Limits to Progress?
Without the progress of the 20th century, Milton Berle said, we’d all be watching television by candlelight. (Of course, postal delivery might be roughly the same.)
This is from Todd G. Buchholz’s article on economic growth in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal. The whole article is well worth reading.
It reminded me of when I gave a talk at a local Borders’ a couple of years ago. My talk was titled, “Do We Need to Go to War for Oil?” (My answer, by the way, was no.) The talk attracted people from various parts of the political spectrum, including a friend of mine, George Riley, who’s a local Green Party leader. During Q&A, George said:
I’m starting to get the impression that economists don’t see any limits to how wealthy we can be. Am I right about how economists think?
Instead of answering yes, I said:
Let me answer indirectly. Imagine you’re an average young adult in the United States in the year 1900. What does your life look like? Maybe you came from Europe or maybe your parents did. One thing you’re pretty certain of is that you won’t be going back to Europe unless it’s as a soldier. So you’ll probably never see your relatives from Europe. Will you be able to call them on the phone? No. Do you have a refrigerator? No. What happens if you get a bad blister that gets infected. Can you take penicillin? No. It doesn’t exist yet. You might die. Someone tells you that in about 100 years, you’ll be able to carry around a phone that you can afford and be able to call, for a very small fee, a relative in Europe. Moreover, you’ll be able to do it while you’re walking. Also, he tells you, if you hit it off with your European relative, you can go over there next week in less than a day and spend less than one month’s after-tax pay to do so. And then, what about music? He tells you that you’ll be able to carry around music that you can access . . .
“Ok,” said George, “I get it.”
It’s amazing how many people don’t. Here’s a quote from the transcript of a Meet the Press interview that David Gregory did with Anne Mulcahy, not just a random person, but the head of one of the biggest companies in the world, Xerox:
MR. GREGORY: Meaning we talk about–is wealth going to return?
MS. MULCAHY: I think wealth does return.
MR. GREGORY: To the levels that we’ve experienced it?
MS. MULCAHY: Not to the levels we’ve experienced it.