Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek

I am very pleased to see the widespread discussion of my old idea of Trek being a post-scarcity economic model.

Almost a year ago I noted, regarding finding an old claim of the Federation as communist:
"Fortunately, it appears that my old post-scarcity argument has been discussed and written about by others since (not saying they got it from me, mind you . . . just that it was the logical idea), so maybe this silly idea is on its way toward fading."
By "others since" I referred to a variety of articles, and the list is only increasing.   There's Medium.com and Slate that pondered it in 2013.  Here it is on io9 last year, and it made The Federalist.

And, there's even a book on it now being covered by the Washington Post.   I can't keep up now . . . while this post lingered as a draft even Bloomberg got in on the act, doing a decent job of it.

I don't know how the book handles it (I'm kinda nervous about it, though, since the author's one of those "Hiroshima was an evil act" idiots who dismisses invasion casualties as American propaganda), but most of the websites are at least discussing the idea even though, to my mind, they often get it wrong.  When you reach the point where an iPhone and a rock might have the same manufacturing cost thanks to the replicator, any modern operative concept of economics where value of a widget is related to the complexity and cost of labor to produce it crashes and burns.

This guy, for instance, notes the import of the replicator, but then assumes that additional intellectual property laws will be created to generate artificial scarcity.   But why is that assumption made?  It is a non sequitur.  He fails to recognize the wider implications.  If food, clothing, shelter, and such are readily available, then the effective labor cost of designing a new replicator template is zero, and there is no economic need for the template to be monetized.

"Oh don't be silly", he might say, "why would anyone create anything anymore?  Why would anyone go to all the trouble of hundreds or thousands of hours of labor to create something when he wouldn't have any tangible gain?"   To which I would reply:

"Welcome to ST-v-SW.Net."

Similarly, many of the linked sites feature wigging out over issues like private ownership of things or continued historical production techniques or certain special items being scarce, all of which rather misses the point.  Something will always be scarce, for certain values of scarce.  Just because a society is called post-scarcity on paper doesn't mean every want, no matter how peculiar or how mundane, will be satisfied, and if there is anything that the replicator cannot make ... even just a bigger replicator ... it will require some sort of manufacture.

Perhaps those who argue the Federation isn't post-scarcity should simply ponder instead a threshold relating to the rarity of scarcity (or scarcity of scarcity, if you just wanna be goofy).  If you are dropped in the wilderness, your one-man economy features an insanely large scarcity value ... there are matters of food production, shelter construction, defense, et cetera, all tied to acquiring scarce materials and at cost of labor, and to survive you have to make it a profitable enterprise.  Scarcity of water means you may have to drink your own piss, as Bear too-frequently reminds us.

Such scarcity values are much smaller in today's economy ... there is a greater rarity of scarcity.  With a little plumbing and an initial license, municipal water is cheap enough that you could recycle a few cans to pay for it.   This hasn't stopped some people from Bear-esque watersports, but it renders that unnecessary.

In the Federation, the rarity of scarcity is very much higher, to the point that there is seemingly no charge for basics to survival.  Just as we don't charge for the use of air (despite the EPA's best efforts), they skip charging for water, food, and even shelter altogether.

Of course, you can still want more.  In some cases this would create a scarcity.  If someone wants a lot of air, they can't just MegaMaid an inhabited planet's atmosphere and think all will be well.   In those circumstances, you need laws, and something akin to credits as we have seen in Trek.  Everyone cannot have their own planet, after all,

But getting Sisko's home cooking, even assuming he charges for it, doesn't negate the rarity of scarcity.  It is mere extra, on top of a society that is post-scarcity by any useful measure.

Or, as I put it in late 2002:
However, I'd argue that, to a degree, the UFP has moved beyond what we'd consider to be economics.  This would be possible as a result of replicators, coupled with power generation systems that, from our standpoint, deliver inordinate amounts of power with comparatively little effort.  Between the two, I'd gamble that everyone on Earth is pretty much set as far as food goes.  Of course, Sisko's dad ran a restaurant, and while we didn't see people paying (not that I recall, anyway), it's conceivable that whatever goes beyond what can be considered "basic needs" (depending on what that would be in the 24th Century), must be paid for . . . such as bolts of frilly fabric, or really good meals at an old-fashioned New Orleans restaurant.

