Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category

Peak Human

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.

A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:

That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.

I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?

Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:

This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.

Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.

If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.

You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.

(There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)

So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.

The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.

Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.

No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.

And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.

But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.

Mo Money, Mo Problems

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

A couple of week ago, I had some Twitter discussion about lottery winners. The impetus was the horrible story of Jack Whittaker, a very successful businessman who won the powerball lottery and watched his life go completely to hell. It’s a truly tragic story, especially for those of us who are fathers and enjoy indulging our daughters. Not only did he descend into booze-fueled chaos, he ended up divorced with both his daughter and granddaughter dead.

Whittaker’s story may be extreme but it is not that unusual. Just in the last week, another story broke about a lottery winner who was likely murdered by someone close. Scientific research on the subject is, at best, mixed. But even that doesn’t capture the fullness of the issue: it’s possible that lottery winners are, on balanced, happier. But it seems like they have an increased chance for the lives to go horribly wrong.

Why does this happen? Two reasons, I think.

First, money changes the people around you. Dave Chappell talked about this a lot: how the fame and fortune brought by his wildly successful show made him distrust the people around him, made him worry that no one would criticize him because of his money.

There’s also a huge difference between someone who earns money through their own means and someone who has a ton of money dropped on them from space. The Whittaker article talks about star athlete and how many of them burn out at younger levels because they can’t handle the fame and fortune. Those who do succeed surround themselves with good people early on so that they have a “team” of people they can trust to look out for their interests, usually people who have been around wealth and fame before and so aren’t phased by it.

Second, money also affects people themselves. Sudden surges in income can produce sudden surges in spending to match. There’s a theory, often propounded by Clark Howard, that people are mentally calibrated for a certain amount of wealth. And when they suddenly get more income, they spend to get themselves back to that familiar frame of reference. It takes time for them re-calibrate and realize that they don’t have to spend every penny. Indeed, this is one of the things that keeps poor people poor: when they do get some money, they instantly blow it because they are so used to money just disappearing. Most of the lottery winners have never had a lot of money or income before. They are not used to the idea of putting money away. And so they revert quickly to bad habits — buying cars, houses and shady business deals.

You combine these two and you get the real problem: wealth and fame — like many other things in life — put strains on a person. If the person is already psychologically strong and has surrounded themselves with good people, money can bring happiness and fulfillment. But if they have character flaws — really big character flaws — they will crack and crumble like a faulty bridge. This is especially true of a sudden unexpected fortune. Looking over the story I linked above, you see Whittaker simply indulging himself and everyone around him — lavishing gifts on his granddaughter, buying expensive cars, leaving cash lying around, throwing money at everything: precisely the behavior one is not supposed to engage in.

The gripping hand is that people who are psychologically strong and have surrounded themselves with good people tend not to play the lottery. Lottery is well-known to be the vice of the poor; state lotteries are a heavily regressive tax. And, generally, people who are happy and balanced aren’t looking for the escape hatch that the lottery provides. Obviously, that’s a generalization: plenty of happy people play the lottery. But they’re doing it mostly for fun. They’re not doing it in the hopes that it will rescue their lives or solve all their problems. They might play, but they also know that wealth and happiness is more likely to come to them through good living, reliable friends, hard work and perseverance. If they win the lottery, that’s gravy on a life that is already well-lived.

So would I like to win the lottery (if I played)? Well, if it were a modest amount, sure. Enough to pay off my house or squirrel away for retirement. Maybe even enough that I could write full time. But I can’t help but think that suddenly crashing into a LOT of money — millions or hundreds of millions — would expose my own character flaws, would expose those of the people around me, would allow me to indulge my own daughter as much as possible.

I don’t play but if someone bought me a lottery ticket and it won (my mother, most likely), I’d probably donate a significant fraction to charities. I’d endow chairs for my wife and I at a chosen university. I’d establish trusts for a handful of people. And that would pretty much be it. I’m not into fancy cars; my practical Camry is just about the perfect car for me. I don’t want a huge house — maybe something newer and less drafty than my current residence. And while I might like to play around with some business ideas, I would only do those if I could stand to lose the entire investment (which is what usually happens).

Hell, I probably wouldn’t even quit my job, no matter how much I won.

It was Robert Heinlein, I think, who said that most Americans don’t want to be rich. They don’t want the single-minded devotion that real wealth accumulation usually requires. What they want to be is well-off. Comfortable. With a nice house and no real worries about the future, able to support causes they believe in and people they love.

Looking Ahead to 2013

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    Texas Linkorama

    Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • The Kindergartner and the Bear

    Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

    I think one of the biggest reasons people choose to reproduce is so that they can relive their childhoods. Scratch that. I think it’s the biggest reason. I’ve blogged before about rediscovering cartoons and musicals with my daughter. And she’s now gotten old enough for me to slowly rediscover the thrill of Halloween. She’s still young enough that I escort her on her trip through the neighborhood. This has the benefit that I get to see the sheer delight as she runs up to a house, is given candy and runs back, buzzing with the sense of adventure.

    (And I have to agree with Cracked on the “trunk-or-treat” thing. That and other attempts to move trick-or-treating to a “safe” environment are insane, stupid and, frankly, cruel. It’s depriving children of one of the few real adventures they get to have.)

    Anyway, the other night, my daughter stopped at a house where they were offering a choice: candy or a stuffed animal. I talked to a neighbor later and found out the owner, whose children were older, had more stuffed animals than she knew what to do with and wanted to get rid of some. Abby spied a small pink teddy bear and fell in love. I don’t mean she liked it. I mean she showed it to me in a giddy haze, introduced it to her beloved koalas in bed and slept with it in her arms that night. The next morning, she took him to the bus-stop and I brought him out later when I picked her up. I don’t know if this will last: she inevitably returns back to her koalas. But for now, she’s got a new man in her heart.

    It’a amazing to see the sheer joy that something like that can bring out. It’s amazing to think of this thing being knocked out an assembly line with thousands of teddies, not knowing that it would become so beloved so quickly.

    I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for soft animals. I still have a stuffed turtle I was raised on as well as some dinosaurs, a tiger and a unicorn that have special meaning for me (the unicorn, for example, I won at the Wisconsin State Fair when I was about 8 or 9. It was one of the best moments of my childhood). But the soft spot isn’t really for the animals themselves. I mean, I’m 40. No, it’s for the meaning behind them, the effect the have and the love and happiness they can provoke in a five year old. It’s a Velveteen Rabbit kind of thing.

    She’ll grow up soon, much faster than I want. And the day will come when these things will not provoke such rapture (indeed, that’s one of the reasons we are so desperate to have another child, an enterprise that has only burned money and produced heartache so far). But for now, I can walk into her room, see her sleeping with her little “Teddy Sparkle” and enjoy the moment.