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.