The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 Gene Expression BlogTeasers
Blue Sky and Brown Earth: Look to the Red Planet!
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
Search Text Case Sensitive  Exact Words  Include Comments

Mars_23_aug_2003_hubble

41gl5ENbKZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Today on Medium I saw a post, Shouldn’t We Fix Poverty Before Migrating to Mars? The substance of the piece is less important to me than the title, because the title expresses a viewpoint common among many. Why look to the heavens when we don’t have heaven here on earth? The first time I heard this sentiment was as a child when I saw Joe Kennedy II express this opinion on the floor of congress in relation to funding to NASA in the 1980s. As something of a space-nerd the sentiment shocked me to my core. Obviously I understood poverty in at least a sensory fashion. I was born in Bangladesh before it was a textile powerhouse and there wasn’t at least the promise of development. But as a nerd it seemed to me that sacrificing knowledge of the world for a full stomach seemed like a false trade-off. Of course I was self-interested. This is what I wanted to be true.

But as it happens, I do believe that it is the truth, and that is because what we know from economic history. The rise of the post-Malthusian consumer economy validates the position that we should have one eye to the heavens above, and another focused on the concerns of the earth. The two are synergistic. What is needed for prosperity in a manner we understand to be prosperity in our day and age are two things. First, increased economic growth through gains in productivity. Second, a lack of concomitant population growth to eat up the gains in productivity. The demographic transition. In other words, get smarter to get wealthier, and don’t divide that wealth between too many children.

410uvoV1qDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The West, and more precisely Britain, was the first society to break out of the “Malthusian trap,” whereby gains in productivity were eaten up by population growth. This change was not foreseen by the economists of the day. Thinkers such as David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus assumed that the “end of history” was always characterized by a stationary state where population and economic production balanced out so that much of humanity was caught in a condition of immiseration. The irony is that they were flourishing just during the period that Britain was breaking the iron laws of economics as they were understood at the time. What we term the industrial revolution was triggering the rise in gains of wages to unskilled workers that would continue to 1970, and the demographic transition would lead to the emergence of the two-child nuclear family. There are many books which chronicles this change, but one is particularly good for a lay audience is David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery. It traces the evolution of endogenous growth theory, basically a model which accounts for economic growth by parameters such as innovation and human capital (this problem is not solved by the way). Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence as two alternative takes forwarding specific more empirical theses.

41W-0XB-m2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ But let’s think about this in a more high level manner. Compare the Chinese intellectual and political tradition and that of the West. Since the Axial Age there are broad similarities, particularly with the rise of humanistic traditions. But to generalize one might assert that the Chinese tradition has been more pragmatic and concrete, while the Western tradition has allowed for more abstract concepts and considerations. The most otherworldly element of traditional Chinese thought actually turns out to be exogenous, that of Buddhism (the rise of Buddhism coincides with the decline of scientific Daoism and the rise of religious Daoism). After the Tang dynasty Buddhism lost its place at the table of Chinese elites, and the dominant ethos was that of Confucianism, which prioritized proper governance on earth to maintain harmony and order. A key consequence of this was that scholar-officials were fixated on the need for the peasantry, the true productive units of society, to be prosperous and fruitful. The Chinese system was deeply humanistic and civilian in its orientation. It can be argued that the Chinese state and society by the 18th century had reached the stationary state at the “end of history.” Every unit of production was being squeezed that could be squeezed by traditional means agriculture and trade between regions to maximize comparative advantage. They were at the end of the line of economic growth as could be conceived by Adam Smith’s model.

In contrast the West has been subject to less cultural continuity, and was more fragmented. The medieval scholastics, and men such as Baruch Spinoza, reflected a fixation on deep abstraction and a concern with ontology which was marginalized early on in the mainstream of Chinese intellectual thought. Arguably this flight from the pragmatic can be traced back to Pythagoras and the pre-Socratics. Mathematical mysticism continued in Western civilization because of the influence of Plato. Empirical science had its origins with the interests of Aristotle. The fusion of mathematical formalism and empirical methodology in the early modern era wrought a miracle: science. Over time science was turned into the handmaid of technology, and the elixir of innovation emerged from the synthesis.

20130601_FBC699 I assume most people can understand how this ties back to the piece in Medium, and the concern of people about poverty now, rather than future dreams and horizons. But we also have to remember that it is a fact that global poverty is declining. China is a big reason, and the root is not the revival of Confucianism,* but the expansion of technological civilization. The production of iPhones is driving the decline in misery, not redistribution or primary production through agriculture. We already have a map to abolish material misery: growth and demographic transition. It may happen in our age that extreme material want will be a memory, just as slavery is.

SaganPaleBlueDot What drives growth? Innovation. How do we get innovation? By investing in crazy projects whose payoffs we can’t calculate rationally and whose outcomes are not foreseeable. The reality is that Chinese civilization over ~2,000 years was caught in a local optimum of maximizing prosperity in Malthusian conditions. The Chinese sages were wise, but their eyes only saw to the edge of the horizon. The West’s intellectual forebears were less practical, but more diversified. This allowed for it to break out of the trap of fixating on the practical-before-our-nose. Rather, Western thinkers should dream delusional visions of abstraction and imagination. Worlds beyond imagining for the common ken. When you explore more of the parameter space you are likely to find novel optima which you would otherwise never have arrived upon. To some extent this is how evolution may work, with mutation, drift and co-evolution perturbing cozy fitness peaks. More plainly, we can only realize true innovation when we are able to understand that that entails blue sky long-shots into the deep. That is just the empirical and factual trend over the course of history, not a mystical vision.

