Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Blip - American style

We have discussed here the possible transitory nature of our current industrial-capitalist society.  There is not anything particularly new about the concept that the industrial revolution is running out of steam, and it should be noted that we are not even close to being in the first crises.  The Revolutions of the 1840s almost looked like they were going to upset the applecart, before the applecart even made it out of the driveway.  And of course the totalitarian response to the Great Depression, while arguably a doubling down on industrial methods by adding mass communications into the mix, also looked an awful lot like a serious change in direction.

The Blip
Benjamin Wallace Wells, The New Yorker, 21 July 2013 (hat tip NC)
For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered. This isn’t to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve. All of the wars, literature, love affairs, and religious schisms, the schemes for empire-making and ocean-crossing and simple profit and freedom, the entire human theater of ambition and deceit and redemption took place on a scale too small to register, too minor to much improve the lot of ordinary human beings. In England before the middle of the eighteenth century, where industrialization first began, the pace of progress was so slow that it took 350 years for a family to double its standard of living. In Sweden, during a similar 200-year period, there was essentially no improvement at all. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.
Then two things happened that did matter, and they were so grand that they dwarfed everything that had come before and encompassed most everything that has come since: the first industrial revolution, beginning in 1750 or so in the north of England, and the second industrial revolution, beginning around 1870 and created mostly in this country. That the second industrial revolution happened just as the first had begun to dissipate was an incredible stroke of good luck. It meant that during the whole modern era from 1750 onward which contains, not coincidentally, the full life span of the United States human well-being accelerated at a rate that could barely have been contemplated before. Instead of permanent stagnation, growth became so rapid and so seemingly automatic that by the fifties and sixties the average American would roughly double his or her parents’ standard of living. In the space of a single generation, for most everybody, life was getting twice as good.
At some point in the late sixties or early seventies, this great acceleration began to taper off. The shift was modest at first, and it was concealed in the hectic up-and-down of yearly data. But if you examine the growth data since the early seventies, and if you are mathematically astute enough to fit a curve to it, you can see a clear trend: The rate at which life is improving here, on the frontier of human well-being, has slowed...
What is interesting about the further discussions at the piece, is that it isn't just some sort of Club of Rome, decline through pollution- resource depletion meets population explosion argument.   It brings in the much more subtle arguments about the shift in population age, and population growth as well.

It also brings into focus the problem of the impossibility of compounding growth.  When your model of success requires more money (or oil, or gold, or whatever) units than electrons in the solar system (or eventually the universe) to sustain itself over the long run, than you are going to have to make some changes.


PioneerPreppy said...

And when a large segment of the population has been made promises based on that same growth then someone is going to get the short end of things.

What we are really seeing now are groups trying to make sure it is some other group that gets the short stick.

russell1200 said...

Peter Turchin in his secular cycles notes it as the fighting between the "haves". It's just that modern wealthy societies have a lot of "haves", so it gets a little complicated.