An Audio-Book Review: Live Long and Prosper, but Not Monetarily


Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek

By Manu Saadia

Published by Audible Studios

Read by Oliver Wyman

 

The Book:

 

Before I start, I want to say that this book has received a lot of positive reviews and by and large I tend to agree with them, but I did have some problems as I listened to it. So, let’s start with the positive.

Manu Saadia put one heck of a lot of thought and work into this book and he came out with a lot of well-reasoned arguments about how the economics of the Star Trek universe in which the Federation no longer uses money in any way would work although at times I was confused as to whether he was arguing it was possible or not. For the most part, he makes statements of how it all works and makes it sound fairly reasonable, but then we get a throw-away line that made me doubt he believed it.

Okay, I get it, we are dealing with theoretical economics here. The zone in which you really cannot separate economics from philosophy because it really is philosophy, just philosophy with a veneer of mathematics. I’ll admit that sort of theory usually leaves me yawning (although not this time and I did find the book interesting) but I have read and listened to enough of it to know that many of the statements made as facts to back up the proofs of concepts in this book are argued vociferously by economists all the time. Is it theory – an idea with proof behind it? Yes, absolutely. Are there other theories that do not agree? Yeah, that too, but we don’t hear about the other side of the arguments, which I might have expected in order prove that the theory Manu Saadia holds to is more right than the others. No, the book barely crosses that ground at all.  All statements are made as though incontrovertible. That’s not unusual, however. A lot of writers do this, but to me it always feel like ignoring the data that does not fit your model. However, Saadia’s theories are all well accepted within  the field of economics, even if they are debated on various points.

Of course, I did not pick up this book in order to listen to dry economics theory. I really was more interested in what the author had to say about economics in the Star Trek universe and in that I was mostly satisfied. Where I was left at a loss was any explanation of how the other sentient races in that future history based their economies on, except for the Ferengi, who, in spite of looking like gremlins from the edges of artwork by Hieronymus Bosch, are really thinly disguised Twentieth and Twenty-first Century humans. What about the economics of the Klingons? The Romulans? The Cardassians? And all the rest? I felt there was some implication they would all eventually be absorbed into the Federation’s non-monetary economic empire, much like the Borg, which Saadia states rally is just like the Federation – economically, he may be correct.

Resistance is futile? I don’t know. I can see and accept how the Federation might have progressed to the state it is shown to us in, but nothing actually follows that others would join in. In fact, I believe one could argue that the differences in economic bases between the Federation and the Romulan Empire (for example) might well be the root cause for the antagonism between them. Similar arguments could be made for the Klingons, Cardassians and even the shape-shifting Founders. Without a economic basis for trade, is there any need for peaceful coexistence? Well, for the Federation, there is, but what’s in it for the rest of the Galaxy. Well, except for the Borg, except that they don’t trade. They merely assimilate – the view through a mirror darkly for Captain Picard and his colleagues.

And how does trade with the Ferengi even work? They have a fully monetary system built up based on a fictional substance known as Gold-pressed Latinum. Latinum, we learn eventually is a liquid of some sort that cannot be reproduced in the miraculous replicators of the Federation and therefore has value to the Ferengi since they cannot just make more of it. The liquid is kept in slips, strips, bricks and maybe some other units of gold so that it is easier to count and keep track of, I guess, although one character turned out to be keeping his hoard of latinum in his stomach… TMI. Anyway, the Ferengi trade is based on the transfer of gold-pressed latinum. With no money, how do Federation citizens acquire any of that in order to deal with the Ferengi? This is only dealt with in a most superficial manner.

That brings me to the replicators. Manu Saadia hails the “Replicator” as the ultimate machine that can replicate absolutely anything (well… except latinum), but he glosses over the fact that it cannot, or rather does not produce variety. The replicator has to be programmed and can only produce stuff that it has been programmed to produce. Saadia even brings up a case in which when discussing a dish of chicken curry (I think) one character says something along the lines of “This might be chicken, but all I taste is replicated animal protein.” I remember that episode. My take on that comment was not that all replicated animal protein was alike, but that any dish of chicken curry was going to taste like every other dish of chicken curry. The programmers had not programmed in thousands of variants so that each dish was a little different. They probably just scanned in one plate of Tikka Marsala (or Vindaloo or Korma, or whatever) and that is the same plate that comes out every time. I would not be surprised if food varied from one ship to the next where clever engineers would bring or create their own varieties, but even so, how many different plates of curry does the computer have room to store the programing for when some crew members might be more in the mood for fish and chips or “Tea, Earl Grey, hot?” I am sure only the very best foods were programmed into the replicators (why bother for anything less?) but after a while even the best starts to become ordinary.

