The Bear’s Lair: I have seen the future and it’s stupid

Last week, driving through a nearby suburb, I had to brake sharply to avoid a pallid youth who stepped trance-like into the street without looking at the traffic. I learned from my son that he was probably chasing a purple blob on his cellphone, playing Pokemon Go. This, together with the sad story of the man whose self-driving Tesla totaled itself into a white truck on a sunny day, gave me a sudden vision of humanity’s fate in 2100. Mike Judge’s 2006 film “Idiocracy,” showing how far humanity will regress in 500 years of dysgenic breeding, was over-optimistic in two respects. The collapse will happen in much less than 500 years – and it will be power-assisted by technology.

“Idiocracy” was a great movie, but for polemic effect it made the simple deterioration of the human race caused by differential fertility between the cognitive elite and the lower orders cause a massive decline in human intelligence over 500 years, which then produced an idiotic and very funny environment. In reality, as human psychologists of persuasions will tell you, our endowments of capabilities as an adult, intellectual and emotional, are due to both heredity and environment. Hence if we could be sure that our environment was optimal, our capabilities would improve over time, even if our genetic endowment remained constant or even deteriorated slightly. You can see this effect in the gradual improvement in capability of the impoverished during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as their nutritional and educational standards improved.

The problem is that in modern society, certainly as we go forward, the necessity to improve oneself has become less acute, while the distractions pulling one away from self-improvement are becoming more alluring. Pokemon Go is evidently an order of magnitude more entrancing than conventional video games, because of its interaction with the environment. It is thus infecting an entire generation with the “Wandering Sickness” so graphically portrayed in Alexander Korda’s and H.G. Wells’ 1936 movie “Things to Come.”

However, as the distractions get more alluring, the amount of actual learning undertaken by the average young person will inevitably decline. Indeed, it has already declined; the number of books read by Millennials is far below the number read by their parents, which was already unimpressive. To some extent, innovations such as online education can counteract this, but you only have to sit through the average online class, without interaction with either the professor or other students, to realize that online learning is an even less attractive product than the traditional variety, albeit at a much lower cost.

The disincentives to learning are not only contained in the new alternative amusements available. We appear finally to be entering the age of robotics, in which self-driving cars will be only one manifestation of machines’ ability to do things for us and to replace traditional human occupations. As consumers, our use of skills and capabilities will thus atrophy, as robots handle all the activities that are unpleasant or dangerous for humans.

The unfortunate gentleman who lost his life in the Tesla crash was presumably perfectly capable of driving well enough to avoid a white truck crossing his path, yet he left it to the machine – and the machine’s failure will doubtless be ironed out in the next version. I am looking forward to self-driving cars, for the period when I have become so old and decrepit I have become a menace on the highway. However, for younger folk they will remove an important ability and rite of passage – the first driving lessons.

More important, it seems likely that robots will remove many of the routine service jobs by which the modestly abled support themselves. If that happens, then a higher percentage of the population, perhaps as many as half of them, will find themselves unemployed. The left has a solution to this problem, the Universal Basic Income, by which the few remaining productive citizens will be taxed until their eyes water to provide a near-subsistence income for the proletariat. Economically, this will almost certainly have two dreadful effects on incentives. It will remove volunteers for the few low-skill jobs that still need to be done. It will also cause yet another tsunami of desperate people to head here from the Third World, eager to secure a Universal Basic Income for themselves.

However, the UBI’s most damaging effect will be to remove any incentive for education and self-improvement from at least half the population. While those with the ability to be brain surgeons will still flog themselves through two decades of education (at least until brain surgery also becomes robotized) those less well-endowed intellectually will find a life on the Universal Basic Income, with Pokemon Go and road trips in their self-driving automobiles, while experimenting with the ever increasing variety of recreational drugs and engaging in the occasional petty crime, to be a much more attractive lifestyle.

In other words, we will have arrived at Idiocracy’s dystopia, more than 400 years early, without having had the degradation in intellectual capability that Judge thought Idiocracy would require.

It might be objected that we have not yet had Idiocracy’s degradation in the quality of public policy; we are not yet watering our crops with Brawndo, the crony-capitalist energy drink that kills their growth and thereby causes mass starvation.

However, I would argue that in some areas this intellectual degradation has already happened. In working on a biography of Britain’s nineteenth century (1812-27) prime minister Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, I have just begun studying the economic correspondence between Liverpool and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Nicholas Vansittart over a 10-year period from 1812 to the end of 1822. It is immediately obvious that the level of economic competence and knowledge displayed by Liverpool and Vansittart is far, far higher than that of today’s policymakers, lost in their dreams of “stimulus.”

And indeed, why shouldn’t it be? Liverpool and Vansittart had both studied Adam Smith in their youth, and had the benefit of live advice from David Ricardo day-to-day and Thomas Malthus intermittently. Thus their understanding of the basics of economics, and even of its finer points, was very sophisticated indeed. They didn’t quite have all the good economists available to them — they were missing the Austrians — but that lack is far outbalanced by them being blessedly without the advice of Maynard Keynes and Ben Bernanke.

Consequently, while they differed on some difficult questions (Liverpool wanted to return to the Gold Standard in 1819, Vansittart was in favor of delaying it) they knew enough to realize that getting the budget back in balance after two decades of war was a top priority, that debt at 250% of GDP was a serious problem which needed to be addressed immediately and not punted down the road, and that the central bank purchasing more or less infinite quantities of government debt was likely to lead to ruin. (The 1810 Bullion Committee had exposed this question in great detail.)

In other words, given intelligent statesmen with an understanding of the latest theoretical work, policymaking in economic and budgetary matters was considerably better in 1820 than it is today, when statesmen are diverted away from good policy by 200 years’ worth of politically seductive nostrums peddled by intellectual quacks and charlatans.

The economic example shows that, given exposure to fashionable new theories, knowledge can quickly deteriorate, so that truths learned in a previous generation are altogether forgotten. In a world of Pokemon Go, self-driving cars and the Internet’s infinite communication possibilities, bad ideas spread very rapidly indeed and good ideas that are complex or politically unpalatable are quickly overwhelmed. In a world of advanced robotics, it’s likely that much knowledge will be held by only a few specialized humans, so can quickly disappear from the general human consciousness.

If this is to be our future, we need to combat it. It is not yet clear how this can best be done, but there are two promising avenues to pursue. One is to have a few dedicated communities of highly intelligent scholars, free from academic distractions and the leftist politics of major colleges, who seek to preserve and develop our knowledge in intellectually endangered areas. The ideal would not be any current academic institution or Think Tank, but the 19th Century All Souls College, Oxford, where academic pursuits can be followed without the distractions of students, teaching requirements or academic or national politics. The institution would have a strong bias towards the intellectually unfashionable and the politically incorrect, as fashion and political correctness are major destroyers of knowledge.

The second avenue to pursue, possibly through the communities themselves, is that of genetic engineering, seeking to counteract the Idiocracy-driven deterioration of humanity by improving the intellectual capabilities of future generations. Since eugenics is now an area of intellectual activity that is both unfashionable and politically incorrect, it is likely that this activity will be illegal in many Western countries. In that case, some suitable haven must be found in Asia where the necessary work can carry on, so that our descendants can emerge with both a fully preserved corpus of human knowledge and a generation that is at last fitted to develop it further.

It is increasingly clear that with the original momentum of the industrial and communications revolutions dissipating, regress rather than progress is likely. Maybe this is a universal truth; there must be some reason why after a century of communication we have not come in contact with hyper-intelligent aliens. However, by recognizing the problem, we can perhaps begin to solve it.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)