Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past — J Storrs Hall

Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past tries to answer the question in its title, and the short answer proposed is some combination of “centralized funding streams” “bureaucratic inertia,” “cultural malaise and indifference” and “regulation.” In his own words, Hall says that “cultural reaction and regulatory ossification have combined to dam up the normal flow of experimentation in high power technology.” Are these the right, complete answers, though? The most-right answer seems to be “flying is hard, consumes a lot of energy, and has catastrophic outcomes when done wrong:” humans are bad enough at driving in two dimensions, and Hall describes flying’s challenges. The normal flow of experimentation may have been dammed up, but it may be dammed up against fundamental problems. Despite this uncertainty, Hall asks the right questions, which too few people are asking, and he stimulates a lot of thought. For that reason he should be read: yet, with almost every field he cites, I wonder what an expert would say. He takes optimistic science fiction seriously and looks at it as inspiration.

We’re supposed to have flying cars, clean nuclear power, and so on. Instead, since the ’70s, we’ve seen many positive trends flatline, as Hall writes:

We are used to prices going up because of inflation, but there are some things—typically the most important things—whose costs keep stubbornly going up in real terms, i.e. even adjusted for inflation. Housing costs twice as much, on average. Primary education costs three times as much as in the 60s, and children are not learning more. Until the Seventies, health care costs and longevity in the US grew at about the same rates as in comparable developed countries; since then longevity has grown more slowly and costs have grown much faster. Medical care now costs six times as much as in the 60s: in 1960, the average worker worked ten days to pay for his health insurance; today, 60 days

This is a scandal but it’s not consistent front-page news. We should be massively debating what to do about it and how to end the relentless cost inflation, but many people can’t even get the diagnosis vaguely right, and anti-market bias is common. Hall’s work is consistent with, and cites, The Great Stagnation, as well as Peter Thiel (both of whom are cited). As a society, we’ve seen the costs of healthcare, education, infrastructure, and housing, balloon. We’re not much committed, as a society, to trying to fix those issues. Maybe we’re too wealthy to bother.

Hall says that “within a decade or two [. . . .] We will begin to make machines that can make ‘absolutely anything,’ in the sense that a printer can print any page or a 3-D printer can make any shape in its plastic, but in a wide range of engineering materials and with atomic precision.” One hopes so. The optimism is refreshing, but why, beyond bureaucracy and inertia, if the claims about what could be are true, are the miraculous things Storrs sees possible in aviation and other fields not currently true.

Hall is least convincing when discussing why we shouldn’t worry about greenhouse gas emissions; he correctly identifies some incorrect previous climate predictions but ignores the fact that some incorrect predictions were made does not mean that all future predictions are incorrect. We also have good data on previous global mass extinction events, and five of the six are linked to rapidly changing carbon levels. Paul Ehrlich was notoriously wrong in The Population Bomb, yes, but we do face real challenges that must be addressed technologically; it’s true that many “environmentalist” groups are hypocritical at best and counterproductive at worse, but that also doesn’t mean we aren’t facing real and severe problems related to carbon and methane emissions.

I’m not a fatalist in this respect and you shouldn’t be either: we need to develop negative emissions technologies (which is why Climeworks subscriptions, for example, are important). Hall also makes overbroad claims like “Cars, trucks, and highways were clearly one of the major causes of the postwar boom.” Were they “one of the major causes?” Or was the truly major cause the large-scale destruction of most of the rest of the industrial world, coupled with large swaths of the world being controlled by communists? The link between “Cars, trucks, and highways” and “the postwar boom” is not clear, and we can’t re-run history to find out whether this causal link exists. There are many such assertions. Hall critiques some bovine aspects of modern culture and cultural malaise, but he may be showing his own acculturation: people who were born before the extreme costs of traffic and air pollution (see, for example, “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot“) were loved and still love cars; those who were born after, don’t.

Infrastructure costs, though, whether for highways or subways, have outpaced inflation for decades, meaning that we can’t seem to collectively build either. I’d prefer subways, but the political and legal world inhibits either.

Regardless of one’s position on cars and highways, something, or somethings, happened in the ’70s, and we’ve not recovered from that period. Maybe we’re recovering now (it’s notoriously hard to judge the present). Hall is describing the technological and cultural problems that became apparent in the ’70s, but are their roots primarily in culture, primarily in science, primarily in institutions, or in all of the above?

Some of Hall’s techno-cultural comments have unexpected resonance:

Perhaps the most enduring and popular champion of the “world of tomorrow” throughout the actual postwar period was the avuncular Walt Disney, with offerings ranging from Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom to his planned Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, i.e. EPCOT. Fittingly, after his death the Disney company built EPCOT as a kind of permanent World’s Fair.