But these issue are not simply nakedly utilitarian, they’re also normative. If we crush the spirit to explore and unleash a touch of insanity, even in the face of misery, we crush the human spirit. We were the crazy apes who dreamed to cross the vast blue oceans. Only our ancestors settled Oceania and the New World. We do not stay at home. That is not in our nature. For some of us, to explore is part of who we are. Denying that aspect denies a filament of our being.

Addendum: I have noticed and unfortunate trend of some biologists to denigrate space science as a “waste of money.” That goes to show that even among scientists horizons and wonderment can be constrained by narrowness of vision and zero-sum psychology.

* Confucianism is reviving actually in response to prosperity.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
    []
  1. Anonymous says:

    “They were at the end of the line of economic growth as could be conceived by Adam Smith’s model.” I don’t think Adam Smith thought anything of the kind. Where did he assert that economic growth would eventually approach some ceiling asymptotically?

    Read More
    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    first, stop posting as "anonymous." i won't post future comments. second, what i'm alluding to is that trucking & bartering results in gains in wealth, but eventually it will reach diminishing marginal returns. the end of growth is more of a ricardo period idea from what i know, but i was alluding to the fact that smith's model had long term limitations in terms of what could be squeezed out of the factors of production.
    , @Razib Khan
    i'm talking about smithian growth fwiw http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/4623921/formal-outline-smithian-growth-model
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc.
    AgreeDisagreeLOLTroll
    These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Troll, or LOL with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used once per hour.
    Sharing Comment via Twitter
    /gnxp/blue-sky-and-brown-earth-look-to-the-red-planet/#comment-959752
    More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
  2. @Anonymous
    "They were at the end of the line of economic growth as could be conceived by Adam Smith’s model." I don't think Adam Smith thought anything of the kind. Where did he assert that economic growth would eventually approach some ceiling asymptotically?

    first, stop posting as “anonymous.” i won’t post future comments. second, what i’m alluding to is that trucking & bartering results in gains in wealth, but eventually it will reach diminishing marginal returns. the end of growth is more of a ricardo period idea from what i know, but i was alluding to the fact that smith’s model had long term limitations in terms of what could be squeezed out of the factors of production.

    Read More
  3. @Anonymous
    "They were at the end of the line of economic growth as could be conceived by Adam Smith’s model." I don't think Adam Smith thought anything of the kind. Where did he assert that economic growth would eventually approach some ceiling asymptotically?
    Read More
  4. Immigrant from former USSR [AKA "Florida Resident"] says:

    Dear Mr. Khan:
    You wrote
    “When you explore more of the parameter space you are likely to find novel optima which you would otherwise never have arrived upon.”

    It would be nice if you state,
    what is the function (or functional), whose “novel optima” do you assume.
    To the best of my _very_limited_ understanding of evolution, it is the number of offspring in many generations. I do not put any moral aspect into that (poor) understanding.

    I know that you thought a lot about philosophical questions, while humble me never did. That is why I am so interested to learn your opinion.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    science:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_landscape#In_evolutionary_optimization

    my point is that if you have a utilitarian outcome of reducing poverty, short-term thinking can keep you "stuck" at a lower optimum then allowing for some level of random exploration of the search space. this is now a lot of phylogenetic programs work now. they jump around the search space a bit even if they have climbed to the top of the hill because there might be other hills that they missed out on....
  5. @Immigrant from former USSR
    Dear Mr. Khan:
    You wrote
    "When you explore more of the parameter space you are likely to find novel optima which you would otherwise never have arrived upon."

    It would be nice if you state,
    what is the function (or functional), whose "novel optima" do you assume.
    To the best of my _very_limited_ understanding of evolution, it is the number of offspring in many generations. I do not put any moral aspect into that (poor) understanding.

    I know that you thought a lot about philosophical questions, while humble me never did. That is why I am so interested to learn your opinion.

    science:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_landscape#In_evolutionary_optimization

    my point is that if you have a utilitarian outcome of reducing poverty, short-term thinking can keep you “stuck” at a lower optimum then allowing for some level of random exploration of the search space. this is now a lot of phylogenetic programs work now. they jump around the search space a bit even if they have climbed to the top of the hill because there might be other hills that they missed out on….

    Read More
    • Replies: @Immigrant from former USSR
    Thank you for your clear response.
    This is what I found in the Wikipedia reference kindly provided by you:

    "In evolutionary biology, fitness landscapes or adaptive landscapes (types of Evolutionary landscapes) are used to visualize the relationship between genotypes and reproductive success. It is assumed that every genotype has a well-defined replication rate (often referred to as fitness)."

    So yes, the function, whose optimization is discussed,
    is "reproductive success", "replication rate".

  6. Immigrant from former USSR [AKA "Florida Resident"] says:
    @Razib Khan
    science:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitness_landscape#In_evolutionary_optimization

    my point is that if you have a utilitarian outcome of reducing poverty, short-term thinking can keep you "stuck" at a lower optimum then allowing for some level of random exploration of the search space. this is now a lot of phylogenetic programs work now. they jump around the search space a bit even if they have climbed to the top of the hill because there might be other hills that they missed out on....

    Thank you for your clear response.
    This is what I found in the Wikipedia reference kindly provided by you:

    “In evolutionary biology, fitness landscapes or adaptive landscapes (types of Evolutionary landscapes) are used to visualize the relationship between genotypes and reproductive success. It is assumed that every genotype has a well-defined replication rate (often referred to as fitness).”

    So yes, the function, whose optimization is discussed,
    is “reproductive success”, “replication rate”.

    Read More
  7. Jim W says:

    I agree with the broader point in favor of space exploration. However, the original article is talking about putting flesh and blood human beings on Mars. That is completely insane. Supporting biological life forms in outer space probably adds a couple orders of magnitude to the expense, and for what?

    The point of space exploration is discovery, which can be done much more efficiently by sending autonomous sensors into space. Developing robots for space exploration will provide added impetus to AI research, which is the proper direction for future technology development.

    The real question is: will we wast 100s of billions of dollars with human exploration before we give up and leave it to the robots, or will we use foresight to do it right in the first place? I think the problem people have with this issue is applying an inappropriate analogy of space exploration to the age of oceanic exploration with sailing ships.

    Read More
  8. Razib,

    Here you have thoroughly articulated and successfully argued something I have felt strongly since my childhood in the heyday of the Apollo Program.

    Now, unmanned exploration is the way to go at this point, but the spirit is the same.

    Thank you,

    Fellow Space Nerd
    Eagerly looking forward to New Horizons’ encounter with Pluto in a few weeks

    Read More
  9. Brett says:

    I remember coming across an interesting essay that talked about Chinese growth versus growth back in Europe, and particularly Great Britain. It hit some similar points, about how China by the late 18th century had essentially reached a “peak” in terms of prosperity for its technology, after waves of expansion into new lands, interconnection with the greater world economy, and the absorption of technology and new crops – but didn’t ultimately have the capability to push beyond that. It also talked about ideology and empiricism in western Science, and particularly how Great Britain developed a kind of “engine-science” that fused philosophy, science, and empirical learning across barriers between scholars and craftsmen.

    In any case, I agree with your broader point. We need long-shots if we want to progress further, and more importantly we have an itch for them – even if we didn’t have NASA and how it is, we’d probably have people inching into space on private and public money. The “poverty” argument in general rings false for me because you could make the argument about any kind of investments or savings – you’ll always find more short-term consumption you could or need to be spending money on now if you go looking.

    Addendum: I have noticed and unfortunate trend of some biologists to denigrate space science as a “waste of money.” That goes to show that even among scientists horizons and wonderment can be constrained by narrowness of vision and zero-sum psychology.

    That’s a pity. I think you can make a good argument that the particular program NASA is doing for manned exploration is a waste of money. They’re spending about $30-40 billion (not including any beyond-Low Earth Orbit missions) to build a rocket that won’t do anything more than Elon Musk’s rockets can do for a fraction of the cost until the 2030s, maybe. It’d probably be cheaper just to give Musk & Company a commitment of $30 billion over ten years and say, “Do a mission to Mars orbit with this”.

    EDIT: Sorry, for some reason it put the link in CAPLOCKS. I don’t know why and can’t fix it.

    Read More
  10. E. Harding says: • Website

    I don’t think Adam Smith thought anything of the kind. Where did he assert that economic growth would eventually approach some ceiling asymptotically?

    -Well, he did. In exactly the same context Razib was talking about in this post:

    In a country which had acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its soil and climate, and its situation with respect to other countries, allowed it to acquire, which could, therefore, advance no further, and which was not going backwards, both the wages of labour and the profits of stock would probably be very low. In a country fully peopled in proportion to what either its territory could maintain, or its stock employ, the competition for employment would necessarily be so great as to reduce the wages of labour to what was barely sufficient to keep up the number of labourers, and the country being already fully peopled, that number could never be augmented. In a country fully stocked in proportion to all the business it had to transact, as great a quantity of stock would be employed in every particular branch as the nature and extent of the trade would admit. The competition, therefore, would everywhere be as great, and, consequently, the ordinary profit as low as possible.

    But, perhaps, no country has ever yet arrived at this degree of opulence. China seems to have been long stationary, and had, probably, long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is consistent with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature of its soil, climate, and situation, might admit of.

    Of course, as the Chinese population was apparently rapidly increasing in Smith’s day (though becoming more rural), he was wrong about China being “long stationary”. But he really did hold the ideas Razib ascribes to Ricardo and Malthus about the “end of history”.

    Read More
  11. Twinkie says:

    I have three thoughts regarding this post:

    1. First, I agree with Mr. Khan wholeheartedly. And on top of the rational aspects of the “pro-space” argument, the pursuit of space exploration also appeals to the romantic side of my nature. I think the “romance of exploring the unknown” in the popular imagination should not be discounted in its ability to move mountains, so to speak.

    2. The comparison of the West (abstract) and China (pragmatic) is compelling. I would add that the contrast was not simply scientific-philosophical, but physical as well. Specifically, a number of Western princes embraced physical (maritime and colonial) exploration into terra incognita, which was “hair-brained” and costly in the short term, but produced enormous military, political, and economic dividends later on. In contrast, the Chinese had the capacity to engage in similar explorations and did so to some extent (Admiral Zheng He) before “The Rise of the West,” but in the end turned away from it, because its agrarian elites considered such ventures costly and impractical vanity projects.

    3. Now for the “devil’s advocate” argument. In my view, there is one significant problem with advocating for the pursuit of the abstract over that of more immediate pragmatic benefits – the uncertainty over who the beneficiaries will be. In the case of the pursuit of the pre-modern Chinese pragmatism, the advocates of such a course of action knew exactly who the beneficiaries of their policies would be – themselves or their children (or perhaps grandchildren); or, if not exactly themselves or their immediate kin, at the very least their countrymen.

