Is the rate of production of useful ideas really dependent on the number of people involved?

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony  By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74934767

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony

By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74934767

Conversations with Tyler is one of my favorite long reads at the moment. This recent talk with economist Paul Romer [recent winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics] overlaps nicely with many of my current obsessions [including English orthography!]. Today, let’s look at the rate of production of useful ideas. Romer brings up a paper by Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?“.

The model used here is a pretty simple one:

Here is what Romer says on the subject:

Chad Jones has really been leading the push, saying that to understand the broad sweep of history, you’ve got to have something which is offsetting the substantial increase in the number of people who are going into the R&D-type business or the discovery business. And that could take the form either of a short-run kind of adjustment cost effect, so that it’s hard to increase the rate of growth of ideas. Or it could be, the more things you’ve discovered, the harder it is to find other ones, the fishing-out effect.

I’ve had some thoughts myself about whether it really is harder to find new ideas, but I wonder whether the model posited is really telling us anything interesting. The equation has the form of a rate [research productivity per researcher] multiplied by the number of researchers. But per the notes in the paper, research productivity is defined as TFP growth divided by research effort, which is proxied by the number of researchers scaled by wages. This just cancels out the number of researchers, and gives us something like growth equals research productivity with an average wage fudge factor.

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

What it looks like to me is the rate of intellectual discovery is flat to slightly declining [when defined as equal to TFP growth], and that the number of people involved is completely irrelevant once you reach some relatively small threshold. I think the growth model referenced above is mostly useless for what it purports to be about.

That is a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it. My prediction is that you would get about the same rate of growth if you took most of the people doing “research” and had them do something else. On balance, they contribute nothing. [Or in my darker moments, I suspect a net negative contribution is possible….] When I think about this, I’ve made a number of simplifying assumptions, so let’s look at those.

#1: Innovation and scientific discovery are almost wholly the product of a few brilliant minds

This growth model matches up with other kinds of growth models in economics. When you are talking about how fast you make stuff, it is pretty plausible to think that adding more people will increase the overall rate of making stuff, even if you account for differences in ability. This is because given a method of production, there really isn’t much absolute difference in ability to make stuff. You can probably useful model such things as a random normal, which works well in general linear models.

For intellectual activity, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The distribution of accomplishment is nothing like ability. In practice, a tiny fraction of scientists produce the vast majority of results, with a distribution that looks something like a power law distribution. This isn’t a particularly obscure result, but it doesn’t seem to enter into the model.

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

What was done instead was an attempt to account for variations in productivity by looking at average wages. But again, this has the wrong form. Wages don’t vary as much as productivity does, or in the same way.

#2: The roles of the most innovative researchers are already filled by the most productive people

I think this one is arguable, but close enough, especially for the kind of outsize talents that really drive Solovian growth. Especially in a meritocratic age, the vast majority of bright, talented people already get a chance. To a first approximation, the most talented people are already doing what they are good at, so if you add more people, you are going to be adding researchers with a small probability of adding anything of huge impact. This is true even if you find smart people to do more research, given assumption #1.


Counterarguments

I can think of plausible arguments that should count against my argument above. I’ve made some of them before.

#C1: We aren’t talking about science, but engineering

The data behind the Lotka curve and other similar metrics mostly looks at unusual accomplishments, like publishing a lot of papers or winning big prizes. However, the data Jones et al. are looking are are mostly about total factor productivity growth, which is pretty clearly applied science, or what most of us call technology and engineering. This of its very nature is more diffuse, and needs a broader range of talents to actualize than a seminal paper does.

#C2: The historical rates of accomplishment in technology growth probably should be discounted because important things were left out

It is easy to build great things fast if you don’t need to worry about fracture analysis or environmental impacts. I’m sometimes horrified by the huge costs borne by the public during the Industrial Revolution, but I don’t face the choices they did either. Modern engineering is more labor intensive than it used to be because we have to integrate a much more comprehensive body of knowledge. And consequently, accidents of all types, environmental pollution, and infrastructure disasters are all less common than they used to be [with a huge caveat for China].

I take this as a justification for including all of the extra people who get paid to generate intellectual property. To be fair, not everyone involved in STEM work in the US falls into this bucket, and depending on how broadly IP is defined, it could also include a lot of non-STEM workers too.

#C3: Sectors like Pharmaceuticals seem to show this pattern of declining efficiency

Eroom’s Law

Eroom’s Law


On balance, I still think it is a little off-base to inflate the number of effective researchers so heavily over the last 90 years. When you take everything into account, I think even in technology, real advances are more Lotka curve like, but you also need a lot more people to get things done, but not 20 or 30 times as many, which is what Figure 1 from the Jones paper implies.

Pharma does look bad, but if you look at something like how much better imaging is, which heavily leverages Moore’s Law, medicine as a whole has developed quite a lot of new technology. What you get for it is another story, of course.

Linkfest 2018-08-13

While I am opposed to this kind of Luddism, it does demonstrate a kind of consistency. GMO does not actually describe all kinds of genetic engineering that we apply to food. Here is the article about the damage to the research plot.


Cash transfers and labor supply: Evidence from a large-scale program in Iran

The tweet that pointed me to this article about a UBI-style program in Iran noted that probably no one is interested in this example because no one wants Iran to be the good example. There are also complicated inflation-related effects going on.


Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

A nice book review on a subject of perennial interest here: class in America. The author of the book used a idiosyncratic definition of working class, family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962 [class isn't about money!], which produces some oddities of analysis, but the book review is nevertheless interesting.


BLUE-COLLAR BLUES

Another take on the same book about the working class from Claremont Review of Books.


The Myth of Thrusting versus Cutting Swords

Any idea of fighting you get through popular entertainment probably has more to do with stage direction than making people dead. I appreciate the work of the Association of Renaissance Martial Artists does to understand the history of martial arts in the West.


A Striking Similarity: The Revolutionary Findings of Twin Studies

Twin studies have labored under the shadow of Cyril Burt's flawed experiment for a century. Recent work is much better.


Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I find open borders to be a nutty idea, but I appreciated this look at the economic models behind many prominent economists' support of this radical notion. There is something to be said for trying to make the poorest people at least a little richer, but I worry that the models don't take into account likely consequences of an economic contraction in first world economies accompanied by massive migration. For example: do-it-yourself interethnic strife. People would be mad. Sure, you can argue people should be happy to provide more for others, but that isn't what is going to happen if 58% of world population migrates. Hell, even if global GDP goes up, there will be enough losers to be really mad about it.


This graph, and accompanying thread contains a massive amount of detail about agricultural productivity.


The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge

J. R. R. Tolkien casts a long shadow on modern fantasy. However, if you wish, you can find lots of books written before his influence was so prevalent.


The Fake Split of Scifi and Fantasy

I too am sympathetic to the idea that speculative fiction is really of a piece, no matter the trappings.


I have a beautiful dream, but what really happens?

In May I wrote I Have a Beautiful Dream, an article detailing a vision for more effective development in my hometown. There is a real project happening on that same site I selected for the article, but I don't have anything regarding it I can share yet.

However, just across the street, a teardown development is going up. Let's look at that.

