Book review: Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh).
If you only read the first 3 chapters, you might imagine that this is the history of just one industry (or the mysterious lack of an industry).
But this book attributes the absence of that industry to a broad set of problems that are keeping us poor. He looks at the post-1970 slowdown in innovation that Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation. The two books agree on many symptoms, but describe the causes differently: where Cowen says we ate the low hanging fruit, Josh says it's due to someone "spraying paraquat on the low-hanging fruit".
The book is full of mostly good insights. It significantly changed my opinion of the Great Stagnation.
The book jumps back and forth between polemics about the Great Strangulation (with a bit too much outrage porn), and nerdy descriptions of engineering and piloting problems. I found those large shifts in tone to be somewhat disorienting - it's like the author can't decide whether he's an autistic youth who is eagerly describing his latest obsession, or an angry old man complaining about how the world is going to hell (I've met the author at Foresight conferences, and got similar but milder impressions there).
Josh's main explanation for the Great Strangulation is the rise of Green fundamentalism, but he also describes other cultural / political factors that seem related. But before looking at those, I'll look in some depth at three industries that exemplify the Great Strangulation.
The good old days of Science Fiction
The leading SF writers of the mid 20th century made predictions for today that looked somewhat close to what we got in many areas, with a big set of exceptions in the areas around transportation and space exploration.
The absence of flying cars is used as an argument against futurists' ability to predict technology. This can't be dismissed as just a minor error of some obscure forecasters. It was a widespread vision of leading technologists.
Josh provides a decent argument that we should treat that absence as a clue to why U.S. economic growth slowed in the 1970s, and why growth is still disappointing.
Were those SF writers clueless optimists, making mostly random forecasting errors? No! Josh shows that for the least energy intensive technologies, their optimism was about right, and the more energy intensive the technology was, the more reality let them down.
Is it just a coincidence that people started worshiping energy conservation around the start of the Great Stagnation? Josh says no, we developed ergophobia - no, not the standard meaning of ergophobia: Josh has redefined it to mean fear of using energy.
Did flying cars prove to be technically harder than expected?
The simple answer is: mostly no. The people who predicted flying cars knew a fair amount about the difficulty, and we may have forgotten more than we've learned since then.
Josh describes, in more detail than I wanted, a wide variety of plausible approaches to building flying cars. None of them clearly qualify as low-hanging fruit, but they also don't look farther from our grasp than did flying machines in 1900.
How serious were the technical obstacles?
Air traffic control
Before reading this book, I assumed that there were serious technical problems here. In hindsight, that looks dumb.
Josh calculates that there's room for a million non-pressurized aircraft at one time, under current rules about distance between planes (assuming they're spread out evenly; it doesn't say all Tesla employees can land near their office at 9am). And he points out that seagull tornadoes (see this video) provide hints that current rules are many orders of magnitude away from any hard limits.
Regulators' fear of problems looks like an obstacle, but it's unclear whether anyone put much thought into solving them, and it doesn't look like the industry got far enough for this issue to be very important.
It seems unlikely that anywhere near as many people would learn to fly competently as have learned to drive. So this looks like a large obstacle for the average family, given 20th century technology.
But we didn't get close the point where that was a large obstacle to further adoption. And 21st century technology is making progress toward convenient ways of connecting competent pilots with people who want to fly, except where it's actively discouraged.
If the economic growth of 1945-1970 had continued, we'd be approaching wealth levels where people on a UBI ... oops, I mean on a national basic income could hope to afford an occasional ride in a flying Uber that comes to their door. At least if there were no political problems that drove up costs.
Weather will make flying cars a less predictable means than ground cars to get to a given destination. That seems to explain a modest fraction of people's reluctance to buy flying cars, but that explains at most a modest part of the puzzle.
The leading cause of death among active pilots is ... motorcycle accidents.
I wasn't able to verify that, and other sources say that general aviation is roughly as dangerous as motorcycles. Motorcycles are dangerous enough that they'd likely be illegal if they hadn't been around before the Great Strangulation, so whether either of those are considered safe enough seems to depend on accidents of history.
People have irrational fears of risk, but there has also been a rational trend of people demanding more safety because we can now afford more safety. I expect this is a moderate part of why early SF writers overestimated demand for flying cars.
