The first thing I took away from Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, is that popular culture is really influential when you’re eight years old. Saadia, the son of an Israeli immigrant growing up in Paris, was eight when a family friend took him to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (The original television series had already come and gone by that point.) By any objective measure of screenwriting, acting, directing or special effects, it was a cheese-tastic sci-fi flick, predictable from beginning to end. But for Saadia, it was a life-changing event. He was moved by the film’s vision of a hopeful future, a human race united as one to fight for galactic justice and dignity for all life forms. It led him not only to “commit very early on to live by the precepts of Star Trek,” but also to think hard about how society might adapt to an ultra-high-tech future.
Two years earlier, Star Wars had been the first international blockbuster and was well on its way to becoming a cultural touchstone. Saadia’s parents didn’t let him see it. They thought it was too violent, too trashy, too American. I was eight at the time, and as such I can objectively say that it was the greatest motion picture ever made. (I was perplexed when Saadia described the lifelike make-up effects of the aliens in the infamous cantina scene as less-than-convincing, but I’ll concede that it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.)
While Star Wars technically took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” as a work of science fiction it paints a bleak picture of one possible future: Under the weight of the Empire’s heavy hand, slavery is commonplace, pirates abound, and a disproportionate number of beings seem to be engaged in the garbage business. In a Star Wars future, we might end up like Luke Skywalker’s uncle, struggling to eke out an existence on some crappy little moisture farm on a desolate little planet until the Stormtroopers find some reason to turn us into smoldering corpses.
Star Trek’s utopianism, Saadia notes, represents a sharp break from most science fiction. The norm tends toward stories of machines gaining intelligence and running amok in some dystopian hellscape. If much of the genre reflects our deepest fears about humanity’s future should technological progress make many of us obsolete, Saadia, a Los Angeles-based writer and technology consultant, offers us a relentlessly optimistic alternative to consider in Trekonomics.
The book isn’t fan fiction. On one level, it’s an entertaining primer on some of the basics of a modern political economy. There are, no doubt, many first-year college students plowing through Economics 101 texts who might appreciate the following explanation for why currency is so central to our economy:
Money’s defining advantage is to free us from the inefficiency of bartering. Try to exchange your shipment of apples for a pound of dilithium crystals. It won’t work. Your dilithium dealer does not have a use for all your apples, and besides, you can’t harvest and deliver that many apples anyway . . . And what if you have too many? What do you do with the leftovers?
Now consider selling all your apples for cash. Better still: consider selling your next five harvests in advance, even at a discount. You end up with a large sum in hand: you can use a portion of that sum to purchase dilithium, and you can spend the rest on some well-deserved Klingon bloodwine or Romulan ale.
Trekonomics features a lot of that kind of exposition, some of it a bit too cute. But more importantly, it is an apologue, a kind of moral fable that speaks to some of the most pressing economic questions of our time: What will the future of labor look like with rapid increases in automation replacing human hands? How can we square classical economics’ assumption of unending growth with a world of finite natural resources?
Saadia doesn’t believe we’re likely to achieve a future that looks like Star Trek. For one thing, hyperspace travel, he says, is incredibly costly, and will offer humanity little reward for the effort. So he doesn’t see us exploring strange new worlds, or seeking out new life and new civilizations in the next few hundred years.
Thus tethered to Earth, Trekonomics is ultimately an argument that economic growth and good governance can lead us to enjoy a standard of living that’s almost unimaginable today. At its heart is the concept of “post-scarcity economics”—a world where technology is an unalloyed good that meets all of our material needs. Competition for finite resources has been a constant since early humans started scratching out a living. It’s shaped not only our economic systems, but our cultures and societies in really fundamental ways. The core argument of Trekonomics is that technology will eventually allow us to produce goods and services in excess of what we need, and that freedom from want will, in turn, lead to a radically different social contract—and new norms of governance—that are difficult to imagine today. In a Trekonomics economy, those at the top would have no incentive to grab an ever-larger slice of the pie because the pie would be infinitely large.
In the TV series “The Next Generation,” which take place in the twenty-fourth century—the original “Star Trek” was set in the middle of the twenty-third—post-scarcity economics culminates in the “replicator,” a device that looks something like a space-age photographer’s light table and can transform some unspecified raw material into any object or non-living substance by rearranging its subatomic particles. Want a cup of tea? Presto, here’s a brand new cup filled with the tea of your choice. In a world of Trekonomics, replicators would be public goods—made available to everyone like highways or libraries or the Internet. And while anyone could use them, doing so wouldn’t deprive anyone else of their bounty. Economics would no longer be a zero-sum game.
