February 17, 2019

Should We Believe in Progress?

“THE FIRST PARAGRAPH of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and continues: “it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” The early twenty-first century appears to resemble the late eighteenth century in at least this one respect. Assurances of progress alternate with threats of catastrophe; promises of endless improvement are answered by warnings of terminal decline; every Steven Pinker produces an equal and opposite Wendell Berry.

What’s at issue is not merely the accuracy of these dueling predictions—only the most long-lived participants in these debates will get to see their forecasts confirmed or falsified. In any case, the future is not a scientific experiment, in which one variable and then another is changed while the initial conditions are held constant. We have to make crucial long-term policy choices without the hope of knowing even many decades on whether different choices would have turned out better. (Yes, I know: “we” is a pleasant fiction; elites will make those policy choices. But let’s pretend we live in a democracy.)

The debate over progress is—overtly at least—a debate about technology: what’s worked, what’s likely to work, and at what cost. That sounds straightforward, but it’s not. Neoclassical economics is skilled at ignoring costs and benefits accruing to those with little market power, like subsistence farmers and fisherman, indigenous people attached to their land, and future residents of coastal areas (around 50 percent of America’s population) who might not want to have to choose between moving inland or living on a houseboat. Just as a proposal is “politically possible,” in Beltway jargon, not if a majority of the population wants it but only if it has some hope of mustering key congressional sponsors, so is a technology “viable” for an economist not if it would maximize human welfare but only if it can attract enough investors who expect to make a profit from it. Both decision processes are—to put it charitably—far from ideal.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"Have world leaders really got the will to bring peace to Yemen? We hear much about Yemen’s crisis, but far less about the hypocrisy of states fuelling the very conflict they condemn."

"No poll so far in our database has tested Trump against the relatively unknown Weld... Indeed, Weld seems like one of the weakest candidates that anti-Trump Republicans could put up in a national campaign. "

"An initiative by the mayor of Tiberias for the municipality to help provide public transportation on the Sabbath has caused the issue of the social status quo to the forefront of public discussion."

"Like “30 Rock,” “Kimmy Schmidt” obviously slanted leftward, but most always exhibited a similar eagerness to skewer politics more generally than just the GOP."

"Yes, we’re all overwhelmed with email. One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying."

"... platforms now have a stranglehold over publishers who, individually and even as a group, have little-to-no bargaining power when it comes to algorithmic changes, ad rates, and much else."

"[There's] a subgenre known as National Socialist black metal, which espouses neo-Nazi views and has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as aiming to recruit youth to white-supremacist causes."

"“The Ideas That Made America” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is an anomaly in the genre. Its brevity is a point of pride, yet it aspires to do a little of everything."

"My wish is to die in my own bed, cared for by people I love—clean, comfortable and relatively free from pain. I hope to have time to say my goodbyes and give my final blessings."

"A diet for fast weight loss is a pipe dream. Many of us want to lose weight without making permanent changes, because we view thinness instead of health as a success."

"Opportunity casts a long shadow over all subsequent Mars rovers, setting a gold standard of JPL engineering. Customized versions of its mobility software are used on the rovers Curiosity and upcoming Mars 2020."

"Biblical scholarship has deepened our understanding of the Torah and at the same time challenges us to consider the implications of our declaring the Torah to be emet. What is emet and what does it mean to say that the Torah is emet?"