Star Trek Didn't Rely on a Congressional Vote


On Sunday, Oct. 11, at the New York Comic Con, there was a panel discussion “The Amazing Economics of Star Trek,” dealing with the economics of a society where technology has eliminated any form of want. The panel included Annalee Newitz and Felix Salmon, economics journalists; Brad deLong and Paul Krugman, economists; Chris Black, a writer from Star Trek Enterprise; and Manu Saadia, the author of a book on on Trekenomics.

One fact we know is that in the future, at least in the Federation, there is no money because there is no need for it. In “Star Trek: First Contact”, Captain Picard tells Lilly Sloane, “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century ... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.” Even earlier (“Star Trek: The Voyage Home”), Captain Kirk was having dinner with Gillian Taylor and was unable to pay in the restaurant. Gillian said, “Don’t tell me they don’t use money in the 23rd century,” and Kirk responded, “Well, we don’t.” In some episodes of the different television series there is evidence of a market based economy; the Ferengi use gold-pressed latinum as a medium of exchange.

The question was, what is life like in a society where there is nothing left to want, where replicator machines can provide aged Scotch, designer jeans or a Rolex watch? It’s possible that Henry George economics might apply and there would still be competition for real estate, meaning that an apartment in San Francisco or Manhattan might be out of reach of most people just as they are now, although with enough habitable planets something might be worked out.

There are a number of thoughts about what a post-scarcity society would be like. In one version, society might become similar to the lotus eaters in “The Odyssey”. The lotus, their primary food, had narcotic properties that led to lives of peaceful disinterest. The sailors who ate the lotus lost interest in returning home and had to be forced to board the ships.

But the panelists were able to identify other things that could be scarce, even in the absence of material scarcity. These are things like power, fame and access – with access meaning the company of people with power and fame. In part, these things may afford you more interesting conversations, but they also help get reservations at the most popular restaurants and the hit shows. According to the web site Grub Street, the secret to getting a reservation at Thomas Keller’s restaurant French Laundry is to have a friend in the food industry, who may have enough of a connection to get you in. Getting a table at the Waverly Inn in New York is easy, but only if you know the owner. The web site had a report, “Are New York’s Most Exclusive Restaurants More Eager To Seat Jeremy Lin Or Eli Manning? Deadspin Investigates.” The two names were sports celebrities at the time of the article, and both had minimal difficulty reserving a table at some of the most exclusive restaurants in the city.

The behavior of the very wealthy in our current society reflects what people want even when they have no material needs. Joan Weill offered Paul Smith’s College (that’s its name) $20 million, but only if the school would change its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Benefactors to hospitals and universities who have their names on the building are the natural successors of the wealthy of the renaissance who commissioned paintings showing themselves present at major biblical events.

Gene Roddenberry apparently thought that the future would be a true meritocracy where the best would rise to the top (although both Riker and Picard rejected promotions and Kirk was demoted to captain) and the goal in life would be to become the best in a chosen field. Instead, what we see has less to do with people striving for self improvement than people who compete to be close to fame and power. Sean McCutcheon who was the principal in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission comes across as a congress groupie whose main delight is having lunch with a senator. Anyone who donated to Scott Walker’s run for the presidency could do with self improvement but seems to have other ideas.

Gene Roddenberry was an idealist who seemed to believe that absent material shortages, humans would strive for perfection. Sadly, the economists were right. Too many of us only strive for proximity to power and a good table at a Michelin 3 star. And that’s how we get a government being strangled by elected representatives who have no interest in governing. There is no shortage of mediocrity.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2015

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