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October 17, 2005

For the Times They Are A-Changin'

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

In today’s L.A. Times there’s an interesting story with the headline “France’s Economic Model Showing Signs of Stress” which you can read here . The headline seems more portentous than the actual incident the story describes, which is the French government’s attempts to pressure Hewlett Packard into not cutting 1,240 jobs in that country over the next three years. Still, it resonated with me at the breakfast table.

For as long as I can remember—going back to the mid-1960s, when I was roughly 10 years old—the basic rules of the ‘social contract’ have been pretty much the same in this country and throughout much of the rich world. Oh, sure, things changed a bit around the edges in that time. While Western Europe built itself an ever-plusher social welfare state and watched its unemployment rate march into double digits, the U.S. got into and then rather awkwardly out of Vietnam; we introduced a volunteer army in place of a draft and spent a lot of time gassing about affirmative action; Europe and America both have fiddled with their tax rates, just about everybody got themselves a website and a blog. But for all that, my ‘adult’ lifespan has seen far more continuity than disruption. On the international scene the implosion of the old Soviet Union and the slump of Japan during the 1990s both seemed kind of dramatic at the time but oddly neither seemed to have had much of an impact on my day-to-day life, let alone on the defense budget or the balance of trade.

But it strikes me the relative stasis that has prevailed during my day is coming to a rather rapid end. Why? Well, the following trends strike me as likely to result in my children living in quite a different world than their father:

-The rise of China and possibly India to the first rank of economic players, and the effects that this shift will have on the global ‘balance of power’

-The ‘demographic crisis’ caused by the retirement of the baby boom (and its attendant demolition job on public finances). This will, of course strike the rest of the ‘rich’ world even harder than it will the U.S., but I doubt it will be pretty anywhere

-The possibility that peaking oil production and global warming will combine to create an era of far more expensive energy

-The apparent likelihood of a sort of ‘cold war’ with at least some elements of the Islamic world

Heck, the list could go on and on, and you’re certainly free to choose different trends (and, quite possibly, more important trends). But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re in for an era of rather more radical changes in how societies, or at least rich societies, work than what we’ve been used to. I would guess that the next 50 years may see changes more like the tumultuous first half of the 20th century rather than the relatively serene second half.

Do you agree? Disagree?



posted by Friedrich at October 17, 2005


I think Alexander Fraser Tyler's observations c.1770 in "Cycle of Democracy" still hold true:

The average of the world's great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years. These nations have progressed in this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 17, 2005 9:32 PM

Welcome back, Friedrich!

Back in the 50s when I was in high school, CBS staged annual end-of-year roundups, bringing in Charles Collingwood from London and 3-4 others in from DC or wherever. My recollection was that each year was fraught with crisis and the future of the wolrd would be affected by what the coming year would bring. All more or less true, but I finally got jaded by the this after several years.

Nowadays, I know current things will affect the future, but I have no idea which will have monumental impact. Your guesses are as good or better than mine. Anyhow, let me skip through them and offer some gut-reactions: nary a well-chewed-over thought in sight.

China and India are likely to continue their rise, but I can't say to what effect. If one goes on "form," each has a history of being conquered, not being the conqueror. But in today's high-tech world populated by generations far removed from getting-conquered days, bets are off. If nothing else, they are likely to neutralize one another (the Bush administration's recent courting of India hints at this). Pakistan and Bangadesh are wild cards for India. I think China poses the greatest danger to Russia. I haven't researched this, but to the extent Siberia has resources China needs, China might decide to pry Siberia loose from a depopulating, weakened Russia.

The demographic problem will be impossible to deflect in the short (30-year) run. I think I'll post something soon on one way out of it (a long-shot) for later decades.

The oil crisis can be averted via the market if government stays out of it (fat chance!); higher prices will make currently uneconomical oil fields and shale areas fit for exploitation.

As for "Militant Islam," I see as much a hot war as they can wage on us, not a USA vs USSR kind of thing. If Bush succeeds in democratizing the Middle East (getting the process going, at least), then the war will be cooler than otherwise. Still, I fear Western cultural suicide, given whose hands are on the media and academia.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 17, 2005 9:44 PM

One can take the contrary view and point out that all the cited trends may prove to be less decisive than predicted:

- China and India both have major problems (total lack of democracy and massive abject poverty, respectively) that may prevent them from achieving superpower status;
- raising the retirement age to accomodate increasing lifespans can defuse the demographic crisis, at least for many years;
- technological changes, such as hydrogen fuel cells, may reduce the worldwide demand for oil; and
- civil war within the Islamic world could well be more likely than a cold war with the non-Islamic world.

Posted by: Peter on October 17, 2005 9:45 PM

Winifer: That "cycle of democracy" quote is an urban legend (though I've usually seen it with a different title). The original quote was possibly created by PJ O'Rourke. There's a little relevant info here:

"Alexander Fraser Tyler" doesn't exist. There was a guy named Tytler, but he didn't write anything like that either.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 18, 2005 12:57 AM

As for the main post, I just started reading _The Singularity is Near_; Kurzweil wants to make a case that the increasing pace of technological change will overwhelm everything else and make most of the normal issues we worry about now irrelevant. In particular: poverty, material want, and lack of available food, water, or energy should essentially disappear as perceived social problems within the timeframe you're talking about.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 18, 2005 1:03 AM

I can't say what the future will bring but FVB is certainly right that recent decades have been surprisingly stable in America and Western Europe. The Internet has changed my life a lot, but otherwise, technology hasn't changed much in my 46 years.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 18, 2005 3:35 AM

Thanks for the remarks, everyone.

I'm intrigued that Peter and Glen seem so sanguine about the future; I'll just say that while I'm sure that things will get sorted out somehow in the future, I'm not so sure that the present status quo will be able to adapt itself to the new conditions with only minimal wear and tear. Perhaps my conviction is entirely subjective--as I've gotten older I'll admit I see the world as far less robust and considerably more fragile than I did when I was twenty. But although I didn't spell it out at length in my posting, I think each of those trends will have truly disruptive impacts on major aspects of life as it presented itself in America over the past 40 years or so. Our society is based on certain assumptions or 'bets' we made during (and before) that era; a lot of those assumptions are either absolutely untrue or look like they might turn out to be that way; and there appears to be no good mechanism for changing our bets anywhere to be seen.

It's not as if it would be impossible to live in a world where retirees are in a higher proportion to workers, or in a world with more expensive energy, or in a world where the U.S. is not nearly so large and in charge; it's just that our social decision-making apparatus is actually going to obstruct our efforts to accommodate ourselves to new realities. I refer everyone to the current wildly successful attempt to tinker even modestly with Social Security as exhibit A. And I suggest that only a fair amount of social upheaval will break the forces of 'reaction', a pattern much on display in the latter 19th-century and early 20th-century. I am really hoping that these 21st-century adjustments get made without the warfare that characterized that earlier period, but I'm not entirely sanguine even about that.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 18, 2005 6:28 AM

Don't forget the good changes, too. Fantastic increases in productivity will make people everywhere far wealthier; improvements in medicine will extend lives and relieve suffering.

History is full of people predicting a dark future, yet every decade, things get better... decade after decade after decade.

Posted by: Mike on October 18, 2005 10:16 AM

People are awfully serene about the idea of 'just raise the retirement age'. Ever spent your day moving wheelbarrows of bricks? No problem at twenty, not too bad at fifty, backbreaking at 60, impossible at 70. How about staying serene in a classroom full of seven-year-olds?

There are only so many jobs giving out samples of new frozen food at CostCo.

Posted by: dave s on October 18, 2005 10:18 AM

Regarding increases in the retirement age, it's worth noting that the percentage of jobs considered physically demanding has been on the decline for decades. Only about 10% of the jobs in the United States IIRC are in that category even with a very expansive definition of the term. As people live longer, and maybe even more importantly remain healthy for longer and longer, it only makes sense to raise the retirement age.

Posted by: Peter on October 18, 2005 10:50 AM

On the other hand, I have yet to run into a place-of-work that's eager to staff up with oldies. As far as I can tell, two totally conflicing trends are happening:

1) We're being told that the retirement age has to get higher and higher.
2) Meanwhile, on a practical level, business seems to be growing ever more fixated on youth. (For good reason: they don't know anything, they're eager to succeed, and they generally aren't yet being paid much.)

Meanwhile, I (like many others) am eager to get out of the workforce as soon as possible. Let's get that productivity up, youngsters! I want a nice, long, cushy retirement!

But my guess is that we'll all be stacking shelves at Staples when we're 80 ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 18, 2005 12:21 PM

History is full of people predicting a dark future, yet every decade, things get better... decade after decade after decade.

Hey, we've had a great run in the last 300 years, absolutely. But that didn't mean that things got better everywhere for everyone decade after decade after decade. I rather doubt you'd trade life in the USA during 1920s for life in the USA during the 1930s; or life in Russia from 1900-1910 for life in Russia from 1930-1950; or...etc., etc. But that was never my point.

I'm just suggesting that the current status quo is going to get considerably more bent out of shape going forward than it has for the past 40 or so years. Actually, I suspect that all things considered that will be a good thing. I think underlying, real world change has been occuring pretty steadily during all these years; but somehow it's been papered over with the appearance of continuity. I just think the paper is going to rip, and starting pretty soon...not that we're all going in the dust-bin of history. Actually, looking things a bit more in the face is usually the prerequisite for better times.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 18, 2005 12:43 PM

Not trying to be a smart-alek here, but the examples you gave are instructive. Yes, a massive economic depression or a revolution can seriously ruin your decade, no doubt about it. But look at what's happened over the last 50 years - WWII, The Korean War, The Cold War, various nuclear scares, AIDS... none of that was enough to really dent the continuing improvement in people's lives.

If, in 1950, I told you that the steel mills and the auto industry would be hammered flat by 1970, and that oil would become so scarce at that time that you'd need a ration card to fill your gas tank, you'd expect things to get pretty bad after that. But, I'd have been misleading you, because if I hadn't also mentioned the dawn of the computer age or the peaceful end of the Cold War, you'd have had no idea about the good things that were also coming.

We have some fantastic good things coming down the pike. We have just fielded the first generation of scientists and engineers who have grown up with household computers, and who had access to computers throughout their entire education. These guys are going to blow the doors off once they really get rolling. Think of the men who got us to the moon with slide rules and paper charts; imagine if they had google and Palm Pilots at their disposal. They will produce bigger miracles, and they will do it faster than ever before.

Posted by: Mike on October 18, 2005 1:33 PM

Very provocative post, Friedrich! A few musings…

I am somewhat hopeful about India’s potential. The nation has always been a regional superpower, supporting Nepal, Bangladesh and Tibetan refugees, and would have crushed Pakistan economically, if not militarily, if not for the long US support of Pakistan. China is more problematic: I am amazed that China is able to juggle substantial economic development with tyranny and oppression. The wild card here for India is the persistence of disruptive Marxist and nationalist “liberation movements” within the country and in neighboring regions which, worse case, would lead to a break-up of India similar to the fracturing of the old Soviet Union.

I am less concerned about a post-baby boom “demographic crisis” than I am about the accelerating decline of the middle class, hastened by economic trends such as outsourcing of service and ‘brainpower” jobs, the decline of US manufacturing, a de facto open border policy, a stridently anti-wage earner tax policy on the part of the current GOP administration, and also by the strangely mean spirited and self-destructive view of many self-described progressives in power that middle class folk are irrelevant unless they belong to a union and that “the rich” (whoever they are) should be taxed into dust.

I am also somewhat surprised at the increasingly jingoistic and anti-intellectual mood that is expanding in this country, and even though the Internet has spawned an amazing openness, this is countered by a desperate retreat into political and intellectual tribalism by many who insist on labeling everything in the universe as either “conservative” or “liberal,” along with a sad insistence that all media outlets should become propaganda machines for one side or the other. This willful blindness, I think, poses a greater threat to the US and to the West than Islamic fundamentalism, because it can choke off accurate assessments of potential actions and choices. I also don’t see that any good can come of politically active Christian fundamentalism in the US, again, because in my jaundiced view, it is essentially anti-intellectual and at its worst insists on viewing events in the world through a prism of Biblical prophecy.

Despite all this, I remain hopeful, even though recent meanderings in history remind me that great nations are tripped up more by the unexpected than by reactions to any observed trend. A fun little article in a back issue of “The Economist” indicated that the US definitively began to outpace Great Britain in the 1870s, when its GDP for successive years was significantly higher than that of Great Britain, this despite the expansion of the British Empire. Further back, Athens and Sparta thought that they only had to deal with each other and with Persia as the main world powers on the stage. Nobody saw the Macedonians coming.

Posted by: Alec on October 18, 2005 3:02 PM

Glen R-how interesting about the urban legend. I did find AF Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, at the British Library site but he was 19th, not 18th, century.
But I first heard that quote in 1976, while taking Silva Mind Control. I don't know how old PJ O'Rourke is--was he active as a political satirist during the Carter/Ford campaign?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 18, 2005 3:06 PM

The science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp quipped: "It does not pay a prophet to be too specific."

Nevertheless, I feel very confident in making certain general predictions:

We will have a non-stop parade of new personal technological toys and breathless geek-speak about them.

We will have more people, more cars, bigger cities, more highways.

Office towers will proliferate and get taller.

The law will build and set in motion new ways of being damaged and more grounds for suing.

The old will be kept alive longer.

Information technology will put more and more facts at anyone's disposal, almost instantly.

A few people here and there will look for wisdom, meditate, pray, seek God.

Posted by: Rick Darby on October 18, 2005 3:28 PM

Michael -
Businesses may be fixated on youth right now, though whether that's increasing is another matter, but I expect that to change gradually as the population ages and there are fewer young people in the "pipeline." Indeed, this is already the case in segments of the fast-food and retailing industries, who see older people as a quality alternative to the increasingly scarce (is that proper grammar?) and less-reliable teens who long have made up much of their workforces. I would not be surprised to see this spread upward into non-entry-level jobs as time goes on.
Some jobs, of course, will remain youth-oriented, such as certain high-pressure occupations and the declining number of jobs with high physical demands. But the days when older workers are considered suitable for nothing beyond greeting customers at Wally World are long past.

Posted by: Peter on October 18, 2005 7:20 PM

Google, Wikipedia, and various similar efforts are certain to have made most of the world's useful information easily available to most of the world's population in most of the world's languages within the next decade. The success of the DARPA challenge means we've got self-navigating cars on the road within 20 years - probably much sooner - which should drastically reduce traffic accidents and shipping costs and make more of the world easily available to those too old or handicapped to drive themselves around. Wireless internet telephony will soon make telecommunication virtually free for most of the world. We've got a private space race on the horizon. (I'm still rooting for the underdog team :-) ) In my own industry - computer software - older hackers are everywhere. Ten years ago we feared over-40 hackers would be unemployable because few were evident, but that turned out to be mostly an artifact of the available talent pool. As hackers get older, the expectation for how old a hacker "should be" seems to have changed along with it.

The future seems pretty bright to me; "open borders" and a successful India make it seem brighter still.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 18, 2005 10:17 PM

I guess that'll teach me to use "preview". The space-race link was to armadillo aerospace; a better DARPA link is here.

It looks like my sin was not putting quotes around the web addresses. Odd.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 18, 2005 10:24 PM

I agree with Peter's points, except the raising of the retirement age.

The original retirement age was based on the fact that at the time social security was created, most people died at or around 65, thereby limiting what social security would have to pay out. Now that age is around 72 (I think), but whereas a 65 year old can still be hale, a healthy 72 year old just usually doesn't have the energy to do the morning shift at McDonald's. The direct result of raising the retirement age will just be more poverty among the elderly and more of them dropping dead in the aisles on the night shift at Walmart.

If China ever goes democratic, then they will be a force to be reckoned with. For now their repressive govt. will hold them back.

India's caste system is just too ingrained, so think that will always limit their participation in the larger world economy. (If I were to use a smart-ass NY/LA euphemism, it'd be: It's just so third world.) I've been with a couple businesses now that didn't take into account the structure of their society, and eventually pulled back investments when they discovered they weren't such cheap help after all. The funniest side of that is how to account for the bribe money needed to keep information flowing in and out of the country. One company I worked for spent about 6 months trying to dream up a category in the books that wouldn't cause red flags with the auditors.

The one future event I've seen everyone miss is that some Islamic state or terrorist group will set off a nuke somewhere, whether it's on the border between Pakistan and India, or in New York City USA. That will cause a big big change in everyone's approach to them (meaning they will be bombed into glass craters without mercy or they will simply be shut out economically from the rest of the world, or both). Not that 9-11 wasn't enough, mind you. It's just that a nuke, and the organization needed to detonate one, is a different, more potent kind of attack.

Also, like the news is promising, we are probably going to have some sort of pandemic in my lifetime. And it will be worse than the flu of 1918, due to airline travel and the fact that the AIDs epidemic made "Quarantine" a dirty word. If it's really bad, the economy will either bust or boom, because suddenly there will be a demand for knowledgeable workers to replace the ones that died, and the main dependency on whether things go boom or bust is the pool of workers there will be to draw upon. It'll be like a less extreme version of King's "The Stand" where we might suddenly have to train people on how to run hydroelectric dams and such. Not to mention the psychological toll of 1/3 of the population dying.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 19, 2005 11:06 AM

No mention of medical, pharmaceutical and health care developments. I suspect that they will be among the most powerful changes to human existence this century.

Posted by: jult52 on October 19, 2005 12:05 PM

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