    When we look at the historical advances of the West, we tend to treat the West as a continuous civilizational entity with a long shared history and commonality. But it can be argued that this is a retrospectively constructed identity more than an organic one, and that the inheritors of the Western scientific and exploratory advances as such are not in fact physical descendants of those who began them and bore the early risks.

    As an example, the English who created a maritime empire on which the sun never set were arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the tradition and the technological progress of the Western maritime exploration, but they were late arrivals to the game and took advantage of the initial investments and risks that other peoples such as the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese made and took. It is surely of little consolation, if any, to the descendants of Portuguese explorers and their financial backers that the people who stood on the shoulders of their forefathers and reaped the eventual fruits of their labor are not themselves but “at least fellow Westerners.”

    So while I am firmly on the side of Mr. Khan and others like him who advocate for the rationality of the pursuit of space exploration, I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    your 'devil's advocate' position may be even stronger. a compelling argument has been made that colonialism in most cases involved a transfer for resources from the nation as a whole to adventuring colonial elites. see belich's *replenishing the world* enterprises like the dutch and british east india companies often took on huge numbers of 'surplus' males, most of whom died without issue (at least legitimate european issue). the spanish case also often involved castilian sub-elites who 'made good' in the new world.

    in hindsight the western 'age of discovery' is glamorous, and prefigured the age of white supremacy. but the process itself was centuries long, and had many fits and starts (the portuguese lost much of their empire not to europeans, but to the omanis).

    the chinese retrenchment in the short/medium term, and the resulting "minimal state" that that allowed for, probably was much better for increasing the numbers and wealth of the peasants.

    , @Twinkie
    By the way, regarding the West vs. China comparison in terms of maritime exploration, I do wonder how much role religion and missionary fervor had in the risk-reward calculus of the respective elites.
    , @Numinous

    I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.
     
    That's a rather zero sum view of innovation and its impact on humanity, don't you think? Not everything is a Darwinian struggle for resources. Thanks to increasing connectivity over the past couple of centuries, scientific innovations spread very rapidly, benefiting everyone without hurting anyone (I'm of course generalizing, but I can't think of a recent major innovation that negatively impacted the innovators themselves.)

    As for space exploration, the case is rather easy to make. We live in a fragile ecosystem, and it's always good to have alternate "homes" to fall back on should calamity befall the earth. It provides potential benefits to all of humanity.
  12. ziel says: • Website

    It is surely of little consolation, if any, to the descendants of Portuguese explorers and their financial backers that the people who stood on the shoulders of their forefathers and reaped the eventual fruits of their labor are not themselves but “at least fellow Westerners.”

    Sure, but I’d argue they’re still better off for it. The wealth the Spanish and Portuguese extracted out of the New World was not sustainable, for the simple reason that it was extraction, not development. But the greater global wealth generated by the Americas since then surely has benefited Spain and Portugal today above what would have been the case had the English not laid the foundations in North America – don’t you think?

    Read More
    • Replies: @Twinkie

    But the greater global wealth generated by the Americas since then surely has benefited Spain and Portugal today above what would have been the case had the English not laid the foundations in North America – don’t you think?
     
    As an American patriot I happen to be a big booster of American exceptionalism, in the sense that my country is very special and that it has benefitted the world enormously, but even so, I have to say that there is no way to answer your question. All potential answers are HIGHLY speculative to say the least. Without an English America, who knows what'd have risen in its place?
  13. @Twinkie
    I have three thoughts regarding this post:

    1. First, I agree with Mr. Khan wholeheartedly. And on top of the rational aspects of the "pro-space" argument, the pursuit of space exploration also appeals to the romantic side of my nature. I think the "romance of exploring the unknown" in the popular imagination should not be discounted in its ability to move mountains, so to speak.

    2. The comparison of the West (abstract) and China (pragmatic) is compelling. I would add that the contrast was not simply scientific-philosophical, but physical as well. Specifically, a number of Western princes embraced physical (maritime and colonial) exploration into terra incognita, which was "hair-brained" and costly in the short term, but produced enormous military, political, and economic dividends later on. In contrast, the Chinese had the capacity to engage in similar explorations and did so to some extent (Admiral Zheng He) before "The Rise of the West," but in the end turned away from it, because its agrarian elites considered such ventures costly and impractical vanity projects.

    3. Now for the "devil's advocate" argument. In my view, there is one significant problem with advocating for the pursuit of the abstract over that of more immediate pragmatic benefits - the uncertainty over who the beneficiaries will be. In the case of the pursuit of the pre-modern Chinese pragmatism, the advocates of such a course of action knew exactly who the beneficiaries of their policies would be - themselves or their children (or perhaps grandchildren); or, if not exactly themselves or their immediate kin, at the very least their countrymen.

    When we look at the historical advances of the West, we tend to treat the West as a continuous civilizational entity with a long shared history and commonality. But it can be argued that this is a retrospectively constructed identity more than an organic one, and that the inheritors of the Western scientific and exploratory advances as such are not in fact physical descendants of those who began them and bore the early risks.

    As an example, the English who created a maritime empire on which the sun never set were arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the tradition and the technological progress of the Western maritime exploration, but they were late arrivals to the game and took advantage of the initial investments and risks that other peoples such as the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese made and took. It is surely of little consolation, if any, to the descendants of Portuguese explorers and their financial backers that the people who stood on the shoulders of their forefathers and reaped the eventual fruits of their labor are not themselves but "at least fellow Westerners."