Miramonte Homes is building a three-story condo on the corner of Dale and Beaver. Here are a couple of pictures of the site and its previous construction, a somewhat aged looking duplex.

Corner of Beaver and Dale, Google Maps overhead view 2018

Corner of Beaver and Dale, Google Maps overhead view 2018

Duplex on the site previously, Google Street View 2018

Duplex on the site previously, Google Street View 2018

Here are some photos I took of the building site:

Beaver Street view of Dale Condos

Beaver Street view of Dale Condos

Dale Street view of Dale Condos

Dale Street view of Dale Condos

The lot coverage looks to be a bit under half. Maybe a third if you take account of the shape of the building. There looks to be a parking lot on most of the east side of the parcel.

Each condo looks to be a bit under 1,000 square feet, as shown on these floorplans from Miramonte Homes.

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And the asking price? $400,000 each. Which comes to $436 per square foot. In my article, I was aiming to build out the block across the street at $215 per square foot, less than half of that price.

So what is different? Miramonte Homes has a number of developments here, and presumably they know their business better than me. Since I don't know their costs, I'll take a guess at things that genuinely add cost:

  • Elevators are expensive. This condo has an elevator, which my townhouses did not. Elevators add at $50,000 to $100,000 to the cost of a building, with a smaller marginal cost for each floor served.
  • The building is served by sprinklers as well. This is a standard safety measure, and costs between $1 and $2 per square foot for single family homes. This condo may cost more, so lets assume 4 condos per floor, 3 floors, 916 square feet each, gives us about $11,000 to $22,000. That seems pretty cheap, but I wouldn't be surprised if a more expensive system is required in a condo than a single family home.
  • Miramonte didn't cheat on setbacks or parking. I think they could have covered more of the lot, the maximum is 80%, but this building needs at least 24 parking spots. It is way cheaper to build a flat lot like you can see above, instead of the tandem garages I proposed on the ground floor of each townhouse. I think you could also have put in parking on a ground floor, and had bigger units over it, but this may have required concrete construction, which is more expensive than the wood framing you can see. This parking lot might be about $20,000

I'm sure there are other things I'm less familiar with as well. Fannie Mae's estimate for apartment construction costs is $192 per square foot, much higher than the $120 I assumed for single family homes. The items above don't get you all the way there, but labor costs are a big factor, and right now construction labor is getting more expensive. Selling for $215 per square foot is ruinous if construction costs what Fannie Mae says it does.

If I had been aiming for such a high price point, I could have reduced the number of units, made the roads bigger, and put in some green space. All of those are nice things, but I also wanted to see if you could put in a lot of townhouses to provide additional supply to the market. If you really want to do something about the housing market, you gotta build a lot of stuff. However, no matter what, new construction is expensive.

Linkfest 2018-07-30

Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

The images from today's linkfest are Frank Frazetta illustrations of the Lord of the Rings. Frazetta was a prolific illustrator of comics, book covers, album covers, and paintings. His style is instantly recognizable to any fan of science fiction and fantasy, and perhaps is the epitome of SFF cover art. There are a lot of links this week about science fiction and fantasy works, so this just seemed right when it came through my Twitter feed. His children and grandchildren still benefit from his work, so please patronize their online shops.


THE MUD, THE BLOOD AND THE YEARS: WHY “GRIMDARK” IS THE NEW “SWORD AND SORCERY”

Warhammer 40k is the thing I had most often heard described as grimdark, but it turns out there is a wide variety of books that could be described by that label. I might have to check it out.


WHY WAS THE 20TH CENTURY NOT A CHINESE CENTURY?: AN OUTTAKE FROM "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

The first of two related Brad DeLong links this week. An nice capsule history of China's relative position in the world during the twentieth century.


Curing cancer statistically via mammography

Many modern diagnostic techniques, while quite accurate in absolute terms, can have false positive results in numbers higher than true positives because the actual occurrence rate of what is being sought is low.


A slightly gloating post, but arguably deservedly so, that self-published authors are overtaking traditional publishing at a rapid pace in science fiction and fantasy, with lots of graphs. Even more damning is the fact that much of the traditional science fiction and fantasy book sales of the traditional model are The Handmaid's Tale, currently trendy as an anti-Trump book.


Congress is giving the officer promotion system a massive overhaul

I once considered a career in the military. This is a big change in how promotions, especially the end of up or out.


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Robots and Jobs: A Check on Fear

A reasonable take, based on historical data about automation.


ARISTOTLE RETURNS

I might argue he never left, but there is a genuine neo-Aristotelian moment in analytic philosophy.



Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

I just received a handwritten thank you note from my mother, so this came at the right time.


Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Pseudoerasmus tweets a chart looking at how few people were employed in the English agricultural sector in the eighteenth century.


THE MEIJI RESTORATION: A PROBABLE IN-TAKE FOR "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

A counter-point to DeLong's piece on China above, but with a disputed claim about agricultural productivity in Japan.


Compulsory Licensing Of Backroom IT?

I would genuinely like to know if the claim that different executions of custom IT software are  a large differentiating factor in the market right now is true.


Dollars for Docs

Public records on payments to physicians from pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies in the US.


“WHY ARE DEVELOPERS ONLY BUILDING LUXURY HOUSING?”

Some data on why it makes economic sense [for developers] to build expensive housing right now.


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The Marriage of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton

A beautiful reflection on the little touches that make Tolkien so great, and why the Fellowship was comprised of bachelors.


When Ramjets Ruled Science Fiction

Some of the most fun ideas in science fiction get disproven later. Ah well.


I need this for professional purposes.


The humanities are suffering from not being vocational.

 

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Linkfest 2018-07-23: I should have been an economist

The Tech Backlash We Really Need

Embarrassing questions abound regarding the business models of social media companies.


A thread by Gwern on Great Society era social science that should probably be better known, if only to stop us from trying to reinvent wheels that we already know don't roll.


Cultural Evolution and Conservative Thought

This discussion between Tyler Cowen and Joseph Henrich is a fascinating counterpoint to a debate between Elizabeth Bruenig and Bryan Caplan on socialism. Caplan's rebuttal to Bruenig said of the greats of Western tradition:

While these “luminaries” were smart, most were also profoundly ignorant and dogmatic – and apologists for the brutal societies in which they lived.  Most had near-zero knowledge of what actually sustains the true and beautiful in our culture, namely: science, tolerance, and markets.  They have far more to learn from us – both factually and morally – than we do from them.

Whereas Cowen and Henrich came up with a bunch of cases where ancient authorities came up the same thing as modern science.


This reminds me of the actuarial global compliance system discussed by James Franklin. In principle, Franklin argues that the tools of accounting should allow us to accurately cost the things economists like to call "externalities". 


Did wages reflect growth in productivity

I went down a long rabbit hole this week learning about wages and economic growth. This is worth a post of its own, but the short answer is: it depends on how you measure it.


America’s Factory Towns, Once Solidly Blue, Are Now a GOP Haven

The share of American counties that have a large proportion of jobs in manufacturing has declined quite a bit in the last twenty years. In that time, the counties that remain have swung strongly Republican.


Trump's Trump-iest Tweets Aren't Popular

There is some reason to think that Trumpism without Trump could be more popular.


