The Roots of Progress

What I've been reading, June 2023

Visions of highways, T. S. Ashton, H. G. Wells, and more

A monthly feature. As usual, recent blog posts and news stories are omitted from this; you can find them in my links digests. In all quotes below, any emphasis in bold was added by me.


Thomas S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 1760–1830 (1948). A classic in the field, concise and readable. Crafts (see paper below) cites this work as pointing out “the links between scientific thought and the industrial revolution” that were later synthesized by Mokyr. Given that I’ve already read a lot on this topic, there were no big revelations here, but many interesting details, such as the effect of interest rates on infrastructure building. War tended to raise interest rates and thus to slow growth.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872). I picked this one up because it has an early prediction of the machines taking over, was cited by authors including Turing and Haldane, and presumably inspired Dune’s “Butlerian jihad.” I expected a dystopian sci-fi novel, but it’s actually a political satire, and quite amusing, although I need some exegesis to understand exactly what he is satirizing. I’m only halfway through, though, and haven’t gotten to the “war on the machines” yet.

James Pethokoukis, The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised (forthcoming). Pethokoukis is very well-read in the progress field, and I love his quotations and sources; reading his stuff always sends me off on a bunch of interesting followup reading. It was from his blog, for instance, that I discovered American Genesis. Several of the books mentioned below were quoted or cited here.

H. G. Wells, Anticipations Of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901). I think both Pethokoukis and J. Storrs Hall referenced this one. I’ve only lightly sampled it, but it has some very interesting predictions about the future of transportation and other technologies. E.g., this explanation for why motor vehicles are needed:

Railway travelling is at best a compromise. The quite conceivable ideal of locomotive convenience, so far as travellers are concerned, is surely a highly mobile conveyance capable of travelling easily and swiftly to any desired point, traversing, at a reasonably controlled pace, the ordinary roads and streets, and having access for higher rates of speed and long-distance travelling to specialized ways restricted to swift traffic, and possibly furnished with guide-rails. For the collection and delivery of all sorts of perishable goods also the same system is obviously altogether superior to the existing methods. Moreover, such a system would admit of that secular progress in engines and vehicles that the stereotyped conditions of the railway have almost completely arrested, because it would allow almost any new pattern to be put at once upon the ways without interference with the established traffic. Had such an ideal been kept in view from the first the traveller would now be able to get through his long-distance journeys at a pace of from seventy miles or more an hour without changing, and without any of the trouble, waiting, expense, and delay that arises between the household or hotel and the actual rail.

Speaking of which, there’s:

Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways (1940). Bel Geddes was the industrial designer known for a “streamlined” Art Deco style. He designed the “Futurama” exhibit for General Motors at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and this book was written to complement that exhibit. It’s a vision of what cars and driving could become if we built an ideal road system. I’m only partway through, and I’m still trying to fully understand what he was envisioning: it was something like the modern interstate highway system, but what we got falls far short of his vision. Bel Geddes was very optimistic about how wonderful driving could be: he says we can have “safety, comfort, speed, and economy” all at once; he thought future highways would “make automobile collisions impossible” and “eliminate completely traffic congestion”; he thought drivers could safely go 100 mph and get from SF to NYC in 24 hours; and he thought all of this could be achieved using 1940s technology, and completed by 1960. I’m very curious about what he and others like him imagined at the time, and why things didn’t turn out as beautifully as they planned.

Visitors view Futurama from moving chairs.
Visitors view Futurama from moving chairs. General Motors Archive
Detail of a diorama from the Futurama exhibit.
Detail of a diorama from the Futurama exhibit. Wikimedia / Richard Garrison

Peter Attia, Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity (2023). Not exactly a progress book, but relevant if you want to understand the frontier of fighting disease and where the next major improvements in mortality will come from. Attia says that the main causes of death today (cancer, heart disease, etc.) all build up slowly over decades, and that we need to be doing more to prevent them, beginning much earlier in life than today’s medical guidelines suggest.

John Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife (1841). A letter towards the end of the book, from 1780, contains this well-known quote (h/t Rob Tracinski):

I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Some books I haven’t had the time to read yet:

Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity (2023). Here’s Acemoglu’s Twitter thread introducing it.

E. A. Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution (2010). This was described to me as sort of what you get if you take Robert Allen, remove the “high wage” part of the hypothesis, and just keep the “cheap energy” part.

James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931). The book that coined the term “The American Dream.”

