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Tyler Cowen brings a fresh perspective to economic slowdown in an easy-read text
on 17 October 2011
Tyler Cowen's `The Great Stagnation' is less a full-length book than an extended essay which attempts to explain current economic and median-income stagnation in the USA, and what might happen in the future. The author's basic idea is that between 1880 and 1970 the USA benefited from an abundance of `low-hanging fruit': almost limitless land resources relative to population; technological breakthroughs like electricity, indoor plumbing, railroads, automobiles, radio, telephones, tape recorders, mass production and the availability of reliably tested pharmaceuticals; and a continuous supply of first-generation immigrant labor to do all the hard jobs at low rates of pay. This party is now over, and the hangover has set in.
Cowen's analysis of historical trends in technological innovation reveals a plateau since the 1970s in the adoption and wide dissemination of useful new technologies: i.e. like in the 1970s we still drive cars powered by gasoline, and use refrigerators and TVs; they're just incrementally improved but not radically different in concept. Now they're made elsewhere in the world by newly industrialised economies which have imitated the industrial practices of the US and Europe, and are imported rather than home-produced. The newer technologies like the internet and cell phones are for communications, and don't need a lot of workers to run them.
The author goes on to analyse the incremental value of increasing spend on education, which he sees as offering diminishing economic returns, and writes an excellent section analysing healthcare spending - again, beyond a certain point doubling spending offers smaller and smaller incremental returns in health benefits. Cowen uses a graph to demonstrate that although every major European country has a total healthcare expenditure per capita of less than half that of the USA, they all have longer life-expectancy and lower infant mortality - so it's not to do with money per se, but how things are done and how the money is used.
The author's fix-it ideas include raising the social esteem in which scientists are held: well, amen to that, but is that really going to make a big difference? The biggest earners in the USA are now in the financial sector. