Intergenerational theft and intergenerational gifts

As David Williamson’s latest foray demonstrates this idea that we’re stealing from our kids is back in fashion.

Cruise Ship Australia is in fact living off resources that took billions of years to accumulate. We’re eating up our past at a prodigious rate. Our grandchildren won’t have it nearly as easily as we have.

At the Fabian Society function for David McKnight’s book ‘Beyond Left and Right’ Race Mathews made the extra-ordinary comment that the major task for Australia’s politicians in the next generation is to explain to Australians how we need to lower our standard of living because the Indians and Chinese would be increasing their call on the world’s resources.

A similar (though slightly less confused) idea is at the heart of the Australia Institute sponsored Genuine Progress Indicator (though it seems a little orphaned since the Australia Institute removed the link to the GPI from it’s homepage.

The GPI’s attempt to flesh out the GDP numbers to generate more sensible indicators of welfare is sensible enough in principle. But it has unfortunately been taken as an opportunity to ideologically bias the result in various not so thinly disguised ways.

The fact is that, although each generation degrades the earths resources (by mining them) all modern generations have bequeathed to them all their intellectual property (you can’t take it with you!). And that turns out to be worth so much more than the itty bitty bit of resource theivery going on that it doesn’t bear mention. It’s amazing to me how rarely this gets mentioned in debates on intergenerational equity – and what it’s implications are.

Of course one could still argue that things are or will go downhill in other regards – we seem to be becoming more unequal and who’s to say that’s not more important in a rich society than a bit more riches. And there’s greenhouse which could become a nightmare for us. But the popular version of this – that our children will scrounge around trying to find energy or other resources because we’ve snaffled it all is nonsense.

I wondered if anyone could refer me to any empirical work trying to quantify the two contrasting effects.

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Andrew Leigh
2021 years ago

I don’t, sorry. Though I’d be happy to bet with David Williamson that the average person born in 30 years time will not want to trade places with us. (On the other hand, perhaps we’d have to precommit our heirs)

Don Aitkin
Don Aitkin
2021 years ago

The intellectual property point is most important. One reason that we’re a lot better off than our fathers and grandfathers is the great increase in the body of knowledge over the last fifty years (about 50 times greater). Knowledge enables us to do things better, to think more clearly and to solve problems faster. Indeed, we cannot take the knowledge with us, and it is so widely disseminated now that book-burning and similar reactionary modes are no longer likely to be efficacious.

I hope.

Don Aitkin
Don Aitkin
2021 years ago

The intellectual property point is most important. One reason that we’re a lot better off than our fathers and grandfathers is the great increase in the body of knowledge over the last fifty years (about 50 times greater). Knowledge enables us to do things better, to think more clearly and to solve problems faster. Indeed, we cannot take the knowledge with us, and it is so widely disseminated now that book-burning and similar reactionary modes are no longer likely to be efficacious.

I hope.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2021 years ago

Hi Nick, I tried to send this by email, in response to yours, but I got bounced, so I’ll post it instead.

I think the position implied in your post is about correct. The way to assess this is with a correct measure of net national income. GDP is wrong in principle, GPI is right in principle but the actual examples are highly problematic as you say.

I’d judge that, assuming we fixed global warming at a likely cost of a few per cent of GDP (and don’t blow ourselves up) it would be obvious enough that our children are better off on average than us.

There has been a fair bit of work at ABS on satellite accounts and similar, which is probably the best thing to look at.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

David Williamson is a political rhetorician of course, so he is dealing in superheated language.

But every pre-settlement tree chopped down to be woodchipped leaves me feeling the same way, like every story about salination, topsoil loss and the degradation of the Murray-Darling Basin.

I value some things like a functioning meritocracy, some level of job security, access to home ownership, an effective tertiary sector and the ability to live on the basic wage. These are social assets which have recently been eroded pretty seriously.

I appreciate the value of IP – and the value of the reminder – but I am left to wonder whether its gains can be deployed to fix the above problems. Once they become part of the cultural norm, the Americans have demonstrated they are very hard to fix.

No matter how much IP that nation generates, it can’t create a healthcare system which works for the whole population.

Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

That choking sound was my Weeties. David the health system is nothing but IP – considered broadly. Consider the current health system and that of 200 years ago. The difference – all the things we know now about how to heal people that we didn’t know then. Most of that was donated to us by our forebears and what wasn’t we’ll donate to ours. All for a few resources we dig out of the ground.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

That’s very funny. Maybe I have wandered too far from your point, which is that some material loss matters little compared to huge IP gains.

I am trying to say that the IP gains may not compensate for the non-material losses which I think are also troubling Williamson.

What’s the value of a speedier algorithm in Hugh Mackay’s age of anxiety?

If you lock people out of healthcare, it doesn’t matter to them how much better it gets for the recipients.

It doesn’t matter how much IP you gain as a culture, if you can’t teach it to the next generation.

In answer to the position I am suggesting Williamson is plugging, I personally would say of Australia that our social losses don’t outweigh the growth of IP, but they could one day.

And the environmental degradation is very serious, and will take a lot of brains and knowledge to get us out of trouble. I don’t believe the position that we are “responsible” for Global Warming yet, because it has been going on for 200 years and while the flywheel effect of increased carbon dioxide was building up we didn’t know it was happening.

We do now, and now we have become responsible. And that is a very big IP challenge.

Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

Yes David, but I think there’s a false dichotomy in what you’ve written. The power our technologies and economies give us enable us to destroy ourselves. That’s true.

But that doesn’t mean that if we do just a bit less of them we’ll do a bit less of destroying ourselves. We should try to be prosperous because that gives us the best chance for our population to focus on the positives – rather than thinking of survival and prosperity as a zero sum game in which all the effort goes into wresting things off others.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Well. he’s worried about a society which is not interested in recognising that we honour our inheritance by building for the future. And resists the idea that we have to factor the effects of growth in a specific sector into its profits.

I am all for growth and imagination, and I value our system hugely as a creator of progress. One of the questions that runs around the system, though, is what happens when accumulating toys replaces idealism. He thinks that as a culture we are too interested in toys, and not enough in idealism.

I don’t agree with him, because I think all the people on his cruise liner would give an organ to their own children. It’s just that our very pragmatism is an advantage and a disadvantage.

Good old Anglo-saxon empiricism crossed with an underdog’s disrespect for society’s “betters”.

I do think the tall poppy syndrome is alive and nasty. And it is not actually identified with Right or Left. It hacks away at corporate and commercial success as much as it denigrates the arts and culture. It may not be the same people saying it, but it is the same mean mindedness.