Ignore the skeptics. America can still grow.

Summary: Can America no longer grow? Have we exhausted the potential for future technological progress? Let’s look at how far we have come and ask if the engines of progress that produced these wonders can no longer work for us.

“Innovation of new forms of society and technology. It is the key to our progress. It has allowed us to evolve from naked hunter-gatherers to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking hundreds or even thousands of years. But occasionally evolution leaps forward.”
— A slight tweak of Professor Xavier’s words from the title sequence of the movie “X-men”. These events are called “singularities”.

Economic growth

 

Contents

  1. Has humanity’s growth story ended?
  2. The singularities in our past.
  3. The singularities in our future
  4. For More Information.

(1) Has humanity’s growth story ended?

“I wonder if and when the law of large numbers begins to be relevant to that growth in the same way it’s relevant to a company’s growth rate. Should we expect growth rates to decline as world GDP gets larger?”
— An important question by Jeff Harbaugh in a comment to a previous post.

One reason Trump’s campaign has surprisingly caught fire is his simple call to “Make America Great”. No matter how delusionally conceived, at least he appears to realize the importance of fighting the multi-decade long slowing of America’s economic growth. Upper middle class greens mutter about the wrongness of growth. America’s poor grow restive as they see their chances for social mobility fade away. Others just despair, believing that rapid growth lies in our past but not in our future.

(2) The singularities in our past.

Our world is the result of singularities in our past. Fire, pottery, agriculture, metals, writing — giant leaps forward in technology. Too see how far humanity has come, imagine how our society would appear to our stone-age ancestors of 40,000 years ago. For one answer see “Cro-Magnon Communication” by Brad Delong (Prof Economics, Berkeley).

“The Twelve-Year-Old is on strike. She refuses to write more than one paragraph of a letter detailing her day to our pre-Neolithic Revolution ancestors. She says the idea is stupid because it cannot be done — the Singularity is not in our future but in our past. Nevertheless it is quite a good first paragraph:

“I was jigging to my iPod when my friend Noelle rode up in the front passenger seat of her family’s minivan. ‘Will your parents let you come see “Wedding Crashers“?’ she asked.”

“She has a point. ‘Jigging’ can be gotten across. And the East African Plains Ape social dynamics can be gotten across — friends, marriage, excessive parental control of the activities of adolescent females, et cetera (although not all of them: the idea of a “wedding crasher” is a very complicated concept to get across to a hunter-gatherer who has lived in a group of 40 or so her whole life).

“But the rest? Maybe I should have reversed the assignment: What kinds of science fiction would hunter-gatherers have written?”

For another perspective, shift forward in time to ~12,000 years ago, before the Neolithic singularity (e.g., the wheel, agriculture). Here is Pat Mathews’ entry in Brad Delong’s Early Holocene Epoch science fiction contest, with our distant ancestors describing a future unimaginable to them.

Shaman:  I have foreseen a time when everybody can have all the meat, fat, and sweet stuff they can eat, and they all get fat.
Chief:        You have had a vision of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Shaman:  It is considered a great and horrible problem! People go out of their way to eat leaves and grass and grains, and work very hard to look lean and brown.
Chief:        You’ve been eating too many of those strange mushrooms, and are seeing everything backward.

Shift forward again to our most recent singularity — “the industrial revolution”. It ended in 1918. It was a singularity in ever sense, as explained in “The Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone” by Cosma Shalizi (asst prof of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon). To see its impact, consider life before it reshaped the world: in the late 14th century. Then the English pound was worth 4/5ths of a pound of silver, equivalent to roughly $175 today. When reading this, remember that the median household income in the US is now $52,000.

“What was 14th century money worth in today’s dollars? That’s tricky, because it depends on what you were buying. In the second half of the 14th century, a pound sterling would support the lifestyle of a single peasant laborer for half a year {$350/yr}, or that of a knight for a week {$9,100/yr}.

“Or it could buy three changes of clothing for a teenage page (underclothes not included), twelve pounds of sugar, a carthorse, two cows, an inexpensive bible, ten ordinary books, rent a craftsman’s townhouse for a year, or hire a servant for six months.

“It should be obvious from the above list that the conversion rate depends a great deal on what you buy. A husbandman or yeoman servant spent most of his budget on food and clothing, which have become relatively cheap since the industrial revolution. For that basket of goods, a pound sterling might buy $300 worth of goods today.

“On the other hand, a knight or noble might spend half of his income on servants, and much of the rest on handmade luxury goods, things that were relatively cheap then and expensive today. For that bundle of goods, a pound might buy $3,000 dollars worth of goods today.”

