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Arthur C. Clarke Was Wrong, So Progress Must Have Stopped

Neo-Erlichism from Paul Krugman:

Much of what I did back then was look for estimates of the cost of alternative energy sources, which played a big role in Nordhaus’s big paper that year. (Readers with access to JSTOR might want to look at the acknowledgments on the first page.) And the estimates — mainly from Bureau of Mines publications — were optimistic. Shale oil, coal gasification, and eventually the breeder reactor would satisfy our energy needs at not-too-high prices when the conventional oil ran out.

None of it happened. OK, Athabasca tar sands have finally become a significant oil source, but even there it’s much more expensive — and environmentally destructive — than anyone seemed to envision in the early 70s.

You might say that this is my answer to those who cheerfully assert that human ingenuity and technological progress will solve all our problems. For the last 35 years, progress on energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations.

I’d actually suggest that this is true not just for energy but for our ability to manipulate the physical world in general: 2001 didn’t look much like 2001, and in general material life has been relatively static. (How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.)

My goodness, its hard to know where to start.  Forgive me if I do not remain well-organized in this post, but there is so much wrong here it is hard to know where to start.

A forecast is not reality

First and foremost, the fact that forecasters, whether they be economists or science fiction writers, are wrong on their forecasts does not say anything about the world they are trying to model -- it merely says that the forecasters were wrong.  The fact that the the Canadian will be wrong in its prediction that 4.5 billion people will die by 2012 due to global warming does not mean that the physical world will somehow have changed, it means that the people at the Canadian are idiots.  The fact that an ice shelf in Antarctica collapsed earlier than one forecaster expected does not mean global warming is accelerating, it means the forecaster was wrong.

In fact, I can play this kind of game in exactly the opposite way in the energy field.  I can point out that economists like Krugman predicted that we were going to be out of oil (and food, etc) by 1980, then by 1985, and later by 1990, and by 2000, and by... now.  Does the fact of their continuing forecast errors on oil supply and demand tell us anything meaningful about oil markets, or does it tell us something about economists?  He practically begs for this counter-example by titling his article "limits to growth..." which hearkens back to the horribly wrong sky-is-falling forecasts in the 1970s by the likes of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich. 

Advances in Energy

But his key statement is that progress on alternative energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations?  Whose expectations?  Certainly not mine, or those of the knowledgeable energy industry insiders, who have been consistently pessimistic about most of these alternatives over the last decade or two.   Perhaps they have fallen below Krugman's or Greenpeace's expectations, but so what?

At this point, though it is embarrassing to have to point this out to a man who once was a real economist rather than a political hack, I must remind Mr. Krugman that since we are talking about substitutes for oil, then perhaps oil prices might have something to do with this "lack of progress."  Because, while we may tend to forget the fact over the last few years, for 20 of the last 25 years oil prices have been, on a real basis, near all-time lows.  They languished for decades at $20 or less, a price level that made the economics of substitutes impossible.  Nobody is going to put real money into substitutes when oil is at $16 or so.  Exxon, for example, had huge money invested in LaBarge, WY oil shale in the late 70's until decades of middling oil prices in the eighties and nineties forced them to pull the plug.  Ditto everyone and everything else, from shale oil to coal gasification.  And I can't even believe any sentient adult who lived through this period actually needs it pointed out to him that maybe there are non-technical reasons breeder nuclear reactors have not advanced much, like say the virtual shutdown of the nuclear business by environmentalists and local governments.

I will myself confess to being a bit surprised that solar efficiencies have not advanced very much, but again I remind myself that until the last few years, there was virtually no economic justification for working much with the technology. 

But all this masks another fact:  One of the reasons that these technologies have not advanced much is due to the absolutely staggering advances in oil exploration and production technology.  The last 35 years has seen a revolution, from computer reservoir modeling to horizontal drilling to ultra deep sea oil production to CO2 floods, it is in many ways a totally new industry.

Here is the way to decode what Mr. Krugman is saying:  It is not that the energy industry is not making huge technology gains, but that it is making gains in areas that Mr. Krugman did not expect, and, even more likely, it is not making its gains in the areas that Mr. Krugman wanted them to be.