The liability crisis seems to have hit general aviation harder than it hit most other industries. I'm still unclear why.
One of the more ironic regulatory pathologies that has shaped the world of general aviation is that most of the planes we fly are either 40 years old or homemade - and that we were forced into that position in the name of safety.
If the small aircraft industry hadn't mostly shut down, it's likely that new planes would have more safety features (airbags? whole-airplane parachutes?).
The flying car industry hit a number of speedbumps, such as WWII diverting talent and resources to other types of aviation, then a key entrepreneur being distracted by a patent dispute, and then was largely shut down by liability lawsuits. It seems like progress should have been a bit faster around 1950-1970 - I'm confused as to whether the industry did well then.
At any rate, it looks like liability lawsuits were the industry's biggest problem, and they combined with a more hostile culture and expensive energy to stop progress around 1980.
The book shifted my opinion from "those SF writers were confused" to "flying cars should be roughly as widespread as motorcycles". We should be close to having autopilots which eliminate the need for human pilots (and the same for motorcycles?), and then I'd consider it somewhat reasonable for the average family to have a flying car.
Josh emphasizes the importance of cheap energy for things such as flying cars, space travel, eradicating poverty, etc., and identifies nuclear power as the main technology that should have made energy increasingly affordable. So it seems important to check his claims about what went wrong with nuclear power.
It shows a trend of costs declining with experience, just like a normal industry where there's some competition and where consumers seem to care about price. Then that trend was replaced by a clear example of cost disease. I've previously blogged about the value of learning curves (aka experience curve effects) in forecasting.
This is pretty inconsistent with running out of low-hanging fruit, and is consistent with a broad class of political problems, including the hypothesis of hostile regulation, and also the hypothesis that nuclear markets were once competitive, then switched to having a good deal of monopoly power.
This is a pretty strong case that something avoidable went wrong, but leaves a good deal of uncertainty about what went wrong, and Josh seemed a little too quick to jump to the obvious conclusion here, so I investigated further. I couldn't find anyone arguing that nuclear power hit technical problems around 1970, but then it's hard to find many people who try to explain nuclear cost trends at all.
This book chapter suggests there was a shift from engineering decisions being mostly made by the companies that were doing the construction, to mostly being determined by regulators. Since regulators have little incentive to care about cost, the effect seems fairly similar to the industry becoming a monopoly. Cost disease seems fairly normal for monopolies.
That chapter also points out the effects of regulatory delays on costs: "The increase in total construction time ... from 7 years in 1971 to 12 years in 1980 roughly doubled the final cost of plants."
In sum, something went wrong with nuclear power. The problems look more political than technical. The resulting high cost of energy slowed economic progress by making some new technologies too expensive, and by diverting talent to energy conservation. And by protecting the fossil fuel industries, it caused millions of deaths, and maybe 174 Gt of unnecessary CO2 emissions (about 31% of all man-made CO2 emissions).
This book convinced me that I'd underestimated how important nuclear power could have been.
So the technology of the Second Atomic Age will be a confluence of two strongly synergistic atomic technologies: nanotech and nuclear.
The book has a chapter on the feasibility of Feynman / Drexler style nanotech, which attempts to find a compromise between Drexler's excruciatingly technical Nanosystems and his science-fiction style Engines of Creation. That compromise will convince a few people who weren't convinced by Drexler, but most people will either find it insufficiently technical, or else hard to follow because it requires a good deal of technical knowledge.
Josh explains some key parts of why the government didn't fund research into the Feynman / Drexler vision of nanotech: centralization and bureaucratization of research funding, plus the Machiavelli Effect
- the old order opposes change, and beneficiaries of change "do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them."
Josh describes the mainstream reaction to nanotech fairly well, but that's not the whole story.
Why didn't the military fund nanotech? Nanotech would likely exist today if we had credible fears of Al Qaeda researching it in 2001. But my fear of a nanotech arms race exceeds my desire to use nanotech.
