Slides for: The Confidence Fairy in Historical Perspective
J. Bradford DeLong (2012): This Time, It Is Not Different: The Persistent Concerns of Financial Macroeconomics

Manu Saadia on Trekonomics at Books Inc. in Berkeley :: June 15, 2016

Star trek sarek live long and prosper Google Search

Manu Saadia: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek http://amzn.to/28ZnBiD

Live from the Gamma Quadrant: Books Inc.: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek: "Manu Saadia discusses Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek...

...What would the world look like if everybody had everything they wanted or needed? Delving deep into the details and intricacies of 24th century society, Trekonomics explores post-scarcity and whether we, as humans, are equipped for it. What are the prospects of automation and artificial intelligence? Is there really no money in Star Trek? Is Trekonomics at all possible? Manu will be in conversation with UC Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong.


Rough Semi-Transcript:

Manu Saadia: It’s a great honor to sit next to Professor DeLong. He has been instrumental in making this book happen…

Brad DeLong: Nah. It’s our joint friend Felix Salmon. He introduced us and then harassed me by email until I agreed to write an introduction…

MS: It’s a very cool introduction…

BD: And it seemed a wonderful thing to introduce, because this was a book I very definitely wanted to read. So I wanted this to get written.

MS: A lot of economists seem to be science fiction fans. Some of them are real Star Trek fans. We were at Comicon and Brad was cosplaying. He came as a Red Shirt. I wonder if there is something there about economists. Joshua Gans, for example, told me that he wanted to write this book but feared that he might not be able to do so. He is a serious economist. I wonder: what is your take on that?

BD: Definitely yes. Economists, I think, are trying to understand humanity and are almost always trying to peer into the future. There is thus a very strong elective affinity between economics and science fiction. Why the “fiction” part, however? That is odd: 80,000 years ago we discovered how to speak. We promptly began gossiping to one another. And we principally gossiped to one another about—this is very clear if you ever stand in any supermarket checkout line—three things:

  1. Threats of violent death, especially death to children.
  2. Resources—how to get them.
  3. Who is sleeping with whom.

We have a very strong tropism to talk to one another even when we know we shouldn’t—it is very hard for any of us to keep a secret, even a secret that we know ought to be kept.

One million years bc Google Search

This is in large part what we do. It is a marvelous thing. It makes us an anthology intelligence. It makes each of us as smart as all of us put together. Whatever useful and ingenious that one member of the human hunter-gatherer band knows or thinks of, all members will soon know and understand. It is not the case that each individual has to painfully learn by him- or herself which waterhole the leopard is near—“Did you see what almost happened to Loanna!?!?”

However—and this is the oddity—in our process of gossiping, we spend a huge amount of time gossiping not about our friends, our frenemies, our enemies, or even about celebrities. We find ourselves spending a huge amount of time talking and thinking about our imaginary friends. Fiction. Elizabeth Darcy née Bennet—most people whom I know spend more time thinking about and have stronger opinions about Elizabeth Bennet than they have about the people who live three doors down from them. She is more real to people—tens of millions of people—than are most of the real people whom they have met. And here you are, audience, glomming onto this same thing—Jean-Luc Picard and James T. Kirk are not our real friends. They do not exist. And yet we gossip about them. And you, Manu, gossip about the gossiping about them. Why do you gossip about the gossiping about them?

MS: It’s a tropism. It’s something very—The reason I do gossip about them is because of the utopian aspect. That drive or thrust you see in Star Trek. This is something we want to talk about today because Star Trek is fairly unique in science fiction. You would think that science fiction, begin concerned about the future of humanity, would take an optimistic view of things. It should be less gloomy. And it is not. The dominant template for science fiction is, it seems to me, Frankenstein. That’s where it arose—this Victorian gothic novel. Science fiction is the story of the fall of man in the future: the mechanisms and beings we are going to create are going to turn on this, are going to produce changes that are a great danger to us. They will kill us all! It’s either Frankenstein or Dr. Faustus…

BD: So not really about the future but rather about the past and the present—and how they are endangered by the technological and sociological changes we see?

MS: Yes. You would have thought that science fiction would have taken a different tack on the human relation to technology—on what technology can do for us rather than what technology will do to us. Star Trek does. Star Trek, in that sense, fits into a subordinate counter-narrative tradition of science fiction different from the mainstream derived from Frankenstein. It’s not in the Dr. Faustus-Frankenstein-Terminator-Matrix tradition. It is, rather, something else. It is very different from Star Wars in that regard, as well.

I did a little bit about this in the book, but it got—but there was more. Star Trek is Asimov. The Golden Age of science fiction. I can talk forever about this…

Gene wilder give my creation life Google Search

BD: There is something very interesting about Frankenstein. It comes from the days when electricity was supposed to be the disruptive technology not of power technology or information technology but rather of biology, after all. You touch a battery to a fresh, disconnected frog’s leg, and it jumps. Cleary electricity is, somehow, what is running us. So you very naturally jump from there to Victor or Dr. Frederick von Frankenstein and his scream in the lightning storm: “GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!!!!”

The dangers of creating autonomous intelligent organisms that we do not fully control and do not fully understand—well, that is something that haunts the nightmares of every parent. Distancing it and putting it into the future is a way of trying to do some of the dreamwork of grappling with that burden of responsibility. Thus all of these future technological and future extraterrestrial threats are at a deeper level ways of examining what we fear is going wrong with us, but of examining it in a distanced and less fraught and less emotionally charged way. it’s the dreamwork of thinking about internal and external strangers and strangenesses that we face today.

Second stage lensman Google Search

Was it earlier today that I was reading, on the http://tor.com website, about a link between H.P. Lovecraft on the one hand and the “Lensman” series of E.E. Smith on the other? That if you look at it the good aliens of “Lensman”—those extraterrestrial creatures who as Second-Stage Lensmen teach and shadow the young Kinnison-MacDougals and assist them in their task of rescuing the universe from the Eddorians—they are all the monsters of Lovecraft. But even though their psychologies are incomprehensible, their forms are hideous, and their environments noxious—intelligences strange, alien, vast, cold, and unsympathetic—they are nevertheless in the end our friends and allies. E.E. Smith is thus in a dialogue with Lovecraft over how we should picture and imagine the alienness of others and the vastness of the universe. It is a positive utopian response—positive in racial-ethnic, in gender, in psychology—to Lovecraft’s fears of what alien dangers will come out of the vast emptiness of the universe and drive us to ululate madly beneath the cold, dead, uncaring stars.

MS: Lovecraft. Amazing. I had never thought of that, but it makes sense. What about H.G. Wells? H.G. Wells in the 1920s and 1930s is perhaps the clearest example of hard science fiction that tries to talk about politics and the shape of society and on connections between technology and governance. I think that, in his 1927 review of Shape of Things to Come, John Maynard Keynes…

BD: Why have I not read this?

MS: I know it exists! Keynes criticizes H.G. Wells’s socialism. He spanks him. In science fiction, next to the gothic and the Lovecraft and even the pulpy Lensman, there is a trend following H.G. Wells—News from Nowhere

BD: Not just William Morris but Jules Verne as well. A separate anti-Frankenstein tradition…

MS: Yes…

BD: There is the Shelley tradition, the Frankenstein tradition, which I do agree with you is the dominant tradition. In that tradition we are trying to create and gossip imaginary friends in a way that allows us to think—in a distanced and so, we hope, less fraught way—about what is going wrong with us now (or then). Didactic. The dreamwork associated with trying to resolve problems that are ours and that are current. And there is this secondary Morris-Verne-Wells-Roddenberry tradition.

MS: And Asimov!

BD: Definitely “and Asimov”. A subordinate tradition. But definitely a real tradition. And it has other concerns and other aims than simply Frankenstein…

MS: Yes. And it is something that I allude to in the book. But I am very happy to put it out there in the open. It’s very strange. They are trying to talk about the future from the standpoint of the future. They are talking about how human motivations might be dramatically different and altered in the new worlds that we are going to make. That is very different from what you see in, say, Star Wars. As a result it is much harder for audiences to relate to the characters and to the stories. The people in Star Wars are like us. The people in Star Trek are, in important dimensions. not like us. They—as well as the aliens—are aliens to us. This is something that always struck me in Star Trek. You can understand the motivations of the Vulcans and, indeed, of most of the crew in the abstract. But in truth you cannot easily relate to them on an emotional level. I mean, can you? I know i can’t. The moment that Spock decides “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one” and that his decision to die is not transcendent and heroic but merely logical. You aspire to that level… but to be capable of doing this? As a human being—probably not.

BD: You, however, have had a career in which you have had to make money. You have been embedded in the market economy—in commodity production, purchase, and consumption—in a way that the people of Star Trek are not. Opposed to you even today is someone like me: Someone who graduates in college in 1982 with the unemployment rate at 10+%, takes a look at the job market, and decides to go hide in graduate school. The NSF was willing to pay for me to go to graduate school. After that, I fall into jobs at MIT—“your wife isn’t finished with law school yet, why not lecture at MIT next year”—BU—“your wife has a clerkship in Boston, how about BU?”—Harvard—“come on over across the river: we need someone to run our undergraduate program”—and then Berkeley—“Harvard isn’t going to tenure you, but we would and will”. With a side trip to the Treasury. I never really had to apply for a job—it was always conversations and musings about what might be nice, followed by people coming to me. I’m completely disconnected from the real world of work in a market economy…

MS: Even so, the experience of economists is very different from that of most people in academia…

BD: Yes. The precise key is hitting the econ job market just at the moment when business schools appear, and demand for economics professors starts its extra doubling. Why business schools hire economists I have no idea. Somebody whose knee-jerk answer to every question is “the market will fix it, and find the efficient allocation—inefficient firms will go bankrupt and only efficient firms will survive” seems to me to be the least helpful thing to be teaching to people whose jobs will be to run those firms and figure out just what those firms will do. From the point of view of anyone with managerial responsibilities, what advice could possibly be more useless? If there were someone less qualified to teach in a business school than a standard economist, who could it possibly be?

MS: That’s very funny…

BD: No! It’s twue! It’s twue! Business schools should have on their faculties accountants, sociologists, psychologists, forensic investigators and so forth. They shouldn’t have people who will say: “The market will fix it!” that’s totally unhelpful.

MS: Maybe we could get a little more into the specifics. I am a total fan. I am wondering what a professional economist finds interesting in Star Trek? I’m just an amateur—he’s a professional.

BD: I don’t really know whether there are real professionals in economics given our performance since 2005 or so… or just different forms of grifters… One of our former Chancellors here at Berkeley, Berdhal, said something once. (He had been a historical before he became a chancellor.) It struck me. He said that the average noble family in the Prussian nobility—the people with a “von” before their last names—had 0.8 dresses suitable for court wear. Even though these people were part of the noble caste, they were not rich enough to even show their faces in public display in the rarified heights of the royal court in Berlin if they had in their number more than one woman at a time who wanted to do so. They could not afford to have more.

Going further back, to Jane Austen say, you find that the engines of the plots (often connected with the peculiarities of English law regarding the inheritance of real property) are more likely than not the fear of gently-born young women of significant social decline—a fall from being their own masters (or, rather, only their father’s or their husband’s servant) to being a governess or a paid companion with no claim to any form of leisure-class status. The recent movie “Love and Friendship” (based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan) makes these points as sharply as the books do. Usually movies elide or soften them. But in Lady Susan the role of money in status-maintenance and the very limited economic security of women who look from the outside as if they have security and stable position is brought to the front. Genuine material scarcity and a life of hard work faces even those born to the gentry caste who believe that they are entitled to look Lady Catherine de Burgh in the face if they make one misstep or fail to find a way to make the needed step.

Or indeed my mother-in-law. My daughter says the interaction with her grandmother that struck her the most is how my mother-in-law still sees the coming of the clothes-washing machine as liberation, even now. An ecstatic event: the coming of the clothes-washing machine to a household in World War II-era Providence, RI. One now has time! One now has time to read! One has time to think! One has time to do something other than the fracking laundry over and over again!

We are there. We—the upper-middle class in the North Atlantic—are free, are liberated. For practically all of human history from 80,000 years ago to 50, and less for many other people, zero for some, getting our 2000 calories plus essential nutrients a day plus enough clothing that we are not cold and enough shelter that we are not wet…

MS: Not to mention health care…

BD: Well, health care is still a big “if” for many even here even now.

MS: Well, in the U.S…

BD: Especially as we are about to exhaust the antibiotic commons…

MS: That is true…

BD: Two billion years of fungus evolution to develop antibiotics to kill bacteria. And we will have blown through it all in less than a century. Get your knee and hip replacements now, people, because they may be too dangerous to risk surprisingly soon.

MS: Scary thought…

BD: But what do you think about this? We think that the world has been and in many places still is under the pressure of Malthusian necessity. But that that is about to end. We are pre-programmed to think that if you find something with sugar, you immediately eat it. All of it. Until you can eat o more. Calories are scarce. And the calories you pass up and do not store as fat today are the calories that might have kept you from starvation next famine. But we are no longer in that world. And so what happens—at least as far as basic material needs are concerned—we really do have utopia. And with respect to entertainment… If you wanted to watch an extremely bloody play about magic—destruction, witches, and so forth—in the first decade of the seventeenth century, you had better (a) be named James, (b) be of the house of Stuart, (c) be King of England and Scotland, and (c) be lucky enough that Williams Shakespeare’s theatre company have “MacBeth” in repertory. As opposed to turning on “Game of Thrones” at 6 PM on Sunday—and watching how this extremely strange dwarf tries to maneuver his way through a very strange world. We are rich. Roddenberry wanted to say something about this? What did he want to say?