Today, Disney is notable for its relentlessly supplicating behavior towards the world’s largest totalitarian government (yesterday’s post covers this subject as well); as Sonny Bunch said in Disney’s Bob Iger shouldn’t be ambassador to China. No Hollywood executive should be,” Iger and Disney have spent decades kowtowing to China, to the point that, “Under [Iger’s] watch, the company’s Marvel division recast a Tibetan character from the Doctor Strange movies as a Celtic woman.” Consider Disney’s silence on Uighur genocide:

Disney executives had thought that the original “Mulan” would please both the Chinese government and Chinese filmgoers. But because Disney had distributed “Kundun” (1997), a film glorifying the Dalai Lama, Beijing restricted the studio’s ability to work in China. Disney spent the next several years trying to get back into the party’s good graces. “We made a stupid mistake in releasing ‘Kundun,’” the then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner told Premier Zhu Rongji in October 1998. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”

Disney makes many films and other products about the ability of plucky rebels to overcome large empires: but when it comes to its real-world behavior, Disney is on the side of the massive, super coercive empire. Who knew that Walt Disney’s “world of tomorrow” would include what can be described, at its most charitable, as ignoring totalitarianism and genocide?

Where Is My Flying Car? could, and should, be tightened by a careful editor, and it’s organized strangely, with discussions of the flying car, for example, interrupted and then returned to—but the conclusion that many of our problems are fundamentally caused by a failure to invest intelligently in fundamental technologies and a failure to get out of our own way may be unattractive to the dominant discourse in publishing. Someone famous like Peter Thiel can get away with such a book, while someone less famous can’t.

The phrase “Perhaps the most” occurs twelve times in the book, and “the bottom line” occurs more than twenty. Too many quotes adorn the start of every chapter (“Heinlein” is mentioned more than two dozen times—but not as often as the word “obvious”). The editing is not great, but, while I don’t know the book’s publication history, perhaps being unpalatable to commercial publishing houses is consistent with the book’s thesis. Publishing houses increasingly specialize in “woke” or “social justice” issues: not in envisioning what a brighter future might be like, or how to get from here to there. For that, we have to turn on self-publishing on Amazon, where the editing is worse but the ideas more vital. If you know other self-published books I should be reading, please let me know.

Roots of Progress has a good review of and essay on Where Is My Flying Car? I read “Aviation Outsider Boom Builds Supersonic Jet for Transatlantic Flight” after I’d finished the first draft of this essay, and Boom’s supersonic airplane is the sort of thing that, conceivably, we should have had earlier—but we don’t, to the detriment of all of us. Faster travel around the globe would not just be a boom but a boon, and the kind of boon consistent with Hall’s vision.

Thoughts on possible and perceived income inequality

Someone in my family sent me “Standard of Living Is in the Shadows as Election Issue,” which is about how we allegedly need to break “out of a decade of income stagnation that has afflicted the middle class and the poor and exacerbated inequality.” But measuring standard of living solely through income has a couple of major problems. One is that a lot of people are getting life improvements through non-income-based measures (surfing the Internet is an obvious example). It also appears that the average basket of goods consumption is changing. Anyone who has to or chooses to consume health care or education is really hurting. Anyone who isn’t is arguably benefiting from the major drop in prices for virtually all manufactured goods.

I’m not convinced that income inequality has changed as much as the media believes it has. Robert J. Gordon wrote “Has the Rise in American Inequality Been Exaggerated?,” which argues that the indices used to measure inequality are flawed, that a lot of income is now needlessly spent on housing (primarily because so many cities restrict housing supply through various means, including arbitrary parking requirements and height limits), and that behavioral choices and changes may have changed perceived inequality. I don’t want to argue the merits of Gordon’s paper. His explanations are at least plausible, and that the more one tries to measure these kinds of changes, the harder it is to really know if what one is measuring is real or evidence of statistical artifacts or measurement biases. Standard of living arguments face the same issues.

I mentioned the kinds of goods we consume in the first paragraph. We have large incentive problems built into healthcare, education, and government, all of which are growing faster than inflation and have been for decades. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better discusses these issues. Cowen also says:

More and more, ‘production’—that word my fellow economists have been using for generations—has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor. Maybe a tweet doesn’t look like much, but its value lies in the mental dimension. We use Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other Web services to construct a complex meld of stories, images, and feelings in our minds. No single bit from the Web seems so weighty on its own, but the resulting blend is rich in joy, emotion, and suspense.

This might be overly utopian: consider the arguments of Sherry Turkle’s Together Alone or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, neither of which may be fully persuasive but which still give me pause about the Internet as a “resulting blend. . . rich in joy, emotion, and suspense.”

At least “Standard of Living Is in the Shadows” understands this: “The causes of income stagnation are varied and lack the political simplicity of calls to bring down the deficit or avert another Wall Street meltdown.” The Wall Street meltdown is also a symptom, not a cause, of underlying problems. This is also probably true:

Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is that there is still a strong argument that both globalization and automation help the economy in the long run. This argument remains popular with economists: Trade allows countries to specialize in what they do best, while technology creates opportunities to extend and improve life that never before existed.

Previous periods of rapid economic change also created problems that seemed to be permanent but were not. Neither the cotton gin nor the steam engine nor the automobile created mass unemployment.