Many VCs would get confused by top academics who dismissed (straw-man versions of) Drexler's vision. But there are a few VCs such as Steve Jurvetson who understand Drexler's ideas well enough to not be confused by that smoke. With those VCs, the explanation is no entrepreneurs tried a sufficiently incremental path
Most approaches to nanotech require a long enough series of development steps to achieve a marketable product that VCs won't fund them. That's not a foolish mistake on VCs part - they have sensible reasons to think that some other company will get most of the rewards (how much did Xerox get from PARC's UI innovations?). Josh promotes an approach to nanotech that seems more likely to produce intermediate products which will sell. As far as I know, no entrepreneurs attempted to follow that path (maybe because it looked too long and slow?).
The patent system has been marketed as a solution to this kind of problem, but it seems designed for a hedgehog-like model of innovation, when what we ought to be incentivizing is a more fox-like innovation process.
Mostly there isn't a good system of funding technologies that take more than 5 years to generate products.
If government funding got this right during the golden age of SF, the hard questions should be focused more on what went right then, than on what is wrong with funding now. But I'm guessing there was no golden age in which basic R&D got appropriate funding, except when we were lucky enough for popular opinion to support the technologies in question.
Problems with these three industries aren't enough to explain the stagnation, but Josh convinced me that the problems which affected these industries are more pervasive, affecting pretty much all energy-intensive technologies.
Culture and politics
Of all the great improvements in know-how expected by the classic science-fiction writers, competent government was the one we got the least.
I'll focus now on the underlying causes of stagnation.
Green fundamentalism and ergophobia are arguably sufficient to explain the hostility to nuclear power and aviation, but it's less clear how they explain the liability crisis or the stagnation in nanotech.
Josh also mentions a variety of other cultural currents, each of which explain some of the problems. I expect these are strongly overlapping effects, but I won't be surprised if they sound as disjointed as they did in the book.
It matters whether we fear an all-seeing god. From the book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict:
In a civilization where a belief in a Big God is effectively universal, there is a major advantage in the kind of things you can do collectively. In today's America, you can't be trusted to ride on an airliner with a nail file. How could you be trusted driving your own 1000-horsepower flying car? ... The green religion, on the other hand, instead of enhancing people's innate conscience, tends to degrade it, in a phenomenon called "licensing." People who virtue-signal by buying organic products are more likely to cheat and steal
From Peter Turchin: when an empire becomes big enough to stop worrying about external threats to its existence, the cooperative "we're all in the same boat" spirit is replaced by a "winner take all" mentality.
the evolutionary pressures to what we consider moral behavior arise only in non-zero-sum interactions. In a dynamic, growing society, people can interact cooperatively and both come out ahead. In a static no-growth society, pressures toward morality and cooperation vanish;
Self deception is less valuable on a frontier where you're struggling with nature than it is when most struggles involve social interaction, where self-deception makes virtue signaling easier.
"If your neighbor is Saving the Planet, it seems somehow less valuable merely to keep clean water running".
"Technologies that provoke antipathy and promote discord, such as social networks, are the order of the day; technologies that empower everyone but require a background of mutual trust and cooperation, such as flying cars, are considered amusing anachronisms."
Those were Josh's points. I'll add these thoughts:
It's likely that cultural changes led competent engineers to lose interest in working for regulatory agencies. I don't think Josh said that explicitly, but it seems to follow fairly naturally from what he does say.
Josh refers to Robin Hanson a fair amount, but doesn't mention Robin's suggestion that increasing wealth lets us return to forager values. "Big god" values are clearly farmer values.
Mancur Olson's The Rise and Decline of Nations (listed in the bibliography, without explanation), predicted in 1982 that special interests would be an increasing drag on growth in stable nations. His reasoning differs a fair amount from Josh's, but their conclusions sound fairly similar.
Josh often focuses on Greens as if they're a large part of the problem, but I'm inclined to focus more on the erosion of trust and cooperation, and treat the Greens more as a symptom.
The most destructive aspects of Green fundamentalism can be explained by special interests, such as coal companies and demagogues, who manipulate long-standing prejudices for new purposes. How much of Great Strangulation was due to special interests such as coal companies? I don't know, but it looks like the coal industry would have died by 2000 (according to Peter Lang) if the pre-1970 trends in nuclear power had continued.
Green religious ideas explain hostility to energy-intensive technologies, but I have doubts about whether that would be translated into effective action. Greens could have caused cultural changes that shifted the best and the brightest away from wealth creation and toward litigation.
