Trekonomics 3 – Where’s the money? – by Amanda S. Green
In the first real chapter of Trekonomics, Manu Saadia discusses the absence of money in Star Trek. Of course, as we discussed in an earlier post, that’s not quite true. We saw currency, or its equivalent, in the original Star Trek when Scotty and others gambled. We saw it on various posts – anyone remember The Trouble with Tribbles? But let’s wait and see where Saadia goes with this.
The author starts by discussing the movie, Star Trek: The Voyage Home. In fact, Saadia spends some several pages discussing the plot of the movie, calling it a “modern-day Gulliver’s Travels”. In some ways, Saadia is correct. However, the characterization of Dr. Gillian Taylor, the marine biologist Spock and Kirk help during the course of the movie, as a “lovable loser” brought me up short. So did the way Saadia described Kirk and Spock as “losers, broken by life, just like her.”
Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that particular Trek movie. It is not one of my favorites. But I don’t recall Kirk or Spock coming across as losers. Sure, Spock looked like an aging hippie but not a loser. Nor do I remember Taylor being a loser, just someone totally dedicated to doing her job and knowing she was fighting an uphill battle.
Worse, at least from an editorial standpoint, the author waits three pages before getting to the supposed topic of the chapter. Three pages of discussing the plot of a movie that could have been condensed into a couple of paragraphs. When Saadia does get to the point, the lede is buried behind the fact that Kirk yet again breaks the Prime Directive in the movie. In this case, while out to dinner with Dr. Taylor, he tells he tells her that he is from the future and he has to take the whales with him in order to save the world.
Oops. What happened to never interfering?
Then, and only then, do we get to the point where the restaurant bill has to be paid and Kirk doesn’t know what to do. Taylor, reflecting the experience of every other woman who has been stuck with the check, said, “Don’t tell me, they don’t use money in the twenty-third century?”
Finally, now we get to the point. . . or do we?
According to Saadia, this particular movie marks a change in the Star Trek universe. Coming at the end of the Reagan era, this is when Star Trek becomes “truly utopian”. This is when “[i]n the future, free-market capitalism and its hallmark, money, have been discarded and consigned to the history books as bizarre and somewhat retrograde customs.”
As discussed earlier, this is a change from earlier canon. Saadia points out that in ST:TOS, the crew of the Enterprise drew a wages in Federation credits. They were able spend these credits in bars across the galaxy and even use them to buy Tribbles. Saadia tries hard to show that this was explained away in Deep Space Nine when Jake Sisco comments that he “sold” his first book and Quark asked how much he sold it for. Jake’s response?
“It’s just a figure of speech.”
That, according to Saadia, turns all previous mention of credits, etc., into a “figure of speech”. I don’t know about you but, to me, that seems like a lot of handwavium to try to make the narrative fit your needs. That simple exchange falls far short of explaining away the change in canon. In fact, it shows the problem when you don’t check for consistency and when your message changes during the course of a franchise.
Then, as quickly as Saadia waves a hand and dismisses the use of credits in earlier Trek titles, we’re back to it. We’re treated (okay, I’m being facetious here) to a description of all the other places we’ve seen the term used in SF and what a generic term is it. Then we get a quick explanation on where the word “dollar” came from. Saadia concludes all this with the following:
The widespread use of the term credit in classic science fiction acts as a useful reminder of Star Trek’s extraordinary boldness, especially given its unique status in popular culture. Money in science fiction is truly everywhere, just like in the real world. Its existence is seldom questioned or put in play as it is by Star Trek after ST IV: The Voyage Home.
Not skipping a beat, Saadia takes us to the opening season of ST:TNG, specifically the last episode of the season. Captain Picard and crew have come across a ship containing people who were put into cryo in the hope that one day medical science would have advanced to the point where it could cure the diseases they suffered from. One of them, who Saadia describes as a riff on Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone’s movie, Wall Street, is the epitome of greed. He wants to talk to his lawyers and his brokers. After all, his rather sizable portfolio must be enormous by now. Picard – and can’t you see his nose so far up in the air it is pushing against the bulkhead? – responds, “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”
Pardon me while I laugh hysterically. If they’d grown out of their infancy, would we have been saddled with Wesley Crusher? Wouldn’t a mature society have smothered him in his crib and saved us all from his whinging and whining? Oops, sorry, wrong form of maturity (VBEG) Seriously, if the Federation had matured to that point, it wouldn’t have outliers they would basically put onto starships and send them far away from “civilized” society. The Prime Directive wouldn’t be violated in just about every episode. There wouldn’t have been a Kobyashi Maru maneuver to be used by Kirk to basically cheat while still in the Academy nor would Wesley have faced possible ouster from the Academy when he and other cadets acted in such a way another cadet was injured (killed?).