I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, but both major political want to sell easy and probably wrong answers. A critical mass of voters haven’t revolted, or won’t revolt. I don’t see the end game. But we may also get self-driving cars, 3-D printing, and human genetic modification in the next decade. All three are big, transformative technologies that may alter the fabric of human life in major and unforeseeable ways. Remember that a huge number of technologies diffused through society incredibly quickly during the depression (radio being the best known). In my own case, for example, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s digital reading devices have made self-publishing pragmatic in a way that it wasn’t prior to about 2010 or so, and that’s a pretty big win for me, given my experience with literary agents.

There does, however, seem to be a pervasive societal sense over the last four years that something has gone wrong.

In an e-mail, one friend said this: “These days, I feel like much of society is living in some sort of shared delusion, where people want what they want but are blithely unaware of the effects of their desires” in the context of a link to Branford Marsalis’ take on students today. Marsalis says that he’s learned that “students today are completely full of shit. [. . .] Much like the generation before them, the only thing they’re really interested in is you telling them how right they are and how good they are.” I said to my friend:

I suspect people have always been “living in some sort of shared delusion, where people want what they want but are blithely unaware of the effects of their desires,” but wealth has enabled us to indulge these desires and shared delusions in new ways. And “shared delusion” as a small and relatively unimportant percentage of GDP / government spending is a cheap, affordable thrill. But shared delusion in an environment where economic growth is weak—I tend to buy the Tyler Cowen argument espoused in The Great Stagnation, along with Peter Thiel’s addendums, though I’m more than willing to consider alternate points of view—is much harder. A lot of people are clawing for a bigger slice of a limited pie, which is a more substantial problem than a lot of people clawing for a sliver of a growing pie. Most people don’t even understand the problems, or try to genuinely understand; it’s easier to fit small pieces of complex problems and phenomena into an existing social / political worldview than it is to try getting a handle on the problem domain and the forces in play (most of the political posts I’ve seen on Facebook look like mood affiliation and simple, Haidt-style posturing and mood affiliation than anything else). The delusion isn’t new, but the large climate /environment has changed. The scale of the delusion has changed too, and scale has qualities of its own.

But I still wonder about something real: when someone makes it really rich (Astors, Vanderbilts, or, today, Gates, Ellison), there’s a tendency for the wealth and the kinds of behaviors that led to the major wealth in the first place to be diluted over time and across generations (think of Paris Hilton as a salient media example). I wonder if that also happens to some extent at the level of countries, but over centuries instead of decades. Most of the time I tend to guess not—the wealthiest countries in 1800 are still mostly the wealthiest countries today, with a couple of notable exceptions (Argentina has gone down, South Korea up)—but it’s still something I ponder. Changing wealth distributions play into this too, although I’m not really sure how.

The preceding paragraphs might be overly pessimistic. Let’s take the long view: things are actually pretty good. The Soviets aren’t threatening us with total annihilation (and vice-versa: the news that Kennedy seriously considered a first strike in the 60s is really scary), we’re not in the Great Depression, there’s still lots of cool stuff happening, books are cheaper than ever, and virtually everyone has a magic box that lets them communicate with almost anyone, anywhere, any time. The minutia and stupidity of politics is being enabled in new ways, but I think the basic content isn’t so different from the past. By virtually every metric people are better off today than they were 30 or 40 years ago (psychologically speaking, I’m not so sure, but we’ll leave that to the side). Anyone who has had medical treatment that wouldn’t have been possible 40 years ago is aware of this.

As I said above, we may also get self-driving cars, 3-D printing, and human genetic modification in the next decade. These technologies might be overhyped or not pan out. But I still think:

Pretty neat!

People who are well-equipped to take advantage of modern nutrition and communication are in an especially good position. People who fall into the defaults—lots of simple sugars and fast foods, four or five hours of TV of dubious value every day—might not be. Simply being a consumer might be getting harder. So is following default paths. Certainly I derive a huge amount of benefit from being part of modern communication networks, but the kind of person who doesn’t care that much about writing or artistic production or whatever might not care or benefit.

In Name of the Rose Adso thinks: “As I lay on my pallet, I concluded that my father should not have sent me out into the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things” (179). But we can’t avoid getting sent out into the world. All we can do is hope we have or can develop the strength and fortitude necessary to make a go of it. Maybe the very wealthy, who have inherited wealth, can avoid much of the world, but that will only last for a generation or two, and then it’s back against the hard rock face of reality, whether we’re ready for it or not.

School, incidentally, does a poor job of presenting the rock face, which is another issue for another, but I think it’s possible to present that rock face without being a jerk about it. I try to do so.

I also try to remember that life is hard. Even when it’s beautiful.

Are you more than a consumer? “The Once and Future Liberalism” and some answers

This is one of the most insightful thing I’ve read about an unattractive feature of American society: we put an “emphasis on consumption rather than production as the defining characteristic of the good life.” It’s from “Beyond Blue 6: The Great Divorce,” where, in Walter Russell Mead’s reading, “Americans increasingly defined themselves by what they bought rather than what they did, and this shift of emphasis proved deeply damaging over time.” I’m not convinced this has happened equally for everybody, all the time, but it rings awfully true.