That attempt to attribute the stagnation mainly to Greens seems a bit weaker than the special interests explanation. But I remain very uncertain about whether there's a single cause, or whether it took several independent errors to cause the stagnation.
What now? I don't see how we could just turn on a belief in a big god. The book says we'll likely prosper in spite of the problems discussed here, but leaves me a bit gloomy about achieving our full potential.
The book could use a better way of labeling environmentalists who aren't Green fundamentalists. Josh clearly understands that there are big differences between Green fundamentalists and people with pragmatic motives for reducing pollution or preserving parks. Even when people adopt Green values mostly for signaling purposes, there are important differences between safe rituals, such as recycling, and signals that protect the coal industry.
Yet standard political terminology makes it sound like attacks on the Greens signal hostility to all of those groups. I wish Josh took more care to signal a narrower focus of hostility.
Ironically for a book that complains about virtue signaling, a fair amount of the book looks like virtue signaling. Maybe that gave him a license to ignore mundane things like publicizing the book (I couldn't find a mention of the book on his flying car blog until 3 months after it was published).
Has the act of writing this review licensed me to forget about being effective? I'm a bit worried.
Miscellaneous comments and complaints
It isn't perhaps realized just how much the war on cars contributed to the great stagnation - or how much flying cars could have helped prolong the boom.
Josh provides a good analysis of the benefits of near-universal car ownership, and why something similar should apply to flying cars. But he misses what I'll guess was the biggest benefit of cars - people applied for jobs for which they couldn't have previously managed to get to an interview. Company towns were significant in the 19th century - with downsides that bore some similarity to slavery, due to large obstacles to finding a job in another town. Better transportation and communications changed that.
He says "a century of climate change in the worst case might cost us as much as liability lawyers do now." He gets his estimate of the worst case from this GAO report. That's misleading about how we should evaluate the actual worst case. I'm not too clear how they got those numbers, but they likely mean something more like that there's a 95% chance that according to some model, climate change will do no more damage than lawyers. That still leaves plenty of room for the worst 1% of possible outcomes to be much worse than lawyers according to the model, and there's enough uncertainty in climate science that we should expect more than a 5% chance of the model erring on the optimistic side. Note also that it's not hard to find a somewhat respectable source that says climate change might cost over 20% of global GDP. I see other problems with his climate change comments, but they seem less important than his dismissal of the tail risks.
It's been a long time since I've flown a plane, but I don't recall that effect being significant. I find that a better way to achieve that experience is to hike up a mountain whose summit is above the clouds. Although there are relatively few places that have an appropriate mountain nearby, and it takes somewhat special timing where I live to do that.
While researching this review, I found this weird litigation story: Disney Sued for Not Building Flying “Star Wars” Car.
I often tend to side with technological determinist views of history, but this book provides some evidence against that. Just compare Uber with "Uber for planes" - it looks like there's a good deal of luck involved in what progress gets allowed.
Josh illustrates the Machiavelli Effect by an example of expert advice that fat is unhealthy, and he complains that the experts ignore Gary Taubes carbophobic counter-movement. Yet what I see is people on both sides of that debate focusing on interventions that are mostly irrelevant.
Josh points out that we can test the advice, and reports that he lost a good deal of weight after switching to a high-fat diet. Well, I tried a similar switch in 2012 from a low-fat diet to a high-fat diet, and it had no effect on my weight (and a terrible effect on my homocysteine and sdLDL, due to high saturated fat). The dietary changes the had the best effects on my weight were alternate day calorie restriction, cutting out junk food (mainly via paleo heuristics), and eating less kelp (which was depressing my thyroid via excess iodine).
Miscellaneous questions prompted by the book
The book hints that cultural beliefs have important influences on where smart people apply their talents. This mostly seems hard to analyze. Would Elon Musk be swayed by ergophobia or Green fundamentalism? That seems like the main example I can generate about a competent tech leader whose plans seem somewhat influenced by what popular beliefs about where technology should head. Tesla and SolarCity arguably fit a pattern of Musk being influenced by Green visions. But SpaceX looks more like pandering to the visions of ergophiles.
