Bob Lane has written an excellent post about Death is Wrong on his site LifeVsDeath.com. Read it here. Mr. Lane writes that “This is an important step in a long-term effort to win minds and change attitudes. I applaud the author’s efforts and plan to share a copy with my 15-year-old. […] Even if you don’t have children, please consider supporting the author in what he is trying to accomplish.”
Death is wrong, and it can be defeated. Gennady Stolyarov’s new book, Death is Wrong, makes this powerful idea accessible to everyone. Now that you have seen the phrase in print, it should not seem odd to you; the vincible visage of the Grim Reaper should seem less frightening. It is a primitive spectre, a monster to be unmasked in the venerable tradition of Scooby Doo. There is no more reason to believe in its inevitability than there is to believe in the Easter Bunny. This strange, wonderful and intoxicating idea should begin to sink into our brains, not because it is pleasant, but because it is true. Please support his Indiegogo campaign here.
Death can be cured. Let this sink into your brain, not because it is comforting, but because it is true. Even obvious truths will not gain acceptance unless we vigorously campaign against the falsehoods Death is not something to embrace, and it is not something to ignore. To turn it into a matter of metaphysics or “bioethics” is insulting to those who, by no fault of their own, are burdened by the ailments of old age. There are many extraordinary men and women who could go on working for hundreds of years if their stars were not designed to dim so soon.
What do you want to do with your life? This is the question Mr. Stolyarov poses to his readers. Whatever you wish to do is restricted by the time you have on this earth. This is restricted largely by your genes, even if you do all you can to mitigate the hand chance and meiosis have dealt you. The fountain of youth now is not far off. We no longer need to deceive ourselves with lofty philosophical discourses of dreams of a world after this one. Conventional “wear and tear” theories claim the body has a finite amount of repair resources, yet if this was true, exercise should greatly decrease one’s lifespan. As far as we can tell, moderate exercise fights aging as well as or better than anything in our still inadequate arsenal.
If the process is the result of unavoidable changes we should not expect to find animals which undergo negligible senescence. We should also expect animals of the same basic shape, type and size to age at approximately the same rates. American crows normally die before their eigth birthday; Kakapo parrots can live well into their nineties. Post-reproductive suicide may be viewed as a peculiarity of some species, but it also graphically illustrates the control genes have over the aging process. The goal of the Transhumanist movement now should be to convince as many people as possible of the viability of this research. Arcane mathematical tidbits from evolutionary biology, although more cogent, are less convincing than masses of salmon carcasses floating downstream or lowly tortoises who, for no obvious reason, live for centuries.
Knowing our quality of life is doomed to decay with each passing year, we do not always take full advantage of the opportunities available to us. Why play the guitar? Some people have been playing it since they were 12. It would be impossible to schedule it in between shifts at the lab and carting the kids around. An ambition is forsaken for lack of time. It is often irrational, as late is better than never, but humans are not always rational animals. The creeping fear of time is partially justified. Anger is more than justified. There is no reason we should not have more quality time to fulfill our aspirations. Paradoxically, coming to terms with the shortness of life can be more paralyzing than invigorating. Like so many falsehoods, carpe diem stems from deep but forgivable denial.
People, including history’s greatest minds, have tried to find ways in which they or their creations were eternal. These efforts amount mostly to confabulations. As much as this statement will be contested, I must make it: death makes life meaningless. If you cannot agree with this, at least concede that aging can make life intolerable. Before you dismiss this, keep in mind it is easy to pontificate about the value of old age when one is young. Creaking joints and failing organs may change your views. Our finest moments are when we feel eternal, yet feeling eternal is quite different from being eternal. Freud called it the oceanic sensation; the expansion of the self into the wider world. When someone knows with certainly they may live hundreds or thousands of years, these otherwise momentary delusions find firm ground on which to stand.
