New Series Idea: ‘Star Trek: Economics in Space’

by Sonny Bunch on July 27, 2012

On Facebook, Brandon Fibbs asked what people would like to see from a new Star Trek series and linked to an io9 listicle that is, easily, the most generic thing I’ve read in a long time.* But it did get me thinking about what I’d want in a new Star Trek series. For me, the answer is pretty simple: I’d like a Star Trek series that dealt with the economics of the Federation in a meaningful way.

The economics of Star Trek are never really explored in any serious manner. There are the vaguely anti-Semitic Ferengi, with their unscrupulous behavior, thirst for gold-pressed latinum, and their big noses and ears. And we occasionally see people working on Earth—Sisko’s father ran a cafe; Picard’s people operated a vineyard—but you always kind of got the sense that there was no such thing as “money” in the universe of Star Trek. That people just kind of work for the love of what they do. Which is, of course, insane.

How did they build those massive starships? Who is mining the dilithium crystals? Why do the people on federation planets actually work if not to make money? I mean, look, I get why someone would want to be on a starship, exploring the universe, etc. You could almost convince me that people would do that for “the common good” and not get paid. But what about the poor shlubs welding the ships together in space, risking life and limb and death by exposure to vacuum? Or the helots mining the stuff that makes these ships run? Or just the dude washing dishes in the Sisko’s dad’s cafe?

“Got-damn that sounds boring,” I hear you kvetching. I’m not saying that the show should be Wealth of Nations in space. What I’m saying is that the show’s background and the dilemmas the crew would face are grounded in economics. The Star Trek universe was always at its best when it dealt with plausibly real situations—the Cold War parallels in the Original Series; the Dominion War arc in DS9 that dealt with the trade off of security and freedom long before 9/11; et cetera—so why not deal with the defining issue of our time: the economic order and its precarious nature in a time of flux and bursting bubbles.

What would the show itself actually be about? How about a private trader who has to work with the Federation—and has to deal with a small contingent of Federation troops on board during his trade runs? A guy who works on the fringe of society and distrusts the Federation…the sort of guy who might side with the slugs in the dilithium mines rather than the aristocrats flying the ships powered by the dilithium crystals? It’d be a chance for the writers to turn the series on its head: Instead of Starfleet serving as the undisputed white hats, we can get a chance to see how the rest of the universe might view them. As imperious. As bureaucratic. As a general pain in the balls. The central conflict could be between the Federation-types complaining about all this horrible money-grubbing while relying on said grubbing to get things done.

The crisis that sets the show in motion could be something as simple as a run on dilithium: As the mineral becomes more difficult to obtain, perhaps the Federation has to crack down on the outlying nations that provide it with the good. After an imposition of price controls or some such, perhaps there’s a small revolt? Who’s to say? What do I look like, a showrunner?

I imagine several of you are thinking “Yeah, they made that show: It’s called Firefly.” And you’re kind of right! I mean, it wouldn’t be exactly like that. But wouldn’t you be interested to see a Firefly-style show set in the Star Trek universe? I think people would dig it.

*I mean, really: The list’s title is “10 Things We Want from a New Star Trek TV Show” and includes entries like “Some new aliens” and “Some ethical dilemmas.” For serious?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Klug July 27, 2012 at 9:57 am

From Picard, in ST:FC:

“The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.”

You’d probably have to have the show outside of the Federation.

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Sonny Bunch July 27, 2012 at 9:59 am

Yes, I remember that quote. It’s insane in its nonsensicality. You can’t just toss off a quote like that in a movie and expect people to buy it. Furthermore, it simply isn’t factual: There *is* money all over the 24th Century. It’s even used by Starfleet types (especially on Deep Space 9 any time they had to deal with Quark).

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Klug July 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Yes, I agree it doesn’t make sense. Sigh.

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Will July 27, 2012 at 11:02 am

Never really watched DS9, but I get the sense that the Federation doesn’t use money because it truly is a post-scarcity society. Plausibility aside, I don’t really see a use for currency if you can literally conjure up items on demand. For what it’s worth, Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” series has a pretty sophisticated take on that sort of thing would work:

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-ambiguous-utopia-of-iain-m-banks

Here’s my fantasy Star Trek scenario: They create a show based on a TNG alternate timeline episode in which the Federation is constantly at war with the Klingons. For one bright shining moment, Picard et al acted like military officers, not glorified field trip chaperones.

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Sonny Bunch July 27, 2012 at 11:07 am

Here’s the problem with arguing that, since it’s a post-scarcity society no one works: If no one has incentive to work, there is no incentive to do hard jobs! Why the f—k would I haul my ass down to the dilithium mine when I’ve got no incentive to do so? Why would I bother with the hassle of operating a restaurant—and it is a huge, huge hassle—if everyone can just replicate their food?

I mean, look, the thing is there *is* scarcity in the Star Trek universe. Dilithium, anti-matter, massive star ships: That stuff doesn’t just magic itself into existence out of thin air. It comes from somewhere. Its production involves arduous, dangerous work. That work has to be rewarded somehow, because otherwise why would people bother doing it?

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Will July 27, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Are massive star ships really a scarce resources in the Star Trek universe? If you can replicate all the component parts at no discernible cost, all you’re left with is some pretty minor assembly time. Heck, why couldn’t you just replicate an entire ship? Energy might be an issue, but every vessel in the series seems to come equipped with an infinitely-sustainable, massively-productive warp core. Do they need dilithium to run those things? I don’t remember any TNG refueling episodes . . .

My pet theory is that the show’s creators simply couldn’t come up with any interesting or remotely plausible plot scenarios about a truly post-scarcity society (presumably because, being super liberal, they assume all human conflict comes down to competition over material resources), so in practice their super-advanced society still has to deal with prosaic conflicts over resource allocation – though in theory we’re still supposed to think of the Federation as beyond material concerns. The show’s focus on exploration also helps obscure this tension, because all that time spent mediating primitive aliens’ conflicts obviates the need to actually explain how the Federation works.

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Sonny Bunch July 27, 2012 at 12:07 pm

There are definitely dry docks in space orbiting Earth within which the ships are assembled/repaired. We see them in several episodes/films. Somebody’s doing that work! If they could just replicate ships, why bother forming alliances to fight The Dominion?

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Klug July 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm

More from that speech: “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.”

“…so, son, that’s why I got that job in the dilithium mine.”

TheGoodNews November 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm

You guys need to see “Living Utopia (the Anarchists & the Spanish Revolution)” and “The Spanish Civil War – Part 5 – Inside the Revolution,” both on YouTube. There they explain how the anarchists and syndicalists in Spain abolished money, reduced operating costs and improved production. The secret is autogestion (self-management) and mutual aid (as opposed to market economics). This is already human history not some futuristic projection. Also, read George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” where he makes some pointed observations about a society not motivated by greed or “money grubbing.”

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TheGoodNews November 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Some quotes:

“Many of the normal motives of civilized life-snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.-had simply ceased to exist.” – Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

“There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having emerged suddenly into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly exclaiming that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes.” – Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

“Some collectives did in fact abolish money. They had no system of exchange, not even coupons. For example, a resident of Magdalena de Pulpis, when asked, ‘How do you organize without money? Do you use barter, a coupon book, or anything else?,’ replied, ‘Nothing. Everyone work and everyone has the right to what he needs free of charge. He simply goes to the store where provisions and all other necessities are supplied. Everything is distributed free with only a notation of what he took.” – The Anarchist Collectives by Sam Dolgoff

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