A Reader's Guide to the Secular Stagnation Debate: The Honest Broker for the Week of October 12, 2015
Weekend Reading: Joe Romm: Republicans: Gooing All Out to Sabotage Global Climate

Trekonomics Panel at New York Comic Con: The Honest Broker for the Week of September 28, 2015

: Trekonomics Panel at New York Comic Con (October 11, 2015)

I have been playing with FOLD, and having fun. Here I take the transcript of the New York Comic Con "Trekonomics" panel created by the extremely-productive-on-long-airplane-flights Izabella Kaminska, add to it, and annotate it...

Hey! Why hasn't the Financial Times paid for her to step back from Alphaville and turn her Beyond Scarcity series of weblog posts into a book?

FOLD is great fun--it scratches my itch that the web should have been built on hypercard. I have no idea what its chances of survival in the long run are--or what tools will exist for reading exported FOLD files either. The fact that Berkeley is not providing a great deal of assistance with migrating bspaces files elsewhere in comprehensible form as they shut bspace down is thus yet another reason to put the text of my version of the transcript down here, below the fold (ha, ha, ha):

Trekonomics ComicCon New York Panel (October 11, 2015): Transcript

So on an intercontinental flight when I couldn't focus on anything having to do with my day job, I went back over Izabella Kaminska's transcript of the Trekonomics panel:

Izabella Kaminska: FT Alphaville Transcript http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2015/10/12/2142030/you-see-money-doesnt-exist-in-the-24th-century/

listening to the tape myself, and seeing what I could add....


Felix Salmon: Hello! Welcome! This is the most exciting and most nerdy panel at ComicCon. So welcome! All of you! And you are in for a treat because we have some of the smartest and some of the most awesome people on the planet to talk about the intersection of two things that most people don't think about: Star Trek and economics.

It's psychology, though. Star Trek is all about transporters and warp drives and cool bits of technology. But in fact it's about the most incredibly mind-blowing stuff. And, in Star Trek, that is the economics.

Very quickly, for few people on this panel require any sort of introduction. We have:

  • Manu Saadia. Manu wrote the book called Trekonomics from Inkshares. Preorder your copy. It is a fantastic, fantastic book.
  • Chris Black, who actually wrote for "Star Trek: Enterprise".
  • Annalee Newitz of Gizmodo and io9, who I believe Star Trek made a Marxist.
  • Paul Krugman, the one and only.
  • Brad DeLong, the world's greatest economics blogger.

Trekonomics the Book

Felix Salmon: I think there is no one better than Manu Saadia to try to explain what all of us have in common--what we are going to talk about here.

Manu Saadia: The project for the book--it started out drinking beer with Chris. We were discussing whether there is a book about Star Trek economics because there is a book about everything to do with Star Trek: Physics of Star Trek. Ethics of Star Trek. Holodecks of Star Trek. How about the economics? And Chris said: "Well, you should write it."

In a nutshell, the book tries to take Star Trek seriously. Usually when watching Star Trek we say: "Oh! How would that work?" and we get into this engineering mindset--the technologies, the gizmos. In the book I’ve tried to step out of that particular mindset, and tried to actually describe how it works. And I’ve discovered some rather surprising things. The biggest thing, I believe, that I got out of researching the book and writing it, is that the post scarcity in Star Trek is not driven by technology but a policy choice. And this is where having such a stellar economic panel to discuss this comes in.

A Post-Scarcity Economy

Felix Salmon: What is post scarcity?

Brad DeLong: 400 years ago, in almost all human societies, being rich relative to your neighbours mattered a lot. If you were poor, especially poor and female, chances were you weren’t getting the calories you needed to reliably ovulate. Chances were your children weren’t getting the nutrients that they needed for their immune systems to be protected against the common cold.

400 years ago the great bulk of humanity lived lives that were nasty, brutish, short. They were hungry pretty much all the time. And when they weren’t hungry they were wet, because the roof leaked. And when they weren’t wet they were probably cold, because damp-proofing hadn’t been invented.

