Aaron Arnold's Reviews > Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek

Trekonomics by Manu Saadia
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, read-in-2016, science-fiction

As a lifelong Star Trek fan who has been reading economists Brad DeLong (who provided the Introduction) and Paul Krugman (who provided technical commentary) for years and years, this was so well-targeted at me it might as well have been a photon torpedo (sorry). I couldn't have been more interested in an explanation of the economic logic of the post-scarcity paradise depicted in the best televised science fiction franchise of all time. While the commendably enthusiastic fandom is not matched by comparably rigorous economics, frequently coming off like a mixture of enthusiastic episode recaps and rants about contemporary political issues among some brief discussion of how the TNG warp speed limit reflects intro-level economic concepts like negative externalities, this book is a lot of fun. Overall Saadia provides, as Krugman once wrote in his paper "The Theory of Interstellar Trade" about the proper method of calculating interest rates at near-light speeds, "a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics".

If modern philosophy is a "series of footnotes to Plato", then modern science fiction is a "series of footnotes to Asimov". Star Trek has never been shy about acknowledging its debt to the master, but it was famously less rigorous about exploring how future society actually worked: sometimes characters act like they've never heard of money, sometimes they treat it as a necessary evil, sometimes they're as impeccably capitalist as you could ask for. How does society work with an absence of currency? Do other forms of status/hierarchy become more important without money? What's the status of human labor? How does copyright work when everyone's working for free? Is the replicator all that's necessary to enable post-scarcity? Are there natural limits to economic growth? How would one resolve collective action problems with truly alien species? These are explored narratively in the episodes, but I'm not only curious if the Federation is truly in a stable equilibrium, but about how humanity got to that point in the first place. After all, human beings in 2016 are vastly richer than our ancestors of 300 years ago (Saadia discusses John Maynard Keynes' excellent 1931 essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren", which addresses many of these same issues), yet we've hardly eliminated many of the traits that are inconsistent with the Star Trek life. How did that phase transition occur?

That's a tall order, and honestly I didn't expect the equivalent of the economic development history of the United Federation of Planets. There are many questions about how the Federation functions internally, what about externally? Saadia is at his best when he's comparing the Federation to its neighbors; most interesting are the comparisons between the economies of the Federation and the Borg (similar post-scarcity economics, vastly different social structures), and the Federation and the Ferengi (polar opposite economies, gradually more similar social structures). It raises the question of why, if the Federation's model is so great, then all the other spacefaring species at roughly similar levels of development aren't following it? Despite being peaceful, the Federation is forced to go to war with other belligerent powers quite often, and in the kind of winner-take-all total wars that define a civilization, even small inefficiencies can doom an otherwise perfectly capable society. We see the Federation win all kinds of battles against the Borg thanks to the power of the main characters, but honestly it seems that if they really wanted to, the Borg could just crush the Federation. Is Trekonomics really a dominant strategy against antlike communism, or do our heroes just have plot armor? Similarly, given the information-aggregation superiority of the price system over the unpriced barter system of socialism, what really prevents the Ferengi from bribing or buying people and resources out from under the Federation?

One could go on in this vein. Taking the economics of a TV show seriously is silly, but if you're a fan of the show, and even more importantly, the kind of future the show represents, you can have a lot of great conversations about its treatment of utilitarianism, artisanship, distribution, personal fulfillment, and everything else that becomes possible when instead of chasing full employment, you pursue "full unemployment". There's no shame in thinking about the kind of society you'd like to live in, and Star Trek presents the kind of hopeful vision of the future that will still prove powerfully attractive many years into the future. Saadia doesn't answer every question, but he presents a lot of fun debate material.
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Reading Progress

February 17, 2016 – Shelved
February 17, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
June 1, 2016 – Finished Reading
June 16, 2016 – Shelved as: non-fiction
June 16, 2016 – Shelved as: read-in-2016
June 16, 2016 – Shelved as: science-fiction

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