Going Electric: Part 3 Bolt EV 3000 Mile Review

My 2019 Chevy Bolt EV

I’ve been driving an electric car since December of 2018. I’ve driven more than 3000 miles in about four months and it’s time for a proper review of the car. If you’re curious why I chose an electric car and how I selected the Chevy Bolt EV, check out Going Electric Part 1. If you’re curious about the trials and tribulations of ordering an electric car from a traditional car manufacturer like GM, read Going Electric Part 2. If you just want to know how I like my Bolt after 3000 miles of driving, read on.

I’ll start by saying that I love the Bolt and would happily buy it again even though the Tesla Model 3 is now close to being in the same price range. I don’t miss weekly trips to the gas station. The Bolt is quiet, non-polluting, and fun to drive. I’m not someone who usually names my cars but I couldn’t resist naming this one Jolteon, after the powerful little electric Pokémon. The Bolt shares the generational difference that makes all electric cars feel futuristic compared to older gas cars. It’s hard to describe that difference to someone who hasn’t tried driving an electric car but if you imagine the change from driving from a wooden, horse-drawn wagon to a Ferrari, you’ll have an idea. Top Gear’s James May was a skeptic of electric cars but, after driving a Tesla, he’s a fan and was quoted as saying they seem to be “propelled by magic”. Joe Rogan, a podcaster and well-known electric car skeptic was also converted after test driving a Tesla. He described the feeling as the car “punching its way out of a wormhole using alien technology”.

Jolteon the Pokémon beside Jolteon the Bolt EV

I’ve read that cars are not very interesting or important to the current generation but if you grew up in my generation, getting your driver’s license and first car was one of the most important events in your life, signaling you’d reached adulthood. And you probably loved that first car (no matter how much of a beat up, second-hand wreck it really was). You loved driving it, tinkering with it, even washing and waxing it. You might look for any excuse to go for a drive just for the sheer joy of it. Getting an electric car, whether it’s a Chevy Bolt EV, BWM i3, or the ubiquitous Tesla, is a bit like reliving that teenage first-car experience.

My Chevy Bolt EV parked next to a Tesla Model 3 for comparison

I’m not a professional car reviewer and can’t hope to cover all the usual car review points in a way more interesting than the dozens of well-done reviews already out there. So, instead, I thought I’d do two things. First, I’ll give you an idea of my daily driving routine. And, second, I’ll address some of the common questions I get asked by people when they find out I drive an electric car. If you have a question I haven’t answered, feel free to leave it in a comment and maybe I can give you an answer.

My daily commute on weekdays is minimal. I live a few miles from work and usually drive a few more miles each day for a meal or an errand. Weekends are busier and can involve far more miles than weekdays but seldom more than 200 unless we’re taking a trip down to Austin or Houston. I typically charge my Bolt twice a week; once on Sunday night to get me through the work week and once on Friday night to get me through the weekend. Most weeks, I could easily get by on one charge if I wanted but I like having the extra range in case I need it. I also top off the battery occasionally when I’m at one of the growing number of locations that offer free EV charging. Most Whole Foods locations, for example, have a free Level 2 charger, so you can pick up another 20 miles or so of range while you shop or have a coffee. Our local Half Price Books also has a free charger and we love to browse in the bookstore. Quite a few franchise restaurants are in the process of deploying similar free or low cost charging stations.

Jolteon getting a free charge at the local Whole Foods

The Chevy Bolt has the typical GM shifter used in most of their new models but the L and D have slightly different meanings than in an ICE car since EVs don’t have the concept of Low vs Drive gears. I think of them as “Logical” and “Dumb” mode. If you put the shifter in D, the computer turns off regenerative braking, except when you’re actually stepping on the brake pedal. So it emulates the driving characteristics of a gas powered car with an automatic transmission – it coasts when you take your foot off the “gas” pedal at speed, slows down when you step on the brake pedal, and rolls forward at about 1mph on its own if you take your foot off the brake after stopping. It would be dumb to use D most of the time because it’s much less efficient, with a couple of exceptions. D can be handy if you’re letting someone drive your vehicle and they have no experience driving an EV. Putting it in D will make them feel right at home. The other time D can be useful is if you’re driving on an icy road and actually need to coast with no regen (you could also shift into neutral but D is probably easier).

The Bolt’s typical GM shifter with repurposed D and L positions

The logical thing to do, most of the time, is to put the shifter into L for everyday driving. This is often referred to as “one pedal driving” mode and lets the “gas” pedal combine acceleration and deceleration. Electric cars use regenerative braking instead of friction braking. In a gas car, you use friction brakes to convert excess speed into waste heat. In an electric car, you use regeneration to convert excess speed into electricity that’s stored in the battery. With one pedal controlling both acceleration and deceleration, you have to pick up the knack of knowing where the zero-point is – the point where the pedal movement passes from acceleration to maintaining constant speed to decelerating. If you’ve ever driven a gas car with a standard transmission, this is exactly like learning the zero-point on the clutch – the point in the pedal motion where the clutch engages. I found one pedal driving very intuitive within a few minutes, I think because it reuses my old standard transmission skills. Even in L mode, the traditional disc brakes are still there if you need them for an emergency stop or station keeping at a stop light. The added bonus of driving in L mode is that your brake pads will likely last so long that they’ll never need replacement.

The car can accelerate like crazy of course, as all electric vehicles can. The Bolt doesn’t have anything approaching Tesla’s “ludicrous” mode but it does have a “sport” mode that changes the acceleration curve for quicker starts. I almost never use sport mode as it’s not really needed and just makes it harder to avoid spinning the wheels when the light turns green.

Another thing most EVs have in common is that they are very heavy due to the batteries. This is a problem for decelerating because there’s a lot more inertia than an ICE vehicle. Trying to stop in a very short distance feels similar to an emergency stop in a loaded down pickup truck. But the weight actually seems to improve some handling characteristics. Going around curves feels pretty good in the Bolt. The electric power steering feels much better to me than the usual steering slop found in most American-made cars. There’s a bit of torque-steer at high acceleration, which can be a surprise the first time you experience it, but it isn’t too bad and you can keep it under control easily as long you know it’s coming.

Like other electric vehicles, the Bolt has more space in the cabin and the trunk than you’d expect. Most people who get into the back seat of my Bolt are surprised at the leg room. And there have been a few times I folded the rear seats down and used the resulting cargo space to load big stuff in through hatchback.

This big box was 44 x 46 x 54 inches, 200lbs and fit with no problem

And speaking of seats… I’ve read persistent complaints that the Bolt has “uncomfortable” seats. All I can say is that the seats feel great to me and are as comfortable as the seats in previous cars I’ve owned like the Acura RSX, Acura Integra, and various Hondas. Maybe the seats don’t work for drivers who are extra tall, extra wide, or extra large? Maybe some people are just pickier about their seats than I am? Maybe it was just the first generation 2017 Bolts with this problem? All I can say is that the seats in my 2019 Bolt Premier are quite comfortable. I recommend you do a test drive to try them out for yourself before buying.

The Bolt’s 10 inch touch screen and dashboard

So that’s about it for the review. I love the car and think you ought to test drive a Bolt today. GM is finally beginning to catch up with demand, which means you’ve got a pretty good chance of finding Bolts in stock at the dealers. Last I checked, Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine has around 20 in stock. What follows are my attempts to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked since I got there car.

