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Chris Spoke: Flying cars and cold fusion—why the future we were promised never arrived

Commentary

My wife and I have been watching The Americans recently. It’s set in the early 1980s and tells the story of two Soviet KGB intelligence officers posing as an American married couple living in a suburb of Washington, DC.

The Cold War politics feel pretty distant but the setting is very familiar. I have to remind myself when watching it that 1980 was forty years ago. It’s as far removed from today as it is from 1940.

The world changed a lot between 1940 and 1980. Has it changed that much since then?

There are of course fewer screens in The Americans than there are today. No smartphones and no tablets, though there are many TVs. But the rooms, the houses, the offices, the restaurants all look and feel largely the same.

The planes are the same. The trains are the same.

I’m not making an original observation here, of course. Many people much smarter than me, including Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen, Robert Gordon, and Patrick Collison have pointed to the stagnation apparent in the physical world over the past 50 or so years.

More recently, so has J. Storrs Hall.

In his latest book, Where Is My Flying Car?, he asks, well: where is my flying car?

This question acts as a focal point for a broader discussion around the nature and causes of our technological stagnation. Here’s how he frames it, citing world health economist Hans Rosling:

“[We can] classify the wealthiness of the world’s population into four levels:

  1. Barefoot. Unable even to afford shoes, they must walk everywhere they go. Income $1 per day. One billion people are at Level 1.
  2. Bicycle (and shoes). The $4 per day they make doesn’t sound like much to you and me but is a huge step up from Level 1. There are three billion people at level 2.
  3. The two billion people at Level 3 make $16 a day; a motorbike is within their reach.
  4. At $64 per day, the one billion people at Level 4 own a car.

The miracle of the Industrial Revolution is now easily stated. In 1800, 85 percent of the world’s population was at Level 1. Today, only 9 percent is. Over the past half century, the bulk of humanity moved up out of Level 1 to erase the rich-poor gap and make the world wealth distribution roughly bell-shaped. The average American moved from Level 2 in 1800, to level 3 in 1900, to level 4 in 2000. We can state the Great Stagnation story nearly as simply: There is no level 5.”

In fact, the average income of unattached individuals (never mind families) in the United States tipped into Level 4 territory just around 1980.

We were at Level 4 in the time of The Americans and we’re at Level 4 today, forty years later.

At a first approximation, our stagnation has been caused by a flatlining of a trend that saw energy consumption per capita increase by 2 percent every year since the advent of the Newcomen and Savery steam engines in the early 1700s.

This flatlining began sometime around 1970.

In his book, J. Storrs Hall plots all technological predictions from the 1950s and 1960s era science fiction against their energy requirements and the percentage to which they’ve been fulfilled.

We’ve made a lot of progress on those predictions that consume low amounts of energy, like pocket telephones and home-based videophones, and much less progress on those predictions that consume high amounts of energy, like a lunar base, interplanetary travel, and of course, flying cars.

We’ve also made very little progress on those predictions relating to energy production and storage specifically, like fusion power and atomic batteries.

This all begs the question: why did energy production and consumption flatline in the 1970s?

The short answer is government intervention and regulation.

A lot happened in the 1970s as it relates to energy production and consumption, including Nixon’s price controls which set a ceiling on the price of oil in 1971, the OPEC oil embargo in 1973, and the creation of the Department of Energy in 1977.

There was also the introduction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which was established in 1974 and began operations in 1975.

Since then, not a single new nuclear reactor has come online as part of a new nuclear plant in the U.S. (though the NRC has approved a handful of new reactors at existing plants).

We’re now left with what can only be described as a great stagnation in energy production and therefore consumption as a first-order effect of the increased bureaucratization and regulation of the physical world, and stagnation in technological progress more broadly as a second-order effect.

So, how do we get out of this predicament and kickstart a return to the future?

It’s instructive to look to where the advance of nuclear power was not halted: the U.S. Navy. As J. Storrs Hall recounts:

“Former Navy Secretary John Lehman wrote, ‘The reason for Navy nuclear success is because there has always been one strong experienced person in charge and accountable, standing like a stone wall against the bureaucratic onslaught.’ The Navy has over 6,000 reactor-years of accident-free operation. It has built 526 reactor cores (for comparison, there are 99 civilian power reactors in the U.S.), with 86 nuclear-powered vessels in current use.”

This should be a lesson to our political leaders and the bureaucracies they (in theory) control.

Increased bureaucratization and regulation benefits from the sort of increased transparency and veto points that were introduced with a broader agenda of progressive reforms in the 1970s. These reforms were intended to mitigate against any risk of corruption and abuse of power, and have had the added effect of disempowering individual bureaucrats just as the power of bureaucracy as a whole has risen exponentially.

We’ve rid ourselves of strong experienced individuals in charge and accountable and who are able to stand like a stone wall against the bureaucratic onslaught.

And so the onslaught has continued.

Change requires changemakers, be they politicians, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs. We’re going to need more of all three if we’re going to build the optimistic future of 1950s and 1960s science fiction.

J. Storrs Hall reminds us of our future lost, of what could have been, and urges us to not accept our current stagnation as necessarily given. The future could be radically different from the present, as it once was.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon: A plea for a rational usage of experts and ‘science’

Commentary

“Experts Ought to Be On Tap and Not On Top.” – George William Russell, 1910

This quote, which is possibly from a certain George William Russell from Ireland and first seen publicly in an Irish newspaper in 1910, puts forward a crucial insight and piece of wisdom that way too many policymakers seem to have forgotten during the past two years. The full quote is even more explicit as to what I wish to convey here:

“Our theory, which we have often put forward, is that experts ought to be on tap and not on top. We have had during our career a long and intimate knowledge of experts, most interesting men in their own specialty to which they have devoted themselves with great industry and zeal. But outside this special knowledge, they are generally as foolish and ignorant as any person one could pick up in the street, with no broad knowledge of society or the general principles of legislation.”

This is exactly why I and my colleagues at the Montreal Economic Institute had recommended, soon after the first wave of COVID-19, that provincial governments in Canada, as well as the federal government, should form, and each have at their disposal, an independent, nimble, and small multidisciplinary advisory committee. This way, they could get the feedback and advice from, yes, epidemiologists and alike, but also from economists, psychologists, ethicians, legal experts, and so forth.

Even during a pandemic, there are more considerations that are needed than just public health, and there are undeniable tradeoffs involved in pandemic restrictions. When a government decides to, for instance, take away the right of mobility of its citizens, or their right to worship, or invade their privacy, or impose on them vaccinal passports, or close down businesses, we should be entitled, at the very least, to expect these decisions to be based on a broad range of considerations and perspectives.

Now, some will say, yes, but governments needed to “act quickly.” This may have been true at the onset of the pandemic when we didn’t know any better and knew very little about the disease. However, it is completely unacceptable that we are still caught with the same level of improvisation two years down the road. Furthermore, it would be perfectly possible for governments to say to their multidisciplinary advisory committee: “You have 48 hours to come up with your recommendations and, in the case of the absence of a consensus, with dissenting and minority reports.”

Ultimately it will still be elected officials, political staffers and advisors, and senior bureaucrats calling the shots, barring judicial review and the role of opposition parties. An important convention in our constitutional system is the idea of “ministerial responsibility.” Experts advise, but ministers decide. If we are going to give such extraordinary power to ministers, they should at least be making decisions on the basis of more than just one-trick pony public health experts who have a very limited and narrow set of objectives and considerations in mind, and whose only recommendations seem to virtually always be: “That’s not enough, we must yet impose more restrictions.”

A related and equally annoying mantra that we have heard ad nauseam during this pandemic, and even, I would even dare to say, ad vomitam, is: “We must believe in science”. As if statements made by the aforementioned experts should be treated as irrefutable truths to be followed without any debate or questioning. This is an incredibly sterile and naïve conception of science. Indeed, the “scientific consensus”, if there is ever one, is something that is by definition fluid and almost always evolves over time. And, in the case of the current pandemic, often quite quickly, as we have seen for instance in the position of the said experts regarding the imposition of masks in public places or about the usage of broad-reaching mandatory lockdowns as an appropriate public health tool.

Prior to the pandemic the World Health Organization strongly opposed the use of lockdowns

Canada had a variety of official pandemic preparedness plans ready prior to the pandemic, often envisioning much more severe scenarios than the ones we are facing. As the Toronto Sun’s Anthony Furey highlights, the various plans “anticipate a situation worse than the one that is currently unfolding, but they call for less restrictive measures than the ones that have now been enacted.” Prior to the pandemic the World Health Organization strongly opposed the use of lockdowns and similar restrictive measures to deal with infectious diseases. At a conference in March 2019 that was focused on a hypothetical influenza pandemic the WHO team concluded that “most of the currently available evidence on the effectiveness of quarantine on influenza control was drawn from simulation studies, which have a low strength of evidence.” A thorough Wall Street Journal article recently detailed the repeated pre-pandemic rejections of lockdown as a means for controlling airborne viruses like COVID by the scientific community.

There are also geographical differences. For instance, public health officials in Florida have substantially different recommendations and conclusions than their counterparts in the province of Quebec, as I have experienced firsthand very recently.

In fact, saying that we “must believe in science” (as in believing in it blindly and without questions) is a non-scientific statement in and of itself. As my friend Nathalie Elgrably recently pointed out in one of her columns, what we must believe and have trust in is “the scientific method.” That is a method of procedure that has characterized (…) science since the 17th century, consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

To be clear, I am not saying that policymakers or the general public should not attach any importance to the comments, observations, or recommendations of experts, including those of epidemiologists in the context of the current pandemic. Clearly, they have relevant things to tell us in such a context. I am merely saying that their very specialized knowledge is but one input that we (and policymakers) should take into account when forming our opinions, and we must be careful not to conflate the advice and opinions of individual experts as the settled or indisputable truth. In certain cases, it can no doubt be an important one, but it should by no means be the only one. And to suggest otherwise, as way too many mainstream media and politicians have done so far, does a terrible disservice to us all and ultimately undermines the trust that citizens will have in these experts and the scientific process itself.