Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Why we invent

Originally this post was just going to be a book excerpt, and maybe a little commentary at the end. Instead, the book excerpt remains and is followed by my reframing of the underlying issue posed.
A glance at the historical record suggests that something more than just inequality and austerity and outsourcing is contributing to deceleration and stagnation.

• If an unequal society and an entrenched ruling class were sufficient to choke off growth, the industrial revolution would have never gotten off the ground in the first place.

• If soaring fortunes necessarily came at the expense of middle-class incomes, then the 1990s, the last decade of solid growth, would have been the worst recent era for middle-class prosperity rather than the best.

• If correcting neoliberalism with protectionist policies were the path back to another trentes glorieuses, France would be the strongest economy in Europe.

• If correcting neoliberalism with socialism were the golden ticket, Venezuela would be the tiger of Latin America rather than a basket case.

• And if austerity has weakened Western economies, it’s often the sort of “austerity” that would have been considered wildly profligate fifty years ago—with far more welfare spending and far higher deficits and borrowed-against-the-future costs than in the booming 1950s and 1960s, which, even if such deficits are necessary, suggests that something dramatic and unfortunate has changed between that era and this one.

What has changed, according to the less solutionist and more pessimistic analysis, is that we’ve entered an age of economic limits—an era of “secular stagnation,” as the chastened neoliberal Larry Summers wrote in 2013, in which “the presumption that normal economic and policy conditions will return at some point cannot be maintained.”

For the pessimists, the unusual features of the post-2007 landscape—the persistently low interest rates, the low rate of inflation, the disappointing rate of growth, the great fortunes parked in rent-seeking rather than risk-taking—are actually inevitabilities in a developed world where there just aren’t enough impressive enterprises to invest in; a developed world that inflates bubbles and then pops them (or invests in Theranos and then repents) because that’s all there is for capital to do; a developed world slowly growing accustomed to unexpected limits on its future possibilities.

The most convincing theorists of limits include Cowen, in his 2011 book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, and his fellow economist Robert Gordon, in his magisterial 2016 work, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War.

Both authors would agree with portions of the arguments I’ve just sketched about neoliberalism pushed too far or misapplied, and an economy stalled by inequality or captured by a self-dealing upper class. But both offer a wider lens on the developed world’s stagnation and a longer list of forces slowing growth.

The two favor different metaphors: Cowen talks about the three forms of “low-hanging fruit” that the West and especially America spent its long economic expansion plucking, only to find the lower branches bare and the potential sources of new growth hanging out of reach; Gordon prefers to talk about the six “headwinds” holding down economic progress.

But their arguments can be effectively combined into a list of five major structural forces that make a return to pre-1970s growth rates unlikely.

First is the weight of demographics—the aging of rich societies and the collapse in Western and East Asian birthrates, which combine to make existing welfare programs more expensive, future GDP growth more limited, and the culture of the developed world more cautious, complacent, and risk averse. …

Second is the overhang of debt, which will get much worse as the baby boomers age and their expected health care bills come due. Debt and deficits aren’t necessarily the short-term constraint imagined by Tea Party Republicans and fiscal scolds; the evidence from the last decade suggests that a Greece-style debt crisis or inflationary spiral is unlikely for the major Western economies. But the deficit is still a long-term constraint, both on public investment in good times and countercyclical spending in bad ones, that did not exist in the world of 1955. Likewise, the fact that today’s slower-than-the-1950s growth rate depends on historically high deficits and historically low interest rates doesn’t mean that today’s growth is illusory and destined to evaporate, as some hard-money pessimists assume. But it does suggest that we are, in effect, using our extraordinary wealth to permanently prop up a weak private-sector economy rather than enjoying a strong private-sector economy that increases our extraordinary wealth.

Third are the constraints on education, which likewise didn’t exist a hundred years ago when (as Cowen notes) “only 6.4 percent of Americans of the appropriate age group graduated from high school.” Going from that 6 percent to a 70 percent graduation rate three generations later had a dramatic effect on economic productivity, as did the similar surge in college attendance and completion. But this kind of change, from an unschooled population to an educated one, can really happen only once. Further improvements in educational attainment are certainly possible (the stagnation in educational attainment is somewhat worse in the United States than in Europe), but not on anything like that twentieth-century scale. Any future improvement is likely to be a grinding process, constrained not only by policy failures and socioeconomic stratification but also by innate human capacities. And even as credentialism advances, there is some evidence that the Western world is slipping backward on more fundamental measures such as literacy rates and IQ. The famous Flynn effect, in which IQ scores increase generation after generation, has stalled out in parts of northern Europe. In the United States, literacy rates for white students peaked in the 1970s and have slipped since.

Fourth are the constraints imposed by the environment. The growth that America achieved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by taming a wilderness and putting fallow land to use is never going to be repeated. All growth henceforth is constrained by the need to adapt to climate change—an adaptation, Gordon notes, whose costs represent a twenty-first-century “payback” for the growth rates the West achieved in the industrial revolution, when “the environment was not a priority and the symbol of a prosperous city was a drawing of a factory spewing pure black smoke out of its chimneys.” In theory, these costs might be mitigated by renewable-energy innovations that make fossil-fuel regulations and carbon taxes unnecessary and obsolete. But even then, Cowen points out, the innovations involved would be generally “defensive,” pursued in order to sustain present habits, present expectations, the present standard of living. A world of electric cars might be a good thing for the earth, a good thing for our civilization’s sustainability—but the electric car is not a world-altering innovation in the style of the steamship or the airplane or the gas-powered automobile that it aspires to replace. The same goes for many green projects: unlike the innovations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their goal is to find new technologies that mostly allow our society to stay essentially the same.