Which brings us back to the point made in the title: are you producing more than you consume? Are you focused on making things, broadly imagined, instead of “consuming” them? Is there more to your identity than the music you like and the clothes you wear? (“More” might mean things you know, or know how to do, or know how to make.) Can you do something or somethings few others can? If the answers are “no,” you might be feeling the malaise Mead is describing. In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers writes:

When you want to learn how to do something yourself, most people won’t understand. They’ll assume the only reason we do anything is to get it done, and doing it yourself is not the most efficient way.

But that’s forgetting about the joy of learning and doing.

If you never learn to do anything yourself—or anything beyond extremely basic tasks everyone else knows—you’re not going to lead a very satisfying life. Almost as bad, you probably won’t know it. You’ll only have that gnawing feeling you can’t name, a feeling that’s easy—too easy—to ignore most of the time. You can’t do everything yourself, and it would be madness to try. But you should be thinking about expanding what you can do. I’ve made a conscious effort to resist being defined by what I buy rather than what I do, and that effort has intensified since I read Paul Graham’s essay “Stuff;” notice especially where he says, “Because the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it. The average 25 year old is no match for companies that have spent years figuring out how to get you to spend money on stuff. They make the experience of buying stuff so pleasant that “shopping” becomes a leisure activity.” To me it’s primarily tedious.

But this tedious activity is everywhere, and in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, Geoffrey Miller describes how companies and advertisers have worked to exploit evolved human systems for mating and status in order to convince you that you need stuff. Really, as he points out, you don’t: five minutes of conversation does more signaling than almost all the stuff in the world. Still, I don’t really take a moral view of shopping, in that I don’t think disliking shopping somehow makes me more virtuous than someone who does like shopping, but I do think the emphasis on consumption is a dangerous one for people’s mental health and well-being. And I wonder if these issues are also linked to larger ones.

A lot of us are suffering from an existential crisis and a search for meaning in a complex world that often appears to lack it. You can see evidence in the Western world’s high suicide rates, in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (he says, “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails”), in Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy (especially the chapter on despair), in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, in the work of Michel Houellebecq. I could keep going. The question isn’t merely about the number of responses to present conditions, but about what those present conditions are, how they came about, what they say about contemporary politics (Mead makes the political connection explicit in “The Once and Future Liberalism: We need to get beyond the dysfunctional and outdated ideas of 20th-century liberalism“), and what they say about how the individual should respond.

People respond in all kinds of ways. Despair is one. Fanaticism, whether towards sports teams or political parties or organized religion is another, with religion being especially popular. You can retreat to religious belief, but most dogmatic religious beliefs are grounded in pre-modern beliefs and rituals, and too many religions are surrounded by fools (did Heinlein say, “It’s not God I have a problem with, it’s his fan club”? Google yields many variations). Those kinds of answers don’t look very good, at least to me. You have to look harder.

I think part of the answer has to lie in temperament, attitude, and finding a way to be more than a consumer. For a very long time, people had to produce a lot of what they consumed—including their music, food, and ideas. I don’t want to lapse into foolish romanticism about the pre-modern, pre-specialized world, since such a world would be impossible to recreate and ugly if we did. People conveniently forget about starvation and warfare when they discuss the distant past. Plus, specialization has too many benefits—like the iMac I’m looking at, the chair I’m sitting in, the program I’m using to write this, the tasty takeout I can order if I want it, the tea in my kitchen, the condoms in my bedroom, or the camera on my tripod. For all its virtues, though, I’m increasingly convinced that specialization has psychic costs that few of us are really confronting, even if many of us feel them, and those costs relate to how we related to meaning and work.

According to Mead, in the 19th Century, families “didn’t just play together and watch TV together; they worked together to feed and clothe themselves.” Today, disparate activities drive specialization even within the family, and family life has become an increasingly consumption, status-oriented experience. To Mead, “If we wonder why marriage isn’t as healthy today in many cases, one reason is surely that the increasing separation of the family from the vital currents of economic and social life dramatically reduces the importance of the bond to both spouses – and to the kids.” We’ve gotten wealthier as a society, and wealth enables us to make different kinds of choices. Marriage is much more of a consumer good: we choose it, rather than being forced into it because the alternative is distressingly high resource diminishment. Charles Murray observes some effects this has on marriage in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, since getting and staying married has enormous positive effects on income—even if “the vital currents of economic and social life” conspire to make spouses less dependent on each other.

Kids are less economically useful and simultaneously more dependent on their parents. It also means they’re separated from the real world for a very long time. To Mead, part of this is education:

As the educational system grew more complex and elaborate (without necessarily teaching some of the kids trapped in it very much) and as natural opportunities for appropriate work diminished, more and more young people spent the first twenty plus years of their lives with little or no serious exposure to the world of work.