    So while I am firmly on the side of Mr. Khan and others like him who advocate for the rationality of the pursuit of space exploration, I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.

    your ‘devil’s advocate’ position may be even stronger. a compelling argument has been made that colonialism in most cases involved a transfer for resources from the nation as a whole to adventuring colonial elites. see belich’s *replenishing the world* enterprises like the dutch and british east india companies often took on huge numbers of ‘surplus’ males, most of whom died without issue (at least legitimate european issue). the spanish case also often involved castilian sub-elites who ‘made good’ in the new world.

    in hindsight the western ‘age of discovery’ is glamorous, and prefigured the age of white supremacy. but the process itself was centuries long, and had many fits and starts (the portuguese lost much of their empire not to europeans, but to the omanis).

    the chinese retrenchment in the short/medium term, and the resulting “minimal state” that that allowed for, probably was much better for increasing the numbers and wealth of the peasants.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Twinkie

    a compelling argument has been made that colonialism in most cases involved a transfer for resources from the nation as a whole to adventuring colonial elites.
     
    Indeed. I forgot where I read it (it's been ages), but I recall reading about many British, as you put it so well, "adventuring colonial elites, serving in India and going home fairly wealthy and buying estates and - presto! - becoming gentlemen. The number of men involved was quite sizable, if memory serves me right, perhaps in the thousands or even more? I wish I can remember where I read it!

    And these were, by and large, not real elites back home, but those (often materially poor) who had some tenuous connection to the real elites either by marriage or distant kinship or due to prior service to the elites (manservants, NCOs or lower ranking officers, secretaries, etc.). Again, I don't remember the exact sum of money involved in purchase of the estates, but I do remember it being an enormous sum for the time.

    Even some of the very top British elites in the colonial world had fairly modest beginnings. Stamford Raffles had a poor family that could barely afford education for him (and Raffles was a clerk at the British East India Company as a young man) and even Robert Clive, despite his aristocratic origin, had a modest immediate background (his father had to *work* to earn income).
  14. notanon says:

    In my experience the people who make this argument are the same kind of people who continually redefine poverty as a relative condition so “fixing poverty” would be impossible by their ever changing definition of poverty anyway.

    Plus it’s not really a rational argument they just want to signal how much more they CARE.

    Sadly it does seem like they’ll (continue to) win in the west so the main hope is other places ban SJW immigrants.

    Read More
  15. Robert Ford says: • Website

    this argument always reminds me of people who say (with regard to animal rights) “i’m not worried about that until we have every last human taken care of.” At that point i usually end the discussion as quickly as possible…not even worth talking to someone like that.
    This particular manifestation of the “guilt trip” world view about poverty is equally as boring. When they say that all I hear is “hey, shouldn’t we feel guilty about stuff?”
    My friend and I were joking once about asking this poverty spending question to Elon Musk but he never answers because he’s in the middle of launching into outer space to live on another planet:) “WHAT? I CANT’ HEAR YOU OVER THE ROCKET NOISE”

    Read More
    • Replies: @Bill M
    But a lot of people have the same basic "guilt trip" world view with respect to animal rights. They prioritize animal rights over, for example, deforestation or some other non animal related issue.
  16. Twinkie says:
    @Razib Khan
    your 'devil's advocate' position may be even stronger. a compelling argument has been made that colonialism in most cases involved a transfer for resources from the nation as a whole to adventuring colonial elites. see belich's *replenishing the world* enterprises like the dutch and british east india companies often took on huge numbers of 'surplus' males, most of whom died without issue (at least legitimate european issue). the spanish case also often involved castilian sub-elites who 'made good' in the new world.

    in hindsight the western 'age of discovery' is glamorous, and prefigured the age of white supremacy. but the process itself was centuries long, and had many fits and starts (the portuguese lost much of their empire not to europeans, but to the omanis).

    the chinese retrenchment in the short/medium term, and the resulting "minimal state" that that allowed for, probably was much better for increasing the numbers and wealth of the peasants.

    a compelling argument has been made that colonialism in most cases involved a transfer for resources from the nation as a whole to adventuring colonial elites.

    Indeed. I forgot where I read it (it’s been ages), but I recall reading about many British, as you put it so well, “adventuring colonial elites, serving in India and going home fairly wealthy and buying estates and – presto! – becoming gentlemen. The number of men involved was quite sizable, if memory serves me right, perhaps in the thousands or even more? I wish I can remember where I read it!

    And these were, by and large, not real elites back home, but those (often materially poor) who had some tenuous connection to the real elites either by marriage or distant kinship or due to prior service to the elites (manservants, NCOs or lower ranking officers, secretaries, etc.). Again, I don’t remember the exact sum of money involved in purchase of the estates, but I do remember it being an enormous sum for the time.

    Even some of the very top British elites in the colonial world had fairly modest beginnings. Stamford Raffles had a poor family that could barely afford education for him (and Raffles was a clerk at the British East India Company as a young man) and even Robert Clive, despite his aristocratic origin, had a modest immediate background (his father had to *work* to earn income).

    Read More
  17. Twinkie says:
    @Twinkie
    I have three thoughts regarding this post:

    1. First, I agree with Mr. Khan wholeheartedly. And on top of the rational aspects of the "pro-space" argument, the pursuit of space exploration also appeals to the romantic side of my nature. I think the "romance of exploring the unknown" in the popular imagination should not be discounted in its ability to move mountains, so to speak.