  • Don’t you get “range anxiety” with an electric car? – “Range anxiety” is the media’s name for the fear that you’ll run out power while driving. It’s basically the same as the fear you’ll run out of gas and get stuck in a gas-powered car. The short answer is no, I’ve never experienced range anxiety. Prior to my Bolt EV, I drove a 2009 Pontiac G6. With a full tank of gas, I could drive about 300 miles. With my Bolt EV and a full charge, I can drive 238 miles according to the EPA rating, and typically 285 miles or more in the real world (“hyper-milers” have driven Bolt EVs well over 400 miles on a charge but that’s driving at low speeds with no radio, no AC, and other hardships I’m not willing to endure). My daily commute is seldom over 100 miles even on my busiest day running errands all over the Dallas / Fort Worth area. It’s very unlikely that I would ever run out of gas or power in either car; there’s just no difference. If anything, I have less range anxiety with the Bolt because I don’t have to worry about trips to the gas station. I can leave the house every morning with a full battery if I want. On very rare occasions, I travel as far as Austin or Houston and in those cases I may need to “fill up” along the way, which means stopping at a fast-charger for a half-hour while I eat lunch. Again, for me, this isn’t a problem or source of anxiety. If my driving habits were different and I had a commute that was on the edge of my range, like 250 miles, I could see how this might be an issue and I’d recommend getting a car with a greater daily range.
  • What are the maintenance costs like? An electric car has no gas engine, no oil pump or oil, no spark plugs, no transmission or transmission fluid. There’s no camshaft, no head gaskets, no catalytic converter, no exhaust system, no alternator, no starter, no fuel pump, no timing belt. Think about all the stuff that used to break on your gas car. Most of those components don’t even exist on an electric car. I’ve read that where typical ICE vehicles have over 10,000 moving parts, the average EV only has about 20 moving parts. There are still traditional disc brakes, but they’re really just for backup and you’ll almost never use them due to regenerative braking, so you may never have to replace the brake pads. There are still tires that need rotation and replacement. And you’ll need to top off the wiper fluid and replace wiper blades eventually. There’s also a battery coolant system that will someday need to be flushed and refilled if you keep the car long enough. The Bolt EV’s official maintenance schedule for the first 100,000 miles consists of nothing but tire rotation and changing the cabin air filter. At 150,000 miles you’ll have the first check on the battery coolant and a flush or top off as needed.
  • But what about the battery, isn’t that super expensive to replace? Yes, it is but it’s covered for 8 years or 100,000 miles. It’s monitored remotely by GM and in the rare case that it suffers unexpected degradation, you’ll likely just get an email asking you to bring it in for a free replacement. That’s very rare but has happened to a few Bolt owners. No one really knows what the full lifespan of auto battery packs will be but there are lots of examples of Bolt EVs and Teslas well into the multi-hundred-thousand mile range with no more than 10% degradation in range. The older Chevy Volts, which have similar battery technology, have reached over 400,000 miles driven with no significant battery degradation. I’d compare it to having to replace the engine in a gasoline car; sure it’s expensive but I’ve never had to do that even once with all the gasoline cars I’ve owned during my lifetime, so I’m not really worried about it.
  • I’ve read that it’s actually worse for the environment to drive an electric car, is that true? No it’s not true. Even considering the ecological impact of building the car AND of the power generation used over the lifetime of the car (electricity vs oil), AND even if you charge it using electricity generated from coal, the most polluting energy source available, an electric car still produces only half the pollution of a gas car over their respective lifetimes. If you’re in a state with the freedom to choose your electric provider, you likely have one that uses 100% renewable sources like wind or solar and, in that case, you’re doing way better than just half the pollution of a gas car. Plus that difference is increasing fast as the energy density of batteries improves and more of our power generation infrastructure switches to non-polluting sources. If you look closely at the origin of those stories about electric cars harming the environment, you’ll find that many are funded by fossil-fuel proponents with political and economic motivation for pulling the wool over your eyes. It’s a bit like all the reports the tobacco industry used to fund claiming smoking was healthy for you. So consider the source and don’t be fooled by that sort of propaganda! Other studies are well-meaning but flawed. The most common flaw is that they will take into account the costs and CO2 of producing the electricity used by an electric car over its lifetime but forget to do the same for the gas car (i.e. take into account the cost and CO2 of prospecting, drilling, extracting, shipping, refining, and then burning all that oil).
