Tag Archives: television

The Economics of Star Trek (Voyager)

10 Jun

At first, I didn’t think I’d talk about Voyager – after all, their economics is isolated from the rest of the Federation – but there are several things in that series that tell us a lot of about what I’m calling “the volunteer economy.”

Fair warning, I hate Voyager. I thought Season One combined the worst aspects of TNG, add in middling characters (except Seska) with terrible villains (the Kazon). They refused to touch on the more interesting possibilities of the series. 1) You just absorbed a group of Maquis terrorists/freedom fighters; why are they going to follow Starfleet regulations? 2) You’re 70 years from Earth–why are we pretending Fed morality? 3) Even if you accept the first two, why aren’t you plugging in all the tech you can find in the Delta Quadrant to get home? Nope – “get that crap off my hull.” (sigh) But after years of (not-that-) gritty DS9, the fans wanted gleaming starships, and alien of the week, so that’s what they got.

And yet I watched… so I noticed a couple things. Again, Starfleet is the best of the best; you not only have to volunteer, you have to want it bad. So I understand why Ensign Kim busts his ass and takes a lot of grief (mostly from me). Doctors in the 24th Century fall under the same guidelines, but what about the Federation citizen in the street? The hologram doctor makes perfect sense; let’s face it, being a doctor now is hard work and they at least get money. Now add a hundred more diseases and aliens from a thousand worlds whose anatomy is (okay, not that) different from humans. Do the civilian doctors get perks in Federation? Travel vouchers, better housing… what convinces the doctor in San Francisco to keep dealing with sick folks? Dedication will only take you so far before you say, “you know what? Risa sounds good this time of year.” That leaves thousands of sick folks behind; having automated health care would help immensely.

The folks on Voyager lean heavily on the holodecks, the natural extension of the replicator, for the obvious reason that they can’t go to Risa or Starbase 227 for R&R. But they make it obvious in the show that–just like replicated food–they know it’s fake and that entertainment comes at a mental cost. Not that stops people being addicted to holodecks or falling in love with programmed characters. I would imagine most of the population of Earth is “online” most of the time and that holoaddiction is a serious problem. Do they ration holodeck time for civilians? What convinces the Fed on the street to bother going to work when you can hang out with Leonardo da Vinci?

One of the few sops to this in Voyager is “replicator rations.” Their engines aren’t working great, so there’s limits to what they can replicate. With the amount of coffee Janeway drinks with her rations, is she drinking decaf? You would think that caffeine, like alcohol, would be a banned substance. (Maybe that’s why DS9 was obsessed with Klingon coffee? “A true warrior needs a jolt to make it a good day to die!”)

What about Janeway’s dog from the pilot episode? You would think that Federation Animal Control would be pretty strict. Again, she’s a Starfleet captain, so she get higher consideration, but maybe the benefits of pet ownership would outweigh the “potential sentience” issue of enslaving lesser beings. You’d think the Vulcans would have something to say about that.

Better yet, let’s keep with the pilot episode. Janeway gets Paris out of prison to be her connection with the Maquis; who the hell wants to be a prison guard? Unless that’s the reason they moved it to New Zealand? The San Quentin of the 24th Century? In the real world, that California maximum security prison is on one of the most beautiful and expensive beach-side real estate in the world. (Of course, it wasn’t when they built it…)

Voyager does get better by Season Five, but when you survived in the desert of sci-fi options in the late 90’s (Babylon 5 was over, Firefly was not until 2001), it was a LONG slog. But it brings up a lot more questions than answers about the socialist utopia. Did you notice something in the show that always bugged you? Let me know in the comments below!

The Economics of Star Trek (DS9)

9 Jun

I’ve talked about how the Federation became the socialist utopia it’s shown as, and how there’s a dark side that no one talks about, but what really shows us the economics of Star Trek is my favorite series, Deep Space Nine. There’s nothing like the ass-end of space to show the cracks in the foundation.