In any case, Saadia makes the argument that with the replicator, there is no scarcity of anything (except latinum, which apparently makes you go bald if you keep it in a second stomach for decades) and in such a post-scarcity society, naturally there would be no money. Yeah, okay. One problem, however which Saadia glossed over although he presented the evidence. There were no replicators during the Original Series (the one with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, the Millionaire, the Movie Star and the rest). They had a galley deck where the food was still prepared more or less the way we do today (less, I think, but still not replicated). The replicators were invented some time during the seventy-five years between TOS and The Next Generation. However, according to the 4th Trek Movie (The Voyage Home) there is no money in Kirk’s time. So, it becomes obvious that the replicator is a symptom or a result, not the cause of the money-less society. Something else besides a lack of scarcity drove the Federation into the non-monetary economy it enjoys. The replicators merely reinforced it. Too bad, because the invention of something like the replicator really could have produced a non-monetary economy after a while.

He does go one at times about real-world economics and theory, which at times had only a tenuous connection to the main subject of the book, but I came to the conclusion that like most theoretical studies, economic theory has 20-20 hindsight on the past but is less than perfect on predictions. We see that in most sciences and scientific disciplines since the more we learn the better the chance we will find cases that, even if they do not disprove a theory, will make it clear that the theory was not general enough to include everything within its intended scope.

Even Saadia admits, however, that the Star Trek Universe did not spring fully grown from the head of Gene Roddenberry. It grew and developed and a lot of the facets of that universe that exist were cut through retroactive continuity (aka “Retcon” in SF parlance) that coalesced as the years went by. So naturally there are going to be exceptions, errors, confusions and discrepancies. That’s what happens when you set a dozen chefs to creating one pot of soup between them.

However, in spite of my arguments (and antipathy to the art of economic theory as philosophy mixed with poetry – uh, no, Saadia does not quote poetry. I’m being sarcastic.) This is a pretty good book so if you are into both Star Trek and economics, you probably will have a fun time with it.

Late Update: I just caught up with the latest episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (I have a ton of nits to pick with this the series, but overall it is a good and powerful story so far) and have noted that instead of the galley deck from TOS, the crew eats food created by synthesizers. Since that food includes fresh blueberries and breakfast burritos with the option of regular and roasted tomato salsa, I really do not see the difference between that and the replicators from TNG, some 85 years later save that, perhaps, I could not order  a bucket of irradiated cadmium nuts and bolts from lunch, but then again, why would I want too? It throws some wrenches into Saadia’s theorizing and pushes the economic and social timeline he proposes, but then as a friend pointed out, each new prequel series and reboot of Star Trek is a study in botched retcons.

 

The Audiobook:

I have one major complaint with Oliver Wyman’s reading – He really should have watched the various Star Trek shows at one point or other so that he would not mispronounce the names of characters. Or perhaps someone in the recording studio should have so they could have corrected him and had him do another take. This is pop culture, folks and while not everyone is a fan, it really might have been nice if someone on the project was conversant enough to catch pronunciation errors. I was particularly jarred by the way he mangled Garak’s name. Garak was the former(?) Cardassian spy who worked as a tailor in Deep Space Nine since he was likely to be killed almost anywhere else in the universe. He was a fairly interesting character who was pushed to the forefront in several pivotal episodes of Deep Space Nine. He stared out as a flat caricature of a person, but over the years of the series he got gradually deeper.  Well, if you have not watched the show, pleased take my word for it that his name is not accented on the second syllable nor is it spelled Gahrahhk.

That kind of ruined the reading for me, but to be fair, most of the time Garak does not intrude and Wyman’s reading is pretty good.

So, you need to be into Trek, you ought to have at least a passing interest in economic models and you have to excuse an occasional mispronounced name, but if that is you, I think you’ll love this book.

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