No Economic Lessons from Star Trek

Star TrekOh my! Matt Yglesias is back to talking about Star Trek, The Star Trek Economy: (Mostly) Post-Scarcity (Mostly) Socialism. It is based upon some recent work by another unapologetic nerd Rick Webb, The Economics of Star Trek, which is ridiculously long for such a silly article. Is it unfair of me to note that they are way over-thinking this stuff? Well, it cannot be any worse than the pain I felt from pulling my hair out reading this stuff.

It isn’t that these aren’t smart guys with interesting ideas. But as someone who has attended two—Count em: two!—Star Trek conventions, I know that nothing they have to say hasn’t been thoroughly discussed inside the bubble. The Star Trek universe is basically a socialist construct. There is no money and everyone has everything they need. But, Webb notes, “There is absolutely, obviously, still private property in the Federation.” Yes there is. There is Picard’s family winery. There is Sisko’s Creole Kitchen. There is Quark’s bar.

There is a reason for this: Gene Roddenberry was not a deep thinker. Let us consider Quark, because it is the best example of the problem. He is a Ferengi, a stupid race that is obsessed with money. Roddenberry wanted to make a point about unregulated capitalism. But this created characters who are so one-dimensional that they stood out even in the simplistic word of Star Trek. According to Wikipedia, “Ferengi culture is so devoted to unregulated capitalism that concepts such as labor unions, sick leave, vacations, or paid overtime for workers are considered abhorrent, because they would interfere with the exploitation of workers.” If that’s the case, the Ferengi would have no workers. Everyone would be independent contracts. (This is, by the way, what conservatives today are calling for without realizing it.)

Star Trek is above all genre storytelling. It not only needs salons for people to gather in, it needs proprietors to stand behind the bar are be wise (Guinan) or funny (Quark) or sweet (the Bar Waitress in Star Trek III). Similarly, occasionally our intrepid heroes will have to hire an independent ship as Bones tries to do in that bar scene in Star Trek III. And that gets to a very important truth about making television series: regardless of where you start, the day to day needs of producing 24 shows per year will back you into a corner. In the end, you will need an apologist of greater ability than William Lane Craig to make any sense of it.

So is there anything we can learn about potential economic systems from Star Trek. No. It’s just a fantasy. Start with a time when there is no scarcity. And put on top of that the hierarchical system that we have today. What do you get? A mess! And the idea of the end of scarcity is ridiculous anyway. At one time, just having enough to eat and a fire to sleep near was the good life. Now I think I’m suffering if the house gets below 60 at night. And what about that wine that Picard’s brother makes? Are you telling me that transporter beams (which would kill you) that can recreate perfect human beings could not store the information of great wines to be dispensed whenever? Please! Picard’s brother had a winery because a screenwriter had a good idea for a story.

In fairness, Yglesias’ apologia for the Star Trek economy is much better than Webb’s. And he is right: in an economy where everyone is given what they need, everyone is in a position to do what it is they want—to self actualize. And if we must think about it, that is probably the way to do it. But there are larger problems: a lot of people who work on starships do a lot of grunt work. (Why? Because they are basically submarine stories!) And they rarely get to “go ashore.” Why would they do that? It makes no sense. But then Star Trek, bless it’s heart, makes no sense.


Also: I have a problem with Picard’s tea. First, if one could have any tea, who would pick Earl Grey? I saw Stewart lecture at a Star Trek convention, and he went out of his way to ask fans to stop sending him Earl Grey tea. He said he really wasn’t fond of it. Of course! No one who is into tea likes Earl Grey. Yes, I will drink it. It was clearly put in the show by some American who had no real knowledge of tea. So he thought, “I can’t use ‘English Breakfast,’ because it sounds odd. How about ‘Earl Grey’? That sounds English without pushing the point too much!” Second, there is his instruction, “Earl Grey. Hot.” What does that mean?! Does he sometimes order it, “Earl Grey. Luke warm”? And what temperature is “hot”? Earl Grey should be steeped at 90°C. Everything else is so exact in Star Trek—like Spock’s tired, “We will arrive in approximately 9.4236719 hours.” But not here. Well, I guess “hot” is good enough for tea—at least when you’re an American television writer with no real experience with the stuff.

Libertarians Just Don’t Like the Poor

20131127-shawnfremstad.jpgShawn Fremstad has been writing over at CEPR Blog and putting out some great stuff. I recommend checking him out. But right now, I want to focus on an article he wrote last week, Paul Ryan Getting Advice on Poverty Policy From K Street Organization that Receives Most of Its Funding From Government. As you can tell from that headline, Fremstad is following in the sarcastic and snarky footsteps of Dean Baker.