Future Industry

(3)  The singularities in our future.

We have made great progress. But as Carl Sagan said, science is just a candle in the dark. We stand in a small circle of knowledge surrounded by the greater unknown. Expanding that circle can bring wonders to our descendants as amazing to us as our lives would be to our ancestors.

Although tech progress has slowed during the past few decades, there is no reason to assume that the tools which have brought us this far will fail us in the future. The good news is that a new industrial revolution might have already begun, based on breakthroughs in smart machines, new energy sources, genetic engineering, and new materials. These could produce improvements in living standards as large as those of past revolutions.

But history shows that technological breakthroughs are not natural. The ancient world had conditions similar to those of pre-modern Europe, yet nothing came of it. To restart growth and avoid a dead end like that of the ancient world, we must re-build our social engines of scientific and technological progress. Schools, universities, the patent office, the government’s R&D agencies — it’s a long list, most of which are neglected in modern America.

Too bad such things are ignored in campaign 2016. Instead we get a circus. But we can change that, if we have the will to do so.

Yes since we found out
Since we found out
That anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen
Anything could happen.

— A powerful insight in Ellie Goulding’s song “Anything Could Happen.”

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the singularity, about secular stagnation, about the new industrial revolution just starting, and especially these…

  1. Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future? — About the different kinds of singularities.
  2. Ben Bernanke sees the great slowdown in technological progress.
  3. Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
  4. Looking at technological singularities in our past & future.

Books about the new industrial revolution.

Sngularity sky

Before Trump, top economist Joseph Stiglitz warned about globalization

Summary: Lost amidst his bombast and folly, Trump has challenged key bipartisan policies of US elites. That is why they hate and fear him. That’s why attacks on him seldom mention issues, focusing instead on his character and language. Better to spin fantasy (he’s a Hitler) then remind the public that Trump dislikes globalization and mass immigration — as so many of them do. Criticism of globalization is Trump’s most dangerous theme; here anthropologist Marximilian Forte reminds us that some top economists agree with him (see the links at the end for other examples).

World in the palm of my hand

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Globalization: Beyond Discontent

By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology.
Reposted with his generous permission.

Review of Globalization and Its
Discontents
by Joseph E. Stiglitz (2003).

“Today, globalization is being challenged around the world….for millions of people globalization has not worked. Many have actually been made worse off, as they have seen their jobs destroyed and their lives become more insecure. They have felt increasingly powerless against forces beyond their control. They have seen their democracies undermined, their cultures eroded”. (Page 248.)

There are at least two main reasons that past reformist approaches to IMF-imposed austerity measures, market deregulation, trade liberalization, and privatization — some of the core tenets of neoliberal globalization — have largely fizzled out. One is that institutions such as the IMF are thoroughly undemocratic, unrepresentative and accountable, just as they are maniacally ideological, unresponsive and thus resistant to change.

Another is that some of the proposed reforms are almost worse than what is to be reformed — or they can seem that way with the passage of time. One example would be the proposition that if “free trade” has been unfair to the developing world (because it is not free when developed nations maintain subsidies, tariffs, and other domestic protections), then the best way to have fair trade is to make it free absolutely everywhere. What this now looks like is a generalization of misery — but it’s “fair” if it’s evenly spread. As massive job losses have swept the “developed world” in a rising tide of de-industrialization with the advent of a battery of free trade agreements, few remain who would call this a positive step forward.

Re-reading Joseph E. Stiglitz’s 2003 book Globalization and Its Discontents in the present context, might provoke the realization that whatever chance there was for reforming neoliberal globalization, that time has passed. What Stiglitz calls globalization (what others call neoliberalism) was something that he saw as worth salvaging, even if acknowledging how vastly unfair, unequal, and ideologically-driven it has been.

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Stratfor: European unification – they’ll live unhappily ever after

Summary: Here’s an essay about the European Union from one of Stratfor’s more perceptive analysts. It provides a unusual and insightful perspective on Europe’s long quest for unification, and the bumps along the way.

Stratfor

Europe, Unhappily Ever After
By Reva Goujon.
Stratfor, 20 September 2016.

The scene at Bratislava Castle last week was a familiar one: European leaders gathered for another summit in a typically idyllic setting, where the natural beauty of their surroundings belied the deep imperfections of the union they were struggling to salvage. But now, in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the Continental bloc, delusion steeped in the ideals of an “ever-closer” union is wearing thin, and the realists in the room seem to be gradually gaining ground.

