August 12, 2003

Human Progress

Where else but in the "comments" on my weblog would somebody come out eight-octagon in favor of functional indoor plumbing? (August 12, 2003 06:37 PM: "Could I just point out that the philosophy of 'I would be a better, happier person if I only got that new technological gadget' has failed so spectacularly at the personal level" "I dunno, toilets are nice.")

Posted by DeLong at August 12, 2003 06:55 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Yes toilets are nice. But you forget the rapidly diminishing utility from increasing standard of living (from agreeable levels). In other words its a real difference between having and not having a toilet that dwarfs the difference between having and not having a handheld computer.

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 12:06 AM

And if you anyway would like to involve in gadgetology: what do I need/could be scrapped without me having to leave work (on the condition that all competitors scrapped them as well of course!).

high speed printing press - NO
telegraph and telephone - NO
standardized paper size + other basic (non-electronic)stationery - NO
electric light - NO
(non-elecronic) mail service - NO
toilet - NO
day care center - NO
refrigerator - NO
washing-machine - NO

radio broadcasts - MAYBE

TV - YES
Desktop computer - YES
Internet - YES

OK, I always use desktop computers and internet while working, that's not the point. But I could still work without them (at lower productivity levels) as long as I could keep the mostly pre-1950 gadgets while scrapping most post 50-gadgets.

*The point is that I would have to stay at home with the kids had I not acces to daycare.

*The point is that I would have chosen work more and have fewer kids if marginal tax-rates on work-income were much lower (55-60% here)in order to keep up with the Joneses.

*The point is that in a culture where it would be socially impossible not to have lots of the latets gagets, I would be forced to stay at work in order to afford ths, and I would thus probably chose to have fewer kids.

Get it? Gadgetology is a non-issue, it's all about what we can do to fix the demographical problem in (post-) industrialized societies.

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 02:09 AM

I think the demographical problem will nicely solve itself once the need to have a "work-life" different from a "family-life" (or "personal-life") goes away thanks to advances in telecommunications technology. It's not that you don't have time to work _and_ raise the children, but you don't have time to raise the children _and_ travel to the office, being there all day, etc.

Posted by: Francisco on August 13, 2003 02:58 AM

"the... problem will nicely solve itself" - this would be very rare. Or rather dangerous, as problems you leave to solve themselves (while you have a nice chat about your latest gadgets...) usually get worse.

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 07:31 AM

...and would you really find it a competitive advantage to have your kids around when you try to concentrate at your work.

In my experience - non mind-consuming tasks is fine with kids, you can do ordinary housework and the kids still feel that you are there with them. If you pick up a book or put your self in front of the computer - that's completely different. They feel that you are away and won't let you alone.

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 07:43 AM

Well... I know people that work from home, at that doesn't seem to be the case. I think children don't need constant attention, specially if they know they can get it at any time they really need it.
I think, too, that problems don't go away by themselves, but in this case I think that the demographical problem only follows the "unnaturalness" of industrial life. In that regard, I do think there is a natural way for mankind, but it has to do with social structures.

Posted by: Francisco on August 13, 2003 07:52 AM

Well, I work from home, and I have a 2-year old here. And I can absolutely guarantee that my productivity would be *abysmal* if there was not somebody here looking after her, playing with her, teaching her, feeding her, taking her to the toilet, taking her out to meet other kids, swimming at the Y, etc. etc. while I'm working. Sure I can do all those things when I'm *not* working, but 6-8 hours is a LONG TIME for a kid to be self-entertaining, self-nurturing, etc.

On the few days that I try to do both (I.e., work a Job(tm) and be a Caregiver(tm)), neither my colleagues nor my daughter are impressed with my productivity.

Posted by: Ken Overton on August 13, 2003 09:14 AM

Well, I work from home, and I have a 2-year old here. And I can absolutely guarantee that my productivity would be *abysmal* if there was not somebody here looking after her, playing with her, teaching her, feeding her, taking her to the toilet, taking her out to meet other kids, swimming at the Y, etc. etc. while I'm working. Sure I can do all those things when I'm *not* working, but 6-8 hours is a LONG TIME for a kid to be self-entertaining, self-nurturing, etc.

On the few days that I try to do both (I.e., work a Job(tm) and be a Caregiver(tm)), neither my colleagues nor my daughter are impressed with my productivity.

Posted by: Ken Overton on August 13, 2003 09:14 AM

Tada! When finally someone with own experience about the competition for time between work and caregiving posts - my argumentation is fully supported!

And the core of my argument is not even that it takes extremely much time to take care of kids (it only takes much time). All that I'm saying is that work and caregiving (gadgets and kids)competes - and in (post-)industrial cultures, time spent on work (and study) is super-linearly rewarded (one extra our is not only pays you the per hour salary, it gives you [at least some] valuable work experience that will increase [to some extent] your future salary), time spent on caregiving is not.

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 10:58 AM

I grew up on a farm in Ohio which, when I was a child, had no indoor plumbing or electricity. We had an outhouse, a pitcher pump for water, a wood stove, and oil lamps.

Let me tell you something. Having to put on a raincoat or a heavy winter coat to go to the bathroom sucks. Oil lamps don't provide a lot of light. Water from a hand pump on a hot summer day is as good as it gets. But you don't take a lot of baths when you have to pump the water by hand, then heat it on a wood stove, then take the dirty water out bucket by bucket.

Raising your own food is hard work, and you can get only so much variety. I haven't been able to look at chicken with any real enthusiasm for about 32 years, and I left as soon as I could. My father got to the point he couldn't stand the taste of steak.

You can still do all these things, if you prefer. A few people do. But only a few. Survey preferences vs. revealed preferences. No matter what they say, the great majority of people are made happier by modern gadgets. I for one could not be less surprised.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins on August 13, 2003 11:59 AM

"In other words its a real difference between having and not having a toilet that dwarfs the difference between having and not having a handheld computer."

If I had to choose one, it'd be a toilet, but my PDA/phone combo is awfully nice. At the moment, mine is carrying:

1) All the contact information (and I do mean all) for just about everyone I know, integrated with the phone.
2) The complete status of my finances.
3) 10K/sec Internet access.
4) Decent handwriting recognition.
5) Every appointment for the foreseeable future.
6) A bunch of neat emulated games (NES, etc).
7) A decent camera.
8) A map of the greater seattle area, with resturaunts, points of interest, and a street finder.

I haven't even gotten into the GPS-related stuff, or really searched for cool pocketpc apps. Only cost me about 24 hours of tech-worker labor, too; I imagine it'll pay for itself just in saved annoyance in a year or so.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 13, 2003 12:03 PM

Yes, gadgets make us happier!

The problem is that the first few generations that have a real choice between many gadgets and many kids increasingly and long term unsustainably tend to choose more gadgets and fewer kids.

The solution does not lie in making more gadgets!

Posted by: Mats on August 13, 2003 12:55 PM

"many kids increasingly and long term unsustainably tend to choose more gadgets and fewer kids."

And your solution would be...?

Is this a problem? I mean, most people--Julian Simon aside--tend to think that having fewer people on this planet would be a nice thing, largely because resources are fixed. I'm not coming out on this debate one way or another, I'm just saying that you've placed two "conventional wisdom" truths in opposition.

Posted by: Paul on August 13, 2003 01:32 PM

I rather doubt that when every country passes the demographic transition humanity will spiral into extinction, which is kind of what everyone's implying.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 13, 2003 04:35 PM

Jason-
I agree with your point, but to clarify, not everyone is saying that. Just that Mats nut.

Posted by: Decnavda on August 13, 2003 05:13 PM

Mats, your psychology of parenthood sounds screwy to me. If couples are having 1 or 2 kids these days instead of the 10 or 12 their great-grandparents had, I can tell you right now... it's not because they are so foolishly hypnotized by their PDAs and cellphones that they neglect to reproduce!

Part of it is the invention of reliable birth control, of course, so that people can actually get to choose whether to have another kid or not. I shouldn't have to point this out to you. People choose, not more gadgets (that's silly), but a better quality of life and a better future for the children that they do have.

Why do you think this is a problem?

Posted by: Fair and Balanced Reader on August 13, 2003 09:35 PM

I recognise three questions above as coming in my direction:

Q
1. Why is it a problem that birthrates are falling below reproduction levels?

2. What do yoy think we should do about it?

3. Is it only Mats?

A
Let me begin with 3; it is for sure not only me:

3.Today, some governments in Europe see falling birthrates as a source of critique against their policies towards families and on gender equality.

And already back in the 1930, Gunnar Myrdal pointed out the demographic problems that began to show already at that time (Myrdal shared the nobel price in 74).

1. Why is it a problem? - Practically it is a problem for public (pay as you go) pension fund systems (even in the US with its relatively healthy demography). Ideologically, and that's probably why trolls here tend to call me nutty, it is a problem to see that the (post-) industrial system is not long run (centuries) sustainable (as agriculture obviously where over millenia).

2.What should we do about falling birthrates then? For Myrdal, back in 1930, immigration was not an alternative, he proposed measures like subsidies (here today 100$/kid/month, more for the 3rd), municipal daycare, and subsidised housing (with funcionting indoor plumbing, even poor homes here in Sweden have better plumbing than luxyry hotels in London). This worked to increase the terribly low Swedish birthrates during the 30's, but Swedish birthrates have not on average been above replacement levels throughout the 18'th century.

Myrdals solution is indeed a Socio-Democratic one. Would it work in todays political climate, or rather: would wealthy people in their 50's vote for someone that promises to increase their tax in return for good low-priced healthcare in som far future when these voter would be 80??

I think the solution is the US one, allow for immigrants to come. If you only could cope with the cultural effects of "native whites" shrinking their relative share of population, this should work as long as industrialisation fails in emmigrant countries.

For the longer term, I don't know, but the answer is certainly not to ignore the problem and announce (post-)industrial societies as immune to all sorts of long term problems. Gadgets might be nice, but they won't save our culture.

Posted by: Mats on August 14, 2003 12:08 AM

Mats, the flaw in your argument is that you are treating "societies" as real organisms...this reification doesn't work. Societies don't live. People do. And what is "viable" for a society--i.e., the economic stagnation and political repression coupled with the abject misery of an agricultural society--isn't appealing to individuals.

Posted by: Paul on August 14, 2003 07:48 AM

Mats, Canadian Reader pointed out the demographic fallacy of your concerns regarding population decline on the other thread. There are easily recognizable physical constraints to ever increasing population that had to eventually limit further growth in population. Technical progress has expanded the Earth's carrying capacity, but it cannot change the basic physical fact that no two humans can occupy the same space.

Mark Bahner has tried to point out that technical innovation doesn't necessarily face the same S-shaped constraints. Technical progress may face a situation of diminishing returns as you posit, but I don't believe there are any known constraints to increasing knowledge. You suggest that toilets are better than information technology. The impact on economic efficiency appears to favor information technology greatly. Technical progess may well be increasily increasing.

Thus, while the impact of lower fertility may lead to increased inflation as you posit, there is no reason to believe it has to. With the increasing impact of technological innovations, it is pretty hard to imagine that we are approaching the top of an S-shaped technical innovation curve. The next technical revolution may be the promised biotechnical revolution. It may well end most of the basic problems of aging all together. Why can't it?

Bytheway, surveys of educated women show that they have fewer children because they want a higher quality of life. You should consider reading Ellen Galinsky's book "Ask the Children" ( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0688147526/002-4039887-6062421?v=glance )

Posted by: Stan on August 14, 2003 07:52 AM

Two corrections/additional explaination:

Technical progess may well be increasingly increasing (i.e. L-Shaped).

Thus, while the impact of lower fertility may lead to increased wage inflation for the young as you posit,

Posted by: Stan on August 14, 2003 10:33 AM

OK, transient fertility rates then:

Even in a world where people in all generations eventually get the same number of kids (/parent), fertility rates would temporarily decrease if people would tend to have their kids later. If everyone postponed their next kid one year (at the same time) no kids would be born that year, temporarily pushing fertility-rates down to zero.

This is what happens right now in W.Europe and Japan (homogenous high-productivity populations); people tend to get their kids later and later in life, and fertility rates are low (below replacement). We don't really know if people are merely postponing having kids (transient decrease in fertility) or if they actually will have fewer of them.

My guess: you tend to do the most important things first, so study and work first and kids later is a clear indication of post-industrial priorities. And in post-industrial society you have your free choice, so with these priorities...

Gadgets then, they help here, don't they? Yes, here today women (on average) are nearly in their 30's before having their first kid. This would be very hard without modern healthcare. So gadgets have already help a lot in increasing the age in which women can have their first. And it is still helping further I guess with recent developments like those in IVF (Mark).

But development of modern health care also gives the option of postponement, which might eventually lead to cancellation. It seems to work both ways and could as well contribute negatively to fertility.

Posted by: Mats on August 14, 2003 01:10 PM
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