Replicators are far off, but even in its infancy, 3-D printing is already revolutionizing manufacturing, and in the not-too-distant future, nano-robots will likely be able to manufacture anything, including themselves. Artificial intelligence is becoming more sophisticated, and human interfaces with computer systems more natural. Investment in robotic technologies has increased dramatically in recent years, and according to The Economist, “New shared standards make good ideas easily portable from one robot platform to another. And accumulated know-how means that building such platforms is getting a lot cheaper.” It’s not hard to imagine a near-term future in which many of the occupations that require workers today are completely automated. Science fiction in this area is not too far from becoming science-fact.
The impact of this “rise of the robots” has become the subject of intense debate among economists and political commentators. In 1995, futurist Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book called The End of Work, in which he argued that as software becomes more sophisticated, the world will become “near workerless.” In recent years, a flood of books have made similar predictions: Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against The Machine and The Second Machine Age and then last year’s bestseller by tech entrepreneur Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.
Reviewing Rise of the Robots for The New York Times last year, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote:
the human consequences of robotization are already upon us. . . . long-term unemployment persists, and underemployment—part-time jobs when full-time jobs are needed, or jobs that do not reflect a worker’s education—is on the rise. College-educated people often flounder for years after graduation, finding temp jobs and permanent roommates. Adults of both sexes are drifting out of the work force in despair. All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker.
But economist Dean Baker argues that we’re not yet seeing the “consequences of robotization” on any significant scale. He notes that productivity growth—the “rate of increase in output for each hour of workers’ labor”—has slowed during the past few decades when it should be growing rapidly according to the rise of the robots thesis. For Baker, productivity growth is productivity growth, something that has historically led to dramatic improvements in people’s living standards. In his view, automation poses a real distributional challenge, but is ultimately something to be embraced.
And Steve Denning, a Forbes contributor and veteran of the World Bank, argues that the belief that technology will lead to a future with scarce jobs is based on a series of questionable assumptions. In a review of Ford’s book, he wrote that a fatal “flaw in the reasoning is to assume that when machines replace human capabilities, as they have been doing for thousands of years, nothing else changes. In reality…when machines replace one kind of human capability, as they did in the transitions from hunter/gatherer, from serf, from freehold farmer, from factory worker, from clerical worker, from knowledge worker on to whatever comes next, in each case, new human experiences and capabilities emerged.”
Some blame rising income inequality on automation. But compensation generally tracked productivity growth for most of the last century, until the two became unmoored in the early 1980s, and wages haven’t kept up since. Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century showed that the growth of income on capital—on investments—far outpaced labor productivity through most of the modern era. Only in the last century, with the disruption of the Great Depression and two world wars—and the creation of expansive social welfare states—did we see a pause in the longer trend of massive accumulation of wealth at the top. And Piketty’s unique dataset suggested that our modern economies are reverting to form at a rapid pace.
In Trekonomics, there is no capital wealth. There’s only human capital. The very concept of labor will be redefined in a post-scarcity economy. With our needs met, labor would be divorced from survival. We might pursue a career that we find fulfilling, or make art or write poetry. We can meditate. “In the Federation, work exists to make you happy,” writes Saadia. And “if you want to spend your entire life bumming around the beaches of Risa…[n]othing and nobody will prevent you from wallowing in the most abject and satisfying sloth.” Those of us who pride ourselves on being productive would have little reason to resent those lazy slackers because we would enjoy the same choices that they do.
In this world, having lots of stuff would no longer confer status on a person. But wouldn’t the loss of competition spell an end to innovation? Saadia sees the opposite occurring. Research and development would flourish as scientifically minded individuals, unconstrained by funding limitations, pursued whatever quixotic lines of inquiry they might imagine. It’s a vision of a true meritocracy—honor and the esteem of one’s colleagues would be the coins of the realm in a post-scarcity economy.
Importantly, Saadia sees the end of zero-sum economics leading to a dramatic decline in—if not the disappearance of—political polarization. Benevolent technocrats would govern us, relying on evidence-based policymaking to pursue the greater good. They’d serve not out of lust for power, but because they’d have the organizational talents that brought them to government. Lawmakers in a post-scarcity world would still have their minor differences, but Saadia argues that government will ultimately be boring without white-hot conflicts over the allocation of resources.
It’s a key point, as Saadia devotes a chapter to the idea that potential resource constraints can be, and in many cases have been, overcome by innovative examples of resource substitution. Bird poop features prominently in his argument. In the early 1800s, it was discovered that bird and bat guano were rich sources of nitrogen and made excellent fertilizers (it was previously used by the Incas), and a new industry arose—call it Big Guano—harvesting it from around the world for import to Europe and North America. After a century-long guano boom, we eventually mined most of the easily reached deposits of poop—we effectively reached Peak Guano—and with demand for fertilizer still rising, and the remaining poop becoming more expensive, scientists looked to alternative means of producing nitrogen. So early in the last century, they came up with a chemical process that remains the mainstay of commercial fertilizers to this day, and made bird poop unnecessary.
