The Economics of Star Trek

As some of you may be aware, I have been a Star Trek fan all my life. It was arguably formative, though in my youth I was more interested in the technology than I was the social commentary. (Growing up white, right?) Nevertheless, Trek represents one of the few works of mainstream sci fi that presented an optimistic view of humanity’s future, one in which humans have learned to live together in peace and celebrate not only their own diversity but that found in the myriad sentient races all across the galaxy. Moreover, Star Trek depicts a post-scarcity future, in which material needs no longer exist and humanity has refocused its efforts from mere survival and the accumulation of wealth to personal refinement, cultural enrichment, and the pursuit of knowledge. Future Earth is so different from our own that the Federation no longer uses “money,” as stated on numerous occasions by various characters across the series.

There’s just one problem. That last bit is bullshit.

First of all, it’s patently obvious that the galactic economy still depends on a medium of exchange — the Ferengi, in particular, are partial to “gold-pressed latinum,” which is apparently some kind of magical liquid that cannot be replicated, but can be stored in a gold substrate, as if the gold were a sponge. The substance has value precisely because it cannot be replicated, and is therefore scarce — whether it’s useful for something in its own right, or is used simply because of its inherent scarcity, it serves as a useful stand-in for gold from a storytelling perspective.

But that’s the whole galaxy, you say, not the Federation. After all, the Federation has replicators! They can make anything they want! Well…

It’s pretty obvious that replicators have some limitations. While it’s clear they can make you any kind of chocolate you want, or Earl Grey tea at just the right temperature, or a decorative glass swan bowl, it’s less clear that they can make weapons — starships still have small arms lockers and carry a limited store of photon torpedos. The limited number of torpedos carried was a Voyager plot point, in fact — doesn’t seem like that would have been a thing if you could just science some more up on the spot. Or, for that matter, whole shuttlecraft — why carry shuttlecraft at all if you could just replicate them? It makes sense to have an emergency stash of actual torpedos, just in case the replicators are somewhat compromised, but why bring a shuttlecraft along unless you can’t make them on demand?

It seems likely that replicators themselves cannot be replicated, as well — the theft of “industrial replicators” is a plot point in an early Deep Space 9 Maquis episode, where they’re slated to be delivered to a Federation colony world. Why would they be hard enough to come by that the Maquis, which controls whole starships, would need to steal them? For that matter, why wouldn’t a colony ship just be a giant, flying replicator?

It is therefore apparent that replicators are not a magic bullet. Granted, a lot of this may have more to do with the writers justifying a heist plot, or Ferengi greed, than with any systemic limitation of a technology that has not yet been invented. Nevertheless, limitations are portrayed and are therefore “factual” (canonical, if you’re using the term of art). It is therefore obvious that “scarcity” still exists, particularly once you’ve left the “core worlds.” How many colonies do we see with farmers? Clearly they’re not dealing with a post-scarcity environment at all.

It’s also pretty clearly established that there is still some value to “real stuff.” It’s established several times in canon that replicated food is inferior to that which is grown, meaning that “real food” has value over and above its ability to sustain. This explains why there are still farmers, vintners, and restaurant owners — Ben Sisko’s dad, Joseph, owns a cajun eatery in Louisiana and God forbid he should ever serve replicated food to his customers. Ergo, there is a clear supply chain — the farmers grow the food, it makes it to Joe Sisko’s Crab Shack, into the customer’s stomachs, and then into the toilet. The Picards have been running a vineyard and producing their own wine for centuries, despite the advent of replicator technology, and indeed, they do it the “old-fashioned way” — no automation on that farm!

(The lack of automation in Star Trek is perhaps the facet of 24th century life that is hardest to swallow — we have robot butlers now and it’s only 2016. You’re going to tell me that in 350 years we don’t have specialized droids performing all of our labor? Yet this is what Star Trek asserts, which is why their depiction of a “post-scarcity” society is so hard to believe.)

At every stage in the supply chain, there are people doing work. Sourcing the seeds. Tilling the soil. Tending and harvesting the crops. Transporting the harvest. Prepping and cooking the food. Maintaining the sanitation network that removes the citizens’ waste. Is everybody involved doing this out of the goodness of their hearts? I mean, I can buy that Joseph Sisko is doing it for the lulz, as it were — it’s fun to cook and to be told how awesome you are at it. But I’d wager there are fewer farmers that are willing to do all that work just for the hell of it, certainly not enough to provide materials to all the would-be bistro owners out there. Likewise, no matter how awesome Joseph Sisko is, he can only produce so much shrimp creole per day. So how do they decide who gets what?

Oh look, scarcity.

Moreover, Star Trek humans are still mortal. Granted, they may routinely live to 150 or so, but each and every human is still “on the clock.” Time is money, as they say, because labor is time. A career in Starfleet comes with the opportunity cost of not pursuing a career in, say, archaeology. Farms are non-trivial to set up. Vineyards take several years before they can produce a good crop, and can only produce so many grapes per season. While you are doing those things, you are not able to do something else — which is also true while you’re learning to do those things (and is that professor really going to show up to teach Philosophy 101 for 30-plus years without getting paid?)

Let’s handwave all that, though. Let’s say that future humanity is a perfect hive mind, with each cog in the great Federation machine joyfully doing whatever is needed to make sure that everybody can have all the crops, wine, and fine cajun food they can consume. Let’s pretend that replicators can not only make replicators, they can also make food that is indistinguishable from human-prepared food. Let’s assert that automation exists and is plentiful, but it’s only employed to keep humans from unpleasant, reluctant drudgery. I still maintain that a future without money is impossible for one reason: thermodynamics.

There are fundamental limits to the reality in which we live, limits that cannot be overcome under our current understanding of physics. Pertinent to any discussion of post-scarcity economics is the simple fact that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted or moved about. (Less pertinent but equally important is that no physical process is lossless — you can’t get more work out of a system than you put into it, thanks to entropy.)

We know that starships are powered by matter/antimatter reactors, which take hydrogen and mix it with antihydrogen to generate energy. This energy is then used to make the ship go, to keep the lights and gravity on, to purify the air, to run the computers, and to power the replicators. (Heat takes care of itself — heat in space is actually a huge engineering problem.) But here’s the thing — E=mc2 works both ways. You can convert a pound of matter/antimatter to a whole heap of energy, but it takes exactly as much energy to generate a pound of matter. Therefore, for purposes of this discussion, you can basically ignore the whole “energy” step and say that a pound of matter coming out of the replicator costs a pound of fuel from the ship’s stores. I.e. the replicators are finite.

This is true planetside as well. Earth receives a tremendous (but finite) amount of energy from the sun each day. We know via snippets of dialogue that Earth relies on solar power — while there may be emergency fusion or matter/antimatter generators on the planet, the bulk of the energy used comes from the sun, which is technically a limited resource.

In both situations, you have a group of people with physical needs which must be fulfilled using that finite resource. Technology, in this case the replicator, makes this easier, but crucially, it does not eliminate that need. There is still scarcity. There is still a need to decide how to allocate those finite resources.

Now, in reality, particularly on Earth, there’s no question that the incoming solar energy, even if converted directly to matter, is more than sufficient to meet every human’s basic needs. This is the root of Star Trek‘s “post-scarcity” pretensions. Effectively, technology has made it so that everybody is rich, certainly to the point where they never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Nevertheless, the fact that resources are limited means that everybody must have a quota of some kind for daily replicator use. Something like an “energy credit,” issued to each crewman/inhabitant each day.

Don’t look now, but money is creeping up on us.

This is the essence of what is called a “resource-based economy.” Basically, there is an exploitable resource (sunlight) that is determined to “belong” to the inhabitants of Earth. The Federation, as managing body, takes the whole value, subtracts what is needed to keep their own lights on, and divides up all the rest equally and distributes it to the people, who can then use it to sustain themselves and pursue whatever side projects they’re interested in. They can feed some of their “energy credits” into a replicator to make food or clothing, or they can give some of them to others in exchange for services, such as restaurant meals or growing “real food.” The exploited resources are the basis for the currency, which is provided to each citizen as a “basic income” with which to maintain themself. Nobody goes hungry, and if anyone wants “more,” they’re welcome to hire themselves out.

What’s cool is that we don’t actually need replicators to move towards this kind of economy. Alaska already has something like this in place — all residents get a portion of the oil extracted and sold from Alaskan lands. Replace “a portion” with “all,” “Alaska” with “US territories,” and “oil” with “all resources” and we’re there. This represents an important way forward — it’s something we’re going to have to figure out as we transition away from capitalism.

The point of having currency, a medium of exchange, is to facilitate the transferral of finite goods and services from the supplier to the consumer (who is, themself, inherently a supplier of another good or service). I would argue that human psychology and the laws of thermodynamics are simply incompatible with a complex society unless money is present in some way. I can accept that humanity of the 24th century has moved beyond the need to be rich (since there’s no way we’re going to get that far as a species if we don’t). I just don’t see them managing it without money.

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