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Fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek’s first episode Manu Saadia takes a deep dive into the show’s most radical and provocative aspect its detailed and consistent economic vision Could we create such a utopia here on Earth And why has Star Trek’s future had such staying power in our cultural imagination T. Long time fans of Asimov Star Trek and related s f will appreciate this rumination on Roddenberry s utopia How improbable is the Trek scenario Well we have communicators and talking computers now don t we So why not a society that has eliminated war poverty and other problems and where work is optional because replicators make anything and everything for free How do I vote for this agenda Shall we call it the Landing Party

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Trekonomics

Rekonomics looks at the morals values and hard economics that underpin the series’ ideal society and its sources of inspiration both inside and outside the science fiction canon After reading this book you’ll be able to answer the uestion If you could live in Star Trek’s economic utopia would you want. 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 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 freuently 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 economicsIf 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 statushierarchy become 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 euilibrium 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 occurThat s a tall order and honestly I didn t expect the euivalent of the economic development history of the United Federation of Planets There are many uestions 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 similar social structures It raises the uestion 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 uite 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 FederationOne 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 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 uestion but he presents a lot of fun debate material

Manu Saadia ✓ 6 Summary

Star Trek is set in an amazing utopian universe of faster than light travel of “beam me up Scotty” and Vulcan salutes It’s also a universe where war and poverty have been eradicated money doesn’t exist and work is indistinguishable from leisure In this ground breaking book timed to coincide with the. Money is one of humanity s most clever and enduring technologies It is a brilliant way of transferring value across vast distances and decentralizing our economy Barter makes sense on a hyperlocal neighbourly scale but you can t run a vast industrial economy on it As Niall Ferguson chronicles in his excellent The Ascent of Money increases in numismatic sophistication were vital in increasing the range of trade and our abilities to innovate and provide services to citizens So it seems a foregone conclusion that we are stuck with money that we ll never be rid of it Yet Star Trek particularly in its 24th century form proposes to do just that at least within the Federation Trekonomics is Manu Saadia s attempt to understand how or even whether this could work This is not a deep examination of the workings of the Federation s economy itself so much as a meditation on how we might apply the ideas of trekonomics to our own policy making In so doing Saadia follows in the footsteps of Trek itself which is not about presenting viable predictions of the future of our species but telling stories about our species in the presentSaadia s timing could not be better Obviously the book is coming out during the fiftieth anniversary year of Star Trek On a wider note this book is uite pertinent to conversations happening around the world with regards to the economy and work As automation in the form of algorithms and robots replaces many jobs once done by humans and as an aging workforce retires slowly younger people are left to wonder exactly what they re meant to be doing when it comes to work Holding down a career for life is not a realistic option for many of us The world of work is changing thanks both to changes in technology and policy It behoves us therefore to examine our assumptions about capitalism and consider what alternatives might be available to usTrekonomics works because the Federation is a post scarcity society That is everything that one might need to survive is available in abundance at practically zero cost The replicator is the poster child of post scarcity and of course is a sufficient condition for a post scarcity society Saadia is uick to point to contemporary 3D printing as an example of proto replicator technology and no he s not saying we ll inevitably have actual replicators but 3D printing itself is pretty darn amazing However he makes a salient observation towards the end of the book that leaves us with a lot to think about in Star Trek the replicator comes last It is the culmination of Federation progress It s not present in the 23rd century where humanity is already well on its way to post scarcity and the enlightenment that supposedly accompanies it In other words the replicator is sufficient but not necessary and Saadia argues it is the result of other developments rather than the cause of those changesThis is central to Saadia s thesis technology alone is not enough to tip us over into a money less post scarcity utopia Saadia does not put much store in the Singularity or the idea that technology is somehow inherently liberating or democratizing He notes the massive potential of technologies like the Internet but he points out that it is only a force for good if we make it so He cites GPS and the Internet both as examples of positive externalities public goods provided by the US government at not extra cost GPS is an excellent example because it s something that has so uickly become embedded in our everyday actions Yet the US government could easily just turn the system offTechnology alone is not enough Its advancement must be accompanied by progressive policies In particular Saadia points to eliminating poverty as a crucial step towards a trekonomics future Poverty actually changes people s behaviour Saadia observes that there is a clear difference between the behaviour of the 23rd century Starfleet officers and the 24th century ones with the latter all acting like Spock rational civilized fair minded I happen to be watching an episode of TNG as I write this Force of Nature S07E09 which Saadia uses as the example of this Picard and the crew are eminently rational able to consider possibilities that undermine their beliefs in the harmlessness of the Enterprise s mission of exploration simply because it is their job to keep an open mindSaadia contends that as our technologies and policies improve our access to necessities like food healthcare and decrease our need to work this will actually change our behaviour and outlook as a species This might seem strange at first because there is a very romantic notion that humans are humans are humans across all of time and space and that we somehow possess an intangible indomitable spirit that will never be altered or crushed by our circumstance But it has happened before Our transition from hunter gatherer to agrarian societies culminating in urbanization has changed the way we think and act and operate As Saadia puts it culture is our killer app It is itself a technology that we can innovate and iterate through policy and philosophyIf I haven t commented much on Saadia s exposition of the economics of the Federation or other species it s simply because there isn t much in here that is new to me When you ve watched Star Trek as much as I have you re pretty familiar with it from all angles Saadia speaks of the shows in the cadence of a rugged fan like myself off handedly but accurately summarizing entire species contributions to the show or whole themes of episodes If you choose to read this book for no reason than that you like Trek you still can t go wrong Saadia keeps the economic terms light indeed I suspect that anyone with the than passing knowledge of economics that I possess would be able to offer a deeper critiue of those aspectsStill Trekonomics is not meant to be expositional so much as aspirational Nowhere is this obvious than in the otherwise somewhat indulgent chapter on the science fictional influences on Star Trek Saadia uses Star Trek to point to how we can explicitly envision and shape our own future This is an empowering idea but it is not a foregone conclusion that we can make such a change To be sure even with advances in technology it will be a long time before we can get rid of money I think it s very easy to be sceptical that we will ever reach that point to be worried about free riders etc in such a system But we need to recognize that this scepticism is an internalized artifact of growing up within capitalism That doesn t guarantee that we can successfully replace capitalism with something else but given capitalism s flaws I don t see that we have any other moral option than to try Treknomics is a passionate Trek filled reminder that we are capable of doing better If we want to


