The Economics of Star Trek

Unofficial Economics of Star Trek

by Matt Grinder of the Vancouver Parecon Collective. 

(Retrieved from http://vanparecon.resist.ca)

Introduction

As far as I know, the creators and owners of Star Trek have never made specific the economic system that is used in the Star Trek universe. I doubt they have much of an idea, other than it’s not capitalism, doesn’t use “free” markets, and is probably quite just. From various quotes from movies and the TV shows, we know that they don’t use money (Star Trek IV), they use “credits” (Deep Space Nine), that the encouraged point to life is self improvement, not aggrandizement by wealth (The Next Generation), and that other species outside the Federation (like the Ferengi) use something called “Gold Pressed Latinum” for interstellar trading, but this is not used by the Federation for internal trading.

Amazingly enough, there does exist a proposed economic system that seems to fit quite well with these clues. It’s calledParticipatory Economics (or “parecon” for short). For the vast majority of people that have never heard about it, it was developed mainly by two people, Micheal Albert and Robin Hahnel in the 1980′s to early 1990′s, when the first books came out on it (see Looking Forward and The Political Economy of Participatory Economics and very recently seeParecon:Life after Capitalism). The people interested in learning about it and promoting it are people that want to change the world for the better, and think that we need to overhaul the entire economic/political/community/kinship system that we have today in order to do this. You know, anti-capitalist lefties who are NOT communists.

So I wrote up this website, giving both a pseudo-history of the installment of the Federation economic system, and a description of the system, barely modified from what you find in any of the books on participatory economics, though I have endeavored (sort of) to give the description a Star Trek feel. Hope it’s interesting to read.

For those people who read this website further and do not agree that parecon is consistent with the tiny clues we have about the Federation Economic system. Please consider this question, “Would Gene Rodenberry (creator of Star Trek) like this idea?” I think the answer is yes. For more arguments about this, see my Author’s notes. Also, after reading this site, please VOTE on whether or not you think Star Trek should be the official economic system of the Federation.

NOTE: The following are excerpts from the “Recent Timetraveller’s Guide to Life in the United Federation of Planets”, written primarily for terrans from pre-warp societies that have found themselves stranded in the 24th century. Such instances are surprisingly common, so much so that an entire guide was written up for these (un?)fortunate time travelers. Since, for some reason, these visitors are usually from earth, it may seem a little terrocentric…

 

(1) History of the Federation Economic System

 

 

(a) Early history

 

The economic system currently enjoyed by the United Federation of Planets was most heavily influenced (for terrans) by the economic vision first presented by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel in the early 1990′s, which they called “Participatory Economics” or “parecon”. An incarnation of the original, primitive “website” to promote participatory economics is available here , as are the ancient works Looking Forward and Parecon:Life after Capitalism. Paper bound texts of these ancient works are available for viewing in the Smithsonian Museum.

“Participatory Economics” was the culmination of a century-long effort by a small community of Earth economists seeking a democratic alternative to the horrors perpetuated by both “capitalism” and “communism.” “Parecon” at first gained only minor interest among people already challenging the capitalist system, and virtually no interest from the academic community of the time. Given the regular nightmares humanity had been inflicting on itself since the dawn of recorded history, it was unfortunately assumed by most that these horrors were inevitable, and there was no viable alternative to “capitalism” or “communism” (though of course, as is generally accepted today, neither of these systems was ever fully achieved). The “parecon” system was of course not unique to Earth, but was invented and put into practice on other worlds as well, including Vulcan, QUIXX’IA and Thanos Morgul, in the latter case it had been established for 3500 years before its inception on Earth.

Fortunately, despite the chaos of the early and mid 21st century, a group of die-hard adherents of participatory economics preserved the old works and central ideas, and tried to expand their numbers, despite the repression of the times.