When the Gekko-esque character reasonably asks what the challenge is to living in the Trek universe, Picard responds, “The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.”
Welcome to the Stepford Lives.
In ST: First Contact, Picard continues this theme – am I the only one who sometimes wants to smack Picard? – saying the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of their lives. What is, you ask. Well, according to the oh-so-smug Picard it is working “to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Oh how generous of him. But who chooses what is for the best?
These lines are, according to Saadia, the “most direct and cogent articulations of trekonomics I can think of.”
“Money’s defining advantage is to free us from the inefficiency of bartering.” Now, I can think of a number of ways this statement could be considered false. But let’s see where Saadia goes with it. After all, it’s still early and I haven’t had enough coffee yet to get into a deep economic discussion – and boy am I feeling the need to run find something, anything about economics written by Thomas Sowell right now.
To explain why bartering is inefficient, Saadia uses the example of trying to barter apples for dilithium crystals. You see, that dilithium crystal merchant doesn’t have need for all your apples. Besides, you can’t harvest and deliver them all anyway. So you, poor apple merchant, are shit out of luck. But, guess what? If you sell your apples for money, especially if you sell futures of them, you don’t have to worry about that mean old dilithium crystal merchant. Huzzah!
How many problems with that compare and contrast can you see? I’m no economist – hell, my college econ professors did their best to make the subject so boring and incomprehensible, I ran from it until I discovered Sowell. If I can see issues with it, think what someone who really understands the discipline could see? That is especially true when Saadia comes out with statements like this, “In a way, money is the only proven method to transmute apples into dilithium and lead into gold, and back.”
And again, how in the hell does this relate to a currency-free society like Trek after the whales?
“The Star Trek canon makes it clear that scarcity is no longer an issue in the twenty-fourth century. The Federation does not need money. It is an a-numismatic society (to coin a neologism), because everything is so plentiful that nobody has to pay for anything.” I really hate this handwavium and the accompanying change in human characteristics it brings with it. This land of plenty idea takes away the very human trait of wanting to be the best at something, anything. It takes away the competitive spirit. Frankly, it makes me think about a cross between the Stepford Wives and the Eloi. I don’t know about you, but I need a reason to get out of bed every day. I don’t want everything just handed to me. I want to be able to set goals and accomplish them – and be rewarded for them.
But I’m just a neo-barb of my time, certainly not uplifted enough for the Trek universe.
We’ll discuss this more next week, but here are a few parting comments. Saadia, like so many who write about the Trek universe, takes a lot into account that isn’t actually there. They peer behind a curtain and make assumptions, reasonable or not. For example, anyone who has ever watched the latter ST franchise titles, know the Ferengi love their capitalism. But we don’t really know much, if anything, about how the Romulans or Klingons feel about money, if they use it or even how.
If you look closely at the Federation, especially the Federation of the latter titles, when it comes to economics we know one thing: it looks an awful like socialism at work and play. Everyone is equal and all is provided for you – unless you are an outlier or high enough up in the chain of whatever that it doesn’t matter. The outliers get to fly around in their armed “cruise ships”, as Saadia describes the Enterprise of TNG, making sure everyone else is as uplifted as you are. The so-called Prime Directive can be violated as long as you are doing it for the right reasons. Oooh, and we’ll forgive you if you let those nasty human traits like jealousy and competitiveness come through as long as you say you’re sorry and promise never, ever to do it again – unless, of course, your name is Kirk and then you can do whatever you want. You’ll get your HEA eventually.
There might come a day when we have evolved enough to put aside a lot of our petty differences. However, there will always be some form of currency – whether it is in the form of battering services or something else. It might be a black market economy (take a look at the black market economy of the Soviet bloc). But people being people, we will always want something and do what we can to get it. Because of that, there will always be someone out there willing to get us what we want – for a price.
More on this next week. Now I’m going to go find Sowell and read some good economic theory, theory that doesn’t rely on handwavium and the reduction of humanity into members of the Stepford-verse.