Technological Progress Anxiety: Thinking About “Peak Horse” and the Possibility of “Peak Human”, by by Brad DeLong: Another well-written piece by an authorial team led by the very sharp Joel Mokyr–The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?–that in my mind fails to wrestle with the major question, and so leaves me unsatisfied.
Hitherto,... every form of non-human power that substitutes and thus tends to reduce the value of human backs and thighs...–from the horse to the watermill to the steam engine to the diesel to the jet engine–and every single source of manipulation–from the potter’s wheel to the loom to the spinning jenny to the assembly line to the mechanized factory–has required a cybernetic control mechanism. Without such a mechanism, machines are useless. They cannot keep themselves on course and on track. ... And as cybernetic control mechanisms human brains had an overwhelming productivity edge.
The fear is that this time things really are different. The fear is that, this time, technological anxiety is not misguided... For the first time, we find our machines substituting not for human backs, things, eyes, and hands, but for human brains. ... And this factor is offset only by the hope that our machines will reduce the market value of commodities faster than they reduce the value of the median worker’s labor...
I must say that I really do wish that Mokyr et al. had included, in their paper, a discussion of “peak horse”.
A standard economists’ argument goes roughly like this: Technology is introduced only when it is profitable, and lowers the costs of production. Thus the prices of the goods and services produced must go down, leaving consumers with more money to spend on other products, and this creates demand for any workers who are displaced. Thus there will always be new industries growing up to employ any workers displaced by technological change in existing industries.
But that argument applies just as well to the oats, apples, and grooming needed for horses to subsist as for the wages of humans, no? One could ... just as easily have said, a century ago, that: “Fundamental economic principles will continue to operate. Scarcities will still be with us…. Most horses will still have useful tasks to perform, even in an economy where the capacities of power sources and automation have increased considerably…”
Yet ... “Peak horse” in the U.S. came in the 1910s, I believe. After that there was no economic incentive to keep the horse population of America from declining sharply, as at the margin the horse was not worth its feed and care. And in a marginal-cost pricing world, in which humans are no longer the only plausible source of Turing-level cybernetic control mechanisms, what will happen to those who do not own property should the same come to be true, at the margin, of the human? What would “peak human” look like? Or–a related but somewhat different possibility–even “peak male”?