It starts early, this emphasis on dubious education and the elimination of “natural opportunities for appropriate work”:

Historically, young people defined themselves and gained status by contributing to the work of their family or community. Childhood and adulthood tended to blend together more than they do now. [. . .] The process of maturation – and of partner-seeking – took place in a context informed by active work and cooperation.

In the absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production, many young people today develop identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. You are less what you do and make than what you buy and have: what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what games you play, where you hang out and so forth. These are stunted, disempowering identities for the most part and tend to prolong adolescence in unhelpful ways. They contribute to some very stupid decisions and self-defeating attitudes. Young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about: as consumers they feel powerful and secure, but production frightens and confuses them.

I’m familiar with those “stunted, disempowering identities” because I had one for along time. Most teenagers don’t spend their adolescence becoming expert hackers, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, and they don’t spend their time becoming experts musicians, like innumerable musicians. They spend their adolescences alienated.

I’m quoting so many long passages from Mead because they’re essential, not incidental, to understanding what’s going on. The result of an “absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production” is Lord of the Flies meets teen drama TV and movies. Paul Graham gets this; in one of my favorite passages from “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” he writes:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years’ training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We’re up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don’t start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

But “school” is so often bad that 30% of teenagers drop out—against their own economic self-interest. Only about a third of people in their twenties have graduated from college. What gives? Part of it must be information asymmetry: teenagers don’t realize how important school is. But the other part of the problem is what Graham describes: how dull school seems, and how disconnected it is from what most people eventually do. And that disconnection is real.

So, instead of finding connections to skills and making things, teenagers pick up status cues from music and other forms of professionally-produced entertainment. Last year, I was on a train from Boston to New York and sat near a pair of 15-year-olds. We talked a bit, and one almost immediately asked me what kind of music I liked. The question struck me because it had been so long since I’d been asked it so early in a conversation with a stranger. In high school and early college, I was asked it all the time: high school-aged people sort themselves into tribes and evaluate others based on music. In college, the first question is, “What’s your major?”, and in the real world it’s, “What do you do?” The way people ask those early questions reveals a lot about the assumptions underlying the person doing the asking.

Now: I like music as much as the next guy, but after high school I stopped using it to sort people. Why should high school students identify themselves primarily based on music, as opposed to some other metric? It’s probably because they have nothing better to signal who they are than music. It would make sense to discuss music if you are a musician or a genuine music aficionado, but I wasn’t one and most of the people I knew weren’t either. Yet the “What’s your favorite music?” question always arose. Now, among adults, it’s more often “What do you do?”, which seems to me an improvement, especially given its proximity to the questions, “What can you do?” and “What do you know?”

But that’s not a very important question for most high school students. They aren’t doing anything hard enough that errors matter. And in some ways, mistakes don’t matter much in most modern walks of life: they don’t cause people to die, or to really live, or do things differently. So finding a niche where mistakes do matter—as they do when you run your own business, or in certain parts of the military, or in some parts of medicine, or as an individual artist accountable to fans—can lead to a fuller, more intensely lived life. But that requires getting off the standard path. Few of us have the energy to bother. Instead, we feel underutilized, with the best parts of ourselves rusting from disuse–or perhaps gone altogether, because we never tried to develop the best parts of ourselves. That might explain, almost as much as my desire to tell stories, why I spend so much time writing fiction that, as of this writing, has mostly been fodder for agents and friends, and why I persist in the face of indifference.

Individuals have to learn to want something more than idle consumption. They have to want to become artists, or hackers, or to change the world, or to make things, all of which are facets of the same central application of human creativity (to me, the art / science divide is bullshit for similar reasons). For much of the 20th Century, we haven’t found “something” in work:

Since work itself was so unrewarding for so many, satisfaction came from getting paid and being able to enjoy your free time in the car or the boat that you bought with your pay. It was a better deal than most people have gotten through history, but the loss of autonomy and engagement in work was a cost, and over time it took a greater and greater toll.

A friend once told me about why he left a high-paying government engineering job for the hazards and debts of law school: at his engineering job, everyone aspired to a boat or a bigger TV. Conversations revolved around what people had bought or were planning to buy. No one thought about ideas, or anything beyond consumption. So he quit to find a place where people did. I mean, who cares that you buy a boat? Maybe it makes getting laid marginally easier, at least for guys, but that time, money, and energy would probably be better spent going out and meeting people, rather than acquiring material objects.

I’ve seen people who have virtually no money be extraordinarily happy and extraordinarily successful with the sex of their choice, and people in the exact opposite condition. The people with no money and lots of sex tend to get that way because of their personalities and their ability to be vibrant (again: see Miller’s book Spent). Even if you’re bad at being vibrant, you can learn to be better: The Game is, at bottom, about how to be vibrant for straight men, and the many women’s magazines (like Cosmo) are, at bottom, about how to be vibrant for women. Neither, unfortunately, really teaches one to be tolerant of other people’s faults, which might be the most important thing in the game of sex, but perhaps that comes through in other venues.

