Paul Krugman on science fiction's relationship to economics

In this long interview with Wired, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman talks about the relationship between science fiction and economics. Krugman says he was inspired to pursue economics by Asimov's Foundation series (he's written the introduction to a forthcoming commemorative edition) and praises Charlie Stross for the economics work in The Family Trade books.

Wired: In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, a character asks Captain Picard how much it cost to build the Enterprise, and he replies, “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.” What do you think about that?

Krugman: I will say, even with all my science fiction-y stuff, that in economics … it’s not that things never change, but they change much more slowly — the underlying principles change much more slowly — than most people imagine. You can read John Maynard Keynes or Irving Fischer from the 1930s, and except for a few archaic turns of phrase it looks like they’re describing what’s happening right now. My friend — and actually fellow science fiction fan — Brad DeLong at Berkeley, actually says that Walter Badgett’s book from the 1870s about financial crises reads better than most of the articles you’ll see in the popular press these days.

It’s true that the laws of economics are really quite different for the 21st century than they were in the 15th century, because we didn’t really have many of the features of a market economy back then. And maybe by the 24th century it’ll be different again, but I’m not so sure about that optimistic view of Captain Picard. One thing I think we see is that greed has a way of breaking through, no matter what we do on other fronts.

Economist Paul Krugman Is a Hard-Core Science Fiction Fan (via Making Light)


  1. My immediate thought: money or no, people will always want things they don’t have. And the people who have (or can make or grow or create or whatever) those things will always want something in return for them. The future may not have money, but we were running barter economies before there was money. Captain Picard may work for room and board and the chance to see new civilizations, but the workmen who built the Enterprise certainly asked “What’s in it for me if I do this project instead of building that new patio my wife’s been asking for?”. And everyone’s going to have to deal with the age-old conundrum of “Joe has eggs and needs bacon. Mary has milk and needs eggs. Sam has bacon and needs milk. How do Joe, Mary and Sam arrange the trades?”. And no a post-scarcity economy doesn’t eliminate that. It’s not a scarcity of quantity, it’s a scarcity of the one thing we only have a fixed amount of: time. Mary doesn’t lack eggs because eggs are scarce, she lacks them because she’s got things that’re (to her) more important to do with her time than raise chickens on top of cows.

    1. I don’t think anybody asked, “whats in it for me?” You are projecting your own greed on fictional people from the future, who have no need for money.

      1.  With all due respect, aren’t you also projecting with your comment that they have no need for money? As long as our species has existed/will exist there will be a component of greed. It’s in our genes.

        1. No. Its not “in our genes” to behave in a certain very specific way. Its in our genes to be hungry, to want shelter, to find a good spot in our community/flock but “greed is in our genes” is too much a hen from too little a feather.

          But in a post scarcity society, where all our needs are met – there will still be one need that is impossible to cover and that is social status.
          An economy based on the idea of kudos as a social form of payment – where our very specific need of feeling wanted and like is used as a currency would *maybe* cover that but there would still exist the need to steal kudos – claiming you created/did something that you didn’t do. (Im just using the kudos economy as the most post-scarcityish postscarcity economic model I can think of)

          So in a way “greed will always exist” but in the same way greed has always ment different things. Thats the basic problem I have with this interview (Krugman is a national economic right?). What we call greed is fairly simple, but it still changes depending on where your from. What feudal farmers in a North European serfsystem called “greed” is completely different because it stems from different needs.

          1. Krugman made the excellent point in the article that from the viewpoint of the 1930s, we are *already* living in a post-scarcity world in the West. And yet people aren’t satisfied but are still striving to get more. I’m not convinced that it is “in our genes” either, but it does suggest that getting people to be content with what they have isn’t going to be easy (and governments have tried before; the Eastern Bloc attempt to create “Socialist Man” ended not with contentment but with people storming through the Berlin Wall to buy random crap at KaDeWe that they saw on West German TV)

          2. In the Star Trek universe there are people who misrepresent who they are and what they’ve done to gain more social status than they’ve rightfully earned, and for the most part you don’t automatically have status inherited from your family – even the children of high-status people have to prove themselves. 

            It’s easy to overlook that the main characters in Star Trek shows are the elite of the elite – but this is explored many times and people of lower rank or status are sometimes jealous. 

