Elon Musk simultaneously believes that (1) civilization will collapse because of a declining birth rate in the West, and (2) we’re entering a glorious age of humanoid robots.
From the Elon Musk biography:
In early 2021, Musk began mentioning at his executive meetings that Tesla should get serious about building a robot, and at one point he played for them a video of the impressive ones that Boston Dynamics were designing. “Humanoid robots are going to happen, like it or not,” he said, “and we should do it so we can guide it in a good direction.” The more he talked about it, the more excited he got. “This has the potential to be the far biggest thing we ever do, even bigger than a self-driving car,” he told his chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen.
Musk gave the specs: the robot should be about five-foot-eight, with an elfish and androgenous look so it “doesn’t feel like it could or would want to hurt you.” Thus was born Optimus, a humanoid robot to be made by the Tesla teams working on self-driving cars. Musk decided that it should be announced at an event called “AI Day,” which he scheduled for Tesla’s Palo Alto headquarters on August 19, 2021.
It was not a very polished event. The sixteen presenters were all male. The only woman was the actress who dressed up as the robot, and she didn’t do any fun hat-and-cane dance routines. There were no acrobatics. But in his slightly stuttering monotone, Musk was able to connect Optimus to Tesla’s plans for self-driving cars and the Dojo supercomputer. Optimus, he said, would learn to perform tasks without needing line-by-line instructions. Like a human, it would teach itself by observing. That would transform not only our economy, he said, but the way we live.
Even as he envisioned futuristic scenarios, Musk focused on making Optimus a business. By June 2022, the team had completed a simulation of robots carrying boxes around a factory. He liked the fact that, as he put it, “our robots are going to work harder than humans work.” He came to believe that Optimus would become a main driver of Tesla profits. “The Optimus humanoid robot,” he told analysts, “has the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business.”
I can’t understand how these thoughts are consistent. If human population were to slide back towards 4 billion or 2 billion, there might be a short-term labor shortage, but wouldn’t that labor shortage be solved by a working humanoid robot?
I think that Musk is completely wrong about civilization collapse even without the robot angle, incidentally. The median age in Japan is 49. People don’t say that’s a collapsed civilization compared to Gaza, where the median age is 18. The worldwide median age is about 30. There is no realistic scenario, as far as I’m aware, in which the median age of the world population ever exceeds Japan’s current median age. Therefore, Japan represents a worst-case scenario.
How bad is Japan doing? Not any worse than the typical advanced economy, says this tweet:
An astonishing paper this week finds that population explains virtually all of the difference in GDP growth in advanced economies over the last 30 years! “From 1998 to 2019, Japan has grown slightly faster than the U.S. in terms of per working-age adult.”
What drives population growth? For the Palestinians, the world’s most successful people demographically, it seems to be the UNRWA guarantees of food, health care, education, and other essentials, all funded by the US and EU taxpayers. A Palestinian can have 10 children, not work, and never worry that one will go hungry so long as there are taxpayers in Illinois and Germany. What about for economies that don’t receive guaranteed aid from foreigners?
This article on “The Baby Boom” by Arctotherium looks at a falling birth rate at the beginning of the 20th century followed by the familiar post-WWII baby boom (1946-1964; I was born in 1963). Wikipedia points out that our baby boom coincided with a marriage boom, but doesn’t offer a single agreed-on explanation for why the marriage boom occurred. Arctotherium points out that a baby bust is not an inevitable result of wealth:
The Baby Boom took place in what were, at the time, the wealthiest, most technologically advanced, longest lived, most urban, most educated, most individualist, and most scientifically sophisticated societies in human history, by a wide margin. And it took place during a time when all of these metrics (except maybe individualism) were very rapidly improving.
Consistently with Wikipedia, Arctotherium highlights the marriage boom and adds a theory for the cause:
So what caused this marriage boom? The answer appears to be a rise in young men’s status compared to young women’s. The marriage boom can be explained almost entirely by a combination of female labor force participation (down), young male wages (up), and male unemployment (down).
Wages are not the only way to measure status. After briefly reaching parity at the zenith of first wave feminism, young men during the Baby Boom again greatly exceeded their female counterparts in educational attainment.
The mechanism here is clear: young women want money and status, young men have relatively more money and status, women can get men’s money and status by marrying them. Marriage leads to babies, and thus the Baby Boom.
What caused the baby boom to end with a baby bust? A decline in marriage. Women didn’t have to get married to get money and status.
Affirmative Action in favor of women is common across the Boom countries, as is disproportionate female employment in state-created regulatory jobs such as HR. There are also thousands of organizations explicitly dedicated to promoting women’s careers at the expense of men’s, and almost none of the converse. These combine to artificially raise women’s wages above the market rate, and lower men’s.
But we don’t just have wages to consider, we also have taxes and transfers. Thanks to progressive taxation, men pay the vast majority of taxes while women receive the vast majority of benefits. Since married men are the most productive, while single women are the poorest (on a per-household basis), this is predominantly a transfer from married men to single women. This makes marriage less attractive to women; they can get men’s money for free, courtesy of the government, without having to give anything in return. The state serves as a surrogate husband.
Arctotherium has some data from New Zealand, noting “The welfare state has done to marriage what the Soviet Union did to agriculture: effectively collectivized it, with the corresponding horrendous set of incentives for individual men and women”:
But young men’s vs young women’s economic status is not the only factor determining marriage rates. It fully explains the boom, but not the bust. The explanation lies in the fact that second wave feminism thoroughly redefined marriage. It shifted from a patriarchal institution in which husbands had social (and some legal, though this was mostly dismantled by first wave feminism) power over their wives to one in which wives had effective legal power over the husbands (through the mechanisms of feminist family courts, greatly expanded definitions of abuse, and the replacement of the marriage model of the family with the child support model), and from a lifelong contract to one dissolvable at will (though the institution of no-fault divorce). In JD Unwin’s terms, we shift from a regime of absolute monogamy to one of modified monogamy. This had obvious and immediate consequences on marriage rates.
The mechanism through which no-fault divorce reduces marriage rates is simple. No-fault divorce eliminates the promise of lifelong commitment, greatly reducing the benefits of marriage for both parties. The other partner can bail at any time, for any reason. This particularly increases the costs for men through the mechanism of family courts (as divorce usually means he loses his assets, income, and children).
Arctotherium found an interesting data set on marital happiness:
Despite the increase in divorce rates, people aren’t happier in the marriages that have survived.
If Arctotherium is correct, the U.S. will never have a high birth rate again because marriage will never be attractive again. (The article has some pipe dream proposals for radically overhauling our society, e.g., “Roll back the welfare and pension state and lower income taxes.” It is safe to assume that none of these will ever happen and, therefore, marriage will never make the kind of sense for a young woman that it did from 1946-1964.)
Circling back to Elon Musk, what would be so bad about the U.S. population stagnating at 336 million or declining to 200 million (the 1970 level), especially if we had robots to help out the oldsters with domestic tasks?
Related… miscellaneous quotes from Michel Houellebecq’s novels (not in quote style for better readability):
A bachelor who breathes his last at the age of sixty-four is hardly the stuff of tragedy,
I thought about Annelise’s life—and the life of every Western woman. In the morning she probably blow-dried her hair, then she thought about what to wear, as befitted her professional status, whether “stylish” or “sexy,” most likely “stylish” in her case. Either way, it was a complex calculation, and it must have taken her a while to get ready before dropping the kids off at day care, then she spent the day e-mailing, on the phone, in various meetings, and once she got home, around nine, exhausted (Bruno was the one who picked the kids up, who made them dinner—he had the hours of a civil servant), she’d collapse, get into a sweatshirt and yoga pants, and that’s how she’d greet her lord and master, and some part of him must have known—had to have known—that he was fucked, and some part of her must have known that she was fucked, and that things wouldn’t get better over the years. The children would get bigger, the demands at work would increase, as if automatically, not to mention the sagging of the flesh.
Bruno and Annelise must be divorced by now. That’s how it goes nowadays. A century ago, in Huysmans’s time, they would have stayed together, and maybe they wouldn’t have been so unhappy after all.
my body was the seat of various painful afflictions—headaches, rashes, toothaches, hemorrhoids—that followed one after another, without interruption, and almost never left me in peace—and I was only forty-four! What would it be like when I was fifty, sixty, older? I’d be no more than a jumble of organs in slow decomposition, my life an unending torment, grim, joyless, and mean.
On 14 December 1967 the government passed the Neuwirth Act on contraception at its first reading. Although not yet paid for by social security, the pill would now be freely available in pharmacies. It was this which offered a whole section of society access to the sexual revolution, which until then had been reserved for professionals, artists and senior management—and some small businessmen. It is interesting to note that the “sexual revolution” was sometimes portrayed as a communal utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the historical rise of individualism. As the lovely word “household” suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.
Children existed solely to inherit a man’s trade, his moral code and his property. This was taken for granted among the aristocracy, but merchants, craftsmen and peasants also bought into the idea, so it became the norm at every level of society. That’s all gone now: I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to teach him, I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older. By the time he grows up, the rulesFull post, including comments