The utopian future of 'Star Trek' doesn't work without extreme inequality and some slavery

Star Trek EnterpriseStar TrekThe USS Enterprise, as seen in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’

The 10th edition of New York Comic Con boldly went where no one has gone before by hosting a panel discussion on the economic issues of “Star Trek.”

Held Sunday, October 11, “The Amazing Economics of Star Trek” panel examined the concepts of scarcity and post-scarcity as portrayed in the classic science-fiction franchise.

The physics and political and religious themes of “Trek” have already been tackled in books, but not the universe’s economic aspects.

The main talking point in the panel was whether or not the post-scarcity universe of “Trek” is as Utopian as it’s portrayed on TV and in film.

The panel consisted of “Trek” writer Chris Black; Manu Saadia, author of the book “Trekonomics”; Annalee Newitz, founding editor of the culture site io9; moderator Felix Salmon, of Fusion; Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist; and Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Star Trek” is a sci-fi universe with a positive outlook of Earth’s future. The United Federation of Planets uses its Starfleet armada of spaceships for humanitarian and peace-keeping missions. Many of the storylines are allegories of contemporary culture.

Some of the main talking points were the portrayals of scarcity and post-scarcity in “Trek,” whether or not the concept of economics makes sense in “Trek,” and whether or not a post-scarcity society is Utopian.

“Gene Roddenberry tried to paint our future,” said DeLong, noting that we’ve gone far down that road. “We’re now, in fact, approaching post-scarcity in food and products.”

But as Newitz pointed out, because “Trek” is a future where money no longer exists, people work because they want to but are therefore supported by other economies. To prove her point, she cited as an example “Measure of a Man,” an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that centered on the character of Lt. Cmdr. Data, an android.

Even though Data is a crewmember of the starship “Enterprise,” unlike his fellow crewmates, he’s a robot. But does that make him a person or Starfleet property?

“We’re constantly being reminded that slavery and low wages support the comfortable, ‘Enterprise’ living,” Newitz said.

Krugman said that the replicator machines in “Trek” can make objects appear out of thin air, but there’s a difference between goods and services. This is especially true when, currently, people use 30% of goods but 70% of services.

And if that’s the case, then something — or someone — else is going to have to be put to work.

“The replicators can’t help with that,” he said. “The actual issue is to tell the difference between servitors and slaves.”

In fact, the meritocracy of “Trek” was even compared to academia.

“The world of meritocracy and academia is very harsh,” said Saadia. “What you see on the show are the 1%. You barely see the other side.”

The 1%, in this case, would be the Starfleet officers, who live lives of abundance and work hard for their reputations. But does this mean that the 99% are happy?

“I look at it more through the lens of writing for a show,” said Black. “These 1% are at the top of their game. Starfleet officers … are very collaborative, which immediately took 95% of the drama out of the show.”

And because of that, any conflict had to be external.

Salmon, the panel’s moderator, pointed out that in 2016, “Star Trek” will turn 50 and Thomas More’s book “Utopia” will turn 500. He then asked the panel if there is anything Utopian about “Trek.”

“We are problem-solving, puzzle-solving, status-seeking creatures,” DeLong said.

Krugman responded by saying: “People have an amazing ability to be unhappy. The problem with Utopia is not the lack of scarcity — it’s people.”

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