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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Well That Sure was Fun. Now What?

I generally avoid reviewing reviews of things I haven't seen or read; it would be hard to imagine a means of forming opinions more baseless. However, I have a couple reasons for making an exception here.

First, Krugman writes an entire column that isn't guilty of ranting under the influence of naval gazing. More importantly, though, the book he reviewed, Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth raises enough ideas that can be debated without having to have read the book first.

Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.

It is hard to argue with this. For someone living in 1880, 1950 would be completely unimaginable. The gulf from 1950 to 2020 (absent something completely unforeseeable) is tiny by comparison.

The Great Inventions — electricity, flush toilets, cars, airplanes, and the like — transformed life in ways that subsequent inventions haven't and can't. Their spread was the cause of the nearly a century's worth of rapid economic growth; that all the Great Inventions have been invented and fully adopted means that the growth we have become used to is already a thing of the past.

I think that conclusion is very difficult to argue against. Even if you add IT to the list of Great Inventions (Gordon apparently does not), computers haven't transformed our lives in the way the Great Inventions have — and won't so long as artificial intelligence, which still makes a cricket look brilliant, perpetually remains five years in the future.

As for the Great Inventions themselves, they have all followed identical horizontal-S performance curves. Slow at first, then a phase of rapid improvement, followed by near stagnation. Indoor plumbing has already improved our lives as much as it ever will. Airplanes will never go faster than they do now. Space flight will always be extraordinarily difficult and limited.

Does that mean everything has been invented? Of course not. Graphene, for just one likely example, is "about 100 times stronger than strongest steel with hypothetical thickness of 3.35Å which is equal to the thickness of graphene sheet. It conducts heat and electricity efficiently and is nearly transparent.[4] Researchers have identified the bipolar transistor effect, ballistic transport of charges and large quantum oscillations in the material."

Just the first property alone could make featherweight airplanes, trains, cars, and rockets.

All of which would still be subject to the same barriers they do now: the speed of sound, wind resistance, and reaction mass. They would do what exactly what they do now, but more cheaply. The payload fraction of a space launch would go up, but it wouldn't get anywhere significantly more quickly.

In short, we may be reaching an economic and existential "end of history".

Krugman, true to form, bangs the inequality drum, without noticing his own review has taken away the sticks:

So what does this say about the future? Gordon suggests that the future is all too likely to be marked by stagnant living standards for most Americans, because the effects of slowing technological progress will be reinforced by a set of “headwinds”: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.

It’s a shocking prediction for a society whose self-image, arguably its very identity, is bound up with the expectation of constant progress. And you have to wonder about the social and political consequences of another generation of stagnation or decline in working-class incomes.

Even though there are no more Great Inventions* — and this should be glaringly obvious to even the most casual observer of reality — stagnant incomes do not mean stagnant living standards. All the minor inventions surrounding the Great Inventions have flattened consumption. Everyone has smart phones, garbage disposals, flush toilets, air conditioning, ad nearly infinitum. The rich undoubtedly have fancier of all those things, but there is scarcely anything the rich have that the rest of us do not.

Cars are a perfect example, perhaps one I have overused. The average new car today could not have been bought for any amount of money 20 years ago. The average four year old car today is so much better than even the best new car of 40 years ago as to make meaningful price comparisons impossible. Yet the time it takes an average worker to earn the money required to buy an average new car today is identical to what it was in the mid-1970s: 23 weeks.**

Stagnant income means stagnant living standards? Wanna trade your Focus for a Pinto? The question answers itself. And cars are by far from the only example.

The point here isn't that growing inequality*** doesn't exist, but rather that it leaves one wondering how important it is. Yes, perhaps, probably, even, there are no game changing innovations left. To me, the more interesting question is what it might be like for civilization itself to have reached the right side of that horizontal-S curve. If that is indeed the case, then humanity is looking at an indefinite future that has the same aspect as the indefinite past before the industrial age: incremental, scarcely noticeable change.

Hard to conceive of, given what we have lived through in my lifetime.



* Genetic engineering notwithstanding

** No, I am not going to track down the source for that one. You will just have to trust me.

*** Clearly inequality is growing, but progressives, for whom this is the latest new religion omit, or confuse, a great many things: free agency, composition vs. characteristic, and correlation of class with divorce, among other things. No matter, the concept fluffs their looting fetish, so we are stuck with it.

31 comments:

Bret said...

"...artificial intelligence, which still makes a cricket look brilliant..."

No, I think we're well past lizard at this point, maybe even approaching small rodent.

"...the expectation of constant progress."

Well, agriculture, for example, was invented a really, really long time ago. Yet there's still constant progress to the point where hunger is seemingly ever diminishing and fatness is seemingly ever increasing as food becomes ever more abundant and inexpensive. The point being that incrementally improving production of existing inventions is still progress and important progress and there's plenty of room for that for quite a while yet.

In fact, progress in many areas is beginning to unravel the fundamental economic question: how to distribute limited/scarce resources in the face of unlimited (sometimes called "infinite") wants. When things like basic foodstuffs are on a trajectory to more than satisfy the consumption desires of everyone on the planet, then economics is studying the wrong problem: it becomes distributing unlimited resources to finite humans. Many demand curves in the United States are already essentially vertical for a wide range of low prices which destabilizes the laws of supply and demand in those regions.

So, plenty of room for progress as far as I can tell.

There are also a number of game changing inventions, perhaps coupled with abundant resources. For example, a truly full immersion virtual reality where we can live our lives in any fantasy/non-reality we choose. Socialists can live in their favored non-reality, libertarians in theirs, religionists in theirs, etc. so utopia will finally be realized for all. That's maybe centuries away (possibly less), but still something to be invented.

Lastly, we probably have no idea of many Great Inventions that are left to be invented. They won't be known until they are invented. That's almost by definition.

We bought and watched the Back to the Future series at the end of last year (since the 2nd flick was set in 2015). It was impressive how they got pretty much every single thing regarding inventions, technology and progress comically wrong.

Susan's Husband said...

I'll just have to disagree with Skipper on space technologies - a significant lowering of mass to orbit costs would be a massive change, probably not on the order of the Great Inventions but likely on the scale of the IT revolution.

I mainly wanted to note that income inequality, if it is a problem, seems to be made worse by progressive policies even as they complain about it. No state has more income inequality than California, the primary bastion of progressive policies. Or Cuba, another admirable state to progressives despite its massive wealth inequalities. My take away is the progressives, as usual, don't care at all about what they claim to, but have some other goal in mind.

erp said...

Gosh, I'm not pessimistic about our ability to invent. There are probably a couple of young guys in a garage as we speak inventing something we can't imagine, but which will change our lives in ways we can't imagine.

I remember my physicist son saying that around the turn of the 20th c. a prominent scientist said something like, all is known and now there is only small tweaking left to be done. Of course that was silly then and this all is known is silly now.

Skipper, I was hoping you'd do a post on a new plane that Glenn posted about yesterday. Here to Australia in half an hour using some process that seemed to ignore physical laws as we know them?

Clovis e Adri said...

To second Erp and her son, I'd like to remind that we don't know what makes up 96% of the Universe. So much for 'all is known'...

BTW, there is a good part of the world that still has little access to much of the Great Inventions. Soma economic growth still has a long way to go only with what is already trivial for you guys. (I read Skipper saying "Everyone has smart phones, garbage disposals, flush toilets, air conditioning, ad nearly infinitum", and I laugh out loud.)

Peter said...

For someone living in 1880, 1950 would be completely unimaginable. The gulf from 1950 to 2020 (absent something completely unforeseeable) is tiny by comparison.

Fascinating, and I think largely true if we add the Pill to the Great Inventions. However, as we're indulging in sweeping generalities, I'm going to throw out the idea that the psychological gulf is much greater. The average citizen in 1880 would, I think, recognize his 1950's descendant's basic attitude to family, moral and material improvement, optimism, patriotism, religion (more or less), civic involvement and responsibility, etc., etc. One was much more comfortably materially than the other, but they were both guided by the gods of necessity. I don't mean they're weren't many divisions about how to get from here to there, simply that they would have shared a basic notion of what "there" looked like.

