The Real World

Derivatives of Progress

(2,200 words, 7-9 minutes to read)

I am a human, born in what is not yet known as the year 10,000 BC in what is not yet known as the Fertile Crescent. My tribe survives by finding and eating food that is naturally occurring and nearby, whether by gathering native grains or fruit, or by killing and skinning large animals. It’s interesting work, and it takes up relatively few hours, but the rest of my time is spent guarding what little food we have from outsiders and other bandits. This is the natural way of the world and has been for almost all of history.

But some of my neighbors have started acting strangely: they bring the food to where they live and then they don’t eat it. They keep some of it alive and let it have offspring, and then they eat the offspring. They claim that their way is better, that it’s more scaleable, that it allows them to have more children, that it allows them to keep their community more compact and easy to defend from invading barbarians. Obviously, they’re just fooling themselves! Hunting and gathering is the way things are, we live and we die, and it’ll always be that way.

As I pondered our universal predicament, a vision of a strangely-dressed man appeared to me:

“Hello! I am a traveler from a future time here to bring you amazing news! You may not believe progress is possible, but I am here to report that in my time, the 17th century, there is a possibility to rise to a new level of well-being in the world. This is real progress! In my time, your primitive ways have been superseded by a new one which allows a much higher standard of living!”

I was shocked at first, then increasingly skeptical. “If future so great, then why you still dressed in rags? Why you so thin? Tell me, stranger, you solve these problems in your time?”

The stranger’s eyes darted nervously. “Well, you see… when I say “higher standard of living”, what I meant was… you know, that things have improved for a very select few people. My king, the mighty ruler of my land, has vast riches and controls territory as far as the eye can see. It’s a wonderful time to be alive! …you know, for him.”

“…and your ‘king’, your ruler, he sent you here?”

“Indeed!” the stranger perked up instantly. “I am here to spread tales of his greatness far and wide! Though you may never possess such glory or wealth, you can live better with the knowledge that such a life is possible if God wills it!”

My skepticism had not waned. “Be gone, strange one; your ideas crazy and I do not care about them.” And in a poof, the stranger disappeared.

Curious that this should be called “progress”, yet I could not shake the feeling that maybe there might be something to what he was saying… I went back to preparing for the next hunt.

//

I am a 17th century peasant. My days and nights are spent working, tilling and harvesting in the fields, hoping to scrape together money to pay the king’s taxes and still have enough to feed my family. Most of my children died in infancy, but I’ve been blessed to have two daughters who survived now into childhood. We burned some witches last week, which was a nice distraction, but mostly our lives are very difficult. Still, it’s the natural way of the world and has been for almost all of history.

The king, his family, and the other nobles live a much better life, with plenty of food and servants to take care of them. While I may dream at times of my family ascending to such heights, I know it to be impossible. Peasants are peasants, and royals are royals; this is the way things are, we live and we die, and it’ll always be that way.

As I pondered our universal predicament, a vision of a strangely-dressed man appeared to me:

“Hello! I am a traveler from a future time here to bring you amazing news! What you see before you is a primitive class structure: royalty at the top and serfs below. This is a two-level, discrete structure. But I am here to tell you that what truly matters is not the absolute level of well-being, but the rate of change of well-being!”

I stood perfectly still, perplexed by this magical entity. Another witch? Quickly I grabbed my torch and yelled back, “Who are you!? Why do you speak of such nonsense as ‘rate of change of well-being’? (Also, I’m illiterate and haven’t been educated in basic math, so please tell my what ‘rate of change’ means.)”

The stranger turned his head in a sudden motion, his curly grey locks of hair bouncing beautifully from side to side, and his lips curled in a wry smile. “I am a psychologist and best-selling author from several hundred years in the future. My research into human history suggests that, although inequality is real and ubiquitous, the improvements in well-being accrue continuously with time. There is a nearly universal trend towards higher standards of living in the world as a whole. This is real progress! In my time, your primitive ways have been superseded by a new one which allows an ongoing improvement standard of living!

“This ‘rate of change of well-being’ is visible at any timescale, you see:

  • Ten thousand years ago your ancestors were hunter/gatherers, locked in constant violent tribal warfare, living lives that were solitary, nasty, brutish, and short. They accumulated almost no wealth, and spent their days defending the little they had from outsiders who came to steal it.
  • A thousand years ago your ancestors had formed primitive societies capable of agriculture and trade, but lived in a Dark Age with extremely limited literary or philosophical thought, and wealth accumulation was largely determined by birth rather than ability or conscientiousness.
  • In the past hundred years you have seen an amazing rebirth of art, mathematics, philosophy, and world exploration. (Well, others have seen it; you’ve been here tilling your field.) Did you know that there are whole unexplored worlds west of Spain? Did you hear of the great works of Shakespeare, of Rafael, of da Vinci, of Galilei? A vast expansion into the realm of human intellectual life, to be sure; yet, people still died young and poverty was rampant.
  • And 100-200 years from now, my god (not literally)! The wonders the world will see! Machines, new scientific fields, medicine that actually helps!

“Throughout all of this time, economic activity has become more distributed, trade has improved, peace has grown ever more common, and the world is more prosperous than ever! Isn’t is wonderful?”

