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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Diminishing returns magnified by mass media

One of the most thought-provoking books that I read in college, already by then a minor classic in economics, was Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (I still believe that no one should open his mouth on any one of these three great subjects without having closely read at least ten books of equal worth). Therein he gave one of the few justifications for tolerating capitalism as an engine of overall human progress that I still grudgingly accept – the idea of ‘creative destruction’. That capitalism constantly revolutionizes the system from within through frequent tides of new inventions and innovations which not only make a few people rich and a lot of people somewhat better off, but on the whole improve the way the mass of people live their lives: and, point to be noted, no other system yet devised comes close in this regard.

Now I am an avid student of both socioeconomics and the history of technology. I yield to none in my respect for technology’s potential for improving human living standards – you just have to think about anesthesia and the sanitary toilet and the power shovel to be forever convinced. But over my adult lifetime I have noticed two things: that few really ‘revolutionary’ inventions have been affecting our lives lately, and if some seem to be doing so (such as the internet), that is far more a story created by pinhead teenagers (of all ages) obsessed with selfies, advertisers and retarded journos who make a living out of paid news than reality. What I mean to say is, if you have any real knowledge of history (that discounts 90% of even the ‘educated’ population below 40 these days), you will be forced to concede upon a little reflection that spectacles, the railway train, the light bulb and penicillin did ‘revolutionize’ the way we live in a manner the internet and smartphones cannot hope to compete with. The world’s most marvellous engineering feats from the days of the pyramids were accomplished without them, the most wonderful music and literature were composed without them, men fought world wars without them, exploded atoms and went to the moon without them, banked and traded worldwide without them, hearts were transplanted without them, extremely sophisticated movies were made and crimes committed without them. Yes, maybe you couldn’t play Angry Birds or Temple Run on the move without them, but hey, you call that a gigantic leap forward? To use a bit of cool contemporary slang, where are you coming from?

Recently Robert Samuelson, the noted Washington Post columnist, has put my thoughts into words. In sum, he is saying that capitalism seems to be fast losing its last fig leaf. Read this

Meanwhile, in a lot of ways the idea of civilization is going down the drain. Here my daughter has written about something that has deeply bothered me too. I wish I knew ten grown women who could write or talk like that. Congratulations, Pupu.

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