Now that we've satisfied basic material needs and a lot of wants, we're becoming more and more unhinged. Would not both of them been astounded by the therapeutic and victim cultures, political rage, cultural self-hatred, the crazy sports culture, insatiable celebrity adoration, doomsday scientism, neurotic health extremism, unlimited sex and gore porn, the banal narcissism of social media, living on debt, psychological fragility, the downgrading of family and childcare responsibilities, etc., etc.? And, oh yeah, checking the 24 hour Weather Channel several times a day. It seems that building prosperity may be much healthier than living in it.

Income inequality is a serious issue that risks polluting the political landscape, not for the first time. But popular concern over it will be in large part a reflection of many people searching for causes to spice up their banal lives. They will prefer street slogans to serious analyses of causes, solutions and trade-offs. Conservatives are going to need some political giants to lead them in dealing with it.

erp said...

Kudos Peter.

Is the weather channel another name for porn and not the kind that used to be considered scandalous in Playboy-type magazines. Saw something about a man dancing with his cell phone while driving on the highway. I think he killed himself, don't know if he took others with him. Videos games and virtual reality replaces sports and outdoor activities.

Bret said...

"...artificial intelligence, which still makes a cricket look brilliant..."

The ancient game of "Go" is about to fall to computers:

"Tic-tac-toe fell in 1952, checkers in 1994, chess in 1997 and it now looks like Go, the ancient Chinese game that has a search space many, many times greater than chess, has fallen to a new AI from Google."

Yes, AI is very disjoint in that this AI can't do anything but play Go and other AIs can only do what they can do. But what's learned in the process of creating these AIs is making it easier and easier to create yet more very powerful applications that exceed human capabilities and thus far exceed cricket capabilities.

Speaking of google, they recently open-sourced their "deep learning development environment" called TensorFlow.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] No, I think we're well past lizard at this point, maybe even approaching small rodent.

I'll bet AI is nowhere near a fly, or a bumblebee. And I'll bet AI can't come close to the goal driven behavior of a lizard, never mind a rodent. As far as that goes, I'd be astonished if AI can negotiate the paths that lizards or rodents take at anywhere near the rate that they do.

Well, agriculture, for example, ...

But that illustrates the point. With regard to economic growth and its impact on our lives, the agricultural revolution is over. Yes, the are many countries that are way too close to starvation, and have way too many people performing agricultural labor, but that is, in this regard, irrelevant.

Yes, there is room for progress, but compared to the span between 1850 and 1950, it will be incremental and glacially slow.

We bought and watched the Back to the Future series at the end of last year (since the 2nd flick was set in 2015). It was impressive how they got pretty much every single thing regarding inventions, technology and progress comically wrong.

Yes, they did. But the ways in which they got it wrong prove the point -- there haven't been any Great Inventions since 1985.

I know that my imagination is no brake on human ingenuity, but, aside from effective genetic engineering, can you think of any Great Invention that hasn't been invented yet that is even remotely plausible?

[AOG:] I'll just have to disagree with Skipper on space technologies - a significant lowering of mass to orbit costs would be a massive change ...

Really? <a href="Here are some numbers from the Saturn V:

Empty mass 287,000 lb
Gross mass 5,040,000 lb.

If the rocket itself weighed nothing, the vehicle would still weigh more than four million pounds just to get itself into orbit. Obviously, eliminating tare weight means that the payload could increase by a similar amount, so the cost per payload pound would correspondingly decrease.

All the way from astonishingly hugely incredibly expensive to merely hugely incredibly expensive. It still won't get there any faster, and except for large destinations, won't be able to stop at the other end.

Even given the most optimistic assumption, that is incremental progress.

Hey Skipper said...

[AOG:] I mainly wanted to note that income inequality, if it is a problem, seems to be made worse by progressive policies even as they complain about it. No state has more income inequality than California, the primary bastion of progressive policies.

Regardless of the validity of your assertion (I don't disagree, BTW), you are, to some extent, making the same mistake that the Picketty's of the world do. Part of the reason for increasing inequality is the increase in immigration that has occurred over the same period.

Whether that is a good idea or not, whether it has reduced wages for people at the low end of the scale, mass immigration must, in and of itself, increase income inequality. Just as the correlation of divorce and income must, and the advent of free agency.

Anyway, before deciding how much worse progressive policies have made things, it is worth knowing how much worse they actually are.

[erp:] Skipper, I was hoping you'd do a post on a new plane that Glenn posted about yesterday. Here to Australia in half an hour using some process that seemed to ignore physical laws as we know them?

Link?

[Peter:] Fascinating, and I think largely true if we add the Pill to the Great Inventions.

That is brilliant. I'll bet the author never even though of that (no knowing without having read the book, of course, but it didn't get a mention in the review), and I sure as heck didn't.

I'll bet it would occur to women right off the bat, though.

Income inequality is a serious issue that risks polluting the political landscape …

But if the book's thesis is correct, other than conceptual pollution, it seems that income inequality is much more a conceptual problem than a real one. If the list of things the fabulously wealthy have that the rest do not is small to non-existent, how much does inequality really matter?

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "I'd be astonished if AI can negotiate the paths that lizards or rodents take at anywhere near the rate that they do."

I think you're confusing mechanical limitations with AI limitations. If you put enough money into the mechanics, you get the basis for quite fast reacting AI. You guys who fly around your super expensive jets forget that the rest of us have to live within many orders of magnitude smaller mechanical budgets.

But autonomous cars are here too and they are or at least will soon be negotiating paths at much, much higher speeds than lizards. Or at least I don't know of any lizards that go 70mph. And if you say its only the constraints of roads make it possible, the DARPA challenges were generally completely off-road and many years old at this point.

Hey Skipper wrote: "...can you think of any Great Invention that hasn't been invented yet that is even remotely plausible?"

Once again, I think the next "Great Invention" will be something we haven't thought of yet. However, total immersion virtual reality would qualify, and it's coming.

Hey Skipper wrote: "But the ways in which they got it wrong [in Back to the Future] prove the point..."

In many ways not. For example, there are prominent and numerous pay phones in the movie. I'm sure you can still find a pay phone somewhere, but they're rare. What that shows is they were unable to foresee the improvement and widespread adoption of mobile phones based on countless inventions. So it's not only what they thought might be invented, but what they didn't realize would be invented.

Peter said...

it seems that income inequality is much more a conceptual problem than a real one

If the general public thinks there is an even-playing field and equal opportunity, then you are right up to a point (in-you-face conspicuous consumption will at some point be inflammatory--see the Gilded Age). But if they come to believe the fix is in and that the other guy's gain is built on their loss, I don't think showing them they are still better off than their ancestors will assuage their anger much, and I'm not sure it should.

The upper half has recovered nicely from 2008. The lower half hasn't, although they still have smartphones, flush toilets, etc. Do you think that is politically sustainable. I don't.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

---
I think the next "Great Invention" will be something we haven't thought of yet. However, total immersion virtual reality would qualify, and it's coming.
---

Let me take an issue with that, Bret.

Other than giving us a much improved 3D version of what we have with Skype, for example, hence enabling a lot more of connective experiences without the need of human transportation (like school, work, etc), why would you qualify "total immersion" VR as a "Great Invention" at all?

I think it would be a good improvement over our present telecommunication settings, but only that: an extra-incremental improvement, not a Great Invention by itself.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

---
I think you're confusing mechanical limitations with AI limitations. If you put enough money into the mechanics, you get the basis for quite fast reacting AI. You guys who fly around your super expensive jets forget that the rest of us have to live within many orders of magnitude smaller mechanical budgets.
---

Which begs the question: what is the budget lizards and rodents have?

Susan's Husband said...

Skipper;

"Part of the reason for increasing inequality is the increase in immigration that has occurred over the same period"

I am not discounting that, because it is one of the progressive policies that has lead to the inequality in CA.

Peter;

"If the general public thinks there is an even-playing field and equal opportunity, then you are right up to a point (in-you-face conspicuous consumption will at some point be inflammatory--see the Gilded Age). But if they come to believe the fix is in and that the other guy's gain is built on their loss"

Yet another result of progressive policies. This is why I object so strenuously to government intervention in the economy because it creates not on the perception of the game being fixed but the reality as well.

