‘The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.’
‘No money? You mean, you don’t get paid?’
‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.’
— Star Trek: First Contact
Mm-hm. A provocative statement, isn’t it? If you have even a passing interest in economics, all this talk about the death of money is sure to make your heart skip a beat.
But, first, let’s recap what the storyline of Star Trek: First Contact is all about.
It goes like this — everyone’s favourite bald captain of the USS Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, has travelled back in time, from the 24th century to the 21st century.
His mission? To foil an evil plot by the fascist cyborg race known as the Borg.
In between phaser battles and cat-and-mouse games, Picard pauses just long enough to put on a stiff upper lip and educate a local woman named Lily Sloane about what the future holds for humanity.
Yes, that’s right — it’s all bright and shiny optimistic. Picard talks about a New World Economy where money as we know it is obsolete, and humanity has achieved a higher plane of consciousness.
If you’re a Trekkie, you’ll totally understand what Picard is getting at. But if you’re not, you might be scratching your head and wondering, ‘Well, how is this New World Economy even possible?’
Dealing with the problem of scarcity
Economics, broadly speaking, is about two things: production and consumption.
To put it in layman’s terms, it’s about managing that gap between limited resources and unlimited wants. Which is why we have a currency of exchange — money — which acts as payment for the goods and services that we desire. And along with that comes all the financial rules to govern supply and demand.
When you think about it, the entirety of human history so far has been a competition for limited resources. That’s why we work, save, invest. And, yes, that’s even why we choose to go to war with each other — to get a bigger share of land and commodities.
This problem of scarcity has shaped and defined our consciousness. Just think about how much you have invested in education, pursuing the knowledge and skills that you hope will give you a better job. Or think about how nervous you are about the next recession, considering what it might mean for your long-term finances that are held in stocks and bonds.
Yes, scarcity dominates the human experience. It looms large over our journey through life. The perpetual state of lack — or fear of lack — impacts us physically, mentally and spiritually.
But, well, let’s hit pause on that reality for a moment. Let’s forego our present circumstance. Let’s speculate, and let’s speculate wildly. Imagine, if you will, that we are able to live in a world where resources are no longer limited. Where scarcity no longer matters.
Once that constraint is resolved, what would the socioeconomic structure of our human society look like? How would it be transformed?
That’s where Star Trek comes in…
The New World Economy
‘A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.’
— Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘The Neutral Zone’
There’s an iconic scene in The Next Generation series. Captain Picard walks up to a replicator machine and says, ‘Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.’ Then, just like magic, the machine hums and shimmers, and out of nowhere, a cup of Earl Grey tea appears. Hot and ready. Exactly as Picard desires.
It’s a small but effective visual manifestation of what life in the 24th century looks like.
You see, in the world of Star Trek, humanity has experienced a renaissance like no other. They have developed replicator technology that has eliminated the issue of scarcity. It’s basically robots creating new resources from scratch, then delivering it instantaneously to the end user.
The traditional supply-demand paradigm is rendered obsolete, and along with it, the need for money. This astonishing development allows humanity to leapfrog beyond the old archetypes of economics and politics.
This is a system where everyone is guaranteed a high quality of life and can participate fully in a true democracy. Freed from the shackles of poverty, selfishness or greed, citizens are free to pursue careers that will allow them to improve themselves and each other.
Earth in the 24th century is, for lack of a better word, a utopia. A post-scarcity civilisation. It’s a meritocracy in the truest sense of the word.
With all its internal problems sorted, humanity now lifts its gaze upward, towards the stars. It has become a founding member of the United Federation of Planets, where it joins like-minded alien allies like the Vulcans, the Tellarites and the Andorians to uphold the universal principles of liberty and equality.
Imagine an interstellar United Nations — sleeker, more effective — and this will give you a pretty good idea of what the Federation is about.
Of course, the Federation is not the only power present in the Star Trek universe. There are other rivals — the Klingons, the Romulans, the Borg. They do not share the Federation’s utopian ideals. In fact, they are portrayed as capitalistic and imperialistic. Racially jingoistic. They seek to conquer and dominate.
The drama is amped up when the Federation comes into occasional conflict with these hostile empires. But the Federation, being the ‘good guys’, always favour diplomacy over violence. There is always the hope, no matter how dim, that the Federation’s enlightened ideals will be enough to smooth over any disagreement.
That, in a nutshell, is the world of Star Trek, where scarcity and money have been replaced by a cosmic campaign for liberty and equality
An implausible future, at least for now
Academics and journalists alike have long been fascinated by the implications of ‘Trekonomics’. They have studied and debated the merits of it. What would a world without scarcity look like? And how close are we to achieving that utopia?
The short answer is: we’re probably still a long way off.
Even with the rising tide of robotics and artificial intelligence, it seems that fear rather than optimism is the main narrative in today’s public discourse. Most people are fearful of losing their jobs to automation, as opposed to welcoming the possibilities wholeheartedly.
The tensions that you see reflected in the news headlines — trade wars, protectionism, populism — are evidence of this.
So, sadly, Star Trek isn’t quite here yet. But, in the meantime, you’ve got the next best thing: the astute crew of Money Morning, maintaining our calm and composure amidst the storm.
We’ll study the financial landscape, outline the threats, and chart a path forward for you to take. Yes, we are fond of speculating about the future. In fact, we consider ourselves futurists. And while we can’t quite predict what will happen 300 years from now, we’ll do our best to tell you what might happen 20 minutes into the future.
That’s much more achievable — not to mention actionable.
In the legendary words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, ‘Make it so…’
Contributor, Money Morning New Zealand