            Importantly, though, their society seems to do a good job of getting people to a place that’s an excellent fit for them – for many people, that’ll be at a lower rank for the rest of their career, but it’ll be something they enjoy – and they’re free to transfer and try something else as they please. 

            This is what prevents the biggest issues of today’s society – a lot of unrest today comes from the fact that you can be extremely smart and talented but never achieve recognition or status because you never have the chance to do what you’re good at (if you’re born into poverty or whatever the case may be). And once you’ve invested in one career path, for most it’s near-impossible to make a major change.

            Not to mention the fact that even within the Federation of Planets many societies still use money, even though they truly are post-scarcity – they have replicators, and the replicators can replicate themselves.

          3. @google-087f346a11f45b5cb18e74f4ce2a4ddc:disqus Then he’s sadly mistaken.  We are basically in the same situation as in 1930, just a little bit richer.  We haven’t even reached universal health care yet, not in Canada, Germany, UK and certainly not the United States. 

            We are as far from post-scarity as a peasant in feudalism who has gained the right to chose his own spouse is away from democracy and citizen rights.

            Of course, I wouldn’t look at TNG for economic advice as I would’t look at it for insights on biology and physics. It’s fantasy, after all. 

            When Picard speaks to a 20h century viewer about 24th century economics, it’s necessarily vague. A *real* time traveller wouldn’t possible be able to explain his world to us, as we are as handicapped by our ideologies in in our understanding as an ancient Roman would be if you try to explain modern politics to him.

          4. A *real* time traveller wouldn’t possible be able to explain his world to us, as we are as handicapped by our ideologies in in our understanding as an ancient Roman would be if you try to explain modern politics to him.

            It seems about the same to me. Politicians buy votes and wage relentless PR campaigns and voter intimidation drives.

          5. Have you read Scott Westerfield’s Extras? Westerfield presents a future where economy is completely based on popularity. It’s an interesting concept. 

        2. With all due respect, aren’t you also projecting with your comment that they have no need for money? As long as our species has existed/will exist there will be a component of greed. It’s in our genes.

          I’m sorry….did you say something about projecting?

    2. Note the replicator, while not 100% efficient, still can spit out basics like clothes and food so cheaply that there is no need to meter it. The thing even acts as a garbage disposal, breaking down trash into energy used to fuel the next item replicated. It is in essence the ultimate 3D printer.

      1. Sort of how nuclear energy was supposed to make electricity “too cheap to meter”?

        1. Is there a written source for that claim? As far as I can tell, it originated in an after-dinner speech.

          1.  It’s incorrectly credited to Lewis Strauss but we all know it was a favorite saying of Reddy Kilowatt.

    3. Trying to raise chickens on top of cows is a waste of time.  The eggs roll right off.

  2. Um, they have replicators, no barter required. And an unlimited energy source. It is easy to not have greed when everyone has the same. Captain Picard does not “work” for room and board. Greed will kill us all in the end. 

    1. On the other hand, there is status. i.e. With only one Starship Enterprise to be the captain of, Picard would probably have had to deal with many who were hungry for his position.

  3. Awesome! Wonderful! Thank you! Delicious food for thought.

    Hannu Rajaniemi’s great debut novel–thanks to Charlie Stross for recommending it!–deals very interestingly with what people would steal after we’ve all become distributed intelligences in printable bodies. Information, but which information?

    1. Krugman? I think he has. There’s just no political will to respond to data right now. They’re all too busy trying to appear the most unresponsive to social change.

        1. Yep, “Wonks Gone Wild”. Gotta love a good cat fight.
          Dogs wagging tails or vice versa, reasoned models aren’t worth beans in light of total regulatory capture and the Fed ignoring its “full employment” mandate.

          1. At least proper models may lead to effective changes in laws (regulatory capture is a very different beast, and should be punished on par with corruption), just like functional medicine only came to be once we had a proper understanding of the internals of the human body.

  4. I actually stole the “Walter Bagehot’s (1873) *Lombard Street* is the best analysis of the financial crisis of 2008-2009” line from Larry Summers, who used it in a debate with Martin Wolf in the spring of 2009 in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire…

    Brad DeLong

  5. I always liked the Culture series take on future economics.  It basically envisions a utopia where friendly AIs run the shows and people more or less get whatever they want.  If you want something extreme, you just need to convince the big AIs to figure out a way to get it, and they are more likely to do so if they think it is going to entertain more than just you.