10 thoughts on “Trekonomics

  1. says:

    Tea Earl Grey hotSo spoke Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard on many episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation But economist and consummate Trekkie Manu Saadia explains how getting the Captain his tea was both

  2. says:

    This is an excellent book but for a niche audience You need to have watched Star Trek I mean all of it And you need to be interested in economics Satisfy that and you'll have a fun time with this

  3. says:

    Money is one of humanity’s most clever and enduring technologies It is a brilliant way of transferring value across vast distances and decentralizing our economy Barter makes sense on a hyperlocal neighbourly scale but you can’t run a vast industrial economy on it As Niall Ferguson chronicles in his excellent The Ascent of Money increases in numismatic sophistication were vital in increasing the range of tr

  4. says:

    As a long time Star Trek fan who has a bit of interest in economics I thought this was an interesting read I wish that th

  5. says:

    The author uses Star Trek Next Generation as an example of society without money people can work or not work as they wish

  6. says:

    Long time fans of Asimov Star Trek and related s f will appreciate this rumination on Roddenberry's utopia How improbable is the Trek scenario? Well we have communicators and talking computers now don't we? So why not a society that has eliminated war poverty and other problems and where work is optional because replicator

  7. says:

    This is a rather hard book to review because I wanted so so much to love it The second I saw an internet article about the idea I was on Inkshares to support throw money at the endeavor and asking my friends to do the same My partn

  8. says:

    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

  9. says:

    I heard about this book via Scalzi's Big Idea feature and it sounded awesome so I picked it up right away The author set

  10. says:

    Nice choice Mom Thank you for the recommendation Live long and prosper thus alludes to another kind of prosperity the kind that arises from the cultivation of the mind rather than from greed that antiuated and vulg