Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mulish economist sticks his neck out

J. Bradford DeLong describes himself on his website as fair, balanced, reality-based and mulish. In a recent post he makes a rather too grand and sweeping claim about the three (!) causes of recent economic progress, but his piece is worth looking at. Needless to say, it prompted a slew of comments (on his blog) from historians and others basically saying, hey, what about the Anabaptists, what about electromagnetism, or whatever their hobbyhorse happened to be. (But some of their suggestions - like electromagnetism - are compatible with his thesis.)

So long as "all goes well in China and India" and "nothing goes catastrophically wrong" in North America and Europe, DeLong claims that "the next generation will reach a milestone."

"For the first time more than half of the world will have enough food not to be hungry, enough shelter not to be wet, enough clothing not to be cold, and enough medical care not to be worried that they and most of their children will die prematurely of micro-parasites."

Of course, they will still have to deal with - or, as he puts it, "dispose of" - "thugs who used to have spears but will now have cruise missiles and H-bombs - that is, the macro-parasites that have infected humanity ever since the first farmers realized that having crops took away the option of running away into the forest."

DeLong tries to figure out why this is happening only now, and concludes that three crucial factors occurring all at the same time, the latter part of the 19th century, created a "critical mass and the chain reaction that has brought us here."

The three elements were the advent of global communication (new ideas could spread quickly round the world); global transportation ("any good idea could be put into practice to produce enormous profits as it was leveraged across the entire globe"); and the rise of inventors and industrial research laboratories (thus creating a class of people whose business it was to sustain "the process of continuous and constant invention...").

Certainly science and technology - and innovation, which is part of the culture of science and technology - lie behind the world-changing events of the last century or so. What remains to be seen is whether systems such as Chinese state capitalism, as it evolves, will allow sufficient individual freedom to encourage the high levels of invention and innovation which have been the hallmark of European and American civilization.