Friday, January 06, 2006

The Roddenberry Economy

If you're a Star Trek fan, or even a person with a passing familiarity but like economics, you've probably asked yourself, how does the economy of the future work? This is a question I've taken upon myself to answer at Memory-Alpha wiki (article here).

I've already gotten flak because I've speculated and made educated guesses but only because there is so little evidence. Still, I felt that pointing out the problems with this economy would get removed rather quickly because we don't know of any critisms in the Star Trek world. So I post here.

The New World Economy, from what I can gather, is a sorts of voluntary socialism. Consider Roddenberry's comments: "Money is a terrible thing. Why do people work at jobs in Star Trek? Why does someone become a baker? Because the family is going to starve to death? No. People become bakers because certain people love the smell of things baking and certain people take pride--we all have a little pride--in something. 'Let me give this to you because it's delicious and you will love it, and I made it, and this is my recipe'. All things will be taken care of."

It would be wishful thinking to believe all things would be taken care of. Even in a world of replicators and transporters, there are thousands of needed jobs few people would do for fun. At the least, the demand would exceed the supply even in the rare case where it's known that demand exceeds supply. Building ships, fixing replicators, scrubbing plasma conduits, mining dilithium, construction, surveying, ferrying goods and people between planets, operating transporters for intraplanetary travel, maintaining the power infrastructure, etc.

Roddenberry is wrong; prices are a wonderful thing. In one stroke they provide the knowledge and incentive to get done what needs to get done. But people don't consider prices to choose a career; they do what they simply feel like doing, even if they're bad at it, even if there are brownouts. Sculptors, paintings, playwrights and actors must be a dime a dozen on Terra Prime. In this economy, Earth must be a place with lots of bad art in lots of bad lighting. But I guess that's why they call it a paradise.


Anonymous said...

You know, the way you describe prices is a bit like what speed limits are for. Both give information. Speed limits describe the road and how safe it is for cars and people. It tells you how fast you should go or need to go.

Prices, however, often give you no wiggle room. "An item is worth whatever the purchaser will pay for it." they say. I can't go into a Musicland and try to negotiate the price of a CD. I may think it's worth $5 but they want $20. No comprimise is possible.

Now the economy in the Star Trek world didn't get too much attention. My impression is that people work because of their own responsibilities and society has grown to the point where being a moocher is unacceptable. Yes there will be jobs people hate, but they do them anyway because it's their responsibility.

DS9 showed an economy still exists with the Ferengi. Not just currency, but even Starfleet gave Quark vouchers for his services. Replicators and transporters and library computers reduce the importance of an economy. Compare it to the early days of Kazza or other music sharing programs. If I felt like hearing classical music I say, "Computer, play something by Beetoven" and there you go. No trip to the music store, no searching the aisles for their minute classical section, no taking a chance on a CD. Any song I want instantly at my figure tips. If I have to scrub a plasma conduit for a few hours a month for this, I'd do it. Instead of money, people create because they want to create. If it's bad, they'll either get the message or become a joke.

In one of the RPG books, there's a refernce to the "honorable burden". Starfleet personel probe the unknown and risk their lives on a daily basis. In return they get privilages like seeing new worlds (and probably infinite replicator and holodeck access). Keep in mind, most of the people we see in the Star Trek series are by nature the best of the best. You want to see more "ordinary" people try Red Dwarf.

I think you missed the point, in Star Trek, the pursuit of money for the sake of having money isn't as powerful as it is today. You'd get so much more for your dollar (Federation credit) that today's economy is virtually irrevelent.

(Besides, the shows wouldn't have been as interesting if Picard had a Chief Accounting Officer at the big table.)


David said...

Well, if we define prices merely as conduits as information, then nearly anything can serve that function and prices loose all their unique power.

Speed limits, in fact, don't tell us much. They only tell us how fast the legislative body(ies) think we should go, properly weighted by various interest groups. That doesn't have a lot of relevance in the real world because interest groups and congresspeople compose a small percent of the population. Thus they possess a small percent of the knowledge. Considering most people exceed this limit, we know there's vast disagreement on what's the "right" speed.

There are lots of things wrong with your take on prices, so much so that it deserves its own post. I'll post on that later as I don't want this comment to get to long.

It's true that we don't know a lot about the Star Trek economy. It's true that Starfleet officiers are exceptional people, but that only puts more question into what the rest of the economy is like. Considering that we've seen Starfleet officers put aside their duties for other things (like time on the holodeck). People are still people, they are not some kind of duty robots (except Data, of course).

It's true that technology solves a lot of scarcity problems. We can see that even today, this blog being a prime example (100 years ago, how many people my age could claim they are published whenever they write something?) But at the same time, there are a lot of bad blogs out there. There are also ones that people don't read (again, this being one of them, though I certainly don't consider this blog bad).

As I noted, the economy of the future will still have scarcity problems. There are certainly people that enjoy doing needed jobs, just like there are people that enjoy being accountants, but to assume that the demand will be met by the supply under this system is naive.

This is even more complicated by the fact that there are hundreds of billions of people in the Federation, meaning there's less of a capacity to exhibit social pressure to get done what needs to get done. If people try to shun you, you leave. It's harder to figure out what needs to get down, too.

You assume that people get the message and you assume that people will care if they become a joke. But even with the reality check of prices and profits, we still see really dumb ideas that the artists defend with their dying breath. They find amazing ways to justify their dream--I'm ahead of my time, someone will like it, I'll make it work, they will change their minds, etc. If you don't slap them around a bit, the will keep doing what they are doing. To claim otherwise would assume a radical change in human psychology, a change from what's been in place since the beginning of the species.

In the military side, I can buy the economy working. Such economies have worked before because they have hard rules about duty and honor and oath, they are small (ship by ship) AND they are voluntarily joined. But to say that the same thing could be applied to society at large is, to use F.A. Hayek's words, a fatal conceit.