I don’t wish to deify Mead or his argument; when he says, “There was none of the healthy interaction with nature that a farmer has,” I think he’s missing how exhausting farming was, how close farmers were to starvation for much of agricultural history, and how nasty nature is when you’re not protected from it by modern amenities (we only started to admire nature in the late eighteenth century, when it stopped being so dangerous to city dwellers.) It’s easy to romanticize farming when we don’t have to do it. Likewise, Mead says:

A consumption-centered society is ultimately a hollow society. It makes people rich in stuff but poor in soul. In its worst aspects, consumer society is a society of bored couch potatoes seeking artificial stimulus and excitement.

But I have no idea what he means by “poor in soul.” Are Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates “poor in soul?” Is Stephen King? Tucker Max? I would guess not, even though all four are “rich in stuff.” We’ve also been “A consumption-centered society” for much of the 20th century, if not earlier, and, all other things being equal, I’d rather have the right stuff than no stuff, even if the mindless acquisition of stuff is a growing hazard. The solution might be the mindful acquisition of stuff, but even that is hard and takes a certain amount of discipline, especially given how good advertisers are at selling. I would also include “politicians” as being among advertisers these days.

Contemporary politics are (mostly) inane, for the structural reasons Bryan Caplan describes in The Myth of the Rational Voter. So I’m predisposed to like explanations along these lines:

Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation and outsourcing. As long as we are stuck with the current structures, nobody can provide the growing levels of medical and educational services we want without bankrupting the country. Neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” can end the generation-long stagnation in the wage level of ordinary American families. Neither can stop the accelerating erosion of the fiscal strength of our governments at all levels without disastrous reductions in the benefits and services on which many Americans depend.

Most people on the right and the left have “answers” about contemporary problems that miss large aspects of those problems or the inherent trade-offs involved. A lot of the debate that does occur is dumb, sometimes militantly and sometimes inadvertently, but dumb nonetheless. As Mead says: “We must come to terms with the fact that the debate we have been having over these issues for past several decades has been unproductive. We’re not in a “tastes great” versus “less filling” situation; we need an entirely new brew.” Yet we’re getting variations on old brews, in which liberals look like conservatives in their defense of 1930s-era policies, and conservatives look like conservatives in their veneration of 19th century-style free-market policies. Only a few commentators, like Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation, even try earnestly to identify real problems and discuss those problems in non-partisan terms.

This post started as a pair of links, but it ended in an essay because Mead’s essays are so important in the way they get at an essential aspect of contemporary life. If you’re a writer, you can’t afford to ignore what’s happening on the ground, unless you want to be, at best, irrelevant, and I wonder if one reason nonfiction may be outpacing fiction in the race for importance involves the way nonfiction sidesteps questions of meaning by focusing on real things with real effects, instead of how people can’t or won’t find meaning in a world where most of us succeed, at least on a material level, by following a conventional path.

Naturally, I also think about this in the context of fiction. A while ago, I wrote this to a friend: “Too much fiction is just about dumb people with dumb problems doing dumb things that the application of some minor amount of logic would solve. Bored with life because you’re a vaguely artistic hipster? Get a real job, or learn some science, or be a real artist, or do something meaningful. The world is full of unmet needs and probably always will be. But so many characters wander around protected by their own little bubbles. Get out! The world is a big place.” Mead, I think, would agree.

It’s hard to disentangle the individual, education, acquisition, ideas, society, and politics. I’ve somewhat conflated them in my analysis, above, because one inevitable leads to the other, since talking about how you as a person should respond inevitably leads one to questions about how you were educated, and education as a mass-process inevitably leads one to society, and so forth. But I, as an individual, can’t really change the larger systems in which I’m embedded, though I can do a limited amount to observe how those systems work and how I respond to them (which often entails writing like this and linking to other writers).

The Tiger Mother post (with thoughts from The Great Stagnation)

Everyone online has an opinion about Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother article, otherwise known as the tongue-in-cheek “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The essay says all work and no play makes Jack (and Jill!) a good student. A grad-student friend said she applauds the Tiger Mother and thinks her students are lazy and would be much improved if they’d been raised by Tiger Mothers.

I wonder, though, especially since reading “Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren’t Tiger Moms: Is the Amy Chua approach bad for the American economy?” in Slate. The article describes one of the potential “anti-Tiger” positions: Americans might be better at leaving more space for spectacular failure and spectacular success, then reaping the successes. I would add one other point: I went to a Seattle-area high school that was about 25% – 33% Asian and saw a lot of the Tiger Mother causalities, including the ones who are probably now in therapy, the ones who learned to hate learning, and so on. If my parents had been tigers, I don’t think I would’ve turned out so well because I have too wide a rebellious streak and was utterly indifferent to school work of any sort until I was about 16. Now in many ways I’ve superseded the tiger cubs who burned out, at least as measured by conventional measures of status and respect.

I suspect there is no “right” way, and how people turn out is more random than not. Some of the research I’ve seen indicates that parents don’t have as much control over their children’s future as many parents think, although I can’t find any direct links at the moment. See some discussion here and here from Marginal Revolution.