Regarding my history with the idea ...

Entirely too many years ago, I was in the Trek-as-Socialist camp, per a college paper I wrote at the time.  The Federation seemed to fit neatly between what I called the "supercapitalist" Ferengi and the "supercommunist" Borg.  Even so, the germ of the right idea was in the paper, when I noted, per Katrina Boyd's "Cyborgs in Utopia", that
"[...] technology creates more than enough resources, and people can manage their resources by themselves.  "In TNG the marvels of technology suggest an atmosphere of plenty. . . both by indicating that economic inequality has been wiped out and by suggesting that technology has been harnessed to provide for all needs" (Boyd 96), which furthers both the notion that the Federation's socialism rests on its technology, and that all sentient beings are equal and free in the Federation's eyes.  Boyd also portrays the Federation as a utopia, a paradise-like society."
Later, as college indoctrination toward leftist ideologies gave way to a higher understanding, I found myself an increasingly staunch capitalist and Constitutionalist.  By 2000, involved in these debates, I encountered Wong's projectionist fantasy in which he attacks the Federation as a communist's utopia, a view parroted by other Trek-hating Vs. Debaters on alt.startrek.vs.starwars.

(Incidentally, I always found the froth-mouth insistence on a commie Federation amusing, since all indications were that the Empire, which these strange people viewed as *not* being evil, more closely followed such leftist statist models, both economically and from a personal liberty perspective.  Cloud City, anyone?  Meanwhile, the Expanded Universe, and with it the new Disney universe, inexplicably made the Empire a corporatist utopia, despite the trend toward nationalization seen in The Clone Wars, but corporatism is merely economic statism with a nicer hat.  (Corporatism is 'concealed carry' for leftist economics.))

This prompted me to revisit and reconsider the concept of a socialist Federation.  Finally, the seed of the idea from my college paper that I'd not properly followed through on was bearing fruit, and at some point I realized that Trek economics must have been showing something beyond economics as we now know it.

Here's the passing reference to the idea from May of 2000:
"According to a thought I once had, Star Trek's economy is so far beyond our own that it is neither communist nor capitalist, thanks in large part to replicator technology.  That, combined with cheap and almost inexhaustible power sources and other incredible technological advancements, could take us beyond economics as we now know it.  
Mind you, I'm a fervent capitalist, and I feel that communism is futile and foolish, based on erroneous assumptions.  
However, I would allow the idea that, as capitalism emerged from more "primitive" systems, it may also be the case that capitalism could one day be viewed as "primitive" . . . though I don't think that day is anytime in the near future."
Ten months later, I noted it this way:
It is true that if you place the apparent Star Trek economic system in a spectrum based upon current economic forms, the Federation seems to fall somewhere to the left (socialistic or communistic). 
While, as a strong libertarian, capitalist, and Trek fan, I would be the first to vomit were such a thing accurate, it just so happens that it is not. 
In the 24th Century, mankind has evolved to the point that the basic necessities are so easily obtainable that economics as we know it is no more.    There is still trade, to be sure, and there are still monetary forms (especially in TOS), and a person can still become "embarrassingly rich"("Devil in the Dark"[TOS]), but greed and the acquisition of things is no longer a driving force . . . the population is free, comfortable, and happy.

Imagine, if you will, how those Old World kings and queens of the 15th Century would view our current system from their mercantilist perspective, our current mixed economy so outside their experience that they would not understand it or be able to appropriately place it on whatever spectrum they might use, and you get an idea of my point.
Note that I didn't use the scarcity lingo in those posts, just the concept.  

I'm not even certain when I encountered ideas such as technocracy and other post-scarcity economic models.   In a 2010 blog comment I suggested it was sometime soon after 2002 or so, but I know I was looking for them and I know I found them much more suitable than socialism or other modern forms when I did.  Once I did, I generally used phrasing like "scarcity" vs. "abundance", even into 2007 as per a feedback e-mail exchange (apparently with a Hollywood set costumer and actor, curiously enough, though I only found that out just now by googling his unique name) in which I said:
"It is an economy not based on scarcity, but on abundance.  It is quite literally off the scale of capitalism and communism. 
The closest known analog to this in modern thinking is the Technocracy movement.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technocracy_movement for a quickie overview.)  In it you'll find no money, but you will find "energy units" . . . and it's not too far a leap to ponder calling those "credits"."
He noted, most succinctly:
"I have found some other reading on the subject that largely agrees with what you say. Although on the surface the Federation may look similar to Communism, it is actually a post-Communist, post-Capitalist system based on what you call a society of abundance."
Obviously, once I got started circa 2000 and through 2007 above I'd never seen these ideas applied to Trek before, but I am sure the idea of doing so was not unique to me.  The set costumer's notes about finding other reading on the topic that agrees with me would seem to bear that out, even though that was seven years after I started suggesting the basic premise.  Like many others over a decade more recently, I arrived at the thought because it best fits the observations.

In any case, I never got around to finishing the proper page on it.   I'm not sure when I started the page, but the file date currently on it is July 2002*, though, as I noted in 2010:
"My earliest version that I have from circa 2002 (I think . . . file dates didn't always carry across drive changes) doesn't explicitly mention scarcity, but the point is the same inasmuch as future economics being unrecognizable. The first general thesis was that a hardcore mercantilist would've found Cold War economies most perplexing, and we would've laughed at his efforts to declare one or the other mercantilist like his own.
It wasn't too much later that the topic came up some other time and I found technocracy (which I briefly flirted with as a possible Trek model) and, from there, the more general lingo of scarcity economics versus post-scarcity.
TNG is definitely post-scarcity."
Unfortunately, I let the page get too big in concept and thus never completed it (see my 2004ish note about dispelling the commie crap).  

As a result, I can't really claim credit for popularizing the idea.  But I imagine a few things of mine probably came up in internet searches for the more recent authors and writers.

2008 and 2009 feature references on StarfleetJedi.Net by me (as 2046) to Trek's post-scarcity model, and some other posters use the lingo as well in other posts.

Then there's the aforementioned 2010 post about the Ferengi which makes the following point:
"The fact that the Ferengi were so insular in regards to the Federation is perplexing, until one adds in another factor. 
The Federation is commonly said to be communist.  It isn't, since communism and capitalism are scarcity-based economic models where scarce raw materials get value added by processing or manufacturing into other useful objects.  The Federation seems based more on a post-scarcity model (though raw materials are still needed of course), and the presence of replicators defeats the concept of value addition by process or manufacture.  When an object's value is not based on its intricacy and the labor to create it but instead merely on its raw materials or energy content . . . when an iPod and a cigarette lighter cost the same . . . modern economics (whether collectivist or capitalist) is turned on its ear. 
I would submit that the Ferengi Alliance knew about the Federation and were scared to death of it."
And in 2011 at Flare:
"Speaking for myself, I don't view Star Trek as espousing socialism at all. 
I've had the whole argument in mind for years and have posted it here and there but have never gotten around to posting a proper webpage on the topic, which is a damn shame in situations like this. 
But, in brief:
1. Star Trek rarely delves into anything economic, so we argue in a vacuum to some extent.
2. Capitalism and communism are merely the latest examples of scarcity-based economics, which in the current world involves scarcities of material, labor, and high-tech manufacturing, among other things. 
3. Star Trek suggests a time when manufacturing technology is such that an iPhone and a rock can't really be valued any differently (for those who would say they could be anyway). 
4. While the concept of Star Trek's economics suggesting something along the lines of a post-scarcity model might be debatable, it remains true that the sort of upheaval that would result if a replicator were invented today would completely up-end any modern economic systems.
Or, to put it more to the point, I view Star Trek-era economics as being well beyond capitalism and communism. To claim that Star Trek shows a communist utopia (or socialist, as you said) is, to my mind, equivalent to someone from hundreds of years ago trying to decide if Trek showed a mercantilist utopia.
So no, I don't see any reason for Glenn Beck to have the slightest philosophical issue with Star Trek economics. And further, I certainly don't have the sense of overbearing government intrusion into the lives of the average Federation citizen, either . . . I think he'd appreciate that, as well."
To anyone who found such things useful, all I can say is . . . happy to help!

Please leave some credits (or even just replicator rations) on your way out.


Guardian said...

