Image: Matti Mattila, Flickr.

Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

  1. An article in the New Republic says that older parenthood–including aging fathers, not just mothers–may be a key factor in the rising rates of autism, Asperger’s, and other neurological disorders in the US.
  2. A new Brookings Institution study examines Chinese science and technology policy, including its push into “green” technology.
  3. RNA interference technology under development at several major seed companies would allow genetically engineered plants to produce small pieces of RNA that selectively turn off key genes in target insects–a more advanced, better targeted form of plant-produced pesticide than that employed by the widely used Bt corn. Critics argue that the same RNA molecules could harm humans.
  4. The U.S. now ranks 27th in life expectancy out of 34 developed countries.  In 1990, the U.S. was ranked 20th.  Yet the U.S. spends more than any developed country on healthcare.  The reasons often given are bad eating habits, no exercise, smoking, and the poor not having access to health care.  However, when we look back to the 1950′s, we find that people ate badly, didn’t exercise, smoked a lot and were healthier.  In a recent JAMA study, it was found that the one key indicator in our past and one that holds true across countries is the level of inequality.  This creates stress in a society and should be treated as a societal vital sign.
  5. Neurologically speaking, the brain and the gut are closely linked, an emerging body of research attests–to the point that the health of our internal microbiome may affect our mood, mental health, and even behavior.

Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

Image: Megan Ann, Flickr.

  1. Joel Kotkin argues that the elites of Silicon Valley are evolving into an autocratic ruling class. The combination of vast wealth, increased lobbying in Washington DC, and the control of digital media outlets increasingly enables this emerging elite to disproportionately shape public policy and public debate.
  2. The history of the arrival of the telephone and the Walkman suggests how Google Glass will find its way into society.
  3. In a New York Times piece titled “No Rich Child Left Behind,” Stanford Professor Sean F. Reardon argues that the growing gap in educational achievement between rich children and middle class or poor children is due not only to income disparity but also to the fact that rich parents are focusing more of their resources on the cognitive and educational development of their children. Further, because in the changing economy educational success and economic success are tightly linked, gaps in educational achievement appear likely to perpetuate economic disparity and limit class mobility.
  4. According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US shale oil resources will turn the US from the biggest importer of oil to a net oil exporter in the next 5 years. The IEA also expects the US to surpass Russia as the leading natural gas producer in 2015, and go on to achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2035.
  5. A recent editorial in Science, “Is Any Science Safe?”, decries a March congressional decision to stop National Science Foundation funding for political science research, except for projects certified by the agency director to “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.” In April a Florida congressman asked the President’s science advisor why these two criteria were not “a good and proper filter” to apply to all NSF grants. Use of these criteria represents a substantial change to the time-honored process of peer-reviewed science funding.

Image: Wonderlane (Flickr)

I am by no stretch of the imagination an economist. But a recent paper and a recent book on the long-term prospects for sustained US economic growth—and the discussion they generated—captured my attention, perhaps because it makes a forecast that builds on centuries of history. I’ll do my best to briefly describe the paper’s thesis and some of the counterpoints made by others.

In “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” Northwestern University Professor Robert J. Gordon argues that nearly all of historical growth in production per capita has been driven by a series of three industrial revolutions. The first, from about 1750 to 1830, included steam engines and cotton spinning; the second, from about 1870 to 1900, the internal combustion engine, electricity, and running water; the third, beginning about 1960, the computer and Internet. The innovations from these three revolutions and the incremental improvements that followed improved US production per capita, but Gordon argues that they included many one-time events whose impact on economic output has largely already been captured. Productivity gains from the third revolution were smaller than those from the second, are slowing, and will continue to slow. (Note that Gordon excludes the period from 2007 onwards from his trends; that is, his argument is not skewed by the recent economic downturn.)

Moreover, Gordon identifies six economic “headwinds” that will put downward pressure on US growth going forward, namely the aging population, falling educational achievement, rising income inequality, globalization and ICT-enabled outsourcing, energy and environmental issues, and household and government debt.

Net, Gordon sees “the possibility that future economic growth may gradually sputter out.” Economic growth, which was virtually nil before about 1750, may once again be very slow, at least mature economies.

Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation goes farther, arguing that US economic growth until about 1974 benefited from “low-hanging fruit” that included not only technological innovation but also cheap land and rising education levels. Since about 1974 the low-hanging fruit has been gone and economic growth has slowed. And the Internet isn’t generating a tremendous amount of new economic activity—major players have relatively small payrolls and many activities are available for free.

Many commentators have responded to these arguments, from several angles:

  • Gordon is way too pessimistic. The three industrial revolutions were driven by the innovative, risk-taking spirit created during the Enlightenment, a spirit that is alive and well and will continue to drive innovation, though unevenly, over time.
  • Gordon may be right in the shorter term—especially about the headwinds he cites—but wrong in the longer term because information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology still have great potential for innovation.
  • Gordon is too pessimistic. There are a lot of policy changes that we could make to increase the likelihood of productive innovation going forward. Cowen’s book provoked similar comments.
  • Gordon’s reminder that real game-changing innovations like indoor plumbing and the automobile are historically rare is right on target.
  • Cowen’s data may also indicate that Americans are shifting from a modern focus on wealth creation to a post-modern focus on quality of life, a focus that yields little new economic activity.
  • Gordon is a bit too pessimistic. It may be too soon to forecast the end of growth. Instead, it may be time to think of the US economy not in terms of perpetual growth but in terms of sustainability.
  • Blogging for Forbes, Nick Schulz argued that there are plausible arguments both for and against the economic stagnation hypothesis. But taking the hypothesis seriously makes more sense to Schulz, because it inspires us to action to reignite innovation.

As analysts of social change, one trend we monitor is the dramatic, ongoing evolution of the American family. The Leave It to Beaver model of married-couple-with-kids, plus the odd dog or gerbil, now fits less than one-fifth of US households. Instead, many more people are living in “voluntary” families composed of (or at least including) self-selected, non-biological, non-married relationships.

Now a study led by Dawn Braithwaite, a social scientist at the University of Nebraska, has examined the trend more deeply, identifying four types of voluntary families:

  • Supplemental families, the most prevalent type, develop when a person’s relatives are geographically or emotionally distant.
  • Substitute families stand in for relatives who are absent, for example due to estrangement or death.
  • Convenience families are temporary ones formed during college or a rehabilitation period, for instance.
  • Extended families augment a biological unit, such as multiple single parents and their children living together for mutual support.

For the people who choose them, voluntary kin are “different from close or best friends in that they are expected to be permanent relationships and to fulfill roles played by family members,” explains Braithwaite. Indeed, members often use familial terminology such as “she’s like a sister to me.” The trend is likely to continue: as Braithwaite says, “Most people [in them] find voluntary families important and a great source of understanding, companionship, and support.”

Image: toastforbrekkie (Flickr)

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