Finally, I think some of the Tiger narrative’s resonance with the larger cultural is linked to the decades-old idea that the U.S. is somehow losing its educational prowess or falling from some educational golden age. But it looks like American Kids Aren’t Getting Dumber; They Were Just Never That Smart. For much of the United States’ history, the smartest thing smart people around the world could do is move to the United States. So lots of smart people came to the U.S. by default. We got lots of dividends from immigration throughout history because the United States’ political institutions worked pretty well when most places were languishing under autocracies; we managed to avoid destroying ourselves, as Europe did during World Wars I and II and Japan did during World War II; we got a lot of smart minorities who fled Germany before World War II; big oceans and good relations with Canada and Mexico protected and continue to protect the U.S. from immediate threats, which means we can spend ludicrous amounts of money on military technology. There are probably others I’m not considering. But, as Cowen points out in The Great Stagnation, the rest of the world has a relatively easy playbook to catching up to the major Western democracies. Now they’re doing so, which means our “smart and ambitious immigrants” advantage might be drying up and making the rest of the world more attractive—and the world is likely to get more competitive, by some definitions of competitive.

So we get fertile soil for Amy Chuas (notice the plural), whose writing can feed the sometimes justified anxiety a lot of people who simply read the news or live in the economy are already feeling. Others are probably just saying, “Do we really need this much materialism?” (see, for example, Stumbling on Happiness), but the answer on the political level appears to be yes. Chua bridges the individual and political whether she realizes it or not, and the potent combination of two make her so attractive both to people of the anti- or pro-Tiger Mother crowd, as well as to the meta commentators like me.

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better — Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better is, at $4.00, cheap and packed with ideas that have been circling Marginal Revolution for some time. The mix includes the trajectory of history, the current economic crisis, technology, and economics. These might sound like disparate topics, but they come together, and Cowen summarizes the current economic crisis this way: “We thought we were richer than we were” (emphasis his). The book is an attempt to explain why we, collectively, operated under this delusion and what continuing to operate under it might entail. Note that The Great Stagnation is only available on the Kindle and is blessedly short: you won’t find the kind of padding that would be necessary to make a traditional, commercial book. I wonder if he will write one or two more of these booklettes (for lack of a better term—do we really want to call them “Kindle shorts” or something like that?) and eventually publish the collection through traditional channels as well.

This description from Reihan Salam, pointed to by Cowen, is a good one: “I’m wary of summarizing [The Great Stagnation] — I really want you to read it for yourself — but the basic idea is very straightforward: Americans have grown accustomed to painless, automatic increases in prosperity.” I think this main point leaves out the idea of technological innovation as something underlying the fact that “Americans have grown accustomed to painless, automatic increases in prosperity,” but the point is good enough to observe.

Nonetheless, one unstated idea in The Great Stagnation is that by learning about the idea of stagnating industrial economies, we might learn how to get out of them. Cowen has one answer, which is to raise the social status of scientists (this is always a good idea but seems improbable to me: admiring athletes and celebrities seems like a nearly universe behavior). Once alerted to this large-scale danger, we might be able to take small-scale steps to get out of it. One might be to combine Cowen’s description of slowing technological change, which he explains thoroughly, to Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Johnson says good ideas often spring from the “adjacent possible” and that the idea of pure, lone genius may in some ways be overwrought. Notice the important weasel words in that sentence: Johnson is not opposed to the idea of genius, but it is not his chief concern. If we’re going to get more people together in the dense clusters that might lead to the major innovative breakthroughs necessary to power the economy, the solution might be to find a system or systems to implement some of Johnson’s major ideas. Universities already do a reasonably good job of this, but there may be other ways. For example, I imagine that Johnson would favor the idea of cities without major height restrictions, which would allow more people to interact and exchange ideas while spending less commuting time. I don’t think it a coincidence that Salam also thinks about transportation issues; he says “Commuting and congestion should be taken much more seriously then they are at present. Long commutes are a big source of misery for individuals and families” but mentions telecommuting as a possible solution. For many kinds of jobs I think that impractical; larger cities more amenable to families (through, for example, 50 story buildings with four bedrooms in each unit) might be a better option. If gas prices get high enough, this may become necessary, and it will have the side benefit of possibly increasing the number of Johnson’s adjacent possibles.

Cowen touches on how World War II may influence current American expectations. America was protected during World War II, while Europe destroyed itself; memories of the destruction are much more alive on the continent, which may lower their expectations for material success. I would have liked more of a discussion on how World War II may have driven scientists, artists, and others to the United States and thus driven some of the applied prosperity from 1945 – 1973. Is that part of the “low-hanging fruit” that is much discussed? If so, how great a component is it? Other aspects of immigration policy may have helped the U.S. in that regard too. Did the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which, according to Oliver Wang, “created preference categories for science, math and engineering-trained immigrants to come over” lead to a substantial advantage to the United States in technology? Incidentally, the act in turn favored Asians with strong math and science backgrounds, which may be part of the reason Asians are stereotyped with strong skills in those areas.

