Tupy M and Pooley G. Superabundance. Cato Institute, 2022. NF; 6/23.
The title of the first chapter of this well organized book poses a loaded question: “Are we in the midst of progress, or are we facing the Apocalypse?” What, as we would all love to know, does the future hold? Will there be catastrophic climate change driven by human greed and exploding population growth? Or will we figure out how to continue to improve our lives as we have for hundreds of years? This book supports the latter view.
The authors are well-qualified. Pooley is a business management PhD teaching at Brigham Young University Hawaii, Tupy is an international relations PhD with wide publication experience. Both are senior Fellows of the Cato Institute in Washington DC, which published the book.
I was humbly grateful for the summaries at the start of each of the ten chapters, else I couldn’t have got through it. The text body runs to 400 plus pages and there are 150 more pages of appendices and index. I was given a beautiful hard copy by a friend who I know shares the views of the authors.
Several important premises underlie the prediction of superabundance. The first is that something called time price is the proper way to understand value. Time price is how long it takes an average wage earner to generate the price of any commodity or service. This idea dates back to the father of conservative economics Adam Smith who in 1776 said “The real price of everything…is the toil and trouble of acquiring it…” Setting inflation aside, we are told the time price of “everything” has fallen steadily since the Industrial Revolution, especially recently. Fifty commodities’ time prices have dropped between 87% and 21% between 1980 and 2018 for example. So there’s been a steady increase of “personal resource abundance” for every one of those commodities, which we are told simply means a better standard of living for everyone. All of course on average.
Second, the authors say we can forget the dark population predictions of 19th century economist Thomas Malthus. Based on animal populations he said there’d be catastrophic famine if contemporary population increases continued. This of course has not happened to humans. It’s pointed out that on the contrary as world population has massively increased, so has abundance of commodities and prevalence of just about everything else of value: wealth, literacy, life expectancy, maternal and infant survival, nutrition, sanitation, clothing, safety, education, “liberal democracy”, and environmental quality, along with freedom from child labour, violence, military deaths, political oppression and even pollution. We are told these benefits are all causally related to population increase because (to paraphrase) the more people there are the more creative and smart people there are and the more innovative solutions for supply and other problems get generated. No question at least that these benefits coincided with the population increase (so weren’t prevented by it) but I imagine the direct causal inference may not be quite as universally accepted.
Next, environmentalism (along with Marxism, Nazism, and existentialism) has developed because of a general world collapse of traditional mystic religions, so people could have something to believe in. Unfortunately (contend the authors) because extreme environmentalists are anti-human (witness mass killers and predictions of catastrophic consequences of overpopulation and climate change) they stifle progress by preaching pessimism and restricting freedom.
And finally (these four assumptions stand out for me, there are others) human beings in general are unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others. And at least we who live in a free society are also tolerant of other races, religious beliefs, classes, and genders.
Here in no particular order are several thoughts I had while reading this detailed and fascinating book.
There is much made of a 1980 wager between biologist Paul Ehrlich and business economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich, an advocate for worries about population explosion driving rising prices of natural resources made a bet with Simon that a group of commodities, mostly metals, which Ehrlich chose would increase in price over 10 years. Simon won, as the prices decreased by about 30%. Our authors have produced a paper called the Simon Project in which they show significant decreases in the value of a large selection of commodities, a table of which is reproduced in this book.
I who am pretty close to innumerate had trouble with some founding general statements underlying the mathematical-appearing formulas they provided: Wealth is knowledge. Growth is learning. Money is time. Therefore growth of knowledge ought to be measured in time. “Personal resource abundance (pRA)” is equated to standard of living. But pRA is a creature of the assumption that time-price fully encompasses value. All these quantities are averages and I’m not sure that the effect of distribution around those is taken into account.
Part Three (“Human flourishing and its enemies”) traces the evolution of the progress the authors have established previously, and attribution of forces, causes, and effects to current human reality didn’t seem to me always to make sense. Stone Age people evolved to focus on the negative for safety, and modern humans’ skulls still house a “stone age mind” (I think this does make sense). A superiority hierarchy, private property, and ruling elites were necessitated by fixed-location agriculture. Europe’s early preeminence resulted from small nation-states’ proximity prompting military needs and therefore innovation. Governments allowing innovation furthered this trend. Modern scientific thought resulted from necessity for a strong military. I wondered whether other circumstances not normally advocated for by conservatives and libertarians could have contributed to some of the innovation.
The “great enrichment” which followed the Industrial Revolution when put in quantitative terms is certainly impressive. All measures of standard of living have exploded. It is said that worldwide extreme poverty since 1850 went from 90% to 10%, which tends to put present-day humanitarian worries in perspective. I do think it’s impossible for modern people to understand life circumstances at a long-ago time and an idea like “extreme poverty”, even when backed by statistics of currency and availability of modern conveniences might mean something different today than it did in the middle of the 19th century.
The mechanisms described by which increasing population and innovation have resulted in less use of natural resources are interesting. That more people produce more ideas makes obvious sense as long as good ideas get put to use solving problems. Miniaturization and “device convergence” (smart phones for example) result in use of less material. Substitution of artificial substances and components for naturally-occurring ones is a result of innovation.
There is an odd assertion to do with the superior innovation and inventiveness of men (over women). Innovative men (“nerds” these would be I think) tend to be somewhat anti-social and autistic, and so we should tolerate political incorrectness in order not to inhibit these people’s useful contributions.
Some of the pervasive (and to me convincing and heartening) optimism of the authors is based on improvements that could be attributable to their nemesis environmentalists: decreased pollution and leveling-off of population growth for example. The authors call themselves “environmentally conscious individuals” and talk about a “compromise between the well-being of the human race and stewardship of the environment”. This I found encouraging because although clearly there is a right-of-centre viewpoint to the authors’ optimism the book’s message steers clear of far-right ideology. I didn’t see any advocacy for firearms, white male supremacy, etc.
Reading briefly about the Cato Institute I was impressed with a similar kind of balance. Legalization of homosexuality, opposition to militarization of the police, opposition to a Republican energy bill and to “corporate welfare” suggest that the organization though strongly libertarian and “classically liberal” is generally rational and research-based in its conclusions. Cato has also supported open borders and points out that most Americans are immigrants. Their foreign policy preference is non-intervention as would be supported by international relations expert and “realist” John Mearsheimer.
I found the authors’ thoughts about fundamental decency and altruism among most humans heart-warming, but it also felt a little naïve. It’s difficult to square it and a vision of uninterrupted progress with for example the events of the Great Recession of 2007-08 as described by John Cassidy. Some of the most innovative financial minds in those years led the world to the brink of economic catastrophe through greed for financial gain and a form of “prisoner’s dilemma”. The word “recession” does not appear in the index of this book.
There is frequent reference to Stephen Pinker who I don’t think would be considered as libertarian as these authors. In his book Enlightenment Now he refers to superabundance this way:
(it is) what statisticians call a general factor, a principal component, or a hidden, latent, or intervening variable. We even have a name for that factor: progress.
Maybe there will be a superabundant future, at least in the first world but also relative to the past in places like Africa, and maybe reasonable libertarians can and will increasingly find some accommodation with the egalitarianism and climate fears that motivate some of their “progressive” opponents. As far as this book is concerned it’s hard not to hope that progress represented by an improvement in standard of living everywhere is happening and could continue to happen. It’s also difficult though not to appreciate that superabundance as described relies on ensuring radical personal freedom, minimizing government, maintaining private property rights, assuring a “predictable regulatory environment”, and would flourish only as long as people continue to be unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others. This seems to me a tall order in the world we really live in.
So what’s coming in the future: catastrophe or superabundance? I wonder if instead of either of these pure ideologic scenarios our future will resemble our past. I think it’s likely to be a mix of both and perhaps a lot of other things: an enormously complex world that remains impossible to fully encompass and understand, especially to someone looking around at any present moment, and a future that’s hard to predict.
I hope for progress. But to accomplish what Pooley and Tupey predict we would need a strong and sustained libertarian government, certainly Republican in the United States.
Too bad at the moment the GOP seems to want to reelect Donald Trump. But I worry that the alternative isn’t all that promising either.