April 4, 2010
Ricardo Hausmann
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Mailbox 34
79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617 496-3740

Dear Ricardo Hausmann:
I read your article (Complexity and the Wealth of Nations, HARVARD MAGAZINE vol. 132 no. 4 March-April, 2010 page 7), and it certainly was an eye opener.  Time out of mind we have had it drilled into us that every nation has a relative advantage or set of advantages with respect to producing goods and services compared with other nations.  That is why world trade is such a Good Thing; it lets nations specialize in what they do best.  So the tale goes.  It makes sense of a sort.  If there is an island that has lots of shellfish on one end and lots of coconuts on the other, those with plenty of coconuts do better to trade for shellfish than to look for them and those with shellfish do better by trading as well.  Everybody is better off.  So the logic has always gone.

When I was in Jamaica many years ago, the government had decided that Jamaica could be richer.  So they called in an economist.  He said, “Jamaica can grow lots of bananas – it has a relative advantage – so everybody should grow bananas.  Bananas were already the big export item, but they launched a publicity, not to say propaganda campaign.  I saw billboards, “Take Care of the Banana and the Banana Will Take Care of You.”  There were cautionary billboards showing nice well handled bananas and badly bruised bananas.  There were hate cartoons in the GLEANER about people who could grow bananas but did not.  So after a year or so they looked at the numbers.  Banana exports had gone through the floor.  The balance of trade was a shambles.  With all that publicity people had taken to eating them.

At the time I reflected that this was no bad thing, really.  If people were eating these delicious things, then that was good all around even though bananas were then considered a luxury food.  Nutrition was better even if the money was scarce.  By now that lesson has taken root so to speak and bananas are one of the leading crops for supplying calories and averting world hunger.  Beats coconuts.  A banana landing on your head won’t kill you.  

The economics consultant was only doing his job.  Nations were supposed to exploit there relative advantage.

Now you have turned it all on its head.  The article explains that the wealth of nations is predicted by their complexity.  To oversimplify, to more different things going on in an economy, the more opportunities there are to introduce something new that people can use to make even more money.  Some products offer more opportunities than others.  That is why leasing out oil rights may produce a lot of cash but not economic growth.  It certainly is exploiting a relative advantage, but is a poor source of new ideas compared with say making cars, which provide the skills and resources to make boats and motorcycles and tractors. 

Your data provide compelling evidence, but it seems like one of those ideas that should be obvious on its own once somebody has pointed it out. 

Of course most of us find modern life far too complex for comfort.  Just let me do what I do well and I shall be quite content.  In fact it goes beyond that.  There is now evidence that wealth past a certain point, and it is not great wealth, is inversely correlated with happiness.  In the United States, those who live in the richest areas report themselves as the least happy and this self reported happiness seems quite valid.  Who knows?  Maybe it’s that complexity that makes people miserable.  Some day somebody will probably look into the matter.

But that brings me to my own interest.  There is ample evidence in the professional literature to prove, so far as science proves anything, that fertility is mostly determined by kinship, and that kinship needs to be surprisingly close in order for fertility to remain above replacement.  The oldest society in the world was the Kalahari Bushmen, hunter gatherers who had managed to have an environmentally sustainable and peaceful life for tens of thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands.  Recent studies of their DNA has shown that a tribe of Bushmen will be as different from a tribe that is within walking distance as a European is from an Asian.  Granted Bushmen can walk a long way.  Still, it seems that they have survived in hermetically sealed social groups for far longer than any civilization and for far longer than there have been civilizations at all.  The moral is that if you want your society to survive, restrict it to small airtight social groups.  Then you will have babies.  Open those groups up and the babies will go away.  There is evidence on the enclosed ten minute DVA and more still on my website NoBabies.net, where I also post letters I send to experts begging them to take an interest.  I should not have to beg.  Need I point out that babies are important? 

So what’s the problem?  We face a dire future because of infertility in the developed world and the rest of the world is not far behind, even on the fleeting time scale of civilizations.  Anybody with a mind to use should be reaching for this straw with all their strength.

Maybe it’s complexity.  Imagine the confounded nuisance it will be to turn our free ranging, polyglot urbanized world into a bunch of rich people who are socialized like hunter gatherers.  Of course one wants a stable population, not a growing one, but we have the technology to limit growth.  Right now the question is whether we are going to have a population at all.

And is a whole nother layer of complexity.  Not only will we have to remember everything we now know and relearn everything we forgot, we are going to have to learn all those things we should have learned but never bothered to.  Only then will we be ready to shovel on the complexities of managing an atomized society.  No wonder nobody likes the idea.  I don’t like it myself.  I only fuss with it because it matters.

But you do offer a ray of hope.  In the ensuing morass while we try to sort out a rational and viable social order (assuming we ever do rather than just lying down and dying, which is currently a very real possibility), while complexity is going through the roof, at least we will all get rich.

Oh yes, I’m going to present a new summary of my data along with the recently discovered mechanism at a genetics convention this month.  If you’d like a copy of the latest, let me know.  Let me know what you think anyway, please.


M. Linton Herbert MD
NoBabies.net and SilentNursery.com 

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