The Fragile Future

"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble." -- H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Long before modern theories of finance codified the notion, nature knew the value of diversification. It was as if the universe itself never knew what might come in handy and prepared for all eventualities by creating many kinds of each. But society has other ideas; and each era in its certitude "knows" what it wants for time to come, often to its everlasting regret. Steve Chapman at Reason describes one of the side effects of the "right to choose": whether or not to have a baby and what kind of baby to have.

Chapman points out that abortion, which is centerpiece of what is described as women's rights, has chiefly been used to exterminate females. "It was once assumed that the general preference for male offspring would subside as countries became richer and women became more educated. But in country after country, that has proved false."

But as Mara Hvistendahl reports in her 2011 book "Unnatural Selection," the number for boys per 100 girls has risen to 112 in India and 121 in China. ...

French demographer Christophe Guilmoto, reports Hvistendahl, regards gender imbalance as "an epidemic. In the number of lives it has touched, he says, sex selection merits comparison with AIDS." Worldwide, experts say, the number of "missing girls" amounts to a stunning 163 million -- more than the entire female population of the United States.

No one -- even the Womyn's movement -- could have anticipated such an ironic result. Perhaps that is the point. There are things we can't forsee.

What is useless in this world? It seems like a simple question, but it isn't.

Those who point out that abortion makes possible a world without Down's syndrome children have never asked those who grew up to adulthood with it if they would have preferred to die. "A survey reported in the American Journal of Medical Genetics found that only 4 percent of parents with Down syndrome children regret having them—and nearly 99 percent of the people with the disorder said they are happy with their lives."

But "we" of course know better. Assuming "we" can keep counting ourselves among the "we." But what if the yardstick changes?  Then we may not be in the "we" but in the them.

Babies are all born less than perfect in some way, yet the hideousness of that imperfection varies with the cultural mores of the society they are born into. I met a man born nearly deaf in one ear. It turned out that the rest of him more than made up for the missing piece for he became the prime minister of a Western country.

Where is the line? And who shall draw it? As the actual numbers show, one of the most hideous disfigurements in the world today is to be conceived female.  And that's why there are 163 million fewer girls in the world today than there otherwise would have been.

Megan McArdle notes in her recent article in the Atlantic that Europe, quite without fully realizing it, made the decision to become demographically very old. It spent its "demographic dividend" -- the surge in prosperity arising from its post-war baby boom -- almost in a fit of absentmindedness.

Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. And then, one by one, the rest of Europe’s nations will follow. Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population. Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.

At the time the dolce vita seemed like a good idea.  What now? Well nothing now. The children who were never born are gone and it will take a full generation to spool up again, assuming Europe can shake itself out of what McArdle calls "twilight city." Some decisions are made forever, even though we never realized it at the time.

If only economic growth could be delivered on demand, like a pizza, just minutes after we realize we want it. Unfortunately, growth (or at least the sustainable variety) is typically a long time in the baking, and dependent on two main ingredients: more workers and higher worker productivity. And much of Europe is short on the former. That has big implications for Europe’s future.

As one commenter at the Belmont Club likes to put it, "buy the ticket, take the ride." Unfortunately, not everyone may like where the ticket goes. But that's the hidden virtue of diversity. We find a token in our pockets that we never thought to use and realize that it's our way out.  Messiness has a purpose that central planners often overlook. It's the Engine of Creation.

What the Five Year Plan can't cope with is Change, because change alters the relative value of things. Altered circumstances make us desire what we formerly despised. It makes us despise what we formerly desired.

Ideology is linear and the world is complex.  The victory of medical science over the randomness of birth has created the temptation to create a perfection that conceals danger. As Nassim Taleb recently pointed out, when we suppress volatility in a system we often increase its fragility.  Thus things which are organic have a robustness that is surprising.  On the other hand, artificially constructed huge monoliths that are "too big to fail" often conceal a hidden weakness.

The planners thought they had things figured; they bet on the welfare state but no one is left to sustain it. The Womyn bet on "reproductive rights" and it is breeding their gender out of existence.

Perhaps they should have kept a little something out of the scope of human determination and left it, as humanity always had, to chance. But that would have required ceding control to chance, something the Perfect Planners never do. But if chance destroys, it also creates. In their quest for a perfect world, the planners outlawed change -- real change, not their faked version --  and the result was that the unnoticed defects in their own assumptions became magnified to fatal absurdity.

H.G. Wells, in the epilogue of The Time Machine, concluded that the story of humanity was not yet over. Its final conclusion depended on contingencies that had not yet occurred. All those who try to write finis to the tale on mankind's behalf should ask themselves if they remembered the flowers. For which philsopher king in his tower of gold would have thought of the flowers?

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now - if I may use the phrase - be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age. Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know - for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made - thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank - is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers - shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle - to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)


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