Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 09, 2015

A brief history of the world

Here Brad DeLong discusses the history of technology. His particular emphasis is on the past 250 years or so with the sharply accelerating pace of change, but he ranges back to the invention of the spear and the domestication of the horse. His central concern here is on whether machines, having replaced much of the work of our bodies, will shortly replace the work of our brains, and how the economy would then work.

That's a fair enough question, but I will take this opportunity to step back and reflect on the human created world in which most of us humans now live. This is the 50th anniversary of the great northeastern blackout, an even I remember although I was in the fifth grade. We lived in the country so nobody was stuck in an elevator, but we had to go out to the car to listen to the radio in order to find out what was going on. The power came on by morning and apparently people in New York City generally refrained from antisocial behavior, but it was still an impressive event.

Since then I have endured much longer, but more localized power failures -- about a week seems to be the limit for our tropical storms and major winter weather. And they get the hospitals and gas stations and supermarkets back in business first, so it's really just the showers and hot meals that we miss, and maybe TV if you're into it, except for people who do lose work for the period. But that's still pretty miserable.

So think about what would happen if we had another total northeast blackout that lasted, say, two weeks. We'd have a lot of short term fatalities, obviously -- people dependent on electrically powered devices, medications or oxygen that they could not obtain, ambulances running out of gas, people freezing if it's winter, and what not. Maybe some of those people in elevators would never be rescued. But then the power comes back on . . .

Lots of small businesses would go broke, from spoiled goods, or just lack of income leading to unpayable debts. Most people would have lost two weeks of wages but many of them wouldn't get back to work right away, or ever. All sorts of business processes would have been disrupted and it would take weeks to get things running again, with more losses and cascading bankruptcies. There could be widespread social disorder and political turmoil.

One can think of other possible disruptions of the impossibly complex social machinery we have constructed that would have devastating consequences and be very difficult to repair. Now, of course specific predictions such as we hear from Ron Paul and Glenn Beck are nonsense -- there is no reason to expect the economy to evaporate in an explosion of hyperinflation (and if it does, nobody will want your gold, by the way). But I can understand the free-floating unease that many people have that translates into political paranoia. The world is complicated and scary, it's changing much too fast, the conclusions of science are incomprehensible and bizarre. People want clear, simple answers and they want to feel secure.

And that's how we get the Republican presidential candidates.  

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