Other technological advances

But Mr. Krugman did not stop there.  He could not resist throwing out a bit more red meat when he posits that all of our advances over the last 50 years in manipulating the material world have been disappointing.  Really?  Again, by what metric?  The revolution in computing alone has been staggering, and I feel like I could just say "Moore's Law" and leave my rebuttal at that.  Kevin Drum, oddly, suggests that Krugman means to say "besides computers" by using the "manipulate the physical world" wording.  If so, that is pretty hilarious.  Saying that "when you leave out computing and semiconductors, we haven't done much with technology over the last 50 years" is roughly equivalent to saying "leaving out the energy revolution and the application of steam power, there was not much progress in the early industrial revolution."   It's a stupid, meaningless distinction.  I am sure he would include a "car" in his definition of manipulating the physical world, but then how would you explain all those semiconductors under the hood?

But, that being said, I will take up the challenge.  Here are a number of technological revolutions besides computing and semiconductors over the last 50 years that clearly outstrip the previous 50:

  • Cost / Affordability Revolution.  One can argue that many of the technologies we enjoy today existed, at least in primitive form, in 1958.  But the vast majority of these items, from television to automobiles to air conditioning to long distance travel were playthings for the rich.  Over the last 50 years, we have found a way to revolutionize the cost and availability of all these items, such that most are available to everyone  (more on this below)
  • Reliability revolution.  In 1958, and even in 1968 and to a lesser extent in 1978, it was critical to have an address book full of good repair people.  Cars, televisions, home appliances, radios, air conditioners -- all were horrendously unreliable.  They could fail on you at any time, leaving you in an awkward or even dangerous spot, and repairs were common and expensive.  When I was a kid, we used to have a guy in our house at least twice a year fixing the TV -- when was the last time you saw a TV repair man?  I would argue that reliability (and this applies to industrial products as well) barely budged from 1908 to 1958, but has improved exponentially in the last 30-40 years.
  • Environmental and efficiency Revolution.  This one is no contest.  The environmental improvement -- in air quality, in water quality, in litter, in just about every category -- has shown substantially more improvement since 1958 than it did in the first half of the century.  This one is no contest
  • Safety revolution.  While there are ways in which this has gone too far, there is no denying that a huge amount of engineering over the last 50 years has gone into making products and services safer to use and operate.  And by the way, on the topic of flying cars (everyone likes to lament, "where is my flying car") could one not imagine that one reason we don't have flying cars is that anyone who is smart enough to design one is smart enough to know the government is never going to let people fly around willy-nilly, so maybe there is no mass market for them worth the investment and time?
  • Bio-medical revolution.  In less than 20 years from the time the world really recognized and understood the AIDS virus, science had a fairly good treatment for it.  And people complained it took too long!  Think of it -- a new, totally foreign virus that is extremely deadly appears nearly out of nowhere, and science cracks it in 2 decades.  No such ability existed before 1958.
  • Communications and Entertainment revolution.  1958:  Three US TV networks.  2008: 300 million people with the ability to broadcast their thoughts, their movies, their works of art to the world.  'nuff said.

In many ways, all of these thoughts come together if we look at a car.  Its easy to say that cars have not changed much - no wings yet!  But in fact, a car mechanic from 1909 would have a fighting chance to work on a 1958 engine.   No way a 1958 mechanic could make much progress with a 2008 internal combustion engine, much less a hybrid.  A car in 1958 was nearly as unsafe, and unreliable, and inefficient, and polluting, as a car in 1908.  Today, all of these have improved by orders of magnitude.  In addition, our cars have air conditioning and leather seats and hard-top convertible roofs and satellite radios and DVD players for the kids.  And mostly, the don't rattle like they used to after 6000 miles.

Material Life

But Krugman is still not done throwing out red meat, as he concludes that material life has not improved much over the last 50 years, and the answer is "obvious", to him at least, as to whether it has improved more in the last 50 years or the previous 50 years. 

Well, first I would observe that one should probably not trust people in data-based professions like economics who say that the answers to complicated questions are obvious without feeling the need to put any facts on the table.  By so positing, he looks extraordinarily lazy compared to folks like Steven Levitt who are out there trying to quantify the seemingly unquantifiable.

