In a new opinion piece republished by the Guardian, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warns that we’re living in “the most dangerous time for our planet”, with many “awesome environmental challenges” and “widening economic inequality”. We should react to plebiscites such as the American election of Donald Trump and the British referendum to leave the European Union by learning to “share far more than at present”.
“With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing,” he writes, “we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so.”
His piece is simply a restatement of classical eco-alarmism combined with paternalistic socialism.
Note his views about Africans: because we all have cellphones, the lives of the richest people in the most prosperous parts of the world are “agonisingly visible to anyone, however poor”. As if we couldn’t watch television or read celebrity magazines. As if we’re children who need to be protected from images of the rich and famous, so we don’t get envious and unhappy, or worse, storm the barricades of the rich world. Perhaps Hawking thinks we shouldn’t have cellphones, so that we won’t be so unhappy with having less or won’t be so ambitious to better our circumstances.
He no doubt thinks his condescension is evidence that he cares about poor Africans. However, the subtext is one of thinly veiled contempt for those who “flock to cities”, “driven by hope”. He shows the same distaste for those who elected Donald Trump or voted against remaining a member of the European Union.
Hawking not only disagrees with them – which is fair enough; I disagree on many points too – but he thinks he knows better. Instead of rejecting “the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere”, as they did, he thinks people ought to listen to the advice of “political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities”.
As if that’s been working so well for them.
To his credit, Hawking admits that he is a part of a rarefied elite. As a world-famous academic based in Cambridge, he certainly does not move in the same plebeian circles as the rest of us. His peers are few, and his income is largely paid by governments and charitable foundations willing to invest in pure research. They also pay the not inconsiderable expenses of continuing to keep him alive, working and communicating via electronic means, more than half a century after doctors gave him two years to live in 1963, when his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was first diagnosed.
He might be good at physics, but his politics leaves much to be desired. This is not unusual for a tenured academic on the public payroll. When you never have to worry where your next pay cheque is coming from, you’re hardly likely to understand the needs and desires of a construction worker, a farmer, an oilfield roughneck, or a supermarket cashier. Besides, it’s easy to be generous with other people’s money and pretend that this constitutes virtue on your part.
This isn’t the first time Hawking has exploited his fame as a physicist to spread fear about the future. He’s worried that aliens will rape and pillage Earth, if we insist on being so unwise as to try to contact them. He is nervous about a “doomsday virus” which will wipe out humanity unless we escape to space colonies. He frets that artificial intelligence will supercede us and pose a threat to our very existence.
He predicts that a disaster on Earth of our own making is a “near certainty”, whether it involves nuclear war, global warming, or a genetically engineered virus. (The attentive reader will notice, however, that he hedges his bet not only by qualifying the term “certainty”, but by specifying an absurdly long time frame of a thousand or 10,000 years – as if anyone can know anything about life a thousand years or more in the future, or prove him wrong.)
In his Guardian article, he worries about economic inequality, the greed of the financial sector, job destruction because of automation, along with the usual elitist concerns about overpopulation and environmental degradation. Yet even in his own field, at which he is world-renowned, he lost money betting against the discovery of the Higgs boson. Why would we rely on his prognostication about matters in which he is no expert?
Perhaps someone should tell him that rising inequality is a symptom of rising prosperity. If you place marks on an elastic band, representing different prosperity levels, and pull one end to represent economic growth, you’ll find that all the marks move further away from the zero point, even as the distance between them increases.
He points out the supposed greed of the financial sector, as if that were the only cause of the financial crisis. He neglects to mention that “greed”, which is less pejoratively known as self-interest, is a universal quality among humans, and is the driving force of our individual and collective economic progress.
He also neglects to mention the toxic relationship between banks that are “too big to fail”, as well as other private companies, and governments. The housing crash that precipitated the 2008 economic crisis, for example, was caused not by banks, but by government policy that actively incentivised sub-prime lending and protected private banks from their risky debts.
