Kevin Kelly on why Robert Gordon is wrong

by on January 2, 2013 at 12:17 am in History, Science | Permalink

This is a very good piece.  Here is the closing bit:

In his paper Robert Gordon talks about the huge value gained from “one-time” events, such as the one-time (first and last) move of a large proportion of women into the workforce. This new gain happens only once (assuming they remain). In this computer-internet economy we are experiencing a one-time gain from a huge one-time event. This is the first and only time a planet will get wired up into a global network. We are alive at this critical moment in history, and we are just at the beginning of the beginning of the many developments that will erupt because of this shift.

Cory Doctorow has interesting comments.

Ashok Rao January 2, 2013 at 12:43 am

The Internet may well be a “one-time” event, but I think the benefits of this latter-day technological event have yet to be seen. Only the coming generations really know how to leverage technology towards productive pursuits so right now, for much of the work force, it’s really a huge social and political lubricant but I don’t think it increases work productivity as much as people claim.

The one-time shift from technology has yet to come (I hope).

john personna January 2, 2013 at 9:12 am

I have accused pessimists (including Tyler) of using time dilation to their advantage. We naturally collapse centuries of progress in our mind, and compare “right now” to whole spans. On that … Good Lord, Gordon actually asked for a comparison between all human history until 2002, and the ten years since? Serious? (How many “one time shifts” actually took a century or more to shake out?)

john personna January 2, 2013 at 9:14 am

(We can easily imagine some future-Gordon complaining that progress between 3002 and 3012 does not trump all the progress up until 3002.)

Rahul January 2, 2013 at 11:07 am

What about choosing between all advances (a) from 1890 to 1950 versus (b) 1950 to now with both options being allowed all pre-1890 advances.

I think that makes for a more sensible question, at least? Though the details might be tricky. Most advances are incremental so does Cohort (b) get to keep airplanes and radios or not?

john personna January 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm

It took a good span from 1890 to 1950 to make indoor plumbing common, and then the lack unusual. (Or from unusual airplanes to low cost passenger service.)

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Rahul,

Cohort (b) does not include any radios or airplanes. Neither existed in 1890. Marconi’s work started around 1894. Of course, Maxwell and Hertz predate Marconi. However, they didn’t build actual radios. The history of powered flight is complex with many claims of precedent. However, serious efforts begin with the Wright Brothers.

Rahul January 2, 2013 at 10:35 pm

My point was it is sometimes difficult to ascribe a date to an invention because so much of it is based on prior art. e.g. We agree, say, the Concorde itself was invented post-1950 so will we allow Cohort (b) access to it?

Ian Lippert January 2, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Also, the internet and smart phones are not the primary cause of growth they are an incidental effect of moore’s law. The technology is the growth of computing power that continues today unabated in accordance with Moore’s “law”. Sure iphones and ipad seem superfluous to luddites like Gordon (aka old people), but they are essentially an after effect that will be superseded by other more important techs as computer chips get even more powerful. We may argue over the benefits of the iphone but its pretty easy to see us getting self driving cars in the next decade and complex robotics in the following decade.

What the iphone has done is funneled a massive amount of consumer demand into the miniaturization of computer chips. Its pretty much impossible to predict what effect this process will eventually have when it has only been going on for less than five years.

john personna January 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Right. The iPhone is a “ubiquitous computing” milestone, but not an endpoint.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm

I understand that it’s hard to quantify the value of modern smart phones economically. But it’s hard to believe having much of the sum of human knowledge available at my beck and call 24/7 is not economically beneficial. It’s certainly worth more to me than the $50 per month I pay for it.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Ian Lippert,

“Also, the internet and smart phones are not the primary cause of growth they are an incidental effect of moore’s law”

That’s half true. The other half is DWDM (Dense Wave Division Multiplexing) or stated more colloquially, optical fibers. Without DWDM we would still have ultra fast PC and cell phones, but no Internet. Of course, a low bandwidth Internet could still exist (text only Email, text web pages, etc.) However, the Internet as we know it today would be impossible.

Everyone who is technically literate has heard of Moore’s Law. DWDM is just as important, but obscure.

Pauly January 2, 2013 at 5:47 pm

I think DWDM is just a way to concentrate backbone traffic on fewer but higher capacity links. A higher bandwidth internet would still be feasible without, but would require more routes and maybe more hops (and so perhaps a low latency video capable internet might be less feasible). But I also think this concentration also results in slightly different telecom business models.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Pauly,

Two points. First, I should have written that “The other half is optical fibers and DWDM”. Optical fibers (with DWDM) have a data capacity very roughly 1 million times greater than the long-distance broadband technologies that preceded them. Without that 1 million fold increase in capacity (and equally dramatic fall in broadband costs/prices), the current Internet could not exist.

DWDM allows each fiber to carry vastly (up to 160 times) as much data as would otherwise be possible. Obviously the same capacity could be provided with more fibers. However, that would also cost much more.

Rahul January 2, 2013 at 10:38 pm

@Peter:

Interesting point. I wonder, could that have led to a mostly entirely wireless internet? Is such a beast technically feasible and what ways would it differ in?

Take current high-end mobile devices, e.g. Ipad’s etc. The last mile internet delivery is anyways without wires on those; the changes necessary would be in the cellular base station links etc.

Wonder if we’d hit an inherently wireless channel bandwidth limit.

Peter Schaeffer January 3, 2013 at 12:31 am

@Rahul,

Two points. First, wireless is almost always slower than wired. WiFi is a modest exception, but only because it (typically) is very short range and connects to a wired ADSL/Cable modem. The correct comparison is 2G/3G/4G which are almost always considerably slower than the wired Internet.

The second point is really more substantive. 2-4G is delivered by a forest of cell phone towers. Backhaul from the towers is either fiber or microwave. The next level up is more or less invariably fiber. In other words, 2-4G wireless is just another “last mile” technology (like ADSL or cable) that relies on a fiber core to actually connect end users (PCs, smartphones, etc.) to web sites.

Here is some easy perspective on the relative capacity of fiber versus 2-4G wireless. The cellular bands used for 2-4G are typically less than 100 MHZ (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_frequencies) and that bandwidth is roughly shared by everyone in the cell (the actual rules are much more complex). By contrast, a single fiber can carry 1.6 terabits (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wavelength-division_multiplexing) and a cable can contain many fibers (potentially dozens or far more).

Emerald Express is an example of a current generation optical fiber system (see http://www.verneglobal.com/node/39). Emerald Express will connect the United States with Europe using 6 optical fiber pairs. Each pair will carry 10 terabits of data per second.

As you can see, wireless (any G) is inherently constrained by the need to use radio frequencies (to penetrate walls) and by sharing. By contrast, optical fibers use infrared lasers than operate in the 200 THZ range and each fiber operates independently of any other fiber in the cable.

derek January 2, 2013 at 12:55 am

The ‘one time’ event isn’t done yet. We are still at the level of toys (twitter and facebook). Great toys, fun, with utility, but still toys. To do real work still requires substantial investment in half finished implementations. It is changing quickly however; what I look for is whether the technology available to someone like Ford is available to a 3 man shop. Not only basic function, but something available at the price point that they can afford that does all the things necessary for their specific line of business. The hardware is there, the software is getting close.

And further is the connection and ability to monitor and control the basic functions of your home. For example pretty well every heating and cooling hardware sold in the last decade has some way of telling you by flashing lights what is wrong when it quits. But you still have to remove a panel and/or stand on your head to figure it out. At one point, it isn’t there yet, the next replacement will include some means of communication that could be used for energy conservation, asset management or the like. This stuff has been around for large commercial applications since the 80′s, expensive and complex. But for commodity level applications it will be soon.

I also think GDP is the wrong way to measure these things. If I install a solution that cuts energy consumption by 40%, where the system costs 30% or so more than a baseline system (something that would have been installed in any case), how does the GDP numbers add up? A proportionately small increase initially that will be offset by lower input expeditures. Most of these things that are done are GDP neutral over 3/4 of a decade or so. The utility in my area pays people to do these things as well, which allows them to put off by years the investment in new generation capacity, which also affects GDP on the downside. Many of these systems are only possible with the technological advances in computers.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 1:20 am

derek,

“I also think GDP is the wrong way to measure these things. If I install a solution that cuts energy consumption by 40%, where the system costs 30% or so more than a baseline system (something that would have been installed in any case), how does the GDP numbers add up?”

It adds to GDP by reducing (assuming it does) OER (Owner’s Equivalent Rent). In other words, it shows up as lower housing costs which increases real GDP at any level of nominal GDP.

Bill January 2, 2013 at 10:24 am

Peter,

Can you point to the place where owner’s equivalent rent is included in any standard, reported GDP measures. I think GDP is measured–at least in reported measures–by monetized transactions, not by imputed rents.

Like when my wife worked at home, and I mowed the lawn–was that in your GDP measure.

Claudia January 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Bill, welcome to by world: http://www.bea.gov/national/pdf/NIPAhandbookch5.pdf search for “rental of tenant- and owner-occupied nonfarm housing.” The NIPAs are constructed so that GDP is invariant to whether you rent or own your house. So all those home owners are paying “imputed rent” to themselves. I am thoroughly puzzled by Peter’s point, but I would agree that current GDP is not always the best metric.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm

” So all those home owners are paying “imputed rent” to themselves.”

I’m not sure that’s correct for the scenario stated.

“If I install a solution that cuts energy consumption by 40%, where the system costs 30% or so more than a baseline system, how does the GDP numbers add up?””

Assuming, that it’s an economically advantageous transaction then the homeowner pays less money each month for utilities. More homeowners would jump on the bandwagon, since it’s beneficial. The market for this energy enhancement would grow and the firms producing and selling it would profit. This would be directly reflected in GDP.

There would not be any change from the homeowner’s end, since they would likely spend the money they save on something else anyway. However, there would be direct economic growth in the production/sales side of the equation.

Claudia January 2, 2013 at 1:53 pm

As I said: “I am thoroughly puzzled by Peter’s point.” Yeah, I agree this is not the place to go looking in the GDP accounts for energy efficiencies measures…maybe try energy services? I was simply answering Bill’s question. GDP has more than money transactions…there are several in services.

Bill January 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Claudia, The piece you quoted is limited to housing to rental, consumption of farm produces produced on your own farm, but from what I read, and does not cover the examples I gave.

From the source:

“Table 5.1 shows the kinds of transactions that are included in and excluded from PCE. Most of PCE consists of purchases of new goods and of services by households from private business. In addition, PCE includes purchases of new goods and of services by households from government and government enterprises, the costs incurred by NPISHs in providing services on behalf of households, net purchases of used goods by households, and purchases abroad of goods and services by U.S. residents traveling, working, or attending school in foreign countries. PCE also includes expenditures financed by third-party payers on behalf of households, such as employer-paid health insurance and medical care financed through government programs, and it includes expenses associated with life insurance and with private and government employee pension plans. Finally, PCE includes imputed purchases that keep PCE invariant to changes in the way that certain activities are carried out—for example, whether housing is rented or owned or whether employees are paid in cash or in kind.1 PCE transactions are valued in market prices, including sales and excise taxes.”

If my wife takes care of an elderly grandparent who would otherwise go into a nursing home or need an attendant, which side of the equation (consumption or expenditure) does this get counted in the GDP measure? (Answer: it doesn’t) Or, take the examples I gave and show me where in the BEA definition it does get counted as a market measurable transaction.

Stiglitz did a piece on GDP measurement a while back that covers this, along with measures of happiness.