But the question is not at all obvious to me.  I suppose one could argue that the very rich have not seen much change in their material condition.  In 1958 they could jet around the world and had televisions and air conditioning and could afford the costs of unreliable products  (it does not matter so much if your car breaks down a lot if you can afford to have five or six cars).

But is strikes me that the material condition of the poor and middle class have improved markedly over the last 50 years.  As I mentioned before, there has been a revolution in the price and availability of what used to be luxury items:

The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various gov­ernment reports:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actu­ally own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

  • Only 6 percent of poor households are over­crowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.

  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

What has not improved

To bring us back full circle, the one thing I would argue that definitely has not improved much is forecasting and modeling.  It appears from Krugman in this article (and form global warming modelers)  that orders of magnitude increases in computing power have improved neither the hubris of the modelers nor the quality of their forecasts.  I am sure I could as easily find someone in 1958, or even 1908, out there crying "My forecast is fine - its reality that's broken!"

OK, I am spent.  I am sure there is more that could be said on this, but I will leave the rest to you guys.

Posted on April 22, 2008 at 11:15 PM | Permalink


I know it's sprinkled in your post, but to me, one of the biggest changes over the past 50 years is in travel and communications.

In 1958 how many people travelled to a foreign country? How many people regularly made phone calls to people in foreign countries?

I might go even further... how many people travelled _out of state_?

The important thing about these changes is that the benefits are far greater than simply the joy brought to the traveller and communicators. They bring the world closer together, they allow us to better understand each other, and ultimately, I think, make the world better in non-quantifiable ways.

Pretty cool.

Posted by: JonN | Apr 23, 2008 1:11:47 AM

Excellent total pwnage, sir!

Posted by: Scott | Apr 23, 2008 1:12:02 AM

I still want my flying car that folds up into a briefcase

Posted by: daren | Apr 23, 2008 3:26:51 AM

An interesting question would be who is the bigger moron, Krugman or Barbara Ehrenreich?

Posted by: Chris Yeh | Apr 23, 2008 7:25:57 AM

In 1950 my paternal grandfather died of a burst abdominal aortic aneurysm. In 2000 my father had his AAA repaired with a stent placed through an incision in his leg. BTW for real progress it still had to beat the changes from the death of George Washington in 1799 to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

Posted by: L Nettles | Apr 23, 2008 7:40:40 AM

The most famous idiot was Democrat President Jimmy Carter who used his fireside chats to sell sweaters and the notion the world would be out of oil by 2000.

Posted by: bill-tb | Apr 23, 2008 7:53:36 AM

Great post. Don Boudreaux at Cafehayek.typepad.com has made similar points. Particularly interesting is when he compares items in an old Sears catalog and the time needed to work to afford them to similar items available today. Progress can seem incremental if you are only looking for manifestations of the predictions of science fiction writers and forecasters.

Posted by: ddbb | Apr 23, 2008 8:27:41 AM

Krugman's comments about the lack of improvement in material life in America since 1958 are certainly off (the improvements have been dramatic, as you've described), but I don't disagree with him that the differences between 1958 and today pale in comparison to the improvements between 1908 and 1958. Personally, I sometimes forgot the condition of most Americans life in 1908 (an expected lifespan under 50 to name one example). In contrast, most of the items we use now were available in some shape or form in 1958. No doubt that the effects of the information revoultion have been staggering, but 1908 was the year the Model T was rolled out. Quite a moment in American history.

As to the alternative energy question, I suppose he's referring to the general public when he states that energy development has fallen below expectations. I agree that this is true; our energy sources haven't changed radically in the past 40 years. You may be right that industry experts weren't expecting much advance, but the average person certainly was.

Posted by: Adam | Apr 23, 2008 9:44:27 AM

This reminds me of that scene from Life of Brian where Reg is trying to argue that the Romans haven't done anything for anyone:
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
XERCES: Brought peace.
REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!


Posted by: Simon Allaway | Apr 23, 2008 10:31:56 AM

There's been precious little progress on the economists-talking-tripe problem.

