Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Crazy prices on Deep Space Nine

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I broadly agree with Matthew Yglesias about Star Trek. But his post reminded me of a complicated aspect of the series: its economy. Particularly when watching Deep Space Nine, it can be difficult to reconcile the apparent plenty provided by replicator technology with the "profits" obsession of the Ferengi. The Star Trek universe has a currency--typically gold-pressed latinum--and it appears to have value and uses even in an environment with little scarcity.

Also, some of the prices don't make any sense.

Memory Alpha provides this discussion of the currency with examples of prices mentioned during the series. I'm going to convert some of these prices to dollar values by using a very lucky mention--wages. "Quark pays his Bajoran employees one slip of latinum a day during the Cardassian Occupation." We can probably assume that these are low-skilled wages, and we can use what we know about low-skill wages in dollars to build exchange rates.

We're also given a set of conversion rates between latinum denominations: 1 bar = 20 strips = 2000 slips.

I don't know what sort of labor market is supposed to have existed during the Cardassian Occupation; maybe all employers had monopsony power in labor markets, or maybe labor was scarce. I'll try three different specifications:
  • Low wage conversion assumption: $1/hour or $8/day
  • Minimum wage conversion assumption: $7.25/hour or $58/day
  • High wage conversion assumption: $20/hour or $160/day
Of course, they may not be working 8-hour days, but I think these specifications cover reasonable scenarios. Now consider a few of the mentions of latinum and how they convert to dollars:


Slips Low wage conversion ($) Minimum wage conversion ($) High wage conversion ($)
Crate of root beer 10 80 580 1,600
Pajamas 300 2,400 17,400 48,000
Cadet's uniform 500 4,000 29,000 80,000
Dress 1,700 13,600 98,600 272,000
Wreckage of a ship 6,000 48,000 348,000 960,000
Nog's life savings 10,000 80,000 580,000 1,600,000
Quark's wager on Sisko vs. Q fight 10,000 80,000 580,000 1,600,000
A day's revenue at Quark's 10,000 80,000 580,000 1,600,000
Morica Bilby, shipping consultant, weekly wages 10,000 80,000 580,000 1,600,000
Someone's bar tab at Quark's 44,000 352,000 2,552,000 7,040,000
2,000 tons of Kohlanese barley 378,000 3,024,000 21,924,000 60,480,000
Quark's evacuation stash 1,200,000 9,600,000 69,600,000 192,000,000
Offer to buy Quark's bar 10,000,000 80,000,000 580,000,000 1,600,000,000

These are some pretty startling numbers. A cadet's uniform costs between $4,000 and $80,000. A dress is between $13,600 and $272,000. Quark is a very wealthy man (or else has a serious gambling problem); he wagers half a million dollars on a fight and keeps tens of millions in cash under his bed for emergencies.

I would say that these prices are pretty inconsistent. Note that this observation does not depend on my dollar conversion choices; just look at the "Slips" column and observe that pajamas cost 300 days of wages in the food service industry. Maybe the post-scarcity economy leads to strange preferences and relative prices. Or maybe the writers didn't think very hard about latinum mentions.

It almost makes Star Trek seem unrealistic!

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