In the end our efforts are all for naught. From a cosmic perspective this may be so, and a pugnacious devil’s advocate may ask if there is such a thing as a “good” age to die, but one can forcefully and effectively argue that 75 is too young. 35 is far too young to begin losing one’s faculties, as many professions today require years of training. A man in the prime of his career should also be in the prime of his life. 20 is universally considered too young to die. So are 30, 40, and 50. Before we can even begin to enjoy the fruits of our labors, we are already declining. Before we can begin to understand a portion of the world’s treasures, we are growing old and tired. What a sad state of affairs! We desire lasting rewards, yet we cannot have them. The productions of an entire lifetime do not last, because the enjoyer of those productions and the accolades they have won eventually perishes. With his body, presumably, his consciousness also disappears into nothingness. Deadlines tend to force a person to work in a state of fear. Death is the ultimate deadline.
What of knowledge and talents? Why acquire knowledge when it can only be imperfectly transmitted to the next generation? Preserved in books, but there are already so many books. Immortality may not be necessary for society’s continued progress now, but with the constant expansion of information and the sprawling interconnectedness of different disciplines, it is reasonable to wonder if hyperspecialization is our salvation. Immortality and intelligence amplification will allow us all, to some extent, to become generalists capable of making sane and sound decisions for ourselves and society. Why invest in higher pleasures when the lower ones deliver immediate gratification?
Living for each day devolves into hedonistic stupidity. Why should we care about the consequences of our actions when, regardless of what happens to us, our stories all end in the same way? What was once a psychological necessity is now a hindrance to the greater good. What was once a rational position is now an effrontery to a sane approach to medicine. This is not say that research efforts dedicated to the cell cycle or the precipitating factors involved in autoimmune disorders are worthless – far from it! Rather it means that life extension in its own right ought to be a major area of inquiry. The totem must be smashed and the taboo crushed.
Yet whose decree are we following and why? Disease is our oldest foe. We are not complacent about hereditary illnesses that will only be cured after the perfection of in vivo gene therapy. Yet a lifespan of less than a century is blindly accepted as a physical limit by, according to polls taken by Theodore Goldsmith, a shocking number of scientists and laymen alike. Death is literally our mortal foe, but the amount of energy we have spent fighting it directly would not lead one to this conclusion. The biochemical changes associated with aging are the primary risk factors for diabetes, atherosclerosis, arthritis, and cancer. Yet, in spite of the undeniable correlation between aging and these diseases, research effort is directed mostly at treating them individually instead of addressing their underlying cause.
This is rooted not in a scientific sentiment, but in the unfounded assumption that death is inevitable. This stems less from skepticism towards modern medicine and more from historical superstitions that allowed our ancestors to cope with the mysterious and inhospitable universe in which they found themselves. Worse, there are throngs of secular and religious nihilists alike who actively spread the gospel of death. They erect altars to petty Molochs to distract themselves from their own worst enemy. It will be difficult to battle the most entrenched notion of all, but nothing worth having is easy to obtain. The end of suffering is the highest ideal. Why should we worship false idols any longer?
Should Transhumanism take precedence over the fight against Creationism? The answer seems painfully obvious. I do not care if a pig farmer in Alabama believes the Neolithic era was populated by dinosaurs. His ignorance has no dreadful ramifications for humankind. As an academic and popular movement, anti-aging should be the first and foremost topic of scientific discussion. The secular and sane world accepts Darwinism. There is no reason to suppose converting the remaining holdouts will benefit society in the least. The sane and secular world, however, is still largely unaware of the strides science is making toward biological immortality. Moreover, a small bit about intelligent design in a science textbook, while objectionable on moral grounds, will not do much more damage to an already broken school system.
Mentioning intelligent design in passing will do nothing to dumb down an already doltish student body. Advocates of evolution would be more helpful if they turned their energies to spreading numeracy and basic literacy. Both are in short supply. To spend a lifetime fighting against hopeless ignoramuses makes one an imbecile of the highest order. Let the ignorant tend to their own business while we welcome the age of wonders. Let this be a call to arms. Let this be a call to awaken and accept the foolishness of how humanity uses its resources. Rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.
The article’s author, Joelle Renstrom, writes,
“In late February, Stolyarov and the Movement for Indefinite Life Extension started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to distribute 1,000 free copies to kids. The campaign ends on April 23, and so far the funds fall well short of the goal.”
The goal is 33% funded after 33% of the days. That seems right on track to me. I don’t know why Slate would feel the need to exaggerate that point to make it seem like our funding progress was not favorable to us.
“But there’s a difference between curing grave diseases, which would increase our lifespans, and ‘solving’ death. Stolyarov sells kids an updated myth of pharaohs, the fountain of youth, and Gilgamesh cloaked in the singularity, the theorized point at which technology and superior artificial intelligence fundamentally alter life. He implies that death is the Problem and that solving it will ensure smooth sailing, which is irresponsible at best and disastrous at worst.”
To imply that death isn’t the problem, that you can go through deaths of people you know and then yourself, and that it is not worth smoothing out those parts of the seas of life, and to call it irresponsible and possibly disastrous to do so, is unfounded, self-back-patting – assertive flippancy at its finest. No offense. I’m sure Ms. Renstrom has plenty of redeeming qualities, but that statement is not one of them.
Sure, we fight to keep death at bay indefinitely, but we will be happy if the world’s collective efforts help lead to 500-year lifespans, or 200-year lifespans, or indefinite life spans with 77% of people dying by accident within the first 800 years anyways, etc. We support a variety of potential pathways that could bring about more good futures for more people. We support anti-aging research initiatives like SENS and many others. The critics at Slate think they’re clever for associating what we aim for with the negative image of immortality as portrayed by book and film sensationalists that make up immorality-themed stories. In the movies, it is the unspoken word that Zombies are only supposed to move slowly, but that is irrelevant to life and death causes, too.
Having a trendy, knee-jerk, cynical, superficial response to this life-and-death topic is not acceptable. Think this through more. It is, “life is good; make it work”, not, “life could be bad; justify why it’s good before making it work”.
“Stolyarov rails against acceptance, even when unaccompanied by belief in the afterlife; he rejects the Buddhist position of experiencing pain caused by death while knowing death has released a loved one from suffering. Instead, he targets an audience that could conceivably solve death before he has to stare it down, which is neither braver nor better.”
He is working on one of the most intellectually forward moving projects of our times, and he does it in a world where primary and secondary schools don’t put a lot of critical-thinking coursework into their curricula, and where it shows. It’s a world where 85% of the people claim that they know an invisible pal in the clouds can be telepathically begged to bend the laws of physics for them. Of course what he is doing is great and brave; he stands up in the face of and helps the as-of-yet ungrateful, often antagonistic masses.
“Death Is Wrong makes immortality seem within reach, describing doubling a roundworm’s life via genetic mutation and the cell-rejuvenating Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence proposed by bio-gerontologist and anti-aging crusader Aubrey de Grey.”
The tools to do it are here now. It is within reach. For example, diseases that are like the forms of damage that accumulate in and around the cells of our bodies and that cause us to age to death, have already been worked on with success in laboratories around the world. Also, some gene recombination has already stopped some diseases. We know how to work on this kind of stuff. We just have to determine to get it done now. So let’s rally people to this cause rather than directing them away from it.
“Representing a legitimate problem as a solution invites disaster, especially if it means ignoring issues such as overpopulation.”
Population is on a decline in many industrialized countries when you subtract immigration. So there is one of many solutions to a potential overpopulation crisis.
I often have to wonder why life-extensionists have to be the bearers of facts like these to people who use these concepts to try to discredit projects and organizations of life-and-death significance. It’s one thing to work to discredit people; it’s another thing to do it without having your facts straight, and it’s yet another messed-up thing altogether to do all that, but not even inquiringly or half-jestingly, but assertively.
What about the potential underpopulation crisis?
