Sisko’s Restaurant and My Blog: The Star Trek Economy is User-Generated

If you’re deeply into Star Trek, as I am, you’ve wondered what the hell people do all day. Not the folks in Starfleet of course, but, well, everyone else. We are told that within the United Federation of Planets, or at least in Terran society, there is no money, and people labor merely for self-improvement and scientific or cultural advancement.

Rick Webb has written a really fascinating piece trying to suss out the economics of the Star Trek universe, making sense of some seeming contradictions (such as “Federation credits” and human-owned private property) and delineating basic needs that are nearly-infinite (food and wealth on Earth) and those that are perhaps less so (the energy and material required to construct a fleet of starships). This analogy, previewing the meat of his explanation, gives the gist:

Imagine there’s some level of welfare benefits in every country, including America. That’s easy. That’s true. Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor. Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible?

I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek.

You should really read the whole thing.

Anyway, Matthew Yglesias doesn’t agree with everything Webb has written (though I don’t think even Webb believes he’s got it all figured out and totally correct). He concentrates on the question posed at the beginning here about what the hell people do all day since they’re not compelled economically to have a job. But then again, we know that some people do have “professions” outside even the straight sciences or the arts, such as Ben Sisko’s dad Joseph who owns a restaurant and Picard’s brother René who owns a vineyard. So, why would they if not to make money? Yglesias writes:

So what do the producers of scarce goods do? Well, presumably they’re giving a lot of stuff away. Friends and family get bottles of wine. Perhaps you send a case or two to some particularly admired athletes or scientists or other heroes. Maybe artisanal wine just isn’t that popular in general. And maybe you barter some bottles for other artisanal goods. Maybe you have a friend who hand-carves furniture. But at its most fundamental level, it’s a gift economy. The point of running your restaurant or your vineyard is essentially to show off your mastery, not accumulate wealth. There may be some more-or-less formal exchanges, but the key point is to get the output into people’s hands and not work so hard as to make yourself miserable.

I think he’s trying too hard. Think about it; what is it I’m doing right now? I’m blogging, for nothing. I try every day to post a new piece, some short and ill-considered, others long and (I hope) worthy of digesting. But I do it all for no expectation of compensation. Now, I would very much like to be compensated (and you can donate to this little enterprise here!) but because I enjoy it, I do it as much as my time and energy allows.

And if money were no consideration at all, I’d do a lot more of it. But here’s the key: it wouldn’t be exclusively for my own private satisfaction. I’d hope that folks would read what I write, engage with it, and discuss it with others. I’d hope that people would listen to my music and podcasts, and that they too would get a shot at making their own tiny dents in the universe. There’s value, scarcity, because while “writing” is overly-abundant, the writing of Paul is scarce. It comes from a single and mortal source, giving it value.

So I’m saying that the economy of Star Trek is a lot like that of the user-generated ecosystem of today’s Web.

Joseph Sisko didn’t open his restaurant so that he could be the only person to eat there. He wants people to come and enjoy themselves, to talk about the place, talk to him, and spread word of what a great place it is. This is important: with ubiquitous teleportation technology, having a brick-and-mortar restaurant is as “placeless” as anything on the Web. Anyone can come on any night from anywhere on Earth, and beyond! On a whim! Joseph Sisko gets to share his work with the literal world.

And so for René Picard and his vineyard (before, of course, the events of Star Trek: Generations). René, being a proud and meticulous man, may have even taken pleasure in the simple maintenance of his estate without ever feeling the need to share it with anyone outside his family. But he had access to the whole of the Alpha Quadrant. Had he wished, he could have, as Yglesias puts it, shown off his mastery throughout the galaxy, thanks to transportation technologies of the time. It’s as though one could sample his wine by popping a URL into a browser.

As much as I enjoy writing, and would have almost certainly tried to make a career of it no matter what, it is the advent of the Internet and ubiquitous and free or cheap publishing platforms that have allowed me to do what I do at this site. Whether or not people read and engage with my work is another matter, but the point is that they are able to, from wherever they are, at any time. And I do it without pay. As I said, I’d rather get paid, surely, and it would improve my output in terms of both quality and quantity. But on the Federation’s Earth in the 24th century, I wouldn’t need to worry about that. I could devote my energies as I wished. So would it be in Webb’s analogy of every American getting $10,000,000 from birth. In those situations, some would run restaurants, some would join the military, some would be artists, some would be explorers, some would be scientists, and some, perhaps many, would do nothing at all. And that would be okay, too.