Book Review - Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

I didn't know anyone was still seriously arguing that economic growth should cease. I have my doubts about the way our economy is built upon assumptions of eternal growth in both population and dollars, but the book under review seems...strange.


The Sources Of Russian Conduct

A pretty standard geopolitical analysis of Russia's position. I mostly agree with this.


Where there’s a will, is there a wage?

A great article on what it looks like to get a job for the truly poor.


Housing Costs Reduce the Return to Education

Cost of living means that expensive coastal cities with high wages are harder to live in that average wage numbers might suggest. This led me down another rabbit hole worthy of its own post.

LinkFest 2018-07-16

On the left, what everyone thinks machine learning is. On the right, what is actually is.

On the left, what everyone thinks machine learning is.
On the right, what is actually is.

Ways to think about machine learning

I've been a skeptic about artificial intelligence in general, and a critic of the ways the actual technology has been hyped. This is a pretty reasonable take from someone who is willing to invest a lot of money in machine learning. Machine learning is another kind of automation. We've been seeing big things come out of automation for 100 years, it makes modern life possible, but it is easy to lose perspective.

 

Why the Future of Machine Learning is Tiny

An example of what machine learning can mean in practice.

 

Snapping Spaghetti

Applied mechanics of fracture with slo-mo video! Why does a piece of spaghetti break into three or more pieces when bent? Now you can find out!

 
Manufacturing output per capita, colored by what percent of the economy manufacturing is

Manufacturing output per capita, colored by what percent of the economy manufacturing is

Manufacturing output divided by employment in manufacturing, Canada and Taiwan were missing the employment estimate

Manufacturing output divided by employment in manufacturing, Canada and Taiwan were missing the employment estimate

Global manufacturing scorecard: How the US compares to 18 other nations

Manufacturing stats are a subject of interest to me. I don't find much of interest in the Brookings manufacturing scorecard, which is just their subjective rating of various things. Rather, I plotted the manufacturing output for each country per capita, and per person employed in manufacturing, a kind of crude productivity number.

I think the *really* interesting thing here is how much Switzerland sticks out. The parts of the economy in Switzerland I am most familiar with are chemical precursors for pharmaceuticals and medical devices, which are both high value sectors.

 

When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes

This is a great article on how hard it is to find clear evidence that common therapies work, and how hard it is to disseminate that knowledge once we have it.

 

Israeli space probe to land on Moon in 2019

I was going to say this isn't surprising from a country that also made their own nuclear weapons, and then I saw the money for it came from a South African businessman. Israel and South Africa *probably* cooperated on nuclear weapons too.

 
 

Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

This is pretty good. I think I mostly agree, except I am also very interested in whether religion is *true*. Religion can be pretty helpful in encouraging behaviors that help you in this world, for example, the prosperity Gospel is pretty popular because it actually works out that way. If you give up drinking, gambling, and whoring, usually your life materially improves. But sometimes religion can make you do things that are the opposite of helpful in this world. For example, the Xhosa.

 

Welcome to the Party, Pal

A reflection on how the political coalitions in the United States came to be.

 

Does Free Trade Bring Lower Prices?

Dani Rodrik reminds us that we have to describe the world as it is when we make economic projections, not a model of it.

 

Donald Trump tells us truths we don’t want to hear

Matthew Paris argues that Donald Trump acts like an Emperor, and you shouldn't be surprised by that.

 

The Fear of White Power

What is the value of political correctness to a minority in society? And is its cost?

 

Shortwave Trading | Part III | Fourth Chicago Site, East Coast, Patent, Regulation, and Farmer Kevin Mystery

High volume traders are rolling their own radio networks to get a leg up on the competition.

 

Traditional Euro-bloc: what it is, how it was built, why it can't be built anymore

The perfect counter-point to my post on modern urban development. We can't just build things because we like how they look, we have to care about money, and how neighborhoods evolve, and what will actually work for the people who live there.

Linkfest 2018-07-09

The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive

The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive

The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive – Introduction

Superversive is a neologism intended to be the contrary of subversive. H. P. at Every Day Should Be Tuesday tries to figure out what the term is really getting at. While there is a small group of authors that like to describe themselves using the term, broadly construed, lots of authors could plausibly fall into this mode of writing. H. P. describes it as books set in a moral universe, that can engender hope and wonder in the reader.  I think Will Wight, Timothy Zahn, and the duo of Jason Anspach and Nick Cole write books like this, but I have no idea whether any of them would want to be associated with the term, since its most vocal proponents like to make trouble.

A CEO who based his $700 million company in Pittsburgh says he's getting employees who want to work in tech but avoid the Bay Area

Luis von Ahn founded the language learning internet company Duolingo in Pittsburgh because it is cheaper to own a home. In theory, the internet is supposed to enable you to work from anywhere in the world, but the tech world has become insanely focused on Silicon Valley, to the detriment of living standards in the area. I would have thought this kind of move was a no-brainer, but all these rich guys keep acting otherwise.

Marine experiment finds women get injured more frequently, shoot less accurately than men

This article is almost three years old now, but I doubt the general landscape has changed much since.

Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities

An exercise in alternative history, that looks at what might have been without the American Revolution in order to assess whether it was worth it. Spurred by a question from Bryan Caplan, who is a hella smart guy, even if I wonder about him sometimes. This could be described as Whig history, but that doesn't mean it is all wrong.

British antiques expert ‘ran tomb-raiding gang’

The title is alarmist, apparently most of the thefts were as simple as stashing ancient coins in coin purse full of modern money.

The Opium War and the Humiliation of China

The Opium War still makes red-blooded Chinese mad, and I'm not sure I can blame them.

The coming 'labor shortage' in America is great news for workers

A shortage is a technical term in economics that does a lot of work. Strictly speaking, it just means a market condition were wages are going up. Most of the articles you see imply that business is idled and crops are rotting in the fields, which isn't yet the case.

MAKING A NEODYMIUM MAGNET - ELEVEN (NOT SO) EASY STEPS

Everything you ever wanted to know about making magnets.

Linkfest 2018-06-18

Perhaps Monday is the new Friday around here.


Conan the Barbarian: A Review, an Analysis, and a Little Bit of a Misunderstood and Improperly Played - While Talking About the Pulps

I found this reading the Conan roundup from Monday. I also rate the 1982 Milius Conan higher than Rick Stump. I love that movie, and I am astounded by how well it holds up. Nonetheless, this is a fantastic reflection on Robert E. Howard and his influence on the storytelling of the twentieth century.

THERANOS DIDN'T NUKE THE DIAGNOSTICS BUSINESS

There are reputable companies working in the same space as Theranos, but since there is either no hype or no scandal, we don't hear much about them.

There’s a Place for Us: Revoice and Gay Christian Futures

There’s a Place for Us Part II: More on Revoice & Gay Christian Homemaking

I really enjoyed Eve Tushnet's two-parter on being a gay Catholic, and I think she's completely right that an obsession on avoiding even the possibility of sexual feelings has cramped the friendships of too many people. As Eve rightly notes, this is not limited to those who identify as gay or lesbian, but affects all of us to some degree. This reminds of things the Art of Manliness has written about friendship, from a completely different direction. Anytime I find two people with completely different perspectives and agendas talking about the same thing, I take notice. 

The Murder That Changed Germany

I read John Schindler extensively for a while, then I started to be concerned that he had lost his mind. I'm glad to see he can still write a cogent column. The murders of so many young women in Germany by migrants of various sorts was the kind of thing predicted after Angela Merkel so unwisely threw open the borders. This prediction was then dismissed as racist trash, and inconveniently, happened anyway.

Violent crime rises in Germany and is attributed to refugees

This Reuters report states the facts succinctly.

Why Working on the Railroad Comes With a $25,000 Signing Bonus

Railroad work is irregular, hard, and dangerous. Consequently, it also pays well. Of course, this kind of thing can be highly cyclical, and under railroad union rules, the guys who get laid off will be the ones with the least seniority. Nonetheless, this is really good work.

The Lesser Cruelty on Immigration

Ross Douthat pens the kind of column on the fuckup at the southern US border that I wish I had written. I am resolutely against mindless cruelty, but there has to be some level of cruelty in a rich nation's border enforcement, or that nation will end.

McMoon: How the Earliest Images of the Moon Were so Much Better than we Realised

The more classified stuff comes out that we did during the Cold War, the more sympathetic I am to the idea that innovation in the US has slowed down.

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Time has been kind to Francisco de Orellana.

Linkfest 2018-06-11

I meant to get this one out last Friday. Ah well.


How we can learn from the history of protectionism

It is easy to find lots of economists who are down on protectionism, but the evidence turns out to be rather mixed on exactly what its effects are. There are countries that have done poorly with this policy, and countries that have done very well indeed.

It’s Time to Think for Yourself on Free Trade

Dani Rodrik is an interesting and thoughtful economist. This example from his article is illuminating:

In some sense we all know this. Consider another thought experiment: Suppose Harry and John own two companies that compete with each other. How do you feel about each of the following four cases?
  1. Harry works really hard, saves and invests a lot, comes up with new techniques, and outcompetes John, resulting in John and his employees losing their jobs.
  2. Harry gets a competitive edge over John by finding a cheaper supplier in Germany.
  3. Harry drives John out of business by outsourcing to a supplier in Bangladesh, which employs workers in 12-hour shifts and under extremely hazardous conditions.
  4. Harry “imports” Bangladeshi workers under temporary contracts and puts them to work under conditions that violate domestic labor, environmental, and safety laws.
From a purely economic standpoint, these scenarios are what economists call “isomorphic” — they are formally indistinguishable because each creates losers as well as winners in the process of expanding the economic pie in the national economy. (That is, Harry’s gains are larger than John’s losses.)

For economists to call these four situations in some sense identical is probably important for analysis, but it probably also warps the mind to do that too regularly.

JASP

JASP is an open-source project supported by the University of Amsterdam.

JASP is an open-source project supported by the University of Amsterdam.

I haven't used JASP myself, but I saw people talking about it on Twitter. I will give it a try, and perhaps report back. I am entirely in favor of easy to use stats tools.

Burying Your Father and “Return of the Jedi” (1983)

This was a fascinating reflection on fatherhood, spurred by the climax of Return of the Jedi.

Is Global Equality the Enemy of National Equality?

I like Dani Rodrik's work, but sometimes I also think he's nuts. This is a good example of why. I think really bad things would happen if we tried to implement this suggestion of globally free labor movement.

Tolkien 101: The Animated Tolkien Movies

A roundup of the animated Tolkien adaptions over the years. The author has a whole series on this subject. Ooh, and one on Conan!

Even Dead, The Expanded Universe Is Better Than Disney Star Wars. And That's A Good Thing

I have said my piece on Disney's decision to reboot the Star Wars universe, but in the time since, I have found the new novels pretty lackluster. There was some crap in the old EU, but the crap to good stuff ratio seems poor in the new canon. Thankfully, the animated series are making up for the deficit.

The Lifespan of a Lie

A retrospective of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, that is a case study of the failures of social science that led to the replication crisis. The first person, and the last person, Philip Zimbardo lied to was himself.

Normalizing Trade Relations With China Was a Mistake

A perennial theme here at the blog: are we sure we really knew what we were doing?

I have a beautiful dream

My first article published somewhere other than my own website is now up at Ordinary Times:

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I Have a Beautiful Dream

I have a beautiful dream. My dream is that Flagstaff, my hometown, could become more beautiful as it grows. This is likely to seem a little strange to most Americans, who associate population growth with traffic congestion and sprawl. It probably also seems strange to my fellow citizens of Flagstaff, who have complained and protested about much of the recent growth, especially the large student housing projects that have accompanied the growth in enrollment at the local university.

Go read it and leave comments at Ordinary Times.

The Long View 2005-11-03: Taxes, Techno-Libs, Intifada

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The same basic plan for fixing the US Federal tax system keeps coming up: get rid of deductions, and make the rates lower so the change is revenue neutral. And, it will always never happen, because far too many voters and donors have lots of long-term economic decisions made with the tax advantages baked in. I am in that group myself. I think it would probably be better if we didn't make economic decisions with taxes in mind, but I don't know how to get there from here. 


Taxes, Techno-Libs, Intifada

 

Alas for tax reform. The presidential commission has made the correct recommendation:

President Bush's advisory commission on taxes unanimously recommended a vastly simplified tax system on Tuesday that would limit the deduction of interest payments on large mortgages and erase other tax breaks that many Americans enjoy.

Under the perfect tax system, no important decision, personal or financial, would be made because of its tax consequences. That was the idea behind the tax reform of 1986. The plan was to knock out the deductions so that the rates could be lowered. Actually, an astonishing number of deductions were eliminated, but not enough to justify lowering the rates as low as they were lowered. So, Congress created the Alternative Minimum, essentially a patch to a defectively designed system.

There are mysteries here. Individuals will insist on keeping their deductions, even when they are shown that their taxes will be lower without them. Businesses have created a lobbying industry to procure tax breaks, the chief effect of which is to maintain a tax environment in which capital cannot be allocated optimally.

It would be possible for a determined Administration to do the 1986 reform right. However, the New York Times also tells us:

The response throughout the government was less than enthusiastic.

The disenthusiasm extended to the White House. The Administration created the study commission, but the Administration was really interested in pursuing a goofy Social Security restructuring and in tax cuts; the later were enacted without regard to their effect on the tatters of the 1986 reform.

Again, for most purposes I'm a Republican, but the party cares nothing at all for systemic integrity.

* * *

Glenn Reynolds has replied to Peggy Noonan's gathering-storm column of October 27. I discuss her column here. Reynolds' comment is at TechCentralStation:

Peggy Noonan recently wrote that America is in trouble, and its elites are too resigned to the troubles to do anything, concentrating on making a separate peace...[She quotes Ted Kennedy as saying to a group of young friends and relatives]: "when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart."

Yes, but what whole thing, exactly? Noonan seems to think it's the whole society, but that's not so clear. Certainly the extensive depression that Noonan attributes to coastal elites doesn't seem to show much in my circles. Nor in the circles of blogger Phil Bowermaster, who writes: "What is so all-fired important about the disposition of journalists and politicians?"

