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No Skyscraper Stagnation

Since we’re on the subject of whether technological progress has stagnated, I thought I’d address an issue that always seems to come up sooner or later.

Is there a decline in American skyscrapers possibly indicating a decline in American civilization?

I realize that some people may live in happy little bubbles where this question does not in fact always seem to come up sooner or later. But I tend to hear it a lot. It seems to be a favorite of former SSC commenter James Donald. From here:

The twin towers were big buildings, and buildings of that size cannot be built under progressive regimes. As the trabant was a fraud, created to disguise the fact that the Soviet Union could not build consumer cars, the One World Trade Center is a fraud, created to disguise the fact that the US can no longer build buildings as large as it used to be able to build.

He has more in the same vein here, here, and at his blog. But it’s not just Jim. From Countercurrents:

It’s not a coincidence that the tallest buildings in America were built during the 1970s. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we would never again have it so good. The 1970s represented a “tipping point,” to use the popular vernacular, for the American Dream.

Vox Day writes:

I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since. This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.

He doesn’t bring up skyscrapers, but a commenter does.

Or, to totally remove any subtlety, here’s The Decline Of The West As Measured By The Rise Of New Skyscrapers.

The typical response to this sort of thing is to bring up the studies showing that increased skyscraper construction is in fact correlated with not with progress, but with economic decline. The Skyscraper Index is a whimsical attempt to use skyscraper construction to predict economic downturns. And that if the world’s largest skyscrapers are currently in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, maybe skyscrapers are less a sign of national glory and more a sign of having more oil than sense.

But it looks like Jim isn’t a fan of that argument. So let’s take a different tack:

America’s capacity to build skyscrapers isn’t decreased at all, in any way, whatsoever.

(says the guy with the secret guilty skyscraper obsession)

Here is a graph of the height in feet of the tallest skyscraper in America, by year.

In the mid-1700s, the tallest building in the US was Christ Church in Philadelphia at 196 feet. There’s some underwhelming progress until about 1900, when a thirty-year spurt takes us from 391 feet to over a thousand. This spurt ends with the Empire State Building (1,250 feet) in 1931. There is then a forty year dry spell ending with the construction of the WTC and Sears Tower in rapid succession, then another forty year dry spell ending with the construction of One World Trade Center last year.

After the 1900 – 1930 spurt (which corresponded to the first widespread use of steel and elevators) growth is extremely linear.

Jim argues this is unfair because One World Trade Center, the recent data point beating the old Sears Tower and WTC, has an unusually large spire inflating its height. This is true.

If we ignore spires and concentrate on roof height, the old WTC was 1368 feet and the new WTC is also 1368 feet (coincidence?), showing little progress. Luckily for our argument, the Nordstrom Tower currently under construction in New York has a roof height of 1,479 feet, a good one hundred feet higher than the WTC and enough to restore linearity.

[Note: I feel bad arguing against Jim after banning him from commenting. I’ll unblock him from this post’s comment section for purposes of fairness.]

A different measurement might be concentrating on quantity rather than quality of skyscrapers. This graph shows the number of supertall (> 1000 ft high) skyscrapers in the US over time:

Two built in the 1930s (Empire State and Chrysler Buildings), none from 1931 to 1969 (our dry spell), a gradual trickle from 1969 to 2007 or so, and a sudden recent explosion. Thus the excitement about New York’s recent supertall boom. The current spurt includes the previously mentioned One World Trade Center, the Nordstrom Tower (which will be one foot lower than 1WTC at 1,775 feet), 432 Park Avenue (“only” 1,398 feet, but higher than 1WTC without its spire). There are more supertall buildings scheduled for construction in the Hudson Yards redevelopment project in New York than existed in the entire United States in 1973.

This isn’t even counting the really ambitious projects, like the plan to build a 2,000 foot tower on the site of the old Chicago post office. Which might sound overly ambitious, except that Chicago just finished a 1,389 foot Trump Tower.

It is true that China is now building more skyscrapers than the US. So there is an argument for relative decline. But the argument for absolute decline is much less strong. But of note, China also has four times the population density of the US, probably much more when you take into account the small portion of its territory where people actually live. That’s a pretty strong incentive to build higher.

Finally, one more graph – this one a little more complicated.

This is the cost per foot of building a skyscraper over time.

My methodology was to take the tallest skyscraper built during each decade, convert its cost into 2013 dollars, and divide it by the number of feet high in the skyscraper.

I did not follow this methodology exactly, because the tallest skyscraper of the 2010s is One World Trade Center, which cost about three times more per foot than any other skyscraper on the list. According to the Wall Street Journal:

One World Trade Center’s construction is vastly more expensive than a traditional office tower, in large part due to security costs associated with building the tallest building in North America on a site that has been the target of two separate terrorist attacks (the site was also bombed in 1993). Once known as the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot skyscraper sits atop a heavily reinforced, windowless podium. It also has a thick core of concrete and steel around its elevator shafts. By comparison, other-high profile buildings around the world have been far less expensive. The Port Authority long ago gave up hope that One World Trade would be a profitable investment in the short- or mid-term.

So 1WTC was a crazy outlier because they had to make it terrorist-proof. Rather than have it completely throw off the graph, I replaced it with the next tallest 2010s building I had cost information on, which I think was Four World Trade Center.

I was worried that this was unfairly penalizing newer skyscrapers because the 1000th foot probably costs more to build than the first and newer skyscrapers are taller. But I reran the analysis using the building from every decade closest to 1,000 feet (many were within 10 ft of the target) and got very very similar results (not shown).

The important lesson to take from this graph is that if you’re building a skyscraper, you should definitely hire whoever built Bank of America Plaza, the extreme outlier in 1990 that throws off the otherwise smooth curve with a sudden precipitious dip. They somehow built a very pretty building for one-third of the cost of everyone else in history, so kudos to them.

(but if it falls over the next time there’s a strong breeze, and the investigation finds it was actually made out of Styrofoam, don’t say I didn’t warn you)

The other important lesson is that skyscraper costs have changed little if at all since the age of the Empire State Building. This is important because one of the other decline arguments I get all the time is that building anything is so bureaucratized and expensive and bogged down by building codes and environmental compliance checks that nobody will do it. A friend recently told me – I can’t find the original quote so I can’t make sure I’ve got it right – that Estonia is considering building a tunnel all the way across the Baltic Sea for the same price it costs New York City to build four blocks worth of subway, presumably because NYC is so bureaucratized. I don’t know if that’s true with regard to subways, but if so skyscrapers seem to have escaped the worst of it.

One more point. The most notable thing I turned up researching this post was the extent of the 1930 to 1960s skyscraper dry spell. Ten buildings taller than 700 feet were built in 1933 or before – and zero from 1933 to 1960. Skyscraping didn’t really recover to its 1930 heights (no pun intended) until 1973 or so.

Anyone wanting to talk about a collapse of civilization from 1940 to 1970 would have had a lot of evidence from skyscraper decline. But that was exactly the period when most people today think technological progress was at its height!

I conclude that skyscrapers are not a very a good indicator of anything.

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158 Responses to No Skyscraper Stagnation

  1. SanguineEmpiricist says:

    If we’re going to lend credence to neoreactionaries, we have much better to choose from than “Jim”. Seriously. Of all the things to argue about we’re using skyscrapers as vitality metrics for civilization.

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    • Andy says:

      It’s not just Jim doing it, though he’s the loudest on this particular rant. And it’s a point very much worth making.
      So kudos, Scott, and I platonically love you even more now.

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      • SanguineEmpiricist says:

        For all the so called obsession and semi-references there are to Popper in the NRx canon, it is difficult to imagine that they picked up open societies and falsification, but missed economic historicism.

        If skyscrapers are some keystone argument then neo-reaction is a ghetto.

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        • Zathille says:

          Worry not, then, the specific claim about skyscrapers is certainly not all that central, as evidenced by how sparsely the subject has been broached. I’ve mainly read about them in comments threads.

          Also, ‘canon’, ‘ghetto’, such lack of charity can take away one’s ability to persuade, as it makes it seem as if one is merely reinforcing one’s tribal affiliations.

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        • Andy says:

          If skyscrapers are some keystone argument then neo-reaction is a ghetto.

          I prefer the term “fermentation tank.” It’s hot and close and sticky, and things get much more extreme there than they are in the outside spaces.
          Also, less insulting, especially to the racists.

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    • AlexC says:

      Scott does specifically admit that skyscrapers are a guilty pleasure of his. Allow him to indulge his private obsession over here. (We’ve got the Promising the Moon thread for more wide-sweeping discussion.)

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  2. JDG1980 says:

    Even if skyscrapers are a good indicator of economic vitality, and even if we have indeed lost our ability to construct them in America since the 1970s, I don’t see how this makes a case for the neoreactionary position. If anything, it should be the opposite; America in the 1970s was in many ways a far more liberal society than it is today. The top marginal tax rate was 70 percent (nearly double what it is now). AFDC (welfare) still existed, and with no time limits. Income inequality was much lower, and adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was much higher than today. Criminal punishments were far lighter, and the Burger and Rehnquist Courts had not yet carved out quite so many exception to the Warren Court’s civil liberties rulings. In what ways is America today more liberal than in the 70s? Gay rights? PPACA? That’s really about it. On the big-picture stuff, the economic issues that really matter, the 1970s consensus was way to the left of even the Democratic Party today.

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    • Andy says:

      Interesting point. I wait with great anticipation to see how the reactionaries respond to this.

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      • suntzuanime says:

        Waiting for them to stick their heads up so they can get banned?