I, for one, am happy, and that is the measure I make in my personal GDP.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Bill,

Household services provided by residents (mowing your own lawn) are not in GDP. Nor is childcare provided by a mother or father to their own children. Obviously, GDP excludes many things of great value. However, your question was about housing and energy conservation. The gains from energy conservation do show up as incremental GDP (assuming that the energy conservation technology is cost effective).

Let me use an extreme hypothetical example. Say a new type of insulation was devised that was both free and perfect. This new insulation reduced home heating and air conditioning costs to zero. At any point in time, the government measures nominal GDP by aggregating monetized transactions (incomes) and adding in various adjustments such as OER (as verified by Claudia). Real GDP is calculated by deflating nominal GDP by the GDP deflator. Reducing heating and cooling bills to zero would cut the cost of housing and hence the GDP deflator raising real GDP.

Here is another perspective. Say hypothetically, all Americans rented their housing rather than owned it. The new insulation technology would reduce rents and hence the CPI. At any level of nominal money income, real income would increase. Of course, that assumes a perfectly competitive housing market. However, the outcome is the same even if all of the gains from zero heating/cooling accrued solely to landlords. Landlord incomes would rise without any decline to renter incomes. Once again, total income would increase.

Bill January 2, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Peter and Claudia,

I see that I was wrong regarding owner imputed rent inclusion within the GDP, and did not look back up to my comment concerning house rent when I replied to Claudia by citing the item she referred to and I see where this discussion of GDP inclusion applied only to building or house rents.

Derek I think though is right as to all other items than real estate rent, as they do not have imputed value, other than their market transaction costs, which is the only thing that is measured in GDP. In other words, narrowing the GDP discussion to housing may be a defensible ground FOR HOUSING (because GDP includes imputed rents in housing), but the GDP is has many more aspects than renting which is one of the few items imputed this way. To the extent that technological improvements replace more expensive alternatives, the GDP declines, but we are all better off (or at least some of us).

Claudia January 2, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Bill, my link was not clearest path to the point. Sorry I was getting distracted by the throwing around (incorrectly) of technical terms. You are right GDP does not capture non market activities…any kind of “home production” … though it does impute some non monetary flows like housing services and banking services. Derek posed a tough example IMO, but I agree with his point about GDP’s shortcoming, especially over a short horizon. Quality improvements should eventually be reflected in real GDP and resources freed up in one area (from say lower real outlays on energy) can be redirected to another. Taking the big view you should see a rise in living standards from technological improvements.

albatross January 2, 2013 at 2:44 pm

One idea that came through by implication in the linked article is that GDP may just not be all that great a way to measure the impact of large-scale changes in technology and society like this. Looking at yearly GDP changes may tell us something meaningful about what’s going on year to year (like, are things going well or badly), yet it may not be very useful in measuring the kind of big changes that reorder all of society, like women going into the workforce. (Women coming into the workforce surely made us wealthier, but much of the apparent increase in GDP from it represents work moving from inside-the-family unpaid work to outside-the-family paid work, and doesn’t really represent more wealth, just more dollars moving around.)

As an example: These last few years have been a rotten time to be in the magazine or encyclopedia business. It turns out that the free offerings online, thanks to blogs and podcasts and Wikipedia and Google, are devastating competition for them. If I would have bought a set of encyclopedias 15 years ago where I now just use Wikipedia, that’s a decrease in GDP. If I read a few blogs per day instead of getting a couple magazines and reading them, similarly, that’s a decrease in GDP–there are fewer goods and services being bought and sold. And yet, in both cases, I’m much happier with Wikipedia and the blogs than I would have been with a shelf of paper encyclopedias in my basement and a stack of Newsweeks on my coffee table.

Larry January 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Isn’t every tech advance a “one-time event” what’s your point?

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 1:17 am

The article reveals less than the author believes. In the third world, cell phones and service are amazingly cheap. For example, 77% of all Indians have cell phones (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommunications_statistics_in_India) with the market quickly approaching saturation. The proliferation of mobile phones before running water, toilets, grid electricity, etc. reflects the relative economics of each technology. It costs (far) less to deliver mobile service than to deliver electric power or running water. It does not show that Internet technology is somehow more “valuable”.

Even in the U.S. much of rural America had cars before electric power became available. Why? Cars were cheaper than the infrastructure required to deliver power to remote farms. The REA was created in the 1930s to overcome this problem.

The author points out that even large and (relatively) expensive new homes in China don’t even have outhouses. That maybe true, but doesn’t tell us much above the value of Internet technology vs. running water. Given the scale of the homes, the families clearly could afford outhouses. Why they don’t have any isn’t clear.

In another post, I pointed out that New Yorkers buy iPads and other gadgets vs. comfortable housing because iPads are cheap (tradeable) goods and decent housing is hopelessly unaffordable for almost everyone. The same logic holds for people in the third world. Running water is out of the question. Cheap mobile phones are commonplace. Note, that my comments on New York City apply most directly to Manhattan.

JB January 2, 2013 at 1:35 am

He proceeds to substitute breathlessness for argument, let alone eloquence, in his “optimism”.

This reminds me somewhat of the immigration debate and jobs. At the critical juncture the debate becomes feelings.

In both cases, the idea is to be a pundit and be invited to give talks to people who think they are immune to losing their jobs so that the speaker can salve their collective consciousness. However, they needn’t worry. They too will probably lose their jobs. They won’t even be able to compete with the sex droids in the “new service economy”.

So what’s the _real_ answer?

Here’s something he could have talked about but didn’t because it is depressing to think about how hard it would be to implement given the powers that be:

A citizen’s dividend paid equally to all adults that is financed by collecting the economic rent of civilization.

Since the powers that be have increasingly turned to rent-seeking, they will, of course, resent the very idea that “their” rents should belong to everyone. And they’re in a position to make sure that doesn’t change, aren’t they? As a result, things _will_become dystopian.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

“So what’s the _real_ answer?:
A citizen’s dividend paid equally to all adults that is financed by collecting the economic rent of civilization.”

Do you realize that’s not a ‘new’ idea? And that it’s effectively what we already do? We just don’t allocate it ‘equally’.

Or let me re-phrase it: Our you comfortable taking all of the money currently spent on Social Spending in the US lumping it all together and sending an equal check out to each citizen?

I’m sure Bill Gates would enjoy his Citizen dividend check of $19,500.

JB January 2, 2013 at 3:58 pm

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly isn’t what we do already. I’m talking about a Citizen’s Dividend replacing government transfer program public sector rent-seeking; replacing all government transfer programs (subsidies to individuals and businesses) with a Citizen’s Dividend.

You want to remove discretion from the appropriations process entirely with a CItizen’s Dividend aka a non-means-tested Basic Income so that there is no chunk of money sitting around waiting to be stolen by people who have the resources to steal it by virtue of having stolen it before (lobbyists/special interests/etc.).

Under a Citizen’s Dividend, there is no struggle over who gets what piece of the pie—the current regime’s rentiers are relegated to an equal rentier status to current non-rentiers which means they get less than they currently do and current non-rentiers get more than they currently do.

So the game changes in 2 fundamental ways:

1) It isn’t over who gets the biggest piece of the pie anymore.
2) It becomes over how to make the pie bigger in relation to the number of citizens.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm

“Under a Citizen’s Dividend, there is no struggle over who gets what piece of the pie—the current regime’s rentiers are relegated to an equal rentier status to current non-rentiers which means they get less than they currently do and current non-rentiers get more than they currently do. ”

And how many of the current rentiers are likely to agree to that proposition?

I’ll also point out that over the last 4 years the population receiving more largesse from the Federal government than they pay in taxes has grown drastically.

