From þe Cutting Room Floor: A Prologue to “Slouching Towards Utopia”, &
BRIEFLY NOTED: For 2022-07-22 Fr
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CONDITION: But Her Emails!!
Imagine waking up every morning, and knowing that you are going to work at a place that puts these stories on A16 and A19. What kind of mind must you have to keep you from immediately turning around and going back to bed?
FIRST: From the Cutting Room Floor: A Prologue to “Slouching Towards Utopia”
The first thing to note to understand the history of the Long 20th Century is that, back before it began, back before 1870, life for a typical human being was pretty awful. A life expectancy of less than thirty. Ferocious mortality meant that in the typical couple the woman spent nearly two decades eating for two—eight pregnancies for six live births to get three children surviving to age ten, and barely more than two surviving to reproduce.
Why was mortality so high? Because the typical person was undernourished and stunted: human populations were too large relative to our low (and slowly improving) level of technology and our limited ability to harvest natural resources. Why were populations pressing so hard upon the limits of subsistence? Because patriarchy meant that women’s durable social power came pretty much only from being mothers of surviving sons. Slowly-improving technology meant that there was only room for the next generation to be a bit more numerous than the last: the pre-1870 human population growth rate was 10% per century, or less.
And so about one woman in three was left without surviving sons.
Hence, even if you already had a son or sons, the pressure to try to have another, just in case your current son or sons died was immense. That meant that whenever any technological headroom to support higher productivity and grant a household greater resources emerged, the overwhelming pressure was to use those resources to boost the population. That was the force that kept humanity poor. thus before 1870 it was Thomas Robert Malthus’s world: humanity ensorcelled by and under the spell of the Malthusian devil.
That, however, was not all.
In a poor world, with limited technology and upward pressure on the population creating resource scarcity, it was only possible for a few to have enough. Moreover, the way those few could get enough for themselves and their children was for them through force and fraud, to run an exploitation-and-extraction machine against the bulk of humanity. Humanity’s societal energies were thus directed not toward making humanity more productive but, rather, toward making the force-and-fraud exploitation-and-extraction system run more securely—punctuated by the occasional peasant revolt. In such a world, those ideas that were promoted and thus flourished were not those that made humanity capable of doing more things more efficiently and effectively. They were, instead, the ideas that shored-up the force-and-fraud exploitation-and-extraction system. Thus the rate of technological advance was slow indeed: figure 5% per century.
Thus my crude guess is that there has been as much proportional technological progress—useful ideas discovered, developed, deployed, and then diffused throughout the global economy—making humanity more productive in the 150-year span since 1870 as there were in the entire nearly 10,000-year span since the beginnings of the creation of agriculture around the year -8000. Moreover, from -8000 to 1870 poverty, patriarchy, and slow technological progress kept humanity under the spell of the Devil of Malthus, with nearly all of the potential benefits of better technology being eaten up by population growth and resulting resource scarcity. Think of something like $900/year—the living standard of the poorest half-billion of our eight billion today—as the living standards of a typical human back before 1870.
Then, after 1870, everything changed.
Economic historians debate and will debate as long as there is a human species and perhaps longer exactly why the change came in 1870, whether the change could have come earlier—perhaps starting in Alexandria, Egypt back in the year 170 when Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ruled in Rome, or in the year 1170 when Emperor Gaozong ruled in Hangzhou—or whether we might have missed the bus that arrived in 1870 and still, today, be trapped in a Malthusian steampunk, gunpowder-empire, or neo-mediæval world. But we did not miss the bus. A lot of things had to go right and fall into place to create the astonishingly-rich-in-historical-perspective world we have today. And the last three elements—modern science and the industrial research lab to discover and develop useful technologies, the modern corporation to develop and deploy them, and the globalized market economy to deploy and diffuse them throughout the world—fell into place around 1870.
Ever since, advancing science, turned into technology by industrial research labs, deployed at scale by modern corporations, and then diffused throughout the world by that magnificent crowdsourcing mechanism that is the global market economy have taken us on a wild ride. The rate of global technological progress, a rate that was perhaps 0.05%/year before 1500, 0.15%/year over 1500-1770, and perhaps 0.45%/year over 1770-1870, went into high gear, and has averaged 2.1%/year on average since. The deployed-and-diffused technological capabilities of humanity have thus roughly doubled every generation since 1870.
Thus from the perspective of humanity in 1870, by 2010 humanity ought to have been able to solve the economic problem, and so been on the road to a fundamentally different kind of society. But was it the road to utopia? Or to someplace else?
Robert Kuttner: FDR’s Legacy & President Biden’s New Deal Opportunity <https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2voA-NG9GA>:
Very Briefly Noted:
Sarah McBride & Lizette Chapman: Andreessen Horowitz Pushes VC Center of Gravity Away From Bay Area: ‘The location of its new headquarters: “the cloud”…. But even as tech workers disperse and VCs spurn San Francisco, actual venture dollars are still clearly concentrated in Northern California… <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-07-22/andreessen-horowitz-pushes-vc-center-of-gravity-away-from-bay-area?cmpid=BBD072222_TECH>
Virginia Heffernan: The Intoxicating Pleasure of Conspiratorial Thinking <https://www.wired.com/story/conspiratorial-thinking-qanon-beliefs/>
Jo Freeman: The Tyranny of Stucturelessness <https://jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm>
Yakov Feygin: Public Options as Industrial Policy <https://building-a-ruin.ghost.io/public-options-as-industrial-policy/>
Yakov Feigin: In Memory of Janos Kornai: The Contradictions of a Surplus Economy <https://building-a-ruin.ghost.io/in-memory-of-janos-kornai/>
Samuel C. Woolley: Digital Propaganda: The Power of Influencers <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/860232>
John Geweke (2001): A Note on Some Limitations of CRRA Utility <http://bit.ly/3ziZAfY>
Henry Farrell & Bruce Schneier: Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy <https://ssrn.com/abstract=3273111>
Gillian Tett: The Semiconductor Chip Pendulum Is Slowly Swinging West <https://www.ft.com/content/1dd8a704-9412-4f6c-a7c2-80ab171b026d>
Jonathan Bernstein: The Jan. 6 Hearings on the Capitol Riot Hit the Bull’s Eye <https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-07-22/the-jan-6-hearings-on-the-capitol-riot-hit-the-bull-s-eye#xj4y7vzkg>
Twitter & ‘Stack:
Matthew C. Klein: China’s Unbalancing Is Going Into Overdrive <
Diana Butler Bass: Mary the Tower
Matthew Yglesias: La Dolce Mailbag
Jonathan V. Last: Will Merrick Garland Solve the Republicans’ Problem for Them?: ‘Hoping that Trump is indicted while doing everything possible to prevent Trump from being indicted. That’s their strategy…
I greatly enjoy and am, in fact, driven to write Grasping Reality—but its long-term viability and quality do depend on voluntary subscriptions from paying supporters. I am incredibly grateful that the great bulk of it goes out for free to what is now well over ten-thousand subscribers around the world. If you are enjoying the newsletter enough to wish to join the group receiving it regularly, please the button below. And if you are enjoying the newsletter enough to wish to join the group of supporters, please press the button below and sign up for a paid subscription:
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