Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz

Kenneth Pomeranz adds The Great Divergence to the growing list of books trying to shed some light on why the west has been so comparatively successful economically. His point of view is novel, and he does a good job of showing that there's something important missing from the other explanations: up to about the 1700s, the standard of living and growth trajectories of the economies of China, Japan, and India apparently were comparable to the economies of the strongest countries in western Europe.

That's not enough for Pomeranz, though; he wants to convince us that the important difference was Britain's access to coal deposits, and to the new world's agricultural productivity. Without coal, Pomeranz argues that Britain's technological growth would have been curtailed, and without access to the new world, Britain would have been subject to some kind of cross between a malthusian and a mercantilist disaster. Britain would have been unable to increase its agricultural productivity in order to free workers to move to the factories, and wouldn't have had a ready market for its growing manufactured goods.

The explanation falls short, however, since it doesn't seem likely that the east would have exploited these resources if they had discovered them. We need an explanation that starts a step earlier: why were the western countries racing to discover new markets and resources? Why were they poised to exploit foreign resources when they found them? Why were the asian countries so insular, and how long would it have taken for them to change if the western countries hadn't made contact first? It's possible that the lack of an external market would have slowed growth, but it seems likely that the technologocial growth path would have continued, albeit in some other direction. And the malthusian argument has lost most of its force. (See my previous post for agreement and disagrement.)

Even if you are interested in the argument, I don't recommend the book. Pomeranz goes into excrutiating detail to convince us that the eastern and western economies were comparable. I often found myself reading the third or fourth or tenth paragraph past any argument I could reconstruct trying to figure out why he was telling me how many calories peasants in some country had access to, or how many hours a day they had to work for a pair of pants. I'm really glad to see that someone has found access to a deep source of historical data about how ordinary people lived their lives in countries that haven't been described well in the history I've had access to. But Pomeranz is not the one to make it come alive. I needed more road signs as he was telling me all this so I could remember which economy he was talking about, and what part the details had to play in his larger argument.

And if you are interested in the argument, it looks like Brad DeLong is well tied into that community, and can both provide connections to the literature, and tell you which historians are onto a relevant lead. He has a detailed analysis of Pomeranz that simultaneously gives him more credit, and knocks down the argument that the New World is really the key.

Population Growth still seen as a Liability

Tyler Cowen recommended an interview at the Richmond Fed of Robert Moffitt, a labor economist from Johns Hopkins. Most of the interview was about the surprisingly good (but unheralded) outcomes from welfare reform. Most of the interview was about the surprisingly good (but unheralded) outcomes from welfare reform. I was surprised to see Moffitt claim that the mainstream view (represented by the NAS) has moved to agreement with Julian Simon that population growth is actually beneficial in most cases:

RF: There are some who have argued that population growth will ultimately lead to severe social and economic problems. I'm thinking of people like Paul Ehrlich, for instance. And then there are others — Julian Simon probably being the most prominent example — who have argued that population growth has unambiguously positive effects. Let us assume that these two positions define the extreme positions of the debate. Which one do you find more consistent with the evidence?
Moffitt: Although I have done work on the economics of fertility, I have not done work on this specific question. However, I have followed the debate fairly closely. As far as I can tell, the best work on that issue can be found in a couple of volumes put out by the National Academy of Sciences that examined how population growth affects a whole host of issues, including the environment, health, per-capita income, and others. And when you look at the data, it's fairly hard to find major negative consequences of population growth. You can build models where this might be the case, but the empirical evidence seems fairly straightforward, and it is closer to Julian Simon's view than to Paul Ehrlich's.
I think that economists have generally been persuaded that population growth, on average, has positive effects — and so, too, have demographers, a group that used to include a pretty large number of population growth opponents. Also, I think most people would agree that we do not face a "population bomb" except, possibly, in Africa, and AIDS has changed things rather dramatically there. Quite the opposite: In many developed countries, population growth is now below the replacement rate.

So I went off to find the NAS studies Moffitt referred to. I was disappointed to find mostly articles reiterating scientists' concerns about the effects of population growth. Joint Statement by fifty-eight of the World's Scientific Academies:

Representatives of national academies of science from throughout the world met in New Delhi, India, from October 24-27, 1993, in a "Science Summit" on World Population. The conference grew out of two earlier meetings, one of the Royal Society of London and the United States National Academy of Sciences, and the other and international conference organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Statements published by both groups expressed a sense of urgent concern about the expansion of the world's population and concluded that if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity of the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent irreversible degradation of the natural environment and continued poverty for much of the world.

And later: The Earth Is Finite

The growth of population over the last half century was for a time matched by similar world-wide increases in utilizable resources. However, in the last decade food production from both land and sea has declined relative population growth. The area of agricultural land has shrunk, both through soil erosion and reduced possibilities of irrigation. The availability of water is already a constraint in some countries. These are warnings that the earth is finite, and that natural systems are being pushed ever closer to their limits.

The first pages of Google hits include a couple of copies of a 1997 Joint Statement by NAS and the Royal Society of London whose first paragraph ends with this:

It has often been assumed that population growth is the dominant problem we face. But what matters is not only the present and future number of people in the world, but also how poor or affluent they are, how much natural resource they utilize, and how much pollution and waste they generate. We must tackle population and consumption together.

Summary: Without evidence, many believe that population growth is a problem, but it's not the biggest part of the problem. Population growth remains a problem to be addressed.

The National Academies Press ties teaching about Population Growth to evolution (which it is trying to teach in a science based way). The main messages concern limits to growth and carrying capacity. Population growth is exponential. Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of arbitrarily large size, but environments and resources are finite. No mention of the effects of increasing population on standards of living or development of new technology.

Sigma Xi (The Scientific Research Society) 1991: This forum concluded that global trends in population growth and environmental degradation are on an unsustainable course, but it's not too late to change direction.

Admittedly most of these references are 5-10 years old, but google couldn't find anything more recent, even when directed to the NAS site. Bottom line: I couldn't find any evidence to support Moffitt's claim. I'm disappointed, but not surprised.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone feels like a juvenile, in the sense of Heinlein's Juveniles, but that's mostly because the viewpoint character is a rebellious teenager. Jeremy wants to be a rock star, sculpting visual images for the audience while his favorite band sings about freedom. The major obstacle is that he lives in a repressive surveillance society that monitors people's movements, and controls what they buy, read, view, and ingest. Every facet of his life is monitored and controlled by one repressive bureaucracy or another.

In the style of all such juveniles, the band and all records of their existance disappear from sight, so Jeremy has to escape from his home town and undergo a harrowing journey in order to track them down. Along the way, he adopts a dog, and has the requisite eye-opening adventures in the big city. He joins up with the revolution, finds the band, and stares down some government goons, and joins the band.

I describe the book as formulaic, but Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman carry it all off quite well. Jeremy is quite sympathetic, and he does visibly mature through the story. The government is a lot scarier than anything that we've yet seen in America, but all their attitudes and prohibitions are straightforward extrapolations of current governments. As with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, the point is that what enables the abuse is unprotesting acceptance by the populace.

RebelFire: Out of the Gray Zone ends with Jeremy having a personal happy ending, able to live underground, having achieved his dream of joining the band, and (possibly) having gotten the girl. But nothing has really changed for the larger society. This is the one weak point of an otherwise strong candidate for this year's Prometheus award. Oh, and I prefer positive visions to dystopias when I'm voting, but dystopias aren't disqualified by any means.

Footnote: a couple of people suggested not listening to the CD before reading the book, since the clash with their musical tastes spoiled the effect for them. There are two cuts on the CD, representing "heavy metal" and "classic rock" versions of the song "Rebelfire". I didn't mind the classic rock version, and have added it to my iPod. Listening to it first wouldn't have spoiled anything for me. Caveat Auditor.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Rocket Racing League

It sounds like science fiction, and I haven't read about it in the newspaper or any of the blogs I read regularly, but the BBC and several other media outlets are reporting on it, so it must be true. Peter Diamandis, the money behind the X-prize, which encouraged more than a half dozen teams to work on development of vehicles that could safely and repeatedly reach the edge of space, has announced the next step in private space development. He's starting the Rocket Racing League, a race series that will bring exciting competitive rocket races to airports around the country and eventually around the world.

They had a public demonstration at the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo in Las Cruces at the beginning of October, and later in the month showcased a test flight of the EZ-Rocket:

October 21, 2005 - The Rocket Racing League™, announced the successful completion of a detailed performance flight test research program for the EZ-Rocket rocket plane culminating in two exciting and aggressive public demonstration flights. The EZ-Rocket, precursor to the X-Racer™ now under development, made three flights out of Las Cruces, NM at the 2005 X PRIZE Cup events, two of these on the same day. The flights included three successful engine relights during flight and a maximum altitude reached of 8,756 feet. This accomplishment is a significant milestone for the vehicle and for the Rocket Racing League.

The point (obviously?) is to get people excited about space development. The league will fund develpment and production of ten initial rockets. The first few should be able to start racing in 2006, and the full fleet should be going in 2007. Diamandis hopes that other groups will develop their own rockets and enter them in the series. The rockets will be operated by independent companies, and will compete for a final cup annually in New Mexico.

I think these guys have the right idea. It will only take a few billionaires to put enough money into developing visible civilian applications of space to move development forward far enough that space development will be commercially viable. And making it sexy and exciting, and apparently dangerous will attract attention. The Rocket Races will look edge-of-your-seat scary, but if they can keep it actually safe, people will be happy to take trips to space, and spend time in space hotels.

And that'll lead to enough serious development that more commercial applications will become affordable, and other uses will drive development of yet more vehicles and technology.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Lincoln's Dreams, by Connie Willis

Lincoln's Dreams, by Connie Willis, is a well-constructed story, with multiple levels of parallel meaning on display simultaneously. It reminds me strongly of one of my Dad's photos of leaves floating on the surface of a pond, with the trees reflecting off the surface in some places, and the rocks on the bottom showing through in others. Jeff Johnston does research for Broun, a writer of civil war novels, whose current project has gotten him involved in the dreams Lincoln suffered from after losing his son. Annie, a beautiful young woman who has been having nightmares full of civil war imagery comes hoping for an explanation from Broun after not getting help from a sleep clinic. Jeff takes her under his wing after recognizing a few of the particular battles that appear symbolicly in her dreams.

Willis weaves together the draft of Broun's latest civil war novel, snippets of history that Jeff and Annie find while clarifying the images in the dreams and chasing down leads for Broun, and Jeff and Annie's disturbing trips to the Virginia battlefield memorials that confirm that the dreams are rooted in history. The pair come to trust and care about each other as they slowly uncover the clues that may have mortal consequences in the present, while the civil war soldiers in the draft novel simultaneously cross and re-cross the same battlefields looking for their units or waiting for the next skirmish.

The whole thing was made just a little more resonant for me because I read the book while on a quick trip to Virginia. I was driving my own circles daily between Alexandria (where I was staying with my sister) and the Arlington and Fairfax campuses where the George Mason economists I'm working with have their offices and run their experiments. I've spent enough time in the area that the occasional memorial sign I drove past reinforced the familiarity of all the infamous battlefields the characters visited awake, asleep, and fictional within the story.

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New propulsion form for tiny creatures

Science News reports that some MIT mathematicians videotaped tiny water-walking insects using surface tension to draw themselves toward the edges of water surfaces without moving their legs.

For the same reason that cereal clumps together in a bowl full of milk, or bubbles gather at the edges of a drink, surface tension pulls together deformations on the surface of any liquid. The insects stop walking when they near an edge (where the sloping meniscus can create a hill they'd be unable to climb) and instead take a posture that deforms the surface, drawing them toward the nearest edge. The article concludes by saying

The new results and related research may have important applications not only for understanding biolocomotion but also potentially in nanotechnology.
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