without any apologizing for it, are also arguably the most civilized:

  • Lord

    A huge economy? When everything basic like food, energy, and medicine is free? When non profits take over the world? When most goods are non rival? A lot will be going on but not counted. Not enough to make everything non scarce, positional goods will be prized when not denigrated, but one where money becomes much less important and where unpleasant work is largely replaced by automating unpleasant work, and money becomes only a token over the resources an organization can command and which organizations use to entice workers even if the workers have no need for it themselves. It is difficult to see people work for only the benefit of the organization so the perks, power, and status would be significant but most of the resources would be utilized by the organization. I would still expect money and accounting at the organizational level though even if they are private non profits exchanging products and services with each other to further their own charitable, social, educational, and scientific goals.

    • lump1

      Piccard’s family are still vintenrs in TNG time. I wonder who drank their wine, and how it compares to replicator wine. It’s very hard to not picture that wine as not having a price, because not everyone who wants it can have it.

      • Ronfar

        Well, replicators have trouble making good coffee, apparently, so I wouldn’t be surprised if people still preferred naturally produced wine.

      • lump1

        So what happens in Star Trek world when the demand for something greatly exceeds the supply, and yet nothing has a price?

    • Lord

      The other reason people will do unpleasant jobs will be that it is necessary to advance to the more pleasant ones. If they don’t advance, they would find something they could enjoy more even if others would find it unpleasant. Something like cleaning is drudgery when making a living at it but can be satisfying when doing it for the result. Others will resort to their own projects and tasks. But many current tasks won’t exist; things will be too reliable, robust, solid, self cleaning, managing, and repairing, that it will be redesign that dominates. Plenty of artisanal production where connections matter more than money which would lose much of its value.

      • Another reason people might do unpleasant tasks is that work of any kind might be very scarce. Where the only need people can’t easily satisfy is the desire to perform meaningful work, I can see people lining up to do even the small amount of menial work available.

        [You don’t see much of robots on StarTrek, but Robin’s link says: “Thanks to the free availability of robotic helpers, human labor has been rendered obsolete. Star Trek explores at great length what happens to motivations and psyche under such conditions of post-scarcity.”]

  • lump1

    In Star Trek we only really see the people who volunteered for the Navy, and we can’t judge the rest of humanity by what these space mariners are like. I assume Starfleet members are unusually driven to have the opportunity to take part in a great quest, and willing to put up with a lot of crap and toil for that end. Space travel is supposed to be so damn compelling that competent people are spontaneously moved to pitch in their labor to make it happen. The common people back on Earth are probably not doing that. Many just live for their hobbies, like holodeck LSD parties or whatever.

    Anyway, this sounds like a very dumb book. Even a party conversation among smart geeks paints a more plausible picture of the Star Trek economy.

  • Ronfar

    Yeah, Star Trek has fantasy economics just like it has fantasy physics – it works because the writers say it works.

  • J.j. Cintia

    Economics is the sociology of math. It doesn’t make sense or add up, but don’t worry all the predictions are wrong and the only people harmed are idiots dumb enough to listen to Keynesian Marxist goofballs like Krugman, because look a shiny award.
    When I was young Star Trek seemed magical and appealing, but as I got older and began to analyze it, its rather horrible really. No one seems to own anything. Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock have to work til they die, because they don’t have any retirement plan. Remember Star Trek V? Kirk, Spock and McCoy are in a National Park. McCoy says “Other people have families.” and Kirk replies, “Other people Bones not us.”
    These people own nothing, never retire, have no families, and even though they’re famous heroes who saved the World over and over again, they have to vacation in a National Park because they have nowhere else to go! Fucking horrible when you think about it.
    On the original Pilot with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, he’s burned out and depressed because he just had a landing party slaughtered by angry giants. He says he didn’t have to be a Captain, he could have been an Orion Slaver dealing in Green Animal Women. Star Trek has slavery as the main option vs spending your whole life in space without any compensation or chance of a stable family life. Gee, that’s pretty dark Roddenberry.
    Of course you could always be a settler and end up enslaved by plants, or massacred by Gorns, or maybe just enslaved and mind controlled by creatures who land on your back and plug you into them by taking over you brain and nervous system by inflicting agonising pain? Gee, where’s the sign up list, aren’t you eager to sign up for that?
    And any gods or higher beings or religion is just bad and need to be destroyed because its not natural. Remember Vaal? He was a totally benign computer that controlled the weather and helped his people live in a Paradise like Eden. Well, you can’t have that! That’s not “normal development” dammit. They blow him up, and leave them there with no one to help them even though now the weather is no longer climate controlled and they might have to fight over food. But you’ll figure it out, what’s the worst that could happen? War, famine and disease? Good luck, we have to leave after destroying your whole way of life, bye.
    Thanks a lot, Captain Jerk.

    • “He was a totally benign computer”

      Yeah, because ordering the natives to kill the crew is harmless.

      The episode was called “The Apple”. Maybe you can figure out why.

      • J.j. Cintia

        The landing party are invaders. Vaal only tells them to attack them when his attempts to force them to leave have failed. There is no reason for them to be there. They are not advanced enough to understand spaceflight and are not ready to meet aliens. That Prime Directive is ignored again. The natives don’t want them there, and their entire peaceful existence is totally destroyed. Kirk doesn’t even leave anyone to assist them now that Vaal’s environmental controls are gone and they face hunger and starvation.

      • You claimed Vaal was totally benign. You lied. The end.

      • J.j. Cintia

        Self-defense is not bad. They were asked to leave and didn’t. Vaal tried to prevent their contaminating their society but they still came. Attacking them seems reasonable since they destroyed their whole way of life.

  • Even in TNG Trek still held fast to Roddenberry’s vision of a future with no money. Once he was out of the picture DS9 rather turned that on its head.

    • Peter David Jones

      One possible theoy of ST econ. is that it is moneyless at the centre, but not at the frontier.

      • lump1

        That is probably how authors pictured it: The frontier is the place with scarcity, the core isn’t – so the core doesn’t need money. Still, it’s stupid. Let’s say Piccard’s family vineyard in France makes good wine. Surely it’s scarce. If I really want a bottle, what do I have to do? Knock on their door and barter with my family’s artisanal camembert? Apparently the 24th century French countryside is crying out for someone to invent a less cumbersome exchange system for trades of mutual advantage!

      • Peter David Jones

        No one is going to be inconvenienced for their basic needs. I would assume that kind of thing is part of a gift economy.

      • J.j. Cintia

        What about that guy Sybock meets at the start of Star Trek V? He says,”I can’t believe you would kill me for a field of holes!” The guy replies,”Its all I have!”
        Even the replicators need raw materials to work. They have settlers growing food, and miners on barrens worlds digging giant underground mines.
        The Starfleet uses “credits” which are apparently only good at Starfleet and UFP outposts. None of these people have homes or property.
        Do you think everyone has these replicators? I doubt it. They’re probably expensive and dangerous like transporters which seem only available to Starfleet. Everyone else has to use spaceships. Replicators are probably not something everyone has available.

      • Is it really efficient to institute currency just to ensure satisfaction of every whim? If you want a bottle, befriend Piccard.

  • Peter David Jones

    Soldiering is a shit job, but people have been persuaded into it for little monetary recompense.

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