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        • Andy says:

          I don’t think Scott will ban someone for expressing Reactionary opinions, just expressing them in a rude and hostile way insulting to Progressives. Remember that Jim only got banned after a long, long period of lousy behavior. Second, I doubt Scott will ban Reactionaries for posting comments to an anti-Reactionary post, as it’s not a topic derail. Third, remember that Scott unbanned Jim for this post’s comments.

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        • suntzuanime says:

          My mental model of a reactionary has rough time staying polite in response to provocations like ” In what ways is America today more liberal than in the 70s? Gay rights? PPACA? That’s really about it. On the big-picture stuff, the economic issues that really matter, the 1970s consensus was way to the left of even the Democratic Party today.”

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        • Jaskologist says:

          I don’t think Scott will ban someone for expressing Reactionary opinions, just expressing them in a rude and hostile way insulting to Progressives.

          He stated that he was looking to “cull the bottom 50%-90% of neoreactionaries,” which implies viewpoint-discrimination, not rudeness-discrimination.

          I was pretty disappointed, too. I’m still not sure they aren’t kooks, but they’re still the most interesting kooks I’ve met, and I had originally thought Scott was more open-minded than that.

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        • Andy says:

          He stated that he was looking to “cull the bottom 50%-90% of neoreactionaries,” which implies viewpoint-discrimination, not rudeness-discrimination.

          Let’s take a look at what he said:

          Having every thread with even the slightest opening turn into a full on neoreactionary feeding frenzy is tiring and driving other people away. I realize this is unfair, in that it’s not neoreactionaries’ fault that everyone else refuses to go to places where they are allowed to talk.

          It sounds like the problem was “threads not about Neoreaction turn into Reactionary bait balls.” These two posts are explicitly refuting Reactionary arguments and thus it is easy to say that Reactionaries are allowed to bring Reactionary counterarguments here. Scott, am I totally off base here?

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        • Lesser Bull says:

          Sites where commenters or comments of a certain viewpoints are only mostly banned are de facto sites where that viewpoint is banned.

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      • James James says:

        This just sounds like a spurious correlation, unless you can propose a causal link. Your claim that the USA doesn’t have welfare any more is silly. The other issues like crime are not relevant: neoreactionaries don’t claim that crime causes skyscraper decline.

        As a neoreactionary, I have no problem with welfare as long as it’s not dysgenic. Also, inefficiency should be avoided as much as possible. So, a basic income is better than means-tested welfare. The dignity of labour (regulated working hours, guaranteed holiday) and the dignity of the poor (reducing poverty by government spending from tax revenue) are just fine by me, as long as they are not dysgenic. The best solution I’ve come up with is sterilisation in exchange for a basic income, but I’d be open to other suggestions. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet seen other suggestions because welfare and dysgenics are not usually discussed together.

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        • The point wasn’t that there’s no welfare, it’s that it didn’t used to have time limits.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          What factual evidence would it take to convince you that dysgenics matters so little that the human dignity argument alone beats it every single time?

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        • James James says:

          “What factual evidence would it take to convince you that dysgenics matters so little that the human dignity argument alone beats it every single time?”

          Good question. How shall we go about quantifying each side the argument? On the one hand, the human dignity argument seems miniscule. I’ve said that I support a flat citizen’s income, which is dignified, and I regard requiring sterilisation to receive it as hardly undignified at all.

          On the other hand, since eugenic change is responsible for raising living standards above subsistance for the vast majority of humans (see Clark: “A Farewell to Alms”), it seems pretty valuable.

          You’d have to demonstrate that eugenics is very undignified, and/or that eugenics is not responsible for all the great achievements of humans. Nice buildings, great art and music, better food — all a consequence of intelligence, which is largely genetic. You’d basically have to demonstrate that intelligence is not heritable. Good luck with that.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          I regard requiring sterilisation to receive it as hardly undignified at all

          Well, but we’re talking about the existing opinion of 7 billion other people, not about your personal feelings. The vast, vast majority do regard it as undignified, as an act of submission and admission of personal inferiority in a very basic human function.

          Nice buildings, great art and music, better food — all a consequence of intelligence, which is largely genetic.

          I’m rolling on the floor laughing, especially after seeing “Music” on the list. Yes, clearly jazz, blues, rock and hip-hop originate in superior East Asian creativity and not in the tribal rhythms of some degenerate negroes. And we all know that history’s most famous painters and sculptors are Jewish! /s

          History does not bear this out at all.

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        • Army1987 says:

          And the food is so much more awesome once you go north of the Hajnal line! :-)

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        • James James says:

          OK, how about the industrial revolution? And all of science?

          What factual evidence would it take to convince you that dysgenics matters more than human dignity? The question is symmetric.

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        • James James says:

          “And the food is so much more awesome once you go north of the Hajnal line!”

          We have better food than we used to. Year-round availability of exotic foods relies on complex supply-chains run by clever people. Ready-meals are better than they used to be, because they’ve been designed by clever people. They get subjected to a barrage of tests in labs to make sure they’re safe. Soylent — designed by clever people.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          OK, how about the industrial revolution? And all of science?

          1) Didn’t happen in East Asia, so either it’s been caused mostly by culture, economics and geography, or by different biodeterministic factors that racialists miss. (And no, “novelty-seeking” is also unacceptable and lazy as fuck; e.g. modern Japanese people are strikingly novelty-seeking in some regards, and it’s not America where Starcraft counts as respectable national sports.)

          2) Wasn’t primarily powered by Jews (as opposed to e.g. today’s oft-cited Nobel Prize rates), so either the Jewish genius isn’t genetic, didn’t evolve until very recently, or couldn’t overcome systemic oppression, the latter of which would again lend credence to socioeconomic explainations of inequality.

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        • James James says:

          “What factual evidence would it take to convince you that dysgenics matters more than human dignity?”

          Bruce Charlton mentioned the mouse utopia experiment recently: http://iqpersonalitygenius.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-demise-of-mouse-utopia.html

          It seems to me that unlimited (what you consider) “human dignity” would lead to the destruction of the human race.

          Saying that “human dignity” matters more than eugenics seems remarkably shortsighted.

          Perhaps we are quibbling over quantities. The choice is not between “unlimited” human dignity or “unlimited” eugenics. In practice we can trade them off against each other. I do value (what I consider) “human dignity”, and I do want to second-guess natural selection. I want the eugenics of human values, not the eugenics of the blind idiot god Azathoth. But you can never eliminate natural selection (Gnon), and if you want to fight against it, you have to be very clever. Much better to work with it; to guide it; to make choices in the knowledge of it.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          Soylent — designed by clever people.

          Ok, here’s an offer to satisfy everyone: us egalitarians may cook Italian pizza and Russian shchi and Arab shawarma (like I did over the last week), while racialists may go mix themselves some Soylent and joylessly consume it. Is this logical and rational enough?

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        • James James says:

          “Didn’t happen in East Asia, so either it’s been caused mostly by culture, economics and geography, or by different biodeterministic factors that racialists miss.”

          Please read Gregory Clark: “A Farewell to Alms”.

          “Novelty seeking” is a straw man. Entrepreneurialism, Protestant work ethic, conformity, etc: many facets of the issue. The point is that virtually all human personality traits are largely genetic.

          I’m not just talking about modern-day racial differences in intelligence. I’m talking about the evolution of human intelligence at all.

          Gosh, I haven’t had an argument on the internet in years, and in such august company. Thank you.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          Bruce Charlton mentioned the mouse utopia experiment recently

          Yeah, and Scott mentioned the human dystopia experiment of Pol Pot killing all the Cambodian intellectuals, which appears to have depressed median IQ by one point. This is literally the worst imaginable outcome, far removed from what eugenicists usually worry about, and still it’s a single point, in the absense of any positive factors such as better nutrition or healthcare (often associated with “dysgenic” policies).

          So just like our host I’m not convinced that “natural” dysgenics are anything to be even slightly scared of on a timeline of 1-2 centuries. Past which many people who care about the issue at all don’t expect us to survive as an unmodified carbon-based species.

          “Novelty seeking” is a straw man. Entrepreneurialism, Protestant work ethic, conformity, etc: many facets of the issue. The point is that virtually all human personality traits are largely genetic.

          So why has East Asia risen so explosively while Europe is said to have stagnated? Have all those alleged European virtues vanished in, like, a generation? Or did the context simply change, marginal productivity gains shifted to different areas, geopolitical incentives played a role, etc?

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        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Lynn’s estimate for the dysgenic effect of fertility trends is 0.75 – 0.9 points per generation. source. Although its true that there is not much of a difference between a person having an IQ of 95 vs 105, there is a massive difference between a country having a median IQ of 95 vs 105, due to social multiplier effects and the differences on the tail ends. Dysgenic fertility also reduces genetic diversity which shrinks the tail ends further (even fewer geniuses). Of course Lynn’s estimate could be completely wrong, because we don’t yet understand the genetics of intelligence.

          Also when I think dysgenics, I don’t think about IQ or fertility. I think about human populations with a higher propensity for violence and tribal conflict displacing other human populations. For example Oslo’s problem with assault rape brought on by immigration.

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        • It’s a goddamn shame that the mouse corpses weren’t saved from the mouse utopia experiment.

          Mutational load seems unlikely to me– wouldn’t there have been more variation (including obvious mutations) in the problems? Wouldn’t there have been selection for good health?

          I suspect there was something subtly wrong with the environment, but we’ll never know.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          Lynn’s estimate for the dysgenic effect of fertility trends is 0.75 – 0.9 points per generation.

          Again, if throughout history “dysgenic” policies are either correlated with or outright synonymous to improvements in healthcare, nutrition, labour conditions and public education – doesn’t it all add up to normality? (Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the eugenicist utopia, just the way things have actually gone most of the time.)

          I think about human populations with a higher propensity for violence and tribal conflict displacing other human populations. For example Oslo’s problem with assault rape brought on by immigration.

          Today’s (perhaps) most peaceful and technologically advanced country went on an unprecedented spree of genocide, carnage and rape some mere 70 years ago…

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        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          @Multiheaded

          I don’t know what you are referring to, and I don’t know what it has to do with Oslo’s rape problem. Perhaps you’re disagreeing that some human populations have a greater propensity for violence and tribalism and are citing past atrocities of the West as evidence? I can provide data in support of the fact that human populations do differ in their propensity for violence if required.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          Not the West, the supposedly “domesticated” Japan.

          human populations do differ in their propensity for violence if required

          Go on… what if changing the circumstances has greater marginal utility for decreasing overall violence than intrusively managing populations?

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        • James James says:

          Not permitting dysgenic immigration is not “intrusively managing populations”.

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        • James James says:

          “what if changing the circumstances has greater marginal utility for decreasing overall violence than intrusively managing populations?”

          Then that would be fine. What if it doesn’t? What evidence would convince you that “intrusively” (not very intrusively) managing populations is acceptable?

          We can do both, of course, trading off at the margin. That’s what marginal utility is about.

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        • Steve Johnson says:

          Alexander Stanislaw’s original comment:

          I can provide data in support of the fact that human populations do differ in their propensity for violence if required.

          Multiheaded’s quote of it:

          human populations do differ in their propensity for violence if required

          Go on… what if changing the circumstances has greater marginal utility for decreasing overall violence than intrusively managing populations?

          You banned Jim for hurting people’s feelings when saying almost entirely true things.

          This guy goes around distorting the meaning of the statements of the people he’s arguing with and that’s all good?

          One is much more corrosive to rational discussion than the other.

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          Nature-Nurture debates are almost completely irrelevant to policy.

          The immigrants are there, we see what they do, regardless of whether it is nature or nurture. Maybe it’s relevant to the immigrants’ children, but even for them there probably is already pretty good data.

          If the government thinks that it has finally figured out the lesson of post-war Japan, then it should experiment on manipulating new immigrants. But null hypothesis should be that it hasn’t learned anything more about Japan than the last government, and thus immigration policy should be set on the assumption that the new immigrants will be like the old immigrants. If that doesn’t result in any immigrants, a small number can be added for experimentation purposes.

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        • Steve Johnson says:

          James James says:

          As a neoreactionary, I have no problem with welfare as long as it’s not dysgenic. Also, inefficiency should be avoided as much as possible.

          Then as a neoreationary you don’t understand your position on the issue correctly.

          The purpose of welfare is dysgenics and vote buying. The dysgenics part comes in because it makes vote buying cheaper (as well as giving more make work for progressives in caring for their wards). The inefficiency is also a feature because “inefficiency” is just another word for vote buying – lots of people are required to care for the welfare bred class – social workers, nurses, doctors, cops, prison guards, public school teachers, public school bureaucrats, etc. If you had a well behaved welfare class that didn’t have more children than they could care for or raise competently you wouldn’t need all of those other people either – inefficiency is baked into the cake.

          Neoreactionaries know what a person who cannot support themselves and cannot direct their own life and so is fed and cared for by someone else is called – without that word shutting down their brains due to excessive emotion. Neoreactionaries have also rediscovered the knowledge that this condition is natural for a large number of people. Neoreactionaries also understand that once you see welfare for what it is that you should judge it by the same standards as other slave owners historically. A slave owner that lets his slaves run amok terrorizing the citizens and has his slaves do no productive work and in fact has them destroy productive work is a bad slave owner. Something went wrong with that slave owner because as recently as the 1930s his slaves were different:

          Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. The WPA’s initial appropriation in 1935 was for $4.9 billion (about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP), and in total it spent $13.4 billion.[2]

          In addition to performing thousands of concerts, offering music classes, organizing the Composers Forum Laboratory, hosting music festivals and creating 34 new orchestras, employees of the FMP researched American traditional music and folk songs, a practice now called ethnomusicology.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_Progress_Administration
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Music_Project

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        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          @Steve Johnson

          I didn’t even notice that Multiheaded changed the meaning of my statement by only quoting half of it and then bolding that last part. Maybe he just misunderstood it (and I’ve certainly been guilty of sloppy quoting and misunderstandings myself).

          @Multiheaded
          Suppose that group A is more impulsive, aggressive and violent than group B. But suppose also that group B has more weapons and is bigger than group A. Then group B might well commit more acts of violence than group A. This does not challenge the fact that group A has a higher propensity for violence.

          That different groups commit violent crime at different rates is very clear. As Douglas Knight pointed out, it doesn’t matter why this is so, all that matters is what we can expect to happen in the future. Based on that, we can make debate what sorts of policies we should be enacting.

          We can very easily reduce (or at least not increase) violent crime by restricting immigration from groups that have shown a tendency for violence when they became immigrants in the past. If you think this is false then please explain why.

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        • ozymandias says:

          “You banned Jim for hurting people’s feelings when saying almost entirely true things.”

          Jim was banned, IIRC, for his comment about how male rape survivors deserve to be mocked for being weak and female rape survivors deserve to be mocked for being sluts. I’m… not sure that “deserve” has a truth value… but even if it did those are hardly uncontroversially true statements. In addition, he said these words in a cruel manner intended to hurt, which is a clear violation of kindness. Finally, I see no particular reason that those comments were necessary. In short, Scott is the king and if you don’t like the king you should be a good neoreactionary, stop using your Voice, and start using your Exit.

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        • As far as I can tell, the last straw which caused James to be banned was nastiness about male rape survivors. Nothing he said about women caused that level of overt anger.

          Dear god, I didn’t especially register what he said in that comment about women myself until I reread for this comment– it’s closer to what is commonly said, and more like his usual level of malice.

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        • Army1987 says:

          The comment thread depth limit is making it too inconvenient for me to take part in this discussion. Damn.

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        • houseboatonstyx says:

          [James James] I regard requiring sterilisation to receive it as hardly undignified at all

          [Multiheaded] Well, but we’re talking about the existing opinion of 7 billion other people, not about your personal feelings.

          The first statement is a personal value judgement, expressed as such. The second statement is in the form of a claim of fact about the personal value judgements of almost 7 billion people.

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        • Anonymous says:

          @Alexander Stanislaw

          You have an astounding ability to move the goal post, kick the ball into it and call it a goal.

          First, you went on about how some human populations have a higher propensity for violence due to dysgenics. When Multiheaded challenged you on this, because of course you hadn’t provided any actual data that supports this claim, and because this claim is rather dubious and difficult to prove, and because there are socioeconomic reasons that can explain the differences in the level of violence between various populations to a surprisingly high degree, instead of proving your rather dubious claim that it is dysgenics that’s causing differences in the levels of violence among different populations, you adapted Douglas Knight’s statement that, ’causes don’t matter when deciding policy, and all that matters is how things are and how things will be’, and went on to f*ck the immigrants. On top of that, you have the audacity to accuse Multiheaded on distorting what you’re saying.

          Having said that, I’d be pretty suspicious of Germans if I were you. Historically they have been pretty violent.

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    • Army1987 says:

      adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was much higher than today

      I once saw an article showing that EITC means that the ‘effective’ minimum wage has risen at about the rate of inflation in the past few decades.

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    • gattsuru says:

      America in the 1970s was in many ways a far more liberal society than it is today. The top marginal tax rate was 70 percent (nearly double what it is now). AFDC (welfare) still existed, and with no time limits.

      I’m not into the monarchy cargo cult, but I don’t think these are very strong arguments. The pre-Reagan top marginal tax was higher — but it was a value very close to no one paid, due to the more complicated nature of the tax code. There’s a reason this is the era that gave us the AMT, and why the Reagan 1981 tax change ended up putting more of the costs onto the top 10% than before.

      The AFDC existed without limits it has now… and the SSDI program covered only a quarter of the number of people, and total welfare expenditures were drastically smaller. SNAP was an ninth its current size in 1972, housing assistance an eighth, and Pell Grants had only just come into existence. The EITC wouldn’t be created until 1986. GDP- and inflation-adjusted welfare expenditures have grown dramatically within the same time frame.

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      • Douglas Knight says:

        It is true that Reagan didn’t cut taxes, let alone cut spending. He didn’t reduce the proportion of the economy that was explicitly dictated by the government. But by rationalizing the tax code he reduced the massive implicit control that the government imposes through the tax code.

        The EITC was created in 1975 and expanded in 1986, FWIW.

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        • gattsuru says:

          Thank you for the correction on the EITC.

          I’m not sure that we got that much less implicit or explicit control: even the 1982 tax code had some very specific nudge- and force- behaviors. Fewer rules, yes, but often broader.

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        • Lesser Bull says:

          Massive implicit control through the tax code, maybe.

          But what about explicit control? Various measures I’ve seen for growth in the number/size of laws, regulations, administrative guidance, federal and state government employees, number of bureacracies, suggest that they either kept pace with the rate of economic or population growth at minimum or exceeded it.

          My sense is also that the number of administrative proceedings and judicial proceedings may not have increased per capita but that the areas of control increased. Private society internalized the old mandates so the continued rate of judical/administrative action reflects the expansion of the mandates or even new ones. Most large corporations these days employ a large staff of regulatory specialists and HR people who are effectively privately-paid agents of the state.

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    • On the big-picture stuff, the economic issues that really matter, the 1970s consensus was way to the left of even the Democratic Party today.

      Calling the economic issues the ones that “really matter” is rather begging the question, isn’t it? Nonetheless, even a neoreactionary has to recognize that there was some sort of inflection point circa 1980, with economic issues becoming progressively less important to the left, and social issues becoming more important. If you’re a Marxist or other old-skool economic leftist, this seems like a rightward turn, while if you’re a rightist this just seems like a minor course correction on Cthulhu’s leftward swim. Even so, it doesn’t seem to me that economic redistribution programs were actually rolled back, but rather that no new ones were added. The main counterexample (Clinton’s welfare reform) has been neutered by a massive increase in the disability program, which covers the drop in welfare almost 1:1.

      As for what happened, my hypothesis is simply that the hippies grew up and joined (read: took over) the Establishment. Once in power they discovered that they liked making and keeping their own money, and that it was useful to be friends to the people with money. The shift to social issues allowed them to befriend capital while maintaining the thedish signalling and morality competitions that drive progressivism on a new dimension.

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      • Sarah says:

        So, in the late 60’s there was a thing called the “New Left” which was more concerned with social issues and less directly tied to Moscow.

        The 80’s had Reagan and Thatcher and deregulation, most of which has stuck around. It would be unthinkable for a US President today to fix prices or nationalize companies; these were normal in the 70’s.

        It might be fair to say that politics has become “more socially liberal, more fiscally conservative” in the past fifty years.

        Then there’s also a steady trend of government expansion in the sense of number of employees, size of debt, percent of the economy, etc. I think this may be largely orthogonal to shifts in politics. Bureaucracies grow and become less efficient over time. This has nothing to do with the political zeitgeist.

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        • *nods*

          Bureaucracies don’t need any help from politics to get bigger and worse over time, but at the same time I don’t think that we can write this off as an example of leftward drift over time. Instead, I might want to argue that bureaucracy is an intrinsically leftward institution, which is why the left keeps wanting to invent them.

          (But I’m not entirely convinced of this myself, mostly because my brain keeps shouting at me “WHAT ABOUT CHINESE IMPERIAL BUREAUCRACY AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND ANCIENT EGYPT”.)

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        • Lesser Bull says:

          @MLD

          It may be that bureacracy is neutral, but favored by whomever is effectively in charge, because bureaucracy is an instrument of control and stasis. So the fact that the left broadly favors bureaucracy indicates that the left is in charge, and the monotonic increase in bureaucracy indicates that left’s power is increasing (bureaucracy increase would be either the reflection of that power increase, or the instrument of it).

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  3. spindr says:

    *The other important lesson is that skyscraper costs have changed little if at all since the age of the Empire State Building.*

    So despite all the technological progress, it costs slightly more to build a skyscraper each time around. Sounds like a pretty strong case for massive bureaucratic overhead.

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    • CaptainBooshi says:

      Except they keep building them taller, and, if I understand correctly, each foot they add significantly increases the cost. It would appear to me that any decrease in cost brought about by technological progress would just be offset by any increase in cost brought about by building taller buildings. This seems to indicate that there is a specific amount of money people are willing to spend on skyscrapers, and technological progress just lets us build taller buildings for that same price.

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      • Deiseach says:

        Am I being boringly literal when I think that perhaps the reason fewer and/or smaller skyscrapers are being built is because people don’t want them? They cost a lot to upkeep and run; the taller they are, the more wear-and-tear on (for example) elevators which take longer to get to the highest point and are more liable to break down, both of which inconvenience and annoy the users?

        In other words, that there’s an optimum “height” for a building and so if you want to whack up a huge monolithic edifice as a vanity project (that, and using these kinds of building projects as convoluted tax break schemes, seems to be the rationale behind such things as the Gherkin in London and Dubai’s frankly loopy building mania), then you do better to break existing records by sticking a really big spire on the top and cheating that way?

        Besides, I don’t think there are the same amount of (a) firms and businesses wanting to build their own particular tower block; it’s easier/cheaper to rent office space in another building or move most of your operations overseas for tax breaks and (b) filling up such large buildings is therefore more difficult than it was back in the 70s when such buildings were taking off, so there’s not the same incentive to build huge skyscrapers which will then be mostly empty space which still have to be maintained and repaired?

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    • JTHM says:

      The Bank of America Plaza represents the cost of building a skyscraper in an area with relatively few bureaucratic hurdles (Atlanta, where I live). If you want to know what the nightmarish prospect of building a skyscraper in, say, New York is like, check out the documentary “16 Acres” on Netflix about the reconstruction of WTC 1: http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/16-Acres/70262451

      A summary for those of you who don’t have Neftlix: If you chanced upon Ayn Rand in one of her most Ayn Rand-y moods, and asked her to write about what trying to build a skyscraper in a dystopian society would be like, she would have written the story of the reconstruction of WTC 1.

      And by the way, The Bank of America Plaza isn’t made of styrofoam! It’s gorgeous, especially at night when they illuminate that spire from the inside.

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      • Nornagest says:

        If you chanced upon Ayn Rand in one of her most Ann Rand-y moods, and asked her to write about what building a skyscraper in a dystopian society would be like

        …you’d get The Fountainhead?

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      • Will says:

        The WTC was overly bureaucratic even by NYC standards. 9-11 syndrome.

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      • CaptainBooshi says:

        Just going to point out that claiming that the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11 is supposed to be representative of the hurdles facing a normal skyscraper is really rather ridiculous. I don’t think you could pick out a more unrepresentative example of skyscraper-building if you tried.

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        • JTHM says:

          Granted, but if you watch the documentary, I think you’ll agree that there was no reason for the World Trade Center to be half the outlier that it was. It shows NY government at its worst, but NY’s worst is a lot worse than most other places’ worst. I oughtn’t to have written my post in the way I did; I should have said that looking at the worst-case scenario gives you some information about the average-case scenario, especially if you look at not just how bad the worst-case scenario is, but how it came about.

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      • moyix says:

        For this to be correct, 66% of the cost of all other skyscrapers would have to be due to bureaucracy. That seems very high to me. Do you have evidence that backs this up?

        As an Atlanta resident myself, though, I agree that it’s a beautiful building, especially at night or through light fog.

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  4. Shmi Nux says:

    > no pun intended

    Yeah. Right. Own up to your love of puns, Scott.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Er…I think the writing of this post holds the record for most prodigious intellect to ever to bother devoting this much thought to this particular problem.

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  6. Eric Rall says:

    I’m surprised that skyscrapers don’t seem to be stagnating. I would have expected that there would be, not because of any general stagnation, but because it’s much cheaper per square foot of floor space to build low-rise office parks in suburbs/exurbs, which is where a large and increasing fraction of people in office worker professions seem to be living anyway, and communications tech has been steadily eroding the value of concentrating your office workers in a single centralized location in a big commerce hub.

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    • Andy says:

      Never underestimate the power of overcompensation and ego.

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    • Wulfrickson says:

      it’s much cheaper per square foot of floor space to build low-rise office parks in suburbs/exurbs, which is where a large and increasing fraction of people in office worker professions seem to be living anyway, and communications tech has been steadily eroding the value of concentrating your office workers in a single centralized location in a big commerce hub

      You would be right up until 2007 or so, but post-World War II suburbanization has actually reversed since then. Driving has been declining for several years (various hypotheses about why), and cities such as Boston and San Francisco have been outgrowing their suburbs, a trend that would be even more pronounced if not for restrictive zoning that prohibits the replacement of single-family houses with apartment buildings. And the growth industries right now – mainly scientific or “creative-class” professions – favor centralization around one city regardless of communications improvements, for reasons that Paul Graham’s essay on startup hubs gets at. (If Bay Area tech companies could save more in the difference in living costs and office space between Houston and San Francisco than they would lose by having to hire people in Houston, they would have already moved to Houston, which they by-and-large haven’t. A recent article touting an increase in STEM employment in Houston demonstrates my point by quoting an entrepreneur whose firm sells imaging technology to oil companies – i.e. someone who’s really part of a different industry, distinct from the San Francisco-based web or Big Data startups, that has centered around Houston with comparable force. On the other hand, more traditional manufacturing industries have seen substantial shifts in geographic concentration, from the Midwest to the South.)

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      • Eric Rall says:

        I don’t buy the startup hub idea as an argument for urban skyscrapers. I work in the tech industry, and while I definitely see a strong geographical clustering effect, it is a relatively diffuse clustering. The Bay Area tech cluster is spread out from SF to Fremont, with most of the big corporate campuses distributed among various suburbs (Google, Microsoft, and LinkedIn in Mountain View, AMD in Sunnyvale, Applied Materials in Santa Clara, Apple in Cupertino, etc). The only exception I can think of is Salesforce, which has a high-rise office building in San Francisco’s financial district. Most of the startups seem to be in the suburbs as well — the ones I’ve worked for were in Redwood City, Mountain View, and Menlo Park.

        The Seattle tech cluster is similarly distributed, with Microsoft’s big campus straddling the border between Redmond and Bellevue and satellite campuses scattered around the region, Amazon in Kirkland, Boeing in Everett, etc.

        Southern California’s tech cluster seems to be mainly scattered throughout various Orange County suburbs.

        I’m not familiar with the concentration of the Raleigh-Durham tech cluster, and the NYC tech cluster at least does seem to be densely clustered in an urban center.

        The bottom line is yes, there’s a ecosystem effect that makes it make sense for companies in similar fields, and professionals who work in those fields, to cluster geographically, but the clustering effect in the tech industry is not strong enough to push more than a relative handful of firms into dense urban centers.

        The financial industry seems to be a different story, for reasons that I can only speculate on. I get the impression that major urban office spaces seem to be dominated by big financial companies.

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        • Wulfrickson says:

          Didn’t Twitter recently move to San Francisco (and get some sort of tax benefit for doing so)?