  • The Bolt EV doesn’t have all the self-driving technology like the Teslas does it? No, it doesn’t but it does have similar underlying sensor technology. It has follow distance sensing with auto-braking, closing distance alarm, lane departure detection and auto-correction, pedestrian sensing with auto-braking, 360 degree imaging in the form of a “drone view” of the car as well as traditional front and rear camera views for parking. It has a video-based rear view mirror, allowing the rear view mirror to work even when your back seat is full of stuff and blocking the view. And it has a lot of other automation like automatically applying the parking break on inclines and automatically disengaging it if you forget. But it doesn’t do autonomous driving. It’s worth noting that the Teslas in the Bolt EV’s price range can not do autonomous driving either. If you get a Tesla Model 3, adding autopilot for autonomous driving ups the price by $5000 or more. Without autopilot, the Bolt EV actually has more and better automation than the Tesla Model 3 for the same price. But if you want a fully autonomous driving mode, you want the Tesla, not the Bolt.
  • Doesn’t charging take forever compared to a fill-up at the gas station? That’s the wrong comparison. With a gas car, you have to stand there and monitor the fill up. A better analogy would be your phone. Doesn’t it take you forever to charge your phone, as you stand over the phone waiting for it to finish charging from 0% to 100%? Of course not, that’s silly because you don’t do that. You probably just plug the phone in when you’re not using it, like during the night when you’re sleeping or at your desk while you’re working. Same thing with an electric car. I get home in the evening and it takes just a few seconds to plug it in and that’s it. When I leave in the morning it’s fully charged and ready to go. You can leave every morning with a full “tank” and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds of your time. The one exception is if you’re traveling a long distance and need to stop midway to charge. In this case, it actually is more like filling a gas tank because you’re stuck until it’s ready to go again. It takes about 30 minutes at a fast charger and you’ll add around 90 miles of range. If you plan ahead and time it to coincide with lunch or a rest stop it’s not a big deal. This issue will diminish over time as battery energy density improves. For me it’s no problem now but if it’s a problem for you, wait another year or two for the next generation of EVs that will go 400 miles, 600 miles, or even futher on a charge
  • Does the car include GPS navigation? No, it includes something better. It interfaces with the GPS navigation on your smartphone via Android Auto (or whatever the equivalent Apple thing is for iPhone users). So you can continue using Google Maps without having to learn a sub-standard auto navigation app that probably doesn’t have up-to-date map data anyway. I wish all cars did this. Android Auto basically puts your phone’s display on the Bolt’s big 10“ touch screen and uses the Bolt’s sound system too. So you can say “Ok, Google, navigate to the nearest Starbucks” or you can use the touch screen to drag the maps around and find what you want. Just make sure you have a good USB cable, Android Auto uses a lot of bandwidth and some cables aren’t up to it.
  • Why a boring color like white? Cars only come in a limited number of colors these days. I’ve owned two blue cars, three red ones, and a silver one. I’ve always wanted a yellow one but the car I want to buy has never been available in yellow the year I bought it. The Bolt came close with that tennis ball yellow/green “shock” color but it wasn’t close enough to true yellow to suit me. Eliminating all those colors left black and white. Black cars are intolerably hot in the Texas summer. So it was white by default. On the upside, statistically, white cars have the highest resale value and the lowest accident rate of any color.
  • Is there a spare tire? No, like a growing number of new cars, the Bolt EV includes self-healing / run-flat tires only. There is no spare of any kind. I built my own kit with a donut spare from a Chevy Cruze and a jack from a Chevy Blazer. Works great for me and I like having the backup even though I haven’t needed it so far. If you go the DIY route, just be aware that you’ll need a heavy duty jack from something like a Blazer or some other Chevy truck that can lift the weight of an EV (check the Bolt EV forums to find lists of compatible jacks).
  • Anything unexpected or surprising about owning a Bolt?
    • The silence makes ambient sounds like rain and nearby birds more noticeable. It also means people in the parking lot can’t hear you and tend walk right in front of the car, so you have to pay extra attention to pedestrians.
    • Even though you know the torque and acceleration are amazing compared to ICE vehicles because it’s mentioned in every review, it still takes you by surprise.
    • Within weeks, the complete absence of emissions makes you strangely aware of the exhaust smell from ICE cars.
    • Between the huge windshield and all the video, the visibility is amazing, maybe the best of any car I’ve owned since my 1984 Honda CRX.
    • Free public chargers. I didn’t realize there were free chargers available anywhere when I bought it. Imagine getting a free gallon of gas every time you go the grocery store, the book store, or the coffee shop!
    • Unlike a Tesla, the Bolt isn’t instantly recognizable as an electric vehicle. Many people mistake the Bolt for a typical compact hatchback. But it’s distinctive and rare enough you’ll still get the occasional “what kind of car is that” questions.
Jolteon parked on a Dallas street