    2. The comparison of the West (abstract) and China (pragmatic) is compelling. I would add that the contrast was not simply scientific-philosophical, but physical as well. Specifically, a number of Western princes embraced physical (maritime and colonial) exploration into terra incognita, which was "hair-brained" and costly in the short term, but produced enormous military, political, and economic dividends later on. In contrast, the Chinese had the capacity to engage in similar explorations and did so to some extent (Admiral Zheng He) before "The Rise of the West," but in the end turned away from it, because its agrarian elites considered such ventures costly and impractical vanity projects.

    3. Now for the "devil's advocate" argument. In my view, there is one significant problem with advocating for the pursuit of the abstract over that of more immediate pragmatic benefits - the uncertainty over who the beneficiaries will be. In the case of the pursuit of the pre-modern Chinese pragmatism, the advocates of such a course of action knew exactly who the beneficiaries of their policies would be - themselves or their children (or perhaps grandchildren); or, if not exactly themselves or their immediate kin, at the very least their countrymen.

    When we look at the historical advances of the West, we tend to treat the West as a continuous civilizational entity with a long shared history and commonality. But it can be argued that this is a retrospectively constructed identity more than an organic one, and that the inheritors of the Western scientific and exploratory advances as such are not in fact physical descendants of those who began them and bore the early risks.

    As an example, the English who created a maritime empire on which the sun never set were arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the tradition and the technological progress of the Western maritime exploration, but they were late arrivals to the game and took advantage of the initial investments and risks that other peoples such as the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese made and took. It is surely of little consolation, if any, to the descendants of Portuguese explorers and their financial backers that the people who stood on the shoulders of their forefathers and reaped the eventual fruits of their labor are not themselves but "at least fellow Westerners."

    So while I am firmly on the side of Mr. Khan and others like him who advocate for the rationality of the pursuit of space exploration, I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.

    By the way, regarding the West vs. China comparison in terms of maritime exploration, I do wonder how much role religion and missionary fervor had in the risk-reward calculus of the respective elites.

    Read More
  18. Mercer says:

    “maritime exploration, I do wonder how much role religion”

    I think religion had a minor role at best for the European explorers. Getting direct access to Asian spices was the big motivation spurring Portugal and Spain.

    Read More
  19. Twinkie says:
    @ziel
    It is surely of little consolation, if any, to the descendants of Portuguese explorers and their financial backers that the people who stood on the shoulders of their forefathers and reaped the eventual fruits of their labor are not themselves but “at least fellow Westerners.”

    Sure, but I'd argue they're still better off for it. The wealth the Spanish and Portuguese extracted out of the New World was not sustainable, for the simple reason that it was extraction, not development. But the greater global wealth generated by the Americas since then surely has benefited Spain and Portugal today above what would have been the case had the English not laid the foundations in North America - don't you think?

    But the greater global wealth generated by the Americas since then surely has benefited Spain and Portugal today above what would have been the case had the English not laid the foundations in North America – don’t you think?

    As an American patriot I happen to be a big booster of American exceptionalism, in the sense that my country is very special and that it has benefitted the world enormously, but even so, I have to say that there is no way to answer your question. All potential answers are HIGHLY speculative to say the least. Without an English America, who knows what’d have risen in its place?

    Read More
  20. Numinous says:
    @Twinkie
    I have three thoughts regarding this post:

    1. First, I agree with Mr. Khan wholeheartedly. And on top of the rational aspects of the "pro-space" argument, the pursuit of space exploration also appeals to the romantic side of my nature. I think the "romance of exploring the unknown" in the popular imagination should not be discounted in its ability to move mountains, so to speak.

    2. The comparison of the West (abstract) and China (pragmatic) is compelling. I would add that the contrast was not simply scientific-philosophical, but physical as well. Specifically, a number of Western princes embraced physical (maritime and colonial) exploration into terra incognita, which was "hair-brained" and costly in the short term, but produced enormous military, political, and economic dividends later on. In contrast, the Chinese had the capacity to engage in similar explorations and did so to some extent (Admiral Zheng He) before "The Rise of the West," but in the end turned away from it, because its agrarian elites considered such ventures costly and impractical vanity projects.

    3. Now for the "devil's advocate" argument. In my view, there is one significant problem with advocating for the pursuit of the abstract over that of more immediate pragmatic benefits - the uncertainty over who the beneficiaries will be. In the case of the pursuit of the pre-modern Chinese pragmatism, the advocates of such a course of action knew exactly who the beneficiaries of their policies would be - themselves or their children (or perhaps grandchildren); or, if not exactly themselves or their immediate kin, at the very least their countrymen.

    When we look at the historical advances of the West, we tend to treat the West as a continuous civilizational entity with a long shared history and commonality. But it can be argued that this is a retrospectively constructed identity more than an organic one, and that the inheritors of the Western scientific and exploratory advances as such are not in fact physical descendants of those who began them and bore the early risks.

    As an example, the English who created a maritime empire on which the sun never set were arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the tradition and the technological progress of the Western maritime exploration, but they were late arrivals to the game and took advantage of the initial investments and risks that other peoples such as the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese made and took. It is surely of little consolation, if any, to the descendants of Portuguese explorers and their financial backers that the people who stood on the shoulders of their forefathers and reaped the eventual fruits of their labor are not themselves but "at least fellow Westerners."

    So while I am firmly on the side of Mr. Khan and others like him who advocate for the rationality of the pursuit of space exploration, I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.

    I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.