The book left me wondering: where does high modernism fit into this story? I see many similarities between high modernism and this book's notion of who the bad guys are. Yet high modernism started to crumble a bit before the worst parts of the Great Strangulation started (i.e. around 1970). The book hints at a semi-satisfying answer: Christianity and high modernism produced a decent balance of power where each ideology checked the others' excesses, but Green fundamentalism eroded the good aspects of high modernism while strengthening the worst aspects.
Did oil prices rise in the 1970s due to evidence that nuclear prices were rising? I can almost imagine OPEC being prescient enough to see that nuclear regulation saved them from important competition. The timing of OPEC's initial effects on the market seems to closely coincide with the nuclear industry developing cost disease. But I don't quite expect that OPEC leaders were that smart.
Another odd hypothesis: increasing mobility enabled people to move too easily to better jurisdictions. This scared lots of special interests (e.g. local governments, companies with a local monopoly, etc., whose power depended on captive customers), who reacted by advocating policies which reduced mobility (e.g. stifling transportation, encouraging home ownership instead of renting).
I've only tried to summarize and analyze the more modest and basic parts of the book here. Some parts of the book are too strange for me to want to review. I will close with some quotes from them:
Hmmm. This might explain some of the book's peculiarities: "ideation recapitulates inebriation!".
"The human of the future will have more and better senses, be stronger and be adaptable to a much wider range of environments, and last but not least have the biosphere atom-rearranging capability built in. The human of the future need not have any ecological footprint at all."
His favorite form of renewable energy is nuclear: "In other words, if we start taking uranium out of seawater and use it for the entire world's energy economy, indeed a robustly growing energy economy, the concentration in seawater will not decline for literally millions of years."
"In the Second Atomic Age, Litvenenko would have gotten a text from his left kidney telling him that it had collected 26.5 micrograms of Polonium-210, and what would he like to do with it?"
He asks us not to call this a greenhouse: "The LEDs emit only the frequencies used by chlorophyll, so they are an apparently whimsical purple. The air is moist, warm, and has a significantly higher fraction of CO2 than natural air ... the plants do not need pesticides because insects simply can't get to them. ... you get something like 300 times as much lettuce per square foot of ground than the pre-industrial mule-and-plow dirt farmer. All you need is power, to have fresh local strawberries in January in the Yukon or in August in Antarctica."
And he likes tall buildings. I don't want to classify this comment:
A ten-mile tower might have a footprint of a square mile and could house 40 million people. Eight such buildings would house the entire current population of the United States, leaving 2,954,833 square miles of land available for organic lavender farms.
Compared to the skyhook (geostationary orbital tower), which is just barely possible even with the theoretical best material properties, a tower 100 km high is easy. Flawless diamond, with a compressive strength of 50 GPa, does not even need a taper at all for a 100 km tower; a 100-km column of diamond weights 3.5 billion newtons per square meter but can support 50 billion. Even commercially available polycrystalline synthetic diamond with advertised strengths of 5 GPa would work.
A Weather Machine could probably double global GDP simply by regional climate control. ... You could make land in lots of places, such as Northern Canada and Russia, as valuable as California.
Um, don't forget the military implications which might offset that.
I used to be sort of comfortable with Reynolds numbers and lift-to-drag ratios, but this claim seems to be beyond my pay grade:
Given the ridiculous wingspan and the virtually infinite Reynolds number, we might get a lift-to-drag ratio of 100; we would need 1 billion pounds of thrust.
He's interested in cold fusion, but admits it's hard:
But we would like a theory in which whenever some mechanism causes miracle 1 to happen, it almost always causes miracles 2 and 3. ... It seems at first blush that saying there might be a quantum coupling between phonons and some nuclear degree of freedom is indistinguishable from magic. But if you look closely, it's not completely insane.
I'll take his word on that for now, since "look closely" appears to require way more physics than I'm up for.
Biotech gets approximately one paragraph, including: "Expect Astro the talking dog before 2062. Expect to live long enough to see him."
One of the hardest jobs that humans do, some well and some poorly, is management of other humans. One of the major reasons this is hard is that humans are selfish, unreasonable, fractious, and just plain ornery. ... On the other hand, managing robots with human-level competence will be falling-down easy. In the next couple of decades, robots will be climbing up the levels of competence to compete with humans at one job and another. Until they become spectacularly better, though, I suspect that the major effect will be to make management easier - perhaps so easy a robot could do it! Once we build trustworthy IQ 200 machines, only an idiot will trust any human to make any decision that mattered ...
