Bryan Caplan  

The Present and the Future

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Canadian Banks and their Regul... John Stossel Tonight...
Last night I saw Star Trek with Robin, Alex, and Garett.  The amazing thing to me was how unimpressive Earth looks hundreds of years in the future.  It looks like economic growth in the future has been well under 1% for a quarter millenium.  When the real world hits the mid-23rd century, I see a world blanketed in cities inhabited by a trillion immortals.

If this strikes you as implausible, check out the futurist I prefer to J.J. Abrams - one of the few who marvels that the future is already here.

HT: Robin for buying my ticket and saving my seat, and Aaron Mills for the clip.


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TRACKBACKS (2 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1821

    Peter Suderman gives a positive review to the new Star Trek movie, but notes that it focuses more on personal issues than political ones. It will be interesting to see ...

    [Tracked on May 9, 2009 12:49 AM]
The author at Jacqueline Gets Her Geek On in a related article titled Star Trek Movie (COMMENTS CONTAIN SPOILERS) writes:
    I took my Managerial Accounting final exam early so that I could attend the first IMAX screening of the new Star Trek movie instead. Fortunately, my professor didn't ask me WHY I needed to take the exam early, because I'm pretty sure that would have be... [Tracked on May 12, 2009 2:59 AM]
COMMENTS (26 to date)
Stewart Ulm writes:

Louis CK's bit was great. It's a great reminder that we really do live in an amazing age. Despite that I have sort of mixed feelings about his sentiment. It's precisely because we are so impatient and demanding that we are so wealthy. Without our unending desire for something better, we would have none of the amazing things we now take for granted.

Stewart Ulm writes:

Oh, and as far as growth in the Star Trek universe goes: I'm not sure how Abrams has reinvented Trek history, but in the original storyline we are told that Earth underwent a series of terrible wars that put humanity into a period of violence and ignorance. It wasn't until the warp drive was developed that humanity supposedly blossomed again.

David R. Henderson writes:

Who's Garett?

fundamentalist writes:

The UN estimates that the world population will peak at about 9 billion in roughly 10 years and then slowly decline. I don't see us getting to a 100 billion people, let alone a trillion.

Greg Ransom writes:

Will the whole world be Muslim under Muslim?

Have the nukes wars raged?

The future will not be just an ruler put on the growth curve of the America you knew as a child.

Kevin writes:

Fundamentalist, that's because the UN hasn't taken into account Bryan's "immortals" concept. I imagine the population could reach a trillion if the death rate dropped to zero.

Erich Schwarz writes:

"It looks like economic growth in the future has been well under 1% for a quarter millenium."

After the 22cd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed by Congress in 2011, we had -- due to the wonders of life-extension -- over 200 years of Obama-Pelosi restrictions on economic and technological growth. Need I say more?

scott clark writes:

Would you still expect 1 trillion people to be living on earth even with the moon and mars and saturn's moons and jupiter's moons terraformed to a great degree and cheap and fast and comfortable travel and communication between those places, plus colonies outside of this solar system as well? Isn't there some demand for a less crowded feeling in living arrangements?

david writes:

"It looks like economic growth in the future has been well under 1% for a quarter millenium."

Seems even a bit on the high side to me - the product of "pitchfork" economics combined with the Fed's honest-this-time-we-got-it-right monetary policy.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Questions answered:

David R. Henderson writes:

Who's Garett?
The great Garett Jones, Mr. IQ & Economics.

fundamentalist writes:

The UN estimates that the world population will peak at about 9 billion in roughly 10 years and then slowly decline. I don't see us getting to a 100 billion people, let alone a trillion.
This is just a linear projection that totally ignores natural selection. We are in the midst of a great extinction of anti-kid genes. Mormons and people who like my natalist arguments shall inherit the Earth - and I'm only half joking.

scott clark writes:

Would you still expect 1 trillion people to be living on earth even with the moon and mars and saturn's moons and jupiter's moons terraformed to a great degree and cheap and fast and comfortable travel and communication between those places, plus colonies outside of this solar system as well? Isn't there some demand for a less crowded feeling in living arrangements?
That might happen, too. But most people seem to strongly prefer living in densely populated areas if they can afford it. And in the future almost everyone will be rich. And unlike anti-kid genes, I don't see why natural selection would change our density preferences.

AMW writes:
And unlike anti-kid genes, I don't see why natural selection would change our density preferences.

An increase in deadly communicable diseases would do the trick.

scott clark writes:

I am going to push back a little. The way I see it, most people prefer living in densely populated areas precisely because doing so gives them more trading partners and thus makes them richer. Its more expensive to live in densely populated areas because you have to compete for space, but so far and for many people, the benefits outweigh the costs. You've written about that yourself. But don't lots of rich people buy big retreats, exclusive properties, lots of land in exotic locales, and thereby manage the population density that they come in contact with? Or at least control when and how much of the time they go for density and when they go for solitude? They don't go live in Mumbai just because its dense with people, either. So in the future Star Trek world, where almost everyone is rich, much travel is instantaneous (beaming, live in Montana, work in Fairfax,VA) and space travel looks to be realitively safe and comfortable (barring any hostile alien and pirate attacks), and you can terraform landscapes, and even manage climates, I am going to go with people spreading themselves out a little more than the density of Manhattan or Singapore.

J Cortez writes:

Regarding the population, I think we're a ways off from reaching a "critical mass" of people. Provided we don't kill each other into extinction via "Third Way" socialism and war, I would say there's still lots of area out there for people to cultivate and live on.

There's also an area that constitutes 70-75% of the Earth's surface, the ocean. I know many are justifiably skeptical of Patri Friedman's current effort regarding seasteading, but I believe it's an interesting idea and that it definitely won't go away. He may or may not succeed, but I think it is very plausible that at some point in the future that if he doesn't succeed, somebody else will.

fundamentalist writes:

"This is just a linear projection that totally ignores natural selection. We are in the midst of a great extinction of anti-kid genes. Mormons and people who like my natalist arguments shall inherit the Earth - and I'm only half joking."

If only your are right. I hope so! I'm not Mormon, but I like the Biblical phrase that blesses the man who has his quiver full.

But I'm pessimistic. Try reading "Genetic Entropy" by John Sanford. I have to warn you though, don't read it alone at night. It's really depressing!

Zac Gochenour writes:

Well, first I will say that I saw the movie last night in IMAX and it was amazing. At this point (after Watchmen and Star Trek) I can't really imagine seeing an epic film NOT in IMAX, which dampens my anticipation for the new Terminator.

On the issue of economic and population growth, remember that we are to assume Earth's governments became increasingly controlling and despotic, engaging in genetic manipulation (resulting in the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, 30 million deaths), concentration camps (resulting in the Bell Riots in 2024), and of course nuclear war (600 million casualties, with most of Earth's major urban centers destroyed). In the "post atomic horror" rule of law completely broke down in some regions.

So basically "almost everyone will be rich" assumes that we don't destroy ourselves in a massive world war. Once warp drive was discovered, humanity naturally set its sights outward, as it is said that the war had severely damaged earth's ozone and the atmosphere was flooding with radiation. The Earth-Romulan war also contributed, as it is assumed millions died in this conflict and Earth itself was attacked.

The way Earth was portrayed in the movie was consistent with what I'd expect for the Star Trek world. It seems feasible that most humans are not earthlings and instead live on colony worlds, well established by the 23rd century, with earth serving as a headquarters for Starfleet mostly for historical reasons but most people itching to get off the backwoods planet, like a small town that almost everyone moves out of if they can afford it. In Star Trek: TNG, it was suggested that there were trillions of living humans throughout the galaxy.

Troy Camplin writes:

Yeah, Louis CK was awesome in that bit. We should be more amazed. At the same time, Stewart is also right. Still, you know the jerk sitting next to you complaining is almost certainly not going to do anything to make the technology he's complaining about better -- except as a consumer, of course.

Kurbla writes:

My predictions are darker. It was Fermi who originally asked "where is everyone?" Why it appear that humanity is alone, by statistics, Universe should be full already.

It is possible that at one moment, the civilizations must destroys itself. As all technology, the technology for mass destruction becomes better and cheaper, and this trend will continue, until these weapons will be available to practically everyone for very low price. OK, maybe we have some chance, but the problem is serious, we should start solving it already, and libertarianism isn't the solution - Chicago cannot survive negative externalities of technology able to deliver A-bomb for $100 dollars on free market.

If humanity somehow doesn't destroy itself, yes, the future will be bright. Something like ST - The next generation.

Rob writes:

(joke) Perhaps they have such low economic growth because they have an almost entirely communist economy?

Tyler Cowen writes:

"When the real world hits the mid-23rd century, I see a world blanketed in cities inhabited by a trillion immortals."

Not bad for irrational voters!

Snark writes:

Fascinating...

Given that warp speed and teleportation are both theoretically possible, I wonder which technology would prove more revolutionary? Also, what can we expect the medium of exchange be some 250 years hence (smartcards, information, reputation points)? Finally, will economics ever become a hard science, or remain permanently flaccid?

bbass writes:

To be fair, we don't really see that much of Earth proper in the new Star Trek film - a few shots of Iowa, and some exterior shots of Starfleet Academy. What's more suggestive to me is the idea that you can become the captain of the flagship of the Federation fleet after 3 years at starfleet academy - that implies to me a kind of almost transhumanist turbocharging of the educational process.

j writes:

1% p.a. seems historically too high.

kurt9 writes:

The real sustainability limits of planet Earth:

http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/

Its around 15 billion people, assuming conventional agriculture. If biotechnology is used for food production and extraterrestrial resources (asteroid mining) utilized for certain key minerals, then the limits are around 30-40 billion. In the later case, the upper limit is set by the waste heat of civilization.

The idea of 1 trillion people living on Earth is laughable. No doubt we will solve the aging problem this century. However, curing aging will drop the birthrate even lower than it currently is in places like East Asia and Europe.

Also, by the 23rd century, O'niell space colonization should be quite common. Even with immortality, I do not see our population getting much above 20-30 billion by the 23rd century, and much of it will be scattered about the solar system. I would most certainly want to go some where else if our population here got up to 1 trillion.

The wild card is the development of some kind of FTL (Heim theory) or traversible wormholes.

phinneas writes:

If I remember correctly, in the Star Trek Universe doesn't Earth fall into complete disarray sometime in the 21st century, failed states across the globe, etc.? We could infer that such a case would ruin technological and economic growth, and improve your estimates of growth.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

While this picture might look "less wealthy" than this one, based on what animal instincts tells us is "lively" - compared to this - the first two are almost equally poor.

Atoms may be immortal. Life is not - by definition. I don't mind the universe that Star Trek is portraying. We are moving more in the direction of Wall.e? Or actually - more in the direction of the Neanderthal who, compared to homo homo sapiens, has lived ca 20,000-30,000 years longer than us?

Snark writes:

@Kurt9:

No doubt we will solve the aging problem this century.

So…the prospect of man achieving immortality is a fact, but belief in eternal life through faith in Christ is fiction? How closely do you identify with this line (from the movie Malice, 1993):

“You ask me if I have a God complex? Let me tell you something — I am God.” – Dr. Jed Hill

?

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