Posted by: dearieme | Apr 23, 2008 11:10:23 AM

Explanation for the lack of flying cars:


Posted by: Erik The Red | Apr 23, 2008 11:39:30 AM

Backing up the comments on oil the reason prices are high is mostly a function of two thngs:

1) Burgeoning global demand because historically poor people around the world are getting richer
2) The fact that most oil is in the hands of a cartel of governments that deliberately restrict supply to keep price high and/or are too mind numbingly incompetent to produce it.

Posted by: diz | Apr 23, 2008 3:11:29 PM

I don't remember where I read it but a few years ago I read an article by an Indian immigrant. One of the reasons he loved this country: poor people are fat. Hard to argue with that.

Posted by: scraphoops | Apr 23, 2008 5:40:32 PM

You have certainly made mincemeat of Mr. Krugman,s unctous rendering of the dissolution of the human condition. Unfortunately, I don't see much hope that you will convert the neo-luddites to anything approaching rationality. These doomsayers have their own agenda.
As far as disappointments to my expectations go, I would have to rate the failure of the scientific community to solve the problem of fusion technology at the top of the list. As far back as the mid-sixties I read an article in Business Week in which the prediction was made that fusions reactors would be operational within 20 years. Again, this only proves your point that the predictions were incorrect, not the efforts to achieve the desired goals.

Posted by: Powell Lucas | Apr 23, 2008 9:43:09 PM

The advances today PALE in comparisons to the advances made from 1908-1958? You must be daft.

One of my uncles had polio when he was a young child in 1950. IF one of your children contracted polio today you would be SUING someone for negligence. My father is a succesful veterinarian, and I remember when I was young we lived in a house without a refrigerator. And throughout my childhood we never had a home with air conditioning of any sort. Many people did not have phones, or had "party lines".

And, as Warren stated, the qualitative improvements over the past 50 years have been extraordinary and the market penetration of products that in 1958 would have been considered something only "Special Agents" or the very wealthy is beyond comprehension. Even 15 years ago no one could have imagined the quality and quantity of wireless communication or high definition televisions.

And, to show the remarkable acceleration of progress of technology, when was the last time you heard "BOONNNNNKKKK---CHHIRRRRP+SHWEEEEEEETTTTT" of your dial up modem???

Posted by: Mark | Apr 23, 2008 11:52:21 PM

'Pale in comparison' might have been overstating but I still stand my assertion these gains were more transformative than those of 1958 to the present. First of all, the polio vaccine was developed within the first time period we're talking about (1908 to 1958) and so is included in the advances of that period. 1908-1958 also saw the invention of penicillin and the formulation of the theory of DNA.

I also think that the advances in communication technology from 1908 to 1958 were worth noting. AM broadcasting, for instance, was only invented in 1906 and widespread radio usage (a fundamental change in the way people receive information) didn't come about until the 1910's. The television also was invented and came into widespread usage during this period. While it's hard to argue between the monumental effect of these types of inventions (radio, television, wireless IT, etc) I think it's useful to keep in mind how little most Americans knew about the rest of the country in 1908 compared to how connected they were in 1958.

Posted by: Adam | Apr 24, 2008 8:54:42 AM

don't rattle like they used to after 6000 miles
My mom just paid of her 2003 Honda Accord. It's 5 years old, and I think it has something like 75,000 miles on it. With the exception of a few exterior plastic trim pieces (that look like they may be aftermarket dealer-added junk) the thing looks and feels like the day she brought it home. It's actually spooky. (it even smells like new car sometimes)
Also, for her, the car's a quantum leap beyond anything she drove before. It had one of the first truly usable navigation packages. She's got a poor sense of direction and it's literally changed her life.
There may be some luck involved, and it's not perfect in many ways, but that car blows away comparable cars from the 90's, never mind the 50's.
It also manages to get 25+ mpg, even with a V6 which has the power to break the tires loose in second gear.

Posted by: SuperMike | Apr 24, 2008 9:21:49 AM

The gains from the first half of the 20th Century may be more dramatic but that says at least as much about human perception as it does about the actual advances. When I consider how my parents lived during my childhood in the 70s and how I live today, the difference in what is available and how accessable it is, is nothing short of stunning. Medical miracles came so rapidly in the first half of the 20th Century that we lost the ability to appreciate the ongoing improvements. I have a 16 year old neice who would have been dead shortly after birth if she had been born just a few years earlier. The techniques that saved her life and gave her a measure of normalcy were non-existent in the 80s.