But it doesn’t even matter in this context; death comes first. If you’ve got two problems, and impending death of you and people you know is one of them, then you work on the death as the top priority. Death is definitely not the hands-down, go-to solution when you think about a may-be/could-be population challenge of an unknown form. It’s way down at the bottom of that list, if it’s even on there at all. In the meantime, many groups and organizations continue to work on forecasting for and planning for scenarios like those. It’s a nearly moot alarmist point to say that transhumanists and supporters of indefinite life extension can’t and don’t think of the big picture of things. I like Joelle Renstrom’s concern for it, though, and I encourage her to get involved with one of those organizations, too, and help plan ahead.
“The transhumanist declaration acknowledges technology’s double-edges: “humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. … Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.” This consideration is missing from the book. Part of preparing kids for a technological future is teaching them that not all technology is necessary or beneficial, and that we can make technological mistakes. Putting all our eggs in the “technology will fix everything” basket is even more dangerous than putting them all in the “death is wrong” basket. What if technology doesn’t cure death? What if it, or the rush to develop it, actually causes death?”
What if, in our rush to quadruple-check every “what if”, we forgot to move forward toward the cures, and we all died needlessly? People like me, Gennady Stolyarov, and many others work with projects that help advance our understanding in those regards, too. Why would we even be accused of neglecting those considerations? We don’t support pioneering of new ground by putting on blindfolds and running at full speed through the jungle swinging a machete. Hey wait, I think I just described a straw-man that the author of this article created. I’m calling “straw man” on that point.
The presentations at the conferences we support, the authors of the books we help promote, the organizations we choose to associate with — they talk about, monitor, work with, and report on risks, ethics, sustainability, and related matters all of the time. We or people that we know, work with places like Longecity, SENS Foundation, Methuselah Foundation, Fight Aging, Campaign Against Aging, Coalition to Extend Life, Longevity Alliance, Maximum Life Foundation, Humanity+, Lifeboat Foundation, IEET, Singularity Network, Foresight Institute, Cryonics Network, and many others.
“Stolyarov might argue he’s advocating adaptation, and thus survival, but curing death would constitute artificial selection—a drastic and deliberate change in our own evolution. Inherent in that argument is a troubling notion of human exceptionalism—that we shouldn’t have to play by evolution’s rules. Stolyarov suggests we select ourselves (those who can afford it, anyway), rather than leave it to nature.”
Artificial is a kind of natural. It is natural for humans to use their tools and abilities to do what they can do with them. Human beings are exceptional. The universe didn’t (seemingly) sit empty for millions of years, with dust balls whistling in the wind, comets and cosmic gas flying by, no sentience or record of such, and then have the miraculous occurrence of sentience through human form spring up from that dust—just so that this intellectual power-tool in a land of endless wonder, potential, and mystery, could decide itself to be less significant than the ducks and the trees and allow itself to disassemble from its miraculous, universe-control-potential form, back into inanimate dust and vapor trails. It is important to use our human opportunity to leverage resources to uncover as many of the mysteries of the big picture of existence as possible.
“Kids could grow up not just afraid of death, but also afraid of failing to fix it. Stolyarov makes death a powerful nemesis that could rule their lives—just as it’s ruled his.”
What an insulting and baseless speculation to assert. If you’re going to insult somebody, at least add enough fallacy-free substance to it to hold it up.
People like the author of the Slate article want children to continue growing up afraid of life. They want death to continue to drag down their spirits and traumatize them. They want children to think that wars and the greedy people make death an appealing and noble exit. They tell people that it’s better to be intellectually lazy and forget about working on their challenges, that it’s better to lay down and die, that life is too hard and dreary. They don’t want children to think about fixing death, because they can’t conceive of having a spine when it comes to standing up to tough danger. They want indifference to remain a powerful nemesis that rules children’s minds, so they can’t see the true dangers in death and respond appropriately.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (New York: Random House, 2012).
No two buzzwords define the present crisis more than “contagion” and “robustness” in the world of economists and policy wonks. The current interrelated nature of the financial system has bred a fragile situation where the success of the greater economy supposedly hinges on its individual components, such as banks that are too big to fail. To combat this fragility, economists have increasingly sought to build robust institutions. Such institutions will remain strong in the face of adverse effects if an individual component of the economy fails — be it subprime mortgages, sovereign debt, deposit-taking institutions or investment banks. This approach to the crisis stresses that if we cannot battle contagion, we had better construct strong institutions to weather future storms.
Nassim Taleb takes great issue with this approach in his new book Antifragile. His view is that constructing such so-called robust institutions is not sufficient as they continually fight yesterday’s battles. Instead the focus should be in building “antifragile” institutions. Although often confused with robustness or resilience, an antifragile institution is not only unharmed by adverse events, but is actually strengthened by them. Building antifragile institutions will not only strengthen the global economic arena, but also have wide-ranging social applications.
Taleb’s latest work builds on two of his previous books, Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Black Swan (2007). The common theme underlying all three is that there are events which are fundamentally unknowable — true uncertainties — in distinction to merely risky outcomes. Since we cannot know in advance what these events are, or what their effects will be, we should not exert too much effort in constructing contingency plans.
It is at this point that my first quibble with the book arises, and one I had with its predecessor The Black Swan. Taleb bifurcates between two definitions of uncertain events. On the one hand he invokes random or fundamentally unknowable events. Readers of this journal will be sympathetic to this definition of uncertainty, bearing close resemblance to Mises’s own use of “case probabilities” (1949, pp. 110–113), or Shackle’s (1949) use of “non-seriable, non-divisible” events. On the other hand, it is also clear that Taleb also thinks of uncertain events as merely rare events. These are events located on the fat or long tails on a probability distribution. Even though he thinks that these represent true uncertainty, there is no doubt that he is referring to fundamentally probabilistic events.
This quibble aside, one can apply much of the remaining work cognizant that Taleb’s terminology differs from that of the Austrian economists, and also that the domain of his theory is slightly different than he thinks.
Something is “antifragile” if it gets stronger from a negative event. What are some examples? Taleb applies the prefix of his book liberally to outline what choices we should be pursuing. Indeed, the body of the book gives a long list of antifragile actions that, at least on one level, boil down to doing the exact opposite of what you think you should be doing.
Authors should be shocked to learn that there is almost no news that can harm a writer’s credibility, and that any publicity is good publicity (pp. 51–52). Corporations and governments that try to “reinstill confidence” should not be trusted because they would do so only if they were ultimately doomed (p. 53). Children shouldn’t be on antidepressants as this removes a source of learning from the life experience and thus make individuals less capable of dealing with unwanted events later in life (p. 61). The sinking of the Titanic was a positive disaster as it put shipbuilders on their toes, and possibly avoided an even larger accident later (p. 72). The general theme is that those who make errors are stronger than those who don’t — reliability, or antifragility — only comes when something is regularly tested by an unwanted event.
The theory has merit. Consider this lesson applied to central bank policies. In the wake of the dot-com bust a concerted effort by the world’s central banks flooded the global financial system with liquidity. The liquidation of assets that should have happened never did, and as a result lenders and borrowers didn’t learn their lesson on prudential money management. The seeds were sown for the larger crisis starting in 2007–2008 because a simple lesson was not learned when the financial system’s problems were still in relative infancy.
There is much to learn from this book and much to be wary of. At the end of the day, Taleb reckons the best test of an anti-fragile institution is Mother Nature mixed with a healthy dose of time. In chapter 21 he criticizes the prevailing orthodoxy of “neomania,” the mistaken belief that newer is better. Those institutions that have existed the longest are, in all likelihood, those that will continue to exist into the future. As an example, imagine that the year is 1988 and answer the following: which structure will last the longest, the Berlin Wall or the Great Pyramid of Giza.
In this test, as in much of the book, Taleb asks too much and too little. He asks too much because those institutions with the most longevity were once upon a time also the ones with the least. There must be a better test than longevity, as it only pushes the problem back in time to identify the source of antifragility. It cannot be turtles all the way down.
An applied example relevant to the present financial crisis would involve looking for those institutions that have been strengthened by current affairs. The crisis has taken its toll on many aspects of the financial services industry, but some general types of products have proven surprising resilient, or antifragile. Governments with prudent fiscal policies — e.g., Germany, Switzerland and Singapore — have fared well and indeed been strengthened as finances deteriorate in more profligate countries. Investment funds capitalizing on what were once unorthodox strategies, such as gold and other precious metal holdings, have out-performed more traditional investments as the financial crisis worsens. Readers of this journal will also notice that their stock in Austrian economics has increased in value over the past decade. Question begging and failed policies developed through more mainstream theories have led many former outsiders to the ranks of Austrian economists. An unwanted event caused an offsetting positive outcome in all these scenarios. That is what being antifragile is about.
Taleb asks too little by not exploring the true sources of antifragility. He comes close, alluding in many places that market-based institutions better combat the false security that planned institutions create. Explaining and elaborating on this link would do much to take the fundamental merits of antifragility to the next level. It would be, however, fodder for another book.
 Mises, Ludwig von. 1949. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998.
 Shackle, G. L. S. 1949. Expectations in Economics. Westport, Conn.: Gibson.
David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics and professor of economics at St. Louis University’s Madrid Campus, Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada, and winner of the Mises Institute’s Douglas E. French Prize. Send him mail. See David Howden’s article archives.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.
Death is Wrong is the ambitious new book for children and for life-extension advocates of all ages.
If you have ever asked, “Why do people have to die?” then this book is for you. The answer is that no, death is not necessary, inevitable, or good. In fact, death is wrong. Death is the enemy of us all, to be fought with medicine, science, and technology. This book introduces you to the greatest, most challenging, most revolutionary movement to radically extend human lifespans so that you might not have to die at all.
You will learn about some amazingly long-lived plants and animals, recent scientific discoveries that point the way toward lengthening lifespans in humans, and simple, powerful arguments that can overcome the common excuses for death. If you have ever thought that death is unjust and should be defeated, you are not alone. Read this book, and become part of the most important quest in human history.
This book was written by the philosopher and futurist Gennady Stolyarov II and illustrated by the artist Wendy Stolyarov. It is here to show you that, no matter who you are and what you can do, there is always a way for you to help in humanity’s struggle against death.
The First Edition of Death is Wrong was published by the Rational Argumentator Press.
“Not too grammatically complex, and not too excruciatingly simplistic, Death is Wrong is a blunt dose of reality, quick to the punch and holding nothing back. This is the book I wish I’d have read as a young child.”
~ B. J. Murphy – The Proactionary Transhumanist. Read the full review.
“I thought the book was fun to read and important in what it tries to accomplish.”
~ Zoltan Istvan – Psychology Today. Read the full review.
I am pleased to announce some excellent news regarding a development that will hopefully accelerate the spread of life-extension ideas to children and to the general public. Zoltan Istvan’s article on my new children’s book Death is Wrong and his interview with me and my wife Wendy Stolyarov was just published on Psychology Today. You can read it here. Psychology Today is a high-traffic site with a high potential for influencing public outlooks on life, death, and life extension. I welcome your comments both at the bottom of this post and on the Psychology Today page.
The qualm of death is a very uneasy burden we all suffer from. We dedicate hours of our time, spent in colloquy, discussing the myriad risks of life, though subsequently the tender rage to resist to ensure that life lives on. But then, when do we spend our time in preparing our children – the next generation – for what is to come, what is to discuss, and what is to fight for?
I believe this wonderful children’s book, provided by the Stolyarovs, is a very grand step forward in achieving this. Not too grammatically complex, and not too excruciatingly simplistic, Death is Wrong is a blunt dose of reality, quick to the punch and holding nothing back. This is the book I wish I’d have read as a young child.
