☀ Why my model for optimistic, techno-capitalist thinking is ... a famous nuclear strategist
But sunny futurist Herman Kahn was more than an architect of Armageddon. He saw a thriving humanity that would survive the Cold War and eventually master the Solar System.
In my (free, paywall-down) essay last week, “Forget about Left Wing and Right Wing. How about an Up Wing America?,” I wrote that my model for optimistic techno-solutionism is the postwar think-tanker Herman Kahn. Some readers — well, some folks who read my tweets about the piece — thought it laughable that I would turn to an infamous nuclear war theorist and Cold Warrior for Up Wing inspiration.
I mean, I get. Once I wrote an op-ed mentioning Kahn as a sunny futurist, and my editor suggested I strike the reference. He thought it would confuse readers who were likely aware of Kahn only as an architect of Armageddon, an intellectual who became famous by thinking about the unthinkable.
Kahn’s 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, based on a dozen lectures he gave at Princeton University a year earlier, sold some 30,000 copies. And its influence was far-reaching. In it, Kahn argued that strategic thinking in the Nuclear Age needed to be more nuanced than the either-or notion of Mutual Assured Destruction. Khan posited there were a variety of nuclear war scenarios that policymakers should consider, including ones that involved the strategic and tactical use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear war was survivable and winnable. (Soviet war planners agreed, by the way.) Survivors might not envy the dead.
Enter film director Stanley Kubrick
Kahn was then memorably imprinted onto popular culture by the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, who had read On Thermonuclear War. Although the accent of the eponymous nuclear theorist and former Nazi (portrayed by Peter Sellers) was likely based on that of German emigres Henry Kissinger or Wernher Von Braun (or both), philosophically Strangelove was a dark caricature of the gregarious Kahn and of the Kahn-ism that infused the entire film.
Strangelove: “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy ... the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand ... and completely credible and convincing.”
But at the same time that the risk of nuclear war seemed to be rocketing higher — the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis almost brought the US and USSR to nuclear conflict, and there were at least a half-dozen other close calls during the decade — Kahn moved on from thinking about “day after” scenarios to thinking about scenarios for the day after tomorrow and beyond. In the mid-1960s, Khan was chairman and research director of the Hudson Institute, a think tank located about 40 miles north of New York City, which he had helped establish in 1961 after leaving the RAND Corporation. While at Hudson, Khan shifted his scholarly focus from persuading Washington there could be a future after nuclear confrontation to mapping out all manner of future scenarios as part of a burgeoning field then referred to as “futurology.”
Catching the millennium forecasting bug
In 1967, Khan and frequent collaborator Anthony Weiner, a founding member of Hudson and research consultant with organizations such as NASA and Shell Oil, assembled the think tank’s many future-oriented analyses into the book The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years. It is an ambitious and sweeping work of forecasting that firmly established Kahn as a preeminent thinker about various possible future worlds. Incorporating economics, demographics, sociology, and the physical sciences, Khan and Weiner thought their academic, interdisciplinary effort would be far more useful than the previous forecasting methodology based on the “personal works of imagination” of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell.
(Khan and Weiner did concede, however, that their more “systematic” and “prosaic” efforts were likely to prove less influential than those individual visions of the future. That is one forecast that seems to have panned out as even the more narrative parts of the book are a bit of a jargony slog.)
Among the predictions Kahn and Weiner classified as “very likely”: a substantial increase in life expectancy, as well as cures for cancer and obesity, widespread use of nuclear power, underseas cities, artificial moons for lighting large areas at night, and personal flying platforms.
Among the “less likely but important possibilities”: “true” artificial intelligence, nuclear fusion, artificial growth of new limbs and organs, room temperature superconductors, major use of rockets for commercial or private transportation (either terrestrial or extraterrestrial), major rejuvenation and/or significant extension of vigor and life span — to, say, 100 to 150 years, substantial manned lunar or planetary installations, and a technological equivalent of telepathy.
Then there’s their “ten far out possibilities,” about which the authors state: “We do not believe that any of them will occur by the year 2000, or perhaps ever. But some of them are discussed today; and such a list does emphasize the fact that some dramatic and radical innovation must be expected.” These include a life span beyond 150 or even immortality, antigravity, interstellar travel, and “substantial lunar or planetary bases or colonies.”
In 2002, just after the book’s forecasting target, Richard Albright, a business consultant and strategist, assembled a panel of experts “experienced in a range of scientific fields with a mix of industrial and academic backgrounds” to analyze Kahn and Weiner’s list of 100 technology predictions. Overall, the team of experts judged about 45 percent of the forecasts as accurate. Kahn and Weiner did particularly well with their forecasts about computer and communications technology, with 80 percent scored as accurate.
Prosperity as far as the eye can see
Kahn and Weiner also offered a macroeconomic forecast. Their baseline case was that “the recent rates in such things as productivity growth will be equaled or increased in the future — or at least over the long run.” They were fully aware that they were in the middle of a period of historically high economic and technological progress, but they had every confidence it would continue. They predicted real per capita GDP growth of 3 percent annually through at least 2000 versus a historical average of 1.8 percent. And there is no doubt that Kahn and Weiner thought the economy might do even better:
We have argued that productivity per hour will go up. Before World War II, the increase in productivity per man hour was a little over 2% per year, but since the war, it has averaged about 3%; and a recent report by secretary of labor Willard Wirtz indicates that new calculations give 3.8% as the average for the past five years. There is almost a general expectation that the United States ought to average between 2.5 and 3.5% a year or even more over the next 33 years. Indeed, some expect that as soon as automation reaches its stride, it will be 1 or 2% higher than this. Given our optimistic bias … very likely 3 or 3.5% is a good figure on which to focus.
If Kahn and Weiner's forecast had been correct about the pace of technology-driven economic growth, the US economy would be far larger and presumably far more technologically advanced. At their baseline, cautiously optimistic 4 percent annual growth rate, the US economy would be twice as large today, some $40 trillion rather than the current $20 trillion.
But what would such additional wealth purchase? To a large extent, it would purchase the sort of future that many optimists like Kahn imagined a half century ago. Permanent bases on the Moon and Mars? Check. A country-spanning system of high-speed rail? Check. But remember, Khan and Weiner thought even more optimistic estimates were plausible. If productivity growth had reached 5.5 percent, then overall economic growth would have been more like 6 percent. At that pace, the economy of today would be $100 trillion, or five times the current level.
Thinking about America’s quadricentennial in 2176
Kahn’s follow-up, The Next 200 Years, was even more ambitious — as can be seen in this quote (which I included in a previous newsletter essay): “New and improving technologies aided by today's fortuitous discoveries [will] further man's potential for solving current perceived problems and for creating an affluent and exciting world. Man is now entering the most creative and expansive period of history. These trends will soon allow mankind to become the master of the solar system.”
As one reviewer wrote: “Environmentalists gnashed teeth over The Next 200 Years, a rosy assessment of the world's long-term prospects.” One thing I particularly like about The Next 200 Years is how Kahn defines various futurist “basic world models.” From the book:
A. Convinced Neo-Malthusian. Finite pie. Most global nonrenewable resources can be estimated accurately enough (within a factor of 5) to demonstrate the reality of the running-out phenomenon. Whatever amounts of these resources are consumed will forever be denied to others. Current estimates show we will be running out of many critical resources in the next 50 years. The existing remainder of the pie must be shared more fairly among the nations of the world and between this generation and those to follow. Because the pie shrinks over time, any economic growth that makes the rich richer can only make the poor poorer.
B. Guarded Pessimist. Uncertain pie. The future supply and value of both old and new materials are necessarily uncertain. Past projections of the future availability of materials usually have been gross underestimates. One can concede this could happen again, but current estimates seem relatively reliable. Current exponential growth clearly risks an early exhaustion of some critical materials. Prudence requires immediate conservation of remaining resources. Excessive conservation poses small risks while excessive consumption would be tragic.
C. Guarded Optimist. Growing pie. Past technological and economic progress suggests that increasing current production is likely to increase further the potential for greater production and that progress in one region encourages similar developments everywhere. Thus the rich get richer, the poor also benefit. Higher consumption in the developed world tends to benefit all countries. Excessive caution tends to maintain excessive poverty. Some caution is necessary in selected areas, but both the “least risk” and the “best bet” paths require continued and rapid technological and economic development.
D. Technology-and Growth Enthusiast. Unlimited pie. The important resources are capital, technology and educated people. The greater these resources, the greater the potential for even more. There is no persuasive evidence that any meaningful limits to growth are in sight — or are desirable — except for population growth in some LDCs. If any very long term limits set by a “finite earth” really exist, they can be offset by the vast extra terrestrial resources and areas that will become available soon. Man has always risen to the occasion and will do so in the future despite dire predictions from the perennial doomsayers who have always been scandalously wrong.
Arguing against any limits to growth
Put me down as somewhere between C and D. Anyway, by 1980 Kahn saw a world of ever-breaking dawn of abundance led by a recharged Reaganite America, a view he distilled in his 1983 book, The Coming Boom. That same year, just a few months before his death at age 61, Khan joined with several other right-of-center thinkers in assailing the eco-pessimist Global 2000 Report that had been commissioned by the Carter administration. (Kahn famously mocked it as “globaloney.”) Those familiar with The Next 200 Years, would hardly be surprised at Kahn’s reaction.
One of his final projects before his death, the New York Times reported in his obituary, was an education program that would, in Kahn’s words, address “the imbalance of unrelenting negativism” about the future of the world being taught in public schools with “more accurate and therefore more optimistic data” about energy, pollution, resources, population, food supplies, economics, and technology. Now we just need to give kids the link to Our World in Data.
In that same NYT piece, Hudson Institute President Daniel Bell is quoted thusly:
[Kahn] would say that in a period of manic pessimism, which is now, a realist appears to be a manic optimist. For a man who many people said had one of the world's great intellects, an incredibly high I.Q., he was a very gregarious person, the kind of guy you liked to talk to, to have over for dinner. He was funny. He had a sense of humor, and he didn't take himself so seriously that you couldn't deal with him. He got a huge enjoyment out of what he was doing.
Hard to think of a better model for Up Wing thinking and living.
In my twice weekly issues for paid subscribers, I typically also include a short, sharp Q&A with an interesting thinker, in addition to a long-ready essay. Here are some recent examples: