Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek

Manu Saadia

Book cover

I am a big Trek fan and my viewership is nearly perfectly aligned for this book–I’ve seen all of Deep Space 9 and effectively all of The Next Generation. These are the two series referenced most often in this book, and the ones where the “post-scarcity economy” is most foregrounded. (Voyager is a ship in a special circumstance, and the two chronologically earlier series precede the post-scarcity transition.) I wanted to like this book, and I enjoyed it in some ways, but it wasn’t really what I was hoping for.

To be fair, what I was hoping for was basically “Four Futures” by Peter Frase–a deeply reflective look at the economics of a post-scarcity world and what political structures lead to what outcomes, with Star Trek foregrounded as a lens. “Trekonomics” is a much breezier book, and flits around a variety of related topics rather than undertaking a sustained analysis. This was one of my problems with the book, and is perhaps hinted at by its title–it didn’t really come across as having a central point or argument.

I also thought, Trek fan that I am, that some of Saadia’s analysis didn’t ring true. He argues fairly extensively that, in the absence of economic scarcity, competitive behavior is merely displaced to the realm of achievement and reputation, as those remain zero-sum quantities that therefore are necessarily subject to competitive pressure. This seems like a plausible a priori hypothesis about a post-scarcity economy, but in my view it is not at all consistent with the actual portrayal of the characters on the show. There is virtually no overt status competition, and really very little even implied. For the most part, ranks and status are fairly static over the course of the series–I can only think of one “promotion” of significance in TNG/DS9 (Sisko from Commander to Captain), which seems like a very notable lack of interest for a show that takes place in a quasi-military hierarchy. The characters are, on the whole, portrayed as motivated by intrinsic desires for excellence and self-actualization in their chosen fields, and seem to care surprisingly little about external status. The few depictions of competitive behavior I can think of in the show (among Starfleet officers, anyway) are generally portrayed as a little laughable or embarrassing–Kosinski’s arrogance in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and Bashir’s anxiety about the Carrington award in “Prophet Motive” are the two that come to mind. My sense here is that Saadia ended up kind of reaching for something that could be fit into an “economics of…” narrative rather than taking the show “at its word,” as it were. Frase is more radical and less afraid to take seriously the idea of a world where competitiveness has outlived its usefulness.

One LOL-moment for true Trek nerds like myself…Saadia makes a statement at some point about Wesley Crusher’s father having been a Starfleet captain. I think this was most likely a “fact”-check error (Jack Crusher was never a captain), but it could also be read as a winking acceptance by Saadia of the head-canon that Picard is in fact Wesley Crusher’s father. I hope it was the latter!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars