If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
- The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation By: Carl Benedikt Frey
- Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age By: Arthur Herman
- All Creatures Great and Small By: James Herriot
- To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian By: Stephen E. Ambrose
- War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots By: Ian Morris
- The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses By: Dan Carlin
- Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics By: Mary Eberstadt
- Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration By: Bryan Caplan
As you probably gathered from the title, this book is all about job losses from automation. Something which has been in the news a lot lately, and was the subject of one of my previous posts. This book covers that topic in great depth and can essentially be divided into two parts, an overview of historical automation and its effect on employment at the time, and then an assessment of how much we should worry about the automation that’s happening right now.
As far as the first part, I found the history of automation to be fascinating, and clearly there are some useful parallels to be drawn between past times and this. But there’s one aspect of the history of automation that I was largely unaware of that I’d like to dive into.
Everyone knows that the technology for the steam engine existed during the Roman Empire, but it didn’t end up going anywhere, and never escaped it’s status as a novelty. And even if you dismiss that example and insist that what we really should be paying attention to is the steam turbine, that existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1551. The point being that the technology necessary for the industrial revolution existed long before that revolution, but that governments discouraged it’s development precisely because they foresaw the massive social unrest which automation eventually brought. After hundreds of years where the technology existed but wasn’t developed, it was only in 18th century Britain that the right combination of factors existed for automation to finally take hold
There are thus good reasons to believe that relatively cheap labor in preindustrial times created fewer incentives to put worker-replacing technologies into widespread use. In fact, Robert Allen has argued that the reason why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain is that at its onset, it was not economical anywhere else… The critical factor, Allen argues, was that British industrialists were fortunate enough to be sitting on a mountain of coal… Facing low energy prices and high labor costs, British industry began to adopt machines that would not have been cost-effective elsewhere…Examples of technological advances emerging from necessity are in fact seemingly few before the Industrial Revolution.
In addition to expensive labor, and cheap energy, Britain had a culture of science and experimentation which appears to have not been present in any previous civilization. Frey even puts in a plug for my favorite religion, Christianity:
The Romans and the Greeks regarded nature as the domain of the gods: any manipulation of its forces by means of technology was considered sinful and even dangerous. This stands in contrast to medieval Christianity, which historians have argued paved the way for future technological progress as it embraced a more rational God. As Lynn White explains, “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asian religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”
It seems like a lot of things had to go right for the industrial revolution to actually take off. Which brings me to my criticisms and a discussion of the second part of the book.
The standard refrain of most economists is that the jobs that are destroyed will be replaced by new, generally better jobs, but even if the jobs aren’t better, at a minimum, automation will not cause long-term unemployment. And yes, that’s mostly been the case since the industrial revolution, but given the enormous number of things that had to go right in order for that revolution to actually happen and to shift into this new reality, how can we be so sure that we’ve arrived at some sort of stable trend that will never change?
In the past if someone had said that automation would never happen because it never had, they would have had far more data to support their conclusion than we have to support this one, and yet, in the end they still would have been wrong. At some point there was a state change, things that had been true for thousands of years suddenly weren’t.
What did things look like before that last state change? I imagine if you had asked a sufficiently observant person what the future held on the eve of the industrial revolution. They might very well have been able to predict that things were about to change and that progress was about to take off like a rocket. But for most people, not only was it a surprise but for seven decades the idea of new and better jobs was not the reality for most people. Their standard of living actually decreased during this time, a period known as “Engels Pause” after the author (with Marx) of the Communist Manifesto.
Similarly there are people today who are also predicting significant disruption. It remains to be seen whether they’re correct, but situations are similar. One of the issues to keep in mind, as we evaluate the probabilities, is the distinction Frey draws between replacing vs. enhancing technology. During Engel’s Pause, apparently much of the technology was replacing (lots of low hanging fruit like carding cotton) and only later did it get sophisticated enough to be enhancing. In our day we have the opposite problem. Technology has long been enhancing and now machine learning and automation have finally taken things to the point where we can truly imagine a complete replacement. And the question on everyone’s mind is what jobs are in danger of replacement?
As you might imagine Frey spends significant time on this subject, and by his estimation fewer jobs than feared are in danger of replacement. In other words, his estimate is lower than most. In a move that is both ironic and too clever by half, he uses machine learning/AI to decide which jobs are in danger. As I said this procedure produces a low estimate for replaceable jobs, and predictably high status professional jobs don’t end up on this list. For example Frey asserts that doctor’s aren’t in any danger, but is this really the case?
Certainly I can see why he says this, the job of a doctor is very difficult. But isn’t it mostly pattern matching? (Here I’m mostly talking doctors not surgeons). Isn’t this precisely the thing that AI is getting really good at? Don’t we already have things like Deep Patient and aren’t they already better than doctors at certain forms of prediction? And perhaps more importantly aren’t health care costs skyrocketing? Meaning we have both the means and the motive as they say. Accordingly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that doctors are in danger of replacement sooner than Frey thinks, meaning potentially a lot of other things are as well.
I think the big takeaway is that automation has nearly always brought some kind of civil unrest, regardless of whether the jobs were eventually replaced with better jobs. Meaning that even in the best case, the transition from the current economy to one with far more automation is probably going to be accompanied by significant turbulence. And if people like Frey are wrong, and nearly every job is vulnerable to automation, ‘significant turbulence’ could be a massive understatement.
By: Arthur Herman
I don’t know how much I learned about Churchill, I think I had a pretty good handle on his life and career already, but I learned an enormous number of surprising things about Gandhi. A few, in no particular order:
- He was married when he was 13 and his wife was 14, and apparently he had an insatiable sexual appetite. He lived in his father’s house at the time and his father had been in a horrible accident, leaving him an invalid. So every night Gandhi would massage his father’s ‘withered limbs’ before rushing back to bed to have sex. And one night in the midst of this his father died.
The thought that he had been having sex at the moment his father died—that his “animal passion,” as he called it, might even have somehow contributed to his father’s death—would haunt Gandhi for the rest of his life. “It is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget,” Gandhi confessed years later
- Gandhi was perhaps the least progressive leader you can imagine. Not only was he fixated on religion and chastity (as I mentioned above), he was also obsessed with the traditional Indian spinning wheel and would spend hours every day using it. So far, this might be considered only mildly eccentric, but the spinning wheel was also a huge part of his ideology and politics. He would regularly demand that its use be mandated as part of draft resolutions for Indian independence.
- As part of this very traditional ideology he really wanted India to be self-sufficient and felt that factories and other signs of encroaching industrialization were awful, both for India and the world. One can only imagine what he would think of the modern India. But suffice it to say that he didn’t work for Indian independence so that it could be a center of industry and technology. Rather he envisioned that its independence would lead to a worldwide spiritual awakening, and he was constantly setting up communes as models for the rest of the nation.
- Finally, Gandhi had an enormous amount of respect for the British Empire. Near the end he became increasingly frustrated with things, but he acknowledged himself, as I mentioned in a previous post, that his campaign of non-violence would not have worked with a less enlightened culture.
In summary, this was a great book about two very important people and a very pivotal period in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
By: James Herriot
This is one of those books that lurks at the edge of your consciousness. A book you know you’ll enjoy, but which is long past its peak of popularly. As you might imagine I burn through Audible credits pretty fast, so I’m always on the lookout for audio books I can check out from the library which will supplement my stock of books without diminishing my supply of Audible credits, which is how I came to read this. I saw it as I was browsing the library, and I’m glad I did.
This book (actually a series of books which has been made into a TV series as well) is a classic for a reason. The writing is great, the stories are excellent, the characters are both enchanting and relatable. The story of the rubber suit is worth the price of admission all by itself.
And yet again I’ve started another series without finishing any of my previous series…
I often say that this blog is primarily focused on Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) apologetics. (Albeit a very strange variety.) Ambrose’s book is essentially the same thing except for America. Among the things Ambrose acts as an apologist for are:
- Thomas Jefferson, in particular his slave owning.
- George Washington, same as above, plus Ambrose considers him an amazing person in general.
- Harry S. Truman, for dropping the bomb.
- Ulysses S. Grant, for ending reconstruction in order to heal the Union.
- Andrew Jackson, for a whole host of things, even his treatment of the Native Americans. Also he thinks people severely underestimate the importance of the Battle of New Orleans.
- And even Richard Nixon, about whom Ambrose wrote a three volume biography.
Beyond being an apologist for American leaders he also acts as an apologist for slavery (in a very limited fashion), segregation, and sexism. In most cases he doesn’t try to justify those actions, but rather points out how relatively well the US did on these issues when compared to other countries.
The book was published in 2003, at despite 9/11 it is suffused with optimism. But now, less than 20 years later, one wonders if Ambrose would have maintained that optimism. The book itself seems hopelessly quaint, but at the same time important and necessary. Though one still wonders what Ambrose would make of the current state of the country. (Would he also be an apologist for Trump?)
By: Ian Morris
My initial impression upon reading this book was that it drew very heavily from several other books I have read. In particular this book incorporates a lot of the ideas from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, especially when talking about the lucky latitudes. And the book is so similar to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature that it feels like a weird non-fiction sequel but written by a different author. (Sort of like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Same characters but entirely different motivations.) It also covers the same territory as a host of other books on history and progress that I’ve read recently. And I’m not sure if all of this was good or bad. On the one hand I definitely had no problem following his argument since it was part of a conversation I’ve been heavily steeped in over the last few years, on the other hand it made the first two thirds of the book seem uninspired and perhaps even a little boring.
That said, although there was a lot of overlap with Pinker, he did add one element to Pinker’s ideas that was fairly unique. You might be able to guess what it was from the title, the idea that the relative absence of violence Pinker talks about is all due to the ***presence*** of violent war. That short term extreme violence leads to an overall long term lessening of violence. He even goes so far as to take Pinker’s five elements which contributed to lessening violence (Governmental Leviathans, Commerce, Feminization, Empathy and Reason) and says that they can be replaced by just one element: productive war.
This idea is interesting enough, particularly when applied to the modern world that I’m going to spend my next post discussing it, so I’ll leave off for now.
In the subtitle he mentions “Robots” and while it’s hard to talk about the current state of war without discussing robots and AI, not only did the discussion feel tacked on, but it was clear that this was an area where he was out of his depth. I’ll talk about this more in my next post, but as an example his prediction for the near future is that the US hegemony, while fraying around the edges, will hold until the 2030s, or there about, and that since a lot of AI researchers are predicting the singularity will happen around 2040 that what will probably happen is the world will pass smoothly from Pax Americana to Pax Technologica. And that therefore the only thing we really need to worry about is a delay in the singularity, say from 2040 to 2070.
I bow to no man in predicting that we’re in a race between a catastrophe and a singularity, but Morris seems to be both remarkably calm about the outcome of the race and remarkably specific in exactly what that race looks like. I guess we should hope he’s correct.
By: Dan Carlin
I love Dan Carlin. I love his Hardcore History podcast and his Common Sense podcast. His series on the Mongols is as good as any history book I’ve ever read. And the latest installment of Supernova in the East which I listened to just before this book was fantastic. Considering all of this it pains me to admit that this book wasn’t nearly as good as even the worst of his Hardcore History episodes.
That is not to say the book wasn’t good. More just that the podcast is so consistently great. To begin with, the book was right up my alley. The unifying theme of the book was a discussion of catastrophes and wars, and in particular the idea that today is not that different from the past. He even had an afterward all about Fermi’s Paradox. It was a book I could have written, and it was full of excellent observations, and interesting history. The section on the Bronze Age Collapse with a discussion of the six possible explanations was particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately…
The genius of Dan Carlin and Hardcore History is that he takes his time and really gets into the nitty gritty of things. For example in the most recent Supernova in the East episode he spent a long time just talking about Douglas MacArthur. In the book he doesn’t do that, it’s much more abbreviated. In fact in audio (which is how I read it) the book is not that much longer than a typical Hardcore History episode. In theory this could have made things tighter, but it didn’t. He admits himself that while the book has a central thesis, more or less, that his examination of that thesis is pretty scattered. Which is why I called it abbreviated. In Hardcore History episodes he wanders into very interesting nooks and crannies. In this book he wanders, but it gets cut off before it has the chance to develop into anything especially interesting.
Some people are born to excel in a certain medium, and for all that I enjoyed the book, and would even recommend it, it seems obvious that Dan Carlin was born to be a podcaster.
By: Mary Eberstadt
The central premise of this book is that the sexual revolution fatally undermined the family and in doing so it destroyed the source of identity for those individuals born in its wake. That the question, “Who am I?” is central to human existence and that it used to be answered by reference to one’s immediate family, but that the sexual revolution, by creating smaller families, more divorce, and a host of other anti-familial effects has lead to a situation where there is no stable foundation to provide an answer to that question as in times past.
Consequently people are turning to other markers to provide identity, things like being black, gay or female. And of course because identity is at the core of any individuals feeling of self worth, when you attack this new identity they react just as strongly as if you had attacked their actual family, but they also have less to draw upon to defend this new identity. The connection to a family is easy to identify and tough to argue with. And if it is subject to being questioned (“You’re adopted!” Or, “I never loved you!”) then it’s understandably devastating. These new identities are more difficult to substantiate, and thus people are encouraged to go to more and more extreme lengths to do so.
This idea, that identity politics exists to fill the chasm left by the disintegration of traditional sources of identity, makes an enormous amount of sense, but laying it entirely at the feet of a specific cause seems to go too far. I am certainly no fan of the sexual revolution and I think the invention of birth control is a bigger deal than anybody wants to acknowledge, but I also think the causes are deeper than prophylactics and promiscuity.
To Eberstadt’s credit she gives space at the end of her book for some commentary by Rod Dreher, Peter Thiel and Mark Lilla. Lilla, a liberal, makes the excellent point that most if not all of the negative consequences Eberstadt blames on the sexual revolution: small families, no siblings, delayed marriage, difficulty with sexual relations, etc. Also occur in China and Japan, but without a similar outbreak of US-style identity politics.
There are lots of reasons for why this might be. And some of them would preserve Eberstandt’s thesis. But I think laying it all at the feet of the sexual revolution was already on shaky ground before Lilla’s observations, and it looks all but dead after.
By: Bryan Caplan
Illustrated by: Zach Weinersmith
This book has gotten a lot of attention, at least in the circles I run in, and probably most of it is well deserved. This book is a masterclass of presentation, persuasion, and crafting arguments. You might think, being a graphic novel, that it wouldn’t go very deep, and that was one of my worries. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that generally wasn’t the case. It actually covers a lot of ground. Including chapters on counter arguments, immigration as seen from all of the world’s major philosophies, and keyhole solutions (which I’ll get to in a minute). While being impressively thorough, the graphic novel format did what it was supposed to do: create a visually stimulating, easy and enjoyable read.
Caplan’s argument may be obvious from the title of the book, but even if it is, it’s worth repeating. Caplan is in favor of entirely open borders everywhere. And he doesn’t shy away from what that means (though he doesn’t really draw attention to these numbers either). He admits that this would mean that hundreds of millions, if not potentially billions of people might immigrate.
Several years ago I did a post on immigration, and I mentioned people like Caplan:
Now, based on that number [hundreds of millions of immigrants] do you think it would be feasible to get rid of all restrictions on immigration? Of course there are all sorts of reasons for it being infeasible… [and] we’re going to talk about all of these issues in just a minute, but let’s imagine that you’ve already considered all of them, and despite that you’re of the opinion that it is feasible. Perhaps you think free market forces and the invisible hand would end up solving all the difficulties. At this point, if, after coming up with a number and considering feasibility, you think it’s doable, then great. Go ahead and advocate for that, go ahead and fight for that solution. I feel that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, but at least there is zero hypocrisy. At least it’s a coherent ideology. And who knows it might be worth trying. In other words you’re done. You can skip the rest of the post. You already have a solution to the immigration problem.
Indeed, this is what Caplan is doing. Most people would consider absorbing hundreds of millions of immigrants to be infeasible, but Caplan doesn’t and this book is his argument for why, and as I said it’s impressive, but I also remain unconvinced. I have three main objections, but before I get to them, a few minor, unconnected thoughts on the book
- On two separate occasions Caplan mentions that immigrants “rarely vote” as a positive and reassuring thing. This struck me as weird. I understand why it might be reassuring to nativists, but it sounds insulting otherwise. Also, immigrant voting seems like something that could easily increase over time.
- Caplan really did dive into the counter arguments, including the very controversial IQ argument. This may have been the most impressive part of the book. (That he tackled it, not the actual counter argument.)
- That said, despite claims to the contrary he didn’t tackle every counter argument. In particular he missed that argument that by raising average living standards you also raise average per capita carbon emissions, making potential climate change more severe.
- While the book was comprehensive, a 256 page graphic novel does not have time to go very deep on any particular topic. As a specific example he covered Christianity in his section on how the various philosophies view immigration. In the section he retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For me, at least, it came across as something of an, “Aha! Check mate!” But I doubt any Christians are unfamiliar with that parable, and I can’t imagine any who are currently opposed to immigration saying, “Well I never considered the parable that way. Who would have imagined? I’ve been wrong this whole time!”
