2020/10/08

Trekonomics

Trekonomics

Robert P. Murphy points out that, not only does the post-scarcity economy portrayed in Star Trek not make sense, it's not really even post-scarcity.

In reply to Brad DeLong, an economist on the Trekonomics panel at the New York City Comic Con, Murphy writes:
In reality, DeLong is wrong to think that the higher productivity of labor in agriculture and manufacturing somehow indicates a qualitative change in the nature of scarcity. Even though we enjoy a standard of living that, in many respects, exceeds that of Louis XIV, just about every American today desires more material goods. Indeed, many of DeLong’s colleagues recommend raising the minimum wage for precisely this reason — though I disagree with their recommended solution.
He goes on to expose the flaw in equating moving beyond subsistence with eliminating scarcity.
Indeed, scarcity occurs whenever the available resources are insufficient to satisfy all possible uses to which human agents could put them, meaning that choices must be made.
There will be trade-offs, even in the world of Star Trek.
Because of that, people would still need the institutions of private property and money, even if Gene Roddenberry banished them from the most enlightened and advanced species in his fictitious creation.
Murphy cites an Original Series episode as an example of such trade-offs.
For example, in “The Galileo Seven,” Spock must make difficult command decisions when the shuttlecraft is stranded on a planet. Yet, the suspense in the episode derives from Galactic High Commissioner Ferris bickering with Kirk over how long they should continue searching for the landing party while the plague-ridden people of Makus III await the medical supplies the Enterprise is delivering. There is obvious conflict because of the trade-off involved: despite the wonderful ship at his command, Kirk (it seems) must choose between his stranded friend and the planet of sick strangers.
I'm always intrigued by how much certain world-building conceits found in speculative fiction worlds reveal about their authors. In the case of Star Trek, we see how Gene Roddenberry's Campbellian optimism and more than a little wishful thinking informed his dream of a society where human ingenuity had done away with the messy realities like private property and free markets.

But on closer inspection, not even Roddenberry's genius managed to consistently portray a world without trade-offs.

As a refreshing counterpoint to Roddenberry's more naive vision, I prefer the science fiction of John C. Wright. His Count to Eschaton books are based on the premise that even galaxy-spanning civilizations capable of moving stars around still have to deal with the massive energy costs of interstellar travel. Far from socialist idealism, Wright's aliens are governed by the mercenary calculus of game theory.

Bonus: a recurring theme of Wright's series is the main character's continual disappointment over the future's failure to turn out like the Star Trek-style cartoon he loved as a kid.

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier

12 comments:

  1. Quark's entire existence more or less throws a wrench into the Utopian setting. Anybody up for some gold-pressed latinum?

    One of the reasons why DS9 works much better than the other series is that it doesn't try to make me pretend human nature doesn't exist. It isn't perfect, but it allows for much more flexibility in the storytelling.

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    1. DS9's writers specifically took an axe to the whole post-scarcity conceit by explicitly stating that latinum can't be replicated.

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  2. Indeed, post-scarcity is a fantasy, purely because there will never be enough of anything to fully satisfy everyone who wants it.

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    1. It's the perfect example of a bug man ideology that asks us to ignore one obvious truth to prop up a pure fantasy.

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    2. And the current public health crisis has shown that scarcity is very, very real.

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  3. In a truly post scarcity society, everyone would have their own starship, French wine vineyard, or Planet Riza. That would make for a really dull show, which is why Roddenberry never examined the real consequences of that conceit. As much as they tried to make the Ferengi the bad guys, the audience liked them.

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    1. I think they tried to make them bad guys, and failed, but then had the creativity to make them interesting. They created characters like Quark, Rom, and Nog who were all bad Ferengi in their own ways.

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    2. Star Trek didn't go far enough in explaining this (because they were story telling and going with half-assed ideas), but I suspect that part of the post-scarcity conceit is assuming that everyone is happy with simulated experiential activities instead of insisting on actually say, owning a vineyard (why insist on actual property and actual wine that probably sucks when the holodeck provides good wine).

      It all falls apart when they fail to consider who controls holodeck and replicator access. And that's before you get into what inputs are required to create and maintain those items.

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  4. One of the things people don't realize is that the total availability of most given resources is close to infinite, and certainly far outstrips the ability of most individuals to consume. Iron is not scarce; by weight, the planet is pretty much a ball of iron. There is plenty of it. But that does not mean that right now, right here, I have the steel tool I want.
    Ownership isn't about having iron or steel but about having decision-control of it. Economic ownership is just conditional social hierarchy, which is why socialism is such a transparent lie.

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    1. "One of the things people don't realize is that the total availability of most given resources is close to infinite, and certainly far outstrips the ability of most individuals to consume."

      This idea falls apart a bit when one considers the cost to extract it versus the gain from consuming it. So even on top of having decision-control, there's being able to effectively make use of what you control.

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    2. Yes. I'm just talking quantities, which many people imagine to be the "scarcity" in question. By analogy (so I argue) this means that "post scarcity" with any number of tools readily available is really just a continuation of normal.
      What you're looking at there, I argue as a separate idea, which I state as "Economics is a physical system, and as such, runs on energy." Money, trade and credit are "just" systems for addressing allocation within that physical system.

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  5. Brian

    David in a tweet astutely remarked time us the scarcest resources. Roddenberry overlooked our mortality.

    xavier

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