April 29, 2011
Megan McArdle On Labor Savings In The Kitchen

Writing at The Atlantic at Megan McArdle takes a look (with home kitchen video for demonstration) at just how much time modern appliances save us in the kitchen.

When my grandmother was growing up in the 1920s, the average woman spent about 30 hours a week preparing food and cleaning up. By the 1950s, when she was raising her family, that number had fallen to about 20 hours a week. Now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women average just 5.5 hours—and those who are employed, like me, spend less than 4.4 hours a week. And that’s not because men are picking up the slack; they log a paltry 15 minutes a day doing kitchen work. One market-research firm, the NPD Group, says that even in the 1980s, 72 percent of meals eaten at home involved an entrée cooked from scratch; now just 59 percent of them do, and the average number of food items used per meal has decreased from 4.4 to 3.5. That’s when we’re home at all: by 1995, we consumed more than a quarter of all meals and snacks outside the home, up from 16 percent two decades earlier.

Her accompanying video shows some of the kitchen innovations that we might think have always been around. Some are simple and yet had their origins only in the 20th century. 19th century cooking was no fun. 18 century? Time travel would be no fun.

Go back to the year 1900 or earlier and the labor needed for food preparation was even greater. Food storage was a much bigger problem with early home refrigerators only first making it to the market in the 1910s with a much larger roll-out in the 1920s. Before that ice boxes were used in areas where ice could be stored into the summer from the winter or traded along coasts.

The further back we look the more of the food processing steps were done at home and the manual the labor was for doing those steps. In England when did the majority of harvested grain begin to be processed by specialized laborers called millers? When did butchers become the venues thru which most meat flowed?

Technological advances made the womens' liberation movement possible. Men were going to do lots of manual labor outside of the house and women were going to do lots of manual labor inside the house until machines freed women from the kitchen and washroom. The movement of women into commercial workplaces was enabled not just by freeing them from kitchen labor but also by machines in factories and other job sites that reduced the need muscles to do most commercial work.

So what about the future? What technological advances are going to cause changes in human labor on the same scale as industrial food processing, refrigerators, home cooking appliances, frozen dinners, and pizza delivery? So far modern communications technologies (cell phones, the internet) have not caused changes as fundamental as those which occurred in the 20th century using primarily mechanical technologies. For example, the living standards gains from personal computers have been relatively small. In my view this supports the argument put further by Tyler Cowen that the rate of fundamental innovation has slowed. Or his argument see his Kindle book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. As for eventually feeling better: Only once full body rejuvenation becomes possible.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 April 29 11:29 AM  Trends Technological Advance


Comments
Fat Man said at April 29, 2011 1:04 PM:

"In England when did the majority of harvested grain begin to be processed by specialized laborers called millers? When did butchers become the venues thru which most meat flowed?"

Millers

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gristmill:

"Classical British and American mills: Most towns and villages had their own mill so that local farmers could easily transport their grain there to be milled. These communities were dependent on their local mill as bread was a staple part of the diet."

I believe the time frame for this statement is post-medieval.

Butchers. I think that butchers were mostly urban until refrigeration became wide-spread. I would guess that urbanism and butchery have been co-extensive since antiquity.

Randall Parker said at April 29, 2011 1:37 PM:

Fat Man,

But post-medieval covers some centuries. It is not clear to me how fast some of this stuff developed. I wonder if any industrial historians have managed to deduce this from tax records.

Butchers and refrigeration: So how big of a town was big enough to support a butcher? More broadly, when did towns with specialized laborers spring up? Which specialized skills and capital would be the first to show up in an early stage town? For example, did millers or blacksmiths show up first? I would guess millers.

Chris T said at April 29, 2011 2:54 PM:

I have access to the vast majority of human knowledge and can communicate with billions of people spread across the world at minimal cost. Accessing a massive selection of entertainment is trivial as is paying bills automatically, checking my bank accounts, creating schedules and documents accessible almost anywhere, and looking up directions. I'd call that a pretty significant gain in my standard of living.

Their measurement misses something extremely important regarding the nature of the internet. When I buy a computer or peripheral and connect it to the internet, I have just multiplied the potential computational power at my finger tips many, many times over. People no longer need to personally spend much on computing power, because they can access a vast network of it.

There is little need to buy quite a few software products because of the existence of a large array of free high quality programs online.

For ten dollars a month, I have access to more hours of entertainment than I could possibly watch without needing to waste time or gas traveling to a store.