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia cover art by Mark Harrison

Ecotopia is a utopian novel that’s not as bad as its reputation but not good either.

I’ve read lots of bad reviews of Ecotopia and had several reports from other readers that it’s really awful. As an avid reader of utopian stories, I had to find out for myself. It’s true that Ecotopia is not that good as either a novel or a utopian idea. To be fair, nearly all utopian novels fail to hold up as novels, with the possible exceptions of H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. All of them have the same plot: a character known as the reader’s surrogate winds up in Utopia and wanders around asking “how does this work?” and “how does that work?” Various utopian citizens explain the workings of their society. Eventually the character returns home to deliver the message of how to improve the world. Or, in those novels that want to have an exciting twist ending, the main character may decide to abandon their home and stay in Utopia.

In this story, the reader’s surrogate is Will Weston, a reporter who is the first American allowed to visit Ecotopia, a Utopian nation formed by the secession of Oregon, Washington, and the Northern part of California. The current year is 1999 and the secession happened in 1980. In the intervening 20 years, Ecotopia has turned itself into a 1970’s hippy commune dweller’s idea of Utopia. The main differences I noticed between Ecotopia and other fictional utopias are the amount and variety of sexual activity described and a weird emphasis on the need for random emotional outbursts. Apparently 1970s people thought Americans suffered from a case of pent-up emotions. Ecotopian characters frequently burst into tears or become enraged about seemingly random things, get into fights, and make love with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s the exact opposite of Mr. Spock’s planet, Vulcan, where logic and reason lead to peaceful coexistence.

What holds up well for a 1970s novel:

  • pervasive use of battery powered electric vehicles
  • solar, wind, and geothermal power on a distributed grid system
  • houses and vehicles are individually customized from mass-produced interlocking modules
  • manufactured materials must be either naturally or artificially biodegradable
  • print-on-demand books/newspapers available from vending machines
  • city support systems are stable-state, no build-up of pollutants
  • stable-state agricultural system that balances food production with environment
  • clean air, clean water, natural environment (obvious from the novel’s name!)
  • direct political participation via a nationwide, interactive computer network
  • citizens allowed as much personal and economic freedom as possible
  • universal basic income for all citizens

What doesn’t hold up well

  • emotional outbursts, often leading to violence
  • armed, lethal combat sports (to channel violent tendencies of young males)
  • frequent, unprotected, casual sex with strangers
  • segregated racial “mini-nations” for African-Americans and Asians
  • healthcare system involves lots of sex between patients and providers
  • favorite clothing materials are natural leather and furs – this seems very anachronistic to a modern reader as we’d likely assume California ecological proponents to also be PETA members but back in the 1970s their outlook was more of a Native-American inspired ecological ideal, so the efficient use of animal resources made sense in context.

Young men who take part in the armed combat events shout “It is a good day to die!” when going into battle. This is another Native American inspired element of the book that will likely be lost on modern readers, who are more likely to associate the phrase with Worf, the Klingon character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the end, Ecotopia fails at the most important aspect of a Utopian novel: it doesn’t leave the reader with the feeling that they’d like to visit or even live in the world described. Final verdict: if you’re looking for entertaining novel, you’d be best to avoid the entire genre of Utopian books, that’s not their purpose. If you’re a fan of Utopian novels, this one is readable, moderately entertaining, but unconvincing.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Detail of the cover art from the 2014 Chinese edition of The Dispossessed

This book was not what I expected but with science fiction that’s often a feature, not a bug.

