More feedback from Joerg:
I take the point. It's foolish to imagine we are going to need too many TV sets. This still leaves us with the question: what are we going to need in ever larger quantities that it will be profitable for someone to produce? Or put another way, what are we going to be able to produce in large amounts in the OECD world that it will be economically feasible for someone else to consume in the developing world (and don't tell me capital!). Remember Rajesh is already talking about the 50 dollar thin-client computer, I can't see the Hewlett Packards of this world rushing into this market. The big point is, I suppose, that I don't see our demographic situation as a result of individual rational decisions, I think it is systemic, and as is the coming-and-going of populations and civilisations is also systemic. We too form part of nature and evolution, and so form part of nature's 'design', or lack of it.
You are asking for an ironic reply to the robotics story. I will try hard to present an unironic one. I don´t feel like writing it now. Just a preliminary note: I have trouble with the phrase "demographic problem". I think it is empirically demonstrable that this phrase historically always implied a claim that some ethnic group somewhere on earth was redundant and needed to be stripped of its land ownership because some other group´s unchecked demographic development supposedly required this. I just fail to see why falling fertility rates should be discussed under this heading. Falling birthrates are predominantly the result of individual actions and omissions, choices and decisions. Considering those to be a problem will always end in some kind of ideological attack against Western individualism and rationalism. Regarding economic growth - which has always been only one of several desirable goals of economic policy, with currency stability, full employment, high living standards and social justice being other relevant parameters - as the ultimate criterion that should override rights to autonomy and liberty would be just another collectivist experiment that I don´t want to be involved in.
Yesterday I read an article in the NYT that started off by saying that the boomer generation would be the first one whose life expectancy would not rise - due to the increasing health problems caused by the "obesity epidemic". Instead of seeing things getting faster faster, we decide that we don´t want supersonic passenger planes like the Concorde or magnetically levitated trains in Germany. We are getting ever more preoccupied with our immediate needs. In the process, we are losing the ability to expand our horizon toward the future. The end result is imbecility
- as it was put on display by an "Economist" writer recently who really asked who would buy all those TV sets in the year 2100 if populations continued to decline. If the Western world really is an incredibly shrinking civilization, the causes are certainly deeper than one simple statistic denoting how many of us there are could possibly indicate.