Trekonomics 4 – And the fiction continues – by Amanda S. Green
The more I read of Trekonomics, the more I wonder how the author managed to write it with a straight face. Perhaps Saadia didn’t. Perhaps this is yet another situation where an author had tongue firmly planted in cheek and saw only dollar signs at the end of the rainbow. Unfortunately, I have a feeling Saadia really feels the book is a serious study of the economics of the Star Trek franchise and is fully onboard with the socialist underpinnings of it all.
Last week, we talked about the lack of currency in the Trek universe, especially after the whale movie. We started discussing the lack of scarcity – hello, replicators! – and we’re going to continue along that line today.
According to Saadia, there are two types of scarce goods in the Trek universe. The first are strategic goods or, as Saadia defines them, those resources necessary to maintaining the Federation [Note from SAH: she had Ferderation, a minor typo, except I REALLY wanted to keep it because it seems to me what this guy is describing is more a Ferderation than a Federation] “polity and way of life”. Those resources are dilithium crystals, starships and people. The second type of scarce goods are those one-of-a-kind custom-made goods and services. The examples for this sort of thing given by Saadia include the Picard family’s Bordeaux wine, the pleasure planet Risa and Sisco’s New Orleans restaurant.
Now, I could start picking holes in this, but I won’t.
Oh hell, sure I will. Where’s the fun otherwise?
If the Trek universe is one where there is no real scarcity of goods thanks to the replicators, why are dilithium crystals a finite resource? Why aren’t the replicators capable of making them out of this so-called free and ever-abundant energy that can be used to make everything else? Oh, later in the chapter, Saadia does some hand-wavium. You see, the crystals really aren’t all that scarce after all. What limits them are political constraints between the Federation and other governments that might be in control of the areas where those crystals can be found. So, there’s no need for money only for political negotiation – riiiiiight.
But it gets better. When Saadia tries to explain what happens when more than one person wants that last bottle of Picard wine or how it is determined who gets to go to the pleasure planet, his “no currency, no scarcity, no need” arguments fall flat. The handwavium turns more than a bit frantic and all anyone with an ounce of sense in their head can do is snicker. First, he says that “canon” is “rather vague” on the explanation of what happens in those instances. Duh. It’s vague because there is no way the socialist-leaning Trek world can explain it away and not let evil capitalism in.
Then he really begins to stretch to find an answer. He claims the conflict between people wanting that scarce item or reservation or whatever wouldn’t make for exciting TV. Hmmm, how many shows or movies have been based around the chase for something that is one of a kind. Can anyone say, “Maltese Falcon”? Saadia tries to make a joke about “Keeping Up with Lwaxana Troi” or “Real Housewives of Risa”. Sorry, but if ST:TNG wasn’t anything more than a SF soap opera, I’m not sure what it was. Hell, it was basically The Love Boat in space all too often.
But here is the kicker for me. This is Saadia’s explanation and ain’t it a doozy?
One must assume that the scarcity of some unique goods never leads to conflict or competition. The motivation for acquiring them—showing off social status through the ownership of objects—has long been excised from the Federation.
Apparently, the economics of the Trek universe have done away with conspicuous consumption. (Why? With replicators, you can pretty much have anything you want so why does no one want what they don’t need? Oh, I know. I was right in my first post on the subject when I commented that it sounded a whole lot like the Stepford Wives. In this case, its’ the Stepford Federation. Everyone walking in lock step with one another and never wanting to be different or to strive to do more.)
According to Saadia, no one would care what sort of bag you carried or what you wore. No one would bother keeping up with you. If that’s the case, then why do the Picards still have a vineyard? Why is there a pleasure planet when there are holodecks? Why are there restaurants when you can program any meal you want into your replicator?
Riiight. Nope, not buying it. But what do I know? I’m just a mere mortal who still believes we need a healthy dose of competition and need to get us up out of bed each day.
In trekonomics, the absence of money implies that status is not tied to economic wealth and discretionary spending.
Okay, here is where I want to start planting the book against the wall. We have spent too many pages already being told there is no status. Oh, Saadia might not say it in so many words but that’s the import of all that’s been written. Now, we know there might be status but it’s not tied to “economic” wealth and discretionary spending. Wait? I thought there wasn’t personal competition among members of the Federation? If that’s the case, then why is there personal status? Hmm, do we have a contradiction? Surely not.
For Federation citizens, the notion of luxury itself has evolved to encompass the full range of experiences available to humanoids. It is possible to envision that people seek the unique and the memorable in personal relationships and in fleeting moments of satori, rather than in the acquisition of things. Looking for and collecting artful artifacts, ancient or otherwise, seems to be among the few areas where one can exert her erudition and flaunt her good taste.
