Wednesday, July 05, 2006
The Derb has begun publishing what, based on his last outing, sound like they might be his . . . unexpurgated thoughts in The New England Review. His latest is about Robotics vs. Helotics. It's a good one, not unworth thinking about.
My quick thoughts:
- I'm not sure that we'd be able to beat Japan in the robotics "race" even if we tried. The Japanese are going to be better at robotics than we are regardless of our immigration situation, because they are better at electronic gadgets than we are. We lost virtually our entire consumer electronics industry to Japan over the course of the 1970s-1980s, and we've gotten virtually none of it back since. Why? I don't know - but we did, and we haven't, and I suspect that this is just something they are better at than we are. And helots don't sit on our heads and sing music in our ears, nor do they put on little plays inside our televisions.
- Moreover, the Japanese triumph in electronics (and their emerging triumph in robotics) is not due to some kind of techno-sclerosis on the part of the United States caused by the importation of cheap labor. Proof? America is the world leader in both computer software and biotechnological innovation. Is this because we're just "better" at software and biotech? Maybe, though I suspect that three big factors relevant to our success have at least as much to do with their weakness as they do with our strength, to whit: we speak English (giving us access to a broader global pool of talent) while they speak Japanese (giving them access to . . . themselves); we have a more open immigration policy (a lot of our high-tech companies are staffed, and even founded, by *high*-skilled immigrants from a variety of countries) while they are not the most hospitable place to live and work if you are not Japanese; and we have far more developed and open capital markets, including but definitely not limited to venture finance, while they have a famously scleroric and hidebound financial system. Japan *could* change at least the latter two of these things, but they probably won't, because they like being themselves, inefficiencies and all.
- Regardless, while robotics may or may not be preferable to helotics, it's no cure-all for a low fertility rate. And a fertility rate of below 1.3 children/woman is just plain too low, no matter what, if only because of the psychological consequences of being a nation of only children, to say nothing of the economic consequences of having such a small percentage of the population at peak levels of productivity and creativity. And then there is the national-psychological consequence of having so many elderly people. Even if we can take pills to remain more vigorous later into life, we'll never be young again. I'm 35, and I'm already acutely aware of the ways in which I feel old - changes that have happened to me only in the last 5 years. The brain is not infinitely plastic; the teenage years are probably the last opportunity to really change the way the wiring works in a profound way. By the 30s to 40s, almost everything substantial is set. If we live vigorously for another 30 years or another 60 years beyond that date, we'll live as vigorous *old* people. That is to say, among other things, as very conservative people. While an elderly-yet-vigorous robo-powered Japan might grow even mightier in terms of financial clout, how much influence will they really have over the direction the world takes? It's not so clear to me. I've made this point before: a fertility rate modestly below replacement - 1.7 to 1.8 TFR - strikes me as culturally and economically sustainable pretty much indefinitely, as is a fertility rate modestly above replacement. Either means a norm of 2-3 children per couple with a good admixture of childless or single-child families and a handful of larger families thrown into the mix. A TFR of closer to 1 means that most couples have only one child. I don't think that's conducive to societal health or an indicator of civilizational confidence.
- Enthusiasts for high immigration tend to point to 19th century America as a model, and proof that there is no choice between robotics and helotics because we're not importing helots but future burghers and yeomen who merely have funny last names and spicier food. Although constitutionally predisposed towards openness to immigration, I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that this analogy is badly flawed. In the 19th century, industrialization meant both that fewer people were needed to work on farms and that factories needed more people to work in them. There was a huge migration from the countryside to the cities as a consequence. In spite of having a higher fertility rate than European countries, America had less of a surplus rural population because we such a huge excess of arable land (and, moreover, arable land without title), and we wound up importing large numbers of European immigrants to settle the land as well as to work in the factories. Well, the burgeoning demand for people today comes from service industries like health care and in construction. These activities have to be performed on-site - i.e., even if we still have "excess" land in some sense, we can't fill it up with immigrants in the same way as we did in the 19th century because these immigrants are being imported precisely to work where the existing population lives and requires services. It's worth noting, however, that these jobs are also the hardest to automate - far harder, as Derb himself notes, than factory work, which is why we already have factory robots but don't have robots to perform a variety of personal services. Robotics, therefore, may be in part a *cause* of the trend towards helotics, and not an alternative thereto, at least in the near term.
- Moreover, I will also note that in much of the world the migration from countryside to city is still largely incomplete, and that this migration is today occurring in a period of global deindustrialization - even China is automating more and more, and consequently employing fewer and fewer people in factories. Because service economies have shown far slower increases in productivity than industrial economies, however, global deindustrialization makes it unlikely that most developing countries will be able to produce enough jobs to employ their excess population. Therefore, while it may be true that Japan may get to robotics faster than everyone else, their choice for robotics and against helotics may be extremely expensive in the short term, because the world will be producing a lot of helots for a while yet, and the robots are still very expensive (the cost of robotics is front-loaded, of helotics back-loaded - and the latter can be reduced substantially if one is willing to give up on the ideal of middle-class egalitarianism and revert to Indian or Brazilian norms in these matters). And it's not clear there's any first-mover advantage here; we, after all, invented a lot of the electronics that Japan now dominates the manufacture of. Whether or not the choice for high levels of unskilled immigration has consequences that Derb (or I) don't like for the structure of our society, I'm less convinced that the Japanese lead in robotics means they will become the superpower of the 21st century.
- The great mystery, to me, remains *why* fertility rates have dropped so low in so much of the world. Singapore is very crowded. But Australia most assuredly isn't, and they have a TFR of below 1.8 (yes, that's a lot higher than Singapore's 1.0, but it's still below replacement). I'm very skeptical of the argument that it is all a question of religiosity; fertility rates are dropping fast in much of the Middle East and in the subcontinent, the two most religious regions of the world. I am reluctantly drawing towards a Derb-like conclusion that one cause of the decline in fertility is the slow-dawning realization among humanity that we ourselves are obsolete. We need very few humans indeed to feed ourselves, and fewer and fewer to make all the stuff we use. Much of the developing world is unemployed, as is much of the youth of the developed world. We are running out of telos, and most of us are neither stoical enough to go on when we can't go on nor creative enough to make it up as we go along. Indeed, for most of us what's left is *competition for status* and that is by its nature a negative-sum game - most people must necessarily be losers - which is not conducive to the optimism necessary for family-formation. In any event, if this is right, then the only thing Japan is accomplishing by investing heavily in robotics is digging their own grave faster than the rest of us.