The shift in the summit’s tone was to be expected; closet Euroskeptics can no longer hide behind the United Kingdom as they assert national rights and tamp down Brussels’ principles. They realize that the longer Europe’s leaders avoid the hard questions, opting instead to continue extolling the “spirit” of the European Union as a way to survive, the more the bloc’s guardians will have to react to — rather than shape — the enormous changes bubbling up from their disillusioned electorates.

As Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (who has tied his own political fate to a referendum in October) testily noted, the Bratislava gathering amounted to little more than a “boat trip on the Danube” and an “afternoon writing documents without any soul or any horizon” on the real problems afflicting Europe.

Tempering Ideals With Realities

The same frustration was palpable in several conversations I had during a recent trip to Slovenia, a country that tends to stay below the radar in Europe but is nevertheless highly perceptive of ground tremors. Slovenia lies, often precariously, at the edge of empires. Under the weight of the Alps, the former Yugoslav republic has one foot lodged in the tumultuous cauldron of the Balkans while its other foot toes the merchant riches of the Adriatic Sea. All the while, its arms are outstretched across the Pannonian Plain toward Vienna, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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A senior Israeli leader discusses a final solution for Palestine

Summary:  The Israel-Palestine war is an open sore in the Middle East, poisoning our relations in the region and adding to its numerous tensions. Here Israel’s Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, shares a perspective about the war that has widespread support in Israel. It shows why peace remains a dream for the Middle East. People in America and Europe have been and will be collateral damage to its conflicts, unless we find ways to help end them.

“They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

Palestinian land loss: 1948-2014

Click to enlarge.

Introduction

Below is a post by Ayelet Shaked on her Facebook page. Posted 1 July 2014; since deleted. It provoked an international outcry. Elitzur makes some powerful points. Most importantly, America and our allies provide ample precedent for Israel’s use of force. Of course, we weren’t doing a gradual conquest of Germany and Japan. Neither Ayelet nor Elitzur mentions the colonization of Palestine by Israeli “settlers”, backed by Israeli vigilantes and military.

Like many Old World conflicts, it has raged for generations — with the original rights and wrongs lost in the dust of history. Nor does America or Europe have clean hands, so we should hold the righteous criticism.

A translation of her Facebook post (red emphasis added)

“This is an article by the late Uri Elitzur {pro-settler journalist}, which was written 12 years ago, but remained unpublished. It is as relevant today as it was at the time.

“The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war. Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation, no destruction of terror infrastructure, no targeted killings. Enough with the oblique references. This is a war. Words have meanings. This is a war. It is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. These too are forms of avoiding reality. This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to define reality with the simple words that language puts at our disposal. Why do we have to make up a new name for the war every other week, just to avoid calling it by its name. What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy? Every war is between two peoples, and in every war the people who started the war, that whole people, is the enemy.

A declaration of war is not a war crime. Responding with war certainly is not. Nor is the use of the word “war”, nor a clear definition who the enemy is. Au contraire: the morality of war (yes, there is such a thing) is founded on the assumption that there are wars in this world, and that war is not the normal state of things, and that in wars the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.

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“California lets illegals vote!” A typical story from the Right’s misinformation machine.

Summary: The Right-wing misinformation machine is both effective and profitable. However implausible its products, they meet the need of conservatives. Here is a typical example — the exciting news that California has made it easier for illegals to vote!

GOP sunrise

GOP sunrise, from “Right Truth” website.

 

Which side lies the most, Left or Right? I would like to know. But I believe the Right makes more money doing so from their high-traffic and often professional news services and websites. They produce a stream of fact, exaggerations, misinformation, and outright falsehoods. These keep the people on the right excited, generating clicks. And clicks are money. Here is an example of how they work.

On 11 October 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB60. Conservatives went into a frenzy. “Jerry Brown Signs Bill That Could Let Illegal Aliens Vote” by William Bigelow at Breitbart. Fox News ran a series of shows (It will “Provide Shelter For Illegals To Vote”). Their analyst Andrew Napolitano (retired NJ judge):  “if you are an illegal alien in California, get a driver’s license, register to vote, you can vote in local, state, and federal elections in California and those votes count” (video here).

The far-right websites went hysterical. “Illegals in California Could Decide Election” by Brendan Kirby at Lifezette. “California Allows Non-Citizens to Vote, Which is Illegal, So Every California Vote should be Disqualified” at Eagle Rising. Google shows scores, perhaps hundreds, of these.

This is, of course, bogus. It’s astonishing that anyone believes it. But probably millions of Americans do, conditioned by years of conservative “news” to believe implausible things. The bill states that a driver licenses of an illegal “does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.'” See for yourself.

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