MANU: The project for the book, it started out drinking beer with Chris. We were discussing about whether there is a book about Star Trek economics because there is a book about everything to do with Star Trek.In the book I’ve tried to step out of that mindset, and tried to actually describe how it works. And I’ve discovered some very surprising things.The biggest thing, I believe, that I got out of researching the book and writing it, is that the post scarcity in Star Trek is not driven by technologybut a policy choice. And this is where having such a stellar economic panel to discuss this comes in.FELIX: What is post scarcity?BRAD: Well 400 years ago, in almost all human societies being rich relative to your neighbours mattered a lot. If you were poor, especially poor and female, chances were you weren’t getting the calories you needed to reliably ovulate, and chances were your children weren’t getting the nutrients that they needed for their immune systems to be protected against the common cold. 400 years ago the great bulk of humanity lived lives that were nasty, brutish, short and they were hungry pretty much all the time. And when they weren’t hungry they were wet, because the roof leaked, and when they weren’t wet they were probably cold because damp proofing hadn’t been invented.Now we, here, in the prosperous middle class in the North Atlantic are moving into another society and Gene Roddenberry tried to paint our future by saying wait a minute what’s going to happen in three centuries? In three centuries we are going to have replicators. Anything material, gastronomic that we want indeed anything experiential with the holo-deck we we want we are going to have. What kinds of people will we be then and how will we live? And indeed, we are quite ahead on that transition already.Whenever I go say, to the middle of the country, I find myself terrified because I’m rarely the fattest person in the room, which means right now in the United States what used to be the principle occupation of the human race — farming — we are down to 1 per cent of our labour force growing essential nutrients because time spent growing four-inch egg plants which are harvested isn’t really food that’s art, and we have about three times as many people in our medical and health support professions working to try and offset the effects of excessive calories. We are now rapidly approaching a post scarcity economy not just for food but if you go and look at containers coming in from China with respect to things physically made as well. And that’s one of the things Star Trek is about.ANNALEE: One of things I find interesting about Star Trek is that it does try to imagine a post-scarcity economy with no money, people don’t work because they have to but because they want to, but there are all these hints that we get — especially in Star Trek the next generation, my favourite series — that there’s a lot of ways that the post scarcity economy is supported by other types of economies.Economies that we might consider to be part of the past, and that’s why one of the most interesting episodes to think about is “measure of a man” from the second season of Next generation where the question comes up whether Data, our favourite android with a positronic brain, is actually his own person or is in fact property. And this is a question which comes up again in Voyager when the holographic doctor who is unquestionably an autonomous human being is also considered property and he writes basically the communist manifesto, and encourages all these other holograms which are being horribly oppressed and enslaved to have a revolution. And this is going on at the periphery of Star Trek all the time.Any time you get off the Enterprise, the wonderful utopian Enterprise, which did in fact inspire me to become a Marxist as a student because I did believe “wow, we really could get to a world which was better than this one” – we are constantly being reminded that there may be other systems of labour, like slavery or things that are closer to wage-slavery, which are supporting this wonderful life that the Federation enjoys and which Picard and team enjoy on their really clean ship. So that’s one of the things about Star Trek is that it allows us to have that kind thought experiment of what would it be like if we did get past capitalism?Or if we did have a system of capitalism which was more restrained by government and regulation — whatever the hell the Federation is, the government, UN — but at the same time, forced to recognise that there are these differences in what people have access to, and intense labour they perform and some of them are being treated like property. Some of them are chattel. So that’s always the good part of the thought experiment?FELIX: Is that what the writers were thinking about? Or how did people come up with these interpretations.CHRIS: Yes. Well. It’s funny. We didn’t think about a lot of that stuff consciously. And I worked on Enterprise, so it was at the end of the long-run of the franchise. That universe had been well established. To hear this conversation, to hear this book has been written so thoughtfully and profoundly is really gratifying. There were larger issues that came into play than people even consciously thought about. The practical reality of trying within the production schedule hours of network television a year, you were just always scrambling to get good entertaining scripts written in front of the camera. We were first and foremost trying to write what we thought were thoughtful exciting adventure stories for Captain Archer and the crew so we weren’t consciously thinking about how these characters were being motivated by the needs of a post scarcity economy. But because that universe had already been established, and we all wanted to be respectful of that universe, and grateful — we took the responsibility of keeping Gene’s vision intact and moving it forward. Very conscious of not violating those rules. The answer is no. But we were very conscious of keeping those characters in the world they were established.FELIX: Does post-scarcity economics even make sense?PAUL: I watched the original series and a bit of the next generation and then dropped off. I’m more of an Asimov guy, what can I say. But, the question is… do we accept the premise of a post-scarcity society? First of all there’s a long history of people saying, we’re much richer than our ancestors were and if you go just a little bit further you’ll get to the point where there won’t be any economic question, post scarcity. Keynes wrote an essay about that saying that if the world got as rich as it is right now there would no longer be money, and John K Galbraith wrote that in a new industrial state that the standard of living of the average American would be so high that it’s basically only propaganda that would make them want more, to which Robert Solow responded, well it doesn’t look that high to me but maybe those things look different from where Galbraith vacations.So, in Star Trek they have a replicator that can make any thing you want. But it makes any thing you want. Even now, we spend only 30 per cent of our income on goods the rest is for services, and the replicators won’t help with that. We have fewer manufacturing workers but lots and lots of nurses, so. So that’s the point. We can imagine a world where all services are provided as well. We have robots or something to do the services. But in order to do the full range of stuff we want they have to be very intelligent things in which case aren’t those then people? So the actual issue is that a world where you have servitors of some kind who will give you everything you want is a world where it’s very hard to tell the difference between servitors and slaves. So I think there’s arguably a dark side to the abundance theory.The other thing to say, there’s this great section where Picard lectures a man from the 21st century, saying we’ve moved to a world where people don’t seek money they seek reputation and honour. Well Brad and I live in the academic world, where pretty much that’s how it works….FELIX: So the post-scarcity economy is not utopian, it’s actually not that pleasant this meritocracy of the Federation.MANU: It’s horrible.It’s not horrible horrible. But I always thought Star Trek looked like a weird cross between a faculty club and the Red Cross. It’s very humanitarian, but I know for a fact the professors here know what I’m talking about. The world of meritocracy and academia is extremely harsh and cut throat. You’re on top one day, but you’re always afraid and watching your back because someone else is going to come and unseat you. So what you see on the show, the next generation, is really the 1 per cent. Those who are the ultra achievers in that sense. You barely see the other side of it, the 99% who lead lives of comfort and abundance but not necessarily the most interesting. So it seems to me to be very harsh. I always thought that as a kid watching the Next Generation, I always identified very much with Wesley Crusher, because he lived in a world where he had to achieve and he had to become the person that the adults wanted him to become and he actually didn’t want to. That’s the part that’s hard. You’re driven to achieve but it’s not at all clear you will achieve. Which is the problem of a meritocratic world. It’s not all fun and games.FELIX: It’s very hard for a meritocratic world to be utopian, so what about the 99% of people who live on earth, are they happy?CHRIS: Are they happy? I don’t know. What we focused on was the adventures of the people on the ship. This doesn’t exactly answer your question, but in terms of the meritocracy of it all you are seeing people at the top of their game. This is the 1/1000th of the 1 per cent who get to go to out of space. That was the mandate of the show. The funny thing was that there was an inherent conflict in trying to write the show, you had a group of people — Star Fleet officers — and this was a mandate given to us — that these people have a singular purpose in mind, they get along and they don’t get into petty conflicts and arguments which immediately took the drama out of the show, meaning everything had to come from an external source. And you didn’t exactly want every threat every week and week out to be about some hostile greedy or malicious alien race. What you wanted the drama to come from within the ship, from conflict between these characters that didn’t always get along. If you look at the original series, Spock and McCoy didn’t get along at all. McCoy would sometimes say the most outrageous racist things to him. There was mutual respect and friendship at the end of the day, but there was also amazing conflict.FELIX: Is there anything utopian about meritocracy? 2016 is not the only anniversary of Star Trek, but also the 500th anniversary of Utopia by Thomas Moore. Are we, as far from utopia today as we were 500 years ago? Or is it just this thing that there’s always going to be this conflict. Or is there something different now? Thanks to star trek there are policy choices which mean we can get through it?BRAD: First let me put in a plug for hyper intellectualised prosperous academic meritocracies. My career nadir, when Larry Summers looked at me across the table at the Treasury in early 1995 and said how did you get what the demand for pesos would be after NAFTA so wrong Brad? The worst analysis I have ever conducted as an economist. That burns considerably less than watching your children starve to death. We are problem solving, puzzle solving, status seeking creatures, who fortunately very much like to get involved in gift exchange relationships with each other so that we can all hang together in a 7.2bn society.So we will find puzzles to solve and we will find sources of stresses and conflict. But the sharp point of what we’re all afraid of is very different in a post scarcity society. The plutocracy of New York are more interested right now in who happens to have the best apartment with a better view of central park than in where the next meal is going to come from. That is a considerable gain. We will make our status differences important and powerful to us psychologically, but we should be able to move beyond that. As Adam Smith wrote, the interesting thing about humanity and the strivers is that the strivers work like dogs their entire life, so that when they are retired they can sit in the sun so and be happy and comfortable and they could have done that anyway in their 20s, and they would have got more fun out of it.FELIX: Are we always going to be competing for positional goods? Or could a post-scarcity world change human psychology?PAUL: I think. First of all. When listening to Brad I think of the old line about how fights in academia are so bitter because the stakes are so small. And when the stakes are small. Aside from ego there is nothing at all. And even that is always going to be a really restrictive universe. So even people who are engaged in ferocious status competition, these are the people that are going to be featured on a TV show because it’s interesting, but the 99.9 per cent of the Federation are people who are doing other things and what exactly — I’m not sure it makes good drama — but it’s kind of interesting to ask what exactly would they be doing? So where Picard explains