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (2011):

Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace. The streets of Florence gave us the Renaissance, and the streets of Birmingham gave us the Industrial Revolution. The great prosperity of contemporary London and Bangalore and Tokyo comes from their ability to produce new thinking. Wandering these cities—whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid-cutting cross streets, around roundabouts or under freeways—is to study nothing less than human progress.


In memoriam of Robert Lucas, I’ll point to his most-quoted paper On the Mechanics of Economic Development (1988). He opens the paper by pointing out how much per-capita income, and growth rates in that income, vary across countries and over time. “For 1960–80 we observe, for example: India, 1.4% per year; Egypt, 3.4%; South Korea, 7.0%; …” Then he says:

I do not see how one can look at figures like these without seeing them as representing possibilities. Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow like Indonesia’s or Egypt’s? If so, what, exactly? If not, what is it about the ‘nature of India’ that makes it so? The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

Those lines have been quoted by every growth economist, but I also like the paragraph that immediately follows:

This is what we need a theory of economic development for: to provide some kind of framework for organizing facts like these, for judging which represent opportunities and which necessities. But the term ‘theory’ is used in so many different ways, even within economics, that if I do not clarify what I mean by it early on, the gap between what I think I am saying and what you think you are hearing will grow too wide for us to have a serious discussion. I prefer to use the term ‘theory’ in a very narrow sense, to refer to an explicit dynamic system, something that can be put on a computer and run. This is what I mean by the ‘mechanics’ of economic development – the construction of a mechanical, artificial world, populated by the interacting robots that economics typically studies, that is capable of exhibiting behavior the gross features of which resemble those of the actual world that I have just described. My lectures will be occupied with one such construction, and it will take some work: It is easy to set out models of economic growth based on reasonable-looking axioms that predict the cessation of growth in a few decades, or that predict the rapid convergence of the living standards of different economies to a common level, or that otherwise produce logically possible outcomes that bear no resemblance to the outcomes produced by actual economic systems. … At some point, then, the study of development will need to involve working out the implications of competing theories for data other than those they were constructed to fit, and testing these implications against observation.

Kevin Kelly, “The Unabomber Was Right (2009), kind of a clickbait title but very worth reading. This article is where I found the passage for the recent quote quiz, and I quoted it extensively in the answer to the quiz.

Various pieces commenting on Robert Allen and his British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective; I linked to many of these in my book review:

Another post I found from that research and liked was Mark Koyama’s “The Poverty of the Peasant Mode of Production (2016):

The work of development economists like Jean-Philippe Platteau and Marcel Fafchamps nicely demonstrates that all the characteristics of peasants in subsistence economies discussed by anthropologists and political scientists such as James Scott—such as gift exchange, highly egalitarian norms, a reluctance to specialize in the production of cash crops etc—can be generated by simple rational choice models.

Bret Devereaux, “Why No Roman Industrial Revolution? (2022). Several people have pointed me to this at different times. Many interesting points, but ultimately Devereaux is taking a kind of Robert Allen demand-side explanation (see above) and then saying that because the Roman Empire didn’t have 18th-century Britain’s exact situation regarding coal fields and the textile industry, they couldn’t have industrialized. I don’t think industrialization was nearly as contingent as Devereaux assumes. See also Anton Howes’s comments.

Paul Christiano on AI safety: Learning with catastrophes (2016) and Low-stakes alignment (2021) (h/t Richard Ngo).

Isaac Newton, “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1846 edition, translated by Andrew Motte). Book III: Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy. Rule II:

Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes: as to respiration in a man and in a beast; the descent of stones in Europe and in America; the light of our culinary fire and of the sun; the reflection of light in the earth, and in the planets.

Jerry Pournelle, “What man has done, man may aspire to (2011):

… in 1940–1945, with a population of 140 million, half the work force conscripted into the armed services thus requiring building a new work force from women, apprentices, new graduates, and people called out of retirement, we produced a Liberty ship a day, thousands of B-17’s and other heavy bombers, clouds of fighters, and enough tanks to give numeric superiority over the best the Germans could produce. Once, told that the German Panther was ten times better than the US Sherman, we said that the solution to that was simple. We would build 11 Shermans for every Panther. We pretty well did that.

We built the Empire State Building during the Depression in one year. We built Hoover Dam during the depression in 3 years. We built the P-51 from drawing board design to actual combat deployment in 105 days. We built clouds of P-47 close support aircraft. We build a mechanized army and the ships to take it to Europe. All that without computers, without robots, without Interstate highways, with a population of 140 million, beginning with an economy enthralled in the Great Depression. …

If we could do all that then, can we not do it now? What man has done, cannot man aspire to?

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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