Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a discussion about the economics of the Star Trek universe, would it?
There’s been a bit of a back-and-forth about this recently, for example here, here and here.
The crux of the issue is that Gillian and Kirk have this exchange in Star Trek IV:
Gillian – Don’t tell me: they don’t use money in the 23rd century?
Kirk – Well, we don’t.
I’ve always been a little suspicious that he’s saying it just to get out of paying for dinner, but it’s a remark that’s come to dominate discussion, and while Scotty can say ‘I just bought a boat’ or Kirk can talk about ‘selling a house’, and while private property clearly still exists, later entries in the series have made it clear: in the Federation, they’ve abolished money. Whether Kirk was joking or not, Picard’s statement ‘A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of “things”. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions’ leaves little room for another reading and Tom Paris’ ‘When the New World Economy took shape in the late 22nd century and money went the way of the dinosaur, Fort Knox was turned into a museum’ eliminates any last vestige of doubt.
Obviously, this is one of those things that a running series came up with on the fly, rather than something they thought through and intended as a great political statement. And, naturally, the implication of the line is that, taken at face value, it is the most important single fact we know about the Star Trek universe and has to underpin everything else we see.
The Federation has been able to abandon money because, basically, machines do all the work – there’s a real world economic model for this, ‘cybernetic communism’, which envisioned great robot factories replacing all human labour. In Star Trek, the solution is even more direct than that, they have the ‘replicator’, basically a cornucopia that can produce a replica of any item, including food and clothing (it uses technology similar to the transporter to assemble them at the molecular level). We also hear about ‘industrial replicators’, which produce bigger items.
The Federation is a land of abundance – as well as replicators, there are anti-matter engines that produce practically infinite levels of clean energy, there are thousands of habitable planets, so there’s enough land for everyone. It’s what’s known as a ‘post scarcity’ economy. People in Star Trek’s Federation simply don’t need to accumulate money because everything we buy with money now is freely available. Money can’t possibly be for anything. Saving, loaning or investing money would be utterly pointless. Human labour exists – there are doctors, freighter pilots and so on – but whatever motivates them, it’s not a paycheque.
The proponents of cybernetic communism dreamed of a world where everything was leisure. As in this picture, Paul Signac’s In the Time of Harmony:
Note the steam engine at the back. And this is broadly the model Star Trek pushes. The Federation is a work in progress. Its endgame must be something like Iain M Banks’ Culture, an almost unimaginable diverse and abundant galactic utopia, where trillions of citizens can live utterly self-determined lives, and (just as importantly) most are psychologically equipped to cope with such abundance. Banks’ books tended to deal with the very few who don’t quite fit even the most accommodating of all possible societies.
But this is by no means the only possible result of a work-free society. In the Judge Dredd series, machines do all the work – with the result being pandemic unemployment among the human population, leading to deprivation, desperation and all the social ills we know that can lead to. Mega City One is essentially a sink estate with a population of 800 million people. Some people there dress up as robots and try to sneak into building sites and factories to work.
I think the most interesting Star Trek story is one that’s never been told: what happened the day they invented replicators. It would be an astonishingly disruptive period of history. We saw the fuss this year when someone invented a printable gun. Now imagine that everyone in the world suddenly has access to a device that could produce weapons grade plutonium and an infinite number of dollar bills. It’s hard to imagine an area of life that wouldn’t be affected. The first few years must have seen orgies of excess. The first generation of replicator users in Star Trek must have filled their houses with stuff. Everyone must have sat around in (fake) furs, dripping with diamonds on platinum thrones.
Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders says that when freezers became widely available in America, people used to keep them stuffed to the brim. It was a new technology, much of this food was quickly ruined – the temperature control wasn’t very precise, and people simply didn’t know how to store things or understand freezer burn. Freezers were hugely successful anyway, because the appeal was psychological, not practical – for a generation that grew up during the Depression, the idea of having enormous amounts of food in the house was astonishingly powerful, even if the food was actually inedible. It was about having, not using.
The first people with replicators would, surely, do the same thing: surround themselves with luxury. The fact that in this brave new world gold and diamonds just pour out a slot in the wall wouldn’t matter for a while: people would cling to the idea gold had an intrinsic value.
In one of his futurist discussion documents, Gene Roddenberry stated that historians had concluded that the average person at any given time had the quality of life of the richest people two hundred years before. It sounds a little too hard-and-fast to hold true to me, but you can see the general principle. The average American now has a lifestyle beyond the dreams of even the elite in Washington’s time – a more varied diet, the ability to travel further and faster, healthier lives, access to (ownership of, in many cases) libraries that dwarf Jefferson’s, less physically demanding jobs, an almost limitless range of entertainments and other leisure activities. Those harking back to the golden age of the framers of the Constitution might be right that their rivers were cleaner, but their drinking water wasn’t.
Looking ahead, Roddenberry’s vision is that in the Star Trek universe, the average citizen lives like one of the super-rich does now.
There’s a problem. As Ben Elton pointed out in Stark, there comes a point where you just hit an absolute limit of needs being met. Your problem becomes that your house is too big and people are living too long. The rich can eat the very best food in the world, all the time. The Tasting Menu at the Fat Duck costs ₤195. If you ate there every night, that would cost you ₤73,000 a year. A vast, obscene and ridiculous amount of money … and about what Mitt Romney makes every weekday. In a world of replicators, the only real obscenity – the price – goes away, as do some of the other problems (getting a reservation, for example) and a citizen of the Federation could just eat that Tasting Menu every night, and with less effort than it takes us to heat a can of soup.
OK, so in two hundred years time, the very best cuisine may be even more exquisite and rare – can you imagine what Heston Blumenthal could serve up if he had a replicator? – but how delicious and novel is it actually possible for food to get? One of the least convincing things for me about Star Trek is that they seem surprised by alien cuisines. Surely, surely, surely they have not lost the impulse many of us have now to seek out new restaurants, to boldly eat what none of our friends have eaten before?
And if the Fat Duck sold press-of-a-button meals, would it still be the Fat Duck? Isn’t the appeal that the meal was prepared, or at least directly overseen, by a top chef? That the location itself is important? Isn’t the point of the Fat Duck that it’s a once in a lifetime experience, not something easy? After a while, I think, the appeal of easy indulgence would dwindle. You can imagine the second generation of replicator users shunning conspicious displays of material wealth, preferring a more austere life. And this is what we see in Star Trek. They eat really boring food.
Faced with technology and leisure time – not to mention a tolerant society – that meant everyone could dress like Lady Gaga if they desired, civilian clothing in Star Trek is astonishingly drab and boring:
People all seem to live in fairly austere, even spartan rooms.
Decoration is confined to a few personal mementoes and perhaps an antique or two. There’s clearly at least a subculture with the urge to live pastorally – colonist farmers, space hippies, even Captain Kirk lives in a log cabin for a while and takes Bones and Spock camping. Modest lifestyles are clearly trendy. People have clearly decided, as individuals and as a society, to life lives of self control. There are no drug addicts (or even smokers), no one is obese. Some kind of Amish-like instinct to value ‘honest work’ exists. Geordi painstakingly builds a model of a sailing ship, and when Data points out he could have just replicated it, we’re supposed to agree with Geordi that Data’s missed the point.
There’s one interesting bottleneck in this abundant society that’s a very visible presence in the Star Trek shows: it’s difficult and desirable to get into Starfleet Academy. This fact alone demonstrates that there’s more in play at the Federation than ‘freedom of choice and self determination’. Yes, you get in on merit … but someone at Starfleet is assessing those merits. Like the ‘good universities’ and financial firms of our era, if you’re trying to get in, it doesn’t seem to hurt if your parents were there. Wesley Crusher is a smart kid, but he fails to get in on merit the one time he tries, and eventually gets into the Academy because Picard has a word and a rule bends. Is that corruption? Perhaps not, but how many other people got in because of a quiet word? Wesley has a huge advantage because he’s surrounded by people in the know who can offer advice. What about some smart, motivated kid who doesn’t know the right people?
Starfleet Academy has a limited – it’s implied that’s it’s a strictly fixed – class size. Exclusion exists, then, in the Federation. You can’t always get what you want.