Paradoxically, the lawlessness of the mid 21st century allowed for the first actual implementation and experimentation of parecon ideals in two small villages in entirely separate countries, Kenowago in South Africa, and New Haverbrook in the American mid-west (which was coincidentally only 130 kilometers from Zephram Cochrane’s warp development base, though the famed physicist had no idea of it’s existence until later). Both communities of less than 100 people (ranging from 50-60 in New Haverbrook and 70-80 in Kenowago until 2063) were basically subsistence farmers with limited trade to other towns. Despite their limited numbers in, both communities managed to achieve many of the marks of participatory economics, including “balanced job complexes” and partial implementation of the “participatory planning process.” This was with very limited computing power, (in one year, North Haverbrook was without computer technology for two months, and the participatory planning process was actually accomplished with the aid of an abacus) and with the constant threat of violence from the warring factions of the time.

Several historic figures originated from these villages that were influential in the monumental events which followed first contact. Mary Gerhard, Gerrard Havewell, Lousie Diamant (from North Haverbrook) and Hanzier and Shelly Mobutu (from Kenowago) were to play key roles in the Vulcan sponsored free talks of 2063.

 

(b) The Velvet Revolution of 2063

 

As is generally known, the shock of first contact had a profound effect on the terran world view. As word quickly spread of the existence of Vulcans and other races in the galaxy, many viewed this as a chance to end the chaos of the past years and work towards a more peaceful future. Seeing effects of first contact, Louise Diament and Gerrard Havewell rushed to find Zephram Cochrane and the Vulcan emissaries to suggest that the time was right for a global conference on economics and politics that would hopefully be binding for the global community. Citizens of North Haverbrook and Kenowago also started to tell people about their “parecon” system, whereas both communities had kept it secret for fear of repression.

Dament and Havewell met with Cochrane only two weeks after his maiden warp flight and his first contact with the Vulcan emissaries. Chocrane’s journals indicate he was starting to think of a conference a few days before, but the insistence of Dament and Havewell (reportedly, they actually shoved the head of the Southern alliance aside to talk to Cochrane, an incident that nearly led to their immediate execution) cemented the idea and got the proverbial ball rolling. With the Vulcan emissaries as mediators, the conference was set for two weeks time. It was agreed by most planners that the free talks should be as soon as possible to capitalize on the amazement of first contact, and the hope that a lasting peace could be bought out of it.

Picard and Lily
During a “recent” trip through time, the logbooks of famed starship captain Jean-Luc Picard reveal that he could not find an easy way to describe the Federation Economy to an engineer of 2063 named Lily. Instead he simply told her “the economics of the future are different”.

Cochrane listened to Dament and Havewell’s description of their “parecon” system with a doubtful but open ear, as his journals reveal. To his credit, he influenced the conference agenda to put a high priority on it’s discussion, despite his misgivings that it was not a viable system.

The conference was mostly organized by Swiss delegates, and all major discussion was mediated by the Vulcans. Nearly all politically powerful groups on earth for cities and countries were represented by not only ambassadors, but also by heads of state or factions themselves. By most accounts a very moving affair, it was televised to all who still had televisions, and was inundated by electronic commentary from communities around the world. Throughout its three week duration, Dament, Havewell, and Gerhard, soon joined by the Mobutu’s, gave a combined 140 lectures to personal and televised audiences about participatory economics, and answered countless questions and challenges in the open debates at the end of each day. The endurance of the pareconists was even commented upon by the Vulcan emissaries, who had not known that terrans could still be coherent with so little sleep.

The spirit of the Vulcan free talks was such that, by the middle of the second week, adherents to capitalism and “free-markets” were finding themselves challenged not only by the original core group of “pareconists” but also by more than half of the other delegates in the main debating room. At the beginning of the third conference week, a vote was taken on whether the conference would endorse the parecon rules and plan, (drawn up in provisional detail (in four days) by the Mobutu’s, with assistance from many residents of Kenowago) which passed with an astounding 80% majority.