Bowermaster notes that the whole coastal-elites-and-media establishment is not just going to fall apart -- it has to a substantial degree already done so. But while this is bad news for the Dan Rathers of the world (and perhaps for the dateless columnists at some big metropolitan dailies) it's not so clear that it's bad news for the rest of us. In fact, I suspect that the elites' discontent comes in no small part from the fact that ordinary people are becoming more powerful all the time, making the elites just a bit less elite with each passing year.

Oh, what do they teach in the law schools these days? I suppose it is possible to say individuals are being empowered. Enough of those people are building bombs in their basements to put civil life at real risk. As for the rest of us, we can now overcome many of the frictions that the physical world imposed on previous periods of history, particularly with regard to communication, but that does not mean we are becoming more independent. Quite the opposite, as I have argued before. Technological progress is profoundly conservative. It lets us reach back through the ages of mass civilization and bureaucracy to the primordial world of fairy tales. In that world, you can create physical effects just by saying the magic word. However, that world is not without institutions.

So yes, it is perfectly true that many institutions that seemed unassailable a few decades ago now seem to be evaporating. That does not mean that society is going to volatilize into a techno-libertarian mist. It means that there will be a rough patch as the old institutions either disappear, or recrystalize in new, more stable forms.

* * *

I saw Star Wars Episode III over the weekend. I was able to rent the DVD before it went on sale, or was openly displayed for rental. All I had to do was ask.

I have never had much emotional investment in this series, though I have fond memories of the first film, which was actually the IVth film, wasn't it? Anyway, this most recent episode was visually mesmerizing. I could not help but reflect how much more interesting it would be if all the scenes in which the actors spoke were deleted.

* * *

Speaking of bring back old memories, here are some subheads from The Guardian about the ongoing disturbances in the Muslim suburbs of Paris:

· Youths clash with police for seventh night running · Immigrant ghettos erupt at poverty and despair

This was exactly what American liberals said during the urban riots of the 1960s. Matters may be quite different in France, but I might note that riots occurred in many black neighborhoods in American cities during a time of economic expansion, much higher social-welfare spending, and the new political situation created by the recent civil-rights laws. Part of the explanation for the riots was, no doubt, pent up frustration, but immiseration had nothing to do with the explosion; rather the opposite, in fact.

Be that as it may, these disturbances don't sound much like an American riot:

An interior ministry official described it as "more like sporadic harassment, lightweight hit-and-run urban guerrilla fighting, than head-to-head confrontation". Small, highly mobile groups of up to a dozen youths emerge, hurl stones or petrol bombs, and disperse, the official said: "It's hard to contain."

What it does sound like is an Intifada. If it spreads through Europe, we will have a new situation. Could Tony Blankley's plan become relevant sooner than we might have supposed?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist Book Review

Not John Maynard, but rather his great-great-nephew, Skandar

Not John Maynard, but rather his great-great-nephew, Skandar

Keynes
The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist
by Peter Clarke
Bloomsbury Press 2009
$20.00; 211 pages
ISBN 9781608190232

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

This is a fun little book, and by little, I mean just long enough to cover the life of John Maynard Keynes, while still clocking in under 200 pages, not counting endnotes and bibliography. I find the life of Keynes fascinating, and I genuinely learned things by reading this biography. For example, Keynes' literary friends in his Bloomsbury circle were genuinely mystified that he chose to marry a ballerina. Also, he and his wife wanted kids, but suffered from infertility.

Yet, I'm not sure I can really recommend this book. I've had this book for eight years, and I've read it three times trying to review it. I think the problem is the material is not quite chronological, and not quite topical, but rather a kind of stream-of-consciousness combination of the two. It makes it really hard to form a coherent picture of the life and times of Maynard Keynes, which is the only reason I want to read a book like this. I took to making notes in the margin to document what year an event happened, so I could reconstruct a timeline of events that are close in time but spread across chapters.

If you just want a fun read with a few facts sprinkled in, then this probably won't bother you. On the other hand, if you like to place things in perspective, then this book makes that unnecessarily hard.

My other book reviews

 

Is the Economy Legible

I am an amateur in most of the fields that I enjoy commenting on in this blog. In my own field, I get as annoyed as anyone else when an ill-informed outsider buts in. Nevertheless, like Chesterton, I think amateurs ought to be allowed their say, especially since so many experts are demonstrably incompetent.

Full-time workers wage growth

Full-time workers wage growth

In this case, it was the juxaposition of two articles that came across my Twitter feed recently. Arnold Kling's Is the Economy Illegible?, and recent Federal Reserve wage growth data.

First, the wage growth data. This could be seen as a cautionary tale about over-reliance on averages. The average data doesn't look so hot, but that is masking interesting patterns in who is retiring, and who is coming back into the labor force. Even these latter numbers are still averages, but better, more informative ones. It is always worth asking yourself whether an average is the right tool to answer your question, when the metric of interest applies to an individual. 

The next one is Kling's article on the broad economic statistics we all use to judge the health and success of our economy. Kling uses the term of art "legible", which seems popular today, but I would probably ask the same question in a different way: does GDP measure something real? Does it measure the same things through time? Do you have any way to verify this?

These are standard questions of data quality that apply to any effort to track and trend data over time. I'm most familiar with this in the context of quality control data, but I think the principles still apply for something as grand as macroeconomics. I especially like Kling's example that the computing power in an iPhone 7 would have been worth $12M USD in 1991. Does this really mean technological progress has made us all that much richer since 1991? I'm dubious this is true, which means that the stats are off in a major way.

Linkfest 2017-08-04

Director Neill Blomkamp breaks down his new sci-fi short Rakka

An interview with Neill Blomkamp where he explains the idea behind Rakka, and the business model he is working with. The Verge has a number of other interviews with Blomkamp linked from here.

I’m a Leaver who would be happy for a second referendum

Ed West explains why he would like another shot at Brexit [paywall].

In a Robot Economy, All Humans Will Be Marketers

Tyler Cowen seems to share some of my suspicions regarding the real ability of robots to put us all out of work.

Sour Note: In Ancient Rome, Lemons Were Only for the Rich

The spread of citrus was a slow affair. It took 2200 years before the major varieties we enjoy today were spread out of their places of origin.

What comes after a Ph.D.? Check out the data

A wealth of data on getting a PhD.

Reihan Salam points us to two interesting takes on the US economy.

First, the standard view, that we make more stuff with fewer people.

Second, a contrary view that this isn't really true because of the way we count the 'stuff' inside microchips.

One of the joys of following a Habsburg on Twitter is seeing things like this:

What is the safest form of energy

This is an interesting chart, but for me, the most interesting thing is that it isn't data; it is a model. The bars are computed based on a methodology that estimates deaths, not actually counting.

Aryan Wars: Controversy over new study claiming the came from the west 4,000 years ago

Razib Khan writes in India Today about new genetics results that demonstrate there really was an Aryan invasion of India.

Election 2016 County Results in 3D

I love ways of accurately showing data in more than two dimensions at a time.

