FP2P: Paul Romer Interview Highlights
By Bryan Caplan
Kling and Schulz‘s interview with Paul Romer sharply raises my already favorable opinion of him. Highlights (italicized titles mine):
No, This Isn’t Nanotech
I’ll claim that there’s a recipe out there that you could use to just assemble carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms, and that if you just use the right recipe to put them together, it will make a factory that will be smaller than a car, that will be mobile, that will seek out some renewable input, that will convert [the input] into some chemical that humans want, that will be self-healing whenever it gets injured, that will maintain sterile conditions, and that will even make a replica of itself when one generation breaks down…
If you describe that just in the abstract, many people will think it’s not possible. But then you point out to them that it already exists in the form of a dairy cow.
The Wonders of Combinatorics
There are more possible DNA sequences than there are elementary particles in the universe. You could never create them all because there aren’t enough particles in the universe to make them, but if you imagine a set that large and think that, well, one element out of that set is something as astonishing as a cow, and another element is a bat that navigates by echolocation, and another element is a human – humans, who talk to each other and make music like Mozart did and so on – the conclusion you come to is that the set of all possible ordered structures we can make out of just the raw material here on earth is incredibly large.
So it’s that kind of analysis, thinking of ideas as recipes – really, instructions for combining together small numbers of physical objects – that persuades, I think, anybody who works through the logic that the number of things we could have even tried up to this point in time is so small compared with the number of things that are possible, that we’re just extremely early in this discovery process. For as far as you want to project into the future of humans, we won’t run out of new things to discover.
Freeloading to Prosperity
I would distinguish questions about development from questions about growth. Development is the set of questions around why some people, some nations have very low standards of living compared with others…
What’s wrong in many parts of the world is they don’t have these institutions, and of the two [kinds], it’s much more the market institutions which are fundamentally lacking, because if you think about it, a poor country in sub-Saharan Africa could get enormous benefits from just making use of what’s already known in the rest of the world without necessarily contributing to that body of knowledge itself. If they could just put in place institutions that let them essentially freeload, take advantage of what’s already known, they could do much better.
Nick and Arnold Distillation of the Last Passage
In the book Barriers to Riches by Edward Prescott and Steven Parente, it is argued that if undeveloped or underdeveloped parts of the world could just harness the existing stock of knowledge, they wouldn’t have to actually generate any new knowledge at all – they could attain the living standards that are enjoyed in Western Europe and the United States and Japan.