Nov 7, 2016

Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek | Thoughts and Ideas About...


In the introduction Manu Saadia, the author, says that the primary objective of his book is to describe the economics of Star Trek and looking at if it is possible to move towards an economy implied in the Star Trek shows. As he did the question of possibility gradually dissolved, it turns out that Star Trek's main economic thesis 'that machines can eventually free us from the drudgery of work' is almost as old as the Industrial Revolution itself.  Trekonomics it is not at all crazy, on the contrary but seems rather reasonable in light of the trajectory of the past two centuries.



Human activity has quickly moved away from the purely physical to the mental and symbolic meanwhile more or less almost autonomous machines have taken on the task of transforming raw materials on an unimaginable scale. Star Trek's Utopia is nothing more than the world that awaits us on the other side of that great social metamorphosis  provided we decide to distribute our newly acquired freedom evenly and avoid boiling our planet.

Looking through the reviews of Trekonomics there were a lot of critics, some were concerned with the 'socialist' notions expressed in this book but most seemed to be upset that this was not a full blown economics tome which gave us a step by step guide of how Star Treks economy actually worked.

Maybe being an Australian, I didn't have a problem with the 'socialist' ideas, however it did cause me to wonder what the Australian work-scape would look like if food, drink and housing (all the basic necessities of life) were evenly allocated to all and people didn't need to work for those resources.

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In regards to the second point. To me it was an enjoyable 'fly over' of the issue. The book gave me a big picture look while trying to explain the reasoning as to why it works as it does.

This could mainly be because of the scarcity of subject matter. As the author mentions several times there is not much actually said about how the Star Trek economy functions so he has extrapolated his ideas from what is implied.


What Is The Economy Of Star Trek If It's Not Money?

If the Star Trek replicator was real and it was freely and available to everyone as a public good.  What would you do with your time? What line of work or leisure would you pursue?

This is the basis of Trekonomics. The replicator is a metaphor for automation and in the Star Trek universe it was a political decision to make it a public good so it's citizens could work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.  In lieu of monetary gains it's citizens work toward gaining and building reputation.


It's a meritocracy, an economy of reputation.

In the Federation work exists to make you happy. this is reminiscent of many 19th century Utopian works which all tried to image world where labour, leisure, work and art will merge into a single activity.  The dissolution of work into leisure and passion arose in reaction to the industrial rationalisation of production.  Star Trek draws directly from that tradition and updates it for late 20th century post modern audiences by creating excitement and a larger meaning to life, work in the federation fulfil the deep human need  for belonging and recognition  work is another way to love and be loved and express ones unique sensibility, 
Some never quite succeed at this so there will be a darker side: performance anxiety.

A meritocracy doesn't mean that everyone is a winner and for those who can't 'swing it' the imperative to build a meaningful life through work becomes a source of unbearable anxiety, some will be tempted to find a quick fix, to cheat.  In a meritocracy such as the Federation cheating is the highest crime.

The Best Parts.

One of the best chapters was the penultimate one, chapter eight, which looked at the way Star Treks most odious species, The Ferengi, and how they changed from Money Grubbing Capitalists to Keynesian Social Democrats.  This gives us the best ideas on how we may be able to make the transition to a new system work.

The book ends with a chapter suggesting that a Star Trek-like society is already here just local and unevenly distributed. The challenge is to get the distribution of goods right rather than the need for better technology.

My Thoughts.

In places the ideas laid out raised more questions than they answered. which is what I liked about this book, but not my wife. As I tried to work through what I had read, in my mind and in conversation with my wife she tweeted

Kids gone for the weekend. No one else in the car. Forced to discuss Trekonomics with @nqwolf. #SendHelp

This book also got me excited to see how close we are to a Star Trek-like economy,  but my biggest concern is how would we make that transition? How do you convince people to give up money and the acquisition of it? I don't have much but the idea of exchanging what I have for... (kudos?) that is a bit daunting.  So those with a lot of wealth would not be happy to eschew it in favour of a new system.

While it didn't give us the answers that the critics of Trekonomics were after, it was a good overview of the subject. I like books which make you think, and this book did.

Interested? Want to grab yourself a copy? Click on the link below.
Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek


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Disclaimer: I typed the quotes out while listening to the audiobook, so they may not be quite accurate.