Tag Archives: Farmer

The Up Side Of Down

In her new book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle takes some time to discuss forager vs. farmer attitudes toward risk.

Forager food sources tended to be more risky and variable, while farmer food sources are more reliable. So foragers emphasized food sharing more, and a tolerate attitude toward failure to find food. In contrast, farmers shared food less and held individuals responsible more for getting their food. We’ve even seen the same people switch from one attitude to the other as they switched from foraging to farming. Today some people and places tend more toward farmer values of strict personal responsibility, while other people and places tend more toward forager forgiveness.

McArdle’s book is interesting throughout. For example, she talks about how felons on parole are dealt with much better via frequent reliable small punishments, relative to infrequent random big punishments. But when it comes to bankruptcy law, a situation where the law can’t help but wait a long time to respond to an accumulation of small failures, McArdle favors forager forgiveness. She points out that this tends to encourage folks who start new businesses, which encourages more innovation. And this does indeed seem to be a good thing.

Folks who start new businesses are pretty rare, however, and it is less obvious to me that more leniency is good overall. It is not obvious that ordinary people today face more risk than did most farmers during the farming era. The US apparently has the most lenient bankruptcy law in the world, and that is indeed some evidence for its value. However, it seems to me more likely that US forager forgiveness was caused by US wealth than vice versa. McArdle says the US got lenient bankruptcy in the late 1800s via lobbying by senators representing western farmers in debt to eastern banks. And it is even harder to see how farming in the US west then was more risky than has been farming throughout the whole farming era.

Most likely what changed was the wealth of US farmers, and their new uppity attitudes toward rich elites. This fits with debt-forgiveness being a common liberal theme, which fits with liberal attitudes being more forager-like, and becoming more common as rising wealth cut the fear that made farmers. If lenient bankrupts is actually better for growth in our world, this would be another example of Caplan’s idea trap, where rising wealth happens to create better attitudes toward good policy.

Overall I found it very hard to disagree with anything that McArdle said in her book. If you know me, that is quite some praise. :)

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Imagining Futures Past

Our past can be summarized as a sequence of increasingly fast eras: animals, foragers, farmers, industry. Foragers grew by a factor of about four hundred over two million years, farmers grew by a factor of about two hundred over ten thousand years, and the industry economy has so far grown by a factor of about eight hundred over three hundred years. If this trend continues then before this era grows by another factor of a thousand, our economy should transition to another even faster growing era.

I saw the latest Star Trek movie today. It struck me yet again that such stories, set two centuries in our future, imagine a unlikely continuation of industry era styles, trends, and growth rates. At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period. Yet their cities, homes, workplaces, etc. look quite recognizably industrial, and quite distinct from either farmer or forager era styles. The main ways their world is different from ours is in continuing industry era trends, such as to richer and healthier individuals, and to more centralized government.

While this seems unlikely, it does make sense as a way to engage the audiences of today. But it leads me to wonder: what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?

For example, imagine that the industrial revolution had never happened, and that the farming era had continued for another ten thousand years, leading to more than today’s world population, mostly farming at subsistence incomes within farmer-era social institutions. Oh there’d be a lot of sci/tech advances, just not creating much industry. Perhaps they’d farm the oceans and skies, and have melted the poles. Following farmer era trends, there’d be less violence, and longer term planning horizons. There’d be a lot more thoughtful writings, but without much intellectual specialization having arisen. Towns and firms would also still be small and less specialized.

Or, imagine that the farming revolution had never happened, but that foragers had continued to advance for another two million years, also reaching a population like today. They’d still live in small wandering bands collecting wild food, but in a much wider range of environments. Maybe they’d forage the seas and the skies. Their brains would be bigger, their tools more advanced, and their culture of participatory dance, music, and stories far more elaborate.

These sound like fascinating worlds to imagine, and would make good object lessons as well. Our future may be as different from the world of Star Trek as these imagined worlds would be from our world today.

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A City Is A Village Of Villages

There have been three major eras of human history: foraging, farming, and industry. During each era our economy has grown at a roughly steady exponential rate, and I’ve written before about some intriguing patterns in these growth eras: eras encompassed a similar number of doublings (~7-10), transitions between eras were much shorter than prior doubling times, and such transitions encompassed a similar number of growth rate doublings (~6-8). I’ve also noted that transition-induced inequality seems to have fallen over time.

I just noticed another intriguing pattern, this time in community sizes. Today in industrial societies roughly half of the population lives in metropolitan areas with between one hundred thousand and ten million people, with a mid size of about a million. While good data seems hard to find, during the farming era most people seem to have lived in communities (usually centered around a village) of between roughly three hundred and three thousand people, with a mid size of about a thousand. Foragers typically lived in mobile bands of size roughly twenty to fifty, with a best size of about thirty.

So community sizes went roughly from thirty to a thousand to a million. The pattern here is that each new era had a typical community size that was roughly the square of the size during the previous era. That is, a city is roughly a village of villages, and a village is roughly a band of bands. We could extend this patter further if we liked, saying that an extended family group has about four to eight members, with a mid size of six, so that a band is a family of families. (We might even go further and say that a family is a couple of couples, where a couple has two or so members.)

If previous growth patterns were to continue, I’ve written before that a new growth era might appear sometime in roughly the next century, and over a few years the economy would transition to a new growth rate of doubling every week to month. If this newly-noticed community size pattern were to continue, the new era would have communities of size roughly a trillion, perhaps ranging from ten billion to a hundred trillion.

Admittedly, after a year or two of this new era, things might change again, to yet another era. And the growth and community size trends couldn’t both continue to that next era, since a community size of a trillion trillion would require much more than twenty doublings of growth. So these trends clearly have to break down at some point.

I’ve been exploring a particular scenario for this new era: it might be enabled and dominated by brain emulations, or “ems.” Interestingly, I had already estimated an em community size of roughly a trillion based on other considerations. Ems could take up much less physical space than do humans, and since ems could visit each other in virtual reality without moving physically, em community sizes would be less limited by travel congestion costs.

So what should one call a city of cities of a trillion souls? A “world”?

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