By Bryan Caplan
In the past Robin has braved the derision of his colleagues by speculating that in the next few decades, (a) we might upload our brains and achieve immortality, and (b) the economy might start doubling in size every few days. So it’s strange that lately he’s been sounding awfully pessimistic:
Today median world income is now roughly five times subsistence level
and rising. But eventually incomes must fall, as we may learn to make
people much faster (as in brain ems), or when econ growth rates fall
below feasible population growth rates.
Wages have risen because economic growth rates have outpaced feasible
rates of growing well-trained people. But current growth rates simply
cannot continue at familiar levels for ten thousand more years. We’ll
eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms,
and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light.
I’m baffled. You don’t have to be a sci-fi guy to think that in the next century we’ll get working virtual reality. And once we have that, why couldn’t economic growth of 1% (or 10%) continue forever in simulations? In the real world, we can’t all be emperor of an infinite universe. But I don’t see why every one of us couldn’t preside over our own simulated utopias?
As for all this talk of atoms: Economics is about value, not matter. As long as people regard vivid virtual goods as acceptable substitutes for actual goods, how can the scarcity of atoms stop everyone from having everything he desires? Robin might respond that computing power will be too scarce to simulate a big virtual world in great detail. But who really cares if the simulation is accurate down to the microscopic level anyway?