MS: Roddenberry definitely wanted to say something about the consequences of our achieving a level of material comfort—and what it would mean for us. If we continue on our trajectory of material improvement…

BD: Is this a Verne-Wells-Asimov thing wanted to do?

MS: Yes

BD: Something much more meaningful than just more and more episodes of “Wagon Train” in space? Or “Twilight Zone”? Roddenberry has other goals in mind…

MS: Yes. The way Roddenberry got “Star Trek” on the screen originally, the way he pitched it, was “Wagon Train to the Stars”. If you remember, at that time the western was really at the end of its rope as a genre, as a way of telling stories about America. Roddenberry used that form to pitch his show. He put at least one character there who was highly reminiscent of the hero of a western—Captain Kirk. But the rest of it—I have been having this discussion about whether Mr. Spock, the inscrutable alien, is a little bit like Tonto…

BD: Yes…

MS: There is some of that in the way the characters are framed. What Roddenberry really wanted to talk about, however, in the original series, was things you were not supposed to talk about on TV. He wanted to talk about the Vietnam War, about civil rights, about American society, and trying to say something about a better distribution of society’s wealth and about peace.

BD: A little bit about feminism…

MS: A lot!

BD: Those skirts in the original series…

MS: Well, there was a form that had to be respected… You will notice that in the original series there is a woman on the bridge, an officer…

BD: In the pilot….

MS: Yes, in the pilot. She is Number 1, the second-in-command. The network downgraded that. When they reshot the series it was downgraded. The female bridge officer becomes Lieutenant Uhura, who is African-American…

BD: This “network”. Is the “network” Paramount, or is it Desilu?

MS: The network is Paramount. Desilu is the studio.

BD: “Desilu” is Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez?

MS: Yes.

BD: Lucille Ball is not the kind of person who would be averse to strong female characters…

MS: The politics of that changed. It’s been written about. There is this very big book that is coming out—the oral history of Star Trek. All will be told, hopefully… Also, it’s not necessarily germane, but the Number 1 in the pilot was Gene Roddenberry’s paramour.

BD: What a French word!

MS: So maybe it was a little uncouth. There were some politics. The interesting part is that the original series is not fully utopian the way Star Trek: The Next Generation is. There is a real difference between the 23rd and the 24th century…

BD: Well, where you have… Where 20th century America appears in the original series, however, the contrast is there. Harcourt Fenton Mudd. Harcourt Fenton Mudd, for example, he is a normal 20th century American “The Music Man” character. Entrepreneurial, salesman, operator, on the make.

MS: Yes

BD: And from the perspective of the Star Trek officers, he is a totally ludicrous clown…

MS: Yes

BD: Incomprehensible. He is trying to find an angle, to make a buck, to sell himself…

MS: Yes…

BD: And he is made risible to an audience that is, in fact, composed in large part of the real characters on whom “Mad Men” is based…

MS: There’s this very strong element of social critique from the standpoint of a normative future. Point taken. Achievements are more important than the accumulation of wealth. This gets spelled out more completely and more literally in The Next Generation. If you remember in 1987 the final episode of the first season of Next Generation. It’s called “The Neutral Zone”. The Enterprise has somehow come across cryogenically preserved humans from the 20th century. Frozen for later medical treatment. Among them there is this ridiculous figure of a capitalist tycoon. This is six months after “Wall Street” comes out, with Michael Douglas. You have Patrick Stewart—I cannot imitate Patrick Stewart: I am not even going to try. Patrick Stewart says: “We have grown out of our infancy. The accumulation of things is no longer thought to be the point of life.” The character is described in the script as “a player on both coasts”.

BD: Is this the writers and actors having some fun with the moneymen and the studio executives?

MS: You have to remember the context. This was Ronald Reagan’s last years in power. You guys had just spent the eight years of The Bonfire of the Vanities—for some at least. But on TV and in popular culture, this was very much a difference. Having this kind of utopian thing on TV at this time is strange, going against the current. There is a reason why Star Trek: The Next Generation lasted from 1987-1993 and put very good things on TV. The Next Generation did not have to go through a network. Instead of a studio pitching a show to one of very few networks…

BD: Which are looking for least-common-denominator programming: It wants to maximize eyeballs as opposed to maximizing the satisfaction of the people watching it.

MS: Yes, there is policing of discourse in TV. It is still going on. It was going on in the 1960s. Roddenberry was getting called in every week because the advertisers were not happy.

