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The World According to ‘Trekonomics’ Author Manu Saadia

Talking Brexit, Trump and knowledge as currency

Manu Saadia is many things: a Parisian, an immigrant, an erstwhile academic (formerly of the University of Chicago and the Sorbonne), a soccer devotee, a writer (he has written for the Washington Post, Fusion, and the The Huffington Post), a tech consultant, an avid Twitter user, an Angeleno, a husband, and a father. When I asked to interview him it was primarily to ask him about Trekonomics. It’s his first book, and it reimagines the world in Star Trek terms. That is, what would the world look like if our only currency was knowledge? The book was published this past May by Piper Text, an imprint of Inkshares created by the financial writer Felix Salmon.

Unlike normal procedure for a book, Trekonomics wasn’t accompanied by a book proposal or a pitch. “He just happened to mention in one of those emails that he’d written a book about the economics of Star Trek,” Salmon, who is now a senior editor at Fusion, told me via email. “And I persuaded him to show it to me.” Inkshares approached Salmon to ask if he’d like to create an imprint; he agreed. Crowdfunding Saadia’s book was also part of the plan, wrote Salmon. “It was always part of the Inkshares model, which was (and still is) based on the idea that if you’re able to get a bunch of people to put up real money for a book which doesn’t even exist yet, that’s a very good indicator that there’s real demand out there of that book.”

I had lunch with Saadia at Wat Dang Moon Lek Noodle in Silver Lake. My favorite line from the the interview? Saadia’s views on Ayn Rand: “Only in this country are people obsessed with Objectivism. Ayn Rand is like this country’s version of football: No one outside of the U.S. has ever heard of her.”

Let’s start with your origins.
I’m from Paris. My mom is French-French. Her dad was a high-level member of the Vichy government. Dad’s from Israel but his father is Syrian, from Old Damascus. Half of them walked to Palestine. I’ve never met those cousins. My grandfather told me all about being a prisoner at Buchenwald. I was a kid. I think it gave me an early idea about the destruction humans are capable of. I grew up in Paris, in the 6th [Arrondissement]. Left Bank. A bubble. Beautiful buildings, nice people. Solidly middle class, not rich by any stretch of the imagination. It was the Jewish intelligentsia. I had good friends. Mitterrand was elected — that was the first time I saw people who didn’t know each other hugging.

How did you feel watching the Brexit returns come in?
I never thought they were gonna vote to leave. But if you think about it, the EU has been bending over backwards for the U.K. A lot of the things in Europe that people criticize — lack of harmonized labor laws, for example — are because of the U.K. But now they’re leaving. It’s like Europe is saying, “We’ve done so much for them, and they’re still not happy.” This isn’t about brown people; this is about Polish farmers. I understand Brits who are more cosmopolitan and upper-class — people with cultural capital, essentially — they’re devastated. The idea of cosmopolitanism is being attacked.

What do you think you’ll do if Clinton doesn’t win on Nov. 9?
I have an escape plan. But he [Trump] is not getting elected. But if that happens, first France, then maybe Berlin. Why? Do you think Trump will win?

I wouldn’t put it past the American people to do something that stupid.
I’ll take my family to France. But I don’t think it will come to that.

What’s your view of the presidential election so far?
It’s the epitome of what’s wrong with America. … I’m not sure this Trump campaign is really looking forward or helping to bring about a more tolerant or innovative world. I mean, we need to all work together to solve the problems at hand, especially global warming. I didn’t really see any of that at the Republican Convention.

Hillary is competent — she likes to govern; she likes policy. You may or may not agree with her, but she is interested in governing. Trump wants to twiddle his thumbs and make America great. You saw that NYT piece. He wants to give the job to the Veep. It worked so well the last time.

How did the book travel from something you tinkered with to Felix Salmon? Was there a pitch?
There was no pitch. I wrote a chapter and in an email to him I was like, “Hey, here’s 70,000 words on the economics of Star Trek; I’d like your opinion.” And he said, “Not only do I like this but I want to publish it. Write more!”

What was the writing process like? Did you sit down and re-watch the show?
I wrote my book on the phone. It’s how I write most things, just sitting somewhere and tapping away into my phone. Star Trek the motion picture, I saw it when I was 8. Got me to read science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein. He was so weird. Why was he so angry? It’s very well translated, but it doesn’t translate very well in terms of context. I read David Brinn; he was fantastic. True descendant of Asimov. Philip Dick was enormous in France before he was big here. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were not high literature. They were to be read as genre. American sci-fi is very specific, though. Every genre is under attack; you’re like a minority.

How do you feel about the prevalence of social media? You maintain a fairly steady Twitter presence.
I love Twitter. It expands your mind. I’m an avid reader of the news. I try to subscribe to a feed of a newspaper from every country. You can get the pulse of every nation. Facebook is worse. There’s so much more room to say stuff. People there under their real identities, saying horrible stuff.

I feel like I’m in a science fiction life. It’s like I’m living the William Gibson life. If you told me 20 years ago that I’d have a device that fit in my pocket, that could provide this deluge of information and news and people and I could use it on a plane, I would not have believed you.

Do we as a society value knowledge correctly, in your opinion? Or are we cursed to focus on capital?
Capital is not just money. It’s knowledge. It’s mostly knowledge. Knowledge is more scarce than money. Everyone is bemoaning the cost of college. Maybe it’s a signal that knowledge is way more expensive than everyone thinks. It tells us that maybe this is something to value.

So is the appropriate interpretation of that theory is to make knowledge, in the form of a college degree, free, and not available only to the wealthy who can afford upward of $60,000 per year for their children?
Absolutely. That’s it. I’m not saying it should be expensive; I’m saying that it has immense value. And that’s how we should treat it. My wife’s a professor at UC-Riverside, where most of the kids are first-generation college students. This is something you see in Star Trek: Knowledge is the currency.

You didn’t move here with your parents, so what’s their opinion of your decision to emigrate?
On my dad’s first visit to L.A., he saw LAX and said, what is this? He saw the exposed phone lines and said, this is Tel Aviv in the 1940s. He told me we were living in squalor. He said he’d pay for us to go back and live in France; that he could get us a house so we wouldn’t have to live like this.

I asked you earlier about the election. Does being a parent in such a climate — terrorism, uncertainty, a xenophobe running for president — affect your life as a parent? Does it frighten you at all?
Raising a child here is my main challenge. He was born the year of the crash. Bizarre to say that things were better then, but they were. In the case of my kid, parenthood made us better people. Forced us to be better people. You’re not gonna know what your kid will become. You hope, of course, that it’s something good. You feel like you’re making a positive contribution. There are positive externalities to being a parent. On balance it’s positive. If anything, I wish there were more rational ways to ensure everyone’s resources.

What’s the thing you love best about Star Trek: Next Generation?
It’s a workplace drama that has no drama, and where work is optional.

That sounds very French.
[Laughing] Yeah, I suppose it is.