…Is what I think about now whenever someone brings up the economics of Star Trek. For those unfamiliar, the title refers to a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tasha Yar, who grew up on a politically collapsed colony populated by … rape gangs! Think Mad Max only ham-fisted. It’s also a reference to the 2007 combined tour of the bands Ifihadahifi and Replicator, “IfIHadARepliTour.” Yup, a show I never saw was so memorably named it stuck in my head for eight years.
Today’s “Economics of Star Trek” adventure appears courtesy of The New York Times, “A ‘Star Trek’ Future Might Be Closer Than We Think.” Reporting on the upcoming book Trekonomics– I know, I know, I hear you groaning in agony at your screens.
Okay, so the Times interviewed one of the authors and claimed:
When everything is free, said Mr. Saadia, objects will no longer be status symbols. Success will be measured in achievements, not in money: “You need to build up your reputation, you need to be a fantastic person, you need to be the captain.” People will work hard to reach those goals, even though they don’t need a paycheck to live.
Wrong. When you have teleporters—and set aside the obvious philosophical issues of voluntarily walking into a disintegrator beam so a duplicate of yourself can be incarnated somewhere else—you will have crime, mass terrorism, mayhem, and social collapse. Come on folks, show a little realism about human motivation.
So, now that we’ve dismissed the subject on the merits, we can pick it for less entertaining reasons. Let’s look at Star Trek without transporters. Would objects no longer be status symbols? Would people live to work and not work to live? Would we have … “post-scarcity”?
Hardly. We’d squabble over all the stuff that we can’t replicate, just like today. That’s the rub with productivity: There isn’t a whole lot of difference between mass-producing stuff cheaply versus for free. However, stuff that can’t be produced or easily substituted, i.e. positional goods, won’t disappear. This is precisely why I believe the concept is so important and write about it so frequently. Indeed, Trekonomics‘ author’s assertion that everyone needs to be the captain proves my point and discredits his: We can’t all be the captain. Someone will need to clean up replicator spills, so the future looks more like Red Dwarf than Star Trek.
Consequently, you’re going to need to produce something more substantial than menial labor to afford the location costs to live in San Francisco, Star Trek‘s preferred Earth location. But if the landowners of Trek can get everything they want for free, then we’re back to the robots-substituting-for-workers problem that I’ve addressed before.
And don’t waste your time arguing that people can always leave Earth for more space. That’s just kicking the can forward and ignoring the fact that even when land is free, poverty still exists in urban centers. Henry George observed this in the 1870s (and he cut his chops in San Francisco). At some point, “post-scarcity” stories only work if you tap location values. Nothing less will do.
Ultimately, “Economics of Star Trek” discussions raise two questions. One is concerned with filling the gaps created by the showrunners’ (mis)understandings of political economy, and the other is applying existing social science knowledge to the show. The first question disserves the show. It’s aspiration, not social theory. The second question, going by the author’s quotations, still needs work. We’re a long way from the characters chatting about how in the 21st century people actually believed consumption taxes were a good idea.
Oh, and since I’m talking about Ifihadahifi, here’s its Scott Walker protest song: