Tag Archives: Industry

Closer Horizons

A few curious folks took 250 science fiction stories across thirteen decades and looked at whether the stories were set <50 , 50 to 500, or >500 years in the future. The long term trend is that fewer stories are set in the more distant future:

(Given the small dataset, I wouldn’t take decade to decade fluctuations seriously.)

Some of this effect is probably our expecting faster rates of change, and so any given amount of strangeness is expected to arrive sooner. But I’d guess most of this effect is that we are just less interested in the distant future.

Early in the industrial revolution people were very aware of there being in a great transition, from farming to industry, and they were curious about where it all might lead. Now that we are well into the industrial era, we have a better sense for what industry is like, and are less concerned about there maybe being a new post-industrial era.

Added 1p: I did a regression of their fraction of >500 year stories vs. time, and the relation is 2% significant for both linear and log versions of the fraction. There is enough data here to see this effect. Also, both the linear and log versions of the <50 year fraction are 5% significant.

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The Great “Charity” Storm

Around 1800 in England and Russia, the three main do-gooder activities were medicine, school, and alms (= food/shelter for the weak, such as the old or crippled). Today the three spending categories of medicine, school, and alms make up ~40% of US GDP, a far larger fraction than in 1800. Why the vast increase?

My explanation: we long ago evolved strong feelings of respect for these activities, but modern context changes have allowed out-of-equilibrium exploitation of such feelings. Details:

1. Foragers who personally taught kids, cared for sick folks, and gave food/shelter to weak folks, credibly signaled their loyalty to allies, at least when such needy were allies. Weak group selection helped encourage such aid as ways to signal loyalty, in place of other possible loyalty signals. Humans eventually evolved deep feelings of respect for such activities.

2. Farmers inherited such feelings, and thus also gave social credit to those who donated money instead of time to promote these three classic charities. Rich farmer elites felt this more strongly, as they had more forager style attitudes. As such donations were less observable than forager help, farmer donors had weaker incentives to help. Also, the indirection often resulted in money being spend badly.

3. Industry era folk also inherited such feelings, strengthened by wealth. Voters today get social credit for supporting tax-funded activities that look similar to the three classic charities: medicine, school, alms — even though one can fake such signals without having the loyalty that such signals are seen as showing. That is, votes supporting spending taxes on medicine, school and alms are interpreted as showing loyal “caring” for one’s community, even though most of this spending is on typical voters, not those in special need, and even though one person’s vote doesn’t change outcomes. And even if a vote did change outcomes, paying via taxes doesn’t sacrifice personal income relative to local rivals, making this signal mostly “cheap talk.” Indirection continues to hurt effectiveness. All this creates a perfect storm of vast voter support for tax-funded medicine, school, and alms. So we can all feel fantastic about how caring we all are. Yeah us.

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Rome As Semi-Foragers

It seems that an “almost” industrial revolution happened around 500BC. For example, this graph of estimated world population shows a population jump then similar to the start of the ~1800 jump. Also, consider this brief history of the Roman Empire:

~5 century BC: Roman civilization is a strong patriarchy, fathers … have absolute authority over the family.
~1 century BC: … Material wealth is astounding, … Romans enjoy the arts … democracy, commerce, science, human rights, animal rights, children rights and women become emancipated. No-fault divorce is enacted, and quickly becomes popular by the end of the century.
~1-2 century AD: … Men refuse to marry and the government tries to revive marriage with a “bachelor tax”, to no avail. … Roman women show little interest in raising their own children and frequently use nannies. The wealth and power of women grows very fast, while men become increasingly demotivated and engage in prostitution and vice. Prostitution and homosexuality become widespread.
~3-4 century AD: … Roman population declines due to below-replacement birth-rate. Vice and massive corruption are rampant. (more; HT Roissy)

Yes this exaggerates, but the key point remains: a sudden burst in productivity and wealth lead to big cultural changes that made the Greek-Roman world and its cultural descendants more forager-like than the rest of the farmer world. These changes helped clear the way for big cultural changes of the industrial revolution.

These cultural changes included not more political egalitarianism, but also more forager like attitudes toward alchohol and mating:

Historically, we find a correlation between the shift from polygyny to monogamy and the growth of alcohol consumption. Cross-culturally we also find that monogamous societies consume more alcohol than polygynous societies in the preindustrial world. … Studies find a positive relationship between alcohol use on the one hand and a more promiscuous and high-risk sexual behavior on the other hand. … The Greek and Roman empires … were the only (and first) to introduce formal monogamy. … Hunting tribes drink more than agricultural and settled tribes. … Hunting tribes … have more monogamous marriage arrangements than agricultural tribes. …

The emergence of socially imposed formal monogamy in Greece coincides with (a) the growth of “chattel slavery” (where men can have sex with female slaves) and (b) the extension of political rights. … The industrial revolution played a key role in the shift from formal to effective monogamy and in the sharp increase of alcohol consumption (more; HT Tyler)

This roughly fits my simple story: forager to farmer and back to forager with industry. The key is to see monogomous marraige as an intermediate form between low-commitment feeling-based forager mating, and wives-as-property-for-live farmer polygamy. Let me explain.

Forager work and mating is more intuitive, less institutional. Mates stay together mainly because they feel like it; there is more an open compeition to seduce mates, and there’s a lot of sneaking around. Foragers drink alchohol when they can, and spontaneous feelings count for more relative to formal commitments. The attitude is more that if you can’t hold her interest, you don’t deserve to keep her. Men show off abilities to obtain resources mainly to signal attractive qualities; most resources acquired must be shared with the rest of the band.

Farmers, in contrast, don’t share much, and are far more unequal in the resources they control, by which they can more directly “buy” wives. Farmer wives so bought are supposed to be committed to their husbands even when they don’t feel like it. Marriage was less about mutal attraction and more about building households and clans. Husbands worry about cheating wives, and so try to limit access and temptations, which includes alchohol. Musicians and artists are also suspect if they excite wives’ passions, which might lead to cheating.

When empires like Greece and Rome achieved sustained periods of prosperity, their elites reverted to more forager-like ways. They had more drinking and art, more egalitarian politics, fertility fell, and [non-slave] mating became more egalitarian and about feelings. If a bit of alchohol was enough to get your wife cheat to on you, well maybe you didn’t deserve her. The Greek-Roman move from polygamy to monogamy was a move in the direction of more forager-like feeling-based mating, though it retained farmer-like lifelong commitment.

The Greeks and Romans became models for Europe when industry made it rich again. In our era, fertility has fallen far, divorce and out-of-wedlock births are common, and alchohol, drugs, and sneaking about are more tolerated. Women need men less for their resources, and choose them more on other grounds. Dropping the lifelong commitment element of marriage, and often the expectation of any sort of marriage commitment, we have moved even further away from farmer wives-as-lifelong-property and toward forager “promiscuity.”

Added: Razib Khan and Jason elaborate.

Added 1Feb: A new study says that in places where marriages are more arranged by parents, there is more mate-guarding. Discouraging alcohol seems a reasonable mate-guarding strategy.

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Aliens Among Us

The regulation of our lives by large organizations is necessary for the functioning of industrial-technological society.  The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. Unabomber

Many of our regulations apply to big firms more strongly than small firms, and and even less to homes. For example, many regulations apply only to firms with more than a certain number of employees. Now some regulations have big fixed costs of compliance, which cost more proportionally for small orgs.  But this justification doesn’t really explain that much regulation variation. For example, household hazardous waste rules let homes dispose more easily of many kinds of waste, yet trash disposal isn’t dominated by org-size fixed costs.

When I asked my enviro econ students to explain weaker home trash rules, some said firms care only for profit, while homes care about the environment, so homes don’t need rules to do the right thing. Others said the opposite, that homes rebel more against strict rules, such as by tossing trash in the woods, while firms are more obedient.

Now it seems to me that bigger orgs are in fact easier to monitor and punish, which can justify stricter rules when such rules are harder to enforce. Larger orgs regiment behavior on larger scales, making it easier to predict what one part is doing from what other parts does, and making behaviors visible to more people. For example, if one Walmart throws a certain kind of trash away illegally, its a good bet lots of other Walmarts are doing the same, and lots of employees could expose the practice.

But this is only part of the explanation. Firms obey trash rules in large part because we do random inspections of firm trash, yet would not tolerate random inspections of home trash. Big orgs are favorite movie villians, and people seem to demand higher wages to work for them. It seems we love to hate and distrust big orgs, relative to small orgs and individuals.

And this seems objectively unfair; big firms make it easier for us to monitor and discourage them from bad behavior, yet we reward this help by taxing them more, and imposing more burdens.  Big organizations are the new aliens among us, strange and suspicious to both forager and farmer eyes. We can’t look them in the eyes and feel their warmth of their empathy via ancient human protocols of understanding. Yes humans represent them, but we can see that org needs drive their actions; switch the guy at the top and they do pretty much the same things.  Big orgs display deep beyond-human intelligence we only dimly understand, and potential vast longevity.  So we suspect the worst.

Yet on the whole big orgs are a big reason we are rich and peaceful; our industrial economy depends heavily on their unmatched ability to give us what we want. Even on the uneven field in which we make them play, they keep winning, and giving us more. Pause for a moment to wonder if maybe we haven’t been just a bit unfair to the friendly alien giants among us.

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Is Cancer Industrial?

Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, with few references to cancer in literary evidence, proves that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity. The disease rate has risen massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer — proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer. … The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization”. … Hundreds of mummies from all areas of the world have been examined and there are still only two publications showing microscopic confirmation of cancer. (more; HT Kurzweil)

That is from a press release; journal article quotes below. A very thought provoking result, though it would help if, for comparison, they estimated what fraction of modern bones and mummies show evidence of cancer.  It doesn’t fit very well with the observation that natural plant chemicals seem to cause more cancer than artificial chemicals.  So I remain confused. Those quotes: Continue reading "Is Cancer Industrial?" »

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Bill & My Excellent Hypothesis

In January I said:

In October I reviewed explanations for the clearly-maladaptive demographic transition, whereby societies consistently have fewer kids as they get rich. I leaned toward:

Lower … acceptance of childbearing and motherhood as measures of the status of women.

On a recent long drive, Bill Dickens and I developed an intriguing elaboration of this theory. The key idea: farming pressures strengthened a fem forager tendency to, when personally richer, invest more energy in pursuing status, relative to raising kids. So when all fems are rich, they all invest more in status, relative to kids, and fertility falls.

Ok, now for the details. When men vary in status and mating can be covert, high status men have two kinds of mates: a few “overt” mates, whose kids will inherit much of his status, and many “covert” mates, whose kids won’t inherit his status and who may have their own overt mates. While a top man will want as many covert mates as possible, he will be choosier about overt mates, wanting them to seem high status, to raise the status of his overt kids. Women will want to be overt mates of such top men, so that their sons can have a better chance to be top men, and then get many covert mates. Continue reading "Bill & My Excellent Hypothesis" »

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Falling Creativity

I’ve argued “school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination,” said modern workplaces don’t reward creativity, and cited evidence that schools discourage creativity:

Creativity and mental flexibility are directly penalized in terms of school grades, holding constant test scores, Citizenship, and Drive to Achieve.

So I’m not surprised to learn creativity has been falling for decades:

In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took their tests, scholars … have been tracking the children. … After analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward.

HT to Alex, who is skeptical:  “I am not at all convinced that creativity is on the decline.” Me, I’m surprised the decline didn’t start earlier.  More tidbits on creativity:

A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. … The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum. … Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. … When creative children have a supportive teacher—someone tolerant of unconventional answers, occasional disruptions, or detours of curiosity—they tend to excel. When they don’t, they tend to underperform and drop out of high school or don’t finish college at high rates.

CEOs may give it lip service to creativity, but their actions speak much louder than their words. Most (not all) workplaces punish creativity, and while that situation remains most schools will drill it out of kids as well.

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Self-Control Is Slavery

I’ve been pondering 3 related points.  1) Self-Control Is Culture-Control:

It seems to me that … the key change after farming [was] an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations. … This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.

2) Fogel & Engerman’s economic classic analysis of US slavery:

Plantation agriculture based upon slave labor … may have been significantly more efficient than family farming. … The typical slave field-hand may have been more productive than a free, white field-hand. … Slavery was not incompatible with industrial production. … Slave-labor farms were 28 percent more productive than southern free-labor farms and 40 percent more productive than northern free-labor farms. …

Plantation operators strove for a disciplined, specialized and coordinated labor force. Labor was organized into something like the assembly line operations in industry. This involved “driving” the slaves’ efforts to maintain a pace of production. The “drivers” or foremen were slaves themselves. …

Plantations had a much higher rate of labor force participation, two thirds, as compared with a free population, one third. This was achieved by finding productive pursuits for the young and the elderly and maintaining nurseries so that slave women could work.

3) The latest AER on designing work to aid self-control:

The Industrial Revolution involved workers moving from agriculture to manufacturing; from working on their own to working with others in factories; and from flexible work-hours to rigid work-days. … Some work-place arrangements may make self-control problems more severe, while others may ameliorate them. … The firm … can use regular compensation to … make the returns to effort more immediate. Firms can also create disproportionate penalties for certain types of low efforts … so as to create sharp self-control incentives. … Conforming to an externally set pace, however, can decrease these self-control costs. … Workers planting rice-fields often find it helpful to synchronize movements to music or to beats. In industrial production, the assembly line may serve a similar purpose. … An intrinsic competitive drive may make the momentary self exert more effort when surrounded by hard-working coworkers. Young boys run races faster when running alongside another boy than when running alone. …

[Farming] creates difficult self-control problems. First, it involves long time horizons — farmers must tend their land constantly for months before reaping benefits at harvest. These lags can generate suboptimal effort in early stages of production. Financially, farmers may also fail to save enough money out of lumpy harvest payments to make efficient investments during the production cycle, further affecting labor supply returns and output. Second, agriculture often involves self-employment or very small firms. As a result, there are rarely firms or large employers to mitigate the self-control problem. Tasks cannot be structured, compensation altered, or work intensity regulated. Finally, agrarian production by nature is also geographically dispersed, which makes colocation of workers difficult. … This can help explain the observation that work hours appear to be low in modern-day subsistence agriculture. …

In the workshop system, workers rented floor space or machinery in factories, received pure piece rates for output … Clark presents evidence that workers under the workshop system had very unsteady attendance and hours, spent a lot of time socializing at work, and concentrated effort in the latter half of the week leading up to paydays. Clark argues that this led firms to transition to the factory discipline system to solve self-control problems.