          New York’s employment is probably still relatively centralized around Midtown and Wall Street because it has a good rail system, which is better than cars at serving dense areas (trains carry more passengers and don’t get caught in traffic). Car cities like LA can’t be built as densely without congestion becoming crippling, which promotes more dispersed development. The Bay Area is a special case in that it has a decent (for the US) rail system, but zoning policies are so uniformly anti-urban that workers have no choice but to stay spread out. Pass better zoning laws, and I’m pretty confident that would change.

          Anyhow, just to clarify: the principal points that I wanted to make are that 1) a “growing proportion” of office workers has not been moving away from the central city, and 2) if communications technology promoted decentralization, then we should expect to see tech and other white-collar employment becoming more decentralized, which we by-and-large haven’t. I think these points still stand.

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        • Eric Rall says:

          I’m having trouble finding good numbers, but what I am finding shows that suburb growth has outpaced core urban growth fairly consistently through the 20th century. I have found several news articles confirming your claim that the trend has reversed over the past few years, but given the length and consistency of the previous trend, I’m inclined to bet on the recent trend being a temporary blip.

          I’ve worked for Google and Microsoft, and my experience at both companies (especially Google) is very much in favor of technology enabling further decentralization. Both companies make extensive use of distributed teams (people working together closely on a project despite being located in geographically dispersed locations), and both are hiring increasing percentages of their employees to work in offices away from their corporate headquarters.

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        • Andy says:

          New York’s employment is probably still relatively centralized around Midtown and Wall Street because it has a good rail system, which is better than cars at serving dense areas (trains carry more passengers and don’t get caught in traffic). Car cities like LA can’t be built as densely without congestion becoming crippling, which promotes more dispersed development.

          We are also, slowly and in fits and starts, building a better rail system here in LA. It’s mostly used by a handful of students and tourists, but we can (sorta) do mass transit. It just takes forever to do because every rail project means construction in already-built areas and noise and congestion, but we’re slowly-and-surely getting there.

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  7. Tommy says:

    The Trabant wasn’t even Soviet, it was East German. The Soviet equivalent was the Lada.

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  8. suntzuanime says:

    Doesn’t it seem a little funny that the cost per foot of skyscraper should increase over time? Those massive construction projects seem like exactly the sort of place where you’d expect to get productivity benefits from technology.

    Some hypotheses:
    *Over the 20th century, developing countries advanced and started demanding more natural resources, pushing up the price of resource-hungry skyscrapers.

    *Skyscrapers have gotten better over the past 100 years, becoming prettier to look at or less likely to blow over in a stiff wind or whatever. This costs money and is not reflected in their height.

    *Per the reactionaries, technological progress is locked in a losing battle with social “progress”, and bureaucracy drives up costs slightly faster than tech brings them down.

    *The data is just nonsense. You pick ten data points and throw out two of them as “outliers” and it’s hard to be confident drawing any conclusion from the results.

    *The productivity gains have been grabbed by the construction workers in the form of easier jobs/safer conditions/better wages. This is like the reactionary hypothesis, but more optimistic in its tenor.

    *People building skyscrapers will take their financiers for every penny they can. The cost per foot increase does not reflect actual production costs, but rather an increase in the wealth of skyscraper builders. The extreme cost of the rebuilt WTC seems in accordance with this – it’s expensive as hell because rebuilding it is a sacred duty, drawing lots of sucker-money.

    *Skyscrapers have been steadily becoming more valuable, inducing people to start building them without waiting for concrete to go on sale at the supermarket. This selection effect appears to drive up costs, even though the cost for equivalent projects under equivalent conditions has actually gone down.

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    • Will says:

      Its actually that the buildings are getting taller, most of the increased cost is pushing for those extra stories. If you look at the cost of tall, but not supertall buildings it has trended down.

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    • Wulfrickson says:

      If subway construction costs are any indicator – New York may be building the three most expensive rail tunnels, mile for mile, in the world – NYC urban-planning politics is uniquely dysfunctional, possibly more so than any other city except maybe San Francisco, and the Port Authority is especially corrupt (remember Bridgegate?). Combine that with the mentality of “We must rebuild a grander World Trade Center than ever, or the terrorists win” that was also to blame for the $3.74 billion subway stop next door, and I’m pretty comfortable discarding 1 WTC as an outlier with limited relevance outside NYC. (I agree with your point about drawing conclusions from a study with n = 10.)

      (The question we should be asking ourselves is whether the Bank of America Plaza was a fluke or a reflection of something that Atlanta is doing right and that other cities can copy. I would guess that it’s some combination of lower wages for construction workers and a less onerous zoning and permitting process.) (Edited to add: JTHM’s comment above about the relative lack of bureaucracy in Atlanta supports this.)

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      • Walter says:

        I live in Atlanta, and I’d suggest that you may use the following general rule:

        If I am tempted to consider an outcome a reflection of something that Atlanta is doing right I should resist that temptation.

        Our local government is cartoonishly disfunctional. If we appear to have done something well its a happy accident. Read up on the MARTA wars if you don’t believe me.

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    • Brian Potter says:

      I’d be fairly surprised if construction has gotten much more efficient. Large buildings are put up more or less exactly the way they were 100 or so years ago – assembled by hand by an army of workers out of steel, concrete, and masonry. They’ve essentially seen none of the benefit of the advances in manufacturing or logistics that lets something with the complexity of, say, an iphone get assembled for a reasonable price.

      While there’s certainly been small-scale advances (nailguns vs hammers, fasteners that can be quickly attached, flooring that is premanufactured etc.), it wouldn’t surprise me if this was entirely offset by reductions in productivity caused by safety and workers-rights regulations. I’ve seen slideshows of old skyscrapers getting put up in a matter of months, when today it would be a project that would last YEARS.

      Skyscrapers also ARE better than ones put up 100 years ago, and this IS in ways related to safety that are largely invisible. Modern buildings are built to extremely strict (and getting stricter) building codes which largely didn’t exist at the turn of the century. Essentially, every time a particularly devastating hurricane or earthquake occurs, the data on building failures gets analyzed and building codes get updated with new, stricter requirements. A modern building is without question safer than an older one, but unless there’s an earthquake or a fire, you’ll probably never know it.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Also, what happens if you take into account the square footage?

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    • Multiheaded says:

      *The productivity gains have been grabbed by the construction workers in the form of easier jobs/safer conditions/better wages. This is like the reactionary hypothesis, but more optimistic in its tenor.

      It certainly might be that both the reactionaries and the commies seem to have a point: bureaucracy might be getting worse according to its own dynamics and using neoliberal ideology to cover its ass – while capitalists are able to exploit labour at a higher and higher rate (which is what an “improvement in productivity” frequently stands for), ending the short-lived golden age for the Western white male proletariat.

      But I have absolutely no idea how if this fits the facts on the ground. Could someone please comment on the conditions, a typical worker’s rights and freedoms, etc in the American construction industry circa 1970 and 2010? Because I have a definite suspicion that things at the very least have not improved. (I’d expect workplace safety to have improved in some regards, not so much in others.)

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      • suntzuanime says:

        That hypothesis was not really a commie hypothesis – it’s the general conservative position, that greedy labor unions stuff their pockets at the expense of anyone who wants to get anything done. The commie position is that things will never get better for the worker until we murder everyone that isn’t the worker, and any appearances to the contrary are false consciousness. In general, under our system, political victories are not something you admit to, they’re something you accuse your enemies of.

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      • Matthew says:

        Last I heard, the total number of journalists on the labor beat in the United States now is 3. (As opposed to the business beat, which is rather better covered.) You’re going to have a tough time making comparisons, in part because few in the media take labor rights seriously any more.

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  9. Samuel Skinner says:

    Why would the US has massive skyscrapers? We have a much lower population density than most of the rest of the world and several of the major urban centers have natural disasters which make it a poor choice (LA is the second biggest city in the country). In fact looking at New York City, it went from a population of 7.9 million in 1970 to one of 8.4 million in 2013 which is hardly the pressure you’d need for large scale building.

    Honestly a better question is why there aren’t skyscrapers in Europe. According to wiki, the tallest building in Europe until 2003 had half as many stories as the empire state building

    (Commerzbank Tower in Germany).

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    • Andy says:

      LA actually has several interesting skyscrapers, as well as at least one under construction, and they’ve held up well to our earthquakes so far.

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    • Nornagest says:

      The US has lower population density than most of the world if you average over our huge land area, but we’re actually more urbanized than half of Europe if Wikipedia’s to be trusted. I get the impression that the American pattern of development is essentially bimodal.

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      • Andy says:

        I would agree. We have densely populated coasts (LA is actually a very dense city, for all that we’re supposedly a sprawl poster child) and the interior of the country is much less dense, either mostly unpeopled (the Rocky Mountains, the Dakotas) or filled with declining rural areas, as in the Midwest. I don’t have any stats on hand, but I’d bet that newer interior cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix have much more sprawl than Los Angeles, SF or Portland.

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        • eeuuah says:

          St Louis, which is a post child for white flight, has incredible sprawl. Since the fifties the city core an the near city St Louis county suburbs have switched populations (going from 800k and 400k to 300k and 1m), while the metro area sprawls out for 50 or so miles each way which a total population density of 338.4/sq mile.

          Compare that to about 6k/sq mile in the city core, 8k/sq mile in LA, 12k/sq mile in Chicago, or 71k/sq mile in Manhattan.

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        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Phoenix sprawl is, indeed, epic. And it’s actually costing the city dearly – the availability of ultra-cheap land encourages building outward, which skyrockets the cost of connecting the new growth to existing infrastructure. Wiring Phoenix up with fiber optic, in particular, is an ongoing nightmare.

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  10. Wulfrickson says:

    Attention conservation notice: a lot of geekery from a long-time lurker about Scott’s two-sentence aside on subways.

    I find the fact about the Baltic Sea tunnel (presumably this) believable within limits, and it is certainly true that subway construction in the US is vastly more expensive than necessary. There’s a good compilation of costs-per-kilometer of urban rail projects on Alon Levy’s website (here, also here, and here for developing economies). Quick summary: a kilometer of rail tunnel in most cities will cost you $250 million, plus or minus a factor of two. This is about the same for developed and developing economies, because cheaper labor in developing countries is offset by reduced access to capital. Some countries (Spain and Italy especially) can do tunneling remarkably cheaply, about $100 million/km; Germany and the Netherlands are on the high side of the world standard, as is Japan; the UK is significantly higher, and the US blows the world average out of the water by a factor of five or so, with New York the worst of all. (Note by the relative positions of Spanish and Italian versus German projects on this list that cheap construction is a very imperfect indicator of good government. There’s significant variation in the US, too: NYC, San Francisco, and Boston are horrible, but Los Angeles’ subway projects aren’t too far above world standards, and Houston has been doing some pretty good things with light rail.)

    Quick check of the Estonia/NYC comparison: let’s be pessimistic and assume that the “four blocks” are crosstown blocks of a quarter-mile each. This would be about $6.5 billion at the per-km price of East Side Access, a price tag that includes a lot of things other than strict tunnel construction. The Wikipedia page claims a study found 1 billion euros for a “freight-only” tunnel or several times that for passenger service. 1 billion euros for 50 km would be about $27 million/km, below any other tunneling project I know; but the feasibility study linked from Wikipedia suggests costs between 40m and 125m euro/km, depending on the geological environment. This seems plausible if slightly low; the Seikan Tunnel in Japan was 538.4 billion yen in 1988 for a half-undersea project, which is about $100m/km at today’s exchange rate (Japan’s inflation is very low, so I feel comfortable ignoring it for the purpose of a rough estimate). In summary, I think that it’s plausible for the proposed trans-Baltic tunnel to cost the same as four crosstown NYC subway blocks.

    (If the blocks are street blocks (about 20 per mile) instead – and the biggest current NYC subway project, Second Avenue Subway, runs north-south – then it’s way too high. Also, comparing undersea and subway tunnels is not precisely fair because a substantial component of the cost of subway construction comes from the stations, not the tunnel itself.)

    As to why US construction is so expensive (and it’s not just rail projects; roads follow the same pattern): no one knows precisely why. People in the public-transit blogosphere generally point to American conditions such as:
    1) Union work-rules that mandate outdated labor practices. As one example, a certain job for tunnel construction in NYC requires 25 people; Madrid’s subway projects do it with nine.
    2) Common-law courts instead of a codified civil law. I would guess that common law makes it easy to tie projects up over lawsuits, either over eminent domain or over entirely imagined quality-of-life issues. This also explains why the UK and India have high construction costs.
    3) Lack of domestic expertise. In Europe and Asia, rail networks are extensive and constantly expanded, and most agencies are up-to-date with the latest engineering techniques; in the US, where large rail projects are rarer, transportation agencies contract design work out to consultants, often on terms that encourage them to gold-plate designs and avoid cost control, and lack the expertise to monitor them – essentially a textbook principal–agent problem. (It wasn’t always like this: the Pennsylvania Railroad was once one of the most advanced in the world. We then spent twelve-figure sums and demolished massive tracts of urban neighborhoods to build a freeway network that competed with railways and encouraged sprawling development that only cars can serve efficiently. Most of the nation’s passenger railroads went bankrupt, and the few that hung on – mostly commuter networks in the old Northeastern cities, now under government control – are run by stodgy reactionaries who have resolutely ignored every advance in passenger-railroad operations in the rest of the world since 1950.)
    4) Decentralized political systems, which both impose coordination costs and allow single neighborhoods or towns to hold projects hostage. One example of this is the California high-speed rail project, which will take an unnecessarily detour into Los Angeles, at a cost of several billion dollars and twelve minutes of travel time, to serve a couple of small exurbs in the desert; the authority overseeing the project released a skewed study inflating the cost of the straighter alternative. Why? Speculation includes: a) the state designed the route to run through as many areas as possible in an effort to get political support; b) the small exurbs in question are in LA County, which wants to promote suburban development; c) the detour makes it easier for a planned private rail service to Las Vegas to connect to LA, which could encourage Harry Reid (who represents Nevada) to provide more federal money.
    5) Protectionist legislation that requires any US public transit project funded with federal dollars to use components made in the US. Often this requires contractors to build special US factories just for one order, driving up costs and reducing competition by locking out smaller firms for which this is an insuperable expense.

    High construction costs definitely show some problem with American politics, but not a problem with democratic politics as a whole. In Switzerland, where every infrastructure project must be approved by referendum, things get done much faster and at lower cost than in the US. On the other side of the democracy spectrum, China’s construction costs about equal those of continental Europe despite the Chinese government being far less sparing with eminent domain, and Singapore has one of the most expensive projects outside the US or UK on the list I linked above.

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    • Quixote says:

      It’s worth noting that tunnels “should” cost far more to build in NY that in other places.

      Atlanta is spread out and a small city besides, if a tunnel messed up a water pipe maybe 10,000 people would be without water. NY is a lot larger and a lot denser and the same mistake could leave 1,000,000 people without water. The level of cost justified precautions in NY is just much higher.

      Likewise if a tunnel goes under some house in the Baltic maybe some goatherd is tired and watched goats less well. In the east side, you wind up with a sleep deprived neurosurgeon making 2mm a year unable to do its job well. Plus you also have everyone else in the 20 story apartment building with similar high value jobs impaired. And then you have several other similar buildings in the same block. NY has far more high value workers per block than other places and so the cost justified inconvenience reduction expenses are much higher.

      The value of the buildings you are digging underneath will be higher and so it’s worth paying more to avoid collapsing them.

      Now on top of all that, I’m sure there is a lot of bloat, unions, etc. But in a perfect world tunnels in NY would cost several times what they do in other places.

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      • Wulfrickson says:

        By “other places” do you mean “every non-English-speaking city in the world”? Naturally urban tunnels are more expensive than tunnels out in the boondocks, but New York is the only place in the world where tunnels routinely cost more than $1 billion/km, despite not being only place with tall buildings (or, as someone suggested downthread, difficult geology). In Tokyo, subway projects come in at a third of New York costs despite being built through similarly dense environments, and the Westside Subway in LA is budgeted at $300 million/km despite geological challenges that include drilling through the La Brea Tar Pits.

        It’s not just tunnels that are more expensive in New York, either. Consider the Tappan Zee replacement bridge across the Hudson, which is budgeted at between $5 billion and $6 billion, with previous estimates going up to $8 billion, for a 5 km bridge; and compare this to the $5.7 billion Øresund crossing between Denmark and Sweden, which includes an 8 km bridge, a 4 km undersea tunnel, and an artificial island, carrying both road and rail traffic. Something is definitely wrong with New York (city and state) that isn’t wrong with the rest of the developed world.

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  11. Alyssa Vance says:

    Looking at only the very tallest buildings, which are more prestige projects than economically practical structures, is extremely non-representative. This blog post looks at all buildings over 200 meters, and finds that skyscrapers have both boomed worldwide, and stagnated within the US, where most cities have strict zoning laws that forbid significant new construction. Specifically:

    “2013 was the second-most successful year on record for completion of buildings 200 meters or greater in height. In 2013, 73 such buildings were completed [worldwide], second only to the 81 completions of 2011.”

    “For the sixth year running, China had the most 200-meter-plus completions of any nation, at 37 – located across 22 cities.”

    “Of the 73 buildings over 200 meters completed in 2013, only one, 1717 Broadway in New York, was in the United States.”

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  12. Brian Potter says:

    Supposedly, the design of Bank of America Plaza was a Georgia Tech student’s final project, for which he got an F (apparently the professor didn’t like the open metal latticework at the top). Despite this, the student graduated and the building ended up getting built – right next to Georgia Tech’s campus, forcing the professor to look at it every darn day.

    It’s probably apocryphal, but it’s a story that’s told CONSTANTLY to the students there.

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    • Silver2195 says:

      They tell pretty much the same story at a bunch of other American institutions of higher learning. It’s an urban legend that crops up about any sufficiently ugly building on a campus.

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  13. Douglas Knight says:

    [1940 to 1970] was exactly the period when most people today think technological progress was at its height!

    Most people just don’t believe in stagnation. I don’t think most who do point to that period. Charles Murray puts the peak around 1880. Tyler Cowen 1880-1940.

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    • Franz Panzer says:

      1880?
      By what metric is the height of technological progress in 1880? Wasn’t that around the time Max Born was nearly discouraged from studying physics because the physics professors said that everything that was to be discovered already had been discovered and there would be no further need for physicists?
      People still believed in the ether, quantum mechanics and general or special relativity were unknown, the universe consisted only of our Milky Way…
      and that are just some of the few theoretical heavyweights that came after 1880. In practical terms? Aeroplanes, computers, telephones, cars, and generally high speed transport, nuclear energy….
      All of which are game changers.

      How can one reasonably argue that technological progress was at its height before any of this came along?

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    • michael vassar says:

      Murray puts the peak of progress per-capita in 1870. Progress absolutely is just trending down a little in 1950 and probably peaks in 1945 by his metrics.

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      • drethelin says:

        Progress per-capita seems like a poor metric. If some of that progress involves allowing billions of more people to exist, that will undermine the metric without actually measuring absolute levels of progress.