DS9 is a space station run by the Federation, actually owned by the Bajorans, and is a magnet for every troublemaker in two quadrants. As a result, Commander Sisko can’t run his shop like his last posting, the USS Saratoga. (Yes, I looked that up.) He has to deal with troublesome locals with which he has to share his command, crumbling Cardassian technology, and for purposes of this post, local economics.

As Jon Singer (one of the contributors to the ST:TNG Technical Manual) is quoted, “If you could make a starship at the push of a button, you wouldn’t need to…” So there are limits to the replicator. You still need construction workers to make the ships, programmers to get the computers working, and maintenance personnel to keep everything working. I can accept that. I think how the Federation gets people to do this scut work is the perks. Sure, you can live nice in San Francisco, but good luck getting off Earth without a good reason. “Hey, you wanna move to Mars? Well, we need some ships built.”

Sisko’s dad is a chef; is convinced that replicated food sucks… and I can believe that. As the book “The Unincorporated Man” talks about in a similar scenario, he can order Springbank 12-year-old scotch from a working-man’s bar, but it’s replicated. It tastes exactly the same regardless of how you order it. It will always be the same. In the modern world, you can get McDonalds’ French fries the same anywhere in the world, and sometimes you want that, but not all the time. That fake-ness must be rampant in the Federation; you are living in a McUtopia.

That’s why Sisko goes to effort of making meals for him and his son. Sure, the ingredients are replicated, but the final product is not. When we go back to New Orleans to Sisko’s dad’s restaurant, he tells his grandson to peel potatoes. That implies that people still grow potatoes, because you could replicate peeled potatoes. There are waiters… and again, understandable, because it allows you meet different and interesting people. And of course, if you’re into cooking, you would open a restaurant and the local authorities, DESPERATE for something other than replicator food, would grant you business space.

That also explains how Quark is able to keep in business. You see, the Ferengi (Arabic for “foreigner”) only deal in gold-pressed latinum. The gold is worthless, but the latinum can’t be replicated, so it’s a worthy unit of exchange. However, how do Starfleet personnel go to Quark’s if they don’t have money? Well, they must have a deal with Quark. The Ferengi understand rent and charging for utilities, even if the Federation don’t. So in exchange for being in the best spot for black marketeering in the universe, he gives latinum to the Starfleet personnel, Sisko distributes it out (thankfully, there’s not many of them on DS9), and they use it to order Klingon coffee. So really, Quark is paying rent to himself.

Meanwhile, Quark is able to use his bar to his advantage. He can scheme and plot and get more money from non-Federation aliens to get more latinum, building his business empire. The rent from the bar and other stores (including Garak’s tailor shop) allow needed foreign exchange to fix the things that the Federation can’t (or won’t) replicate. Or go down to Bajor for shore leave (which has to be like going to a refugee camp for vacation). Thankfully, Risa is only a couple days away, which is explained away as a cultural/religious resort that is maintained by the locals who love giving away everything, including their bodies. Again, this is only maintained by weather modification that the Federation provides.

What did I forget? Let me know in the comments below!

The Economics of Star Trek (TNG)

8 Jun

“You woke up and found paradise in ashes, your mate dead, your home destroyed. And the midst of this… insanity, you took the only logical action: to remake the universe in your image.” Oh wait… that was a different Roddenberry property. This is the gleaming starships of the 24th Century. Welcome to the socialist utopia of the Federation.

The Wha-or ™ was three generations ago and we have lived without war (a real one), racism, sexism, and other-isms for some time. People work because they want to, pursuing scientific progress, and dealing with the weakest-tea military structure I have ever seen and calling it “rigid discipline.”

Gene Roddenberry should have known better. He was bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II (that’s a pic of him dead center). But by 1980, he had lived most of his life in Hollywood, and was probably more idealistic than ever. In fact, we know he was, because in the early seasons of TNG, he had strict script control… and most of those episodes SUCKED. Why? Because let’s face it, utopia does not leave a lot of conflict. The Federation is better than us now and Gene was preaching.