"One strong belief of mercantilist doctrine was bullionism, the idea that the amount of precious metals a nation possessed was an indicator of its economic health. One aspect of mercantilism that Americans usually know the most about is the way in which colonies were considered a "captive audience" of the homeland's economy, and thought to be little more than a source of raw materials and a market for exported manufactured goods.
Try, for a moment, to imagine the cognitive dissonance a 17th Century individual whisked forward in time, attempting to understand the economic policies of modern capitalist and communist societies. To be sure, some things would look familiar . . . tariffs, balances of trade, et cetera . . . but much of the modern economic landscape would be absolutely foreign to him. He would look at the United States, and see that we haven't been on the gold standard for decades . . . meaning that a citizen can't go "cash in" his dollar for a set amount of gold or any other precious metal. He'd see the complexities of our economics, mixed with the stunning revelation that we abhor monopolies and attempt (in many cases, especially in the past) to adopt free trade and laissez-faire attitudes. On the other side of the coin, he'd see the communist states actually controlling all economic activities, and be shocked to learn that (ostensibly, at least) everyone received the same pay for their work. I can only imagine his reaction to the World Trade Organization.
In the mercantilist's mind, the economy of the United States might appear as some sort of backwards mixture of pre-mercantilist and mercantilist philosophies, with communism as perhaps a sort of uber-mercantilism. Is he correct? No, not really. He's looking at modern times through the eyes and ideas of centuries prior."

Guardian said...

Um, wow. So yeah, my perception of the book author was spot on.

I tweeted to him the question: "How far back does the Trek as post-scarcity idea go, per your research? I make 15 years." Then I posted a link here.

25+ tweets and 40 minutes later, I still don't have an answer. For one, he went nuts over the Hiroshima note ... forgivable, I suppose, but off-topic. And he then misinterpreted my question (and a whole lot more), trying to point to post-scarcity evidence in Trek chronologically, starting with ST4:TVH which he said "explicitly articulated" post-scarcity by having the bit about no money.

The hell? Folks, if not having cash equals living in a society of post-scarcity abundance, then Thag the Caveman had it effing *made*, and Bitcoin is better than the replicator.

Oh, but he wasn't finished, because in fact he does believe we are at post-scarcity *now*, which has to be the dumbest thing I've heard in awhile.

But let's back up, because his criteria for "explicitly articulated" is so abysmally low that he even says Roddenberry "specifically described" post-scarcity in the TNG Writer's Bible. I've been skimming it since the tweet and, as with ST4, I'll be damned if I see any such thing.

As a man used to dealing with people who at least try to have real evidence, and as someone who almost invariably does, this evidence-free guy is pretty horrifying.

He did try to provide further evidence, such as the crew's befuddlement at 1985 city hubbub as a "foretaste" Um, no. I'd be equally befuddled at the vehicular insanity of 1906 San Francisco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5q2GCdXmbQE

... or the complete traffic lawlessness of some Asian cities today. It's a different world, not post-scarcity.

He also suggested that computwer advancements had something to do with the topic (huh?), and more damningly that the kitchen on the Enterprise from The Undiscovered Country was proof that they did not have post-scarcity then. Again, this is wrong-headed. That may prove a lack of shipboard food replication (or a too-limited menu from their replicator or protein resequencer, what with those freaky colored cubes from TOS), but means jack-all in relation to the wider economic climate.

In short, the guy's tweets were a pure disaster on every level. I haven't even touched his Hiroshima absurdities, his statement that peace on Earth was Reagan's nightmare, and other ridiculousness.

Little wonder I inquired "Is the book like this, too? {...} I'll just look for the bibliography, I guess."

I feel confident that unless he writes books a helluva lot better than he tweets, that thing is going to be a complete mess that sets back the post-scarcity model's dominance over the communist model by, oh, 15 years or so. Hell, that may be his goal, given what a nutty leftist he seems to be!

Guardian said...

Ah, so he has sample chapters available. And indeed, Chapter 8 is pointless and non-sensical, strewn with rabid anti-Americanism and, I suspect, anti-Semitism, but not quite open enough to say directly.

The Federation may not be communist, but this asshat sure is. This Manu guy is the fool Piketty of Trek economics, though unlike Piketty I am unaware of any data falsification ... I just refer to the ill-considered, unsupported conclusions.