JB January 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm

As I wrote in my first comment: “Since the powers that be have increasingly turned to rent-seeking, they will, of course, resent the very idea that “their” rents should belong to everyone. And they’re in a position to make sure that doesn’t change, aren’t they? As a result, things _will_become dystopian.”

JB January 2, 2013 at 4:48 pm

As I wrote in my first comment: “Since the powers that be have increasingly turned to rent-seeking, they will, of course, resent the very idea that “their” rents should belong to everyone. And they’re in a position to make sure that doesn’t change, aren’t they? As a result, things _will_become dystopian.”

JB January 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

As I wrote in my first comment: “Since the powers that be have increasingly turned to rent-seeking, they will, of course, resent the very idea that “their” rents should belong to everyone. And they’re in a position to make sure that doesn’t change, aren’t they? As a result, things _will_become dystopian”

Tim Worstall January 2, 2013 at 7:45 am

Not so much with the one time either. We’ve good evidence that an increase in 10 per 100 with mobile phones in a country without a landline network increases GDP by 0.5% each and every year.

We’ve similar, if slightly less convincing, evidence that the same is true of broadband (but only of basic, at 2 Mbits, no evidence so far of high speed doing the same).

“In this computer-internet economy we are experiencing a one-time gain from a huge one-time event. This is the first and only time a planet will get wired up into a global network.”

Quite.

Therapsid January 2, 2013 at 8:24 am

Fine, but mobile phone and broadband penetration are one-off events. They’re not going to happen again in frontier economies like the U.S., Germany, and Japan.

Claudia January 2, 2013 at 8:09 am

from Cory:

“Which is to say that even though technology makes us more “productive” and puts more goods into more peoples’ hands, that the transition isn’t bloodless, it isn’t fair, and it isn’t always very nice.”

I will grant him that the Kelly piece focused heavilyon the positives, and yes there are negatives. But this quote about transitions reminded me of A LOT of life. Getting out bed in the morning is fraught with downsides…but most of us manage it. The integration of new technology, new workers (immigrants, women, minorities), and new information has always been tough, but it keeps proving worthwhile. I am all for the ‘eyes wide open’ approach, but it is important to keep moving forward.

The Anti-Gnostic January 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

The integration of new technology, new workers (immigrants, women, minorities), and new information has always been tough, but it keeps proving worthwhile.

Who, whom. The middle class hasn’t gotten a raise in thirty years, making the “integration of women” into the workforce a matter of necessity for families trying to maintain decent lifestyles, not some bold and visionary Great Leap Forward.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm

“Who, whom. The middle class hasn’t gotten a raise in thirty years”

US median income has been relatively stagnant for the last 13 years or so and that has been heavily affected by the Recession of 2008. So at best your statement seems exaggerated.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm

JW,

TAG is correct. Essentially all of the gains in family income since 1970 have come from increased labor inputs (women working). The incomes of single-earner households have been flat to declining over the same period. A fairly typical chart of household income can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_real_median_household_income_1967_-_2011.PNG. See http://visualeconsite.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/familyincomebyearners.gif for some family income data. The chart stops in 2004. Extending the data to 2012 would make it look much worse.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Unless you are holding household size constant then those charts are highly misleading. However, I’ll will concede the point that his statement is technically correct.

The average household size has been dropping over that period:
1970 3.14
1975 2.94
1980 2.76
1985 2.69
1990 2.63
1995 2.65
2000 2.62
2002 2.58

Source: http://www.census.gov/statab/hist/HS-12.pdf

The Anti-Gnostic January 2, 2013 at 10:28 pm

JWatts: It doesn’t occur to you that smaller households may be a reaction to stagnant wages and increased living costs forcing a caregiver into the workplace to maintain a certain living standard?

JWatts January 3, 2013 at 10:28 am

” It doesn’t occur to you that smaller households may be a reaction to stagnant wages and increased living costs forcing a caregiver into the workplace to maintain a certain living standard?”