What then are we humans supposed to do?
Don't look at me! We already know that only a fool would ask a human such an important question. Ask the machines.
when someone invents a method of turning a Nicaragua into a Norway, extracting only a 1% profit from the improvement, they will become rich beyond the dreams of avarice and the world will become a much better, happier, place. Wise incorruptible robots may have something to do with it.
 - I haven't read The Great Stagnation, so I'm commenting based on simple summaries of it. Based on what I know of Cowen, the books are of superficially similar quality. Cowen does an unusual amount of broad but shallow research, whereas Josh is less predictable about his research quality, but his research is often much deeper than Cowen's. E.g. for this book, it included learning how to fly, and buying a plane. That research alone likely cost him more money than he'll make from the book (not to mention hundreds of hours of his time), and it's not the only way in which his research is surprisingly deep.
 - not in quite the same sense as what people who call themselves Green fundamentalists mean, but pretty close. Both sides seems to agree that a key issue is whether industrial growth is good or bad.
Some of what Josh dislikes about the worst Greens:
My own doubts came when DDT was introduced. In Guyana, within two years, it had almost eliminated malaria. So my chief quarrel with DDT, in hindsight, is that it has greatly added to the population problem.
 - at least in many countries. South Korea's nuclear costs have continued to decline. The variation in when cost disease hits suggests something other than engineering problems.
I got concerned about the lack of data from China. I couldn't find comparable Chinese data, so I used financial data from CGN Power Company (2011 data here, first half 2018 data here) to show, if my math is right, that CGN sold power at RMB0.3695 ($0.0558) / KWh in 2011 versus RMB0.2966 ($0.0448) / KWh in 2018, a decline of nearly 20%. I.e. no cost disease there.
Note: I own stock in CGN Power.
Josh claims that the Navy's nuclear power program avoided strangulation. Where can I get data about the cost trends there?
 - I've looked for anti-nuke arguments about the cost of nuclear power, and most seem to assume that cost disease is inevitable. A few look for signs that nuclear power has been treated unfairly, and focus on things like subsidies or carbon taxes.
It seems quite plausible that they start with the assumption that most wealth is a gift from Mother Nature, and conclude that most important conflicts are zero-sum struggles over who gets those gifts. They don't see anything that looks like taking resources away from nuclear power, and conclude that nuclear power has been regulated fairly.
Let me suggest an analogy: imagine the early days of the dot-com boom, when the benefits of Google search were not widely understood. Imagine also a coalition of music distributors, and people who are devoted to community-building via promoting social interaction in local libraries. Such a coalition might see Google as a threat, and point to the risks that Google would make porn more abundant. Such a coalition might well promote laws requiring Google to check each search result for porn (e.g. via manual inspection, or by only indexing pages of companies who take responsibility for keeping porn off their sites). It would be obvious that Google needs to charge a moderately high subscription fee for its search - surely the new rules would only increase the subscription fees by a small fraction. [It actually seemed obvious to most hypertext enthusiasts up through about 1995 that a company like Google would need to charge users for its service.] Oh, and Xanadu has some interesting ideas for how to use micropayments to more easily charge for that kind of service - maybe Google can run under Xanadu?
A person who had no personal experience of benefiting from Google might not notice much harm from such a regulation, or might assume it has a negligible effect on Google's costs. And someone who imagines that Mother Nature is the primary source of free lunches is likely to seriously underestimate the benefits of Google.
I've seen occasional hints that people attribute the cost increases to valuable safety measures that had been missing from early reactors, but I haven't found anyone saying that who seems aware of the risks of keeping other energy sources in business. So I'm inclined to treat that the way I treat concerns about the safety of consumers pumping gas, or the dangers of caffeinated driving.
 - note that the high inflation of the time complicates that picture. A more simplified model would go like this: imagine 0% inflation, and the company borrows money at an interest rate of 5%. Then a 5-year delay causes the cost of capital to rise 27.6% (1.05^5). Cost of capital is one of the larger costs of nuclear power, so the delays alone look sufficient to turn nuclear power from quite competitive to fairly uncompetitive.
I expect that people who are unfamiliar with finance will underestimate the significance of this.