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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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