Would I rule it out absolutely? No. However, it seems more likely to be a natural case of baby boomers getting older and leaving the nest, divorce becoming more socially acceptable/prevalent, college education in general and for women in particular becoming far more common, the glass ceiling in the work place dissolving and women wanting to not be stuck in the house all day everyday.

How many younger, college educated women want to spend all day everyday without a car, taking care of young children, cooking and cleaning (which was the standard in the 1970′s)? My wife sure doesn’t. We have 2 year old twins, but she still works two to three days a week. Which pretty much just covers the cost of the weekly child care fee. However, it gets her out of the house so she doesn’t go stir crazy.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 6:20 pm

TAG,

The Kulaks found that life under Stalin was tough, but it provide worthwhile… Claudia proudly profits from the system of exploitation (immigration farm workers) that make her family richer and dumps the costs on taxpayers. She might think differently if she had to send her own children to a public school overwhelmed by illegals, but apparently that’s not a problem.

Stalin’s commissars didn’t have a problem liquidating the enemies of progress. They knew they would leading the people of the Soviet Union forwards. Sure it was tough for some…

Claudia January 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Peter, seriously? Not the way to have serious conversation.

Rahul January 2, 2013 at 10:31 pm

You argue cogently typically Peter; so why this time degrade to the ad hominem? Was Stalin / Claudia’s personal life really relevant here?

Dave January 2, 2013 at 9:23 am

Also from Cory: “In America, anyone who proposes an increase in overall quality of life through public schools, health programs, libraries, or even Internet access, is immediately branded a socialist and dismissed out of hand.”

Huh? Don’t 90% of kids go to public schools? Are there any towns with more than 25,000 people that don’t have a library that has all sorts of community programs?

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Dave,

In the left-wing fantasy worldview America has no welfare, food stamps, WIC, TANF, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, public schools etc. because Grover Norquist won’t allow any of these things and he controls Congress. That’s an accurate statement of what Grover would prefer. It has nothing to do with the reality of American life.

TGGP January 5, 2013 at 10:47 pm

According to Doctorow’s wikipedia page, he has described his parents as being Trotskyist.

Bill January 2, 2013 at 10:43 am

Re: Gordon and Tyler

If you believe that economies are largely steady states, that things over time revert to the mean, that recessions and depressions are the exception and not the rule,

then you can place a bet

that tomorrow will be like yesterday

and that you can call your steady state

A Great Stagnation, but you could have also called it

Plodding Progress if you compress the time frame, and Real Growth if you compress it further.

Therapsid January 2, 2013 at 10:57 am

The point of the Great Stagnation is that it’s a break from the accelerating pace of growth our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents etc. had gotten used to. Western economies were not steady states after the Industrial Revolution, that’s why they diverged from Malthusian civilizations like Ming and Ch’ing Dynasty China.

Yes, we can describe our current epoch as one of Plodding Progress. It’s just that no intelligent person in the first two-thirds of the 20th century or during most of the 19th century would have described their ages in such a way, and with good reason.

Bill January 2, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Re: Growth of our parents or grandparents

Are we measuring as an example of progress, for example, growth after the destruction of WWII, without counting the destruction of WWII in the balance. In other words, if I destroy something, and then build to repair, this results in the growth of GDP since capital stock reduction is not offset against it.

Hurrican Sandy is a stimulus program contributing to GDP if you look at it this way.

I would argue there has been more progress today when you consider offsetting losses of capital stock in WWII than in my parents generation.

Andrew' January 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm

“The farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water.”

I doubt this. I suspect they have chosen cell phones and twitter over the dollar equivalent of the alternatives they could have gotten in exchange. Digits are cheap, and of relatively high and quickly accessible subjective value but they are not of the same fundamental value as clean water.

albatross January 2, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Are there good examples of social or technological one-time changes that make the society much poorer?