One chapter deals with the Internet and how much it lessens the overall costs of fun while employing a relatively small number of people. Computers do an extraordinary job of leveraging the talents of a single highly skilled person; this is part of Paul Graham’s point in “How to Make Wealth” and “Inequality and Risk.” If politicians want to redistribute wealth because there won’t be as many spoils from growth, as Cowen as they are and will be tempted to do, they will largely be doing it from the kinds of people Graham is talking about. Graham is also unusual because he is putting his money and mouth where his time is through the creation of Y Combinator, a startup incubator / funder premised around the idea that a small number of people can have a disproportionately lucrative or effective tech business. So far Graham appears to be right. The very lean startups he funds probably employ relatively few people compared to large, existing companies, and they also provide the kinds of “cheap fun” Cowen writes about. If they’re not employing relatively unskilled people, who will? Possibly no one, except perhaps the Federal government; hence the zero marginal product ideas that have been discussed by Cowen and others. But if the cost of fun is cheaper, from the perspective of an individual we might be frustrated, but not as worse off as we might otherwise be.

Although Cowen doesn’t say this, the whole world might be moving toward a university model, where the people who are having ideas (professors) do not capture very much of the economic benefit of those ideas. The people who have lots of Facebook friends or who get many people to watch YouTube videos derive little income from those activities but still like to do them. Professors obviously derive some income, but most people with the tenacity and intelligence (in that order) to get through a PhD program and become a tenure-track or tenured professor could probably earn more elsewhere. But if this kind of thinking and these kinds of life choices—trading income for prestige and raw knowledge—become more pronounced throughout the economy, it may lead to lower tax revenues and make people who like traditional kinds of consumption (cars, houses, vacations) less happy than they would otherwise be. There would be less money to pay off special interest groups. People who like writing blog posts to the point of doing so for no effective payment, like your correspondent, are probably better off thanks to the Internet, which Cowen identifies as the major technological innovation of the last 30 years.

So using the Internet may take the place of other kinds of (expensive) consumption. Still, how satisfying is the Internet “fun” compared to other kinds? I would guess more satisfying than TV but perhaps not as satisfying as other kinds, which books like Hamlet’s Blackberry or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows discuss. Does checking Facebook or e-mail 20 times a day make most of us better off, or do we have some kind of quasi-information addiction going on that leaves us hollow, like a conventional addiction of the coke / alcohol kind? I lean towards the Cowen large net benefit view but think the Hamlet’s Blackberry and “Disconnecting Distraction” view merit attention.

One other thing is worth noting: Cowen is more positive than normative. This is refreshing, since many people are primarily trying to write unsatisfying or simplifying polemics or argue about how a pie should be distributed instead of how to increase the pie’s size or why the pie looks like it does. Distribution makes some better off at the expense of others and may worsen status inequalities that often make people unhappy. Growth makes everyone better off. He is not overtly political, as when he describes how modern bureaucracies are enabled by record keeping and dissemination technologies. Such technologies can be deployed to great much larger organizations:

Despite the anticorporate bias of some left-wing thinkers, the New Deal and Progressive era initiatives were a direct result of the growth of big business and the rise of a consumer society. Big government and big business have long marched together in American history. You can call one good and the other bad (depending on your point of view), but that’s missing their common origin and ongoing alliance

He also observes:

Given that bubbles have popped in just about every asset market, and in many different countries, we can only understand the financial crisis by looking at some pretty fundamental and pretty general factors. It’s not about a single set of bad decisions or a single group of evil or misguided people It’s not Republicans or Democrats or farmers or bankers or old people or young people or stupid people or Christians or Muslims.

There are no boogeymen. There is (or was) a flawed system or set of system premised on false belief. Cowen explains some ways this happened and some ways we might react. The details of his ideas are too fine to continue discussing here.

Overall, The Great Stagnation does an impressive job of thinking at the margin, which very few people do, and in this respects may expand what we know and how we should think about the direction of the world. Still, it is hard for me to see it changing the overall shape of the debate in the U.S. There may not be an efficient way for individuals or small groups to change the debate, much as it is hard for a random person on their own to affect global climate change.

I still wonder how a particular individual should respond to The Great Stagnation, beyond working to raise the relative status of scientists and perhaps lowering the status of athletes and celebrities, approving of school reform efforts, and recognizing that high rates of growth may not return in the immediate future. If you’re trying to maximize income, you may want to think about learning more math and programming, since many jobs in growth fields now require them (I majored in English and am in English grad school but think I’ve picked up enough technical acumen to be slightly more dangerous than others in my field). You should also know that The Great Stagnation is non-technical and easy to read. Density of ideas in this case does not lead to impenetrable or overwrought prose.

A personal note: I’m pretty sure this is the first time I have reviewed a “book” that exists only in electronic form as I would another book. This may be a harbinger of things to come. In addition, based on how many other people are writing about The Great Stagnation, I suspect the eBook has spread to the chattering classes.

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