As science matures and technology continues growing at an exponential pace, especially in the medical sector, the words written here in this book will not only live on forever via the vast archives of historical literature, they will live on forever through the lives of the indefinitely extended – the cyborgs, the transhumans, the posthumans, etc.
While certainly not religious myself, I believe this loosely correlated – albeit relevant – quote from the Judeo-Christian bible will suffice as final remarks in tribute of this book’s noble message to you, the reader:
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26
Exploring Capitalist Fiction, a new volume of literary analysis by Dr. Edward W. Younkins, offers perceptive, relevant, and engaging commentaries on 25 works of fiction which portray the business world and its relationship to all areas of human life. The novels, plays, and films featured in the book span 125 years of literary culture – from The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells to the 2010 Oliver Stone film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. This volume offers thorough coverage of both works that portray heroic entrepreneurs and economic liberty in a positive light – such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Garet Garrett’s The Driver, and Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back – as well as works that are more critical of the business world – including Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, and the Wall Street films. In each of his essays, Younkins provides a sequential summary of the fictional work, interspersed with commentary that highlights the philosophical and economic implications of major elements and integrates them with the historical context of the time period in which the work takes place.
Younkins is to be commended for emphasizing the value of fiction as a teaching tool for both students of business and individuals immersed in the business world. A thorough reading of the book’s Conclusion is highly recommended for attaining an understanding of the unique ability of fiction to communicate memorable lessons rooted in specific, richly detailed situations which render the conflicts, dilemmas, and options faced by individuals in the business world more palpable and engaging than would a sole reliance on lectures, case studies, and outlines of business and economic concepts. In addition, the Conclusion offers a fast-paced chronological overview of many more fictional works which address business themes and which have made their mark on the world of artistic culture.
As with his previous volumes, where Dr. Younkins provided integrated presentations of the thoughts of great philosophers and economists throughout the centuries, this book provides a refreshing focus on human flourishing and the application of the lessons of particular novels, plays, and films toward the improvement of both one’s own condition and the degree of prosperity found in the broader economy. This is not literary analysis for its own sake, but rather a book that highlights the lessons an individual can take from each great work and apply to his or her own life.
Younkins combines his support for free markets, entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, reason, and moral responsibility with an ability to point out the many valuable insights in those works which criticize capitalism as conventionally understood. He utilizes the insights of Austrian economics and his extensive knowledge of economic history to show how the bleak portrayals of businessmen and the business world in these books stem from the consequences of situations where the principles of honest free commerce and individual rights were violated. When critics of capitalism express their objections through fiction, they inevitably portray situations where fraud, corruption, morally questionable manipulation, corporatist special privileges, thoughtless conformity, and zero-sum thinking are involved. All of these are indeed negative attributes from the standpoints of free markets and rational philosophy as well, and Younkins’s analysis shows that the works of the critics do make valid points – provided that one understands that the system they are criticizing is the one that has actually prevailed in the Western world over the past century. This is the system which mixes aspects of capitalist free enterprise with significant aspects of corporatist cronyism as well as central planning. It is a system quite different from the free-market capitalism advocated by Henry Hazlitt, Garet Garrett, and Ayn Rand. Indeed, in Atlas Shrugged, the protagonists go on strike precisely against this sort of cronyist system, though one that is farther-gone than our own. In Tucker: The Man and His Dream, an excellent movie to which Younkins devotes a chapter, this is also the system which attempts to suppress a genuine forward-thinking capitalist innovator, Preston Tucker, through the use of political force, motivated by the lobbying of the staid Big Three automobile companies.
For readers of all persuasions, Exploring Capitalist Fiction is an excellent means to appreciate the richness and variety of fictional portrayals of business, especially since the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. The book offers a concise introduction to many works and endeavors to motivate readers to seek out and experience the original novels, plays, and films. Hopefully, it will inspire many people to explore these great works of fiction, as it has already inspired me on multiple occasions.
Disclosure: The author received a free copy of the book in advance of publication.
Tyler Cowen’s thesis is that economic growth is leveling off and rates of return decreasing because we’ve already picked the “low-hanging fruit” (meaning innovations and investments that have high returns). The stagnation in GDP and median income in recent decades means “the pace of technological development has slowed down,” and the general population is benefiting less from new ideas.
I would argue, rather, that measured economic growth and income have slowed down precisely because of the increased pace of technological development.
The important trend behind the disappearance of “low-hanging fruit” is the decoupling of improved material quality of life from monetized measures of economic growth and income. Improvements in quality of life—although very real—don’t show up in conventional econometric terms.
Intensive development—increased efficiency in the use of inputs—isn’t necessarily reflected in increased money returns. Unless they’re turned into a source of rents by restrictions on competition, innovations that reduce production costs will benefit consumers in lower prices and better products.
Such rents are central to the business model of “cognitive capitalism”—the “progressive” model of capitalism pushed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The most profitable industries in recent years have been those that depend on returns from “intellectual property.” But such artificial scarcities are fast becoming unenforceable, and technologies of abundance are growing so rapidly that they can’t be enclosed as a source of rents.
If anything, we can expect an implosion in metrics like GDP in the coming years, even as quality of life improves enormously.
Cowen almost gets it at one point. “[I]f our food supply chain harvests, retails and sells an apple for $1, that adds a dollar to measured national income.” Exactly: GDP measures value produced in terms of the total cost of inputs consumed—not the use-value we consume, but how much stuff was used up producing it. So anything that reduces the input costs of our standard of living seems to show up as negative growth.
Actually, Cowen contradicts his own thesis. He argues that official GDP figures exaggerate growth because so much of it is simply waste. But that undermines his treatment of reduced money incomes as a proxy for reduced growth in standard of living. If the additional portion of the GDP we spend on waste—and the hours we worked to pay for it—simply disappeared, we’d be better off by that much. He can’t argue both that economic growth is the best measure of technical progress and that the levels of growth that have occurred have too little to do with real productivity.
To be sure, Cowen does address the supposed diminishing returns of technological progress in terms of personal use-value. The blockbuster innovations with the biggest effect on our daily lives, he says, have already been adopted: antibiotics, automobiles, refrigerators, television, air conditioning. There’s been far less change in the character of daily life since 1960 than before. Aside from the Internet, recent innovations have been mostly incremental.
The Internet itself, Cowen argues, may be important in terms of personal happiness, but not of generating either revenue or employment. But to treat revenue generation and employment as ends in themselves—rather than a way to pay for stuff—is perverse. If the price of what we need falls because the amount of labor and capital needed to produce it falls, then we need less revenue—and less labor—for the same standard of living. The real significance of what Cowen mistakenly calls “stagnation” is that a growing share of our needs is being decoupled from revenue by technologies of abundance.
The reduced wage employment needed to produce our standard of living, as such, is a good thing. What’s bad is when artificial property rights enable rentier classes to appropriate the benefits of increased productivity for themselves. Our goal should not be to increase the number of “full-time jobs,” but to make sure that the productivity of the hours we do work is fully internalized.
Cowen focuses mainly on the Internet as part of the furniture of daily life—the fun of web surfing—to the neglect of a far more important benefit: the basic way society itself is organized, the relative power of the individual and networks versus large institutions, and the declining ability of hierarchies to enforce their will on us.
His focus on the objects of daily life ignores revolutionary changes in the way they’re made and on the structure of the economy. There’s not such a revolutionary change in going from picture tubes to gel panels, or from carburetors to fuel injectors. But there’s an enormous difference between John Kenneth Galbraith’s mass-production oligopoly economy and one of networked garage shops using cheap machine tools.
C4SS Senior Fellow Kevin Carson is a contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. Carson has also written for such print publications as The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty and a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.