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          Progress per global capita is probably a stupid metric. What about progress per rich capita or per scientist? Lots of people say how great it is that we have more scientists, that they will lead to more progress. This is a direct response to those people. Also, back in 1880, population growth was concentrated in rich countries.

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        • Lesser Bull says:

          Murray was basing it on national populations, if memory serves. It’s a pretty intelligent book and there are much more intelligent criticisms of it than the ones y’all are dishing up here.

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  14. Alex Richard says:

    My methodology was to take the tallest skyscraper built during each decade, convert its cost into 2013 dollars, and divide it by the number of feet high in the skyscraper.

    It’s possible to be more accurate than that; some groups maintain stats on inflation in building material cost and in construction worker wages. The Engineering News-Record doesn’t give free access to its complete database, but from its free materials we can get the following:

    Overall inflation since 1913: 2303%
    Inflation in “building costs” since 1913: 5282%
    (“Building costs” is calculated as “68.38 hours of skilled labor at the 20-city average of bricklayers, carpenters and structural ironworkers rates, plus 25 cwt of standard structural steel shapes at the mill price prior to 1996 and the fabricated 20-city price from 1996, plus 1.128 tons of portland cement at the 20-city price, plus 1,088 board-ft of 2 x 4 lumber at the 20-city price.”)
    Inflation in “skilled labor” costs since 1913: 9206%
    (“Skilled labor” is defined as “union wages, plus fringe benefits, for carpenters, bricklayers and iron workers.”)

    So it seems like almost all of the actual increase in the cost of skyscrapers is due to increases in the cost of the inputs, and in particular to increases in the cost of labor. At the very least, non-labor regulations don’t seem to be at fault.

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  15. EoT says:

    But of note, China also has four times the population density of the US, probably much more when you take into account the small portion of its territory where people actually live. That’s a pretty strong incentive to build higher.

    Seems to me the US probably has much more unlivable territory than China. Alaskan permafrost alone is almost a fifth of the US land area.

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    • Richard Gadsden says:

      Tibetan plateau and the Gobi desert are rather a large chunk of Western China.

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      • EoT says:

        Sure. I mentioned permafrost because it is a very hard barrier to human settlement.

        Keep in mind the US also has the Sonoran desert, Great Basin desert, Mojave desert, and the northern part of the Chihuahuan desert. And Ohio.

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  16. Richard Gadsden says:

    Baumol’s cost disease seems like a perfectly good explanation of high inflation in construction costs.

    As for tunnelling, Britain’s just spending £15bn (about $25bn) on a rail tunnel across London. It’s mostly that expensive because London. London has irreplaceable centuries-old buildings on every street corner, so they have to take precautions to protect those buildings – there are laser theodolites all over London at the moment that fire off alerts if a building moves a millimetre as a result of the tunnelling. London also has perhaps the most extensive underground infrastructure of anywhere in the world. Many buildings have multiple levels of deep basement (as a response to height restrictions); there are hundreds of miles of subway tunnel, gigantic Victorian brick-lined sewers that are nearly as big as subways, not to mention the fact that the dig found one Roman and two Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites, and a 1666 plague burial pit, which required the exhumation and reburial (in consecrated ground) of all the bodies, under medical isolation in case any of the plague bacteria had survived.

    Not as bad as Istanbul, where they had to delay their rail tunnel for two years when they discovered the Harbour of Eleutherios along the route, but European cities are generally complete pains to dig through because you make major archaeological finds every time you start digging. There’s a reason that Rome only has two subway lines.

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    • suntzuanime says:

      Baumol’s Cost Disease can’t strike everywhere at once. Construction work seems like the sort of work that should be amenable to increasing productivity through technological advance.

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      • Tom Womack says:

        And indeed it is; the tunnels are built with tunnel-boring machines rather than armies of navvies, the impact on locals is that they occasionally have to close Moorgate for a weekend rather than having to close Euston Road for three years to dig it up and put the Metropolitan Line under it.

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  17. B says:

    Jim is very good at seeing patterns, but not open enough to criticism to ever correct the paraeidolia that slip in. Bad character, but occasional first-rate thought when sheer contrariness is required.

    Ironically, the mix of doctrinaire harshness, open lack of concern for others and grandiosity would have made him a great Maoist intellectual in different circumstances.

    To say something on-topic as well, there’s two threads there that often get conflated –

    A) does capacity diminish?

    There’s some reasonable-seeming data there, “more research is needed”. Using capacity to bizarre ends is, however, not proof of diminishing capacity per se.

    B) how do we use our capacity?

    It frightens me that Oculus was worth 2b to FB and that next reinvention of texting, 19.

    It just goes to show that while markets are good at what they do, they don’t (and can’t) do everything.

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    • suntzuanime says:

      Are you giving those as two examples of overvalued junk, or are you saying that an unproven VR headset in a field littered with the bones of VR headsets that couldn’t prove themselves is obviously more valuable than a social media system that’s already massively popular?

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      • B says:

        The latter. A civilization that incentivizes hardly anything as much as the trivial reinvention of texting for the umpteenth time, as opposed to actual marvels of technology, is not in a good way.

        “But that’s what the people want!” – exactly.

        The problem is that central planning is invariably a debacle, but markets only provide good things if many people desire them. Advance and expansion are problems of virtue and there are no shortcuts.

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    • gattsuru says:

      It frightens me that Oculus was worth 2b to FB and that next reinvention of texting, 19.

      I doubt Facebook was purchasing WhatsApp for their technology, since they had several dozen such systems already (including the nearly-technically-identical Facebook Messenger). They wanted the users. 31 USD per user is an incredibly good deal, esp with many subscription users.

      The Rift’s got promise, but it’s a risky purchase, and it’s certainly not got 45 million users today, and may not have 4.5 million for a decade.

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      • B says:

        I understand the business case.

        Paying a lot if money for the reinvention of vacuous bullshit because a lot of people desire vacuous bullshit may be a good business decision – which I don’t doubt – but it is not a good sign about a civilization.

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  18. James James says:

    In my forthcoming book “Neoreaction”, I ignore bits of neoreaction that I feel unable to argue convincingly, either because they are dodgy and I don’t believe them, or because I can’t do them justice.

    I am unsure about decline, but you’ve convinced me that the skyscraper part of it is dodgy. The only flaw I can see in your post is “The other important lesson is that skyscraper costs have changed little if at all since the age of the Empire State Building”, next to your graph showing that costs have increased. However, commenter Will says that “the cost of tall, but not supertall buildings… has trended down.”

    The decline argument is interesting. I approach it in reverse. There are various things occuring which cause dysgenics, therefore dysgenics must be occurring. There might be some things which counter this, for example assortative mating might help maintain an elite even if the average is declining. It’s not my area of expertise.

    If dysgenics is occurring, then eventually accomplishments will tend to get less complex. Things will be as complex as we can deal with.

    This post and your previous one make me happy that certain things are not declining. We are still building taller skyscrapers, and costs for a given height seem to be going down. I didn’t buy the moon argument either, since going to the moon has not yet been a profitable activity. The claim that we can’t go to the moon is unfalsifiable if no one tries, and no one is.

    However, you haven’t refuted the dysgenics worry, which is the central point of the argument, so I continue to worry about the possibility of future decline, or present decline in other areas which we’re not noticing. The thing about decline is you don’t notice it until it’s too late. So I continue to think about unfalsifiable, subjective arguments like “incremental improvements are continuing but where are the scientific conceptual revolutions?”

    Really though, we neoreactionaries are still going to push for eugenics and against dysgenics regardless of the outcome decline argument. Even if decline is not happening, we could be doing so much better with eugenics. Even if dysgenics is not happening (it is), we could be doing so much better with eugenics.

    ***

    Another quite major plank of neoreaction which I ignore in my book is the cladistic/protestant argument. It seems pretty accurate, but to demonstrate anything in history requires a book to itself, and Moldbug has already done it justice. But the cladistic argument is not a logical argument. It is the genetic fallacy. The conclusion is true, but a cladistic look at recent history is only useful for helping someone better understand neoreaction after they have accepted its other tenets through other arguments. It will not convince anyone on its own. It is for additional understanding after convincing through other means.

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    • Why not push for research into intelligence increase for people of average and sub-average intelligence?

      This should be easier to accomplish than making very smart people smarter.

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      • Multiheaded says:

        Because equality is bad, mmmmkay? (Except for equality among one’s peers on the internet, of course – that’s the just due of a modern gentlesir.)

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        • James James says:

          I honestly don’t see how my comment could be read as not wanting to increase the intelligence of everyone. I don’t care about equality but I do want to increase the intelligence of everyone. Not only would increasing average intelligence lead to an increase in the number of very intelligent people, but more intelligent people make better neighbours as well.

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      • James James says:

        Note that increasing the average will increase the elites because a small upward shift in the bell curve causes a big increase in the number of people born above a given very-smart level of ability. We’re unlikely to hit limits to this soon. Stephen Hsu thinks humans could reach Von Neumann levels of intelligence with the current gene pool, by selective breeding.

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      • ckp says:

        Eugenics is cheap, easy and we know it will work.

        Nootropics are expensive, difficult, and we don’t know whether it’s even possible.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          Eugenics is cheap, easy and we know it will work.

          I dunno, man. Any forcible and aggressive attempt to push it would seem very hazardous for the experimenter’s health, due to the risk of acute lead poisoning.

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          • I don’t think lead poisoning is the big risk. Non-violent (or mostly non-violent– there might be some riots) opposition would be enough.

            Also, eugenics is a very long term project. I’m not convinced current institutions have the attention span for it.

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        • Eugenics is very slow and politically difficult.

          As far as I can tell, there isn’t much research into improving the intelligence of the majority of people because the smart people who are needed to do the project think it’s boring, while increasing the intelligence and/or number of very smart people is fascinating. Or do I have a biased sample of smart people?