We don't have flying cars. At least if you ignore those things that companies like Cessna make. But that is the failure of the prognosticators to appreciate the depth of the problems involved. Small aircraft are very doable and millions of them are in civilian use. But consider the average automobile driver youencounter every day and recoil at the thought of every one of them as an aircraft pilot.

Posted by: epobirs | Apr 24, 2008 10:02:25 AM

Amazing post. Any idea if Krugman is going to read and respond to this posting?

Posted by: LoneSnark | Apr 24, 2008 10:52:44 AM

Good post - thanks.

I read the Krugman column and think he made some good points. The most relevant is that despite all the research into alternative energies over the last 50 years, we're still basically stuck with oil, and it's a diminishing resource in an oil-thirsty world. And while I do agree that cartels and incompetent government-run oil enterprises (Mexico, for sure) are partially responsible for the high prices of today, I don't think you can completely write off the concept of peak oil, or the idea that we might be encountering it now.

I agree with the poster who wonders what happened to fusion. The fact that it's not here, right when energy prices are soaring and we really need it, gives credence to Krugman's theory that the markets don't just naturally take care of every problem.

Posted by: Dan | Apr 24, 2008 2:54:42 PM


Just one small thing re. how things have changed from 1958 to today vs. 1908 to 1958:

One of my favorite children's authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born to a pioneer family and lived on the prairie in the 1870s when she still had to fear Indian attacks, lived until 1957 and flew across the country on an airplane to visit her daughter in the early 1950s.

I don't think the incremental progress we've made since 1958 compares to changes of that magnitude. If we'd kept up those kind of advances, I'd be taking a tourist trip to Mars right about now.

Posted by: Dan | Apr 24, 2008 2:57:19 PM

Ahh, but Dan, in 1908, Laura Ingalls Wilder could have flown in an airplane. She could have also travelled across the country at a fairly high rate of speed (this was the decade for high speed passenger travel).

And you must admit that in 1958 (let's assume) she was a special person to afford such a cross country flight in a propeller driven aircraft (the 707 did not begin delivery until 1958, not early enough for her flight).

So, to be blunt, jet travel was developed 1908 to 1958, but it was not implemented until 1958 to 2008. And boy was it implimented: you can fly non-stop cross country for 15 hours of labor at the prevaling average income.

Posted by: LoneSnark | Apr 25, 2008 11:55:46 AM

I think you miss the most crucial problem for Krugman.

Statists believe that benign philosophers kings will bring us to an ideal society. How, because they are experts who will avoid the inefficiencies of wasteful market competition. If he is admitting that he was totally wrong about the rate of technological innovation then that surely suggests that he isn't fit to be a philosopher king at all.

Posted by: TDK | Apr 25, 2008 2:29:13 PM

Dan wrote: "I agree with the poster who wonders what happened to fusion. The fact that it's not here, right when energy prices are soaring and we really need it, gives credence to Krugman's theory that the markets don't just naturally take care of every problem."

Wow. That's one hell of a turnaround you expect. Prices rise, people react. Apparently, if markets don't provide instantaneous results, you say they have failed? The alternative to markets is government. We can't even get government to provide prompt service for a drivers license. You think the government could provide efficient fusion reactors faster than the private sector?

Where is this mythical government located?

Posted by: stan | Apr 25, 2008 6:40:06 PM

Hey - wait a minute, there, Stan. I didn't say I expected the government to provide us with fusion. Not sure how you concluded that. If we do achieve fusion, I expect it will be through a combination of public and private sector efforts.

I don't expect immediate turn-around. However, energy prices first soared in the 1970s and 1980s, starting well over 30 years ago. Seems like three decades is enough time to solve this problem, considering (as I was informed above) we only needed 50 years to go from pretty much no air travel to being able to travel across the country on 15 hours of labor, and with technological achievement advancing exponentially (for instance, Moore's law). If we can do it with computer chips, why not with energy? Makes me wonder if there's some natural limit.

Posted by: dan | Apr 25, 2008 7:43:45 PM

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