Bloody shovel

We shall drown, and nobody will save us

Declinism

So the Japanese government has officially announced it’s considering bringing 200,000 immigrants per year, in order to stave off demographic decline.

They have announced it as part of the Growth Strategy driving this marvelous thing they call Abenomics.

I don’t need to say how misguided this idea that bringing migrants from wherever is going to result in economic growth. It should be obvious that in the civilized world, actual economic growth is impossible. Not gonna happen.

Now some might bring up the old Paul Erhlich/Julian Simon debate on Malthusianism. Julian Simon won that debate, and proceed to write a series of upbeat books exhorting us to have faith on Human Ingenuity.  You see, people always come up with good ideas, and everything turns out ok.

The Erhlich/Simon debate was about resources, with Ehrlich saying they would run out, and Simon saying we’d found more of them. What’s funny is that nobody treated Human Ingenuity as a resource. Something that also may be depleted. I haven’t read his books, maybe Simon thought better extraction techniques would end up discovering more Human Ingenuity? It’s not hard to make the metaphor on education and mining.

Leaving that aside for a moment, if you take human ingenuity as a standard resource, it is clear that it’s production has been declining for a while. Just take a look at the birthrates. Even without considering differential birthrates between the different sectors of the Bell Curve. Assuming a soft-HBD position where racial differences are obvious, but class differences aren’t: the smart races are breeding less. Countries such as Japan and Germany are losing population fast, most others will follow suit very soon.

If the engine of economic growth is human ingenuity, and I have no reason to doubt it, we are now producing less of it. Exponentially less. Now somebody tell me how we can produce economic growth. It’s mathematically impossible.

Now you might say that we are using our resources badly. We can produce economic growth, even with decreasing resources, by using them more efficiently. There’s something to that. We have a much greater population than 18th century Austria, yet we aren’t producing better music. We aren’t producing better plays than Classical Athens. We aren’t building better buildings than Christopher Wren, or better paintings than Renaissance Italy. And that’s with orders of magnitude more human resources.

Of course all of the above refer to art, which is hardly equivalent to economic growth. A parallel argument is often made about technological progress up to 1950.

Optimists all over argue that our economy can still be optimized to produce economic growth. Some arguments are mere drivel, such as those like Average is Over and other government shills. Some other are more thoughtful: autonomous cars, new sources of fuel, stronger materials.

Yet all these new technologies which are just-around-the-corner are quite complex indeed. And common sense would tell you that complex technologies should be harder to master with diminishing human ingenuity. A seemingly common thread to all these revolutionary technologies is that they’re awesome enough to gather attention and be reported by the New York Times, yet a closer look tells you they’re not quite ready for primetime, and they may never be so.

Elon Musk, who apparently knows a thing or two, said that autonomous cars might get 95% close, but never 100%, which means they will never really replace human drivers. What that means is that self-driving software will be a gimmick. We won’t have robo-cars replacing our taxi and bus fleets, nor will robo-trucks revolutionize the transport industry.

I was reminded of this when reading recently on methane hydrates in Japan. Methane Hydrates are methane molecules trapped in the sea bottom, forming a sort of ice. It turns out Japan has loads of the stuff around their coasts, enough to make them energy self-sufficient.

Which is very good but you need to get the ice out of the ocean, and that’s quite tricky. Tricky enough that the trial extractions which started in 2013 had to be canceled after massive failure. As it is, it is likely that gas extraction will never be cheap enough to make it cheaper than just buying the gas from Qatar or Russia. Which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try, having a way to extract resources, no matter how expensively, is always useful. But a 10x or 5x increase in fuel prices would have a big impact on living standards.

Machine translation also was always hyped to be 5 years away from translating a phone conversation on real time. Google Translation does a reasonably good work with news articles from European languages and Chinese, but it’s still far from perfect. And it hasn’t been improving much in some time. To the extent that language depends in common cultural assumptions and context, it’s fair to conclude that machine translation will never translate a phone conversation on real time, or be good enough for non technical texts. So, similarly to the autonomous cars, it’ll stay a partially useful gimmick.

If we can’t crack these sort of issues, somebody tell me why is it likely we are going to develop a super-human AI, or gene writing, or space colonization. Especially given that we have declining stocks of human ingenuity. Smart people are being produced at a rapidly declining rate. And so there will be no economic growth, and less technological progress.

That is, unless we can pull out the equivalent of a Renaissance Florence, or Baroque Vienna: making more with less. Doesn’t seem likely though.

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22 responses to “Declinism

  1. Handle March 30, 2014 at 16:54

    Progress in any field typically requires a few conditions. You have to have smart, capable, talented, creative, driven, and specialty-educated human beings (that’s the ‘human ingenuity’ resource). You need to equip these people with sufficient R&D capital resources.

    But there also has to be actual room for improvement consistent with the laws of nature, and some kind of major incentive (usually economic, but also status, sex, pride, etc.) to motivate people to take major risks and work hard at the problem.

    An evolutionary setup where there is some kind of tournament for a prize, lots of competition, and many failing losers and a few winners, is a proven technique for civilization to incrementally accumulate progress. In the state of nature, the tournament for sexual access to women and natural resources made fitter and fitter human men over time.

    So, with art, if the tournament is trying to impress the aristocrats or the church, who have refined tastes and are able to properly evaluate the aesthetic quality of your product, and the prize is their continuing patronage (money, fame, status, etc.), then eventually artists play around with inventing new techniques and approaches and art gets better and better both in terms of skill, execution, and beauty.

    I remember when I saw the statue of David in Florence that there was an inscription by a contemporaneous German art critic (I guess they had those even 500 years ago), and he basically wrote, “Well, I guess statuary is done now. Mission accomplished. Congratulations Michelangelo”, with a perspective of treating hand-carved marble statuary as a kind of grand, multi-millenium project of Western Civilization project, which had reached the level of diminishing returns to genius a long time ago, but with huge amounts of patronage as incentive, has finally reached its logical end-point in Renaissance Italy.

    Now consider super-sonic air travel. The concord first flew in 1969, and first started carrying passengers in 1976 – almost 40 years ago – but we don’t have supersonic travel today. Why? It’s not a lack of human ingenuity, expertise, resources, or even consumer and government interest (the latest military fighter jets have supercruise technology). It’s because the laws of aerodynamics and the price of fuel means that the cost is prohibitive and there is no viable business plan to keep the project going. So we’re tapped out at Mach 0.9.

    When the government used to offer gigantic amounts of money as prizes to private corporations competing to win the contracts to develop new technologies in young fields, that tournament was highly successful in producing innovation, at least, for a time.

    One of the problems today is that the government has become obsessed with trying to do impossible things, and so it is not playing a beneficial role in the evolutionary tournament process, and we stagnate because we cannot make any progress where it is impossible, and we get poorer, because we end up throwing increasing amounts of money down an infinite hole with nothing to show for it – pure transfer payments from the wealthy to the politically favored classes.

    As an example, the amount of money we spend these days trying to close test-score gaps in education is much larger than you might expect. People may falsely imagine the problem to be a lack of human ingenuity, always holding out hope for some new miraculous discovery in pedagogical science, but the problem is that we’re looking for a unicorn – the thing doesn’t exist, even as the education industry gets rich off the patronage originating from this futile-telos.

    With gene-writing, space, and AI, even with plenty of human ingenuity, one has to explain two things: 1. The ‘killer app’ or huge economic prize that is going to get people to enter the tournament, and 2. Why we have reason to expect that the goal is feasibly achievable.

    With space, I’d argue that the goal is not feasibly achievable because of the laws of physics. With AI – I can imagine self-driving cars and trains, but the leap to ‘sentience’ seems vast and incredibly expensive, and I’m not exactly sure what we’re supposed to get out of it economically that can’t be accomplished with sub-sentient levels of machine intelligence.

    • spandrell March 30, 2014 at 18:19

      I forgot to mention that this post was inspired by your points on Chinese coal reserves.

      • Handle March 30, 2014 at 19:14

        It’s my opinion that, save for Siberia, East Asian coal reserve production will plateau and start declining rapidly by 2025, and reach exhaustion by mid-century. I’m not extrapolating into space, I’m looking at BP’s reserve estimates, and reserve-to-production ratios, and calculating how long the reserves would last if China kept growing quickly towards South Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, or Japanese per-capita energy usage.

        Around this point, someone says, “Peak oil nonsense! Man will always find more!” To which I respond, “Well, Japan and Korea used to produce a lot of coal domestically and then … they ran completely out. Why didn’t they just keep trying to find more? Simple – there wasn’t any more to find, it’s a depletable resource, and it’s possible to actually deplete any non-renewable resource which is destroyed in its consumption, which is what actually happened. Why not China too? It’s not like the Chinese and multinational mining companies aren’t interested in thoroughly exploring every inch of the Earth’s surface for new economical deposits, which is pretty much a task that has been accomplished everywhere except Africa. Why do you think the Chinese are so interested in African resources, if they really believed they had unlimited amounts domestically?”

        Coal isn’t like oil or gas. You can’t drill for it and pump it – so you’re never going to be able to economically extract ever deeper deposits or do hydraulic fracking. So we do in fact have a pretty good handle on the limits of global supply. It’s also expensive and difficult to move long distances, and burning it near its source is significantly cheaper. I expect a lot of the coal-intensive industry to move to Russia and Central Asia in the coming decades, and for Russian gas exports to East Asia to expand rapidly. That gas will be flowing through the already existing extensive pipeline network and powering everything from Ireland to Hong Kong, with Czar Putin III with his hands firmly on the valve wheel, and keeping Iran and Qatar managed in a GPEC alliance.

        • Handle March 30, 2014 at 19:21

          I mention this because, over at Al Fin’s, he’s got this post about a massive new hydrocarbon discovery which is precisely about deep seam off-shore coal, which, you’ll notice, cannot be brought to the surface economically, and the only idea for using it is pumping air down there for burn it underground and then using the pressure, heat, and chemicals contained in the exhaust.

          I have my doubts on whether that’s safe and feasible. A lot of deep-drill geothermal projects in the US and Switzerland had to be cancelled because the heat and pressure releases were causing instabilities, earthquakes, and other problems. Setting deep-earth coal on fire sounds like a project best pursued slowly and with lots and lots of precaution.

        • spandrell March 30, 2014 at 19:24

          Unfortunately Putin has no sons. What is he doing with the gymnast bimbo not getting her pregnant? So much for traditionalism.

          Even with all the coal in the world I don’t see the Russians running the world’s workshop. They’ll get all that coal in rail wagons and ship it south.

          Gazprom is reportedly studying a pipeline up to South Korea, but has recently rejected Japan’s repeated demands for a pipeline to Japan.

          The Wiki explains nicely the conflict between reality and bullshit peddling so common in Western media.

          At current levels of production, China has 48 years worth of reserves.[6] However, others suggest that China has enough coal to sustain its economic growth for a century or more even though demand is currently outpacing production.[4]

          The first line sounds more like it.

          • Handle March 30, 2014 at 19:38

            It won’t be hereditary. The neo-Czars will be like the Popes, choosing a new Czar name when they get the job. Putin and Stalin will be popular choices.

            Russia could ship the coal south, but by then the total cost of its use including transportation would lose China it’s competitive advantage in price. They’d have to be able to pass significant price increases off to their consumers without anyone trying to move in at a lower marginal cost and eat their lunch.

            For 2013, British Petroleum reports a Reserve/Production ratio for China of only 31 years, much less than 48. If China doubles it’s current usage by 2025, that would only leave about 6 years left before production would have to shut down. More likely, it will follow a Hubbert bell-curbe, going up, peaking, and then rapidly declining. That means growth stops in a decade – quicker than most people expect. I suspect the Chinese worry about this problem a lot.

            • spandrell March 30, 2014 at 19:49

              http://www.mapsofworld.com/russia/thematic-maps/russia-coal-reserves-map.html

              Seems to me that shipping the coal where the Russians actually live wouldn’t be that much cheaper than sending it to China.

              But yes cheap power will be over quick. And China will realize that what it did with all those reserves is… government buildings. http://www.chinasmack.com/2011/pictures/government-office-buildings-throughout-china-awe-inspiring.html

              • Handle March 30, 2014 at 19:57

                Heh, at least they’re building something. I’ve got to walk nearly a kilometer each way at work because my agency can’t even build a parking lot.

                It takes so much effort, so many years, and is so much more expensive than it should be, that when you bring the subject up, nobody even wants to talk about it, and people just put up with the horrendous parking situation.

                In fact, it’s become kind of a new fad. A new Coast Guard headquarters is purposefully being built with only 10% of the population-load (what would be expected if every worker drove their own vehicle), with the ‘green!’ hope that people will car pool and use more public transport. It’s insane.

                Everything is upside down from a few years ago. Used to be, they’d build vast flat expanses of parking lot well in excess of what was required, and then they’d pick some spot in the middle of the ghetto to put a new office. That way you could use eminent domain to raise all the housing projects and flatten the whole underclass community and pay those folks off with ‘just compensation’ and just move those people somewhere else. It worked great with National Statdium! And soon the new DHS HQ too, and I hear rumors about where they’re going to move the FBI DC HQ.

                Soon, trans-Anacostia Southeast DC, so soon! Your days are numbered!

              • Steve Johnson March 31, 2014 at 06:33

                “Heh, at least they’re building something. ”

                When I was in Shanghai I had a guidebook that had a 2 year old subway map – it didn’t contain all the lines that existed.

                Meanwhile back at home in NYC we’re going on 85 years of work on the 2nd Avenue subway.

          • peppermint March 30, 2014 at 23:51

            Putin has 2 daughters, which is a respectable number. Maybe a Ukrainian prince can marry one of them and put the governments in personal union.

    • Alrenous April 2, 2014 at 16:34

      AI is stuck because dualism is true; spirituality is real and Descartes was right.

      I’ve found a candidate for his pineal gland. It’s a machine whose future state has a probability of undefined, as far as I can tell. Even if I’m wrong it’s an example of where the box is and how artificial consciousness is outside, and therefore where to look next.

      The machine is not very expensive. There’s good circumstantial evidence that it exists in the human brain; I estimate a couple billion of them.

  2. shlomo the baysian goat herder March 30, 2014 at 19:18

    tl;dr you can’t get infinite from finite.

  3. peppermint March 30, 2014 at 23:58

    There are plenty of human resources if the government would only collapse and stop demanding that all resources go to the human equality project. Either that or the human equality project could be redefined to be about raising the IQs and other good features of all babbies through genetic engineering. Which realistically will mean GATTACA-style IVF.

  4. anonymous March 31, 2014 at 04:42

    I am, perhaps, not qualified to comment on this. But haven’t they announced immigration reforms in the past only to have them be immediately scrapped? (Obviously with no intention of actually reforming immigration from the start.)

    Japanese leadership does this on a fairly regular basis on a variety of issues. It might be too early to start sweating bullets.

    • spandrell March 31, 2014 at 06:19

      Nothing at this scale. They’re quite serious this time. Abe published an article praising France 1994 world cup soccer team, saying it trascended racial differences and made all French feel one. That team was famous for being majority African.

  5. alfin2101 March 31, 2014 at 15:56

    When a government announces that it is “considering” doing something, what you have is a request for comments. Japan is in a better situation to control its immigration and maintain high standards than is the US or Russia. But nothing may come of it, should the proposal prove too unpopular politically.

    Japan is a relatively small population prone to very erratic political swings. There are good things about being relatively inbred, and there can be very bad things — such as the insane quasi-mystical militarism that led to suicidal decisions made in the first few decades of the 20th century.

    Japan’s stupidity put itself in the hands of its gaijin arch-enemies, and it is lucky that it was not Russia that administered post-war Japan. (Lucky that Russia had her hands full on her western front)

    • spandrell March 31, 2014 at 16:21

      Yes that is my hope. The way I see announcing a “consideration” is that the government is waiting for all politically important interest groups to announce their attitude.

      The thing is the business community is wholeheartedly behind this, and the bureaucracy doesn’t seem to mind, so I don’t see who has the political muscle to stop it. As I said above the Abe post on the great Black African soccer team gives me nightmares.

      Then again the Japanese are a nasty bunch when it matters, so my hope is they exploit the migrants so thoroughly that most give up and ask to be sent back. The real question is whether Japan will start a self-reinforcing immigrant welfare bureaucracy system such as those in the West. If that happens and they start bringing Africans, then it’s over.

      And yes, Japan waged a stupid war, but they depended on the Anglosphere for all their imports, so they would have ended being America’s bitch one way or another. Can’t say I blame them for trying to fight.

    • peppermint March 31, 2014 at 18:39

      Seems countries that ended up with Russia had 50 years of a bad economy, but countries that ended up with the US had 50 years of Cathedralist indoctrination.

      Ask the average Greek if they would rather have ended up like Bulgaria. In fact, ask the average Englishman.

      • alfin2101 March 31, 2014 at 19:23

        Yes, it is good to have a variety of competing societies and cultural philosophies in the great evolutionary game. Ideological indoctrination is an unfortunate part of life for most human societies, and was not particularly absent in the former Soviet client states. E. Europe was set back several decades in development, which was pretty bad for those who lived then, but perhaps not so bad for those living there now. I suspect that lingering after-effects will persist for some time yet.

        No one was killed trying to escape W. Germany after the war. The same is not true for E. Germany, Russia or any of its former client states. Where are people dying to get away from, and where are they dying to go?

        Even after 14 years under Putin (nobody counts Medveved) Russia’s brain drain, capital flight, and womb drain (the flight of young fertile Russian women) continue. Fortunately they no longer shoot those leaving at the border, as a rule. ;-)

    • Tom April 3, 2014 at 01:29

      Japan actually isn’t “prone to very erratic-political swings”. There’s been a great more cultural, political continuity in Japan than there has been in the West. It’s been run by the same Confucian elitist, bureaucratic culture more or less.

      And while “quasi-mystical militarism” was the official Allied propaganda narrative regarding Imperial Japan, it didn’t really drive its decision making.

  6. Greying Wanderer May 5, 2014 at 01:10

    Iodine is necessary for brain development. East Asia – at least the coastal strip – gets its iodine from seafood. Northern European descended peoples used to get most of theirs from dairy – especially milk. There has a been a dramatic decline in milk consumption for media driven health fad reasons and therefore a dramatic decline in iodine consumption in the west – particularly northern Europe, partially offset in some countries by iodized salt – also now facing a dramatic media-driven health fad decline in consumption.

    Anyway if iodine is a key factor Germany started adding iodine to salt in 1981 so there should be a cohort of Germans in their 20s and 30s closer to their historical peak level of IQ coming though right about now. So if the level of human ingenuity concentrated among northern Europeans has been artificially depressed in recent times because of iodine deficiency we should see signs of a mini renaissance coming out of Germany over the next ten years or so.

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