Propagating Virtue Through Use (Or, Humanism as Inexhaustible Doritos)

A little while ago I posted about Claude S. Fischer’s piece exploring the phenomena of sympathy, and how our “moral circle” has expanded over time to allow us to feel sympathy or grief for the misfortunes of strangers and foreigners (in all senses of the word), and, incidentally, how at least in the West a fetishization of “public grieving” (or as I termed it, “garment rending”) developed, even over losses not directly our own.

Hemant Mehta pointed me to a piece by JP O’Malley in The Rationalist about American philosopher Michael Sandel. The gist of the piece is to show how Sandel has some refreshing ideas about balancing markets and more ephemeral democratic virtues, and how Sandel as a personality may be in danger of being co-opted by politicians who want to look like they have a heart while they sink the knife into yours.

First off, I appreciated how Sandel says that Western societies seem to have such faith in markets that we have all given up a great deal of what makes our democracies democratic; in ceding authority to the invisible hand, we leave little else to discuss or debate — what’s left to be democratic about? The market will sort it out. It sounds a whole lot like religion.

Anyway, that’s not the call-back to the Fischer piece though. It’s about treating each other and ourselves as more than consumers:

. . . in Sandel’s view, the freedom argument [in favor of markets] is taken too far by libertarians and laissez-faire economists. “Market freedom refers to our freedom as consumers, but not as citizens, and not as full human beings. Our identity as consumers is only part of who we are. And if we allow our identity [as consumers] to dominate, then we miss out on important aspects of freedom to do with individual self-development and citizenship.”

[. . . said Sandel,] “There are some economists who make the argument that human beings should rely as much on possible on self-interest and as little as possible on altruism, solidarity or civic virtue. These economists seem to think that positive virtues are fixed in quantity, that they are like fossil fuels: the more you use, the less you have. But for me Aristotle is closer to the truth. There is not a finite supply of virtues, as if they were commodities. Aristotle says that we learn to become brave by acting courageously, and that we learn to care for the common good by engaging in civic acts and civic responsibility. These virtues are cultivated through practice.”

There’s that word: “cultivate.” (And not incidentally, “practice.”) Being kind and compassionate to each other, the choice to show sympathy in the sense of recognizing common humanity in everyone as a default, is something that is not in short supply, nor in any supply. It is a practice that can be cultivated. The very act of embodying virtues like sympathy and compassion for those from, say, different countries or economic classes, or even virtues like democratic deliberation, further propagate them through use.

An excellently-crafted musical instrument must be played to remain in fine condition, and indeed, to improve and “season”. It doesn’t “run out” of songs or notes. So it is with a democratic society. Democracy and humanism must be practiced so that we can have more and better democracy and humanism.

Or as Jay Leno used to say in those 1980s Doritos ads, “Crunch all you want; we’ll make more.”

Cutting and Bleeding the Sick

Architecture professor Thomas De Monchaux, in a piece that has almost nothing to do with economic policy, helps to clarify thinking about the concept of austerity:

Economically, austerity — which the Germans, among others, are intent on forcing upon their southern brethren — can sound like a good idea, but might actually exacerbate the conditions it ostensibly ameliorates. One day, we might look back on cuts in public services and infrastructure during a downturn with the same disbelief with which today’s doctors recall the medieval medicine of deliberately cutting and bleeding the sick.

Austerity has costs, De Monchaux tells us, in art, production, and yes, economics, such that we may not suspect them. But think about Apple, which well represents the austerity-in-design that I think De Monchaux would agree qualifies. In boiling everything down to raw necessities, Apple makes objects that are more expensive (often) and require greater sacrifices from those who built them (see Shenzhen).

People in desperate economic times, however, are not consumer products or art. Their lives and livelihoods ought not be “boiled down” to achieve some idealized notion of frugality, some platonic ideal that exists mainly in the minds of those who can always afford austere Apple objects.