Arnold Kling  

Idiocracy

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Without mentioning the movie, Bruce Charlton thinks we are living it.


So we should be honest about the fact that human do not anymore fly to the moon because humans cannot anymore fly to the moon. Humans have failed to block the leaking oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico because we nowadays cannot do it (although humans would surely have solved the problem 40 years ago, but in ways we can no longer imagine since then the experts were both smarter and more creative than we are now, and these experts would then have been in a position to do the needful).

Charlton says that we no longer have the sort of concentrated expertise that enabled us to fly to the moon. Perhaps. If you go to Europe, you will see cathedrals that I do not think we could build any more. Does anyone think that we could produce a Constitution as brilliant as that devised in 1787?

I think that there are situations in which talented individuals are collected in ways that yield amazing feats. And there are situations in which talented individuals are assembled in dysfunctional institutions so that they undermine one another's capabilities. One can argue that the art of being a CEO is fostering the former type of institution rather than the latter.

Incidentally, Idiocracy is a really bad movie, but it has to be seen.


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The author at  Modeled Behavior in a related article titled Cathedrals, You Say? writes:
    Arnold Kling doesn’t think we can construct cathedrals, anymore: Charlton says that we no longer have the sort of concentrated expertise that enabled us to fly to the moon. Perhaps. If you go to Europe, you will see cathedrals that I do not think... [Tracked on June 22, 2010 11:45 PM]
COMMENTS (30 to date)
Mike K. writes:
Incidentally, Idiocracy is a really bad movie, but it has to be seen.

No, no it doesn't.

Mike Gibson writes:

I agree. The movie's awful, but the concept is genius.

P writes:

LOL @ the idea of the Constitution being "brilliant".

The State cannot be restrained by rules written on a piece of paper that are interpreted by the agents of the State. The founding fathers were deluded idealists in the exact way that their progressive descendants are.

Tox writes:

Idiocracy is an unwatchably bad movie, but the important concept idea of people getting dumber over time is conveyed in the opening sequence. The first five minutes is sufficient.

David R. Henderson writes:

Arnold,
Charlton's point doesn't ring true. Take going to the moon. "We" could still do that if "we" budgeted for it. I'm not advocating it. I'd like to end NASA and open things up to the private sector. I think Charlton is confusing lack of ability with increased constraints.

Zdeno writes:

It runs out of steam a bit in the second half, but Idiocracy was a hilarious movie. Can you name more than five better comedies from the past decade?

As for the decline of human achievement, it's instructive to consider what Victorian England, Pre-revolutionary France, or Gilded-Age America could have done with 21st century technology. iPhones and Playstations distract us from the reality of cultural and institutional decline.

Consider:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Chicago_Fire#After_the_fire

Vs.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina#Aftermath

Cheers,

Zdeno

John F. Opie writes:

Actually, European cathedrals are in a continuous process of being rebuilt: they actually need quite a bit of constant work to maintain them. This is done with a small group of permanently hired stonemasons and other experts, who generally spend most of their lives maintaining cathedrals. Replacement stone masons and other specialists are always being trained, as they can earn fairly lucrative money with their trade skills in Europe (the wealthy tend to like work that they do).

As a result, they most certainly could be built today (if anything, the technology/knowledge to build them has improved significantly): the problem is that they are extremely expensive to build and maintain. You need a small army of stonemasons to build a cathedral in a hurry (say 5 years); most major cathedrals were built by a relatively small number of people over very long time spans (actually, some took centuries to build due to budget restraints, as they were financed out of local tithing, which would dry up when harvests failed and wars decimated populations).

Mr. Charlton's thesis also doesn't hold water. The decision to abandon the moon was a political one: if it was reversed tomorrow (please!) we wouldn't do it the same way (see Constellation plans of NASA, which were killed for political reasons), but not being able to do it at all? Sorry.

And P is wrong: the founding fathers were supreme pragmatists, not deluded idealists. Their descendants today aren't progressives at all, but rather quite the contrary. The founding fathers saw what didn't work and made sure that the constitution put measures in place to make sure that that which didn't work couldn't happen.

brianweiner writes:

It seems like question begging to me - "we do not do these things because we can not do them".

What is his basis for arguing we could have capped this well faster 40 years ago? We clearly had spills at that point that went long periods without being capped. Furthermore we would never have been able to dig that deeply in the first place.

It also seems pretty damn arbitrary that he just waves his hands and declares molecular biology, medical research, neuroscience, et al as "almost wholly trivial or bogus". On what grounds? How can he declare entire fields as diverse and complex as those as entirely bogus?

I don't disagree that some govt programs in the military and public sciences have gone downhill due to bureaucratic pressure, funding cuts, poor hiring, etc. But to say we're not capable of anything complex - well the LHC at CERN would seem to be a reasonable counterargument.

jb writes:

Frankly, I think he's talking out of his ass.

1) He has no justification for his claim about expert well-capping in mile-deep water 40 years ago. It's just handwaving on his part.
2) We haven't gone back to the moon because there's no point. There isn't enough interesting stuff there to justify spending all that time and money. If the moon had large reserves of diamonds or unobtanium, or whatever, we'd have permanent colonies.

Do we have the expertise to go back to the Moon? Probably not right this minute, but I don't think it would take that long to rebuild. This is simple pragmatism, and he claims its 'idiocracy'.

We have advanced the state of our technology in almost countless ways since I was born (40 years ago, natch). But just because the ways we have advanced are the ways Charlton approves of, they don't count.

BS. He's just being provocative for infamy's sake.


GU writes:

Although I do think it is possible there is downward pressure on IQ because of the stupid outbreeding the smart, I don't think the results would show themselves this quickly.

An alternative explanation is the lack of common culture, the lack of a national bond felt between citizens, between fellow workers, etc. Especially in the large cities, I think we in the U.S. lack fraternity. The '60s destroyed the culture of this country and it hasn't recovered. This plus Robert Putnam-type concerns about our ever-increasing diversity lowering social trust.

Jim O'Toole writes:

Brought to you by Carl's Jr.

Zdeno writes:

Charlton's point doesn't ring true. Take going to the moon. "We" could still do that if "we" budgeted for it. I'm not advocating it. I'd like to end NASA and open things up to the private sector. I think Charlton is confusing lack of ability with increased constraints.

Do we have the expertise to go back to the Moon? Probably not right this minute, but I don't think it would take that long to rebuild. This is simple pragmatism, and he claims its 'idiocracy'

The point is not that we lack the technological ability to send a man to the moon. Western civilization has certainly retained the technological know-how of generations passed, and in almost all cases made improvements.

The decline is in our ability and willingness to accomplish goals with the technology we have. Could we put a man on the moon today? Sure. Do we have the requisite cultural hunger for greatness? Apparently not.

Do we have the technology, logistics, and organizational capital to conquer and govern third-world territories today? Sure. But the British ruled India with sailboats and muskets. Somehow, with predator drones, JDAMs and trillions of dollars in military hardware, we can't bring peace and order to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Street crime was essentially non-existent in pre-20th century Europe, while today huge areas of almost every major American city are extremely dangerous for civilized people.

Past generations of artists and architects have created wonders. Last weekend, I visited the national gallery of Canada's "Pop Art" show. Exhibits included: A sculpture of a dead horse with a wood post through its torso; Photos of hard-core pornography; A framed dirty tablecloth; and, I swear I am not making this up, a life-size statue of a blue-haired japanese-animation man, erect penis in his hand, out of which shot a stream of semen that whirl-winded around him. Next to that, a similar statue of a grotesquely-large-breasted woman achieving the same effect with her lactating breasts.

Anyways, there are certainly examples of progress and advancement over the past century or so. I suppose a Whig would see the same things I do, and conclude that we have simply prioritized social welfare over space exploration, international law over military success, and human rights over effective law enforcement. The pop-artists surely have their rationale for why the semen tornado is the contemporary successor to the Statue of David. The overwhelming picture I see , however, is one of decline, occasionally masked by technological progress.

Cheers,

Zdeno

PS. Upon further reflection, I have decided that Idiocracy is a mediocre movie - but still one of the best comedies to emanate from Hollywood in te past decade. A final, meta-confirmation of Charlton's hypothesis.

Adam writes:

In 1960, there wasn't a team that could put a person on the moon. Before 1968, there was such a team. The well in the Gulf could be shut down. It just takes some very high explosive.

No ingenuity or determination these days? Things as simple and commonplace as Ipods and Iphones belie that. What about medicine? Incredible miracles are performed every day with unimaginable technology. A lot of the stuff we use every day and take for granted didn't exist 10 years ago.

The physics of the moon shot was simple--just a matter of enough thrust at the right time. The heroism of the crews was awesome. But today there are such heros accomplishing the unimaginable each day. The big change is that no one take notice--just as no much noticed the launch of Apollo 13.

mike shupp writes:

It's not that we just "forgot" how to go to the moon -- forgetting how was a deliberate act of public policy. Conservatives and economists of all political persuasions should take pride; ending the Apollo program, and keeping manned space programs closely tied to earth, at an ever decreasing fraction of GNP, is a splendid demonstration of "starving the beast." Government programs can be ended with bipartisan support, with little public rancor, and almost erased from all but history books.

