All Commentary
Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Star Trek’s Pseudo-Economics

Beam Me Up: There's No Economy Down Here

A fan convention dedicated to comics, graphic novels, anime, manga, video games, toys, movies, and television is not the place you’d expect to find a panel on economic theory. But economists and geeks joined forces at the recent New York Comic Con to discuss “Trekonomics,” the economics of Star Trek.

One of the major issues was whether the Trek universe is one of “post-scarcity,” and the implications the popular science fiction franchise poses for traditional economic theory.

The participants seemed confused about the role scarcity plays in economic theory.

A Scarcity of Sense

At one point in the panel, the moderator Felix Salmon asked economist Brad DeLong, “What is post-scarcity?”

DeLong answered:

Gene Roddenberry tried to paint our future by saying: “Wait a minute! What’s going to happen in three centuries? In three centuries we are going to have replicators. Anything material, gastronomic that we want… we are going to have. What kinds of people will we be then and how will we live?”

We are quite far on that transition already.…

Right now … here in the United States what used to be the principal occupation of the human race — farming — is at satiation.… We have about three times as many people in our medical and health-support professions working to try and offset the effects of excessive calories as we do growing calories and nutrients. Thus we are now rapidly approaching a post-scarcity economy.

And it is not just for food. If you go and look at containers coming in from China, we are approaching it with respect to things physically made via manufacturing processes as well. And that’s one of the things Star Trek is about.

It is odd that someone who flips out so much when people disagree with his policy views thinks that we are approaching the satiation of all physical wants. After all, how bad can fiscal austerity and sticky wages be if we’re just around the corner from a world where people live to work rather than work to live?

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.

Scarcity: Not Just for the Ferengi

As Jonathan Newman pointed out in his own critique of recent Star Trek commentary, the fact that humans move beyond subsistence is not the same as eliminating scarcity as economists typically use the term. It’s surprising that DeLong apparently used the terms interchangeably.

Yet, as Newman argues,

Suppose every household in the world has all of their biological needs abundantly satisfied. Food is provided by replicators like those on the Enterprise.…

All this means is that people can pursue other ends besides survival, like art, entertainment, learning, or simple relaxation. Our demand for goods and services does not stop once we are at subsistence levels of consumption. This is obviously true for anybody with the means to read this article.

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.

Scarcity in Trek

We can reflect on some of the more iconic moments from Star Trek to illustrate the pervasiveness of scarcity.

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.

Despite the wonderful ship at his command, Kirk must choose between his stranded friend and the planet of sick strangers.

Indeed, even though the opening sequence of each episode mentions seeking out new life and civilizations, and of course “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” the Enterprise quite often is tasked with delivering physical supplies to various people. The famous episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” with the white/black-faced men, involved a medical mission to decontaminate a planet. In the Next Generation series, the memorable episode “Brothers” involved Lieutenant Commander Data seizing control of the Enterprise when he is summoned by his creator. The situation is dire because a very sick child (accidentally placed in his predicament by his brother) cannot be cured of a parasite while on the Enterprise, and time is running out.

So we see that it is a common theme in Star Trek for people to argue over how the ship should be used, and often people will die from illness depending on whose will prevails. Whether they have a 24th-century version of Obamacare is irrelevant; there is definitely scarcity there, and it operates just like scarcity today.

Even the technology in the Star Trek universe is not a given; it is a response to incentives. For example, in the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” the crew goes into a different timeline where Lieutenant Tasha Yar is still alive (she had been killed off in the first season when the actress asked to be let out of her contract). In this timeline, the Federation has been at war with the Klingons all along. At one point, Yar says, “Deflector shield technology has advanced considerably during the war. Our heat dissipation rates are probably double those of the Enterprise-C, which means we can hang in a firefight a lot longer.” Thus we see that the capabilities of the Enterprise-D — the ship commanded by Jean-Luc Picard — are themselves dependent on the preferences of the humans who own it and the associated resources.

Show Me the Money!

It is true that Roddenberry thought, and others still think, that high productivity will eliminate the necessity of money for economic coordination. But Roddenberry was simply mistaken on this point — as were the socialist theorists who thought the modern computer would make socialism “work.”

The Star Trek universe is internally inconsistent from an economic perspective, just as trained natural scientists could point out all sorts of contradictions among the episodes. They depict truly impossible outcomes, not merely things that are beyond our current technology.

Ironically, the socialist theorists (and Gene Roddenberry) got things backwards. In a primitive Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson environment, people can make decisions without recourse to money prices, because the system isn’t very complicated; a person can “see” the trade-offs involved. Yet, in a modern economy based on the division of labor, money prices are indispensable. The possible uses of resources become greater — and the economic problem more difficult to solve — as technology expands.

  • Robert P. Murphy is senior economist at the Independent Energy Institute, a research assistant professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.