    What ends up happening is that people basically goof off and waste their time socializing and trying to one up each other in stuff that generally doesn’t matter.  A driven few that can’t be satiated are given potentially lethal tasks and secretly guided around by the big nasty AIs more or less doing their bidding without knowing it.  It isn’t melicious, it is just the AIs trying to entertain the humans as best they can.  

    What it comes down to though, human work is worthless and AIs run the show as they see fit.  The AIs are friendly, so they run it in a fun and entertaining way.  Imagine if in Star Trek the computer AI could run the ship vastly better than the captain and didn’t actually need the crew.  It just had a crew because it was programmed to like entertaining humans.

    Personally, I think that is a lot closer than in Star Trek.  In the world of Star Trek, resources still matter.  People should be a little more bloody about it.  It isn’t until resource distribution is plucked from (with hopefully benevolent) hands that the humans are going to stop trying to one up each other and fight for resources.

      1. And Banks demonstrated the awesomeness of such a world.

        All they both did here is write stories.

        1. I’m always bemused by people who think something has been proved (or disproved) because someone wrote a piece of fiction where it worked (or didn’t work).

          Good fiction can be *illustrative*, but it can’t be demonstrative.

          (I used to think some of my fellow Heinlein fans were the worst about that, but there’s a particular subset of Randian libertarians that seem to take it even farther.)

          1. Ayn Rand created a whole religion from what she “proved” with her fiction. No surprise people would take more innocent writings as proof.

    1. Rather than the AI’s running around trying to entertain the humans, it seems they were primarily interested in entertaining themselves. Nothing wrong with that!

  6. Rarely does one see,in these future greedless utopias, the person who has to come fix the toilet when it backs up and floods or the one who cleans the patient who throws up all over everything.

    Dr. McCoy never had to handle a sucking chest wound with blood and phegm everywhere.

    I don’t think “greed” will go away.  There will always be crap jobs and love of humanity won’t lure people to do them.

    1. How do you explain those that today travel to crisis areas to help out with barely the trip and basic living expenses covered?

      As for fixing things, that was what Chief O’Brien and La Forge was doing all the time. Tho i suspect toilets in a ST future will be more replicator than water based. Still, having such a device fail could bring a whole new set of hazards…

      1. That was why O’Brien  had the infrequently-mentioned and never-seen helper monkey, ‘Flo’.

    2. Dr. McCoy didn’t but that was probably more about standards and practices of 1960’s TV. Dr. Crusher had to deal with blood sometimes. Dr. Bashir and the holographic doctor definitely dealt with blood and guts.

      There’s an interesting write-up proposing that the Federation’s economy is based on Participatory Economics. It sounds like it could fit quite well with what we’ve been told of how their economy works.

    3. In Star Trek people get the job that they’re best suited for (or if they’re good at several things they’re free to choose). Even in the future I suspect there will still be people who can’t really handle much more than cleaning toilets – remember that the main characters are the smartest, most capable people there are, and when there’s nothing holding anyone back that means they’re probably much smarter and more capable than the best and brightest of today.

      And McCoy and Crusher et al. don’t have to deal with massive wounds in quite the same we we do today because of their advanced medical technology – they’re able to contain bleeding with the wave of their hand, basically (if their small cylinder-shaped medical device is in that hand), and they have automated operating tables. I assume it all works on replicator technology (which works on transporter technology) – they can control matter absolutely.

      And of course there are red shirts (yellow in TNG) and nameless security personnel – they’re probably not that intelligent, and often not even very good at their job (or else they wouldn’t be getting killed all the time).

      1. In Star Trek people get the job that they’re best suited for (or if they’re good at several things they’re free to choose)

        Sorry to add reality to this, but how exactly can this be determined without actually having everyone try every job, wasting a lot of time and eliminating the benefit of the accurate job matching?

        1. Compared to the current system of racking up a six-figure student loan debt to find out you hate what you thought you liked to do? Just saying!