    That’s a rather zero sum view of innovation and its impact on humanity, don’t you think? Not everything is a Darwinian struggle for resources. Thanks to increasing connectivity over the past couple of centuries, scientific innovations spread very rapidly, benefiting everyone without hurting anyone (I’m of course generalizing, but I can’t think of a recent major innovation that negatively impacted the innovators themselves.)

    As for space exploration, the case is rather easy to make. We live in a fragile ecosystem, and it’s always good to have alternate “homes” to fall back on should calamity befall the earth. It provides potential benefits to all of humanity.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Twinkie

    That’s a rather zero sum view of innovation and its impact on humanity, don’t you think? Not everything is a Darwinian struggle for resources.
     
    My caution is neither necessarily zero sum nor Darwinian. Merely that long term investment into the abstract or the unknown may not benefit the descendants of those who make the said investment. So such investment should be made prudently and efficaciously (otherwise, as Mr. Khan pointed out, there may be more immediate value transfer from the whole country to a narrow sector of the society, even setting aside the later possibility of benefitting the grandchildren of our present rivals).

    As I wrote earlier, I stand firmly with the pro-space exploration side. I love my country greatly. But some things are beyond kin and country. The long-term fate of humanity is one such thing, in my view, something I suspect is shared by others (but obviously not all). And I think space exploration is inexorably tied to the long-term fate of humanity (or at least the romantic in me would like to think so). And even "failed" efforts in space exploration may produce substantial technological benefits for the society and even the world at large.

    Or maybe I watched "Star Trek" too much growing up and is merely rationalizing my conditioning!

  21. Clathrus says:

    I just love the idea of making another world an abode for life. Most significant advance for biology since the Cambrian explosion, some have said. Not sure I’d put it in quite those terms.

    Read More
  22. Its on questions like this that I feel a bit split. I’m not a leftist complaining that funding space exploration leaves less of the government pie to spend on fixing all the world’s miseries. Rather, I believe government should be at its smallest because I want to take as little as possible from citizens so they can spend it in pursuit of their own individual goals. This conflicts with the fact that I like the idea of exploration and also believe that permanent space colonization would probably have to be funded by governments. There aren’t imminent profits to be made for the private sector to do it and I also don’t think there’s enough gloriously eccentric billionaires like Musk to take on the task through voluntarily funds. I think Twinkie’s concerns are particularly pertinent with regards to terraforming. Because it would take so long, terraforming would seem nuts for any country to invest in it. Whose to say your country would still exist when the project is complete? From the point of view of an average citizen, I would be pissed to have the fruits of my labor spent to benefit people (lets be optimistic) 500 years from now. Essentially money would be going to people as alien to me as people in Columbus’s time are. I think governments essentially should exist to benefit the people paying for them. They certainly shouldn’t do so to the detriment of future generations (which is one of the reasons I hate Social Security and have mild worries about climate change), but going in the opposite direction seems immoral as well. Unless you see it as a counterbalance to our current consumption of resources, which I could see as a fair argument. But first you would have to convince me that a) my current consumption is to the detriment of future generations (i.e., their economies require the same things, 500 years ago who woulda thunk petroleum would be important) and b) our 500 year plan will work. Neither seems answerable.

    Read More
  23. Twinkie says:
    @Numinous

    I would also caution them that our investments and efforts in this uncertain endeavor may one day be reaped by not our grandchildren but those of our competitors and rivals.
     
    That's a rather zero sum view of innovation and its impact on humanity, don't you think? Not everything is a Darwinian struggle for resources. Thanks to increasing connectivity over the past couple of centuries, scientific innovations spread very rapidly, benefiting everyone without hurting anyone (I'm of course generalizing, but I can't think of a recent major innovation that negatively impacted the innovators themselves.)

    As for space exploration, the case is rather easy to make. We live in a fragile ecosystem, and it's always good to have alternate "homes" to fall back on should calamity befall the earth. It provides potential benefits to all of humanity.

    That’s a rather zero sum view of innovation and its impact on humanity, don’t you think? Not everything is a Darwinian struggle for resources.

    My caution is neither necessarily zero sum nor Darwinian. Merely that long term investment into the abstract or the unknown may not benefit the descendants of those who make the said investment. So such investment should be made prudently and efficaciously (otherwise, as Mr. Khan pointed out, there may be more immediate value transfer from the whole country to a narrow sector of the society, even setting aside the later possibility of benefitting the grandchildren of our present rivals).

    As I wrote earlier, I stand firmly with the pro-space exploration side. I love my country greatly. But some things are beyond kin and country. The long-term fate of humanity is one such thing, in my view, something I suspect is shared by others (but obviously not all). And I think space exploration is inexorably tied to the long-term fate of humanity (or at least the romantic in me would like to think so). And even “failed” efforts in space exploration may produce substantial technological benefits for the society and even the world at large.

    Or maybe I watched “Star Trek” too much growing up and is merely rationalizing my conditioning!

    Read More
  24. M says:

    Re: the Chinese syste being deeply humanistic and civilian in its orientation and links between this and “Every unit of production was being squeezed that could be squeezed by traditional means agriculture and trade between regions to maximize comparative advantage.”

    Wasn’t there a strong contrast where this really was not true in Japan (not a civilian government rather a military-aristocratic one, strongly Buddhist and Shinto in its orientation) and yet that place ended up at pretty much exactly the same levels of population density and “tightness” in its Malthusian economy before the Industrial Revolution? So perhaps this element of the Chinese tradition was not actually so important here in determining their material circumstances.