Now we, here, in the prosperous middle class in the North Atlantic are moving into another society.

Gene Roddenberry tried to paint our future by saying: "Wait a minute! What’s going to happen in three centuries? In three centuries we are going to have replicators. Anything material, gastronomic that we want--indeed, anything experiential with the holo-deck we want--we are going to have. What kinds of people will we be then and how will we live?

We are quite far on that transition already. Whenever I go, say, to the middle of the country, I find myself terrified: I’m rarely the fattest person in the room. That means, right now, that here in the United States what used to be the principle occupation of the human race--farming--is at satiation. We are down to 1 per cent of our labour force growing essential nutrients. (Time spent growing eggplants which are harvested when they are four-inches isn’t really spent growing food. That's art.) We have about three times as many people in our medical and health-support professions working to try and offset the effects of excessive calories as we do growing calories and nutrients. Thus we are now rapidly approaching a post-scarcity economy.

And it is not just for food. If you go and look at containers coming in from China, we are approaching it with respect to things physically-made via manufacturing processes as well. And that’s one of the things Star Trek is about.

Are Robots Free? Is the Federation an Exploitative Colonial Empire?

Annalee Newitz: One of things I find interesting about Star Trek is that it does try to imagine a post-scarcity economy, where there is no money. People don’t work because they have to, but because they want to. However, there are all these hints that we get — especially in Star Trek the next generation, my favourite series — that there’s a lot of ways that the post-scarcity economy is supported by other types of economies. Economies that we might consider to be part of the past.

That’s why one of the most interesting episodes to think about is “Measure of a Man”, from the second season of Next Generation, where the question comes up whether Data, our favourite android with a positronic brain, is actually his own person or is in fact property. This is a question which comes up again in Voyager when the holographic doctor, who is unquestionably an autonomous human being, is also considered property. He writes basically the "Communist Manifesto", and encourages all his fellow holograms which are being horribly oppressed and enslaved to have a revolution.

This is going on at the periphery of Star Trek all the time. Any time you get off the Enterprise, the wonderful utopian Enterprise, which did in fact inspire me to become a Marxist as a student--because I did believe “wow, we really could get to a world which was better than this one”--we are constantly being reminded that there may be other systems of labour, like slavery, or things that are closer to wage-slavery, which are supporting this wonderful life that the Federation enjoys, and which Picard and team enjoy on their really clean ship.

So that’s one of the things about Star Trek: it allows us to have that kind thought experiment of what would it be like if we did get past capitalism? Or if we did have a system of capitalism which was more restrained by government and regulation--whatever the hell the Federation is, the government, the military, the UN? But at the same time, we are forced to recognise that there are these differences in what people have access to, and hence the labour they perform. And some of them are being treated like property. Some of them are chattel. So that’s always the good part of the thought experiment.

What Were the Writers Thinking?

Felix Salmon: Is that what the writers were thinking about? Or how did people come up with these interpretations.

Chris Black: Yes. Well. It’s funny. We didn’t think about a lot of that stuff consciously. And I worked on Enterprise, so it was at the end of the long-run of the franchise. That universe had been well established. To hear this conversation, to hear this book has been written so thoughtfully and profoundly is really gratifying. There were larger issues that came into play than people consciously thought about.

The practical reality of trying within the production schedule of producing 24 hours of network television a year. You were constantly scrambling to get good entertaining scripts written to place in front of the camera. We were, first and foremost, trying to write what we thought were thoughtful exciting adventure stories for Captain Archer and the crew. So we weren’t consciously thinking about how these characters were being motivated by the needs of a post-scarcity economy. But, because that universe had already been established, we all wanted to be respectful of that universe. We were all very grateful and privileged to be invited into this universe.

So we took the responsibility of keeping Gene Roddenberry’s vision intact and moving it forward. We took that very very seriously. We were very conscious of not violating those rules. We were very conscious of doing our best, not always succeeding, in keeping those characters in the world that had been established.