Star Trek, bless it, does tend to play the same story over and over. The regular characters almost all fall into two categories – people whose parents were in Starfleet and people whose families disapproved so much of them signing up for Starfleet that it led to a family rift. The unplanned corollary of this is that it paints a picture of an Earth were a chunk of the population vocally dislike Starfleet and what it stands for. The reason why is often stated in terms of Starfleet (and those who wish to join) being ‘above itself’. Perhaps, in this post-scarcity economy, the mere fact Starfleet is an exclusive institution is offensive to many people.
But there must be other places where decisions are being made about the allocation of unique resources. While a replicator could be used to make an exact copy of, say, the Mona Lisa, it wouldn’t be the Mona Lisa. So, who gets the one Leonardo painted? There are private art collections in the Federation. In two we see, Requiem for Methuselah and The Most Toys, we even see original Leonardo Da Vinci paintings. Spock can use his tricorder to check they’re not fakes, and presumably *Fajo didn’t acquire his Mona Lisa before knowing for a fact it was the real deal. But how did he acquire it in the first place? He makes a point of saying that he collects things for the bragging rights when he meets other collectors. Other people want it, so why did he get it, not them?
Presumably there’s some law or institution that allocates these things based on … well, we don’t know. It needn’t be nefarious – if Fajo had supplied medicine that saved a million French space colonists, perhaps a grateful French nation granted him the painting. He might be seen as more ‘deserving’ than some art museum that already had ostentatious amounts of fine art.
The Federation, though, is clearly not quite a post-scarcity society. There are limits. There are some materials which can’t be replicated. Starfleet can’t just whisk up a thousand new starships overnight (and, perhaps as pertinently, couldn’t crew them if it did).
Here’s something I noticed:looking closely, most Star Trek episodes are about a planet that lacks something which the Enterprise can supply. Missions typically involve delivering rare medicine to a planet suffering from a plague, key personnel like ambassadors and top scientists to planets where they are needed. Even the more overtly military missions – racing to the aid of a planet under attack – implies that the planets themselves can’t just whisk up a starship to fight or flee. At a more abstract level, the insight Kirk or Picard can bring to a situation clearly makes them rare assets themselves.
The conclusion has to be that this is a function of the Federation being not quite a post-scarcity civilisation. Starfleet has a mission of exploration and scientific discovery, but it – and virtually all the non-Starfleet space travel we see – is actually about redistributing the last few scarce items.
There’s another wrinkle to this, though. As we run down a list of things that can’t be replicated, we hit a really interesting one.
Some of the advocates of cybernetic communism (and plenty of science fiction writers) envisaged a world of male births and artificial wombs. Some feminist writers saw the liberating potential of this. It’s fair to say that most see it as a sign of inhumanity. In the post-Byrne Superman stories (including the movie named after his relaunch, The Man of Steel), Krypton is a world of marvels but the ‘gestation matrix’ represents something of a loss. The loomed Time Lords of the Doctor Who novels are sterile and unimaginative, not vital. The ur-text, of course, is Brave New World, where bottled clones serve the worldstate.
The Federation looks in places like Brave New World on a good day, but it abhors artificial enhancement of human beings. Sure, Geordi has his VISOR, Picard has an artificial heart, but these just restore them to a baseline. Humans have an almost weird phobia about androids that look human. They’ve banned cloning, genetic engineering and all sorts of related technology. The Eugenics Wars seem to have left the human race with a deep distaste for developing posthumans. People train themselves to improve, any machine help is seen as cheating and even unnatural.
If you want a baby in the Federation, it’s going to gestate in a woman’s womb. And there’s a (large, but) limited number of wombs available. Therefore, wombs in the Federation are a valuable, scarce commodity.
Perhaps we could go as far as to infer that it’s this, the scarcity of wombs, that’s led to the sexist attitudes we see in the show in all its incarnations, the marginalisation of women, the society-wide heteronormativity, the short skirts, dancing girls and sanctioned sexual harrassment, the light treatment of rape and attempted rape. If so, the Federation is a society that’s eliminated virtually all the old inequalities, but had an economic system that’s enshrined one of the oldest and most fundamental.