In my previous article I discussed how dangerously little Hollywood knows about economics, and I said that this ignorance is most obvious in their science fiction. So strap yourself in your captain's chair, because we're about to hit warp speed in search of examples.
Our first example is the original Star Trek franchise. Creator Gene Roddenberry didn’t want a society founded on what he considered “greed.” So his idea of a model society, called The Federation, didn’t have money. In fact, they didn’t even need money since replicator technology could make whatever you want or need out of thin air.
At least that’s the surface. But when you think about it, Federation society would have to be extremely dysfunctional. First, money is not the “root of all evil” as the cliché hounds like to say. Money is simply a commodity that measures the relative value of other commodities. In the days of barter it would be like saying that your bag of fresh picked pomegranates from your garden are the root of all evil because you can go to the village and trade them for a woolen tunic, a new pair of sandals, and an ale at the inn.
Money also serves a vital role in communication via prices. Prices are how we know how much of any set resource we have, and how many people want access to, or the use of, that resource. We’re talking about the components of manufacturing, including parts and the labour involved, distribution, and finally sales. All of those elements that make up everything have some kind of value, which means they have prices. Once it’s all said and done, all of those prices add up to the final price of a good or service.
Now Trekkies will say that they don’t need prices because replicators can just make whatever you want or need upon request.
The show says that its replicators are based on transporters, but transporters can’t make something from nothing. They need the components of food to make food, and the components of the dishes and cutlery to make the dishes on cutlery on which to serve the food.
Where do those components come from?
Recycling does cover some of it, but even 100% recycling doesn’t replace 100% of the original product, especially when it comes to food for what one must assume is a growing population.
Does the Enterprise just take what they need from planets they pass by?
If so, how do the natives of those planets feel about that?
What if those natives believe they need those components a little bit more than the Federation? Maybe they could ask the Federation to pay, but how do they pay without money? They could barter Federation resources for the planet’s resources.
That sounds like a solution, but in order for that to work on an interplanetary scale each planet would have to have perfect knowledge of what they need, not just at that moment, but well into the unforeseeable future, as well as what all of their trading partners need. They will also need to know exactly how amounts of millions of individual resources and services translate into amounts of millions of other individual resources and services from thousands of other planets.
Without money, they’re pretty much counting on every individual to literally know billions of data points to enact the simplest transaction.
When you have money you can go to a planet and say: “We want to buy some dilithium.” The alien can then say: “It’s ten zoltars a kilogram.” Then they work out the exchange rate, pay it’s equivalent in Federation Dollars, and say: “Here’s something you can use that to buy anything you may want or need from anyone in the Federation at any time.”
However, it’s not just interstellar trade that’s dysfunctional without some sort of money system.
Let’s take a second to talk about jobs.
Even in the utopian future of the Federation there are still dirty jobs to be done. Look at the classic series and even The Next Generation - both featured humans doing work that could have been done by robots ranging from the dirty and dangerous like hard rock mining, to the just plain dirty like janitorial work. In the real world those are unionized jobs that people do either for good pay and benefits, or because they have no other choice and need the income to survive.
However, in Roddenberry’s Federation people allegedly work for “personal fulfillment” which I’m sure is not what the Enterprise’s janitor gets when he has to fix the ship’s toilet after Worf’s combined Klingon blood wine and three alarm chilli con carne. It’s not like the janitor’s got anything to look forward to either. All the senior officers are from either the science or military divisions, no janitor gets to be a captain, let alone an admiral.
So why not use a robot? Probably to inflate their employment statistics. Which raises the question: Why do these humans take these jobs? Well, maybe the Federation forces those who don’t fit in the science or military departments to take those dirty jobs or face some sort of off-screen punishment?
None of the Star Trek shows ever tried to explain that part of society. That’s probably because the writers didn’t know how to dig themselves out of the hole Roddenberry had unintentionally dug for them, so why bother when you can keep the viewers busy with aliens and time warps?
(Stay tuned for part three tomorrow: The Corporate Dystopia)
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