But at the same time no.

This is a very long-winded answer to the question, but the answer is no.

Are the Catering Carts of Hephaestos Citizens?

Felix Salmon: Paul, how do you analyze the Star Trek universe in an economic perspective? Does economics even make sense in conditions of post-scarcity?

Paul Krugman: I am a bit of a ringer here. I watched the original series when it came out. I watched a fair amount of Next Generation. Then I dropped off afterwards. I’m an Asimov guy more than a Star Trek guy. What can I say?

Do we accept the premise of a post-scarcity society? That's a boring point, which then leads to a more interesting point. First of all, there’s a long history of people saying: "We’re much richer than our ancestors were, and if you go just a little bit further you’ll get to the point where there won’t be an 'economic question'--post scarcity." John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay about that saying that if the world got as rich as it is right now, people would no longer be interested in money. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his New Industrial State that the standard of living of the average American worker is already so high that it’s only propaganda that makes them want more. To this, Robert Solow responded: "Well, it doesn’t look that high to me. But maybe things look different from Gstaad, where Galbraith vacations."

In Star Trek they have a replicator that can make any thing you want. But it can make any thing you want. Even now, we spend only 30% of our income on goods. We spend the rest--70%--services. Replicators won’t help with that. We have essentially no farmers. We have fewer and fewer manufacturing workers. But we have lots and lots of nurses.

Here is the more interesting point: We can imagine a world where all services are provided as well. We have robots or something to do the services. But in order to do the full range of stuff we want they have to be very intelligent. In which case, aren’t those then people? The actual issue is: A world where you have servitors of some kind who will give you everything you want is a world where it’s very hard to tell the difference between servitors and slaves. So I think there’s--arguably--a dark side to the abundance theory.

The other thing to say is this: There’s this great show where Jean-Luc Picard lectures a man from the 21st century, saying: "We’ve moved to a world where people don’t seek money they seek reputation and honour." Well Brad and I live in the academic world, where pretty much that’s how it works….

Status-Based Meritocracy and Its Discontents

Felix Salmon: That's absolutely true. So the post-scarcity economy is not utopian. It’s actually not that pleasant--this meritocracy of the Federation?

Manu Saadia: It’s horrible.

It’s not horrible horrible. But I always thought Star Trek looked like a weird cross between the MIT Faculty Club and the Red Cross. It’s very humanitarian. But at the same time I know for a fact--the professors here know what I’m talking about--that the world of meritocracy and academia is extremely harsh and cutthroat. You’re on top one day, but you’re always afraid and watching your back, because someone else is going to come and unseat you.

So what you see on the show, in the Next Generation, is really the 1 per cent. Those who are the ultra-achievers in that society. You barely see the other side of it--the 99% who lead lives of comfort and abundance, but not necessarily the most interesting. So it seems to me to be very harsh.

As a kid watching the Next Generation, I always identified very much with Wesley Crusher. He lived in a world where he had to achieve. He had to become the person that the adults wanted him to become. He actually didn’t want to. That’s the part that’s hard. You’re driven to achieve. But it’s not at all clear you will achieve. Which is the problem of a meritocratic world. It’s not all fun and games.

Scripting Drama with a Harmonious Starship Crew

Felix Salmon: On the one hand Star Trek is that rarest of beasts--utopian science fiction. On the other hand, it's meritocratic and people work very hard for reputation. It’s very hard for a meritocratic world to be utopian. A meritocracy is a horrible place to live in. So what about the 99% of people in the Federation who live in places like earth--are they happy?

Chris Black: Are they happy? I don’t know. I look at this through the lens of the show. What people wanted to see, and what we focused on, was the adventures of the people on the ship. This doesn’t exactly answer your question, but in terms of the meritocracy of it all you are seeing people at the top of their game. This is the 1/1000th of the 1 per cent who get to crew the first experimental warp 5 spaceship and get to go to out of space. Look at Apollo: 400,000 people worked on that program. The stories you hear again and again are the stories of the dozen guys who went to the moon.