And even these efforts are hampered by the fifth major force preventing a return to past growth rates: the fact that since the 1970s, our technology-mad, innovation-obsessed society has slipped, without quite realizing it, into a period of technological stagnation.

If many trends I’ve just discussed mostly seem recognizable or painfully obvious, the claim that ours is an age of technological stagnation is more controversial, cutting against so much public propaganda. Which is why it’s best introduced through impressions and thought experiments first, because they’re more likely to break the spell of tech-era boosterism.

Start with an idea that belongs to two important American historians, Perry Miller and David Nye: the concept of the “technological sublime.” This refers to shared cultural moments in which some feat of technical mastery elicits the same kind of spiritualized reaction as the majesty of nature or the glory of France’s Chartres Cathedral. From the early nineteenth century onward, the recurrence of such moments in America and the West became almost liturgical, with each new technological breakthrough offering a kind of pilgrimage or festival in which (in Miller’s words) the “technological majesty” of the new achievement—
• the steamship,
• the railroad,
• Henry Adams’s dynamo,
• the Fordian assembly line,
• the Hoover Dam,
• the Golden Gate Bridge,
• the skyscrapered urban skyline,
• the jet airplane,
• the atomic bomb, and
• the moon landing
—was united to the “starry heavens above and the moral law within to form a peculiarly American trinity of the Sublime.”

But has anything that fits this description happened since the moon mission?
Source: The Decadent Society by Ross Gregory Douthat

I don't know that we sit at a desperate moment in which we pine for the good old days of the moon landing, yearning for our next great accomplishment—a human moon colony, asteroid landing, Mars orbit, Mars landing, Mars colony, etc. Some are working toward those ends now as it is.

In 2013, The Economist asked a question about the toilet, “Will we ever invent anything this useful again?” The need to dispose of the results of human digestion is about as basic a need as it gets. If useful and basic needs are the standard, the answer may be, no.

But what about the plumbing that allows us to flush in a skyscraper, in an airplane, or in space? We don't see those inventions, yet they're useful and necessary additions to the same invention.

What about the build-a-better-mousetrap question about the toilet itself? We have a whole variety of toilets now, some of which are quite obnoxious. If someone invested a toilet that was more acoustically quiet, does that count? (I suppose that question is not limited to flushing.)

What if the technological sublime has changed forms?

In his list of new achievements, he did not mention—
• the telegraph
• the computer
• software
• the internet
• Google
• Gmail
• the Kindle
• Trello
—and other innovations online.

Ever since we discovered we could make language electronic, innovation has taken on non-physical characteristics.

The discovery of DNA has shown the building blocks of life itself, that God gave us, resemble language. Biotechnology is a new frontier of innovation, but this is not the kind that presents some great cultural moment to celebrate a “feat of technical mastery” when the invention itself presents more questions than answers at a time when our culture has turned away from principles by which to answer them.

The state of gene editing seems like it's the horse at the gate ready for the starting pistol to be fired. While some scientists want to explore the potential for gene editing to cure disease, these ambitions could easily grow to designer genetics, choosing characteristics about children. The most obvious personal modifications would be physical, but personality traits could also be affected.

What about our ability to amass large amounts of data and to process that into information? By what ageless principles can we decide how this should and should not be handled?

There's a bigger question in all this: Why do we invent?

Necessity is the mother of invention in the physical realm.

In the linguistic software realm, laziness is the great virtue of invention. Nothing motivates more work in software development than the possibility of doing less work. Of course, work begets work. We reap what we sow, and when we build software, software demands more software. In technology, it's easy to invent just because we can. Some have turned this into a moral imperative.

Ultimately all of our efforts are fundamentally human. Monkeys don't invent bicycles, and it is at the point of the bicycle, of machines simple and complex, hardware and software, that the meaningful capacity of man far surpasses that of any other creature on earth. To what end?

Solomon once said, “I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor.” Everything man does is one man striving against another man, whether in cause or in result. This may be intentional or inevitable, but it happens either way.

That's why we invent. It's a rivalry, a race, a game. Douthat is correct to take aim at “tech-era boosterism.” As heretical as it is to question the aim and potential of technology, it's not an end in itself. It's a means.

Some say it's just a tool, but every tool has a bias. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a man with a database, everything looks like a data point. Inventions can be transformed into other inventions, too, whether turning swords into plowshares or plowshares into swords. Whether in war or peace, man still rivals his fellow man.

This rivalry would continue forever were it not for another reality that takes hold: death. Man may think he can re-engineer his own life to achieve immortality, but man has at most 120 years on this earth, and then it is “appointed until men once to die, and after this the judgment.”

He doesn't get to take his technology and invention with him to the judgment throne, and nothing he can do of himself can bring him reconciliation with a God he has offended. He may have thought his pride was a virtue, but it is his fall. Inventing is fun, but our inventions will not save us. Worshiping idols does not end well.

There is another Man, the God-Man, who shows us and provides us with a different way. Jesus Christ did not strive with other men. He “did not please Himself.” Instead, he took on that which was not pleasing and which all other men strive to avoid. We need a living Savior, and Jesus is ours for the trusting.

That Savior is also the One who created all that inspires any invention we've ever made, hardware or software.

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