Monday, May 11, 2009

Economics of Star Trek

Marginal Revolution comments on the new Star Trek (they liked it), but in a related post on his own blog, Bryan Caplan notices something: the economic growth rate that gets us to something that resembles the Star Trek universe is unusually low--around 1% per year on average for the next 150 years, resulting in an GDP that doubles twice between now and then. (4.4x current GDP) That's nice because at least we're not losing ground, but quite anemic, even if it's happening risk free.

We're in line to do a lot better here in the real world. Current long-run US growth rate is 3% per year. If that were to carry over to the entire globe, we would expect global GDP to double a bit more than nine times between now and 2259, or a GDP that's 84x as high as we're currently experiencing.

What's the problem?

  • Disaster: between now and then, some large, negative event knocked the productivity out of whack for a long period of time. This could have been the Eugenics Wars or "post-Nuclear horror" that's been mentioned in one or another of the series, or it could have been an eco- or bio-disaster. At the time of the new movie, society is in the midst of a boom of renewed energy and optimism following a period of social collapse.

  • Extensive Growth: another option is that the colonization project, as evidenced by the big starship yard in Iowa, has been given all of the resources that would otherwise have been deployed to enhancing the existing standard of living. This push for extensive, rather than intensive growth, was seen in communist countries in the early 20th century, and is also seen in high-growth populations in the developing world. Instead of pushing for heavy R&D, resources go to keeping a rapidly growing population fed, and toward opening up other planets for development. Healthcare and comsumer goods get shortchanged, so lifespan and lifestyle remain somewhere closer to 20th century norms.

Writing in 1930, in a short essay titled "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" John Maynard Keynes predicted an end to scarcity (the core economic problem) within 100 years, based on quite modest growth rates. We're not quite there yet, but as 2030 approaches, we can be pretty sure that it's not going to look like JMK thought it would. We aren't going to do away with greed or hard labor; a lot of people are still going to lack necessities. But he wasn't entirely wrong, either. Things are a lot better in 2009 for the average person than they were in 1930. They're not just a little better, they're better in unimaginable ways.

The Singularity

This is the real problem for SF. It's impossible to forecast technology with any precision, because eventually something big and unforeseeable hits, and throws everything into a new configuration. The Star Trek universe has therefore experienced low growth rates because otherwise, we wouldn't be able to see it properly.

It's curious to note that despite the fact that Star Trek may have really long-term low economic growth, it's still one of the most optimistic futures of the last hundred years. It's a functioning society without gross injustice, focused on novelty and adventure. The truth is that if we experience anything like the growth we currently have in the real world, the world of 2259 is going to look better than fiction.
Elsewhere: Kottke reviews the movie, with a discussion of time travel in Trek vs. Lost. The NYT discusses the genesis of Trek as a transplanted Western/cop show, and as a commentary on contemporary culture. Also, Andrew Leonard discusses a piece of economics in Star Trek, Paul Romer's "Endogenous Technological Change", which is referenced in the Vulcan elementary school scene where Spock refers to knowledge as "non-rival" and "non-excludable". More commentary on the Romer paper by David Warsh can be read in Salon, or in his book here.

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