That was the mandate of the show.

The funny thing was that there was an inherent conflict in trying to write the show. You had a group of people--Starfleet officers--and this was a mandate given to ud--that these people have a singular purpose in mind. They get along. They don’t get into petty conflicts and arguments.

That immediately took 90% of the drama out of the show.

Everything had to come from an external source. And you didn’t exactly want every threat, every week, week in and week out, to be about some hostile, greedy, or malicious alien race. What you wanted was for the drama to come from within the ship--from conflict between these characters that didn’t always get along.

Look at the original series. Spock and McCoy didn’t get along at all. McCoy would sometimes say the most outrageous racist things to Spock. There was mutual respect and friendship at the end of the day. But there was also amazing conflict. And that was what made those ST:TOS shows so amazing and so entertaining to watch.

We were constantly trying to balance that storytelling--how to get these characters, this crew, on this ship, in conflict with each other, and so fight this mandate from above. I don't know how many times I sat in the producer's office and heard him say: "They're Starfleet officers, they get along." And I would say: "Then there's no scene!"

Manu Saadia: There is a brawl between Star Fleet officers on "Deep Space 9". But you don't see the brawl--you just see the result of the brawl.

Chris Black: What I was always trying to fall back on was that "Enterprise" was hundreds of years before ST:TOS. So people weren't getting along yet.

Scarcity: Survival vs. Status

Felix Salmon: Brad, you are an academic in a meritocratic world. Is there anything utopian about meritocracy? 2016 is not the only anniversary of "Star Trek", but also the 500th anniversary of Utopia by Thomas More. Are we as far from utopia today as we were 500 years ago? Or is it just this thing--that there’s always going to be this conflict, as Paul was implying. Or is there something different now? Thanks to Star Trek, can there be policy choices which mean we can get through it?

Brad DeLong: First let me put in a plug for hyper-intellectualised prosperous academic meritocracy.

The status insult of having Larry Summers look at me across the table at the Treasury in early 1995 and said: "How did you get what demand for pesos would be after NAFTA so wrong, Brad?" I think that was my career nadir. It was the worst analysis I have ever conducted as an economist. That status insult burns.

But that burns considerably less than watching your children starve to death because you don't have the resources to feed them.

We are problem-solving, puzzle-solving, advantage-grabbing, status-seeking mammals. Fortunately, we also very much like to get involved in gift-exchange relationships with each other. And so we can all hang together, mostly, in a 7.2bn-person society.

We will find puzzles to solve. We will find and make sources of stresses and conflict and striving. But the sharp point of what we’re most worried about--that is is very different in a post-scarcity society.

The plutocrats of New York are more interested right now in who happens to have the best apartment with a better view of Central Park than in where the next meal is going to come from. That is a considerable gain.

We will make our status differences important and powerful to us psychologically, but we should be able to move beyond that. As Adam Smith wrote, the interesting thing about humanity and the strivers is: The strivers work like dogs for their entire life, so that when they are retired they can sit in the sun--and be happy and comfortable in the parks of central London. But they could have done that anyway in their 20s. They could have sat in the sun then, and they would have got more fun out of it.

What Do the Simple Folk Do?

Felix Salmon: Are we always going to be competing for positional goods? Or could a post-scarcity world of abundant goods and services and no money somehow change human psychology so that this constant search for positional goods just evaporates?

Paul Krugman: When listening to Brad, I think of the old line about how fights in academia are so bitter because the stakes are so small. And the stakes are small--whether you are considered to be the 3rd best or the 15th best international-trade economist in the world is, aside from ego, worth nothing at all. And that is a good thing. And that status-competition is always going to be for ego-status only in a really restricted universe.

The people who are engaged in ferocious status competition--these are the people that are going to be featured on a TV show because it’s interesting, but the 99.9% of the Federation are people who are doing other things. What is that exactly? I’m not sure it makes good drama.

