Economist: Well, for instance, look at this dessert, with its decorative syrup swirls on the plate. It is marvelous to behold.
Physicist: I’m smiling because this reminds me of a related story. I was observing at Palomar Observatory with an amazing instrumentation guru named Keith who taught me much. Keith’s night lunch—prepared in the evening by the observatory kitchen and placed in a brown bag—was a tuna-fish sandwich in two parts: bread slices in a plastic baggie, and the tuna salad in a small plastic container (so the tuna would not make the bread soggy after hours in the bag). Keith plopped the tuna onto the bread in an inverted container-shaped lump, then put the other piece of bread on top without first spreading the tuna. It looked like a snake had just eaten a rat. Perplexed, I asked if he intended to spread the tuna before eating it. He looked at me quizzically (like Morpheus in the Matrix: “You think that’s air you’re breathing? Hmm.”), and said—memorably, “It all goes in the same place.”
My point is that the stunning presentation of desserts will not have universal value to society. It all goes in the same place, after all. [I'll share a little-known secret. It's hard to beat a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert. At 5% the cost of fancy desserts, it's not clear how much value the fancy things add.]
if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world within which to live, doesn’t this constitute a form of economic growth?”
I had to concede that yes—it does. This often falls under the title of “development” rather than “growth.” I ran into the economist the next day and we continued the conversation, wrapping up loose ends that were cut short by the keynote speech. I related to him my still-forming position that yes, we can continue tweaking quality of life under a steady regime. I don’t think I ever would have explicitly thought otherwise, but I did not consider this to be a form of economic growth. One way to frame it is by asking if future people living in a steady-state economy—yet separated by 400 years—would always make the same, obvious trades? Would the future life be objectively better, even for the same energy, same GDP, same income, etc.? If the answer is yes, then the far-future person gets more for their money: more for their energy outlay. Can this continue indefinitely (thousands of years)? Perhaps. Will it be at the 2% per year level (factor of ten better every 100 years)? I doubt that.
So I can twist my head into thinking of quality of life development in an otherwise steady-state as being a form of indefinite growth. But it’s not your father’s growth. It’s not growing GDP, growing energy use, interest on bank accounts, loans, fractional reserve money, investment. It’s a whole different ballgame, folks. Of that, I am convinced. Big changes await us. An unrecognizable economy. The main lesson for me is that growth is not a “good quantum number,” as physicists will say: it’s not an invariant of our world. Cling to it at your own peril.
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