    4. Dr. McCoy never had to handle a sucking chest wound with blood and phegm everywhere.

      You just don’t know your Trek very well; he had to do that very thing in Star Trek VI, for the Klingon chancellor, and lost him. 

    5. Rarely does one see,in these future greedless utopias, the person who has to come fix the toilet when it backs up and floods or the one who cleans the patient who throws up all over everything.”

      Yes, because Star Trek had virtually no machines that did routine work. There was Data of Star Trek NG, but he did sophisticated as well as routine work. On the original Star Trek, they probably couldn’t afford any props that looked like robots doing routine tasks. The only devices remotely similar to robots to do mundane things were the exocomps of single a Star Trek NG episode.

      I think the future is going to be much more like I, Robot, with robots equaling or outnumbering humans.

  7. Isn’t it strange how the least desirable jobs get the least pay? No, it’s not the love of humanity that lures people to do them, it’s more the contempt for humanity from top paid individuals that forces others to do them for nearly nothing, out of sheer necessity. There is something in the setup of the economy that viciously perpetuates domination and slavery relationships between humans. Greed is just the excuse to spin the whole thing as “natural”. And we’re stupid enough to buy it.

    1.  Most of those jobs are the least desirable *because* they get paid the least. If being a sewage worker or a checkout guy or a street sweeper were paid the same as being a doctor or a CEO then I would honestly rather do those jobs. They’re much easier and you work fewer hours.

      1. Have you ever been a sewage worker? Or a CEO? I’m curious about your basis for comparison.

        1. 3-martini lunches and sitting in a big leather chair all day in my own office with my feet on my desk, smoking a cigar? Fuck that! I want to wade around in shit and break my back and get yelled at constantly.

  8. Until the fantasy of unlimited resource becomes reality, it’s a world of Daffy Ducks.

  9. We are stuck listening to economists who can’t do algebra.  How much do Americans lose on the depreciation of automobiles and refrigerators and TVs, etc., etc.  What did Keynes say about “planned obsolescence”?  Keynes never saw a society with television brainwashed consumerism. 

    Asimov was more honest about psychology than Krugman.

    1. We’re not stuck listening to economists who can’t do algebra until watching Fox News becomes mandatory. Until then, it’s possible to change channels or just switch the damn thing off.

  10. I’m actually +HAPPY+ that Krugman likes my fave genre.
    I thought it was funny watching 23rd century “no money” people constantly getting out the chips when playing poker, though.
    Hey, it’s traditional!

    1. Sure, but in fairness to Krugman, he seems to be talking about the greed behind profit-driven commercial enterprises, not the desire of an individual or household to make ends meet, which I think is what you’re describing.

  11. Re: the Star Trek money-free world… sure, money *might* go away. Yes, there will always be a pecking order. However, the key is that the reward system is not based on cash. Instead, think back to ancient times when _prestige_ counted more than wealth. Sure someone in the lower ranks might be jealous of the dashing captain – the captain has more prestige. That prestige, however, is well earned! Something that the lower person can’t or wont step up to the plate and achieve.

    Today, we at the bottom revere the wealthy and do their bidding. We hope they will let some crumbs fall and we feel so feel grateful for any small monetary reward. Not very adventurous or exciting.

    1. I just started reading Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series where he uses the plot device of, um, IM, Individual Mutualism (not inoffizieller Mitarbeiter) and the currency is honor and/or acclaim-based wirr points. (Wirr in German means confusion. I must stop thinking these thoughts.)

      There’s a lack of detail in the description of the IM system and of the Star Trek system mentioned above (thanks for the link!). The effects are more important than the content.

  12. It’s interesting that he was influenced by Asimov’s Foundation since a high profile member on the other side of the political spectrum was as well: Newt Gingrich.

    I wonder what it is about this book that two thinkers can point to the same science fiction book as something which influence them and then led lives based entirely on opposite political philosophies.

  13. Krugman, like is beloved Keynes are both idiots. The world is playing out their twisted theory and it, like communism, has failed. If you really hate Capitalism, then you will love walking around naked and waiting for ‘things’ like food, clothing, and shelter to fall from the sky for your use. If it wasn’t for the greedy people like Steve Jobs todays world would have nothing.

