Tuesday, August 06, 2019


I have always distrusted transhumanism, the idea that we should improve the human species through genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies, because I don't think we have the wisdom to make good use of such power.

Imagine what would happen if genetic engineering were perfected.

If there were reproductive freedom, so individuals could decide how there children are engineered, I expect that would be a significant minority of parents who would engineer their children to be successful athletes. Some would make their children bigger and more muscular than normal, so they would be successful football players. But when their children grew up, they would have to compete with other children who were engineered to be football players. Parents engineering the next generation would have to make them even bigger to out-compete the new normal for football players, but they would be competing with those whose parents did the same.  After a few generations, we would have a subspecies of football players who look more like the Incredible Hulk than like humans.

I expect the majority of parents would engineer their children to make them more successful economically. We would have lots of children who are good computer programmers, but fewer parents would engineer their children to be critical thinkers.

In there were not reproductive freedom and the state controlled the sorts of genetic engineering allowed, I expect that democracies would allow people to be engineered to meet the demands of the economy at the time. People would think that they were helping the children by making it easier for them to get and keep jobs, but once again, there would not be much call for critical thinkers.

Of course, it would be much worse in dictatorships. No doubt, the Kim Jong Uns of this world would engineer their people to be docile, so their dynasty could remain in power indefinitely.

My doubts were confirmed when I read that Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire accused of sex trafficking, has long been fascinated by transhumanism and was planning to make a contribution to improving the human race by spreading his own DNA by bringing women to his New Mexico ranch and having twenty women there at any time who have been impregnated by him.

In addition to being charged with sexual trafficking of girls as young as fourteen years old, Epstein has lied about the identities of his clients, about his wealth, and his personal achievements. These are not exactly the character traits that we would want to spread through the population - but it seems that transhumanists are likely make decisions based on egotism rather than on improving the human species.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Parable of Unemployment

Once upon a time, there was a small nation in a valley nestled in the remote mountains. The mountains were so high that these people were isolated from the rest of the world, and the soil of the valley was so fertile that they were always able to grow all the food they needed.  They had to work long hours laboring in the fields, but this work produced enough food that they were healthy and happy.
Then, one year, one of the laborers invented a new way of sharpening his plow that let him plow his land more quickly, and all of the other laborers began sharpening their plows in the same way so they could do their work more quickly. 
And one of the laborers invented a new way of sharpening his scythe that let him harvest more quickly, and all of the other laborers began sharpening their scythes in the same way so they could do their work more quickly.
Now, the people had a new problem: the problem unemployment.  Because laborers could plow and harvest more quickly, this nation no longer needed all its laborers to produce its food. Some of the laborers were laid off, and everyone had to contribute to a public welfare fund to support the unemployed.

The Economist’s Advice

Foreign visitors to this nation were very rare, but fortunately, one was there at the time: an American economist. He explained to the people that this was the beginning of their industrial revolution.  From now on, they would keep discovering new inventions that would let them get their work done more quickly. 
The economist told them that there was one way to avoid employment. A few of the people had to start producing advertising to convince everyone to eat more. Each year, new inventions would let the people get their work done in 2 percent less time, and so each year the advertising had to convince people to eat 2 percent more food.  Then, the country would need all of its laborers to produce the food that people ate, and there would be no unemployment.
And one laborer stood up and said: “We already eat all the food we need to keep us healthy.  Instead of eating more each year, why don’t we work less each year?   Instead of eating 2 percent more, we could work 2 percent less each year. Then we would have all the food we need, and we would not have to work as much.  Each year, we would have more time to sing songs and to tell stories and to play with our children.”
But the American economist answered: “You have obviously never studied economics. You cannot survive without economic growth.”  And because he was an expert, the people followed his plan.
The advertising workers went around the country telling the people that it was glorious to eat more than your neighbors. When the country’s traditional festivals came, the advertising workers organized eating contests and gave awards and honors to those who ate most.  Soon, the people began to believe that the person who ate the most was the person who they should admire the most.  Now, the people all the food the country produced, and they still wanted even more.

The Doctor’s Advice

Ten years later, the American economist visited the country once again, and he happened to bring with him a traveling companion who was a doctor. The people asked him how well they had succeeded at following his plan.
The American economist saw that the laborers had adopted many new inventions that let them produce 25 percent more food than they had the last time he was there, and he saw that each laborer ate 25 percent more food. The economists said that this was a growth rate of about 2 percent a year – not a bad growth rate, though it would be even better if they ate 3 percent more each year. But the most important thing, the economist said, was that they were eating enough to create jobs for everyone.
But when the American doctor who was traveling with the economist looked at the people, he said that they were suffering from an epidemic of obesity, and that they would die young unless they did something about it.  He recommended that, after finishing the day’s work, the laborers should spend an hour jogging each day to keep their weight down.
And one laborer stood up and said: “Inventing new tools that let us do our work more quickly should make our lives easier, but instead it has made our lives harder.  We have to work as long as we always have, and we also have to spend an extra hour jogging at the end of the day.  If we all shortened our work hours by 2 percent each year instead of eating 2 percent more food each year, our lives would be easier, and we would not have make the extra effort to keep our weight down.”
The American doctor answered, “Eating less would keep your weight down, but I cannot comment on your ideas about work hours, because I am not an economist.” And then the American economist answered: “You have obviously never studied economics. You cannot survive without economic growth.”  And because they were experts, the people followed their plan.

The Ecologist’s Advice

Ten years later, the American economist and doctor visited the country once again, and they happened to bring with them a traveling companion who was an ecologist. And the people asked the visitors how well they had succeeded at following their plan.
The American economist said that they had succeeded again, just as well as they had the last time he was there: there were many new inventions that let each of them produce 25 percent more food than they had ten years ago, and each of them also ate 25 percent more food. That was a growth rate of about 2 percent a year – not a bad growth rate, though it could be better. Most important, they were all eating enough to create jobs for everyone.
But the doctor said that they had not succeeded.  Even though they were all jogging an hour a day, they were eating so much more food that they were even more obese than they were ten years ago.  The doctor said that they should start jogging two hours a day to try to keep their weight down.
Then the ecologist looked at the farms in the valley and he said that their topsoil was being depleted.  For many centuries, the people grew just enough food to keep them healthy, and they did not deplete the soil.  But now they were growing much more food than they used to – and, the ecologist said, the valley could not sustain production of so much food in the long run.  He said that the land was still producing food now, but the topsoil was getting thinner each year.  In a few years, the topsoil would become so thin that crops would not grow and there would be a great famine in the valley.
And one laborer stood up and said: “Inventing new tools that let us do our work more quickly should make our lives easier, but instead it made our lives harder and now it threatens to kill us all.  If we all shortened our work hours by 2 percent each year instead of eating 2 percent more food each year, then our lives would be easier, we would not have to jog to keep our weight down, and we would not deplete the topsoil of our valley.”
The American ecologist answered, “Growing less food would stop the topsoil from being depleted, so there would not be a great famine in the valley that would kill many people. But I cannot comment on your ideas about work hours, because I am not an economist.” And the American economist answered: “You have obviously never studied economics. You cannot survive without economic growth.” 
And the laborer answered: “I have never studied economics, but I do have common sense.  I know that we will survive as long as we can produce enough food for ourselves.  And I know that we will not survive if economic growth depletes our topsoil and causes famine.

Common Sense

We Americans can learn from the common sense of this laborer. 
During the 1930s, many economists believed the depression occurred because Americans already had most things that they needed, so there was not enough demand for all the products that new technologies allowed us to produce. 
During the postwar period, rather than reducing work hours, America relied on advertising, freeway construction and suburban development to create the demand for new products. Whether or not the products made our lives better, we believed that we had to consume them to create more jobs and to avoid unemployment. 
Today, our consumer economy threatens the global environment, but rather than working shorter hours and living more simply, we are still listening to the economists who tell us that we cannot survive without economic growth. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Forget the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil has popularized the idea of the "singularity," the point when computers will become more intelligent than humans, changing everything.

This idea assumes that there is one form of intelligence, general intelligence, and that computers are getting better at it. In reality, there are many forms of intelligence.

Machines became more intelligent than humans at doing arithmetic in the nineteenth century, when the first mechanical adding machines were invented.

Computers became more intelligent than humans at playing chess about a decade ago, when computer began to regularly defeat the world's greatest chess players.  But the computers play differently from humans: human chess masters think about whether a position gives them a strategic advantage, while computers  calculate every possible combination of moves many moves in advance.

Rather than a single moment when computers become generally more intelligent than humans, computers will gradually become more intelligent than humans at one skill after another as programs are developed that reduce one skill after another to calculations - as chess was reduced to calculations.

And it seems that many forms of human intelligence can never be reduced to calculations, so computers will never become good at them.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

What Is the Economy For?

With choice of work hours, we would still need planning to fine-tune the economy in order to avoid inflation, unemployment, and other economic disruption. Keynesian planning became popular in response to the unemployment of the Great Depression. Monetary planning became popular in response to the inflation of the 1970s. If there were a mass movement to shorter hours, new methods of planning would be needed to respond to slower growth.

In one example of the sort of planning we would need, the Canadian economist, Peter Victor, has created a computer model that lets him study how the Canadian economy would react to slower growth or to no growth. The results of running the model differ dramatically as he changes the values for macroeconomic variables such as the savings rate, the rates of public and private investment, and the length of the work week. In one run, the end of growth brings economic instability, high unemployment, and rising poverty. In another run with different values for these variables, the end of growth brings economic stability, reduces both poverty and unemployment by half, and reduces the ratio of debt to GDP by 75%. The second scenario has a higher savings rate, a lower rate of private investment, and a higher rate of public investment, and it avoids unemployment by reducing work hours.
There are very few macroeconomic studies of this sort, and more would be needed to help us develop policies to accommodate wide­spread work-time choice and the slower growth it could bring.
But the key difference in macroeconomic planning would be this: Today, we try to create economic growth rapid enough to give people standard 40-hour jobs. With work-time choice, we would try to create growth rapid enough to give people the number of work hours that they actually want.
Today, the economy must grow rapidly, whether or not people want more products, purely to create more 40-hour jobs. With work-time choice, people would work enough to buy the products they want, and then they could stop.
Our economic debate usually focuses solely on inflation and unemployment, technical questions that only economists can deal with. We also need to ask the underlying human question: What is the economy for?
Obviously, the purpose of the economy is to produce things that people actually want.
Everyone realizes this when they talk about work that we do for ourselves. For example, we do the job of patching the roof because we want to keep the rain from coming in, and when we have accomplished this goal, we stop. We do not keep tearing up the roof and patching it again in order to “create jobs” for ourselves.
But when it comes to the formal economy, we become totally mystified, and we believe that there is a benefit to “creating jobs.” We do not work to produce the things that we want to consume. Instead, we believe we must produce and consume more things to create more work.
If we thought about the human purpose of the economy, we would realize that in the formal economy, as in production for our own use, we should produce what we want to consume and then stop.
Economists have expert knowledge that helps them deal with inflation, unemployment and other economic problems, but ordinary people are the ones who should decide how much they want to consume. The technical questions about inflation and unemployment, which only economists can answer, should be subordinate to the human question about what balance of work and free time gives you the most satisfying life. People should be able to answer this human question for themselves, by making decisions about their own work hours based on their own desire for more income and more free time.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Shorter Work Hours and Worktime Choice

In the past, American work hours became shorter as the standard work week was reduced. It still makes sense for us to shorten standard work hours, to catch up with Europe’s shorter hours, but in today’s society, there are a number of reasons why it is even more important to focus on the choice of work hours.
Choice of work hours accommodates recent changes in the family. Until a few decades ago, most families were supported by one breadwinner. Today, families are much more di­verse. Some people are still the only wage earners for their families, and they may need to work longer hours to get by. Other families are made up of two working professionals without children, who can easily afford to work shorter hours.
Choice of work hours has political advantages. Conservatives would argue against a shorter standard work week by saying that people want to work and earn more, but it would be hard for them to argue against letting people make this choice for themselves. Shortening the standard work week also creates conflicts between employers and employees by raising the cost of labor (which is why the 35-hour work week has become so controversial in France), but choice of work hours does not create this conflict (which is why this choice has not become controversial in Germany and the Netherlands).
Choice of work hours would reduce inequality of income, because people with higher hourly earnings are more likely to work shorter hours. Ultimately, it could change our definition of success: We would consider people successful if they not only had a higher income than average but also had more free time than average.
Most important, choice of work hours would let people make a deliberate choice of their standard of living. Each person would have to decide whether it is more important to consume more or to have more free time, and this choice would make people think much harder about their purchases. Instead of buying a McMansion and an SUV, you could buy a smaller house and car and work (say) one day less each week. If you have fixed work hours and a fixed salary, you might as well buy the biggest house and the biggest car you can afford; but if you have a choice of work hours, you will consider that consuming less would allow you to work less.
Choice of standard of living has become important now that we have moved from a scarcity economy to a surplus economy.
In theory, choice of work hours has always made sense. Eco­nomic theory has always said that people should have a free choice among different products, so they can choose the combination of products that gives them the most satisfaction. This theory implies that people should be able to choose between consuming more and having more free time for exactly the same reason: They should be able to choose the combination of consumption and free time that gives them the most satisfaction.
In practice, this choice was not very important in the past. Until the mid twentieth century, most people consumed not much more than the essentials, so they could not go very far in choosing more free time rather than more income. As a result, most economists overlooked the issue historically.
In today’s American economy, though, most people consume more than the essentials and could get by with less income and more free time. The choice between more free time and more income is now critical to determining what sort of lives people lead. This choice is needed to let people live in the way they prefer.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

UBI or Shorter Work Time?

High-profile people in the tech industry have called for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to support those who will be unemployed when new technology makes their jobs obsolete. It would be better to shorten work hours, so everybody can do part of the needed work. It is obviously better to let everyone have a good balance of work and free time, rather than having some people overworked and others idle.

UBI proponents seem to think our present situation is unique, but in reality, new technology has been making jobs obsolete continually since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In 1870, almost 50% of the American population was employed in agriculture, and today only 2% of our population is employed in agriculture. New agricultural technology eliminated the jobs of almost half of all Americans.

The American economy produced almost ten times as much for each hour worked in 2000 as it did in 1900 because new technology took over the work that people used to do.  Economists use the word "productivity" to refer to the amount produced during each hour worked, and we can see in this chart how rapidly productivity has grown as technology has improved.

There may be dramatic technological improvements that replace workers in the future, such as self-driving vehicles doing the jobs of drivers and voice recognition plus artificial intelligence doing the jobs of call-center workers, but they will not be any more dramatic than the agricultural technology that eliminated the jobs of half of all American workers beginning in 1970.

The difference is that agricultural workers who were replaced by machinery moved into manufacturing, and manufacturing workers who were replaced by machinery moved into services - but when service workers are replaced by artificial intelligence, what sector will they move to?

The important thing to remember is that the change will be gradual. There might be massive displacement when self-driving vehicles arrive, for example, but it is a science-fiction fantasy to think that all the jobs across the economy will suddenly disappear.

As productivity continues to gradually improve occurs, the best way to provide jobs for displaced employees is to gradually shorten work hours, to spread the needed work among everyone.
In fact, American work hours declined as productivity increased from the beginning of the industrial revolution until World War II, but as the following chart shows, work hours stopped decreasing after World War II.
Shorter work time to share the needed work, which is the most obvious response to new technology that displaces workers, has somehow moved to our conceptual blind spot. We hear far-fetched proposals for universal basic income, imagining a fully automated world that won't come for generations, and we ignore the possibility of gradually shortening work hours as productivity gradually increases, which was the norm for much of American history.

Ultimately, the time may come when technology has gone so far and work hours have become so short that we will have to provide universal basic income for those who are unemployable.  But we are no where near that time now. Americans now work the longest hours of any industrial nation; we overtook Japan in 2001.

It is plausible that these overworked Americans will back proposals that shorten work hours for everyone - including themselves.  It is not plausible that they will back proposals for a UBI that lets some people live without working at all while they continue to be overworked.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

If a Tree Falls ....

There is an old philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?

The subjective idealists said no. A noise is a perception, an experience in someone's mind. If there is no experience, there is no noise.

Aristotle said yes. A noise is a "potency," the physical event that has the power to create that perception. If the physical event occurs, then there is a noise. Today, of course, we know that the physical event is a vibration of the air (or of water), which our eardrums detect and our brains convert to a subjective perception of noise.

This question has always been presented as an insoluble puzzle, but the answer should be obvious: It depends on your definition of noise.

If we define noise as a subjective perception, then the falling tree that no one hears does not make a noise. If we define noise as vibrations in the air that have the power to cause this subjective perception, then the falling tree that no one hears does make noise.