Book review: Manu Saadia, Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (2016).
About a year ago, I heard Felix Salmon talking about a project he was shepherding; Trekonomics was going to be a crowdfunded book about the post-scarcity economics of Star Trek. Intrigued, I put the $10 on my credit card. And waited.
Confession: I’m not a Trekkie. Or a Trekker. (I don’t honestly know the difference between the two.) I mean, I grew up watching the original series with my dad, who’d watched it in its initial run. And when The Next Generation aired, my middle school heart was thrilled, and I think I watched the first season or so before stopping. And that (plus a couple movies and the reboots) is about the extent of my Star Trek knowledge.
Still, I was really excited for this book—the idea of illustrating a post-scarcity economy through science fiction seemed cool. And the anticipation was cool: listening to some Harry Potter audiobooks with my kids, it occurred to me that Harry Potter potentially provided an alternative perspective on post-scarcity.[fn1]
A couple weeks ago, it showed up. And now that I’ve read it, a couple thoughts.
The book is conceptually ambitious. My impression is that sci-fi writers spend a lot of time world-building, but don’t think deeply about the economics of the worlds they build.[fn2] So Saadia had to extrapolate the economics from the storytelling itself.
The analysis is wide-ranging, name-checking everything from supply and demand to monetary supply to externalities to Keynes, from Roddenberry to Asimov to Clarke. He discusses the move from a system that includes money to one that no longer needs it.
His central thesis is that the unconstrained availability of replicators, as well as the Federation’s political preferences, means that there are no unmet wants (and thus no poverty) in the Federation. That is, there is no scarcity. Without scarcity, there’s no money (because you can get everything for free, so there’s no need for a medium of exchange).[fn3] Without scarcity or poverty, there is no need to work. A big part of the book tries to answer the question of why people would work where they don’t need to. (His answer should be fairly familiar to law professors: it’s all about prestige.)
Saadia (necessarily) doesn’t answer all of the questions raised, of course. It turns out that Star Trek’s post-scarcity economy isn’t actually post-scarcity; rather, it’s post-scarcity of necessaries. But there are still artisanal goods that can’t be replicated. Saadia’s example is wine from the Picard family’s vineyard—because it’s made in the traditional way, there’s a finite supply.
He suggests that the finite supply of artisanal goods isn’t a problem because, if you can’t get Picard wine, you can substitute Klingon bloodwine or some other drink.
That’s fair, but it elides the question of allocation: without money, how does the Picard family allocate its wine in the first place? There are clearly possibilities (to friends, by lottery, on a first-come, first-served basis), and it’s not Saadia’s fault that he can’t answer the question, because Star Trek’s writers don’t seem to have thought about it, but it turns out that artisanal one-of-a-kind products create a problem in a post-scarcity economy, a problem that would have to be dealt with.
There are a couple other parts of the book that are spectacular. For example, in chapter 4 he just crushes the 1960s Malthusian panic set off by Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Probably my favorite lines from the book are these:
You can’t really fault a biologist for being obsessed with people’s reproductive functions; after all, that is the heart of the discipline. But you can take exception with the way some biologists tend to view economics and human society through the blinders of their science.[fn4]
As Saadia explains, Ehrlich’s freakout ignored technological innovation and economic substitution.
At the end, he also brings his Star Trek-inspired conclusions to bear on the world we know. He concludes that Star Trek gets it backwards: it’s not space exploration that will lead to a utopian economy. It’s a utopian economy that will allow us to spend the money to explore space.
He also talks about the uneven distribution of a post-scarcity economy. As jobs disappear, people who live in developed economies may face some dislocation, but ultimately will be able to make the transition. But as more and more jobs disappear, it’s not clear that developing economies will be able to grow into developed economies. In the past, it has been a combination of specific types of jobs and social safety nets that have lifted countries; without those jobs, it may take some sort of global redistribution.
Man, was this book poorly edited. Some of it was just annoying—he constantly uses sentence fragments. Most of these don’t get in the way of his meaning, but they’re jarring, and their level of annoyance builds up.[fn5]
Some of the problems actual impede meaning. In the middle of a discussion on global warming, he writes:
Even the most virulent global-warming deniers do not dispute that aggressive policy steps to curb carbon emissions will upend not only oil companies’ business but the economies of entire nations.[fn6]
Unless I’m missing something, that makes no sense. Of course global-warming deniers don’t dispute that curbing carbon emissions will hurt business and nations; in fact, that’s an argument against aggressively addressing global warming (which is what global warming deniers want). I honestly don’t know if he means that those of us who believe that global warming is a problem don’t dispute the harms that solutions will cause, or if he means something else entirely.
He also baldly asserts that carbon pricing and carbon taxes have had only “middling success.”[fn7] I don’t follow the issue closely, but my understanding is that at least some carbon taxes have been more successful than that.
The tone shifts a lot, too, with profanity suddenly appearing, then disappearing again, with colloquialisms coming out of nowhere for no apparent reason (except, maybe, emphasis), and then returning to a conversational, albeit standard, written English.
Also, this book has no index. You can search for keywords on the ebook version, but the ebook version doesn’t have the same pagination as the physical book.
I suspect that, had this book run through traditional publishing houses, many of these problems would have been caught and addressed before publication.[fn8] Which is to say, legacy publishers provide more benefits than mere gatekeeping.
So Should You Buy This Book?
I mostly enjoyed it; had it been better-edited, I’d recommend it. As is, it was some interesting food for thought. If you’re interested in Star Trek, in utopian economics, or just in fictional economies, there’s no compelling reason not to read it, if you have time. If I were grading it, I’d probably give it a B- or a C+; the content by itself would probably be a solid B, though.
After reading the book, I am convinced that I should give Deep Space Nine a try, though.
[fn1] I hope to explore the economy of Harry Potter sometime in the future.
[fn2] Though I’m sure there are exceptions.
[fn3] Saadia doesn’t address services, which can’t be replicated, presumably, except to hint that services are done for personal reasons or by automation.
[fn4] P. 92
[fn5] Around page 120, I started getting so annoyed that I copied some of the problems down.
[fn6] P. 126
[fn7] P. 127.
[fn8] FTR, Inkshares claims that it provides a full suite of editorial services. I don’t know, though, if those automatically go to all authors and they’re just not very good, or if Saadia chose not to use them or what.