I would say their study understates the value of personal computing by an order of magnitude at least.

Fat Man said at April 29, 2011 2:59 PM:

There were medieval mills, lots of them, many built by monasteries. The technology is ancient. Generally, post-medieval would be after 1500. Relevant records in England go back to the Domesday Book, which itself was a tax record.

Butchers and refrigeration: So how big of a town was big enough to support a butcher?

I don't offhand know. There have been lots of historical studies of this sort of thing. many of them godawful dull French books. However, since meat stays unspoiled on the hoof, a town with a thriving market that people came to on certain days of the month could support a butcher on those days.

"More broadly, when did towns with specialized laborers spring up?"

By definition, that is the origin of civilization, which was about 5000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first cities north of the Mediterranean were Roman, such as London and Cologne, about 2000 years ago.

"Which specialized skills and capital would be the first to show up in an early stage town?"

Priests, whores, and soldiers.

"For example, did millers or blacksmiths show up first? I would guess millers." Mills depend on location near flowing water, and the stones are enormous. Smiths can be itinerant, and they undoubtedly showed up with the soldiers.

You might enjoy "City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction" by David Macaulay
http://www.amazon.com/City-Story-Roman-Planning-Construction/dp/0395349222/
It gives an illustrated view of a Roman foundation.


Chris T said at April 29, 2011 3:36 PM:

For example, when I put a search term in Google, my computer just has to process sending the request and the receiving and displaying the result. The vast, vast majority of the actual computation is done at a vast server farm.

When I pay a bill online, most of the actual processing is done on servers owned by the bank and entity I'm paying.

Ditto a game over the internet, the computation is shared between my computer, the other players' computers, and hardware owned by the gaming company.

This is the problem with their methodology, limiting the definition of computing power to the hardware people buy, vastly understates the amount of computing power they actually have and use.

Bruce said at April 29, 2011 4:39 PM:

"So, what about the future?"

Gramps: Did you know Billy, man used to walk on the Moon?

Billy: MOM! Gramps is going senile. Put him in a home!

James Bowery said at April 29, 2011 5:00 PM:

All of that labor savings went into the pockets of the wealthiest few percent thereby destroying middle class families to the point that the demographic collapse, and resulting population vacuum being filled with immigrants by that wealthy few percent isn't recognized as genocide but is denied as a "demographic transition".

The future?

If it remains in the hands of the folks benefiting from the "demographic transition" -- the future is Hell.

Randall Parker said at April 29, 2011 5:52 PM:

Chris T,

Yes, I love using the internet (obviously). I rarely use postage stamps. I rarely get anything in snail mail that matters. I've got lots of auto-pay billing set up. But I did some of that auto-paying before the internet by mailing.

Compare the internet to a woman switching from spending 30-40-50 hours per week preparing food, more hours washing clothes by hand, etc. Compare the internet to refrigerators, hot and cold running water, central heating and central cooling. Which would you rather give up if you had to make a choice?

When you do a search and get an answer how much does that answer improve your living standard? I probably do a couple dozen Google searches per day. Very useful. I certainly enjoy it. But the average person is doing this because it is incredibly easy, not because the average benefit per search is large.

The amount of computing power people buy versus that which they use: But what is amazing is how many doublings of computing power we had to go thru to get to the level of computer services we have today. Imagine the amount of oil available was even going thru a doubling once a decade, let alone once every couple of years. With that amount of oil we'd be in serious fat city (World oil production has barely doubled in the last 40 years). Computer power doubling does only a small fraction of energy availability doubling.

Olson said at April 29, 2011 7:35 PM:

@ James Bowery

"If it remains in the hands of the folks benefiting from the "demographic transition" -- the future is Hell."

What do you mean by "Hell"? Are you saying it's going to be like the Middle Ages and feudalism or something?

And how do we avoid this "Hell"? What can be done?

James Bowery said at April 29, 2011 11:15 PM:

Evolutionary dynamics 101:

Horizontal transmission evolves virulence.

Vertical transmission evolves symbiosis.

A world without borders lets us take the money we've earned fair and square and engage in jurisdictional arbitrage. I mean, after all, those nasty people we're escaping from are just jealous haters. Time to go where people, or at least their leaders, will appreciate what we bring!"

The answer?

Instead of politics carried out by any means, including war, let people assortatively migrate to test strongly held beliefs in human ecology (aka practice their religion) and allow them to establish border controls to keep out cross contamination from those who insist on bringing in "diversity". Treat all who actively oppose this emergence of the social sciences out of the dark ages as a biohazard.

Olson said at April 30, 2011 1:51 AM:

@ James Bowery

Thanks for your thoughts.

I kind of see what you're saying but it's very theoretical.

Practically speaking, what will this "Hell" look like? Are we talking Mad Max or something? And how do we implement assortative migration? That seems impossible, considering that one of the main activities of government and power seems to be controlling and preventing assortative migration. I mean it's not like we can vote for assortative migration or something.

Lono said at April 30, 2011 8:31 AM:

Randall,

You speak of the standard of living not and not just the efficiency of daily living.

While it may be true that the physical efficiency gains granted by personal computing - and the Internet - may be incremental instead of exponential - the mental efficiency gains ARE in fact exponential.

Currently I take in at least as much information in one year as I used to do in seven years of living - so essentially I am getting seven plus years of life experience for every one revolution now.

To me this means mentally I am squeezing in an amazing amount of living and meaningful interaction in which I previously could not have engaged in with a fraction of the efficieny before - if I would have even been able to engage in many of these activities previously at all.

To me this is an AMAZING standard of living increase - and it does not even take into account the substantial economic opportunities and advantages I now possess that were completely innacessible to me a mere decade ago.

(also increasing my standard of living directly)

As we go forward with integrating man and machine I find it likely that we will learn to live and investigate whole lifetimes in the span of a few minutes or hours using our augmented functionality and virtual realities.

I seriously could not imagine having to go back to the way I interacted with this world in the early 90's - the mental equivilent of living on a dessert island - throwing messages in bottles randomly and hoping to find some meaning in an irrational and highly disconnected world.

James Bowery said at April 30, 2011 9:18 AM:

What it will look like is an extrapolation of what it has looked like in the past when empires rise and fall which, in the west, has culminated in Jews, having a stronger total coefficient of determination with all other variables at the State level than any other variables except for the prevalence AIDS and incidence of HIV positive testing. A marvelous thing about this example is the extremely long history of Jewish involvement in central aspects of civilization going back to Babylonian times, continuing with the rise of theocracy among the Germanics who were previously impervious to the Roman Empire's military -- and continuing today with the "Empire of their Own" in the mass media, finally "coming out" with the Neoconservative supremacist wars in the Middle East and now conspicuously manifest in financial and monetary virulence such as Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve and the explicit plan by international Jewish groups to now gather for a new great diaspora to Asia, abandoning a declining West*. Even more marvelous is the catastrophic loss of social, political and business status one experiences the moment one fearlessly cogitates about Jews. Truly awesome virulence. (* That page was available for years at archive.org -- this is the first time I've tried to get it that it has shown up as not being in the archive.)

Now that Jews have expressed world-wide their extended phenotype of "open borders" the global human ecology is operating under an evolutionary dynamic of horizontal transmission. Hence we are undoubtedly to encounter emergent diseases even more opportunistically virulent than HIV or Jews -- and their spread will be faster than was the plague across Genghis Khan's trade routes. Some think it will emerge out of Islam, others out of Subcon cults, others out of the long and intense evolutionary dynamics of subsaharan Africa. Perhaps it will emerge out of some mutant form of one of these and the Internet -- driving physical replicators in symbiosis with memetic replicators.

The sophistication shown by the Federal government in the aftermath of Waco -- using ONLY (federally funded) local law enforcement to round up members of a Jack Mormon sect peacefully for example -- indicates that secluded communities are not a practical defense. Any viable community must have young fertile women and children and any secluded community with young fertile women and children can be portrayed as an opportunity for local men outside the community to make their masculinity a little less vestigial by being unleashed to attack. Indeed, the emergence of vestigial masculinity with women's liberation is a powerful too for "duly constituted authorities" to get men to do anything to anyone in exchange for the dog-biscuit of feeling like a real man for a little bit -- witness the US military (not to mention the increasingly abusive domestic law enforcement organizations).

Assortative migration as an alternative to the political process -- including war as politics continued by other means -- is quite practical as long as it is seen as a plausible promise in an open source rebellion.

Chris T said at April 30, 2011 12:29 PM:

But the average person is doing this because it is incredibly easy, not because the average benefit per search is large.

In which case the actual benefit is tremendous. If the costs of performing the same action twenty years ago was prohibitive (which it was for most people), then it didn't get done. In a way, the standard of living gain could be said to be infinite (Benefit versus no benefit).