The Dispossessed“, by Ursula K. Le Guin, was presented to me as a depiction of a “libertarian utopia”. When I think of science fiction stories depicting libertarian utopias, I think of H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” or Eric Frank Russell’s “…And Then There Were None“, the former a utopia of gun-loving Texan style libertarians and the latter a utopia of Gandhi-following, peace-loving thinkers who excel at passive resistance (Russell’s story also gave us the word “Myob!”). Both were fun reads and I highly recommend them. This book was nothing like either, it’s far more serious and a lot less fun.

This book tells the life story a physicist in a star system with two civilizations; one on the Planet Urras, a beautiful Earth-like planet with many countries of varying political types; the other civilization is on Anarres, the barren moon of Urras where a group of people sometimes described as libertarians, sometimes as anarchists founded a utopia based on their political views. Our hero, Shevek the physicist, lives on Anarres. The story follows him through a major turning point in his life as he decides to visit Urras to find better collaborators with which to finish his theoretical work. The author has folded the story in half such that chapter one begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras and each odd numbered chapter continues his story on Urras, while the even numbered chapters fill in the back story leading up to his decision to make the visit.

My expectations led to some initial confusion as the text doesn’t depict anything remotely resembling a libertarian utopia on Anarres. It’s more like an authoritarian communist third-world country. Everyone is starving most of the time due to shortages and famines, they live in crummy assigned government dormitories, work in rotating shifts at whatever government assigned work they can get, no one is allowed to have private possessions, parents can’t even name their own children, trying to do your own thing will get you persecuted, run out of town, or even killed. Yet, the characters continue to talk about the place as if they think it’s a libertarian utopia with no government. As it turns out this is all intentional and it just takes the characters a bit longer than the reader to realize their utopia has gone horribly wrong without anyone really noticing.

To further add to the confusion, Shevek is visiting Urras in the apparent role of the reader’s surrogate, a standard role that occurs in all utopian books. But this would make Urras the utopia rather than Anarres. And, indeed, everyone does seem better off on Urras. But as our physicist explores the world, which is much like modern day Earth, he also experiences the inequality of it; the luxury and leisure of the rich as well as the unpleasant lives of those who have to do all the work and who are plotting a revolt. Ironically, the revolutionary workers are actually much better off in most ways than the citizens of Anarres they seek to emulate. Shevek gets caught up in the revolution and the big question is whether he’ll survive long enough to return home to Anarres. His experiences on Urras provide most of the political commentary of the book as Shevek re-evaluates his understanding of both worlds.

The book is part of the author’s “Hainish Cycle” series of books but you don’t need to read any of the others for this one to make sense. The Hains and Terrans only show up briefly and the only real connection of this book with the others is that Shevek the physicist is the character who creates the theory behind the FTL communications device known as the ansible (and potentially the theory behind some type of FTL drive for starships that may be used in later books).

The book is slow going, especially the first half and you’ll probably want to abandon it but if you stick with it, things eventually pick up and even start making sense. For me this happened when some of the characters on Anarres finally begin to wake up and notice they’re living under a suppressive regime rather than in a utopia. Once the characters started behaving believably everything else started falling into place for me. Overall it seems a bit over rated but I did find it enjoyable and worth a read.

Trekonomics by Manu Saadia

Star Trek TOS Replicator (AKA food synthesizer)

I’m always interested in the future of economics and, in particular, ways of adapting our world to deal with post scarcity economics. Nearly any book or paper on post scarcity economics, at one point or another, has to reference the most detailed known fictional example: Star Trek. So, when Manu Saadia’s new book, “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” was published, it went on my reading list immediately.

If you’re not familiar with post scarcity economics, it’s basically the future we’re headed towards, whether we like it or not. Industrialization, mass-production, 3D printing, nano-technology, automation, robots; all these things continually drive down the cost and scarcity of many goods and services. This is interesting because for the past few hundred years, all our economic models have been based around solving the so-called “economic problem” – that is, finding ways to allocate scarce resources to meet human needs and desires. The two favorite solutions to the economic problem, capitalism and communism/socialism, have developed religious-like ideological followings.

