With the election coming up some folks are putting forward their vision for improving America. With the new decade other folks are making predictions about the 2020's. I'd like to take a longer view, what should America look like in 2100?
Thinking about 2100 is a useful exercise. Barring advances in longevity research and application, the current working age population would be dead. There is twice as much temporal distance between the current population and 2100 population as between today's millennials and boomers. Eighty years into the future is on some margin too difficult to contemplate.
Eighty years ago, 1940, however, doesn't seem that far removed. Though few of the participants of World War II are still with us, it continues to loom large in our cultural memory. The great depression continues to inspire political discourse. The 50's is seen as a golden era by strands of both conservatives and liberals.
A longer time horizon also puts things into context. No one, for example, remembers the moral panic over comic books in the 50's, except as a way to score points today. Things that seem vitally important can fade over time, while apparently trivial things can have ripple effects which magnify their importance. Thinking explicitly about 2100 forces you to consider which things are in fact important and which will fade over time.
My 2100 plan for America has three key components, a target population of 1 billion Americans, per capita income of $290,000, and continued leadership in science, technology, and education.
Target population of 1 billion
America is the greatest country on earth. The most innovative companies are American. We produce a disproportionate share of scientific research, 47% or more of Nobel Laureates in physics, chemistry, and economics are American, many of them immigrants. We are a leader in technological innovation. Despite recent setbacks, we have a history of welcoming the best and the brightest.
Given this success, Americans, as well as the rest of the world, should want more Americans. More Americans means better technology. More Americans means better science. More Americans means better companies. Unfortunately, American population growth is slowing.
The current population of the US is 330 million. If the continental US had the same population density as the EU, it would have a population of 920 million. If the continental US had the same population density as China, it would have a population of 1.6 billion.
In the 20th century, America grew from a population of 76 million to 281 million. Similar growth in the 21st century would put America's population at 880 million, though we're starting a bit behind as the first two decades have seen lower population growth.
Reaching a population of 1 billion only requires population growth of 1.4% annually. Current population growth is .7% annually, almost entirely due to migration as birth rates are below replacement. Census and UN estimates that the US will have a population around 400 million in 2060, substantially below the 575 million that would be predicted by a 1.4% annual growth rate.
Increasing the America's population growth rate means hundreds of millions more Americans who are able to take advantage of American institutions and generate new ideas that can improve the lives of humanity. Removing barriers to children, including high costs of education and healthcare, as well as increased access to migration, can help America reach 1 billion inhabitants.
Target income $290,000
Current American per capita income is $60,000. Assuming an annual growth rate of 2%, per capita income will be $290,000 in 2100. According to Maddison numbers, inflation adjusted per capita income in the US grew from $8100 to $53,000 from 1913 to 2016, at a rate of 1.85% annually. To paraphrase Robert Lucas, 'when one starts thinking about growth, it becomes hard to think about anything else'.
The story of growth in the 20th century is about both technological innovation and diffusion. Important technologies became widespread like automobiles, electricity, and indoor plumbing. New technologies were invented then adopted including planes, air conditioning, radios, television, the internet, and refrigeration.
The result is massive improvements in living standards. Americans today live immeasurably better than they did in 1900. The first practical electric refrigerator, for example was created in 1914. Literacy, life expectancy, and material abundance have all seen major improvements.
The question is what technological innovation will drive the 21st century and how will both improve our lives and change our living patterns. One such technology is the internet. While the internet has fully penetrated the American market, it is not yet a mature technology. New companies solving unthought of problems will continue to be built.
Emerging technologies include blockchain, AI, biotech, e.g. gene therapy and anti-aging drugs, and transportation, e.g. supersonic flight and hyperloop. However, it remains to be seen whether such innovations can match the impact of previous innovations like electricity, internal combustion, and flight.
Another important component of growth is state capacity. Our government must be able to set goals and accomplish them. Part of this includes removing existing barriers to innovation and change. During the Great Depression it took three years to build the Golden Gate Bridge. In the 21st century it took ten years to build Presidio Parkway, a 1.6 mile service road to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Achieving per capita incomes of $290,000 in 2100 requires continued openness to new technology. It requires government to act as a facilitator to innovation, rather than a barrier.
Keep lead in science, technology, and education
Lastly, America needs to keep her lead in science, technology, and education. In the 20th century we attracted the brightest minds, both students and accomplished professionals fleeing civil strife. Our educational establishments are the envy of the world. However, we risk becoming complacent.
Stringent visa requirements means we're educating future leaders and not offering them an opportunity to remain. Sclerotic university bureaucracies are raising the cost of attendance while reducing preparedness for the workforce. Ideological purity tests are creeping into STEM, threatening cultures of merit. Graduate programs are becoming sources of cheap labor, rather than training grounds for the next generation of researchers. Young people are increasingly skeptical about the importance of college.
The challenge is not just in universities. Government used to be a key contributor to innovation. However, government funding mechanisms have likely lost effectiveness. The average age of receiving your first NIH grant has increased from 35 in 1980 to 43 today. Distrust of the government has caused staff revolts in important technology companies with contracts with the US Department of Defense. Government sometimes stymies innovation with overly burdensome regulations. What government agency today is attracting the best and the brightest like NASA was in the 1960's?
An important question is whether the structure for scientific research is optimal. Sharon Begley's article about a cabal that stunted research into Alzheimer's seems like it might apply more widely. As funding becomes increasingly concentrated and research groups become increasingly coordinated, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue against underlying assumptions. Grants, promotions, and potential collaborations are effectively controlled by a cartel. If the research begins on the wrong footing, it can take decades to course correct. A more rivalrous research process and scientific community could spur creativity and innovation that's currently lacking. Not to mention existing problems with peer review and grant making.
There are bright spots. New education institutions are emerging like, YCombinator, challenging elite institutions, and Lambda School (whether or not survives, its model likely will), teaching practical skills. We continue to attract the best scientists in the world. The US remains a huge, well integrated market which makes it more profitable to innovate technologically here. However, it is not a given that we will retain our lead.
Sometimes it's worth taking a longer term perspective. American has a history of that. Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana purchase in part to minimize the risk of being caught between English Canada and French Louisiana. The Manifest Destiny was a vision of an American future that would take generations to achieve. It's worth applying a similar lens to today's world and thinking about what future we want, and what it will take to get there.
Thanks to Jose Luis Ricon and Vlad Tarko for their comments