  14. Speaking of Predicting the Future! What do you guys recommend for historians who are interested in science fiction? I asked that question at a recent Northwest Science Fiction Society meeting and got the following answers, which I am following up on:
    Connie Willis, Tim Powers, Harry Harrison, Harry Turtledove, some Michael Moorcock, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee.

  15. Like a lot of things on the show, Gene Roddenberry never really explained how his post-scarcity, post-money society actually worked, he just sort of hand-waved it away and left it for others, leading to quite a bit of speculation among the fans and in some of the novels (which aren’t considered to be canon). One of the theories that I’ve read is that, even though the Federation doesn’t require money, it also doesn’t prevent its citizens from earning money, and even if it doesn’t have a currency of its own they’re perfectly free to work for cash minted by other governments (such as the Ferengi exchange medium of “latinum”, a non-replicable type of unobtanium). Another is that, even if you’re guaranteed the basics of life such as food, clothing, and shelter, any type of extra requires working for it; in particular, traveling to another planet requires either being in Starfleet or the crew of a commercial vessel or being able to pay your way. (Otherwise, everyone would live on Risa.) 

    Yet another alternative is a barter system (which, in a cashless Federation, would be the basis for “pay” in Starfleet: exchanging one’s services for the opportunity to boldly go places). DS9 often featured stories about its Ferengi characters and their various economic ventures and mishaps; most of these were fairly broad satires of different business practices, but in one episode, “Treachery, Faith, and the Great River“, Ensign Nog gets Chief O’Brien out of a crisis in which O’Brien has difficulty getting needed parts for a repair through a series of barters; Nog reassures the worried Chief by citing the “Great Material Continuum“, aka the Great River, a literally religious belief in the free market.

      1. Well, kinda-sorta. They were originally meant to replace the Klingons as the Federation’s big bad (the Klingons having morphed into the Noble Warriors trope), with the Ferengi representing the parts of 20th century human society that Gene Roddenberry found particularly distasteful: unchecked capitalism, sexism, etc. (In reality, practically every alien race represented in the various series was a stand-in for some political or social situation of the 20th century.)  The problem was, from their very first appearance, the Ferengi were patently ridiculous in their appearance, mode of behavior, etc., so the show ended up creating the Cardassians, who were much more like the original series Klingons than the Klingons themselves were, and in DS9, where we saw the Ferengi the most, the episodes featuring Quark and other Ferengi were played mostly for laughs, although as satire they were much more effective at spoofing capitalist culture than Roddenberry’s more head-on approach.

        1. The creators of DS9 said that they intended the Ferengi to represent 20th Century humans. But, yeah, they were quite different from the original ones in TNG. I’d call Quark the main character in DS9 since he’s the constant and essentially unchanging observer who watches various occupying forces come and go.

    1. “Like a lot of things on the show, Gene Roddenberry never really explained how his post-scarcity, post-money society actually worked, he just sort of hand-waved it away and left it for others, leading to quite a bit of speculation among the fans and in some of the novels (which aren’t considered to be canon).”

      If you live to ~2050, you should be able to see for yourself how it will work. (One word:  Not “plastics,” but “robots.”)

  16. Here’s something cute. Ward Moore’s takedown of supply side economics, written in 1953!
    “I’ve heard [rich people] at home say the money’s bound to seep down from above, but it seems awfully roundabout. And not very efficient.”
    –Bring the Jubilee, p. 33

  17. From Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy –> Douglas Adam’s view on future economy

    Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt leaves as legal tender, we have, of course all become immensely rich. 

    No really? Really? 

    Yes, very good move… 

    But, we have also run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability. Which means that I gather the current going rate has something like three major deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut. So, um, in order to obviate this problem and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on an extensive defoliation campaign, and um, burn down all the forests. I think that’s a sensible move don’t you? 

    That makes economic sense. 

    [Murmurs of agreement from crowd] 

    [Yells] You’re absolutely barmy! You’ve a bunch of raving nutters! 

  18. This is the same Krugman that dreamily postulated that a War of the Worlds fraud would be a wonderful fix to our fiscal problems?  That embarking on a massive campaign of malinvestment and pump-priming, a military build-up against a bogus alien threat, would solve our problems?

    I just wanted to make sure we’re talking about the same economic genius.

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