There is a belief that Hollywood tends to predict the future. For those who fear the possibilities of the future because of something they have seen in a movie, I don’t blame them. Films like Terminator, Planet of the Apes, 12 Monkeys, The Hunger Games, X-Men: Days of Future Past (well, one timeline at least), and many more are enough for anyone to lose faith in the future of humanity. Fortunately for humanity, the future outlooks from Hollywood are not all bad as there is one long-running series that paints a really beautiful picture of what the future could be like; and this series is Star Trek. Due to this current quarantine life, I have been able to binge watch this series, which has been like rediscovering an old toy. In Star Trek: First Contact (fun fact: the first movie that I ever saw in theaters), Captain Picard explains the economics of the future to someone from the 21st century (Picard lives in the 24th century) like this:
“The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.”
So what does this mean? How is this possible? Well when you think about it, money is simply a currency of exchange to acquire goods and services. Prices are dictated by the laws of supply and demand, and throughout our history, we have been operating under the mindset that we must compete for resources because resources are scarce. There has been the constant struggle of limited resources and unlimited wants. The question is, are we still living in an era where resources are scarce?
According to a study done by McGill University and the University of Minnesota, the world produces enough food each year to feed 10 billion people. That is almost 2.5 billion more than the current world population. With further use of GMO’s, hydroponics, reduction of food waste, and many other factors, we would even add to our overabundance of food. Each year, over 9 million people die from hunger, but this is not due to scarcity, and instead is due to economic inequality.
In regards to energy, it has been forecasted that solar and wind power will make up over half the world’s production of energy by 2050. There is also geothermal energy, used in 26 countries, which is derived from heat originating in the core of the earth. It is believed that over the next 80 years, this could grow to meet 10% of global demand. In addition, major players like the US, Russia, Canada, and Iran have now emerged as big producers of natural gas due to the shale boom in North America and massive reserves in Siberia and the Persian Gulf. The prices of oil do not reflect the true supply of energy, as production rates are arbitrarily set by OPEC to regulate the price-per-barrel so Saudi Arabia and its allies can maintain dominance over the oil market and stave off competition (which is another article for another day). The point of all of this is that energy is becoming less and less scarce.
I won’t pretend that rare earth metals are currently infinite, because they are not. Cell phones actually use over half of the periodic table, and other electronics use quite a few elements as well. Recycling of these items should be heavily encouraged to try and mitigate this scarcity, as currently only 12.5% of e-waste (gold, silver, copper, palladium, etc.) is recycled according to the EPA. In addition, while these metals are scarce at the moment, further innovations in mining techniques could lead to discoveries of larger supplies. Lastly, it is impossible to quantify what we could discover from space exploration, as it is after all, “the final frontier”. We have confirmed the existence of black holes, life on the ocean floor, found planets outside of our solar system, an ocean on Jupiter’s moon, and so much more. Investments in space exploration would absolutely have a positive effect on the problem of scarcity.
As I am writing this, there is a pending stimulus bill on President Trump’s desk that he is expected to sign. This bill includes direct payments to be made to each American citizen (making under $99,000). This is actually a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which, in the not-too-distant-past, I actually considered to be an extreme idea. I held this opinion on UBI until I heard former presidential candidate Andrew Yang speak about it on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where this idea began to intrigue me — quite literally overnight. Yang’s idea was for each citizen to receive $1000 per month, and upon doing some research, I discovered that famous libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated for this idea in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom (he called it the “negative income tax”). From a conservative point of view, this idea is seen as a simplification of the welfare system. There would be no more means testing for federal benefits, meaning that one would not need to prove their poverty in order to receive, therefore de-stigmatizing the welfare system. In theory, workers could negotiate better wages, go back to school, take care of children or sick relatives, and would not need to worry about the loss of benefits due to a higher income like in our current welfare system.
So how would this work? Andrew Yang calls it a “freedom dividend”. With a stock dividend, the company pays the shareholder each year to reward them for keeping their money in the stock, therefore avoiding heavy fluctuation. This “freedom dividend” is a reward for being a citizen and member of society. Alaska implemented UBI in 1976, as they share a portion of their oil revenue with each of the residents of that state. Saudi Arabia similarly distributes their oil revenue, labeling it the Citizen’s Account Program, which mandates payments to each Saudi citizen every month. In Yang’s argument, he talks about how rapid automation is the reason for the urgent need for UBI, as the UBI will soften the blow for millions who will lose their jobs over the next 5–10 years. Another aspect of automation is that it makes our society more productive, and reduces the need for humans to work as many hours. The argument is that the citizens should be the beneficiaries of their own technological advances.
Star Trek’s futuristic world features robots creating or harvesting resources, and delivering them instantaneously. Our society already has factories full of robots, prototype self-driving vehicles, and advances in artificial intelligence are being made by leaps and bounds. The recognition of this post-scarcity world coupled with UBI could potentially allow us to start working towards Gene Roddenberry’s fictional world. This is a world that is free from starvation, poverty, and greed, and allows for people to freely pursue the arts, philosophy, science, and most importantly for the series — deep space. It is a meritocracy in the truest form, with wealth as a driving force being replaced by knowledge, intrinsic fulfillment and opportunity (perhaps to explore deep space). So instead of watching videos of people fighting over toilet paper and losing hope in humanity, I like to feel a little bit more optimistic. Perhaps we can all learn from the crisis coronavirus has caused, and use these lessons to create a better future and “boldly go where no man has gone before”.