Let’s start by talking about the section in the book that might actually change people’s minds: keyhole solutions. This is, not entirely coincidentally, also the part I liked the best. (You might be wondering how this ends up being an objection, but I’ll get to that.)
Caplan’s argument is not just that open borders would be good, but that it would be fantastic. That it is possibly the greatest wealth-creating, inequality lessening, poverty reducing policy the world had ever known. If that’s the case then it’s supporters ought to be willing to grant significant concessions to their opponents in order to bring it to pass. Caplan is a particularly rational example of such a supporter, and so he not only acknowledges that this is a good trade, he offers some examples of the kinds of things immigration supporters should be willing to offer.
These are the keyhole solutions I mentioned above. The term comes the idea that rather than performing massively invasive surgery to fix problems as in times past these days they prefer “minimally invasive” surgery, or keyhole surgery. And that this same approach should be taken to crafting policies. Such keyhole policies include: charging immigrants to enter the country, making them pay higher taxes, restricting their access to free or subsidized government services, etc.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think such policies would go a long way towards easing people’s concerns about immigration, but (and this is finally the part where the objection comes in) whatever these keyhole policies end up being they’re going to take the form of laws on immigration, and if we can’t enforce the laws we already have what makes anyone think we’ll be able to enforce these laws. To say nothing about passing them in the first place.
If some particular candidate runs on a platform of Caplan’s keyhole solutions, then I hereby pledge my support. (Assuming they’re not crazy in some other respect.) But my assessment of the anti-immigrant electorate is that they’ve been burned too many times by promises of new immigration laws that never materialized or were never enforced, to make this same pledge of support, or to trust any promises for how things are going to go in general. In other words I think Caplan has some interesting ideas, I just think the moment has passed when they might be implemented. And this is a problem on both sides.
One of Caplan’s key claims is that completely open borders would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150%. Well the world’s per capita GDP is $11,355, while the US’s is $62,606. Which means that if everything is spread equally, and the US’s per capita GDP converges with the world’s (which, under open borders, has risen from $11k to between $17k and $28k) you’re still talking about cutting the salary of the average American in half under the best case scenario. I understand Caplan’s point that the vast majority of people will be much better off. But the vast majority of people are not going to be the ones deciding American immigration policy. And for those people who do make those decisions, i.e. vote, the effect I just described is going to outweigh just about every other consideration. And it’s telling that, while Caplan does acknowledge that this will happen, he buries this admission in his defense against the IQ argument. Rather than placing it in a more prominent location.
In other words, Caplan acknowledges that under open borders the average American would see their wages cut in half, and if anything, this decrease would be even worse for the poorest Americans who would suffer the most direct competition from low-skilled immigrants. Not only is it impossible to imagine that American voters would ever go for that, but it’s impossible to imagine what sort of practical keyhole policies could make up that difference. Even if we’re willing to give them a try.
At a high level, open borders advocacy reminds me of the way people advocate for Communism, particularly the way they used to advocate for it. As I pointed out in a previous post, before World War II, it was hard to find an intellectual who wasn’t convinced that Communism was the wave of the future, that not only was it more moral, but that it’s economic output would, as Khrushchev famously said, bury the West. All that needed to happen was for a certain class of people to realize that cooperation is better than competition. The benefits were obvious and people just needed to be smart enough and kind enough to get rid of the laws and customs which were preventing this obvious utopia from coming to pass. Does this sound at all similar to what Caplan is urging? Perhaps identical? This is not to say that it would end in the same way or to minimize the differences, which are many. But there is one big similarity which is hard to get past. Both of these plans require people to be a lot less selfish than they’ve ever been.
In this sense open borders is not merely similar to communism it’s similar to a host of ideas that sound really good on paper, but which ultimately overlook the messy complexity of the real world. None of which is to say that Caplan underestimates the difficulties involved in passing open borders legislation. Rather I think he underestimates the number of things that could go wrong after those laws are passed.
All that said, this was a truly spectacular attempt at making an argument for something most people think is impossible. And at the end of the day we could use a lot more such attempts.
As I write this it’s election day. And by reading this you’re in essence voting for my content, and I appreciate that. But what I really need, unlike in a conventional election, is more money in politics. If you would like to, “Corrupt the system!” Consider donating.