Few Federation citizens today fully grasp what an amazing achievement this vote was, as most of the voting delegates at the conference were members of the former elite, who did not have any intention of giving up their power at the beginning of the conference. The provisional “parecon” rules and regulations was then further endorsed by the vast majority of worldwide communities in votes taken in the next few weeks. Those unwilling found themselves having to participate in the restructuring or not get the needed resources to live with, and soon fell into line. There were a few minor violent incidents, instigated by elites about to be deposed and their loyal bodyguard. These were met with large demonstrations of people, which showed the collective will for change.

There are several accepted reasons today as to why the basic constituents (only slightly modified from the original vision put forth by Hahnel and Albert) of participatory economics were so readily adopted by the citizens of earth. (1) It was a unique opportunity to implement what many could see was a more just and efficient system. (2) Though the Vulcan emissaries were truly mediators of the discussion, they were truthful when asked what their opinion of this proposed system was. They replied that it bore some similarity to economic systems they were aware of on other planets, including their own, thus they were confident it would work with Terrans, despite their “immaturity”. This simple statement was extremely influential in silencing those who argued the system would never work. (3) Many people were tired of war, being ruled by oppressive regimes, and angry at doing work that mostly aggrandized the owners of the means of production, who did little or no work. (4) The shock of finding out that Earth was part of a Galactic community created a realization from many that, to be a part of it, the people of Earth needed to try to be a responsible and contributing member. Also, many were unsure what the Vulcans would do if Earth did not try for peace. (5) The “common” people pressured the elite elements in a very severe manner, such that many elites at the conference were afraid not to endorse the participatory economic plan.

 

(c) Technological Innovations and Subsequent Changes

 

The original participatory planning process had six iterations, which was reduced over the years by technological innovations (notably replicators), to only three. The advent of fast warp drives in cargo vessels and friendly relations between federation worlds has made the planning process not just planetary, but interplanetary as well.

On Earth, the first year of implementation of the participatory system, there was an average of a 40 hour work week (due to needed restructuring) which was reduced to 32 hours the next year, and was down to 25 in ten years. Currently, Federation citizens working on earth typically need to work 5 hours a week, but most opt for 20 to 25, reflecting the enjoyable work life many enjoy.

Even during wartime, the Federation economic system has proven itself efficient and just, with a proven impetus towards technological innovation, and has contributed greatly to peace and happiness on earth.

 

(2) The Federation Economic system

 

 

(a) Work in the United Federation of Planets

 

Everyone in the federation enjoys what Albert and Hahnel first called a “balanced job complex”. The name has stuck. In order to combat the dangers of a permanent hierarchy in the workplace, and the inherent unfairness of having a minority of workers monopolizing the enjoyable, empowering work, odious and rote tasks are shared equally among everyone, as are empowering and enjoyable tasks.

All citizens do rote and unpleasant tasks (a small amount of the work week to be sure) as well as enjoyable and empowering ones (the majority portion of the work week). Each job complex is also designed to be of equal effort and sacrifice (as much as is possible). The federation maxim for remuneration (payment) is that payment is measured by effort and sacrifice. If one wishes to get paid more, one works harder. Thus most citizens are paid, more or less, for hours worked. This is of course in contrast to archaic forms of remuneration, such as payment according to bargaining power, or payment according to output, which is unfair as not all citizens have equal capabilities. One should not be paid more because one is born smarter or stronger.The technological developments of recent times have all but eliminated rote and unpleasant tasks, and jobs today are mostly balanced for empowerment and enjoyment. As before, workers rank their jobs for empowerment and enjoyment (as well as drudgery, if there is any) with the same accuracy that one might grade an English composition. Everyone then receives a more or less equal work detail, as far as it can be managed. If one’s work detail involves more or less effort and sacrifice than average, and this cannot be easily remedied, one is compensated appropriately. cast
The permanent heirarchy that exists aboard starships is worrisome to many federation citizens.

In order to perform tasks agreed to in the participatory planning process (see here), worker’s councils meet to plan and discuss projects. Councils can vary from small project councils to councils to represent and plan for an entire industry. Councils are formed by the principle, “People should have decision making power proportional to how they are affected by the decision.” (the self management principle) Thus for high risk work or work that will require much effort and sacrifice, consensus may be needed for a decision. Otherwise, lesser majorities are needed.