The article gets at the hypocrisy of conservatives when it comes to government funding. In a larger sense (not discussed in the article itself), it comes back to this myth that conservatives want smaller government. For the umpteenth time: conservatives want big government that keeps the poor in check and sends the rich big checks. In fact, if you went line by line through the budget of what conservatives want to pay for and what liberals want to pay for, the conservatives would end up costing a lot more. It is cheap to help the poor; helping the rich is very costly.

But I was very struck by the following bit of information about the libertarian CATO Institute:

Two more general things about those “78 means-tested programs that have cost the federal government $15 trillion since 1964.” First, this conservative talking point, which comes from the Cato Institute and is slightly mistranslated in the WaPo piece (it refers to both federal and state expenditures), is extremely selective in ideological terms. For example, Medicaid is on the Cato list, but not federal tax expenditures that subsidize employer-provided health insurance and cost more than Medicaid. Expenditures on Medicaid mostly help working class children and parents, the elderly, and people with disabilities, while subsidizing employer-provided health insurance mostly benefits people in the top 40 percent of the income distribution.

Even by their own definition, libertarians aren’t libertarians when it comes to actual policy. Libertarians are for people being able to enter into voluntary contracts, but they are somehow against labor unions. They are against coercion, but only when it comes from the government. And as we see here, they ignore welfare that helps the well off, and focus like a laser on welfare that helps the poor. I would put the word “libertarian” in scare quotes, but I would have to do that basically every time I used it because I don’t know of a prominent libertarian who fits the definition.

This all takes me back to why I originally left the libertarian movement. (It was later that I stopped being a libertarian.) What, in the end, do libertarians stand for but making the rich richer and the poor poorer? Take education, for example. They believe there should be no public education. Well, if they really wanted a society where everyone was judged by their works, they would want a level playing field. But rich parents can give their children advantages that are insurmountable for the children of the poor. And to libertarians, this is just fine because—What?—the government isn’t the one causing this immoral inequality.

What Fremstad shows in that quote is that libertarians are just a particular kind of conservative apologist. They are for most of the conservative policy, they just have a different approach to justifying it. But if you scratch the surface of their arguments, they fall apart. They come down to: the rich are better than the poor so we should do everything we can for them. Or to put it more bluntly: fuck the poor. And that’s their right. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep calling them out about it, because they really are self-deluded. Their moral thinking is repugnant.

Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix

Jimi HendrixOn this day in 1874, the historian Charles A Beard was born. He was a progressive who saw the history of America through the lens of class conflict. This view has fallen out of favor. But his idea applied to the founding of the country seems correct. He argued that there were two revolutions. First, there was the revolution that we all know and love and that is immortalized with singing and a bit of dance in 1776. But there was a second revolution about who should rule. There were those who wanted at least a proto-democracy, as advocated by people like Paine and Madison. And then there were those who wanted a new aristocratic rule, as advocated by people like Adams and Hamilton. I think we can all agree that the results of that revolution are much more a muddle compared to the whole England business.

Beard is also know for his four sentence “lessons of history.” They are more poetic than useful, but I think I glean some insight from it.

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.
The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.
The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

Martial arts expert, actor, and hunka hunka burning love Bruce Lee was born in 1940. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of his movies. They are fun but that’s about all. He was, however, a fascinating man with the kind of jumble of beliefs that come being very smart but effectively an amateur intellectual. And I think those the very best kind of people. He was very interested in eastern philosophy of the Krishnamurti kind. But he was also quite clear about his atheism. He was only 32 when he died and as far as I’m concerned, we still don’t know why. The cause of death was cerebral edema (accumulation of fluid in the brain), but I don’t think it is likely to been because of the medication he was on. It’s sad. He should still be with us.

Other birthdays: astronomer Anders Celsius (1701); playwright Fanny Kemble (1809); science fiction writer L Sprague de Camp (1907); author James Agee (1909); illustrator Josh Kirby (1928); film director Kathryn Bigelow (62); Bill Nye the Science Guy (58); and author David Rakoff (1964).

The day, however, belongs to the great guitarist Jimi Hendrix who was born on this day in 1942. Was he really the great guitarist in all history as Rolling Stone would have us believe? Well, I don’t know about that. But he is one of the greatest. And he was also a fine songwriter. And he was a great showman. When you get right down to it, his guitar playing is just blues with a fantastic ear for beautiful melodies. What I think really threw him into another category is his use of the wah-wah pedal. You can really hear it on “Voodoo Child” here in Woodstock:

Happy birthday Jimi Hendrix!

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