In 2003, a long-standing member and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, said: “I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation toward subsidised housing.” In 2005, he declared that house prices, unlike technology stocks, would not collapse.
Yet as early as 2001, Ron Paul made a preternaturally accurate warning about the exact consequences of loose monetary policy in the wake of the dotcom crash. Perhaps we should listen to those who were able to predict, in uncanny detail, the economic events of 2007 and 2008, instead of listening to physicists who a decade later still do not understand what happened.
Hawking’s ignorance of economics is further illustrated by his fear about automation. This is a misconception that dates back to the dawn of the industrial age, when weavers led by Ned Ludd feared factory automation would put them out of work. The Luddites proceeded to destroy modern looms in protest. Yet despite the temporary disruption in the labour market that textile automation caused, both the rich and the poor today enjoy cheaper access to better clothes than ever before, and nobody mourns the bygone age in which all cloth had to be woven by hand.
Motorised vehicles put much of the horse industry, stabling, farriers, wayside inns, and carriage makers out of business, but it also liberated people from their parochial pre-industrial lives by giving everyone access to better transport at lower costs.
Washing machines put washerwomen out of work, but it would take a very obtuse elitist to conclude that women are worse off because they no longer have to spend their entire Monday washing clothes by hand. Refrigeration and freezers destroyed the natural ice transport business, but also gave us access to a vast variety of food from all over the world, with much less fear of ill health due to spoilage. Computers destroyed the jobs of vast numbers of clerks and typists, but few want a return to the desk jobs of the 1950s.
Industrial agriculture and the “green revolution” sharply increased yields while reducing the share of the population devoted to farming. This freed up labour for industrial and technological progress. Only the wealthiest elites with more leisure time than they know what to do with have the luxury to miss small-scale subsistence farming.
Economic progress is the story of specialisation, innovation, and the ever more efficient division of labour. Reducing the need for labour that can be automated means we can devote humanity’s abilities to more productive work. Temporary dislocations in the job market are inevitable, but they are not to be feared in the greater scheme of things. On the contrary: they’re essential to fuel rising prosperity for all.
Displaced workers do indeed require retraining – a task to which the governments that run public education systems are particularly ill-suited – but they do not imply that we need to financially support everyone who finds they can no longer rely on a life-long career doing the same job.
Hawking admits that he benefits tremendously from technology, yet he clings to his Luddite instincts and apocalyptic fears as if nobody else benefits from progress.
To continue economic growth, we do indeed “need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations”, as Hawking writes. But free movement of people and goods does not mean that we “have to learn to share far more than at present”. That would be true only if trade were a zero-sum game; in fact, voluntary trade is a mutually beneficial interaction that makes both parties better off.
Nor is it at all clear that migration “place(s) new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive”. as Hawking argues. As I’ve written before: “There is … no evidence that immigration is a systematic threat to the economies of destination countries. On the contrary, immigrants are generally hard-working and ambitious, and bring in more tax revenue than they consume in social services. This is true for the US, where social services are fewer, the population is younger, and the productivity rate is higher than across the pond, but it is also true for European countries. The club of rich countries known as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has a neat set of bullet points about the [positive] economic impacts of migrants.”
Hawking contradicts his view on lower barriers between nations when he adds that “…we must do more to encourage global development, as that is the only way that the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home”.
But the evidence shows that people begin to migrate only after they get rich enough to do so. Emigration rises as countries develop. The empirical facts contradict Hawking’s statement. Besides, the global development aid of the last half-century or more has made little difference to development in the poor world, nor has it curbed migration. Most of it only bought lavish lifestyles for political elites, fuelled corruption, or funded wars and repression.
If so many of Hawking’s economic premises are demonstrably wrong, one cannot rely on his conclusions. Even when he’s right, it’s only by chance. He does, however, give us a splendid insight into the condescension of the sheltered elites and the neuroses of rich people with nothing better to worry about than the end of the world.
Hawking is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Socio-economic commentary is clearly not his strong suit. Perhaps he should stick to his knitting. DM