Review: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek by Manu Saadia

More than one iconic science fiction author has observed that the genre’s stories are not about the future, but instead reflect the present day. While cloaked in the trappings of interstellar travel and alien species interrelationships, science fiction themes address important issues facing the reader outside of her fantastic voyage. So it should come as no surprise that Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics — an examination of the underlying economics of Star Trek in the 24th century — is securely grounded in 21st century America and Europe. Using economic principles to explain the franchise’s post-scarcity society, the book makes a strong argument that we only lack the political will, not the wealth, to provide for everyone’s needs. In doing so, Saadia succeeds in translating Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future into a contemporary plan.

Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of 24th-century economy. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the absence of money and the meaning of work when economic security is a basic human right. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the role and limits of technology in achieving Roddenberry’s vision. Interestingly, it is not the technology but the public policy that enables Star Trek to approach its utopian ideal. For the historians of science fiction (like me), there is a fascinating chapter on trekonomics in classic science fiction, illustrating possible sources of influence for Gene Roddenberry. Chapter 8 addresses the role of the Ferengi (the galaxy’s capitalists) in the franchise and the tensions created by the interactions of the two civilizations. The final chapter brings us back to the present day and discusses how close we are to reshaping our economy and realizing trekonomics.

A key point made throughout the book is that the critical ingredient responsible for our advance is not technology but public policy. As our civilization solves each seemingly intractable obstacle to continued growth — food supply, energy consumption, information processing — real costs of commodities plunge toward zero. This creates post-scarcity in parts of the economy, as certain goods require smaller and smaller shares of GDP to produce. It is only capitalism’s choice of distribution that perpetuates shortages and profit. Trekonomics asserts, quite successfully, that we are no farther than a couple of generations away from providing basic sustenance to every human on the planet. From that point, the consequent shifts in behavior could lead to a society that looks very much like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s.

The book strikes an appropriate balance between the themes of economics, science fiction, and history. There is something for everyone, whether or not you have in-depth knowledge of the subjects prior to reading. I even found my skeptical self persuaded by Saadia’s arguments that limits to growth are not insurmountable, and that we have faced them for centuries and used them to become a wealthier civilization.

Saadia’s passion for progress towards a post-scarcity economy is palpable throughout the book. While some readers may consider this political, I found it genuine and refreshing. It is an optimism that admonishes us to do better, to strive for justice that is within our reach, to cooperate and transcend our primitive individualism. Importantly, it grounds Roddenberry’s vision of the future in our present. Trekonomics illustrates that there are concrete policies that will improve our lives.

Given the late-20th century’s penchant for dystopian futures, Star Trek has stood out against other science fiction franchises. Not only has humanity survived, it has conquered its demons and thrives in a galactic community. Through a communitarian structure and deep sense of civic responsibility, individual freedom is enhanced, not oppressed. All of this is made possible through the fair distribution of essential goods, the removal of want and material status, and the expectation that everyone will achieve their potential (even the mendicant!) Of course there is killer tech, but the core of Roddenberry’s vision is not warp drive, it is social equity. That is the most optimistic theme of Trekonomics, knowing that we already possess the power to turn our civilization toward the ideal.