Linkfest 2017-07-07

Sixtus Dominus Boniface Christopher

Sixtus Dominus Boniface Christopher

Jacob Rees-Mogg announces baby Sixtus

Initially, I was sure this was a joke. Then I saw this on BBC.

Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?

Yes. But he needs to be convinced.

Why a record number of university places might not be a good thing

Ed West cites Peter Turchin on the over-production of elites.

THE “EFFECT IS TOO LARGE” HEURISTIC

I probably would have called this the "obvious BS" heuristic.

Suffering in the land between black and white

The Charlie Gard case is not a straightforward one, and this is a good look at what Catholic teaching says on the matter.

No, research does not say that you produce more when working 40 hours per week

I admire the precision in thought here that distinguishes between peak output rate, and peak output over a given interval of time. Luis links to some empirical research that matches up with my own experiences: after a certain point in hours worked, no additional [or not much] output is produced. It also matches up with something Steve Sailer's father told him, that the peak output came from 52 hours of work in a week.

Average Work-week is Over, a few Thoughts on Productivity

This is an earlier post from Luis Pedro Coelho on productivity and working that was linked in the above post. This one is probably worth me blowing out into a whole blog post of my own.

Why I Write about Race and IQ

Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

Robert VerBruggen and pseudonymous blogger Ed Real explain why talking about race and IQ doesn't have to mean incipient fascism.

Linkfest 2017-06-30

Interstate Highway System

Interstate Highway System

Minimum wage fight may heat up after new study finds jobs and hours fell in Seattle

This minimum wage study in Seattle is fascinating. It is controversial, because many studies before it have found that minimum wage increases don't affect employment. However, this study has much better data that almost all previous studies, wages and hours worked by individuals, instead of proxies for those things.

That Seattle minimum wage study has some curious results.

A problem with the Seattle minimum wage study is that it only has data on employers with a site in the city. Employers with sites inside and outside Seattle are excluded, which is most of them. I included a data table from the study above so you can see for yourself what the results were, without a model applied.

Young Men Are Playing Video Games Instead of Getting Jobs. That's OK. (For Now.)

The author of the piece points out why I don't play MMOs, despite their popularity: they are work simulators. I play games for fun. While it is true that games in general can be described in similar ways, progress in an MMO is described by an illustrative term: grinding. You have to grind out a repetitive task to move on in the game. A well designed game in another genre never seems repetitive, even when it is. The author is probably about the same age as me, since he references playing Counter-Strike in college in 1999.

How Bad Intellectual Property Laws Hurt Classic Video Game Consumers

This is a reasonable take on why videogames perhaps should have a different term of copyright than books. Alternatively, owners could charge less for older games than they do now.

The Boy Who Loved Transit

I understand how this happened, but in a just world he would have been allowed to exercise his hobby without harm.

Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear?

A re-investigation of the archeology of Greenland. I love archeology in part because it changes every few years. Very dramatic.

NASA ‘sting’ operation against 74-year-old widow of Apollo engineer draws court rebuke

I feel like I may have linked to this already, but it is so shameful it deserves a second link.

That Time the TSA Found a Scientist’s 3-D-Printed Mouse Penis

Science doesn't easily fit into airline security categories. 

 

Cheap Houses in Tokyo

Following this thread from Twitter:

To Steve Sailer's post on the subject, where one of the comments pointed to this Youtube video:

Land in Edogawa is 29,000,000 yen per square meter, which comes out to $3200 per square meter, or about $300 per square foot. Pretty pricey by my standards, but I live in a low density area. The Canadian who made the video compared Edogawa to the Bronx, in terms of proximity to a major city center, so let's look there for a comparison.

Edogawa 4LDK

Edogawa 4LDK

This home in Edogawa is new construction, 119.88 square meters [1290 square feet], and is priced at 46,800,000 yen [$418,253]. Lot size isn't given, but I'll guess it is 42 square meters [452 square feet], which is the footprint of the first floor.

This home in the Bronx is a 1950s 3-bedroom, coming in at $405,000 for 1530 square feet, a price per square foot of $265. The lot is 1916 square feet. The house and lot are bigger than the 4LDK, but the extra story on the Japanese home gets you to a pretty close living area on a much smaller lot. The Bronx house has a backyard, which is a major plus, but it is quite a bit further from Manhattan [1 hour] than Edogawa is from Shinjuku [15 minutes]

In a follow-up video, Greg did a tour of a new construction home in Tokyo, a 4LDK, which is shorthand for a 4 bedroom house with a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The real estate agent in the video said this also assumes two bathrooms and an attached garage. That sounds plausibly close to my own home, so I'll take it as a point of comparison.

One thing I noted during the tour is that home technology in the US is still a bit better than Japan. For example, double-pane windows are still new enough to be remarkable, rather than a standard item on new construction. On the other hand, Japanese houses usually lack central heating too, so it probably mattered less. The magnetic door stop was cool though. The house is 45800000 yen, which comes out to $409,000 or so. No area was given in the video, so we'll just have to guess it comes out about the same as the one I found on a real estate site above. 

Since the land is so expensive, a home at the same price in the US will have much nicer finishes, and in almost all markets will be much bigger as well. In compensation, the Japanese home is closer to entertainment, shopping, and work than similarly priced US homes.

I'm impressed by what you can get for the money in Tokyo. It is a completely different lifestyle than I have, but similar to urban life in the biggest and most expensive US cities, except much, much cheaper.

The Long View: Forever Peace

This book review contains a remarkable prediction, one so bold that even I find it hard to believe. John Reilly claims that work has nearly no elasticity.

Would it really make such a difference if all manufacturing jobs were automated? The proportion of people in advanced countries who have such jobs is what, 25%? For most of history, 90% or more of people worked in agriculture. That is why, in political philosophy from Confucius to the physiocrats, only peasants were held to do any real work. Today, in the US, only 1% of the people are actually farmers. By historical measures, everybody else is out of a job.
One way to put it is that economics need not be about things. It can be about access to certain people or places, or about time, or about anything you please. The human capacity to make work is probably more inexhaustible than the universe's ability to provide power for the physical aspects of the activities in question.

I would venture to say that pretty much everyone disagrees with this contention. And for good reason. Sober economists have researched the subject and concluded that automation is a factor in explaining why the US still makes a lot of stuff, and has decreased the number of people employed making all that stuff. Hell, even coal-mining, much in the public mind of late, employs about 50,000 miners in the US, but produces as much coal as ever.

Yet, I'll defend it, at least in part, because it is an interesting idea. Many, many jobs are already very automated, to a degree that is surprising when you stop and think about it. And not just manufacturing or extraction work either. Word processors and email clients have made typists and secretaries nearly obsolete, yet the proportion of women in office jobs has only gone up as the positions they used to be limited to have evaporated. 

This week on Twitter I saw a reference to Moravec's paradox, which claims that it is easier to have a computer do something difficult for a human, like play chess very well, but hard to do something like control a robot walking or recognize a face easily. As stated, I think this has some truth in it, but the subsequent claim that this means white-collar jobs are in more danger from automation and AI than service industry jobs seems a little off. 

I think this because white-collar jobs are already automated heavily. If anything, all the tools and data themselves just make more work to be done. Another way of putting it is that work expands to fill the time available to do it. This truism of project management may have another meaning in the context of automation. Work really is never ending.

