Mon Aug 17th, 2009 at 05:27:32 AM EST
In a throwaway blog entry last week, Krugman links to an old piece of his written in 1996 and looking 100 years ahead (or, rather, pretending to look back from 100 years later), calling it the closest I've ever come to actually writing science fiction. But it is not science-fiction if he means it in a slightly self-deprecating tone... It is a very good piece of futurism which is the basis for the setting of any good science fiction novel.
I say the piece is about the end of the industrial state by reference to J K Galbraith's description of the sociology of the industrial economy in 1950-1970 and his (reluctant) forecasts about the direction society might take after that.
If Krugman is right, my generation (born in the 1970s) is in the unfortunate position of having been raised in the frame of the "industrial state" placing a high value on, say, higher education and centered on white collar work, only to live our adult life seeing that system dismantled. By the time 2096 comes around we may have been through a transition similar to that in 1790-1820 between the old regime/preindustrial economy and liberal democracy/industrial revolution.
I have read similar predictions about a change in the character of our social and economic system within a 70-year frame by Spanish economist Santiago Niño Becerra. (No English sources, unfortunately).
promoted by Nomad
Paul Krugman: White Collars Turn Blue (NYT Magazine, 1996)
Krugman starts by setting his futurism apart from the prophets of the information economy: there won't be a paradise free of physical work:
Most important of all, the prophets of an "information economy" seem to have forgotten basic economics. When something becomes abundant, it also becomes cheap. A world awash in information will be a world in which information per se has very little market value. And in general when the economy becomes extremely good at doing something, that activity becomes less rather than more important. Late 20th-century America was supremely efficient at growing food; that was why it had hardly any farmers. Late 21st-century America is supremely efficient at processing routine information; that is why the traditional white-collar worker has virtually disappeared from the scene.
Then he goes on to identify 5 trends and their consequences:
Soaring resource prices. ...
Quite soon, however, it became clear that natural resources, far from becoming irrelevant, had become more crucial than ever before. In the 19th century great fortunes were made in industry; in the late 20th they were made in technology; but today's super-rich are, more often than not, those who own prime land or mineral rights.
Remember "today" is 2096. A corollary to "the super-rich own resource rights" is
The environment as property ...
The economic consequences of the conversion of environmental limits into property were unexpected. Once governments got serious about making people pay for the pollution and congestion they caused, the cost of environmental licenses became a major part of the cost of doing business. Today license fees account for more than 30 percent of GDP. And such fees have become the main source of government revenue; after repeated reductions, the Federal income tax was finally abolished in 2043.
If liquid fuels become expensive and so does personal travel, it is the end of suburbia:
The rebirth of the big city ...
Here again, there were straws in the wind. At the beginning of the 1990s, there was much speculation about which region would become the center of the burgeoning multimedia industry. Would it be Silicon Valley? Los Angeles? By 1996 the answer was clear; the winner was ... Manhattan, whose urban density favored the kind of close, face-to-face interaction that turned out to be essential. Today, of course, Manhattan boasts almost as many 200-story buildings as St. Petersburg or Bangalore.
Then comes the prediction about the value of white-collar work and a university education in a true information society
The devaluation of higher education. In the 1990s everyone believed that education was the key to economic success, for both individuals and nations. A college degree, maybe even a postgraduate degree, was essential for anyone who wanted a good job as one of those "symbolic analysts".
This is the bit that most closely recalled what Galbraith writes in The New Industrial State
about the people who make up the "technostructure". For lack of better quotes, see my diary LQD: JK Galbraith and the culture wars
from October 19th, 2008.
In recent times education has become the difference that divides. All who have educational advantage, as with the moneyed of an earlier day, are reminded of their noblesse oblige and also of the advantages of reticence. They should help those who are less fortunate; they must avoid reflectig aloud on their advantage in knowledge. But this doesn't serve to paper over the conflict. It is visible in almost any community.
There is a lot more in the book than I quoted there and I should probably dig for more apposite quotes (maybe in the comments). But let's go back to Krugman
Eventually, of course, the eroding payoff to higher education created a crisis in the education industry itself. Why should a student put herself through four years of college and several years of postgraduate work in order to acquire academic credentials with hardly any monetary value? These days jobs that require only six or twelve months of vocational training -- paranursing, carpentry, household maintenance (a profession that has taken over much of the housework that used to be done by unpaid spouses), and so on -- pay nearly as much as one can expect to earn with a master's degree, and more than one can expect to earn with a Ph.D.. And so enrollment in colleges and universities has dropped almost two-thirds since its turn-of-the-century peak. Many institutions of higher education could not survive this harsher environment. The famous universities mostly did manage to cope, but only by changing their character and reverting to an older role. Today a place like Harvard is, as it was in the 19th century, more of a social institution than a scholarly one -- a place for the children of the wealthy to refine their social graces and make friends with others of the same class.
And finally, something that is beginning to look scarily accurate - and provides the humorous punchline to Krugman's piece
The celebrity economy ...
Still, the celebrity economy has been hard on some people -- especially those of us with a scholarly bent. A century ago it was actually possible to make a living as a more or less pure scholar: someone like myself would probably have earned a pretty good salary as a college professor, and been able to supplement that income with textbook royalties.Today, however, teaching jobs are hard to find and pay a pittance in any case; and nobody makes money by selling books. If you want to devote yourself to scholarship, there are now only three options (the same options that were available in the 19th century, before the rise of institutionalized academic research). Like Charles Darwin, you can be born rich, and live off your inheritance. Like Alfred Wallace, the less fortunate co-discoverer of evolution, you can make your living doing something else, and pursue research as a hobby. Or, like many 19th-century scientists, you can try to cash in on scholarly reputation by going on the paid lecture circuit.
But celebrity, though more common than ever before, still does not come easily. And that is why writing this article is such an opportunity. I actually don't mind my day job in the veterinary clinic, but I have always wanted to be a full-time economist; an article like this might be just what I need to make my dream come true.
What he says about scholarship is already beginning to take form.