Alberto Mingardi  

Economic Possibilities for our Spacetraveling Grandchildren

Hassett's Numbers are Plausibl... Central bank infallibility is ...

I've been watching on Netflix a new Star Trek series, Discovery, which is sort of a prequel to the classic Kirk & Spock series. I've found the series engaging and extremely well crafted - but, just after a few episodes, it is quite too early to cast a judgment.

I've always liked Star Trek, particularly as a kid, for its characters and its uncompromising optimism, too. Good science fiction is quite often "dark", it uses the future to showcase the anxieties and fears we feel today. On the contrary, Star Trek brings us to a time when humankind solved most of its long standing problems, learned to cooperate peacefully, and therefore can now explore outer space. Over there, we'll make it known that we come in peace - well, as much as we can.

Sure, Star Trek accounts for the natural, hardwired aggression of men - but it shows that we can govern it (learn from the Vulcans!) and perhaps take it out of the closet just in those key moments in which it'll actually save the day (paging Captain Kirk).

At the same time, the rosy politics and economics of Star Trek is sometimes distressing. You often get the impression that the Federation of Planets is the Soviet Union turned good.

That Star Trek is a beyond money and, really, "beyond scarcity" (think of food synthetizers, the "replicators"!) universe, in which humans are capable of tremendous achievements precisely because they won over most pressing needs, is the way in which the franchise founded by Gene Roddenberry is most commonly understood- Keynes's "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" on steroids.
A few years ago a book entitled "Trekonomics" by Manu Saadia was discussed at New York Comic Con by no less august presonages than Paul Krugman and Brad De Long (transcript here). Krugman has a very good point, in the discussion: replicators make "things", and in that sense Star Trek may be beyond scarcity, but that won't help much with service. "Even now, we spend only 30 per cent of our income on goods the rest is for services, and the replicators won't help with that".

The book was reviewed critically by Students for Liberty's Vice President Fred Roeder. Roeder maintains that:

Star Trek Federation is a great thought experiment on what a post-scarcity society could look like. However, there are major shortcomings such as the allocation of property rights, a price system for energy, incentivization of services, and the existence of rivalry.

A free, prosperous, and open society such as the Federation can only function with a price system in place in order to deal with the scarcity of energy. If trekonomics would really be applied in the Federation, we would see a much more repressive version of this interplanetary union forcing its citizens to work in certain professions and rationing energy.

Roeder's point is that there may be more of the price system in Star Trek's dreamed world than most politically minded fans are willing to concede. I recommend his discussion of the "concealed" price mechanism in the United Federation of Planets to be read side-by-side with the DeLong/Krugman's panel discussion of the kind of "meritocracy" Star Trek implicitly endorses. Meritocracy and the market system ain't the same thing, as the latter is a decentralized system to take decisions whereas the first is based upon top down criteria. You can't do without incentives, and Star Trek does not. But how are incentives best come up with? Well, that's a long debate. It dates back to long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away[*].

[*] The Star Wars reference is purposefully here to set the fans of both sagas off.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
TMC writes:

I thought it was available through CBS's pay site only.

I would get our ratio of goods to services would skew to goods once they are so cheap, and services would be replaced by goods in the future as technology increases.

[ typo fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Thomas Sewell writes:

As I understand it, the shows takes the large number of economic fallacies from The Original Series and increases the number of fallacies to ensure there is no recognizable relationship to anything but psuedo-Marxist 60s wish fulfillment.

But I could be wrong. Examples would be appreciated. :)

Peter Gerdes writes:

In your criticism of star trek and your suggestion they would need tyrannical government management of careers you falsely equate a lack of money with a lack of incentives.

If you'll notice there are plenty of incentives offered to do crappy jobs in star trek. Sure, being posted by star fleet out at some horrible isolated listening post or beaming down to a planet as a red shirt are undesirable jobs but the strong implication of the show is that people volunteer for them or at least agree to risk being assigned such jobs in return for a better shot at higher status careers (e.g. captaining their own ship one day or running some research lab).

Now it's true that narrative pressures mean that the people in star trek are depicted as frequently availing themselves of service based goods provided by humans (quark's bar, Sisko's dad's restaurant, various shore leave activities). However, the level of automation we have now is already passing that shown in star trek and hundreds of years in the future we should expect that virtually all routine service tasks will be performed by machines.

Now its easy to imagine one future in which our desire to show off that we have a house decorated in the latest styles, have our food prepared by a real person (not robot) etc.. keeps everyone offering their labor as a status good so they can afford to buy the status of employing other people themselves.

However, its also possible that the equilibrium will turn out to be one more like we see in online open source communities where people put a lot of value in being recognized as some kind of contributor, project leader or other achievement based renown and don't find enough value in paying other people to perform services worth enough to perform the jobs they would need to earn this money

Peter Gerdes writes:

I said that very badly. Let me try again.

Imagine you live in a world in which there is sufficient automation that it takes barely any effort to procure free food, travel, instruct robots to move your belongings etc.. Instant transit has undermined the value of housing/buildings near popular destinations or the places people 'work'.

Suppose further that society put a lot of value on developing your own artistic and creative pursuits and very little on showing off by having menservants or other primarily signalling based reasons to purchase services from other people.

In such a society doesn't it seem quite plausible that the vast vast vast majority of people would choose to live using the free food, housing, transit etc.. without supplementing it by taking a job (after all society frowns on it)?


Of course, absent general AI such a society needs people to do things to upkeep that society (repair /program the automated systems, coordinate for land use etc..). However, just as with sex (where money for services is repugnant) in our society such a society could easily substitute other non-monetary incentives like rank/status in an admired organization (starfleet) to convince a tiny fraction of people to do a little work to ensure things keep working. With sufficient lack of scarcity it doesn't really matter that the system is less efficient than a monetary based allocation of labor (and given the vagueries of human psychology it might make for happier people despite the inefficiency) .

A number of remaining services would be provided in the same way and on the same terms we now do favors for friends. Its not acceptable to pay for a friend to watch your kids but many people will do it for goodwill and others genuinely like molding young minds. Other things, like painting portraits or interior design might be done simply for the privilege of being able to say that other people want your artwork or design skills.


Note that I'm not defending things as pictured in star trek. That's obviously absurd but a different more computerized world could work with other non-monetary incentives.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Good article, though I'm not sure it is reasonable to assume energy would require rationing. By my figuring, for the elimination of scarcity to exist, near infinite amounts of low cost energy is required. I've always assumed they solved cold fusion.

William writes:

That was a fun romp. Thanks! Now to but my boots back on and return to work.

P.S. Even in "a world without scarcity" trade federations were a big deal, dylithium crystals were hard to come by, and red shirts were, more or less, canon fodder.

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