There is no money, no religion, just a lot of space and excitement out there. Let’s go find it! And the technology that brought it to you? The replicator. Yes, the replicator is the answer to all of life’s problems. World hunger? No problem. Need a bed? Program it in and you’ll have it in a couple minutes. You have eliminated every need, and along with it, the need to work at all! This allows the best of the best to compete to join StarFleet and discover new worlds and new civilizations.

Okay, on the surface that makes sense, and you see this universe from the best of the best’s perspective; after all, the USS Enterprise is the Federation’s flagship, so they’re the best that humanity has to offer. And yet there’s something wrong here and it’s summed up in this picture–there is Data pouring Scotty a shot of Aldebran Whiskey, an alcoholic drink at Ten-Forward, the Enterprise’s equivalent of the “O” Club. They have waiters here, but that doesn’t bother me. If you want to see the universe, but couldn’t get into StarFleet Academy, I’d volunteer to be a bartender on the Enterprise in a second!

No, the problem is synthahol. You see, in this utopia, whoever programmed the replicators realized that if you let people replicate alcohol, you’d have a bunch of serious drunks wandering the streets all the time. The solution? Eliminate cheap booze and drugs.

But they didn’t, did they? Picard’s brother makes his own wine on his family farm. Picard himself gave the Aldebran Whiskey to Guinan… how? Was it a gift from a non-Federation non-enlightened alien? Did he trade for it? Better yet, in the original series (and the movies), they talk about Romulan Ale, which sounds like you’re drinking the blue fluid from barber shops. Where did that come from? It’s very existence indicates that there’s a black market inside the Federation. Somebody’s trading something for it. It could be favors, it could be sex, it could be replicator access for civilizations that don’t have this wonderful device. They never explain that in this series, so for that, we’ll have to go to my favorite series to explain it all tomorrow.

I really should get into the political corruption, what with admirals screwing each other over, and Federation Military Intelligence running quietly amok, but I’ll leave that for others. What else did I miss in Star Trek that doesn’t match the socialist utopia? Let me know in the comments below!

The Economics of Star Trek (TOS)

7 Jun

Okay, after explaining the economic systems of a children’s cartoon, I’m going to tackle the Federation, everyone’s favorite sci-fi socialist utopia. They have evolved past the need for money, everyone lives in a beautiful West Berlin-style apartment (usually in San Francisco), and we’ve eliminated racism, poverty, and… okay, not war. But underneath this cover are black markets and political corruption.

Interestingly enough, the original series does not start with this conceit. Honestly, since they’re almost always on the Enterprise, they don’t need money, so it rarely gets mentioned. But when you put “300 quadloons on the newcomer,” you know that money exists, although perhaps only in the unfashionable parts of the galaxy. In “The Trouble with Tribbles,” Kirk uses credits… which implies that there is still some need for resource rationing.

How did the Federation get there? Well, there was the Wha-or. (As my West Texan friend once said, “There have been many wars, but there has only been one Wha-or.”) World War III, which thankfully was handled conventionally, and led to Cochrane developing warp drive leading to the Vulcans coming in and setting up the setting for the series Enterprise. But… it’s much easier to start with a socialist system when the Earth is devastated from war and no one has any materials to hold onto.

With first contact with (thankfully) the nicest, logical, philanthropic aliens you could have wished for (although smug, condescending, and way, WAY too preachy), Earth rebuilt itself and became the tame alien ally that the Vulcans really, REALLY needed. But as we know from the alternate timeline, it could have (and should have) gone a lot, lot worse.

By the time we reach the movies, money has been eliminated. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, our whale scientist jokes with Kirk that, “Let me guess, you don’t have money in the future?” “Well, we don’t!” What made the difference? Was it a post-scarcity society (a la David Weber, albeit a firm capitalist) where technology has taken care of our needs and the only economics are in rare and difficult items? For that, we need to wait until tomorrow and the Next Generation.

Now as much as I like to rag on Roddenberry being the worst kind of liberal optimist, I’d be the first to agree that I’d much rather live in that universe than the Star Wars. But I didn’t bother watching Discovery after the second season, haven’t seen a second of Lower Decks, and caught one episode of Strange New Worlds. I have seen every new Star Wars film and many of the spin-off series. Because it’s a believable universe; I can see people behaving naturally there, the Star Trek universe is sanitized for your viewing pleasure. It’s only when we toss off that peaceful veneer that the series gets REALLY good.