Robert Heinlein gets the bulk of his ire, for he is "as vile and stale as a Gadsden Flag". That's the "Don't Tread On Me" snake flag, for those unaware, a bright yellow Tea Party favorite. Naturally Comrade Manu (Commanu?) recoils in angry disgust.

"Heinlein, like most criminal advocates of war and torture, had never seen combat."

What the ... how the hell did a science fiction writer become a criminal advocate of war and torture?

"It is my understanding that Heinlein is some sort of folk hero for the American conservative movement,"

I've barely heard of him and never on this basis.

"[...] not only for his books but also for his public commitment to America's repugnant and murderous tradition of legal gun ownership. Exceptionalism cuts both ways, and mostly on the wrong side when handled by fools."

Holy shit! How could the guy see the keyboard to type this with Putin's crotch in the way?


Let's go back to Chapter 1, shall we? Maybe things will be better in context. To be continued ...

Guardian said...

Oops, nope. Things didn't get better in context. That same nonsensical pattern of claiming direct evidence from mere tenuous scraps is still here in regards to the "pivot point" of Kirk's no-money comment from Star Trek IV, as if he missed Kirk and Spock discussing the cost of Spock's training in "The Apple". Indeed, he seems to go on and on about cash's absence, as if he's never used or heard of a credit card.

Even the TNG Writer's Bible is used, though only as indirect evidence of a sea change in the production office's supposed handling of Federation economics going forward. (This is kind of silly, what with the replicator also appearing in the Bible along with the scene from "Encounter at Farpoint"[TNG1] of Crusher buying the whole bolt of fabric, charged to her.)

And we get more jealous-commie nonsense, e.g. "Not everyone can afford a BMW and nobody would bother to try, if it were not for the purpose of showing off. But they are great cars! From Germany! No. Both science and history amply prove that, German or not, there is no such thing as a truly great car."

What the hell? Science and history prove there are no great cars? What absurdity is this? So Commanu claims there is no appreciable distinction in quality between different automobiles. Third-world carmakers, rejoice! Your gappy-manufacturing-toleranced, ill-running, weeks-lasting piles of unsafe crap are every bit the Bavarian. Hell, Jaguar owners might as well tell the shop they're driving a Rolls before they bring it in. And I guess Kia can be forgiven for ripping off Ford designs so much lately (rather than previous targets like Chrysler) because their crappy little trash heaps are no different.

Commanu is absurd. It's even stranger when he seems to heart Adam Smith, until a few lines later when he notes, as if on cue, "This is the ideal theory. In practice, that ideal conceals a potentially fatal flaw that we will explore later."

Ah, of course he says that. After all, we mustn't allow the greatest economic system yet conceived to go unpunished.

He does have some interesting moments, like discussing the etymology of the word "dollar", and he does seem to recognize that Picard's vineyard and Sisko's restaurant are not disproofs of post-scarcity.

*But, he never seems to really try to prove post-scarcity.*

He uses Picard's line about material needs no longer existing, for instance, while ignoring Picard's more ominous point about how controlling one's destiny is an illusion.

Y'know, I may have originated the post-scarcity model for Trek (or not), but I'm *less* inclined to accept it when reading this guy's excuse for an argument. It's that bad.

(That college paper I wrote got a failing grade, by the way, because the teacher didn't think I'd defined my terms adequately (no Trek fan was she!). I am failing Commanu for not proving the argument, with extra negative credit for his commie blowhard junk.)

STSWB5SG1FAN said...

One thought that I don't believe anyone discussing the economic theories of _Star Trek_ has ever considered was that when Kirk (in ST:IV) and Picard (in ST:VIII) talk about there being "no money in the future", they were exclusively talking about Earth. Not the Federation as a whole, just Earth. Vulcan would have its own economic system, Andoria would have its system, this "no money" thing was exclusive just to Earth (and maybe Mars, Luna, Titan, and all the colonies of the Terran Sol system).

Trade between different Federation member worlds would necessitate the creation of some medium of exchange, therefore Federation credits, to be used by federation citizens when traveling to distant locations (Quark's bar where Fed credits could be exchanged for gold pressed latinum).

BTW, there is no kitchen on the _Enterprise_, it's called a galley.