We may regret the decline of bookstores and blame Amazon for it. However,I observe many at the beach forgoing books and intermittently perusing newspapers and magazines for something stimulating to daydream. For those with lazy vacation eyes, let me offer my short-form five forces that will reshape our civilization by 2030.
In the 20th century, free-market, democratic societies proved remarkably nimble and outperformed more-autocratic, collectivist states. In recent decades, however, populism has inspired governments to hamstring businesses and redistribute income in ways that discourage investment and the skills acquisition needed to thrive through new technologies. Meanwhile, China’s state-direct capitalism and autocratic government has proven better able to nurture new industries and inspire a strong work ethic.
China and oligarchy will triumph if Western democracies don’t learn to better manage tradeoffs between welfare and efficiency and again accomplish robust growth.
Automation does not eliminate occupations as much as it makes workers more productive — tractors replaced farmers with 40 acres with those working 400 acres. Those displaced went to cities to work in factories and stores. We have been enhancing the productivity of clerical workers with machines since the typewriter, but now computers and apps have extended this trend into the professional ranks. Machines that can think — analyzing big data to read shoppers’ preferences to aid fashion designers and programs like Watson that reduce the time doctors need to make tough diagnoses and design treatments — will become as commonplace as upscale smartphones.
These will boost personal productivity and quality of life but also create a sharp dichotomy between folks with quite-advanced skills and ownership of intellectual property and others who will be stuck in service jobs — restaurants, drycleaners and the like — with obvious tensions for inequality.
Blending machines and humans
Artificial intelligence will never fully replace the human mind, because electronic devices are only as good as the information that we let them access. However, soon wearable devices and, within a few decades, tiny chips and processors attached to human brains will be commonplace. By mere concentration, we will be online and accomplish computer-assisted access to information, analytics and communication.
Already, better-educated people are living much longer. DNA and stem cell research will make organ replacement and enhancement routine and, combined with wired and AI-assisted brains, a more durable and intelligent human race will be a reality, not science fiction.
With education extending well into our 20s, societies cannot afford to retire people in their 60’s and pay pensions into their 90’s. Computer implants that repair and enhance brain functions will combat dementia to make life more productive and rewarding longer.
Modern birth control choices and the cost of educating children into their mid-20s are forcing down birth rates. That forces wealthier societies in Europe and North America to accept immigrants from less-affluent and politically troubled societies who bring different religious traditions and expectations of government.
Advanced societies lack adequate mechanisms for assimilating newcomers and are clumsy at imparting national values — consider the electoral backlash against immigration. However, the failure to accept these newcomers would spell stagnation and perhaps eventual collapse — too many old people to support, not enough young ones to work, as is creeping up on Japan.
Ultimately, politicians’ impulse to placate whoever has a vote, regardless of long-term consequences, poses another threat to the preservation of democratic capitalism.
Humans are unique among species in their ability to change their environment, and have been adapting to natural climate cycles since the Ice Age and before.
Local populations fell to extinction or conquest if they failed to cope. Now global warming compels humanity to address — if not through formal cooperation, then rather through parallel complementary actions — rising atmospheric temperatures. Otherwise,Darwinian competition among societies for hospitable places to live could set back humanity as did the black plague or collapse of Rome.
While consideration of a carbon-free society should be relegated to Star Wars fantasies, low carbon and an end to liquid petroleum for most forms of transportation and power generation is within our grasp. The electric car, solar panel and now the global market for liquefied natural gas — which is becoming increasingly abundant and practical — offer us the solutions.
Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and a national columnist. Kyle Wingfield’s column returns soon.
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