Saadia takes us through a series of past predictions that human activity would swamp the planet’s carrying capacity—beginning with Thomas Malthus’s 1798 essay arguing that human populations grow exponentially but food supplies only increase arithmetically—that have been proven wrong as a result of technological advances that couldn’t have been predicted at the time. Malthus couldn’t have foreseen those scientists working out a way to produce virtually unlimited amounts of chemical fertilizers, or imagine that those fertilizers would be a key ingredient in a “Green Revolution” that significantly expanded crop yields more than 150 years later.
There are problems with Trekonomics, as one might expect from a book about a potential future based on a sci-fi franchise. Saadia points out that despite the existence of replicators and all the rest of the technologies onboard the Enterprise, there are always lots of Starfleet officers walking around the ship looking busy. He sees those industrious personnel as evidence that we’ll come up with all sorts of new and inspiring vocations, but what if they’re just extras paid Screen Actors Guild minimum to walk through shots carrying futuristic clipboards? It’s unclear what everyone would actually be doing on a ship that could presumably be run by a relatively small crew and lots of automation.
Here on Planet Earth, he sees a future in which people will wait tables and flip burgers because they enjoy it, which is a claim that can only be made by someone who’s not familiar with the aching joints that follow a typical restaurant shift. Of a fictional planet’s sex industry, he writes, “Risa’s jamaharon attendants cannot be qualified as sex-workers, since they do not require pay for their services.” This seems like a particular stretch. Sure, sexual promiscuity might increase in a world free of want—people will need hobbies after all—but one assumes that the disappearance of money would result in rather few willing to do the deed as a regular job.
The reality is that not everyone has a penchant for science or mathematics or music or arts and letters. There are a lot of people who use their hands to make a living, and this gives them not only a vocation but an identity. And will those of us who find our niche as party planners or designers really be so accepting of the slothful people wiling away their time on the beaches of Risa? There’s a large body of research showing that opposition to public welfare programs is highly correlated with racial resentment, and especially the embrace of racial stereotypes of minorities as “lazy” and unwilling to work. Saadia believes these attitudes will disappear when we no longer compete for a living, but is competition the only thing that drives tribalism? Will religion and other sources of conflict really disappear as we grow unimaginably wealthy?
Saadia’s confidence that these seismic changes in our economy will naturally result in a starkly different political culture, with social mores that we can’t imagine today, seems to be well grounded in our history. It proved to be the case when humanity transitioned from hunters and gatherers to an agricultural economy, and again when we moved to an industrial economy. But he doesn’t offer much thought to the transitional period—how we get from here to there. Even those economists who argue that the rise of the robots is overblown acknowledge that technological displacement will lead to some “disruption” in various sectors of the economy. How much “disruption” would be required for the kind of fundamental transformation of society envisioned in Trekonomics? Would we first have to defeat some kind of neo-feudal Romulan Empire in order to usher in this perfect meritocracy?
Saadia’s answer to the “tragedy of the commons”—individuals taking advantage of public goods without regard for the sustainability of those goods—is logical: Good governance requires a strong and rational regulatory state, which he takes as a given. He sees it as a natural byproduct of a society ruled by reason and science. But don’t we need that kind of rational governance to come first? Isn’t it a prerequisite to making those replicators into public goods and achieving a post-scarcity world? Will we get there before suffering catastrophic climate disruptions?
His argument is as much political as it is economic, and he readily concedes that many countries lack the institutional strength and democratic tradition required to move to a highly automated, post-scarcity economy marked by an abundance of public goods.
His prescriptions for getting there are somewhat standard-issue among liberals: North-South wealth redistribution, guaranteed minimum incomes, and greater environmental regulation. How we turn those ideas into policy in the current political system is left unsaid.
(If Trekonomics were reviewed by a genuine Star Trek nerd, it might be open to an entirely different set of criticisms—there may be incorrect star dates, flawed descriptions of propulsion systems or quibbles over Ferengi political culture that went over my head. I’ll also admit that on occasion while reading the book, I recalled the classic “Saturday Night Live” skit in which William Shatner loses it while addressing a Star Trek convention: “Having received all your letters over the years, and I’ve spoken to many of you . . . I’d just like to say . . . GET A LIFE, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you’re dressed!” And I pictured Saadia, in the front row, sporting a Federation uniform and rubber Spock ears, looking up at Shatner, utterly crestfallen.)
But to a significant degree, Saadia managed to overcome my skepticism by looking at productivity growth over the long haul. He notes that if the global economy grows by just 1 percent per year—a conservative estimate—the quantity of goods and services that an average worker produces today will increase sixteenfold by 2325. And that “can happen without any so-called singularity, whereby some magical new invention would turn us all into superhuman cyborgs who never die.”
It took us only 66 years to go from Orville Wright’s 12-second, 120-foot flight to Neil Armstrong’s first step on the surface of the moon. My great grandfather couldn’t have imagined an iPhone, but he also couldn’t have conceived of the Geneva Conventions or the International Criminal Court. In that context, maybe a future of Trekonomics isn’t so outlandish after all.