I work in a science lab, the computing power and internet allow us to do things that would have been incredibly expensive and time consuming two decades ago. Tracking down a particular paper could have taken days, now it takes us only as long as it takes to type in the name or authors and hit enter.

Statistical calculations or graphs involving huge data sets? Trivial. Sharing data sets or protocols? Yawn.

We're not comparing something that used to take X hours versus Y hours now, but something that we wouldn't even do before because either it wasn't possible or was far too costly in resources and time.

BioBob said at April 30, 2011 12:36 PM:

My guess is that even a small neolithic tribal village would be more than adequate population base for the division of labor to begin. We tend to forget that the basic behavior of people has changed little in the last 6,000 years. @ Fatman, you are off only by a few thousand years but that's ok. A city is not required for Fred to hunt the meat, butcher it himself or have the priest with him do it after the kill, and trade some of the hunt's meat for grain, berries, and roots collected by Zeb the crooked legged and his wife Zelda or Zeke the arrow maker.

@ James Bowery, seek psychiatric assistance or move to an arab country/Germany where jewish conspiracies are rife and acceptable, LOL

PacRim Jim said at April 30, 2011 1:20 PM:

The question that nags at me is:
What will remain of human society after our children grow up as hermits, having lived virtual lives on the Web, apart from actual humans, where there is enough free entertainment to gobble up their entire childhoods?

Are we raising a generation of lotus-eaters?

(For those of you unfortunate enough to have teachers who avoided Greek mythology, lotus-eaters were, according to Wikipedia, a race of people from an island near North Africa dominated by lotus plants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were narcotic causing the people to sleep in peaceful apathy.)

Randall Parker said at April 30, 2011 1:25 PM:

Lono,

I also enjoy the internet, the amount of information I can get hold of, and the interactions I can have. But if the mental efficiency gains are so great then why don't these mental efficiency gains translate into more solutions to more problems? Look at how slowly battery technology, photovoltaic technology, and many other areas are improving. Where's our big pay-off? I'm not seeing it.

Chris T,

And yet all that improvement in your productivity has not brought us much in the way of cures for cancer or cheaper forms of energy.

What I think is happening: We are searching potential solution space more rapidly. But for each problem remaining to be solved the amount of solution space we have to search is orders of magnitude greater than how much solution space had to be solved to come up with the new solutions of 50 or 100 years ago. Potential solution space is sparsely populated with real solutions.

A lot of unsolved problems in computer science are called NP Complete. While any potential solution can be checked in polynomial time the number of solutions that need to be checked might require an infinite number of processors to find one solution out of a massive number checked.

James Bowery said at April 30, 2011 1:36 PM:

BioBob, I rest my case.

Bruce said at April 30, 2011 1:53 PM:

Randall: "or cheaper forms of energy"

Wyoming has the cheapest electricity rates in the US.

Why?

"Below are some facts about Wyoming’s regulatory environment that are likely to affect the cost of energy or the cost of using energy. Wyoming has thus far avoided many of the costly energy policies other states are implementing.

Wyoming does not cap greenhouse gas emissions.

Wyoming is an observer of the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), a regional agreement among some American governors and Canadian premiers to target greenhouse gas reductions. The central component of this agreement is the eventual enactment of a cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. As an observer of the WCI, Wyoming would not be bound to agreements made by WCI members.

Wyoming does not require utilities to generate from renewable sources a certain percentage of the electricity that they sell.

Wyoming does not require gasoline to be mixed with renewable fuels.

Wyoming does not impose automobile fuel economy standards similar to California’s, which attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles.

Wyoming does not require new residential and commercial buildings to meet energy efficiency standards.

Wyoming does not impose state-based appliance efficiency standards.

Wyoming does not allow utilities to “decouple” revenue from the sale of electricity and natural gas. Some states decouple revenue from actual sales, allowing utilities to increase their revenue by selling less electricity and natural gas."

http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/states/wyoming/

Randall Parker said at April 30, 2011 2:02 PM:

Bruce,

Wyoming has cheap Powder River Basic coal to use for electric power generation and its local electric power plants get their coal without having to pay shipping fees to train companies to ship it half way across the country. All the cheap electric power states have either:

- Lots of hydro (e.g. Pacific Northwest).
- Lots of coal (e.g. Wyoming, North Dakota, Kentucky).

The Pacific Northwest's economic growth is going to increase the price of electricity since the marginal increases in electric generation power are coming from more expensive electric power sources.

Olson said at April 30, 2011 3:39 PM:

@ James Bowery

Thanks again for the insights.

So I guess what you're saying is that we should expect some sort of collapse or decay like previous empires and civilizations, but greater and more intense in scale.

And that conditions are increasingly ripe for some sort of new very "virulent" religion or ideology to arise and dominate.

Also, are you suggesting that despite all the hype about the rise of China, Asia is basically screwed?

I guess what you're saying about the assortative migration thing is to keep alive and spread the idea during a collapse/decay/rebellion to get a critical mass of people interested in and supportive of the idea. The main challenge to this seems to me to be that there are going to be people around trying to to hijack a crisis to control people and create a new group control mechanism and prevent assortative migration. But I guess the hope is that during a crisis/collapse/decay/rebellion the "open source rebellion" will be able to route around these people.

BTW, I found a link that works for the one you provided:

http://classic-web.archive.org/web/20060707065055/http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/730443.html

not anon or anonymous said at April 30, 2011 3:52 PM:

"So what about the future? What technological advances are going to cause changes in human labor on the same scale as industrial food processing, refrigerators, home cooking appliances, frozen dinners, and pizza delivery? So far modern communications technologies (cell phones, the internet) have not caused changes as fundamental as those which occurred in the 20th century using primarily mechanical technologies."

It takes a lot of time for new technologies to cause fundamental changes across society. Electrification started in the late 19th century, yet household appliances did not become ubiquitous in the Western world until the 1950s or so. Similarly, factories in the 19th century were huge because they relied on a centralized steam engine and mechanical power transmission. Replacing the centralized engines with electric motors was easy but yielded limited gains; eventually, factories were rebuilt to take advantage of the new technology, such as by fitting each machine with a separate motor.

My guess is that modern technology will eventually cause significant changes, albeit in ways that are hard to foresee today. Economic globalization--which is now lifting millions of people out of poverty--is heavily reliant on cheap and fast communication for such things as supply chain logistics and subcontracting services across national boundaries. Politics was also influenced; the Wikileaks cable release was a catalyst for popular uprisings in a number of countries, yet it would have been impossible (in its current form) absent the Internet.

Culture is especially sensitive to new technologies, but the direction of change is complex: On the one hand, top cultural products can now reach a worldwide market comprising millions and perhaps billions of people; on the other hand, production of cheaper, niche cultural goods becomes much more feasible. For instance, science clearly benefits from cheap IT and communications, as production of scientific papers is constantly increasing. The Internet is becoming the main medium for conveying scientific info.

James Bowery said at April 30, 2011 4:42 PM:

Yes, both China and India are screwed. If China had not preemptively terminated its age of exploration -- burning their impressive fleet of merchant ships -- the Sassoon opium steam ships would have been overwhelmed by much greater virulence. This time around, they are in for the full force of a much more highly evolved pathogen and they have very little resistance. Indeed, with their high male to female ratio, the conditions are nearly perfect for producing the vestigial male syndrome in China which has been an important ingredient in the recent extremes of centralization of wealth in the West. Their only hope is that Chinese leadership is heavy on engineering and they may just be able to see some of this before their brains are turned to soup, as happened to the leadership in the West during the 20th century.

Olson said at April 30, 2011 5:08 PM:

@ James Bowery

What do you mean by this statement:

"If China had not preemptively terminated its age of exploration -- burning their impressive fleet of merchant ships -- the Sassoon opium steam ships would have been overwhelmed by much greater virulence."

Do you mean that had the Chinese not preemptively terminated its age of exploration and burned their fleet, the Sassoon opium traders would've been ineffectual against them? The West didn't stop its age of exploration, but pursued it fully. And yet as you suggest above it still got overwhelmed by virulence.

Also this:

"Their only hope is that Chinese leadership is heavy on engineering and they may just be able to see some of this before their brains are turned to soup, as happened to the leadership in the West during the 20th century."

What would the Chinese leadership have to do if they manage to see this? Shut down international trade? Aren't they too invested in int'l trade at this point?

James Bowery said at April 30, 2011 6:33 PM:

My statement should have been "the Sassoon opium steam ships would have looked like kine pox compared to the small pox that would have been visited upon them." Indeed, it may be that the opium trade indeed may have provided some limited cross-immunity to what is now in store for them. I am not familiar enough with contemporary Chinese culture to see how much a part of their culture memory of that era is. However, it almost certainly isn't enough.

The Chinese leadership is the kind that could, if it merely understood the evolutionary dynamics of horizontal vs vertical transmission, institute the kind of assortative migration by mutually consenting adults as a massive exercise in social science. They have demonstrated a willingness to engage in less disciplined kinds of such experiments in economics with various kinds of development zones. The big barrier to this is oil importation, not market availability. They can synthesize an internal market with a citizen's dividend in a matter of a few years. At that point the various mutually consenting bodies politic would determine the degree of trade vs self-sufficiency.

Chris T said at April 30, 2011 6:47 PM:

And yet all that improvement in your productivity has not brought us much in the way of cures for cancer or cheaper forms of energy.

A generalized cure for cancers is impossible since they're separate diseases. Even so, cancer patients have a much better chances of surviving for five years today than they did in 1975. In 1975 the five year survival rate was 49.1%, in 2008 it was 67.4%.

http://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2008/browse_csr.php?section=2&page=sect_02_table.08.html

As far as cheaper energy, the Deep Horizon's well would not have been economically possible ten years ago and is only possible now because of computers. Horizontal fracking is only possible due to advances in computer technology (reversing the United States oil decline rate I might add).

More important than total energy supply is the amount of work or utility we get per unit of energy (almost all technological are in fact advances in energy efficiency). House appliances have made substantial electricity gains over the last 20 years:

http://low-powerdesign.com/donovansbrain/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/efficiency_261x365.jpg

Economic energy intensity has been falling:

http://www1.eere.energy.gov/ba/pba/intensityindicators/total_energy.html

Bruce said at April 30, 2011 7:37 PM:

Randall, cheaper electricity is possible in many states ... but the CO2 scam has people squandering trillions. That benefits China, even though they import between 150-200 million tons of coal. China doesn't care where it gets its electricity as long as it is cheap.

The CO2 scam has just moved manufacturing from the US to China.

Olson said at April 30, 2011 7:51 PM:

@ James Bowery

"They have demonstrated a willingness to engage in less disciplined kinds of such experiments in economics with various kinds of development zones."

Interesting that you mention this.

I saw a report from Al Jazeera on YouTube about how when China started its one-child policy 30 years ago, they selected one of their cities as a control group for a secret experiment to see what would happen if families had the freedom to have more than one child: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9kdQLQYT5w

They found that the population in that city has actually grown at a slower rate than the national average.

Engineer-Poet said at May 1, 2011 4:55 AM:
all that improvement in your productivity has not brought us much in the way of ... cheaper forms of energy.
Don't ascribe to physics what is quite adequately explained by politics.

The people making their fortunes from Powder River Basin coal have plenty of money to use to throw up roadblocks to superior energy sources.  If something is regulated by Washington, it's effectively subject to the veto power of existing interests.

Lono said at May 1, 2011 9:35 AM:

Engineer-Poet,

Yes exactly!

Randall - there is a difference between having a solution and having the power to have it implemented.

Do you really think many of the easily forseen problems that were caused by natural disasters in recent history (New Orleans, Fukushima, etc.) would have happened if self-oriented Densans had not been in charge of the hierarchies there?


Also Randall as some have suggested - there requires a certain critical mass to develop with these new technologies before social change becomes evident.

I believe we will hit the beginnings of a "Singularity" in the next 100 years - at which point not only will social change be far more evident - but our species will be fundamentally changed in ways that will cause us to almost unrecognizable by former generations.

Bruce said at May 1, 2011 10:17 AM:

EP: "The people making their fortunes from Powder River Basin coal have plenty of money to use to throw up roadblocks to superior energy sources."

The people demonizing coal, nuclear and shale gas have a huge interest in subsidized wind and solar. Italy has a 60 BILLION solar subsidy deficit.

"It is increasingly likely that the Italian government would have to pay for 6GW worth of subsidies at the 2010 FiT rate. This would mean that subsidy burden would cost Italy €44 billion over the next 20 years. With 4GW of applications pending grid connection, this would result in a US$60 billion incentive burden.
...

Germany’s subsidy burden is €25 billion, while Spain’s stands at €17 billion. "

http://www.pv-tech.org/news/italy_has_a_us60_billion_solar_subsidy_problem_says_barclays_capital


James Bowery said at May 1, 2011 11:09 AM:

Olson wrote: "I saw a report from Al Jazeera on YouTube about how when China started its one-child policy 30 years ago, they selected one of their cities as a control group for a secret experiment to see what would happen if families had the freedom to have more than one child"

Wow! That the Chinese leadership would set aside a control group bodes well for China! Of course, their experimental groups were not consensual, but given the amount of internal migration already happening and projected, there is a very good chance the Chinese leadership may come around to actively support assortative migration -- especially if they start running into problems with social stability.

I could take off on a discourse about Malthus, Sun Yat-Sen, Henry George and land allocation here but we're already in fairly speculative territory.

Chris T said at May 1, 2011 1:10 PM:

I believe we will hit the beginnings of a "Singularity" in the next 100 years

100 years? We're in the early stages of one right now. Rather than one artificial sentient agent, we're hooking up several billion carbon based sentient agents into a single global network. Humanity is only beginning to feel the implications.

Randall Parker said at May 1, 2011 2:34 PM:

Singularity advocates,

Guys, computers are not a panacea. Why? Too many NP Complete problems. See this list of NP Complete problems. AI won't change that.

Other types of problems are ugly too. If a problem requires trying, for example, all possible orders of N items for large N then we are looking at N! (N factorial) computations to solve it. As N grows N factorial gets big really really fast.

Granted, computers are going to do a lot more for us. Google's got cars cruising around California highways under total computer control. But I do not think we can count on computers to put us back onto an exponential growth curve. We might be resource-limited.

Lono,

You think we have lots of solutions we can't implement? I grant that we could probably commercialize thorium reactors. Not sure how their costs would compare to nuclear. But what other technologies do you think are being held back by politics? Please be specific.

Randall Parker said at May 1, 2011 3:48 PM:

Chris T,

The shift toward more energy-efficient factors of production is not without costs. In some cases more energy-efficient gadgets that are also cheaper have been developed. But in a very large number of cases energy efficiency increases the price tag on what you buy. Cheaper energy with less efficient cheaper gadgets would be cheaper overall than more expensive energy and more expensive gadgets.

Examples:

- Hybrid cars cost more. They save you money if your gasoline prices are high enough. If gasoline prices were only $2 per gallon hybrids would make little sense. Make gasoline cost $8 per gallon and suddenly justifying a hybrid becomes very easy. Unfortunately, your total costs are then higher.

- Higher energy efficiency washers not only cost more but also have reached high energy efficiencies at the expense of good washing efficiency. As you will learn at that link (John Tierney of the NY Times quoting Consumer Reports) you have to go to the higher price models to get a decent washer.

- Insulation and double paned argon windows drive up housing costs. Building a Passivhaus design is an expensive proposition. Probably doesn't pay in most cases.

As the rate of global oil production has slowed the US economy's per capita growth has slowed. This first started in the early 1970s. This makes sense. It takes more capital to try to get more useful work out of the same amount of energy. Use less of one input and then you have to use more of a different input.

Chris T said at May 1, 2011 5:10 PM:

Ignore the flashy or mandated efficiency 'gains' (energy savings at the cost of utility is not an efficiency gain). Increased up front costs must be measured against the savings over the useful life time of the item (or the additional energy required to make it versus the energy saved during its life [it would not surprise me if the energy return on hybrids was negative]).

Look at cars, after CAFE standards came into effect during the 1970's, engine horse power crashed. Over the the last three decades HP has been slowly creeping back up (making the SUV possible) to the point that it is now equivalent to HP before the standards with a much higher gas mileage (granted, new standards will kill it again). Look at locomotives, they've doubled in efficiency since 1980:

http://gas2.org/2010/05/25/freight-trains-double-fuel-efficiency-since-1980/

Cheaper energy with less efficient cheaper gadgets would be cheaper overall than more expensive energy and more expensive gadgets.

Of course, and cheaper energy with cheaper gadgets that are more efficient would be even better.

It takes more capital to try to get more useful work out of the same amount of energy. Use less of one input and then you have to use more of a different input.

If this were always true, life itself could not exist. What you must understand is that everything that happens or exists in the universe can be described in terms of energy. Technological advance is nothing more than improving the amount of useful work derived from energy by finding better methods of transforming one state to another. If you decrease the amount of mechanical energy required to do useful work, you also reduce the amount of electrical, chemical, or nuclear energy required.

Oil is useful because it has a highly concentrated amount of chemical energy. New sources only become available when the extraction efficiency increases enough (we measure this with money).

Randall Parker said at May 1, 2011 5:32 PM:

Since I subscribe to Consumer Reports I decided to check for myself about the washing performance of clothes washing machines. Sure enough out of the top-loading machines only 2 washing machines from Maytag scored Excellent on washing performance and they both scored Fair (only 1 abov Poor) in energy efficiency. All of the washers that scored Excellent in energy efficiency scored only Good in washing performance.