It would be interesting to look at employment data from the twentieth century and see if the models predict subsequent employment data we also have. Lots of men, especially, have dropped out of the workforce, but is this actually congruent with automation, or are other things in play? My bet is on something else. 

People [some people] like work, and gain immense fulfillment from it. What makes work fulfilling is an important subject. There are probably kinds of work that are intrinsically more fascinating to people with minds like ours. It also matters if you believe your work to be important. It also matters if you think you are paid fairly. It is possible that automation will eliminate some kinds of work, but I'm not certain it is actually possible to keep people from coming up with new things to do.


Forever Peace
by Joe Haldeman
Ace Books, 1997
351 pages, $6.50
ISBN: 0-441-00566-7

 

Reviewed by John J. Reilly

 

If you were suicidal because you were disgusted with the viciousness of the human race, and you knew that a certain high-energy physics experiment would destroy the world, would you try to stop the experiment? That is what half of this novel is about. The other half is about how to ensure universal peace by linking the world's population together with neural implants. These two themes are less disjointed than they might at first appear. If the human race is worth saving, then the theoretical availability of doomsday technology makes it necessary that some way be found to eliminate the human propensity to use it. Reasonable people may not all find Joe Haldeman's solution entirely plausible, but that is not Haldeman's fault. The problem is intractable.

This book is prefaced with a caveat. The author warns the reader that the book is not a sequel to his famous 1975 novel, "The Forever War," though he does allow that "Forever Peace" treats some of the same issues from new perspectives. One difference between the two books is that the later story does not take place in space, but they are similar in that they both involve an interminable high-tech war. In "Forever Peace," the war is an uneven struggle of the middle-21st century between the First and Third Worlds. The protagonist, Julian Class, is a black American and a junior professor of physics at the University of Texas. He is also an active member of the US Army (he was drafted). This means he spends a large part of every month neurally connected to a warrior-robot in Central America, as well as to the members of the platoon he commands, who all are the brains of robots of their own.

These tank-like robots, called "soldierboys," can and do make short work of merely human opponents. They are not entirely safe to operate; the actual soldiers linked to their sensors and motor controls are subject to stroke and psychological trauma. In any case, these devices have two functions in the novel. They allow for the grisly episodes that drive Class to attempt suicide, and they provide an occasion to introduce the surgically implanted neural links that play a part in the larger story. The good guys discover that very prolonged links between people have the effect of "humanizing" them, turning them into creatures incapable of violence except in self-defense.

The need for such a leap in evolution is based on some scary new physics. Well, it is presented as a new discovery of some of the characters, though you have probably heard of something like it if you follow popular physics. The doomsday discovery relates to the suggestion that a sufficiently energetic event, such as might occur in a particle accelerator, could knock the vacuum in a small region of space to a quantum background state lower than that found in the rest of the universe. This region would then expand, engulfing everything in its path at the speed of light. Physicists have even speculated that this was pretty much what happened in the Big Bang, which might conceivably have destroyed an earlier universe in the process of creating our own.

The usual objection to this hypothesis is that, if we really did live in a universe with a "false vacuum," then some event would have collapsed it already. Haldeman suggests that the expansion of true vacuum space might be limited to particular galaxies, though you can make up your own explanation for why this should be. (In any case, there is a discussion of the ethical implications of the false vacuum hypothesis in John Leslie's The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction.)

Two further conditions make a change in human nature not just necessary but immediately imperative. The first is that the human race is no longer protected by high costs. Thanks to the invention of nano-technology, which is to say machines that operate on the molecular level, the cost of manufacturing has pretty much fallen to that of the necessary raw materials. If coal is put in the top of a properly programmed nanoforge, for instance, perfectly cut diamonds will come out the bottom. This manufacturing technology made it possible to build an immense particle accelerator array in orbit around Jupiter, using an unmanned nanoforge based on Io. The accelerator, needless to say, turns out to be large enough to start the spatial-collapse catastrophe.

Then there is human cussedness. At the time of the story, an apocalyptic sect known as the "Enders" ("ultimadiadores" in Spanish) is much in evidence. Except for occasional acts of mayhem against unbelievers, they are content to wait for the Rapture. More dangerous is a powerful and widespread secret society called "The Hammer of God," which is quite willing to accelerate the end of the world should the possibility present itself, as indeed it does. Having learned of the good guys' discovery about the nature of space, they attempt to suppress it so that the world will end on schedule. (The date when the accelerator is to be tested is September 24, which may be Rosh Hashanah for that year, a favorite date for apocalyptic speculation.)

"Forever Peace," in the honored tradition of stories set in the future, seeks to be reasonably topical. Even its characterization of the American president as "the most feckless since Andrew Johnson" may be intended to provide a little contemporary resonance for people who read the book during the Clinton Administration. Still, I would suggest that this story continues to use some assumptions that may have been more plausible 25 years ago than they are today.

One such assumption is the hypothesis of a gender-neutral military. This has been a staple of science fiction for some time, in no small part because of the plausible treatment Haldeman gave it in "The Forever War." The reality does not seem to be working out all that well in the US armed services. The matter has not gone unreported, though it still remains beyond the acceptable limits of what can be discussed in the mass media. It seems probable to me that, long before the middle of the next century, the percentage of women serving in the US armed forces will shrink to the 5% or so that is normal to the militaries of English-speaking countries, with complete exclusion of women from combat missions. Of course, my prediction could turn out to be just science fiction.

Then there is the economics of abundance. In Haldeman's nanoforge economy, almost nobody works. Except for college professors and waiters, almost everyone in the advanced countries is content to live on a government stipend. For reasons that are not made altogether clear, the nanoforges are a closely guarded government monopoly. Third World client states are kept in line by the amount of nanoforge production allocated to them, though it might seem to be simpler to just give away the damn nanoforges to whoever wants one.

One of the odd things about the book is that nowhere is there an explanation for the interminable war. What are these people fighting about? If manufacturing labor costs are essentially zero, you cannot even make the Marxist argument that the immiseration of the poor countries is somehow enriching the rich ones. There are no ideological differences; the whole world is socialist, because the economy has become a government utility. Something is wrong with this picture.

The world described in "The Forever War" was also one in which most people did little but consume, since the economy was so automated that it ran itself. Nano-technology really adds nothing to the picture, which I think we can now say is probably wrong. Since Haldeman's earlier book was published, much of the manufacturing economy has been automated, and even what had been skilled clerical work is now handled by computers. The result was a labor shortage, at least in the United States, and a vast increase in living standards in the developing countries. There is a lesson here.

It really is true that technology does not cause unemployment. The assumption that more machines mean fewer jobs is based on an error that is not so different from the notion that the state exists just because there are social classes. Just as Marxists had thought that the end of social classes would cause the state to whither away, so technological pessimists thought that everyone would go on welfare as soon as "no one had to work for a living." In both cases, the assumption is that politics and economics are essentially utilitarian institutions.