Go home tonight, you guys. Pat your kids on the head, smile at them, kiss your wife. In a loud booming voice, tell them, "Life is good. We killed Star Trek!"

guthrie writes:

Small quibble with jb's post...

There's actually plenty to go back to the moon for... large reserves of H3 to fuel fusion technology, large reserves of engineering metals (iron, aluminum, titanium, magnesium), and large reserves of silica top the list. The lower gravity well makes it easier to launch satellites into GEO and LEO from the lunar surface than up from Earth itself.

I'd put the reason we haven't returned to the moon more on the culture surrounding space travel as well as Professor Henderson's point about increased constraints. Since the Gemini/Apollo program, the Moon has been considered NASA's playground. They are seen (and see themselves) as the *only* game in town. When American businessmen attempted to purchase the Mir, the plan was derailed by NASA and others in the US government bullying the Russians.

The cost of a one-way trip to the moon is considerable. The cost of developing life-support for human habitation in such a hostile environment is considerable. Add to that the cost of butting heads with bureaucrats in NASA or the FAA or the Air Force (et al), and you’ll find relatively few willing to take the risk.

But that has nothing to do with the potential benefits of lunar occupation.

That being said, I agree with the gist of your post. There’s plenty of evidence against 'idiocracy'.

Steve Sailer writes:

Comedy films don't have to be high quality as films to matter. Is Idiocracy objectively much worse than Caddy Shack?

Snorri Godhi writes:

No doubt this is an over-simplification, but I find the following ideas helpful to think about human history:
[1] until a few centuries ago, barbarians were probably more intelligent than civilized people [on average];
[2] most people today are probably more intelligent than most barbarians at any time;
[3] when it comes to specifically political intelligence, however, there has been a sharp decline over the last 100 years or so; but this decline is fortunately limited to the West, and possibly to the Western intelligentsia alone [it is difficult to estimate the political intelligence of the masses at times when most people could not vote].

Brian writes:

I'd like to see some citations on the lack of street crime in pre-20th century Europe. I find that unbelievable.

And if we want to use crime as a comparison, we have significantly less violence and crimetoday than we had in 1960. The aspersion of "huge areas of American cities..." that are too dangerous to live in is so hyperbolic it cannot be taken seriously.

As far as occupations are concerned, yes we have much more technology today than in the past, but so do our enemies. It's a lot easier to cultivate an insurgency nowadays than it was. There's lots of cheap weaponry, there's easy communication, and there are plenty of historical examples to learn from on how to annoy occupying forces. It's an example of how lots of tech and intelligence can have diminishing returns on the battlefield.

The semen twirl sounds like Murakami http://images.nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/murakami070604_560.jpg . His art is pretty strange, but an example of our decline? Please.

Chris T writes:

The moon landing was ultimately a political stunt to one up the Soviets. Once Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Lunar surface its purpose was fulfilled.

The Deepwater Horizon well wasn't even possible a decade ago.

I find it odd that an article bemoaning current human achievement is posted on the greatest information sharing medium ever created by humans - one that has only really arisen in the last twenty years. Apparently linking billions of individuals to each other and to virtually all of human knowledge doesn't count as significant to some people.

kevin writes:

Charlton's post is baseless. He claims that medical science has been stagnant or declining, yet during his golden age of human ability (the sixties and seventies(!)) 90% of doctors in one poll said that they wouldn't even tell their patients if they had cancer!

This made sense at the time since cancer survival rates were so low--it was essentially a death sentence to have any kind of cancer. Now, almost 70% of US cancer patients survive 5 years later.

Overall, I suspect that Charlton is just suffering from Old Man's Bias, the near universal belief amongst old guys that the world was at its best before their back started hurting and their hearing started to fail.

Chris T writes:

"As far as occupations are concerned, yes we have much more technology today than in the past, but so do our enemies. It's a lot easier to cultivate an insurgency nowadays than it was. There's lots of cheap weaponry, there's easy communication, and there are plenty of historical examples to learn from on how to annoy occupying forces. It's an example of how lots of tech and intelligence can have diminishing returns on the battlefield."

There's also the minor imposition that it's now morally impermissible to slaughter villages or kill an insurgent's family. This is apparently a step back to Charlton.

Nick writes:

Ah nothing like a nice dose of nostalgia bias.