The strange man had now lectured for almost an hour (how had he conjured such colorful diagrams? what power does this witch possess?). Finally I was able to interrupt again. “That all sounds fine… But tell me, stranger, what about me? What about my family? I’m sure Shakespeare is wonderful, but I can’t read and I can’t afford to go to plays. What say you?”

“Sure, I see what you mean. But look at the big picture! The world is improving! Be grateful that you live in this century and not 500 years ago, and though you won’t see the end of the story you can live better with the knowledge of a very-probably wonderful life for future generations!”

Still skeptical, but scared by the power of this witch, I put my torch away. “Be gone, strange creature; I have things to do and cannot waste any more time discussing your crazy ideas of the future.” And in a poof, the stranger disappeared.

What a strange vision! It was hard to imagine that the trend of civilization could be so positive, yet I couldn’t get the idea out of my head… I went back to my duties.

//

I am a 21st century worker in America from a lower middle class family. I work two jobs to afford my small apartment downtown, and I’ve barely made a dent in my student loan debt. My jobs kind of suck, but they pay the bills and leave enough left for the occasional night out with friends. I have a three year-old iPhone and a 10 year-old car, but I’ll keep them as long as they keep working. I’m frequently stressing about my financial situation; I don’t have any savings and my insurance sucks, so if I get hit by a bus or something I’m toast. Anyway, I guess barely scraping by is the natural way of the world and has been for almost all of history.

My nerdy friends keep talking about a Singularity–a point where technology improves so rapidly that it’s impossible to know what will happen on the other side. I guess it’ll happen when we develop a general-purpose AI, but whatever the cause, they hope it will mean an end to scarcity of resources and the drudgery of boring jobs. Maybe we’ll all be creative artistic types, or get to relax in the Bahamas while robots do all the work. I don’t get all that talk; sounds crazy to me. I’m better off than my parents, sure, but in the end all those big economic gains go to the 1%; there will always be people like me who just barely make ends meet. That’s the way things are, we live and we die, and it’ll always be that way.

As I pondered our universal predicament, a vision of a strangely-dressed man appeared to me:

“Welcome to Conversations with Tyler! I want to make it clear at the outset that this will be the conversation I want to have with you, not necessarily the conversation you want to have.”

“What the f…!?” My knees felt weak, but the stranger invited me to sit across from him in a nice leather chair (that’s not even mine!). “How did you get into my apartment??”

“Your door was open, and I paid to have these chairs brought in while you were at work.”

“Oh…” I said, cautiously sitting down again. “And why are you so strangely dressed?”

“Given the nature of our interaction, the marginal cost of dressing casually was negligible. I just threw something on.”

“Ok, fine.” I started to calm down, but this was still super weird. “So why are you in my apartment?”

“I’m here to tell you about the future, or at least, what the future could possibly be. It’s well-documented by now that human flourishing by most economic measures is monotonically increasing as a function of time. But this is not enough. You see, the returns on investment compound with time; the slope of the curves measuring well-being are indeed positive, but importantly, the time derivatives are not constant. It is imperative that we increase the rate of sustainable economic growth. This is real progress! In the world I envision, our current primitive ways can be superseded by a new one which allows an ever-increasing rate of improvement in human standard of living!”

“Yeah yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes, “they told me about this in college. Aren’t you just propping up an old, failed paradigm of a ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’?”

“Some tides do raise all boats, but of course not all do. Inequality is very real and it’s a serious problem. Still, if we care at all about future generations–and I would argue that we must–then it matters very much whether we can increase GDP by a few percent. The cumulative effect of all that economic activity implies a vastly improved probability that our descendants can of solve the world’s hardest problems. Do you realize that if, 100 years ago, the US was able to increase GDP by an additional 1% each year, today’s median income would be…”

“I don’t care!” I interrupted (conveniently). “I have problems today! I have debts, I have stresses, I’m barely scraping by! More importantly, so many people are homeless or starving or dying of disease; we could do so much good today with that money, and you want to fiddle with interest rates? You want to focus your attention, and government spending, on investment opportunities and Wall Street?”

The stranger nodded gravely. “I’m not denying that there are real problems today that need to be addressed. And in pursuing sustainable economic growth we must take great care not to trample on human rights. But if the human race survives for even a few more centuries, the effect of our current fiscal policy on those future generations will be enormous. That is a significant moral burden on our shoulders that we should take seriously.”

I got up and opened the door. “Get out of here, man; I’m busy and you’re nuts.” And with a snap of his fingers, the stranger had the chairs removed from my living room and he went out the door.

What the hell was all that! I mean, sure, I like the idea of my grandkids not having to worry about all this stuff, but I just don’t see how we as a society could possibly make that happen… Anyway, I have to go back to work.

One thought on “Derivatives of Progress

  1. This is a fine summary, I laughed when Tyler started speaking.

    “Some tides do raise all boats, but of course not all do,” should be screamed out from the mountaintops. I get tired of people not saying this. Mass production leads to the rise of mass consumption, but that doesn’t mean that all economic growth is distributed evenly. There’s also the possibility that the growth itself has been allocated more equally than believed, but its curbed by the rise of other non-growth related factors.

    Like

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