OK, now let’s put it all together.  Apparently, factory-like methods that greatly increase farming productivity have long been feasible.  (First known factory: Venice Arsenal, 1104.)  Yet it took slaves to actually implemented such methods in farming. Even after ten thousand years of Malthusian competition, a farming method that could support a much larger population per land area did not displace other methods.  (And if factory-fortified foraging was possible, the timescale problem gets much worse.)

The introduction of farming was associated with important new elements, like religion, that encouraged more “self-control,” i.e. sensitivity to social norms.  However, those additions were not sufficient to achieve factory-like farming — most humans had too little self-control to make themselves behave that way, and too strong an anti-dominance norm to let rulers enforce such behavior.

This dramatically illustrates the huge self-control innovations that came with industry. School, propaganda, mass media, and who knows what else have greatly changed human nature, enabling a system of industrial submission and control that proud farmers and foragers simply would not tolerate – they would (and did) starve first.  In contrast, industry workers had enough self/culture-control to act as only slaves would before – working long hours in harsh alien environments, and showing up on time and doing what they were told.

So what made industry workers so much more willing to increase their self-control, relative to farmers?  One guess: the productivity gains from worker self-control were far larger in industry than in farming. Instead of a 50% gain, it might have been a factor of two or more. Self-controlled workers and societies gained a big enough productivity advantage to compensate for lost pride.

Humans are an increasingly self-domesticated species. Foragers could cooperate in non-kin groups of unprecedented size, farmers could enforce norms to induce many behaviors unnatural for foragers, and the schooled humans of industry would willingly obey like enslaved farmers. Our descendants may evolve even stronger self/culture-control of behavior.

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Lord of the Factories

Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel. … Using as an example a group of British schoolboys stuck on a deserted island, … the book portrays their descent into savagery. … Left to themselves in a paradisiacal country, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state. …

The central theme is the conflicting impulses toward civilization—live by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and towards the will to power. … Jack endeavours to empower himself instead by turning his choir group into “hunters”, who are responsible for hunting for meat and taking care of the fire. … Jack’s tribe gradually becomes more animalistic, emphasising the practice of applying face paint from coloured clay discovered by Samneric and charred remains of trees. The narrative voice in the story reveals to the reader that these painted faces represent the hunters’ masking their more civilized selves in order to liberate their inner “savages”. … The pig head … the “Lord of the Flies” … discloses the truth about itself — that the boys themselves “created” the beast, and that the real beast was inside them all.

This famous novel suggests that it is only our “civilized” rules and culture that keep up from the fate of our “savage” ancestors, who were violent dominating law-less animals.  But though this may be true regarding our distant primate ancestors of six or more million years ago, it is quite unfair slander regarding our face-painting forager ancestors of ten thousand or more years ago.

While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies, forager kids are mixed among forager adults, who enforce their strong social norms against violence and domination.  At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!

It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance.  Modern workplaces require workers who are far more accepting than are foragers of being told what to do when, and of being explicitly ranked, and our schools prepare kids to accept this more primate-like environment.  It is “primitive” social norms that overcame the violent domination of our primate heritage, and our “civilized” schools teach us to repress such prudish forager norms.

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Inventors’ Two Cents

Even in societies in which markets were relatively free and developed, there was rarely any proportionality between the contribution of an innovator and the rewards he or she reaped.  At least in that sense, the situation was not different from what it is today: Nordhaus (2004) has estimated that in modern America only 2.2 percent of the surplus of an invention is captured by the inventor him/herself.  Things surely looked no better in the eighteenth century. … If ever there was a divergence between social and private net benefits, the Industrial Revolution was it.  The impact of the technological elite on the rest of the economy was thus vastly larger than proportional to their size.

That is from Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 (p.88).  Not sure I believe the fraction is as low as 2%, though I expect it is well below 1.  We need better ways to encourage innovation!

Mokyr gave a talk at GMU yesterday, which I found disappointing.  His book convinces me that Britain’s exceptionally skilled workforce and high farm productivity were important enablers of the industrial revolution, but his claim that this was due to “enlightenment ideology” seems to me too vague to evaluate.

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