When a task requires a hierarchy, such as work scheduling or a project leader, a leader is appointed. However, to offset the harmful effects of one person monopolizing powerful positions to further their own ends, and the fundamental abuse of humanity that comes with ordering subordinates about, every work position that requires a hierarchy is rotated. In this way, all federation citizens enjoy roughly equal empowerment, which has contributed to the liberal lifestyle and freedom of expression enjoyed in the federation.

Exceptions to this rule only exist in starfleet (and on cargo ships) where there are permanent admirals, captain’s and officers that monopolize powerful positions. This permanent hierarchical arrangement is an ever present source of friction between starfleet personnel and federation citizens. Though nobody disputes that a hierarchy is needed aboard starfleet and cargo vessels, a minority, but still a substantial percentage of federation citizens, disagree with the assertion that a permanent hierarchy is needed. They argue for a form of command rotation amongst senior officers, and a less militarized command structure. They argue that such rigid and long lasting hierarchies are abusive in an humanitarian sense (to those ordered about for a good portion of their lives), and point to the risks of captains and admirals taking it upon themselves to command people outside of their jurisdiction, and the risks of a military coup. Defenders of the current starfleet system claim that such a thing has never happened in Federation history, and never will. Obviously, not all are placated by such assertions.

(b) The Federation Allocation System

 

The Federation allocation system is generally accepted to be more efficient, just, equitable, and conducive to self management than any other known system, including central planning and market allocation schemes.

Every year, in a process running from November 1st to November 30th, Federation citizens indicate, via computer terminal, what and how much of various goods and services they would like to consume in the following year. At the same time, citizens also propose how much work they would like to accomplish in the following year. Briefly, this allows for both “supply” and “demand” to be known, from which is generated a list of prices for various goods and services for the coming year. These prices are generated by publicly accepted algorithms, and other factors, such as the environmental and social cost of producing a good, are factored into the generated prices. Thus prices in the federation reflect the “social opportunity cost” of a good. This is defined as a price that indicates how much society is losing out by producing this good, where it could have produced other goods, and have been less abuse to the environment, etc.The generation of prices and the submittal of work and consumer desires is an iterative process. In the first round, (ending Nov 14) Individual consumers and workers submit the number of hours they with to work in the next year, as well as the amount of goods and services they wish to consume, from simplified lists of available products. At the same time, neighborhood, regional, national, planetary and interplanetary consumer councils form and submit consumption proposals (For things like swimming pools, more ships for starfleet, terraformation of new planets, etc.). Worker’s councils also submit proposals for how much they wish to work, what improvements they would like to make in the workplace, how many of a particular good they wish to produce. All these proposals are then summed up by computer and indicative prices are generated. frozen people
One of the driving forces for this recent time traveller’s guide to the federation was the recent reanimation of several cryogenically frozen people from the 20th century. Upon awakening, a formerly wealthy induvidual wanted to know the status of his “stock portfolio”. Captian Picard himself had to explain a bit about federation economics to the hapless man while simultaneously negotiating with the Romulan Empire.

The process of generating proposals is simplified by facilitation boards. Also, all citizens who wish to can make proposals for consumption at any level they wish. One can propose that a new planet be colonized, that an athletic facility be built near you, a new power plant, that streets should be repaired, etc. The facilitation boards take these proposals and put them together as packages to vote on. A series of meetings (which anyone can attend) refine these proposals into working plans, which are then submitted at the appropriate level. In a similar way, worker proposals for workplace upgrades and production are submitted.

As long as a consumer proposal is of average cost, or a worker proposal is of average effort, they will stand as long as the original adherents wish to keep them in light of new prices. Above average consumer requests, or below average work proposals are subject to scrutiny by peers and, in some cases, can be rejected if they are not justifiable. The position of being in a council that reviews such outstanding proposals is of course rotated.

After seeing the results of the first round, consumers and workers both rework their proposals in light of the new prices from Nov. 14th to Nov. 21st. This is accomplished in a similar manner to the first round proposals, where workers meet to discuss reworking of their proposals, individual workers propose ways to move forward which are reviewed and summarized by the facilitation boards, and individual consumers refine their proposals and meet in councils where they have concerns. Thus the second round proposals go in, and a third and final round with new indicative prices commences.

This time, in the round from Nov 21st to Nov28th, consumers and workers are not allowed to deviate from their last proposals by more than 20%. This is to ensure some convergence in the participatory plan, and to make it more workable. After the end of this round, three days are given to the facilitation boards to generate a number of workable plans (usually three to four), similar to the final round plan, based on data from all previous rounds. On December 1st, these various plans are voted on in a multi-round voting session, where citizens indicate their first, second, and third preferences multiple times, before a final plan is decided upon.

Thus prices are set for a year in a democratic and participatory manner, that reflects accurately the consumption and work desires of the populace. Since it is important not to make the plan “too accurate” and allow for unforeseen changes in the coming year, the plan also incorporates “slack planning” where many goods are overproduced and stored in case of a natural disaster or similar crisis.

In the past there were more iterations of the planning process to ensure better convergence, sometimes as many as six, with a smaller deviation allowed each time. However, since the plan of 2292, there have only been three needed, due to the stunning technological achievements of the United Federation of planets, where nearly everything that citizens desire can be produced at low social opportunity cost.

(c) “Money” and Ownership in the Federation.

 

Federation citizens possess what a 20th century capitalist would refer to as “money” only in a limited way. What corresponds most closely to “money” in the Federation is referred to as “credits”. These are earned by working, the more and harder one works, the more “credits” an individual earns. One can then use these to purchase food, transportation, living space, etc. Once one spends a credit, it disappears, it is not transferable to the store or anyone else (except parents to children). It is simply deducted from one’s total. To get more, one must work more. Credits cannot be traded, except for some controlled gamboling instances, and cannot be stolen. The deduction and accumulation of credits is more of a bookkeeping system than anything else. As above, production units that produce transporters, food, etc. do not trade money for inputs, but simply get what was decided upon by the participatory planning process.

Due to advances in computer technology, product distribution outlets possess technology that tracks and records individuals as they make purchases through facial recognition and other means. Citizens simply take what they need when they need it, and are told by AI systems of their credit deduction and total at the time of purchase.

Thus the common assertion by Federation citizens that people don’t have money in the 23rd century is entirely understandable and accurate.

Though one can buy and own food, transportation, living space, etc. in the federation, the ownership of the means of production is not allowed. Thus farms, ships, industrial plants, etc. are collectively owned by all, and in a another sense, by no-one.

Though one might think that the facilitation boards involved in the planning process would be a likely candidate for corruption, the lack of tradable money, transparency of facilitation meetings and rules such as facilitation workers cannot handle data from their own region have made this close to impossible, with very few such instances in the entire history of the federation.

(d) Technological Innovation In the Federation

 

Over the centuries it has been in place, the United Federation of Planets Economic system has been responsible for some astounding and impressive technological advancements.The primary drive for these innovations has been threefold.

(1) Since everyone has a balanced job complex, there has been a powerful incentive to eliminate rote, dangerous, and arduous work. This led to increased robotics and computer development. (2) The less planning iterations needed, the better. This has led to increased computer technology, replicators, and a massive industrial base that astounds even people today, such that only three planning iterations are needed, and everyone basically gets what they want, on average. (3) The participatory planning process has allowed federation citizens to express their desire to allocate resources to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations. The technological discoveries of these other worlds have been mutually shared and appreciated. In an almost artistic way, the participatory planning process has allowed humanoid kind to express its love of exploration, knowledge and creativity on a massive scale to make a civilization that takes on great and interesting projects for the sake of themselves.

enterprise_E
The development of interstellar starships is only one technology that participatory economics has brought to the Federation.
Finally, since innovation is seen to be a public good, institutions such as the Daystrom institute have been given more than adequate resources for centuries.
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