It’s kind of interesting to ask, however: What exactly would they be doing? Where Picard explains what motivates us, that’s actually what motivates people like him. And there are very few people like him. So what is the rest of the civilised universe doing? I suspect that they are enjoying life--probably doing cosplay and things. That would probably be an interesting thing to explore.

Colonized by Vulcans

Brad DeLong: But even cosplay would be a source of status. Have you seen the costumes Annalee Newitz and her minions have been posting from here?

Annalee Newitz: And I’m cosplaying as an economist right now.

One of the things that’s really interesting about what you were raising, Paul ,with what happens with ordinary people, is that there’s this really funny story about the timeline in Star Trek. It is established in the Next Generation shows. What happens is that earth is plunged into a war--maybe it's the Eugenics Wars, maybe it is something else. In the first episode of next generation Q torments the crew by saying: "We’re going to go back in time" to the world of our future, which is a medieval world, ruled by religious creepozoids. There is this cyclical view of history. This highly-industrial organisation has fallen back to a medieval state. They’re living in extreme poverty. There’s disease and famine. It is evil. And, then, some white dude figures out how to build a rocketship by the skin of his teeth, erupting out of this medieval world of scarcity--not coming out of a hyper-industrial society.

And then the Vulcans arrive.

So I am left wondering: What really happens to humans as we transition to this post-scarcity world? Basically we are colonised by Vulcans. So really it’s not that humanity evolves, it’s basically we’re colonised.

Brad DeLong: It’s not colonisation, we’re the Vulcans' pets.

Annalee Newitz: That’s colonisation, buddy.

Felix Salmon: I was colonised by my cat a long time ago.

Are We the Vulcans? Who Are the Vulcans?

Manu Saadia: I always took the more optimistic view that we are the Vulcans, or we have to become the Vulcans. There is something about humanity that has to be changed.

If we are going to be colonised, I’d rather be colonised by Vulcans anyway.

Brad DeLong: Vulcans are not idealized, but rather extreme versions of Vulcans in both directions. Leonard Nimoy always said that he played Spock not as a being without emotions, but rather as a being whose emotions were so terribly and completely strong that he could not give into them at all--could not react emotionally in any situation, because then after the mood swing had passed he would greatly regret whatever he had done. The Vulcans were a civilisation desperately trying to figure out how to behave in a civilised manner.

Gorillas--you know you cannot keep more than one adult male gorilla in a zoo enclosure. With chimpanzees in zoos--admittedly a very artificial environment--you really cannot keep more than ten adult males in an enclosure. We humans are doing somewhat better. I think Roddenberry's point in creating the Vulcans--creating the character of Spock--was that we are not doing well enough.

Felix Salmon: Chris?

Chris Black: I think the interesting thing about Spock was that he was only half-Vulcan. You had the best of both worlds, this character in conflict. This sense of what humans wanted to be, and what they were fighting against being.

We would cast Vulcan characters on "Enterprise." The actors would come in, and they often-time would read the part as very robotic. And we kept having to give them the note that this character is not devoid of emotions, this character has emotions but really needs to keep them under control, needs to keep them in check. This was a somewhat subtle distinction, but we found it a very important distinction when actors would try to play Vulcan characters.

Felix Salmon: Is that utopian or not? This world where we have emotions but we are constantly trying to keep them tacked down and never showing them--that doesn’t sound very utopian to me.

Brad DeLong: It does have a certain appeal to pubescents, especially perhaps males, trying to figure out what is happening to them...

Chris Black: Conflict is the source of drama, and Spock was continually in conflict with not just the other characters on the ship, but most of all with himself. That was what made him so interesting.

Brad DeLong: God! Leonard Nimoy was great!

Paul Krugman: People have an amazing ability to be unhappy. That is most of why utopias do not work if you try to envision them. You imagine that if only you could get people to accept things and take glory in the goodness of everyday life. Some people will do that. But not all.

Looking at utopias in our imagination, there are not that many. There are a few. Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed comes to mind. But even there there is a lot of hidden hierarchy.