Pure capitalism relies on the collective action of everyone’s individual greed to allocate resources. Communism and socialism rely on central planning to allocate resources (the difference is that Communism is the result of a revolution from capitalism, while socialism is an evolution of capitalism). In the real world neither method has ever worked well in its pure form, though capitalism comes the closest. Attempts to rely solely on central planning have always failed unless some elements of individual freedom of action are incorporated. Likewise, attempts to rely solely on capitalism fail unless certain elements of central planning are incorporated (e.g. minimum wages, banking regulations, etc). But, however you mix the two, the goal is always to solve the economic problem of resource allocation. What would happen if that problem went away?

In the Star Trek universe the problem of resource allocation largely doesn’t exist. For the most part, anyone can obtain anything they want, any time they want, at no cost beyond the energy required to replicate it. Obviously the real world isn’t there yet but we’re headed that way. In economics, an externality is something that doesn’t come into play when calculating supply and demand – the cost of goods and services. For example, GPS is thought to be the first man-made service to be an economic externality. It exists all over the Earth and anyone can use it at no cost. No one has to worry about how to allocate GPS service as a resource because there is never a shortage of it and the very idea of supply vs demand is meaningless with regard to it. When many goods and services become as ubiquitous as GPS, what happens?

Obviously, the two primary systems we’ve relied on in the past, capitalism and communism/socialism, would also become meaningless at that point. Supply would tend toward infinity while cost, labor, and employment tend towards zero. Some kind of new economic system is needed to cope with a world like that, but what? Answering that question is what post scarcity economics is all about.

Economists are just beginning to speculate on this sort of thing but science fiction writers have pondered it for decades. Star Trek’s Federation of Planets is the most detailed and well-known example of a fictional post scarcity economy. There is no money. No one is paid to work. Goods have effectively zero cost because they can be replicated at will by anyone. This sounds crazy at first to many people. Why would people work if they’re not paid? How could anything get done with no money? Trying to understand how such an economic system could function is what economists are after. Studying Star Trek’s model has proven to be a good starting point.

Star Trek TNG Replicator

Many people mistakenly think Star Trek portrays a communist or socialist government. But there are many clear examples showing that this is not the case. There is no prohibition against private property. For example, the Picard family owns and operates a vinyard that produces fine wines. Anyone is as free to start any sort of business enterprise as they are under a modern capitalist system. For example, Joseph Sisko operates a restaurant in New Orleans. There is no prohibition against anyone having or using currency if they want to, it’s just unnecessary within the Federation itself. When dealing with alien races outside the Federation, for example, various types of currency have been used.

But who runs the Federation economy? Star Fleet itself relies on central planning in the same way any large organization does but the Federation of Planets appears to do very little Federation-wide economic planning as there is simply no need for it. However, there are a few things that can’t be replicated even in the Star Trek universe, such as dilithium crystals or certain medical compounds. There are upper limits on production such as the number of starships that can be built per year. So the government does have a few things to keep it busy. But, otherwise, little central planning or control seems to be needed.

This brings us to Trekonomics. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to learn as much as you might wish from this book. Despite the promising title, it’s mostly written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really “get” the show, or at least is only interested in one particular incarnation known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The author goes to some lengths in the final chapters to point out that he really thinks Star Trek and all science fiction is ultimately a waste of time. The author believes space travel itself is pointless, and that even leaving the Earth to visit Mars is misguided. He’s really only interested in the economic principles. Sadly, he never really gets around to talking much about the economics.

The majority of the book is a collection of personal anecdotes and lengthy retellings and paraphrasings of various Star Trek episodes that had an impact on his economic thoughts. Other than an introduction in which he describes post scarcity in general and a description of how Star Trek’s replicator effectively reduces the cost of goods to zero, there’s very little useful information. At the end of the book, you’ll know his favorite Star Trek characters, his favorite episodes, what he thinks of Elon Musk, where he got his first Isaac Asimov book, and a dozen other bits of useless trivia. But you won’t know much more about the actual economics of Star Trek than when you started.

However, I didn’t write all this just to tell you the book sucked. Rather, I’d like to point you to an alternative to the book. Rick Webb has written a good sized document titled, “The Economics of Star Trek” that does an excellent job of looking at all the economic clues we can discover from Star Trek. He even speculates a bit on how such things could actually work in a realistic economic system, something Saadia doesn’t even attempt in Trekonomics.

