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So, is the world getting better? Stephen Pinker has just released the latest of his tomes insisting that it is. We’ve also, as he points out, innumerable people insisting that Gehenna is just around the corner. Or we can delve down into more detail and ask just what is progress? The answer being that it depends upon what we say it is – tautological and therefore true. Take this from Scott Sumner:

In 1968, there was almost a universal view that the progress in things like aviation over the next 50 years would be comparable to the progress over the past 50 years (since 1918). Supersonic, then hypersonic. In fact, airliners today are actually slower than in 1968, and less comfortable. There’s been almost no progress. Almost everyone was wrong.

That tells us something about 1968, to be sure, but it doesn’t say there has been no progress. For what is it that we should define as progress in airplanes? That they become faster? That’s certainly one axis along which we can describe improvement and one I’m just great with myself – having, as I have, done a bit of work supplying weird metals into hypersonic scramjet programs. More please say I.

But is that the only axis along which we can describe improvement? How about the cost of air travel, the thing people are more likely to be interested in? Or the safety, also something of a general concern? The number of places it is possible to get to on a plane – I’m not sure if the world does have more airports than in 1968 but I’m absolutely certain that there are more regular flights to more places than there used to be. The number of hops it’s necessary to take to get somewhere? The noise an aircraft makes – that’s reduced hugely not that most people know that. The fuel consumption of one?

The truth being that speed of aircraft is perhaps the only thing about air travel which hasn’t increased over these decades. For the reason Tyler Cowen keeps trying to tell us, there are no solutions, there are only trade offs. Supersonic air travel is hugely more expensive in terms of fuel than current speeds. Fuel has rather increased in price as have, rightly, carbon taxes. We’re thus trading off that speed for cost, something that seems to be what people actually want, rather the point of our exercise in having an economy.

This is not to diss Sumner, his statement about the speed of air travel is a common complaint. He’d also agree with all of my subsequent explication now that it has been pointed out. He’d also agree with the following.

How we’ve progressed depends upon how we define progress. Which produces huge problems in economics usually shuffled under the heading “hedonic.” We can measure the price of things, sure enough, so we do and we come up with something we call “inflation.” A series of calculations made horribly difficult because we’ve got to define that progress thang. A fall in price relative to other prices is great, we’re especially interested in a fall in the prices of goods and services relative to wages. That’s an increase in real wages, that’s us all getting richer. But quite obviously price isn’t the only thing we’re interested in.

This is the reverse of that airplane argument. They’ve not got faster but getting onto one is cheaper. For a goodly portion of the world things don’t become cheaper but they do become the equivalent of faster. A $500 computer does most of the things most people want a computer to do these days. That wasn’t true in 1968. This might be an English thing more than elsewhere but £5 altered for the general inflation rate buys a drinkable, not just cooking, bottle of wine these days, not something true in 1968.

We know we measure inflation wrongly for these reasons. We try, hard, to adjust for changes in quality and so on but cannot adjust for them all. Greater availability isn’t something that pops up in our inflation, thus changes in standards of living, numbers just as one example.

Or, as we can put it again, whether we’ve progressed depends upon how we define progress.

All cars produced and or sold in the US in 1968 would reach the speed limit of 70 mph. Sure, some of them only downhill, with a following wind and a great deal of hope but. All cars produced and or sold in the US today reach the speed limit of 70 mph. A 2018 car is a great deal better than a 1968 one though, isn’t it?

Maybe speed alone isn’t quite the greatest determinant of progress therefore?

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Bloke in Cyprus
Member

In fact, airliners today are actually slower than in 1968, and less comfortable.

This is clearly false on several levels…

Airliners aren’t slower (Concorde excepted of course) and as you point out flights are significantly cheaper. However, if you want to shell out an equivalent amount a level of luxury is available that couldn’t have been dreamed of in 1968.

Passengers therefore have the choice that wasn’t available in 1968 – cheap relatively uncomfortable travel or extremely comfortable travel in business/First class.

Bloke on M4
Member
Bloke on M4

There’s also the matter of substitute inventions. We solved the problems people wanted solving in other ways. We invented the fax, email, web, skype which meant that very expensive people could stop wasting their time travelling.

Hector Drummond
Member

There’s also a trade-off with speed and noise. More speed, above supersonic levels, creates more nosie in the form of sonic booms, which many governments didn’t like.

Twatting on Tim
Guest

Almost every serious commentator from the right wing of politics who also has some knowledge of the real world is pretty worried right now. From Martin Wolf to the IMF via many a political leader who sees inequality stripping them of any residual electoral appeal they had, they’re all quaking at the inevitability that at some point soon over valued asset prices, from shares to bonds to property, will collapse and drag with them much of the world’s banking system that they fear they will be unable to bail out again. The odour of their fear is pretty unappealing as… Read more »

Southerner
Member

If you want to write three-hundred page comments (which nobody reads anyway) why don’t you stick to your own blog?

Bloke in North Dorset
Member

The major lesson from that forecast is that its stupid to make straight line forecasts whenever human beings and technology are involved. (See also global warming)

Spike
Member

(1) US air travel was getting more comfortable, in the era of spunky New York Air and other rogue start-ups. After 2001, airports were militarized and this tended to add high costs to entry into the industry. The majors would not be wringing every last dollar and inch out of the passenger if they had to look over their shoulders. (2) The media pack-dogs are seizing on every anecdote of on-board fights, and airline ineptitude in handling them, because it is now a category, and someone in Congress might have filed a bill. (3) Two silver dimes buys one US… Read more »

Bernie G.
Member
Bernie G.

“How we’ve progressed depends upon how we define progress.…price isn’t the only thing we’re interested in.” True, but there was a time when flying was more affordable – and I don’t mean Ryanair. You used to be able to sit at the front of the bus without having to be an oligarch. I remember South African Airways when inflight catering included a large tub of caviar and bottle of iced vodka per passenger. It was the only way to travel. “This might be an English thing more than elsewhere but £5 altered for the general inflation rate buys a drinkable,… Read more »

tomsmith
Member
tomsmith

Please ban boring cnut above. He types a massive screed of unreadable waffle on every post.

Realist_100
Member
Realist_100

Both my 1969 and 1970 cars (I didn’t have one made in 1968, but both of those were in production back then) had two things you don’t get now. Firstly, screen washers independent of wipers, so you could soften dried-on mud without scratching the glass, and secondly heating and ventilating systems that could direct fresh air to the face (to keep you awake on the way home from the pub after the obligatory 3 or 4 pints) while having warm air to the legs (to dry your trousers and shoes). No, not from an accident in the Gents, but rain… Read more »

Spike
Member

I could not imagine softening mud by pushbutton. But how about rear-window wipers? Intermittent wipers? Pretty good protection from head-on crashes (speaking of driving on 4 pints)? My cheap Hyundai is cheap to repair, at an independent shop rather than the dealership. Repair bills include the costs of scheduling and handling no-shows; to Bernie G. (below), it is obviously cheaper for the manufacturer to do all the work at once, and both costs beat assembling a car yourself from spares. Before your eyes water, always ask, “Compared to what?”

Bernie G.
Member
Bernie G.

Ridiculous cost of repairs… One day, bored to tears, a friend worked out how much it would cost to rebuild his top of the range Mercedes from spares. Eye-watering!

Tommydog
Guest
Tommydog

I remember my ’66 Ranchero quite fondly. 289. Bench seat. Everything I owned fit in the back. Don’t think I’ve had a vehicle since that I felt quite the same about.

Pcar
Guest
Pcar

imho ~1990 was the sweet spot for cars: economical, fuel injection, electronic ignition, abs, safe, reliable, no Cats/DPFs – easy to DIY and no excess technology.

I drove a 1987 Rover 820Si from 1992 to 2010 with minimal servicing & parts costs. 35-40mpg, 0-60 8.7sec, 130mph max. Spacious, comfortable, easy to drive, good handling, quick, perfect.

2010: chassis was beyond repair; engine, interior, body, electrics all OK and mileage was ~350,000

1990 C4 now.

jgh
Member
jgh

Twat, you need to make your posts more concise. SWP-style walls of text just turns off the reader’s cognative faculties.

moqifen
Member
moqifen

@jgh – since theres a link to Capt potatoes site on every posting by Twatting on tim – sounds like ragging on ritchie it might be the great man himself. Captain potato does produce endless screeds of nonsense but usually badly spelt. the only sure way to be sure is to disagree with twat – the real capt potato cannot take any disagreement and soon the candislys will be flying and he’ll be threatening to ban you. Interesting if it’s the real capt potato but his posts will be full of the usual drivel and nonsense.