Skipper;

"Even given the most optimistic assumption, that is incremental progress"

Yes, but incremental progress can reach a tipping point at which the qualitative effect of a small change is very large. That is what I meant by massive change, not that the payload cost to orbit itself would be so very different. Let me give you an analogy from a more distant time. Originally agriculture was secondary because a human family could not grow enough food to feed itself and had to also forage. But as incremental improvements increased the yield, at some point that changed and once that changed the follow on effects were massive, even as the yield continued to have only incremental improvements.

P.S. As for stopping some place that isn't large, haven't we landed probes on comets, which is a contradiction to your claim? And if you can land a probe, small payload cost improvements let you land enough to capture the comet / planetoid and bring it back with an utterly massive payoff. That's a tipping point.

erp said...

Peter, The upper half has recovered nicely from 2008. The lower half hasn't, .. and the reason is the upper half are crony capitalists who recovered tax payer money, they didn't add anything and the private sector where the jobs are created has been taking it in the neck, literally and figuratively.

erp said...

Skipper, I looked for a link to the fast plane before I mentioned it in the comment, but couldn't find it. Just searched pjmedia again and nothing? I didn't pay too much attention to details because I thought you'd make it understandable to the scientifically handicapped.

Bret said...

erp,

There's always this one. Branson at Virgin thinks something like this will be available in the next 50 years or so.

Bret said...

But really, to me, this is far more exciting. And possibly doable in the much nearer term.

erp said...

I saw this when I was searching, but it apparently needs a tube -- doesn't travel through the air. Could it be a chunnel type thing going under the oceans? We haven't completed our bucket list, but can't sit in airplanes for the hours it would take to see the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China or Australia -- I'd also love to take the cruise around Antarctica Skipper took a couple of years ago, but couldn't endure getting to Chile.

Only the draw of my baby granddaughter gets me to San Francisco and she's a sly one. Keeps getting cuter by the minute, so I will not be able to resist another trip for her 2nd birthday next summer.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] There's always this one. Branson at Virgin thinks something like this will be available in the next 50 years or so.

Two words: 20 passengers.

Concorde was a disaster, both technically and financially. The only reason it operated at all was that the French and British governments completely wrote off all the costs associated with building the first airframe. All that BA and Air France had to pay for was the incremental cost of building each airplane.

That's bad enough.

Making matters worse is that -- Harry, pay attention here -- is that the socialist pressure to make the foolish seem successful meant that Concorde had some very, very serious flaws which meant that trivial, which is the same as saying inevitable, failures could result in catastrophe.

Concorde is the only airplane ever built that was shot down by its own tires. And it was nearly shot down several times before it killed 109 people, and came close as dammit is to swearing to wiping out a 747.

Of course, it may be that this Virgin Atlantic thing could be built without trivial single point failures. But that doesn't relieve it of its fundamental foolishness. Concorde wasn't economically viable because the cost per seat mile skyrockets when airspeeds go past about .88 Mach.

The cost per seat mile of this thing wouldn't be bearable if 500 people were on it, never mind 20.

And there is no Great Invention that will overcome the horizontal-S.

But really, to me, this is far more exciting. And possibly doable in the much nearer term.

Absolutely, except for that darn reality thing.

California, foolishly, is hoping to squander squillions of dollars on high speed rail. Presumably, this will be that, only better.

But is it?

You can't build the route without taking terrain into account. Presuming 400 mph, what curve is the minimum curve radius before imposing unwelcome g-loading on the passengers.

Here is the equation. TR = v^2/g*GR | TR = turn radius, v = speed in feet per second (1.69 * mph), g = God's g (32.2 fps/s).

What that boils down to is that other than trivial vertical development will require either very, very long bridges to ease the incline, or very long re-routing (because of turn radii measured in miles).

And that is going to be cheaper than airplanes how?

Hey Skipper said...

[AOG:] P.S. As for stopping some place that isn't large, haven't we landed probes on comets, which is a contradiction to your claim? And if you can land a probe, small payload cost improvements let you land enough to capture the comet / planetoid and bring it back with an utterly massive payoff. That's a tipping point.

