Monday, 6 October 2014

Disasters and the Drake Equation

The fact that we know of no other civilization in our galaxy gives social scientists a hint of the potential future of human kind. If no other intelligent life form has developed technology advanced enough to reach us, maybe that means we won't either. I believe Carl Sagan suggested - perhaps during the height of the Cold War? - that other life forms, once sufficiently advanced, rub themselves out, though I will propose below that it may also be that they stagnate forever. The Drake Equation takes the number of stars in the Milky Way (or the rate of star formation), multiplies the number by a series of fractions less than one to weed out the ones unsuitable for life, and arrives at an incredibly rough estimate of the number of advanced life forms. The equation's purpose is not actually to estimate any number, but to stimulate discussion on the topic and it seems a widespread opinion that there ought to be at least a few more civilizations in the Milky Way in addition to humanity.

One of those fractions reduces the number of solar systems home to intelligent life to the number of them which go on to develop technology useful for interstellar communication. Maybe there are non-violent explanations - which would still be disastrous - for why this fraction is actually such as to render it extremely unlikely that a civilization should progress far enough to have radio communication or other ways of contacting the stars - not to mention travelling there. One such explanation is found in the potential for laws of social science to cause intelligent civilizations to stagnate forever.

I am not suggesting that this will happen. Nobody knows the future, so I merely point out that it could happen for all we know. There are a number of mechanisms by which stagnation could happen and go on forever. For instance, Joseph Schumpeter predicted socialism to become the norm due to advances in technology and material life. Judging by long-run trends, it could be that the government continues to expand and the resultant increase in incompetent decision-making could kill growth forever.

Alternatively, spending on health care as a share of GDP has grown steadily over the past several decades and health care is subject to Baumol's Cost Disease. A nurse cannot very well increase her productivity without worsening the care provided, but to attract nurses requires payment of competitive wages, which means that a nurse's salary must increase in line with the wages of sectors where productivity does grow. Thus, in this simplified way, if the quantity demanded of health care rises over time, spending on it must rise more than proportionately. Health care is increasingly the government's business and I am not confident that the government will deliver any growth.

Or it could be that voters favour increasingly bad policies the richer they get. For example, the people of developing countries consistently have more positive (i.e. more accurate) views on international trade than do people in rich countries, according to this Pew Research Report from last month. To the extent that public opinion matters to political decisions, any general tendencies here could be dangerous. Similarly, if one goes to the Heritage Foundation's Economic Freedom Website and runs rather a façile regression of the government's share of GDP on purchasing-power-adjusted GDP per capita, one finds a statistically significant positive-but-small relationship. Maybe citizens become more active politically as they get wealthier? Given the (rational) incompetence of the average citizen, this would not be a good development. Since the individual citizen has no incentive to support good policies (being merely one voice amidst millions), individuals can indulge their fallacies and the gross domestic product suffers accordingly.

I don't know, but there appears to be some potential in these trends and explanations. Given that advanced alien civilizations must also have societies and given that several of these suggestions may be general enough to apply even to extraterrestrial life, perhaps part of the reason we receive no signals from other parts of the Milky Way is that these tendencies simply stop them from progressing that far?

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