Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Impossible Monetary Economics of Star Trek

I always thought about writing an article on one of the silliest scientific mistakes in Star Trek: the belief that plenty is enough to satisfy human needs and, as a corollary, to make money disappear. Funny how Gene Roddenberry had a shallow quasi-Marxist view of how the monetary side of an advanced economy should (not) work.

Well, no need to write this article anymore. Gabriella Cordone has done an amazing job researching the monetary inconsistencies in the series, and explaining some of its economic problems in this article, a translation of the original in Italian. Quoting her:
Let’s start with the Roddenberry rule. No money in the Federation! Easy to say... not so easy to do. ...

When TNG arrived on the silver screen, the Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry had been deceased for several years, but apparently his rule kept following his characters; at least that seemed the intention. In Star Trek: First Contact, here comes Captain Picard again, who talks with Lily and, answering her question about the Enterprise: “How much this ship cost?” he answers “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.” “No money? You’re telling me you’re not paid?” Lily is surprised. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.” Despite Lily’s surprise (that mirrors the whole audience’s surprise), the line does not leave doubts: money does not exist and it’s not for money that you work. Picard and company are explorers and the risks they run are no different from those ran in the past by people like Amundsen or Livingston. The prestige of making a discovery exists since ages ago, the honor of being the first to know something and bring back the knowledge to the rest of humanity is drive enough for men like the Federation officers.

This is the lesson Roddenberry wanted to give, saying that in the Federation there was no money, word by word. ... What’s not clear enough, though, is the question Picard doesn’t answer: how things are done when a workforce is involved? Lily had difficulty in putting together the metal needed for building the capsule of Cochrane’s rocket, while apparently the metal needed for the Enterprise costs nothing... Let’s assume that miners do not exist and any heavy work is not done by men. But there must be - along the process of building a starship - some boring job that men have to do and they might do only for remuneration. So what, if not money?


PlasticLiving said...

Love your blog. Added to my reader.

Was with this up to:

But there must be - along the process of building a starship - some boring job that men have to do and they might do only for remuneration. So what, if not money?

This, I think, is where Gene was an optimist. I think he hopes that *all* boring jobs would be replaced with technology

Captain Slow said...

Well, if you weren't happy in the Federation working for no money, you could easily leave and go do work for the Ferengi(Like Hagath did with Quark's cousin Gaila), the Bajorans(Like Kassidy Yates), the Orion Syndicate(Bigby, etc), or go on your own(like Vash) and acquire all the wealth you want.

It's just that all things being equal, food wasn't scarce anymore. Energy wasn't scarce. Land wasn't scarce(Unless you wanted specific parcels). Most people opt to stay in the federation because they lead comfortable lives.

Thanks to Replicators, antimatter energy and space travel technology, most of what would motivate one to work for wealth just didn't exist.

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

Captain Slow, thanks for your comments. I wrote a reply that's available here:

BrownMaterial said...

I believe you have little or no understanding of the concept of "economic incentive" economics.

The fiction economics system is based on capitalism, for which the people are paid - paid with "Credits". The harder one works, the more one earns. These Credits are not money, for a Credits has no value, nor is there a set amount of Credits in circulation. Because Credits are infinite in amount, this economic system can't works like our monetary capitalist system.

Regarding your statement that a star ship would cost nothing: You are in error, for any product manufactured would have a cost in manpower, manpower hours, and materials.

As to your statement:

"Funny how Gene Roddenberry had a shallow quasi-Marxist view of how the monetary side of an advanced economy should (not) work."

I believe you're reading to much into this. The fiction economic system on the fictional show called "Startrek" is just that, a work of fiction.

Finely, I'd like to say that I think your view that Roddenberry "...had a shallow quasi-Marxist view..." is unfair. I detected no such view in the series TNG.

Age Wild said...

Having read some books with interviews and biographies of Roddenberry, I have concluded that while he was certainly a progressive / liberal California Hollywood guy - his views were a lot more complex than the stereotype, and Star Trek reveals that at times. That the ship was called Enterprise is a clue. That Star Trek was a major IP with a lot of merchandising and profit-making is another. He wasn't personally against Ferengi-ism, at least in RL.

IMHO - Star Trek economics are very plausible. Fusion power, superluminal spaceflight, and therefore essentially unlimited access to exoplanetary resources, probably could support a Earthly global utopia. In theory - sudden extreme and universal Terran wealth would not cause us to stop working if economic survivalism was replaced with a different motivation.

In spite of being an ardent Republican, I think Roddenberry's imaginary world does provide a sort of sketch of a goal for humanity that is ideology neutral. It's just impossible until there's new physics that gives us free energy.