what motivates us, that’s actually what motivates people like him. And there are very few people like him. So what is the rest of the civilised universe doing? They’re enjoying life and doing cosplay and things. But it would probably be an interesting thing.BRAD: But even that would be a source of status. Have you seen the stuff Annalee has been posting?ANNALEE: And I’m cosplaying as an economist right now.One of the things that’s really interesting about what you were raising Paul with what happens with ordinary people is that there’s this really funny story about a timeline in Star Trek which is established in the next generation era, there is a whole different timeline, so what happens is that earth is plunged into a war and in the first episode of next generation Q torments the crew by saying we’re going to go back to the world of our future, which is a medieval world, ruled by religious creepozoids. It’s basically this cyclical view of history, where this highly industrial organisation has fallen back to a medieval state, they’re living in extreme poverty, there’ disease and famine, and then some white dude figures out how to build a rocket ship by the skin of his teeth, erupting out of this medieval world of scarcity. Not coming out of a hyper industrial society, and then the Vulcans arrive. So I am left wondering is whether what really happens to humans as we transition to this post scarcity world, that basically we are colonised by Vulcans. So really it’s not that humanity evolves, it’s basically we’re colonised.BRAD: It’s not colonisation, we’re pets.ANNALEE: That’s colonisation, buddy.FELIX: I was colonised by my cat a long time ago.MANU: I always took the more optimistic view that we are the Vulcans, or we have to become the Vulcans. If we are going to be colonised I’d rather be colonised by Vulcans anyway.BRAD: Nimoy always said he played Spock not as a being without emotions but a being whose emotions were so terribly suppressed he could not give into them at all. So Vulcans were a civilisation that was desperately trying to figure out how to actually behave in a civilised manner.CHRIS: I think the interesting thing about Spock was that he was only half Vulcan. You had the best of both worlds, this character in conflict. This sense of what humans wanted to be and what they were fighting against being. This character is not devoid of emotions but needs to keep them under control, needs to keep them in check.FELIX: Is that utopian or not? This world where we have emotions but we are constantly trying to keep them tacked down and never showing them doesn’t sound very utopian to me.CHRIS: Conflict is the source of drama, and Spock was always in conflict with himself.PAUL: People have an amazing capacity to be unhappy. If you look at utopia the problem isn’t scarcity, it’s people.ANALEE: The Iain M Banks culture novels are another example of a post-scarcity world driven by a lot of the same problems we see in Star Trek, where at the edges of these beautiful ships there’s slavery and imperialism and racism, and people are constantly struggling with those issues even thought they can transcend them at any time.PAUL: Iain M Banks, the culture novels are amazing. Everyone should read them.BRAD:
Reuse your weapons first.Read Use of Weapons first. [edit.]PAUL: All the novels are really concerned with the fringe of the fringe of the fringe. Special circumstances, which is that the one part of society which isn’t functioning like the rest. But it does do what Star Trek does, have someone who is recruited from outside who gets to wander around one of these ships and gets to see what life is like for ordinary people, which is, to have life without slavery, there are in fact these super-intelligent minds, who can basically supply all the needs for the organic guys by basically — it barely requires a finger nail’s worth of attention. They can give you everything you need without worrying about it. People do seem to be somewhat more balanced in that kind of environment than they probably would be in reality.ANALEE: But also everyone’s a cyborg. They all have neural nets. They can restrain their emotions.MANU: To understand Star Trek’s economics you need to go back to Asimov, because it’s very much very directly connected, not so much the Foundation part but the robot stories. In the sense that at least if you read the Robots of Dawn and the later novels, Asimov describes a society beyond earth where robots take care of everything and you have these people living on their gigantic estates, and are enjoying life and not doing much.PAUL: And they’re completely neurotic screwed up people. The luxury and role of that situation.BRAD: Those who are not maladjusted people become Star Trek officers and compete for status. Perhaps if you really want to be looking at what their lives are like we should be looking at regency romances. A previous culture of abundance where people find very important and interesting things for themselves to do. Even though there is no serious conflict in a regency romance world. If you want to you can say there are three spheres of regional conflict: fear of violent death, scarcity of resources and who is going to sleep with whom. But what you’ll find in a society of abundance, like in a regency novel about the aristocracy, is that who is going to sleep with whom becomes the focus of the plot. The secondary focus being a demonstration of human excellence via proper appreciation of fashion.PAUL: It’s cosplay, just a slightly different version.ANNALEE: But don’t you think it’s possible Brad that what most ordinary people are doing is living on [inaudible] after having been screwed over by the Kardashians and now the Federation is there screwing them over — or maybe that’s more what society is like?BRAD: No, that’s no longer a society of abundance. That’s the world we have today, in which we have the upper middle class of America. In the 7.2bn lives 2bn of them lead lives which are frankly indistinguishable from those of our pre-industrial ancestors, and the other 4.5bn live lives that look to us like the standard of life people had in the 1970s and 1950s, 1920s and 1880s, but with all their TVs and smartphones they can see us. So I got off the plane today from Lima, Peru. A wonderful city, a wonderful culture, lots and lots of people — all of them working at least as hard as anyone in New York, only about 1/8th as rich. And we may be approaching material abundance in terms of manufactured goods, and calories and nutrients, but they are certainly still very far from that.
"It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor."
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