The point is that if you look at utopia--the problem isn’t scarcity, it’s people.

Manu Saadia: The Dispossessed--it's horrible. It really is horrible. The pettiness and the conflicts...

Brad DeLong: She was a U.C. Berkeley faculty brat. I've often wondered if PDC is California Hall...

Iain M. Banks's Culture Novels

Annalee Newitz: The Iain M Banks Culture novels are another example of a post-scarcity world. In them, we see a lot of the same problems we see in Star Trek. There are these beautiful ships. But at the edges, there’s slavery and imperialism and racism. People are constantly struggling with those issues--even though they can transcend them at any time.

Paul Krugman: Iain M Banks--I hope lots of you have read them. If you have not, you really should. The Culture novels are amazing. Everyone should read them. And in some ways he does take on these issues.

Brad DeLong: Do not read Use of Weapons first. Do not read Use of Weapons first. It should only be read by a trained professional...

Paul Krugman: Use of Weapons is extraordinary.

All of the Culture novels are really concerned with the fringe of the fringe of the fringe. Special Circumstances is that the one part of society which isn’t functioning like the rest. It does what Star Trek does--it has someone who is recruited from outside who gets to wander around one of these ships and gets to see what life is like for ordinary people. And they do have a solution to the problems. But the solution to the problem of limitless abundance without slavery is that there are in fact these super-intelligent Minds. They supply all the needs for the mere organic guys by basically--it barely requires a finger nail’s worth of attention. They can give you everything you need without them worrying about it. And that solves it.

People do seem to be somewhat more balanced in that kind of environment than they probably would be in practice.

Annalee Newitz: But also everyone’s a cyborg. They all have neural nets.

Paul Krugman: And they have built-in drug-dispensing mechanisms in their brains--I could use that.

Annalee Newitz: They can restrain their emotions.

Isaac Asimov's Robots, Earthlings, and Spacers

Manu Saadia: To understand Star Trek’s economics you need to go back to Asimov. It’s very much very directly connected--not so much the Foundation part but the robot stories. If you read The Robots of Dawn and the later novels, Asimov describes a society beyond earth where robots take care of everything. You have these people living on their gigantic estates. They are enjoying life and not doing much.

Paul Krugman: And they’re completely neurotic screwed up people. The books are all about luxury and isolation.

Annalee Newitz: It's also made the robots moronic too. The robots are so tightly constrained by the rules of submission imposed on them by the Three Laws.

Manu Saadia: I believe Asimov wanted to make the case for humanity. The people on earth are hard-scrabble. They are counterposed to the dissolute spacers who live with every comfort and do not accomplish much. Asimov was this Russian immigrant. There is something strong about the morality of hard work.

Paul Krugman: It is so obvious that earth vs. spacers is Brooklyn vs. Scarsdale.

Manu Saadia: The structure of the society of the spacers is, if you look at the Federation, especially in the Next Generation, very close. It seems to me that this is the logical thing: you have robots that take care of almost everything, and people are kind of floating around not doing very much. Except for the sociopaths who want to become Starfleet officers.

Felix Salmon: But they do not become like the blobs from Wall-E. That is what many people think would happen to us if we could have anything we wanted. We would just become fat blobs on Lazyboys. There are not any fat blobs on Lazyboys in Star Trek--at least not on the Enterprise.

Regency Romances

Brad DeLong: What of those who are not the maladjusted people who become Star Trek officers, who go off and put themselves in real danger by facing challenges at the fringe of the society as they compete for status?

If we want to be looking at what post-scarcity life is really like, perhaps we should be looking not at Star Trek but at Regency Romances. The Regency aristocracy is a historical previous culture of material abundance where people neverthless find very important and interesting things for themselves to do. There is no serious material conflict or scarcity in a Regency Romance novel.

You could say there are three standard focuses of narrative conflict: fear of violent death, scarcity of resources, and who is going to sleep with whom. In a society of abundance, like in a Regency novel, who is going to sleep with whom becomes the focus of the plot. Plus there is a secondary focus: the demonstration of human excellence, via proper appreciation and display of fashion.