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        • Matt C says:

          > As far as I can tell, there isn’t much research into improving the intelligence of the majority of people

          I’ve seen talk about, say, improving micronutrient availability to poor kids in Africa with the idea of improving their intelligence.

          We (USAians) do talk a lot about improving the intelligence of ordinary people here, but mostly in the form of more and better education. Not quite the same thing, but a similar goal.

          There’s probably a tribal thing going on as well. Thinking about yourself and your friends being even smarter than you are already is fun and exciting.

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    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Some strategic advice. Its much easier to sell eugenics if you don’t actually mention the term eugenics. Its also easier to sell policies based on curing horrible diseases than making super babies for obvious reasons. Once there is a general acceptance of policies based on decreasing the number of people with horrible diseases it will be easier to sell policies based on more optional measures. Also, by that time the genetic basis of intelligence will be much better understood and the debate would have been settled.

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    • Desertopa says:

      “The decline argument is interesting. I approach it in reverse. There are various things occuring which cause dysgenics, therefore dysgenics must be occurring. There might be some things which counter this, for example assortative mating might help maintain an elite even if the average is declining. It’s not my area of expertise. ”

      There might also be things occurring which cause eugenics. Would you say you’ve devoted as much energy to looking for eugenic causes as dysgenic ones?

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    • Douglas Knight says:

      NASA did try to go to the moon 2004-2009. But I guess that is unfalsifiable, because you don’t trust their announcements. A moon landing trial denier.

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      • Nornagest says:

        I think you can trust NASA’s announcements insofar as an announcement means NASA’s almost certainly spending money on the project, and very likely doing useful things towards it. However, moon landing-scale projects take so much money that they become attractive targets for cuts, and they take enough time that they have to survive several budget cycles. They’re unlikely to make it unless their completion becomes a matter of national prestige; there just isn’t enough political will locked up in spaceflight anymore. (Note however that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: look at the F-35 program for an example of what happens when a big aerospace project runs into serious problems but can’t be killed.)

        On the other hand, smaller, cheaper, and above all shorter projects are much more reliable.

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      • Douglas Knight says:

        As I said in the previous thread, NASA spent 2004-2009 trying to recreate the Saturn I. This project was canceled not (just) because spectacular goal of the moon was still 10 years away, but because they were over budget and behind schedule. This is not (just) a matter of surviving budget cuts but definite failure. They cannot accurately predict how much time and money it will take to redo a 50 year old project.

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        • The Anonymouse says:

          Of course it got cut. Where’s the excitement in doing something we managed 45 years ago with technology inferior to that in my cell phone?

          Mars is where it’s at. There’s just nothing sexier than manned spaceflight, and not just to some dinky lab closer to me than the next big city down the interstate. Robots might be able to do pure science better than people, but when you’re fighting for dollars that could be going “for the children,” you need a powerful draw.

          Proposal: one-way to Mars! Reduce costs by nixing the return trip. Send settlers. I suggest Mormons. Good, stable folk, industrious, with folkways that celebrate hard work, sacrifice, and pioneer spirit. Hell, you could name the first ship “Handcart I.” Let the first words out of the mission commander’s mouth be, “This is the place.”

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    • Konkvistador says:

      God don’t title it Neoreaction, I still cringe at Bryce deciding to name his essay in a way as to misleadingly imply its a good introduction to Neoreaction.

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  19. Speedwell says:

    I worked in commercial real estate for a couple years. I can think of a few good reasons why there might be a stagnation in the height of new skyscrapers.

    – Developers can only expect to raise so much money per project. Only the largest developers can afford to built tall skyscrapers, and their funds are finite. Even with massive loans, they can only afford to build so many at a time.
    – Projects need to be completed within a reasonable time so they can start making money. The larger the project, the longer it takes to start returning on investment. The larger the building, the more has to be done to fill it to a profitable occupancy level, and the more expensive it is to manage.
    – Tenants, particularly ones from the Pacific Rim, want to be on top floors (it’s something they dislike about being “under” someone else). If you build more taller buildings, there are fewer top floors.
    – The Burj Dubai (now the Burj Khalifa) is an intimidating boondoogle with a whole class of new engineering and functionality problems that its builders only imperfectly understand. Large occupied structures are organisms with their own circadian rhythms, body temperatures, organs of breathing, intake, and elimination, and nervous systems. They built a brontosaurus with the experience they got from elephants, so to speak. We won’t be seeing too many of these until the existing structure’s issues are well understood, which at the pace of Dubai business… well, let’s just say the area immediately around the tower does not even have good enough street addresses established that you can reliably tell a taxi where to go.
    – You know the thing about a small weight that cannot be lifted by hand, because you can’t physically get enough people around it to get a handhold on it? Tall skyscrapers are not built in the middle of nowhere; they are built in cities. If a building is large and complex enough, the streets around it won’t be able to handle the daily traffic to maintain it (supply trucks, moving trucks, delivery and post vehicles, maintenance, and so forth). There won’t be adequate parking for the tenants or visitors, and getting to and from it each day for work will require sitting in long lines.
    – Lastly, I was on the tenth floor of a building facing the Transco Tower (now the Williams Tower) in Houston, at that time the tallest skyscraper outside of a primary downtown area, on 9/11. We were all sure that we would be the next ones to see planes out of the sky. While it might be defiant and thrilling to be in skyscrapers that look like a fist thrust to the sky in the face of terrorism, many other tenants shied away from making themselves quite so vulnerable.

    This is not intended to be an argument that skyscrapers have in fact stopped getting taller. It’s just an assortment of simple reasons why such a thing might be happening. Hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras, in other words. There are equally good reasons why it is not the case that skyscrapers have stopped getting taller. But at least it isn’t necessary, based on this evidence, to cry wild-eyed that Western civilization and all it represents are in a state of irreversible decline.

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  20. @JohnWBH says:

    The main thing skyscrapers seem to indicate is the cost of land in an area. Even in a super duper neoreactionary state it makes no sense to build skyscrapers when is cheaper to expand horizontally.

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  21. Eli says:

    New York has high tunnelling costs because it’s built on bedrock, and because IT ALREADY HAS A MASSIVE FUCKING CITY STANDING THERE AND YOU DON’T WANT TO COLLAPSE BITS OF IT FROM UNDERNEATH.

    Dear Lord.

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    • Wesley says:

      From what I understand, it’s cheaper to drill tunnels through bedrock than not. It takes far more effort to dig a tunnel through silt and material which is easily de-compacted than it does to dig through nice, solid, compacted rock. Sure, the material is harder, but you don’t have to worry so much about the whole thing falling down.

      Example: the city I live in is doing a small (~ 3.2km) subway through the CBD, with three digging machines and three stations total. Total of $2.1 billion, 12.5km of ~ 3.2km subway and the rest light rail. It comes to about $400 million / km for the subway, and is going under the CBD and significant historical buildings. Parts of the dig are bedrock, and going well, but there’s a segment that’s old river bed, and they’ve had a massive sinkhole form which took out a street (thankfully, _not_ under buildings). Bedrock is much nicer in that respect — much less likely to form a sinkhole and take out a billion-dollar skyscraper.

      So, NYC is strangely expensive as a place to build subway tunnels, comparing it to other cities digging subway tunnels. Sure, it’s more expensive than building a tunnel under the sea, but that’s not a terribly fair comparison — the comparison is really “why is NYC more expensive than Toyko or Madrid or … ?”. And the answer seems to be a mix of regulation, dysfunctional city government, American-style unions, and a lack of expertise leading to consulting-heavy construction jobs.

      Maybe your comment was entirely about the comparison with eastern Europe and their tunnel. Maybe not.

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  22. Not Norman says:

    Have you heard of Barclays Skyscraper Index? Some analysts think that booms in skyscraper height indicate an unsustainable economic bubble.

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  23. peppermint says:

    A skyscraper indicates that someone and their bank decided that this patch of land is going to stay valuable for the next few decades.

    GM put a lot of money into a skyscraper in Detroit a while ago that is now underutilized. We’ve all seen the picture of the luxury apartment building in Johannesburg with the big pit in the middle that has several stories of trash inside.

    The Freedom Tower was not built because there was a massive demand for space in it, but because the government wanted it built as a symbol.

    I expect us to argue about what makes land less valuable. One could note that the cities in the US are less valuable today than they once were, or not, I’m sure someone will argue that they’re more valuable than ever.

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  24. Anthony says:

    The tallest skyscrapers are always ego projects – have been for the past 5000 or so years. So at some level, advancement in skyscrapers is subject not only to the construction technology, but to fashions in rich people’s ego competition. Larry Ellison could afford to build the tallest building in the Western U.S., and possibly even in the world, but instead, he puts his ego into building the fastest sailboats.

    Figuring out the psychosexual dynamics of building ever taller buildings that aren’t actually profitable is left as an exercise for the reader.

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  25. Anthony says:

    Meanwhile, the technology is getting better, in places which aren’t bound by rules developed for an earlier era.

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  26. From someone in the 1940–1970 period: “The age of the skyscraper is gone. This is the age of the housing project.”—Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead

    Come to think of it, “Howl” was also written in that period. It looks like Moloch hates skyscrapers.

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    • Nornagest says:

      I think it’s safe to say that the age of the housing project has come and gone, too. This is the age of… well, twenty years ago the shopping mall would have been appropriate, but Amazon’s kicked their asses quite thoroughly. I’d say the subdivision, but that’s not truly recent and lacks the monumental character I’m looking for.

      We really don’t build many garish monuments to our civilization’s values anymore, do we? Not even utterly banal ones.

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