Mark Koerner, whose reviews of Heinlein’s Between Planets and Starman Jones appeared in issue 46, is a historian who’s been assigned to a high-school economics class. I had recalled that the 24th-century society of Star Trek: Next Generation does not use money. I wondered what their economy might be like. Mark returns with an interesting question. We’ll be glad to forward him your replies and, if you wish, include them in our Letters.
Funny you should mention science fiction in connection with my economics course. I was just discussing "scarce goods" (almost everything) versus "free goods," which are useful things that no one bothers to charge for because their cost is so low.
Standard examples of free goods are paper towels in public restrooms, water from drinking fountains, single matches, and, to a lesser extent, books of paper matches. Individual cigarettes are not true free goods, because by borrowing them, one creates an informal obligation to repay the "loan" at some future date. (In theory, Marx's historical stage of "advanced communism" would be a world where the productive capacities of the economy were so great that scarce goods would no longer exist.)
I said that one way science fiction writers make their societies seem alien is by messing around with our assumptions about what is a "free good," what is a "scarce good," and what is just plain garbage. For example, in Frank Herbert's Dune water is in such short supply that people really do charge for it by the gulp. In one of Harry Harrison's books, old hubcaps are sold by street vendors because they make good cooking pots. Can you think of any other examples?
Please send us your ideas!
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Koerner and Bewildering Stories