Maybe that is what all the people in the Federation who are not Star Trek officers are doing.

Paul Krugman: Regency Romance society is cosplay, just a slightly different version.

Annalee Newitz: But don’t you think it’s possible, Brad, that what most ordinary people are doing is living on Bajor. After having been screwed over by the Cardassians, they are now being screwed over again by the Federation. Maybe that’s more what the rest of the society is like?

Brad DeLong: Add in Bajor, and what we have is no longer Roddenberry's dream of a society of abundance.

Instead, Federation-plus-Bajor is a metaphor for the world we actually have today. That is the world in which we have the upper-middle class of America, plus others--700mn approaching post-scarcity. But the rest--out of our 7.2bn people living today, we have:

  • 2bn of us lead lives which are, frankly, indistinguishable or barely distinguishable from the lives of our pre-industrial ancestors.
  • 4.5bn of us live lives that look to us here like the standard of living people had in the 1970s and 1950s, 1920s and 1880s. But on all of their TVs and smartphones they can see us 700 mn of the Lucky 10%.

I got off the plane today from Lima, Peru. A wonderful city, marvelous culture, lots and lots of people--all of them working at least as hard as anyone in New York. Only about 1/8th as rich. We may be approaching material abundance in terms of manufactured goods, and calories and nutrients.

They are very far.

We Have a Short Amount of Time for Questions

Felix Salmon: We have a short amount of time for questions. I give the first question to Izabella Kaminska because I can.

Brad DeLong: Abuse of power via social networks in a post-scarcity society!

Annalee Newitz: This is a meritocracy, right?

Izabella Kaminska

Izabella Kaminska: In the 24th century, will the Federal Reserve have raised interest rates?

Brad DeLong: Social credit! Quantitative easing for the people! Monetary policy via direct crediting of seigniorage to everyone's bank account, in equal shares!

Izabella Kaminska: My real question: Perhaps we are moving into something we could call a post-scarcity world--or at least post-scarcity of material goods. If not Star Trek, in the Q Continuum. In that world, how do you account for positive forward interest rates?

Brad Delong: The Q Continuum--where they can make anything they want, even entire universes, by exerting their minds. What's the Wicksellian natural rate of interest?

Paul Krugman: I think that in a world without prices of any kind, you do not have interest rates. The interest rate is the reward for accepting the delay of your gratification. But everyone is totally gratified. It just does not make sense. There cannot be such a thing.

Izabella Kaminska: So there just is no money and no interest rate?

Paul Krugman: That's right. But I do not believe that ever happens. No matter how productive we get, there is always something else that people are going to want.

Brad DeLong: And how hard are you working so you can have an apartment on rather than just off Riverside Drive?

Paul Krugman: I actually do have an apartment on Riverside Drive--but the windows look east rather than west.

Brad DeLong: OK. So windows looking the right way...

The Ferenghi

Questioner: My favorite series is "Deep Space 9". It is interesting that in that show people go into more detail, about how Chief O'Brien works 26 hours a day. He's the greatest at what he does. But he does not get anything for it. The Ferenghi, who own the bar he loves, and have all the things that he needs, just make fun of him. This race of ultra-capitalist Ferenghi sitting next to this utopian society How does that work? If you have this utopian society, and down the block is this society that really needs things?

Manu Saadia: "Deep Space 9" turned out to be my favorite series. The Ferenghi are fascinating because they, remember, by the end of "Deep Space 9", almost by osmosis, become much more Keynesian social-democrats. Just by virtue of sitting next to the Federation they pick up on the better stuff that the Federation has to offer. The Ferenghi--you know, the bar situation is hilarious, and they play it for laughs. But they write the "Communist Manifesto". It's absurd and its hilarious, but it is still the show and the characters that defended unions and found a positive role for them in society.

Questioner: There was a reference to: "There are taxes? Free business should be free--there should be no taxes!"