BD: The key is eyeballs. You are not selling the show. You are giving the show away to people and then selling their eyeballs to advertisers. What you are providing is not entertainment. Eyeballs to advertisers generates the money flow. And so the ideal show is a show that attracts the largest number of eyeballs from exhausted people coming home on the 4:53 from Grand Central and plopping down who barely prefer watching the show to being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. And if it challenges or angers anyone enough to make them turn the channel, that’s a minus—even though others may love it—because you lose their eyeballs.

MS: So there is something miraculous about Star Trek in this sense. The fact that it survived for three seasons in the late 1960s, and then the way they managed to parlay that after Star Wars became a huge hit into a rejuvenated movie series that then was a springboard for more series…

BD: Well, a half-rejuvenated movie series…

MS: Well, although, some of the movies are good…

BD: They are, but I think the movie story is different. The odd-numbered movies seem to be uniformly disasters. People set out to tell deep and important stories, and fail. They don’t really know what stories they want to tell, or how to tell them. The even-numbered movies… The even-numbered movies are successes because the studio is desperate and Nick Meyer is called in to fix things. With movie two Nick Meyer shows up and says: “You’ve messed this up. But we can rescue it by going back to Horatio Hornblower in space”—one of the roots of this thing—“and just tell a war story, just tell a story of a captain making mistakes and making decisions: “The Wrath of Khan”.

MS: And that is the kind of story you have to tell in a movie. You have only two hours. You have to impress the audience. You cannot spend large amounts of time in arcs of character development or character interactions.

BD: You can’t have McCoy, Kirk, and Spock going round and round…

MS: Very true…

BD: I do think Nick Meyer owes his career to the fact that Ricardo Montalban agreed to reprise the role of Khan. Because that is the best performance of King Lear I have ever seen.

MS: Agreed…

BD: Movie three was a mess as well…

MS: I have a very soft spot for number four…

BD: Yes, Nick Meyer comes back after the disappointment of three, and says: “Let’s make a low-budget San Francisco comedy.” I was bitterly disappointed the first time I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium: “Where are the humpback whales?” I wondered…

MS: Well, transported back to the 23rd century to save the planet, of course…

BD: The movie series gets its footing in six, with Leonard Nimoy saying: “We really should have something to say about the end of the Cold War…”

MS: Six is a very serious movie. There is a part of it that is definitely hammish. Hamming it up…

BD: The woman in furs who turns into a monster?

MS: They had to have that. These are wonderful movies. But movies have a very different narrative economy than does a TV series.

BD: Deep Space 9 and Voyager recover utopian aspirations. DS9 a combination of after the Cold War and economic development issues, combined with a 60% Jewish writing staff having a huge amount of fun with the Ferenghi.

MS: Over and over again. I was there when the show runner of DS9—because some people had accused them of being somewhat anti-semitic—went all: “My grandfather was working in the fur trade in the tenements of New York, so shut up!”

BD: And Voyager getting back into exploration and varieties of culture and also deep meditations on humanity and identity…

MS: Voyager deserves more attention…

BD: The holographic doctor… 7 of 9… in spite of her bad taste in marrying Republican politicians…

MS: You know that story: it’s because of 7 of 9 that Obama is President.

BD: No…

MS: Jeri Ryan who plays 7 of 9 on Voyager was the wife of Jack Ryan, a Goldman Sachs banker turned school teacher who was running for the Illinois senate seat as a Republican in 2004 against whatever…

BD: Sacrificial lamb the Democrats were going to put up?

MS: No, the Democrats could have won. It was Illinois. The Democratic machine candidate who was supposed to win turned out to be a wife-beater. He had to be set aside. And that gave Obama his opening—Obama was the candidate of the equivalent of Berkeley in Chicago, that is Hyde Park. he should never have been elected, ever. He was just there to represent. Jack Ryan and Jeri Ryan decided to divorce.

Audience: Because he was a wife-beater?

MS: No, no, much worse than that. Family values Catholic Republican turned out to take her on romps all over the world in his private plane, in various types of clubs that I cannot mention because there are children here. She is 7 of 9 on Star Trek, so of course…

BD: What?!

MS: I’ve met her in real life because our kids are in the same school. She’s a wonderful lady—married to a Frenchman…

BD: So she has good taste in second husbands?…

MS: Yes. It wasn’t me. Sorry for the joke. So the Chicago Tribune invoked the Freedom of Information Act and got the divorce records unsealed. I don’t know what happened to him. He had to resign in shame. The Republican Party fielded that bizarre Black preacher. And Barack Obama won the senate seat. And he went on to give that convention speech. So we owe Barack Obama to Star Trek. I have some Republican friends—not many, but some. When I tell them that Star Trek is responsible for Obama, they are a little. That’s the impact of Star Trek in the real world…

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