Comments on Siegel’s “Fewer, Richer, Greener”

Last week, I was part of the Cato Institute’s book forum on Laurence Siegel’s Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance.  Here’s my commentary on the book.


1. Vast areas of agreement:

a. Until March, the world was getting richer at a marvelous pace. Absolute poverty has been disappearing before our eyes after ten thousand years of apparent permanence.

b. Conventional measures sharply understated the glorious reality, because the environment keeps getting cleaner and the quality of the goods keeps getting higher.

c. Like it or not, global population is leveling off.

2. Overarching complaint: Siegel is so excited to share his conclusions that he rushes through the arguments in their favor. When the arguments are strong, the rushing is harmless. When the arguments are weak, the rushing leads Siegel to embrace errors.

3. Error #1: Leveling off of population now is a good thing. Siegel has no argument for this other than to say that population growth can’t be a good thing forever. But this argument would have been just as true when global population was 8000, 8M, or 800M.

True, Simon dodged the question of when population would start to be a problem.  But he genuinely demonstrated vast neglected upsides of population – especially the effect on innovation.  Almost all innovation really does come from high-population areas – and this can hardly be a coincidence.  Furthermore, the main downsides of population – pollution and congestion – can be easily mitigated with pollution taxes and tolls, rather than fewer births.

Key point: Siegel presents no evidence that extra population has ceased to be a good thing overall yet, so why is he so happy about falling birthrates?  The world is still mostly uninhabited – you could fit the entire world’s population into the continental U.S. at the density of Los Angeles.  So why not hope for a world population of 20B, 50B, 100B, or even a T?  If this seems absurd, imagine how absurd multiplying humanity 25-fold would have seemed 1000 years ago.  Yet this “absurdity” turned out to be awesome.

4. Error #2: We should just live with (or even celebrate) declining birth rates. If you do the math (as I have in an earlier Cato Unbound piece), you’ll discover that large tax credits for births are the holy grail of tax policy: They more than pay for themselves in the long-run. We can reasonably expect a $10k per birth one-time tax credit to increase fertility enough to ultimately yield about $250k in net present value for the Treasury.  A fantastic deal!

Also: Housing deregulation.  City-dwellers have few kids because they’re so cramped for space, but this is largely a product of zoning and land-use policies that grossly inflate the price of housing, especially in the country’s most desirable areas.

5. Error #3: Becker’s economics of the family readily explains declining family size. Reality: Kids were never a good financial investment. As a business model, hiring able-bodied farmers makes far more sense than breeding helpless infants and waiting 15 years for help.  Yes, modern economies offer many extra opportunities for child-free fun, but they also drastically reduce the pain of child-rearing and offer many extra opportunities for family fun.  Why rising wealth causes falling birthrates is a fascinating question that social scientists have still failed to successfully answer.

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The Private Space Race

This week, American astronauts returned to earth. Their trip to the space station was the first manned launch from the U.S. in 10 years.

By NASA? No. Of course, not.

This space flight happened because government was not in charge.

An Obama administration committee had concluded that launching such a vehicle would take 12 years and cost $36 billion.

But this rocket was finished in half that time—for less than $1 billion (1/36th the predicted cost).

That’s because it was built by Elon Musk’s private company, Space X. He does things faster and cheaper because he spends his own money.

“This is the potential of free enterprise!” explains aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin in my newest video.

Of course, years ago, NASA did manage to send astronauts to the moon.

That succeeded, says Zubrin, “because it was purpose-driven. (America) wanted to astonish the world what free people could do.”

But in the 50 years since then, as transportation improved and computers got smaller and cheaper, NASA made little progress.

Fortunately, President Obama gave private companies permission to compete in space, saying, “We can’t keep doing the same old things as before.”

Competition then cut the cost of space travel to a fraction of what it was.

Why couldn’t NASA have done that?

Because after the moon landing, it became a typical government agency—over budget and behind schedule. Zubrin says NASA’s purpose seemed to be to “supply money to various suppliers.”

Suppliers were happy to go along.

Zubrin once worked at Lockheed Martin, where he once discovered a way for a rocket to carry twice as much weight. “We went to management, the engineers, and said, ‘Look, we could double the payload capability for 10 percent extra cost.’ They said, ‘Look, if the Air Force wants us to improve the Titan, they’ll pay us to do it!'”

NASA was paying contractor’s development costs and then adding 10 percent profit. The more things cost, the bigger the contractor’s profit. So contractors had little incentive to innovate.

Even NASA now admits this is a problem. During its 2020 budget request, Administrator Jim Bridenstine confessed, “We have not been good at maintaining schedule and…at maintaining costs.”

Nor is NASA good at innovating. Their technology was so out of date, says Zubrin, that “astronauts brought their laptops with them into space—because shuttle computers were obsolete.”

I asked, “When (NASA) saw that the astronauts brought their own computers, why didn’t they upgrade?”

“Because they had an entire philosophy that various components had to be space rated,” he explains. “Space rating was very bureaucratic and costly.”

NASA was OK with high costs as long as spaceships were assembled in many congressmen’s districts.

“NASA is a very large job program,” says Aerospace lawyer James Dunstan. “By spreading its centers across the country, NASA gets more support from more different congressmen.”

Congressmen even laugh about it. Rep. Randy Weber (R–Texas) joked, “We’ll welcome (NASA) back to Texas to spend lots of money any time.”

Private companies do more with less money. One of Musk’s cost-saving innovations is reusable rocket boosters.

For years, NASA dropped its boosters into the ocean.

“Why would they throw it away?” I ask Dunstan.

“Because that’s the way it’s always been done!” he replies.

Twenty years ago, at Lockheed Martin, Zubrin had proposed reusable boosters. His bosses told him: “Cute idea. But if we sell one of these, we’re out of business.”

Zubrin explains, “They wanted to keep the cost of space launch high.”

Thankfully, now that self-interested entrepreneurs compete, space travel will get cheaper. Musk can’t waste a dollar. Space X must compete with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others.

The private sector always comes up with ways to do things that politicians cannot imagine.

Government didn’t invent affordable cars, airplanes, iPhones, etc. It took competing entrepreneurs, pursuing profit, to nurture them into the good things we have now.

Get rid of government monopolies.

For-profit competition brings us the best things in life.

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A Governed Society Isn’t Civilized, It Is Slap-Dash

Nobody asked but …

The so-called Modern World has been sitting on its thumbs since WWII, maybe since the US Civil War. How else can we explain the massive failures of The Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Military Industrial Complex, 9/11, and the Coronavirus Pandemic?  We keep getting caught with our pants around our ankles, because we do not pull our pants up in the first place.

We have randomly created the perfect government for making sure everyone is pissed.  We have enshrined the scene of the accident.

We focused on dissent rather than just getting away from one kerfuffle and into another.  We were escaping from King George III, so we wrote documents that immortalized the crimes of a crazy monarch.  Our concept of freedom is couched in terms of being away from a distorted personality.  Our Bill of Rights is a punch list of things we will not tolerate from European monarchists.  No wonder this government pays no attention to the BoR.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Executive Orders: This is Trump’s Brain on Drugs

On July 24, US president Donald Trump signed four executive orders with an eye toward altering the way prescription drugs are priced and purchased in the United States.

Three of the four orders embody good ideas that accord with the goals of think tanks supposedly supporting “free-market policy solutions” to America’s healthcare problems.

Sally Pipes, president of one such think tank (the Pacific Research Institute), writes in opposition to those three orders, and in support of the fourth, anti-free-market order, at Fox News. Her opposition says more about PRI’s supposed support for free markets than about the quality of Trump’s orders. Let’s look at how these four measures stack up against a free-market approach.

The first order requires federally funded community health centers to “pass the giant discounts they receive from drug companies on insulin and EpiPens directly to their patients.”

These clinics advertise affordable, sliding payment scales for low-income patients. Trump’s leveraging their federal funding  to stop them from price-gouging patients. Even if we disagree over whether government should be funding healthcare at all, we should agree that taxpayer funding shouldn’t go toward picking the pockets of the poor.

The second order will “allow the safe and legal importation of prescription drugs from Canada and other countries where the price for the identical drug is incredibly lower.”

Trump usually opposes free trade, but this is a step in that direction, and it’s the RIGHT direction. The US government shouldn’t artificially jack up drug prices by restraining trade across borders.

The third order — which Pipes opposes — eliminates market incentives for pharmacy benefit managers who negotiate drug prices between insurer and pharmaceutical companies. Trump, decrying them as parasitical “middlemen,” hath decreed that they may not accept “rebates” from drug companies for successfully negotiating deals.

Yes, these “rebates” can create situations in which consumers ultimately pay more for drugs. They incentivize benefit managers  to negotiate bigger paychecks for themselves instead of lower prices for patients. But that’s an issue for market actors — pharmaceutical companies, insurers, pharmacies, and consumers — not government, to tussle over.

The fourth order brings us back to the same territory as the first: Taxpayer money versus drug pricing. It would require Medicare, the US government’s healthcare program for senior citizens, to negotiate drug prices based on an “International Pricing Index” reflecting prices in other developed nations.

Trump is delaying implementation of that order pending a counter-proposal from the industry, but it should be a slam-dunk. Medicare, whether one supports its existence or not, is effectively the biggest prescription drug purchasing network in the world. That market power should get its members the lowest, not the highest, prices.

Healthcare would be cheaper, better, and more accessible if government got its nose out of the matter entirely — but failing that, three of these four orders make good sense. They’re also a great litmus test. They tell us who really supports freer markets in healthcare and who just pays lip service to the notion while advocating crony capitalism in service to Big Pharma.

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Social Salvation vs. Individual Salvation

From one era to another of human history, human energies seem to be dedicated either to social salvation – think “progress” – or individual salvation – think “enlightenment” or “sanctification”. Sometimes this takes religious guises, other times more secular ones.

We live in a time that, despite its frequent pandering to individual *lusts* and frequent spastic efforts to find “enlightenment” (yoga, New Age, etc), does not really have a structure that encourages individual salvation.

The social structure trains us to want *progress* for our society – whether it’s political and moral (in the way we think about gender, race, etc) or economic (we want more stuff for more people) or technological (we want more power over our natural world). We pursue social progress whether or not that means individual improvement in virtue, heroism, etc.

On the other hand, I would be interested to know whether more traditional and hierarchical societies like those of medieval Europe, despite not having an explicit ideology of individualism, did more to encourage individuals to seek sanctification.

In the relative technological, religious, and artistic stability of more traditional societies, the individual was just about the only actor that *could* change. Time would have been viewed more circularly and less linearly, with each generation restarting the hero’s journey and finding a fleshed-out and tested set of rituals for going from stage to stage. You either progressed as a person, or you didn’t.

This is speculation, but it seems fair speculation to say that more traditional societies at least had stronger ritual support for individual transformation.

It is not speculation to say that as we have become more concerned with technological/social progress, we have managed to make it harder for individuals to become heroic, holy, fully realized beings. Yes, we wield more potential power than ever in the form of computers and data, but we also buy that power with the need for sedentary lifestyles (sitting at desks) and greater economic centralization (corporations), not to mention all the mischief that computers tend to create from pornography to internet trolling.

It probably is not the case that social progress (in the sense of linear change over time) and individual progress are opposed. I think social progress tends to come out of individual progress. But I think it’s much more important that individuals – the only beings who can *experience* change – get priority. And if that means tamping down on the rate of supposed social innovations, so be it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Starlink and “Pollution”

I saw someone complaining about how their long-exposure photograph of comet “Neowise” was ruined by the passage of Starlink satellites.

If you are unfamiliar with comet “Neowise”, well, it’s a comet. And if you are unfamiliar with Starlink, it’s Elon Musk’s swarm of internet-providing satellites.

The various voices chiming in about the horrors of the ruined photograph sympathized with the harm done to the photographer, and the evils of polluting the world for profit. I’m more upset that Elon takes government subsidies and launches government payloads, but whatever.

But “pollution”? I HATE pollution, including litter.

Pollution damages property; without the damage, there is no pollution. I can’t think of a way these satellites damage anyone’s property. One of the dissenters told me that “damages property” was a strange way to define pollution, so I asked for his definition. He said he’d include harming people. I asked him who is being harmed. Silence. Strangely, I find most of my questions to those on the other side keep going unanswered– some of them seem to have blocked me.

Sure, people are “forced” to see something they don’t want to see, in specific circumstances. Or, perhaps they are forced to accidentally photograph something they didn’t intend to photograph. A photobomb of sorts (but one you can avoid with a little prior planning— at least for the time being). The newer Starlink satellites are getting harder and harder to see, even right after launch. Musk has been trying to make them less reflective to keep ground-based astronomers happy, so perhaps it is working.

Someone said the pollution is the damage done by ruining a little of the beauty of nature for everyone. That’s too subjective.

I want to go outside and look at the horizon without seeing any man-made structures or invasive/exotic trees blocking the natural view. Am I being harmed that this isn’t possible where I live?

I hate to hear dogs bark. I don’t like seeing boys hobbling around with their pants below their butts. Is this pollution?

If I see my neighbor walk to the end of their driveway and they aren’t attractive enough for me to want to see them, am I being harmed? I don’t think so. A better case for pollution could be made if they were smoking and I caught a whiff of their smoke. Yet I’m not petty enough to make an issue about that. They can smoke cigars as they walk out to the street naked and I can’t think of a way this actually harms me.

Yes, “astronomy” pictures taken with a long exposure can be “ruined” by the multiple streaks from Starlink satellites. How many satellite tracks does it take to ruin a photo? One? Three? A dozen? Do planes also ruin photos? Do meteors?

It takes a long exposure– specialty photography– to really have a problem with Starlink streaks. I could complain if I use infrared photography to take photos of my neighbor’s house and I see them inside doing things I don’t want to see, but who has the problem here?

Starlink is intended to fund Musk’s Mars missions and Martian colony. I am in favor of getting humans to Mars and to seeing if they can live there sustainably. It takes a lot of money– profit– to fund these kinds of things. Either direct profit spent willingly by those who earned it, or profit confiscated from the rightful owner by government through “taxation”– guess which one I like better.

One of the detractors said satellites are too expensive and it would be cheaper to run wires out to all the remote areas to provide high-speed internet. I think this shows a lack of understanding of how remote some remote areas actually are, and the economics of running wires out there and the people in remote areas being able to actually afford to use such a service. Plus, this only shifts the property damage to actual property. Would these people like to have a path bulldozed for this line– either underground or hanging on poles– through their property so they don’t have to see (if they look hard) something they don’t want to see in the dusky sky?

I have gone out at night and watched Starlink satellites pass overhead. Most of the time they were too dim for me to see. A few times I was able to see the “train”– a string of satellites following one another across the sky– with some success. It’s rather interesting to see and even beautiful in a way. But, even though I really like antique stuff made of brass, bone, wood, leather, and glass, I’m not a Luddite.

I get it, though. If I had my choice I’d turn the clock back to the Pleistocene or something and wear animal skins and live in a cave. I don’t care to see plastic everywhere I look– I’d rather see mammoths. But I can’t pretend someone is harming me just because the world isn’t the same as it used to be or as I might wish it still were. There are more important things to fix.

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