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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.”