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?