This is pretty clearly not the case. As anyone who has been to high school can tell you, political activity is not something that people do just to ensure the necessities of life. People do politics for prestige, for fun, even when there is no particular need. The state is just another way that human beings interact. The same is true of economic activity. As Aristotle famously put it, man is a political animal, but he is also an economic one. People will trade and dicker and build better mousetraps even when they are already materially secure for life.

Would it really make such a difference if all manufacturing jobs were automated? The proportion of people in advanced countries who have such jobs is what, 25%? For most of history, 90% or more of people worked in agriculture. That is why, in political philosophy from Confucius to the physiocrats, only peasants were held to do any real work. Today, in the US, only 1% of the people are actually farmers. By historical measures, everybody else is out of a job.

One way to put it is that economics need not be about things. It can be about access to certain people or places, or about time, or about anything you please. The human capacity to make work is probably more inexhaustible than the universe's ability to provide power for the physical aspects of the activities in question.

Haldeman has a few other ideas about the 21st century that may be prescient, but that have not quite gelled. For instance, he suggests that dangerous machines and substances will be either illegal or closely rationed. Thus, guns are outlawed and hardly anybody owns a car. The result is that this may be the only science fiction story I have ever read in which people routinely travel on the Amtrak passenger railroad system. On the other hand, he still depicts cities as dangerous, decaying places, which in fact many American cities became after their citizens decamped in their cars for the suburbs. In the 1970s, it was easy enough to believe that this would be a permanent fact of life. Closer to the end of the century, however, we see that urban decay is not irreversible. If cars were eliminated except for special purposes, then urban sprawl would soon implode to form high-density cities. As in the past, these could easily afford to be safe and tidy, precisely because services are easier to deliver to a compact population. Futures that look like "Blade Runner" or "Mad Max" look less and less plausible.

Finally, let us consider the way in which mankind is saved. One of the great humanizing ideas of the Enlightenment is that conflict is a product of misunderstanding. The theory is that, at bottom, everybody has the same interest. If only people had the education to let them just sit down and talk to each other, they would see that their hostilities were based on errors of fact. Surely linking up everybody's brains would have this effect.

The problem is that the assumption is not quite correct. The conviction that we all have a commonality of interest has greatly enhanced the happiness of mankind, because it is true more than half the time. However, the really intractable conflicts are those in which the interests of the parties are not the same. If one is right, the other is wrong. If one expands, the other contracts. If one lives, the other dies. This is not the whole of human life, but it is enough to put "forever peace" beyond a technological solution.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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Forever Peace
By Joe Haldeman

Linkfest 2017-05-26

Gavin de Becker, who became famous because of Oprah, has expanded his celebrity security business to a whole terminal at LAX. de Becker is the kind of guy who strikes me as a secret crimethinker, but he is very, very clever about it

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is resigning from the French parliment. I found her vastly more interesting than her aunt.

This article quotes Edward Luttwak's succinct description of globalization:

“It enriches industrializing poor countries, impoverishes the semi-affluent majority in rich countries, and greatly adds to the incomes of the top 1 percent on both sides who are managing the arbitrage.”

Which is good, but then gives a summary of how this supposedly works that is total bullshit:

Baldwin’s argument is that information and communications technology has changed trade in its very essence. We have had “globalization,” in the sense of far-flung trade, for centuries now. The United States has been putting all its diplomatic and military muscle behind it since Congress passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934. But around 1990, the cost of sharing information at a distance fell dramatically. Workers on complex projects no longer had to cluster in the same factory, mill town, or even country. Other factors entered in. Tariffs fell. The rise of “Global English” as a common language of business reduced the cost of moving information (albeit at an exorbitant cost in culture). “Containerization” (the use of standard-sized shipping containers across road, rail, and sea transport) made packing and shipping predictable and helped break the world’s powerful longshoremen’s unions. Active “pro-business” political reforms did the rest.
But computers were the key. Once a complex manufacturing process could be supervised from afar, it could be broken up into the simplest constituent tasks, and those could be done almost anywhere. Why not do them in those economies that paid workers a pittance? Far-flung “global value chains” replaced assembly lines.

No one does this. You buy the services of engineers, managers, and factories in China and other countries that all work the traditional way. There has been no magic revolution in how things get made, there are just more places that can make things now.

To be fair to Caldwell, he does eventually get around to this, but I still find the description misleading:

Since tasks get offshored one by one, rival manufacturers, capable of coordinating similar operations, do not arise locally to bid up wages. But this does not erode altogether the logic that causes industrial agglomeration. Once underway, offshoring tends to produce more offshoring. The most efficient configuration is still to reassemble the entire operation elsewhere.

...

In the work of Thomas Friedman and other boosters you find value chains described as kaleidoscopic, complex, operating in a dozen different countries. Those are rare. There is less to “global value chains” than meets the eye. Most of them, Baldwin shows, are actually regional value chains. As noted, they exist on the periphery of the United States, Europe, or Japan. In this, offshoring resembles the elaborate international transactions that Florentine bankers under the Medicis engaged in for the sole purpose of avoiding church strictures on moneylending. Their purpose is not to seek value in the earth’s far corners but to get across the border to where the customs, expectations, and regulations that arose in the industrial age regarding compensation of the workforce don’t apply.

People who aren't involved in this kind of work frequently underestimate the frictions of working with people who aren't close to you. 

I'm done ranting. Overall, this is a good article.

I tend to be of the opinion this is worth doing even if it isn't economically viable, but I think the green-eyeshade men should have their say.

I am not really interested in the model proposed by the author of this image, just this striking image.

Yet another reminder I still don't understand macroeconomics, but this is an interesting argument that looks at the assumptions of the models that we are all better off with free trade.

A nice tribute to the success of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn.

I just love a good image, and this is a great one. Why does Germany dominate the EU? Just look at the image.

People are mad for a reason.

Ross Douthat's appreciative take on The Handmaid's Tale, and the weird way in which we have ended up embracing many of the hypothetical horribles of Atwood's religious dystopia in a secular way.

This 2004 Atlantic magazine article was linked in Ross' take on The Handmaid's Tale, but it was worth its own header. It is a commonplace of the immigration restriction argument that large scale-immigration benefits upper-middle class white Americans at the expense of everyone else, but this article focuses on the way in which feminism made peace with a class[and ethnicity]-based division of labor.

This seems like a vindication of Greg Cochran's contention that the placebo effect is really just getting better.

Some great tidbits here on Greg's family.

Linkfest 2017-05-05

Steve Sailer is getting more attention. This probably isn't good attention, but what can you do?

I still don't understand macroeconomics, but I am trying.

This is pretty good. 

The shift from male-dominated campus leftism to female-dominated is interesting.

A Thomist ruminating on the way in which we try to explain things we understand well in terms of things we don't understand well.

Rusty Reno argues that globalism/nationalism is the axis upon which the world will turn.

BD Sixsmith's somber memorial to the Bolshevik Revolution.

This makes me feel better that they aren't all dead. There is a counterpoint here challenging this research [which cites the faulty idea that you can alter the ratio male/female births by stopping having kids after you have a boy]

I like apocalyptic fiction. I am glad I never got around to The Road.

The application is a bit disconcerting, but I am amazed at the functionality/price ratio.

I expect that history will fondly remember Benedict XVI.