A couple examples I can think of:

a. The invention of hijacking, which made air travel more expensive (thanks to extra security). Even if some of that was overreaction, hijacking would require some added security somehow, and that costs money or convenience or safety somewhere.

b. The change from hitchhiking being a normal way people got around, to something almost universally seen as dangerous for both hitchhiker and driver, with the result being that it became harder to get around without a car.

c. The widespread use of some very addictive substance. Once tobacco had millions of people using it every day and dependent on it, it became a kind of drain on the whole society, since most public places smelled like cigarette smoke, many smokers developed health problems as a result, etc. Probably the existence of cocaine and meth and alcohol have similar effects. (In all three cases, there are also gains from the pleasure of the users, but the addiction/dependency aspect of them makes me think of them as permanent drains on wealth.)

None of these are very compelling, but it feels like there should be some good examples of social/technological innovations that made things a whole lot worse in a hard-to-reverse way.

Peter January 2, 2013 at 5:14 pm

A,

“None of these are very compelling, but it feels like there should be some good examples of social/technological innovations that made things a whole lot worse in a hard-to-reverse way.”

Nuclear fission and fusion for military purposes.

Brett January 2, 2013 at 5:29 pm

I’ll argue with that. The use of nuclear fission in submarines and ships reduces consumption of fossil fuels in the fleet, and the development of nuclear weapons has arguably been the reason why we haven’t had a Great Power conflict in nearly 70 years.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 6:29 pm

B,

“The use of nuclear fission in submarines and ships reduces consumption of fossil fuels in the fleet”

True, but trivial as a fraction of total U.S. (or global) liquid fuel consumption.

” the development of nuclear weapons has arguably been the reason why we haven’t had a Great Power conflict in nearly 70 years.”

I agree with that. However, the risk of minor power nuclear war over the next 70 years is non-zero.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 5:31 pm

“Nuclear fission and fusion for military purposes.”

I don’t see how these obviously made the world a whole lot worse. A nuclear war certainly has the potential to make the world a lot worse, but it hasn’t happened. And in any case, placing the ‘for military purposes’ is artificially bounding the point. If you are looking at nuclear fission/fusion you need to consider it’s net effect. That would include the use of nuclear fission for power.

Urso January 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Piracy is as old as the hills. Point 2 is interesting though. And you’d think iPhones would be the perfect antidote — an app could match up potential hitchhikers with potential drivers within a certain radius, and would leave a paper trail of who is driving who so there is a much reduced chance of a crime being committed by either one. And you could check a little facebook-like profile to help you avoid picking up weirdos.

This app needs to happen. There are probably legal barriers though. And if you think the taxi drivers were mad about the Uber app, holy hell will they hate this.

JWatts January 2, 2013 at 5:31 pm

“None of these are very compelling, but it feels like there should be some good examples of social/technological innovations that made things a whole lot worse in a hard-to-reverse way.”

a) Fascism
b) Communism.

Peter Schaeffer January 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm

+1

Peter Schaeffer January 3, 2013 at 12:47 am

A,

A few more (not in order of importance)

1. Chemical and biological warfare.
2. Crack cocaine and its meth equivalent (ice). From a technical standpoint, neither is new at all. From a societal standpoint, they are “innovations”.
3. Agriculture. It is widely argued that hunter gatherers had higher living standards.
4. The fall of Rome. Living standards plunged across much of Europe.

The book “Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future” for a list of major societal collapses.

Mexican Amate Painter January 2, 2013 at 2:19 am

I hate Cory Doctorow with insane intensity.

anon January 2, 2013 at 8:41 am

+1

CD wrote:
“In America, anyone who proposes an increase in overall quality of life through public schools, health programs, libraries, or even Internet access, is immediately branded a socialist and dismissed out of hand.”

Ann Althouse needs to give him a swift kick.

Andrew' January 2, 2013 at 11:51 am

Well yes, if you propose people don’t pay for those things, then yes, isn’t that definitional? Why are these people so value-laden? It must get tiring.

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