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  • charlielives

    “…allowing the rich to purchase luxury goods has the benefit of making those goods available to most people in the long run.”

    Notwithstanding the fact that, often, the goods that trickle down are substitutes. The poor will likely never have their own private jets, but they can fly around on the airlines. The poor will not get Lamborghinis, but can afford a used Chevy. If we simply consider the use value of a good (a Marxist concept!) then I would agree, the poor will eventually get access to the same goods.

    So, in the case of designer babies, what might a poor man’s substitute look like? I think this is the most interesting question.

    • ben

      “The poor will likely never have their own private jets”

      Who knows. A few generations ago, no one would have believed that the poor would ever have mobile phones, microwaves, fridges, washing machines, cars, etc.

      • martinbrock

        Castles have existed for thousands of years, and the poor still don’t have them. We can reasonably distinguish goods with the potential for growing economies of scale from goods without this potential.

        • adrianratnapala

          Yes, but “private jet” is borderline. My guess is that we will never have a car like in the “Jetsons”, but that’s a technical matter. On the other hand a castle is by almost definition for the elite because it is a fortress to keep most of the world out unless the lords wills them in.

          • martinbrock

            The technical barrier was cross decades ago. Google for the Williams Aerial Systems Platform (WASP). It burned a lot of jet fuel and was costly to operate, but it had a 45 minute flight time and was much easier to operate than a jet pack.

            I’m not sure why so few people know of this thing, while jet packs with sixty second flight times fueled by hydrogen peroxide are common knowledge. I’m also not sure why the thing was never commercially developed. It was a death trap if it failed, and it was costly to operate, but a market for it presumably exists anyway. As I skydiver, I know plenty of people who would stand in line to pay dearly for a ride.

            Presumably, you could disassemble a WASP and build a cruise missile from the parts, so I suppose the technology is locked up in national security constraints, but that’s speculation.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          But nobody really wants a castle. They are a military building and quite uncomfortable to live in. The average person, even the lower or working class, in the wealthy nations do have access to their own homes, and those are as roomy and comfortable as the homes of the rich were a century ago.

          • martinbrock

            Chateau, mansion, call it what you like.

            In many respects, homes generally are more comfortable now than in the nineteenth century, but working class people do not have homes as roomy as the homes of the rich a century or two ago, homes like Monticello or the Biltmore house. Technological progress can lifts all boats, but pretending that every man can become a king sounds no more sensible coming from a libertarian.

    • http://frankhecker.com/ Frank Hecker

      “So, in the case of designer babies, what might a poor man’s substitute look like?” I think I can provide at least a partial, first approximation answer. One proposed approach to “designer babies” involves using a combination of in-vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis: Use existing IVF techniques to create multiple embryos, use advanced PGD techniques to determine the “best” embryos of the lot (e.g., most likely to be healthy, to have green eyes, whatever), and then implant those (and only those).

      IVF itself is still very expensive, but there are apparently people working on low-cost IVF techniques that could decrease the price by an order of magnitude (from several thousand dollars per IVF cycle to a few hundred). The cost of PGD techniques is also dropping, as a byproduct of Moore’s law-style improvements in genomic sequencing, etc., and may also end up in the low end of the $100-$1,000 range. The genetic architecture underlying lots of traits is still unknown, but once scientific understanding improves the resulting information can be leveraged in this context.

      So at least for the core IVF and PGD parts of this it’s quite possible that they’d be well within reach for a couple of modest means. The parts that would remain expensive would be those parts that involve human labor that can’t be automated away (e.g., using an egg donor or a surrogate) or those where high costs result from other factors (e.g., restrictive patents with high licensing fees, or extremely stringent government regulations).

      I may be overly optimistic here, but I suspect that within a generation “designer babies” will be readily available to the rich, the poor, and those in between. It’s also possible that some governments may subsidize the technologies for all their citizens, given the potential cost savings of minimizing genetic diseases and otherwise improving infant health. But I also think that because of ethical and other concerns all this may well happen in developing countries first and in the US and Europe last.

    • Sean II

      The poor man absolutely does have a substitute for designer babies, and it’s available right now. It’s called birth control.

      The sought end in baby design is kids who don’t stab you, embarrass you, or ruin you financially…by being unemployed, by needing bail money, by joining gangs, doing porn, making you a grandparent only twelve years after you became a parent, going active shooter, etc.

      A poor person can avoid ALL of those ugly consequences simply by not having children, or by switching to a K strategy and having far fewer children.

      She needn’t wait for Gattaca to take control of her destiny. The tools for her better tomorrow are here today!

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        The other alternative is to just spend a little time and effort to raise your kids well.

        • Sean II

          That, indeed, is part of what it takes to be considered a k strategist.

      • TracyW

        The having no children I agree will work. But it’s highly doubtful having far fewer children will guarantee a good outcome – Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption makes a very strong argument that after controlling for genetic links, and leaving aside very bad conditions such as terrible abuse or raising children in a warzone or a famine, parents have very little effect on how their kids turn out. Harris argues that children are socialised by their peers, not their parents.

        • Sean II

          “Harris argues that children are socialised by their peers, not their parents.”

          That I quite agree with. It is the height of parental self-absorption not to notice that a child’s life, roughly from just before puberty on, is massively dominated by a frantic quest for peer approval.

          • TracyW

            But even if you don’t particularly care for peer approval, it still makes sense to observe your peers to work out the social rules for your generation.
            And children start copying their peers much sooner than just before puberty; my little two-year old is picking up his peers’ accents and in new situations watches them to see if they’ve figured out anything fun.

  • David_Rogers_Hunt

    This also means skill sets are obsoleting faster and faster. I have a Masters in Computer Science from 1978,… and I have NOT been able to get any Information Technology job since 2001. Employers don’t want to hire based upon what employees may or may not be able to do,… employers want to hire based upon what an employee has actually done. But how does one get work experience if no one will hire you? Apparently there is no work rehabilitation for someone like me. So I am living in federal subsidized housing, no savings, and wondering how my situation can ever turn around. I am not looking for handouts,… just a hand up.

    • martinbrock

      I earned a BS in CS in 1984, and I’m still employed and feel as employable as ever (perhaps delusionally), but I certainly understand that most of the specific skills I learned in the early eighties aren’t worth a dime now.

      I currently work with power engineering applications, and though I minored in physics as an undergraduate and have a masters in applied mathematics, I have never studied power engineering formally. Earlier, I worked with telecom applications, though I had no formal training in telecom networks either, and still earlier, I worked in an astrophysics lab, though I never had formal training (or much interest) in astronomy or astrophysics. My career in IT has been an endless series of learning experiences and not only in the applications.

      I learned most of my knowledge of current information technology outside of formal education, but I didn’t always learn it on the job. When I was mired in aging technology (like Fortran development for VMS into the nineties) during the PC revolution, I taught myself to develop software for Windows 3.1 and kept up with PC technology despite having no professional requirement for it at the time. Later, I found work as a Windows developer without ever having developed a Windows application professionally, because I had no problem listing the experience on my resume.

      I also learned web development on my own, including Javascript, Google maps, ASP.Net and GAE with Python on the server side, though I’ve never been a professional web developer. I’ve developed several web sites only for the learning experience without anyone paying me, so I feel that I could apply for work as a web developer, or hang out a shingle and work freelance, if I ever lose my current, corporate position (doing Windows client/server development). I plan to do so when I semi-retire in a few years anyway. I learned Android development similarly, though I haven’t invested as much time in learning to develop mobile apps at this point.

      Have you considered learning web development, using Google App Engine (GAE) for example? The monetary price of entry is practically zero, but learning the technology requires time as well as a background in IT fundamentals. You apparently have the time and the background to learn it. With resources like GAE and Code Academy, you don’t need anything else, other than a PC and network access.

      • http://frankhecker.com/ Frank Hecker

        One other thing I’d add to your (excellent) advice is to look at participating in open source projects relating to key technologies that might be of interest to potential employers. There are more and more companies these days who are willing look at non-traditional evidence of accomplishment, like your code contributions to an open source project. And since people from those companies often participate in such projects, it’s also a way to bypass HR and the resume-screening process and get in touch directly with people who can influence hiring.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      You are in a similar situation that I was in, My early skills were reduced by technological obsolescence. But I used the low cost local community college system to learn CNC machining and have been successful there. That may someday become obsolete as well, but as an older man I am saving and investing most of my income. You just need to pick something you like and start over. I know that is hard when you are older, but it is also rewarding.

  • adrianratnapala

    There is a potential selection effect: the things we bother to plot are the ones that are now above the 50% mark. By definition, the more recent inventions start later and therefore have steeper slopes. But what if there are shallow-sloped inventions that are further down the food-chain and therefore not very hyped, but will in future seem much more important than smartphones.

    • Sean II

      No reason to think that selection effect is much of a problem here.

      It’s not difficult to fill out a list of truly life-changing products, and the chart above seems to include what’s important. The one big omission I see is game consoles, but that doesn’t help your point: those things are famous for having a very steep slope / rapid adoption rate. Poor people and temporarily poor young people are consumption pioneers when it comes to console gaming (precisely because they have a major surplus in one luxury good crucial to that pursuit: leisure time).

      The most interesting exception seems to be dishwashers, although that I think is simply explained by the fact that people can’t usually add a dishwasher without remodeling an entire kitchen. Most people can afford the dishwasher itself, but not the kitchen to put it in.

      However…the most interesting thing of all in this graphic is that fact that it proves something we’ve all long suspected: those lefty hipsters who claim “not to even own a TV” are straight-up fucking LIARS.

      • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

        Actually, there’s an easy way to see that all non-trivial innovations are ‘shallow sloped’ and rely on Boulding type knowledge effects. We know all existing markets are Kelvin Lancaster Consumption-function wise decomposable: so- assuming costly infomational acquisition (even if non convex)- the result follows.
        Dishwashers are curious. I think the reason more people don’t get them is because of a cognitive bias re. evaluating Utility impact of cold sores from imperfect utensil sterilization under hand wash.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Worse yet are the ones who do own a TV, and claim they only use it to watch the news, because everything else is such low brow trash dontcha know.