But what do you think? Do you still salivate for the next Star Trek episode? Would you rather watch gleaming starships than the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy? Let me know in the comments below.

The Economics of Curious George

6 Jun

Have you ever asked where The Man gets his money? Not the man you’re thinking of, the Man in the Yellow Hat, the guy who “owns” Curious George. Where does he get those wonderful toys?

I can’t believe I’ve pontificated on this topic before; when my kids were much younger, I watched a lot of cartoons. The PBS Kids lineup was the best of the bunch; there’s a LOT of crap out there. [The worst was a Portuguese show called “Nutriventures: Quest for the Seven Kingdoms.” Teaching kids about eating a balanced diet–it is the worst written edutainment.] However, despite it being enjoyable, well-written, and teaching kids about math, it had one nagging flaw. The Man seems to have a lot of time on his hands to pursue these hobbies that lead to his monkey getting into trouble. Where does the Man in the Yellow Hat get his money?!

The obvious answer is “Who cares? It’s a kids’ show!” But I watched a LOT of episodes – the Man mentions going to work ONCE. He has an apartment in the City, a car, a house in the country, and he does a lot of volunteer work for Dr. Wiseman at the science museum (who I’m convinced is secretly boning, but they don’t want to explain it to the monkey). Oh, and he takes care of a monkey. None of this cheap.

For those who are fans of the books, the original Curious George (written in 1941) is very dated. Let’s walk right past a white guy going to Africa and stealing a monkey and all that entails, and go right to the Man, the sailors, the cops, and the MONKEY all smoking a pipe. I’m a pipe smoker in 2022 and thought this was a bit oogie. The firemen don’t even have fire trucks; they still use hook-and-ladders! The cops use a party-line windup phone. But the monkey breaks out of a jail that Alexandre Dumas would have considered ridiculous, somehow lands back with the Man, and gets put in a zoo where he has a great time. Subsequent books have the Man taking George out of the zoo on trips for his misadventures.

The PBS Show doesn’t even bother explaining their origin story, because frankly, if you’re watching, you already know. But the first episode has the Man going to work… and never again. Probably because he realized the chaos that one little monkey can get into with him not there. Of course, the Man doesn’t realize his lesson. Then in a following episode, he sells his drawings to a children’s museum in Paris, and that’s when I realized, “Ah ha! He made the big time–he’s independently wealthy!” But still, a freelance artist might be able to afford the apartment, but what about the country house… and the car?

We meet Bill, the (east) Indian boy who thinks George is a “city kid,” and is really, REALLY annoying. Why does The Man put up with this guy? Then we have a flash-back to The Man’s childhood acting just like Bill in the same country house. That’s when two things occur to me. A) Bill reminds the Man of himself, which it why he can away with lines like “magnetism is my favorite invisible force.” Then B) he inherited the country house from his parents, now passed… or living in Florida, but either way, we never EVER see them.

Okay, that covers almost all bases, except for maybe the red-headed niece who plays with George who appears in Season 2. She I can’t figure out, but then again, I haven’t seen the show in six years… maybe more recent episodes explore that deeper. But I doubt it. By the time your cartoon-loving kid cares about such issues, they’re off to WordGirl (also, frickin’ brilliant) so they never have to face these economic questions about their kids’ universe. However, a warning to those parents out there; not all the PBS lineup is brilliant. Arthur is middling, Clifford the Big Red Dog asks more questions than are ever answered, and we must find a way to kill Caillou. Caillou must die! That French-Canadian mother-f#(@*# needs to taste the end of my… (breathe, damn you, breathe)

Whew. Sorry, almost lost it there. Now my son keeps wanting to feed me Family Guy and League of Legends. At least there’s internal consistency there. 🙂 Have you ever had to connect the plot holes of a universe before just to save your sanity? Let me know in the comments below!

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