    Read More
  25. Twinkie says:

    Wasn’t there a strong contrast where this really was not true in Japan (not a civilian government rather a military-aristocratic one, strongly Buddhist and Shinto in its orientation) and yet that place ended up at pretty much exactly the same levels of population density and “tightness” in its Malthusian economy before the Industrial Revolution?

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. China = civilian/Confucian vs. Japan = military-aristocratic/Buddhist/Shinto is, in my view, a false dichotomy. Although the religious milieu in Japan was different from that in China or Korea, Japan was still powerfully influenced by both Confucianism and Chinese culture in general.

    2. However, I do not think that the second part of your paragraph necessarily holds. A while back, I read a study of Japanese elites during the Sengoku Jidai and the Tokugawa period. What struck me about that particular study was that the Japanese elites had an unexpectedly high lifespan for their time period *and* a surprisingly low rate of fertility. If true, this likely had a very different consequence than what others have theorized about demographic conditions in China.

    Read More
  26. M says:

    @ Twinkie: Sure, Of course, and likewise Taoism and Buddhism are not negligible influences in Chinese thought. I don’t propose a total cultural dichotomy where the Japanese culture was uninfluenced by Confucianism. I’m really using it as a prod to see how strongly Razib really believes in an deep or ancient ideological divergence between the Chinese tradition and the Western tradition in leading to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions versus the so called “High Level Equilibrium” (I don’t really believe that.). As there is a certain divergence in political structures here.

    Re: the other part of your post, I haven’t heard of any contrast in how Malthusian the demography was in Japan vs China, do you want to expand on this?

    Read More
    • Replies: @Twinkie

    Re: the other part of your post, I haven’t heard of any contrast in how Malthusian the demography was in Japan vs China, do you want to expand on this?
     
    I am not a demographer so I am by no means an expert on this (I was a military historian), but my impression of Chinese elites is that they had multiple wives/concubines and produced a lot of progeny, who likely replaced the constantly starving peasants with low fertility, in each generation. I think Ron Unz proposed this more coherently as a theory that explains high Chinese IQ (high fertility elites replacing low fertility peasants after generations of the comparative fertility advantage).

    When, years ago, I read a study about the Japanese elites during the Sengoku Jidai and the Tokugawa era, I found to my great surprise that 1) Japanese elites lived very long - it was not uncommon for some of them to die in their 70's or 80's, provided they did not perish in battle or had to commit seppuku (or unlucky enough to catch "consumption"). Even more surprising, I found that these elites usually had very few sons, often just one or two (and not infrequently none, leading to adoptions from lesser branches or allies). I would imagine with that level of fertility, the lesser scions of elites would not come to replace the much more numerous peasants (who probably did pretty well once the country was united under Tokugawa and didn't have to suffer the effects of massive civil wars).
  27. Twinkie says:
    @M
    @ Twinkie: Sure, Of course, and likewise Taoism and Buddhism are not negligible influences in Chinese thought. I don't propose a total cultural dichotomy where the Japanese culture was uninfluenced by Confucianism. I'm really using it as a prod to see how strongly Razib really believes in an deep or ancient ideological divergence between the Chinese tradition and the Western tradition in leading to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions versus the so called "High Level Equilibrium" (I don't really believe that.). As there is a certain divergence in political structures here.

    Re: the other part of your post, I haven't heard of any contrast in how Malthusian the demography was in Japan vs China, do you want to expand on this?

    Re: the other part of your post, I haven’t heard of any contrast in how Malthusian the demography was in Japan vs China, do you want to expand on this?

    I am not a demographer so I am by no means an expert on this (I was a military historian), but my impression of Chinese elites is that they had multiple wives/concubines and produced a lot of progeny, who likely replaced the constantly starving peasants with low fertility, in each generation. I think Ron Unz proposed this more coherently as a theory that explains high Chinese IQ (high fertility elites replacing low fertility peasants after generations of the comparative fertility advantage).

    When, years ago, I read a study about the Japanese elites during the Sengoku Jidai and the Tokugawa era, I found to my great surprise that 1) Japanese elites lived very long – it was not uncommon for some of them to die in their 70′s or 80′s, provided they did not perish in battle or had to commit seppuku (or unlucky enough to catch “consumption”). Even more surprising, I found that these elites usually had very few sons, often just one or two (and not infrequently none, leading to adoptions from lesser branches or allies). I would imagine with that level of fertility, the lesser scions of elites would not come to replace the much more numerous peasants (who probably did pretty well once the country was united under Tokugawa and didn’t have to suffer the effects of massive civil wars).

    Read More
  28. Bill M says:
    @Robert Ford
    this argument always reminds me of people who say (with regard to animal rights) "i'm not worried about that until we have every last human taken care of." At that point i usually end the discussion as quickly as possible...not even worth talking to someone like that.
    This particular manifestation of the "guilt trip" world view about poverty is equally as boring. When they say that all I hear is "hey, shouldn't we feel guilty about stuff?"
    My friend and I were joking once about asking this poverty spending question to Elon Musk but he never answers because he's in the middle of launching into outer space to live on another planet:) "WHAT? I CANT' HEAR YOU OVER THE ROCKET NOISE"

    But a lot of people have the same basic “guilt trip” world view with respect to animal rights. They prioritize animal rights over, for example, deforestation or some other non animal related issue.

    Read More

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to This Comment Thread via RSS Subscribe to All Razib Khan Comments via RSS
PastClassics
What Was John McCain's True Wartime Record in Vietnam?
The unspoken statistical reality of urban crime over the last quarter century.
The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.