      • adrianratnapala

        Hmm, I would never have thought of a game console as belonging on the list. Which shows how subjective it is. I never really thought of buying one either, ’cause I don’t have a TV to display the pictures on.

        That’s the truth — you can trust me because I’m right wing and don’t really know what a hipster is.

        • Sean II

          “I…don’t really know what a hipster is…”

          Saying things like that is one risk factor. You’ll find the internet very helpful in putting together a complete list of signs and symptoms.

      • Damien S.

        Wow, you can’t even talk about technology without getting a dig in at lefties. I’d love to see your contorted reasoning for how what looks like a 98% rate of households owning TVs proves that all lefty hipsters saying they don’t own a TV are liars.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television_in_the_United_States says it’s down to 96.7%, from a 1997 peak of 98.4%. That’s millions of Americans without TVs in their households. I guess you must feel really threatened by that.


        I’m surprised the computer rate is still so low, especially given how cheap computers can be now. Though it is 2005 data. Telephone’s surprisingly non-universal too.

        I’m not sure “adoption is faster now” is all that well supported. Radio was pretty fast, and auto was too up to 60%, which is impressive given that it’s the most expensive item on the chart, by a factor of 100 in many cases.

        Laundry and dishwashing machines cost not just themselves, but space for them and water hookups, as Sean says. I suspect “households who used clothes washers and dryers” would be close to 100%, but lots of us use laundromats or apartment/dorm machines. A $500 computer is a lot easier to own and transport than a $500 washer.

        I note the microwave is the last “does real things” invention before 1975; the 4 after it are all information tech. Before that are dishwasher, A/C, and clothes dryer, all from about 1947. The rate of invention of household things that do stuff besides push bits around seems to have slowed if not outright stopped.

        • Sean II

          “The rate of invention of household things that do stuff besides push bits around seems to have slowed if not outright stopped.”

          You know Dame’z, it could be that there’s a vast shitload of new household products you just haven’t seen since you self-righteously threw away your television set.

          For all you know, I could be getting fellatio right now from a Dyson vac-bot that makes paninis when it’s not ironing my shirts. One can learn of such wonders by watching the commercials between Portlandia sketches – which is very convenient, since I would prescribe that show to you for other reasons.

          • Damien S.

            I see you’re incapable of either defending your claim or admitting you made a mistake, and as usual resort to sneering and insults instead. And to made-up products, rather than any real ones, it seems.

          • Sean II

            My mockery is urbane, cheeky, and fun. I insult only by the comedian’s classic method of using a man’s own lies, flaws, and pretensions against him.

            You’re the guy who busted out “you must really feel threatened by that”, like we’re a couple of quarreling hens on The View*. That sort of thing can really mess up the delicate balance existing between us, with me as choir preacher and you as troll.

            * Here I must apologize. Because this refers to a television program, its meaning may be out of reach for as many as 3.3% of US households.

  • martinbrock

    The earliest adopters of new technology are necessarily rich in something, but they need not be rich in guns or in entitlement to monopoly rents imposed by the state (the ultimate source of all monopoly rents).

    The earliest adopters of any technology are the people creating it. The Wright brothers were not particularly rich when they were among the earliest adopters of aeronautical technology, and we don’t know how much faster the price of this technology would have fallen without the Wright patents and other patents that slowed development of the technology.

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    Your original designer baby post was fatally flawed because Vulcan is better off by wiping out the population of Earth and colonizing it with suitably modified hybrids. Similarly, the designer baby technology might lead to a speciation event such that the new ‘supermen’ exterminate the descendants of stupid slobs like me so as to make more efficient use of the earth’s resources,
    Comparative advantage is irrelevant when Land is scarce. The guys with Absolute Advantage wipe out the others unless there are non-convexities or some arcane reason for ‘reswitching’ type multiple equilibria.

    You should have stuck to the trickle down argument which is perfectly plausible especially in the light of this sort of empirical evidence which, at first sight, confirms Kenneth Boulding’s intuition that ‘Knowledge effects’ are now gaining the upper hand over resource constraints.

  • ben

    I argue that allowing the rich to purchase luxury goods has the benefit
    of making those goods available to most people in the long run.

    Careful there, if the Crooked Timber crowd gets wind of such statements, they will come after you with accusations of elitism.

    (After which they will go back to their usual activities, like explaining why the poor can’t be trusted with money and hence need a nurturing progressive-intellectual government to plan their lives for them…)

    • good_in_theory

      “like explaining why the poor can’t be trusted with money and hence need a nurturing progressive-intellectual government to plan their lives for them”

      File under things “never advocated at Crooked Timber.”

      • good_in_theory

        I’ll just wait for the down voter to like to something at CT consistent with the quoted position.

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