Wait! What? If someone is “flaunting” their good taste, isn’t that a way of saying they are better than someone else? Or, at the very least, a way of saying, “Hey, look at me!”? How does that fit with this utopian social setup Saadia has been saying the Federation has become? It doesn’t and that is the problem. Or, more accurately, it shows the fallacy with socialism. There will always be someone who wants more, has more, who is more equal among the equals. That person is the one who will be “flaunting” their “good taste” or their collection of whatever. Never mind that the average citizen can’t and won’t have that art collection, etc.
The next section of the book has a title that had me smiling and shaking my head. Consider the title and tell me what you think:
Everyone’s Lot Has Been Terminally Improved
I know what Saadia is trying to say – that life for the citizens of the Federation has been improved to the point that there is no more improvement to be had. But my first thought was that life had become terminal there. Which, in a way, it has, at least if Saadia is right. Think about it for a moment. What would life be like if there was no hope of improvement, of new discovery or of new ways to make things better? But let’s see if Saadia has made up another definition for what the title means.
He starts this section talking about dilithium crystals again. You see, according to Saadia, even though these all-important crystals might be in distant and hard to reach locations, that’s no problem. In the Trek universe, labor, prospecting and extracting tech are close to free. Now, here is where a good editor might have helped Saadia. Is the author talking about tech related to labor and prospecting and extracting the crystals? Or is Saadia saying that the cost of labor, the cost of prospecting and the cost of extracting technology are close to free? Yes, I’m being a bit silly here but so is the so-called economics of the Trek universe.
So what if there are not enough people willing to spend some quality time on a mining asteroid? This is where ethics comes into play. The deeply ingrained civic sense of every Federation member leads enough of them to respond to the call of duty.
Pardon me while I laugh hysterically. If this is the case, then why didn’t we see this happening all those times the Enterprise needed new dilithium crystals? Why am I having a hard time seeing Wesley Crusher volunteering to go do his time in the mines? (Oh, gawd, I would have paid to see that episode, especially if he got trapped, never to be seen again.)
Because of this, because of replicators and because no one in the Federation would dare be rude and fight for that last bottle of wine, there is no scarcity. No scarcity means no money, no profit and no markets. Wut? Tell that to the Ferengi.
Trekonomics, for its part, assumes that the lot of everyone, on average, has been terminally improved. There is nothing left to optimize, economically speaking, when everything is available at zero cost. Selfinterest, conflict, and competition may certainly exist, but the reward for winning in the marketplace cannot be monetary because there is no excess return to expect or gain. The reward is of an intangible but no less real nature: glory.
Ah, more handwavium and moving of goal posts. We’ve been told there is no need to be better than anyone else in the Trek universe, that the outliers are those like Kirk. They are the ones to leave the planets and join the Federation. But the above seems to say there is still a need for personal glory and, since that is a very human need, wouldn’t that lead to more intense competition instead of less? Hmmm. Could that be a chink in the perfection of the Federation?
If the reward for winning in the marketplace consists of merit, prestige, and recognition, then self-interest will drive at least some individuals to excel at their trade and to shoot for the moon in their endeavors. The product of their combined labor will be available to all at no cost.
Except, this assumes the product isn’t one-of-a-kind. Which, if the person making it has any common sense, would make sure it was. Damn, the more I read this book, the more I like the Ferengi and the less I like the general population of the Federation. The above passage brings to mind Atlas Shrugged and how the government tried to steal the labor of the innovators and creators for the “common good”. It also reads like a direct extract from any of the core writings of socialism and communism. Yep, I’m on Team Ferengi.
There’s more about social currency and how those of the Federation could strive for recognition and status but, damn, can we please stop making exceptions to the rules? Either there are no classes and, therefore, no status, or there is. Either outliers – or Odds – are moved into careers like Star Fleet to get them away from the normal so they won’t expose them to wrong think or they aren’t.
Not that such moving goal posts surprises me. It has been at the base of socialism from the beginning. There have always been the more equal among equals. More than that, there’s always been the “out” of saying “but we’ve not had real socialism yet” because of all the different phases Marx and company said we have to go through before humanity has advanced enough to accept it.
Here’s the thing, not only is there no real economics in Trek, what little you might be able to find doesn’t work. At least not unless you look at the Ferengi from TNG on or at characters like Harry Mudd in TOS. It is handwavium and supposedly “feel good” economics. Yeah – no.
The title for the next section has sent me running for the hills. There isn’t enough coffee this morning. But next week, we’ll begin with “The Burden of Private Owndership” or, in Amanda-speak, “the next attempt to indoctrinate you into the world of socialism where you lose all hope.”
*Okay, I’m plotting what the worst book I can inflict on Amanda next is, and I regret to inform you she’s rejected MO’s book out of hand. (Sigh.) Anyway, meanwhile, she’s a working writer so buy something of hers. (She’s damn good too.) – SAH*