Annalee Newitz: Thinking about economics in the Federation, consider O'Brien's relationship to his job vs. [????'s] relationship to her job.


Questioner: How do you conceptualize things like "Shore Leave" or Picard going off on archaeological digs--having time be the scarce commodity rather than goods itself in the economics?

Manu Saadia: That is a good one. Picard's pastime is archaeology, something that does not really have any economic usefulness except on a psychological level. You do have a sense that the notion of "free time" still exists. Time-off from work--that there is still a sense of obligation, and still a sense of time-off as being freed from obligation. I find that very funny.

Felix Salmon: It doesn't make sense--that people would want time-off from work, if they do not have to work?

Annalee Newitz: I think it does not make sense. That is another example where, I think, you are seeing cracks in this utopian facade. If indeed you have abolished the economy--which they have not--and work is freely chosen, what is the difference between work and leisure? Why aren't they the same thing?

Paul Krugman: There's a literary reference. [????] a vision of this monastic sub-society, and within that sub-society every [????] has to have a hobby, is required to have a hobby--something else to do. It is there to have something to fall back on if the something that you are supposed to be doing that is important turns out not to work out, or that you are not very good at it.

Annalee Newitz: But also the [?????] are living completely isolated from the rest of civilization, so that they are--they are like the Enterprise...

Paul Krugman: But the idea that you must have a hobby, that you must make wine or something even if you are, say, a brilliant mathematician. It's a backup in case you aren't quite a brilliant enough mathematician.

Felix Salmon: One thing that you get is relatively compulsory [?????].

Robot-Assisted Trotskyism in Space

Questioner: You are talking about Iain M. Banks's Culture. I actually read the Culture books. They have the opposite of the Prime Directive. Their Prime Directive is that they most intervene as much as possible to make things better. In giving the Federation the Prime Directive--is it better to have a mandate in which it is your obligation to help people out, or to let them figure things out for themselves?

Brad DeLong: Iain M. Banks loads the dice. The artificial intelligences who run the Culture are much smarter than humans. They are more far-sighted. They have run a billion accurate internal simulations of what will be the results of the Cultural interventions that they are going to send Special Circumstances to do. Because they are benevolent--this is their hobby--they have figured out what the best interventionist course of action is to bring about the greatest good of the greatest number.

Thus they use this person as this kind of a weapon to accomplish this result in this way. It breaks him, psychologically. They put their human tools through hell. For the greater good.

Special Circumstances is robot-assisted Trotskyism in space. You have the correct theory, and you apply it unstintingly, and you change the universe--for the better. That is what you would expect from one of the members a Scottish branch of the Socialist International playing the part of a science-fiction writer.

Star Trek's Prime Directive, by contrast, comes out of processing the U.S. experience in Vietnam. People looking at what was going down, and saying: "My God, what have we done!" Roddenberry making a moral point about the limits of understanding and action, and how we should not mess with things that we do not understand because we will break them, even if we set out with good intentions.

Colin Powell warned George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn principle: "You break it, you own it." Well, he broke it. We broke the Middle East. We aren't really owning it. It would probably be even worse if we seriously tried to.

False Stage Theories of Societal Evolution

Annalee Newitz: The Prime Directive is also built on this false notion of stage theories of human development. Outer-space civilizations are somehow in a time period like part of earth's past, and most develop on their own to become like our civilization all. You go to a planet, and it's in the medieval era. But, no! That planet is in the present day, just like you are! We all are in the present day! It comes from the notion here on earth of the "developing world" narrative--that they will all become like us here in the U.S.

Brad DeLong: And that is all Karl Marx's fault, no? He was the big advocate of Stage Theory. He was the one who said that ancient, oriental, slave, feudal, capitalist modes of production succeed and must succeed each other in historical sequence. The more advanced shows the less advanced the image of its own future.

Felix Salmon: There is an anti-Godwin's law: all arguments about utopia wind up in the same place--the fight over Marxism. We have reached the fight over Marxism. Thank you all!