So then I looked at front-loading clothes washing machines which scored much better - albeit at high prices. More machines rated Excellent for washing. But all but one cost over $1000 and that one cost $800. So front-loaders are more expensive and yet you just about have to abandon top-loaders if you want an excellent wash. That was not always such. Used to be cheap top loaders had excellent washing performance, albeit at the cost of more energy usage.

Since the more efficient machine cost more it takes more materials and therefore more energy to build. I wonder how long it takes to make back the incremental cost.

Randall Parker said at May 1, 2011 6:51 PM:

Chris T,

Some cancers have shown little improvement in survival time. For example, lung cancer is a really bad cancer to get with 5 year survival times below 20%. Liver cancer is similarly grim. Even worse, the 5 year survival rate for pancreas is about 5%. I see little progress on any of those cancers.

I hope the ability to sequence cancer DNA gives us the edge we need. I do not want to die from cancer.

Olson said at May 1, 2011 11:25 PM:

"Rather than one artificial sentient agent, we're hooking up several billion carbon based sentient agents into a single global network. Humanity is only beginning to feel the implications."

I think James Bowery makes an important point above when he says that we should seriously consider the evolutionary dynamics of horizontal transmission in this environment of a single global network, especially coupled with an increasingly open borders physical global network. In light of this it's hard to be too sanguine about all the "implications" of this.

Olson said at May 1, 2011 11:54 PM:

@ James Bowery

"I could take off on a discourse about Malthus, Sun Yat-Sen, Henry George and land allocation here but we're already in fairly speculative territory."

How do these various figures fit together? I'm familiar with Malthus's basic idea, and I know that Henry George was big on the land tax. I've heard of Sun Yat-Sen but don't know anything beyond that he was a former leader of China. Does a land tax prevent Malthusian situations or something? Did Sun Yat-Sen pursue a land tax for China arguing along those lines?

James Bowery said at May 2, 2011 6:56 AM:

Although the "editors" of Wikipedia keep removing the fact, Sun Yat-Sen was a serious student of Henry George's "Progress and Poverty", to the point that he shifted from explicitly pro-Malthusian to anti-Malthusian views under its influence and would have introduced its policies had his party prevailed. The history of how land value tax came very close to averting communism in both Russia and China is one that probably should have had over 100 movies made about it rather than the over 100 movies that were made about the Holocaust -- especially since there would have been no Holocaust if an LVT with citizen's dividend had been adopted in those countries instead of communism. We can, of course, ignore the tens of millions killed in China -- they just don't count, do they?

That having been said, there is no cheating Malthus's exponential and the necessity of some kind of redistributionist regime is increasingly obvious even to the hard core capitalists. In ultimate Malthusian terms, that means land redistribution and this fits perfectly with assortative migration to support vertical transmission evolutionary dynamics. The "citizen's dividend" represents the old idea of an allodium -- an inalienable (immune to creditors) rent on one's homestead land -- applicable to relocation and reallocation of one's homestead. This recommends a global reserve currency backed by land value. Of course, as I've been saying for years, civilization creates new kinds of economic rent that should be taken into account as party of any such regime (ie: in-place liquidation value of all assets rather than just land value) but then if civilization starts heading toward collapse, it would be nice to have the basics down before people start roaming the country-side gangs.

not anon or anonymous said at May 2, 2011 8:13 AM:

James Bowery, yes, Georgist policies are efficient and make a lot of sense economically.

However, redistribution makes very little sense under Malthusian subsistence--the classical economists were very clear about this, including Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, who did support the land tax. Rather, it makes sense to tax breeding directly--or at least to avoid subsidizing it--because this will increase the general standard of living in the long run. (The Chinese one-child policy was a rather imperfect attempt to do just this. China is slowly abandoning it as it becomes more developed and near-Malthusian conditions cease to apply.) Of course we are not under Malthusian conditions right now, but it is worth considering as a thought experiment.

Chris T said at May 2, 2011 10:51 AM:

Randall - Owing to government mandates, washing machines were probably not the best example of efficiency improvements and teasing out the gains would be difficult due to the elimination of the lower efficiency baseline.

Since the more efficient machine cost more it takes more materials and therefore more energy to build. I wonder how long it takes to make back the incremental cost.

In this case, it may not be worth the extra cost, but the good news is the technology exists. Once manufacturing techniques improve, the price will come down.

Yes, some cancers are as deadly as ever (pancreatic is particularly nasty), but overall there has been much progress.

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