Why didn't New Horizons enter into Plutonian orbit, rather than conduct one of the fastest drive-bys ever?

If the structural mass fraction was zero, would Rosetta have been able to reach Comet Philea in less than 12 years?

The distances are so enormous, and gravity so tyrannical, that it would take less time to melt the Antarctic with a bunsen burner than to go, and remain, anywhere beyond Neptune.

Incremental aint going to hack it.

And is there any evidence at all, even a smidgeon would do, that the composition of any comet or asteroid is so significantly different than garden variety Earth dirt, that would make hauling the reaction mass required to haul it back anything less than a million times as stupid as Concorde?

Susan's Husband said...

Skipper;

It wasn't worth it for New Horizons, but it was worth it for Huygens. But complaining about the inability to operate easily in trans-Neptunian regions is really a goal post more for you, and similar to saying the New World was too inaccessible because people couldn't not immediately get to the Rocky Mountains. The resources that will be valuable over the next 100 years or so are all inward from Neptune.

I'm not sure why you think taking a long time is such a draw back. People frequently invest in long time horizon projects.

"is there any evidence at all, even a smidgeon would do, that the composition of any comet or asteroid is so significantly different than garden variety Earth dirt"

Yes.

"M-type (metal-rich) asteroids form about 10% of the total population; their spectra resemble that of iron-nickel".

Harry Eagar said...

' The only reason it operated at all was that the French and British governments completely wrote off all the costs associated with building the first airframe. All that BA and Air France had to pay for was the incremental cost of building each airplane.'

Unlike, say, the 707

Hey Skipper said...

Indeed, completely unlike the 707.

erp said...

Skipper, sorry to introduce this jibberish, but your post about the limitations of air travel was so clear I actually was able to follow it and it got me thinking about that article I read which I think I remember solving the problems you talk about by shooting straight up and then coming down at one's destination avoiding the vicissitudes of earth bound navigation.

That got me to thinking about terminals in space ala Star Wars where travelers make connections to their destinations in comfort with restaurants and shops morphing into cities ... What fun that would be.

Plausible?

Hey Skipper said...

[erp:] Plausible:

No.

The payload to launch mass ratio is so tiny (Apollo XIV weighed 7.8 million pounds at liftoff, of which 7.7 million pounds was not payload. Well, more accurately, 7.8 million pounds. The total mass that was launched, and returned to Earth, was less than 12,000 pounds. That is scarcely rounding error.) that there is no feasible way that the per-pound launch cost can get even remotely economical for getting significant mass into orbit, never mind beyond.

Today it costs $10,000 per pound to get into low earth orbit. No mention of what it costs to get there and back. Double is a fair guess.

That NASA fluff sheet pretends we will get those costs down to $100/pound by 2025. Color me skeptical Even so, the per-pound cost is for all pounds, not just payload. So my cost to orbit wouldn't be just $16,500, it would also have to include spacecraft structure, consumables, plus all the propellant and structure that would have to get hauled up into space so you could get back.

I'm not buying it.

erp said...

Sigh ...

Hey Skipper said...

[AOG:] The resources that will be valuable over the next 100 years or so are all inward from Neptune.

Huh?

Name an element. How expensive would it have to be for mining it on Earth to be more expensive then getting to an object in space, returning it to Earth's orbit, then returning it to the surface in a usable condition?

You are free to assume that such an object would 100% pure for whatever element you choose.

Hey Skipper said...

[erp:] Sigh ...

Agreed. I want to be wrong, but that horizontal-S keeps getting in the way.

Susan's Husband said...

Skipper, I think the biggest flaw in your analysis is its unstated presumption that all materials used in space operations originate on Earth.

Hey Skipper said...

AOG -- you are putting the cart before the horse.

I maintain there is element in space that can't be gotten far more cheaply here on Earth, therefore, no matter how much of what is used in space originates there, it will never make sense to make the attempt in the first place.

A point which graphene makes: presuming it is everything it is said to be, then by those very virtues carbon replaces many other elements, yet is so common as to render pointless that which it enables.