And one last tidbit. You may want to check out one of the earliest predictions that the world is headed towards a post scarcity system. In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“. Saadia mentions the paper in Trekonomics but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Keynes notes in his paper that while scarcity has long been the fundamental assumption of economics, by 2030 we may be facing a world in which wealth and automation have rendered the economic problem solved. He predicts that capitalism will get us there but that it will be forced by technology to evolve into something else afterwards. He predicts that humans will have to adjust to a new lifestyle in which money is not important and the love of money will be viewed as a sickness. And finally he predicts that economics will become a mundane field as a result.

The one flaw in his vision is that he assumed capitalism would continue following the path of classic enlightenment liberalism, as it did in his time. If we allow economic inequality to grow rather than decline, his predictions will fail. It seems to me that capitalism has gone off the rails in that regard and is leading us toward disaster. We may still reach a utopian economic system like that of Star Trek but it may have to be by another route such as democratic socialism. Or, maybe it’s not too late to reform capitalism. It will be interesting to find out.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

I usually review pulp science fiction books, science books, even the occasional graphic novel, so a review of a classic like Walden may seem a bit out of place here. But I do try to read a little of everything including the classics and Walden has been on my reading list for a long time. The edition I chose is Walden and Other Writings, 2000, Modern Library Paperback Edition; partly because I also wanted to read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which is in this volume, but also because I like the cover art depicting a winter scene near Walden Pond. I admit, I’ve bought more than one book based solely on the cover art.

I had vaguely thought that Walden was a work of philosophy resulting from Thoreau spending time alone pondering Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s really nothing like that. It’s much more modern than I expected. Imagine reading a blog by someone who decides to give up television, WiFi, social media, modern technology and civilization in general as an experiment. Imagine this person finds some land by a lake and determines to live a DIY existence. They build their own tiny house from available materials, they eat only what they can find or grow, and make their own clothes. And they write weekly updates on their progress as they do all this. That’s basically what’s going on in Walden. It’s a DIY book mixed with some appreciation of nature.

Thoreau doesn’t completely leave the world behind. He walks to town periodically to give lectures, his writings are published, he has frequent visitors. A lot of the townsfolk think he’s a bit odd and keep their distance but he interacts with a wide range of other eccentric characters: hunters in the woods, fishermen on the pond, rail workers from the railroad that passes near his tiny house, transients who wander through. When he can, he invites these random people into his house and questions them about the nature of the human race and civilization. The bravest strangers even taste some of the weird foods Thoreau subsists on.

Some chapters are strictly DIY stuff like lists of materials used in building his tiny house and their costs. Or what he eats and how he obtains it. Other chapters are observations about nature – what animals he runs into, the sensory experience of the pond and woods in the different seasons. And there actually is a little bit of philosophy hidden away here and there; do humans really need to eat meat or would we be better off if we were all vegetarians? Should we be more self reliant? Why do we waste so much time and energy making money for things like clothes and homes that we could make ourselves much more simply?

The book is laid out chronologically by seasons and takes the reader through the first year at Walden Pond. The first few chapters are the most interesting as they contain the parameters of his experiment and most of the details on how he builds his shelter and gathers his supplies. Later chapters tend to be his observations of nature once things have settled into a routine. Amusingly, the descriptive part of the book ends after the first year with the sentence, “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.” The book, while interesting and sometimes profound, is not a page-turner and you’ll probably be as glad as I was that he decides not to chronicle his second year as well.

Thoreau doesn’t think everyone should give up on civilization and live as he did at Walden, of course. He clearly thinks of his two year adventure there as nothing more than an experiment to see what the minimum lifestyle could consist of. Just like modern writers who give up The Internet or some other modern convenience for a year, Thoreau fully intends to return to civilization when his experiment is done. Despite finding it a slow read and difficult to slog through at times, particularly in the second half, I still recommend it. There are more than enough interesting and enjoyable bits to make up for it.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in a moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells makes a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organize the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in its own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.