There was nothing magical about the engineers behind the Apollo program, we just threw an enormous amount of money at the problem.

The costs for Apollo was about 4% of the federal budget. Does any reasonable thinking person really believe we could not go back to the moon if we were willing to spend $150 billion on it? I bet we could even do it in less than a decade.


Nick writes:

Reading the whole article it is really a load of nonsense.

There have been advances in science and engineering that dwarf the moon landing. The "wow" factor is less, sure, but the advances are no less amazing. Consider the CPU in your cellphone is close to an order of magnitude faster than the one which ran your desktop computer only a decade ago.

If anything advances in technology have made people less creative. We probably have the same level of creative potential, but less potential is exercised when solutions can be found at the push of a button. Recall the characters in idiocracy were stupid, but their stupidity was really overshadowed by their laziness.


William Newman writes:

We don't make many documents like the Constitution these days, but I'm not sure it indicates loss of the ability to do so. It reminds me of patterns I see in software development: a lot of really useful software has a restraint and elegance about it, and this is reasonably well-known, and lots of good programmers start to recognize it. But it seldom gets promoted very well in governments and big corporations. Big organizations seem to be hard-pressed even to empower people who can recognize it: a fair proportion of large organizations don't seem to do a very good job of recognizing good software until they have clear examples of it succeeding at comparable organizations.

A similar phenomenon seems to apply even more strongly to writing books. Our society hasn't lost the ability to produce brilliant manuscripts for books. But governments and megacorporations aren't very good at manufacturing good manuscripts, or even at commissioning outsiders to manufacture them for them.

Almost all of our laws today come from organizations which are enormous and ancient compared to the organizational arrangements behind the Constitution.

NiccoloA writes:

So... Why was going to the moon so brilliant again?


Seems kind of pointless to me, actually.


Hey, we're on the moon!


5 minutes pass

So... Can we go back yet?

Les Cargill writes:

Whoever said "See the first five minutes of Idiocracy" nailed that. But there's a better resource - "The Venture Brothers", at least the first few seasons. It's a sort of "where are the flying cars" meets "regression to the mean" narrative, with lots of cheezy pop culture references. The pointy is that people's interests shifted, not that we're dumber. Nobody navigates wooden ships from Portugal to the West Indies, either. That's not lost, it's just replaced.

Large, monolithic projects like the moon shot are inherently *non* free market. I'd say so is the Deepwater Horizon. The driver for being in 5k ft of water is "out of sight, out of mind", SFAIK.

Even more directly referrable-to is the cartoon series "Sealab 2021", in which Sealab always blows up at the end.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Arnold, my first impression was that this post seems to contradict your argument in Pov to Prosp. But perhaps Economics 2.0 really does not require "concentrated expertise", but rather small teams of talented people who invent or apply technologies. Would you describe Apple as "concentrated expertise"?

I would also challenge Charlton's smooth polemic segue that puts a leaky oil well and a moonshot in the same category as evidence of civilizational decline.

guthrie writes:

NiccoloA,

Same could have been said of the New World by European or First Nation settlers. Same could have been said of Europe by the Neanderthals. Same could have been said of Asia by those ancestors of ours who left Africa.

Personally I'm happy that these guys left guys with your attitude at home.

kingstu writes:

Idiocracy was a brilliant movie. Although I don't often rely solely on reviews, Metacritic gave it a 64 and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 72, both solid scores.

The scene with Justin Long alone makes this movie and instant classic. Terry Crews as U.S. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, former wrestling champ and porn star gives a stellar performance.

Kling, thankfully your economics is better than you movie reviews.

James Anderson Merritt writes:

Does anyone think that we could produce a Constitution as brilliant as that devised in 1787?

I have no doubt that many individuals or very small groups could do this thing today. The problem is that they are not the people who have political power, nor could the agreement of the latter be secured -- much less that of "the people," were this project tried, for example, as a national referendum -- without a great deal of brilliance-dulling, bulk-increasing compromise.

Let's not forget that the Constitution of 1787 was the SECOND attempt at a national founding document. The first one was fairly brief, too, though also deficient in many ways. In the full realization of the earlier failure, and with the urgency of needing to set the country on the right course or risk losing it altogether, the authors of the Constitution had both the motivation and inspiration to craft an elegant document for the ages, not to mention a good example of what to avoid. The Constitution, in all its brilliance (which I concede and admire) did NOT spring immediately, fully-formed, from the heads of the Founders. They kept at it until they produced something solid. We could, too, but probably not under ordinary circumstances, or with the usual cast of Idiocrats.

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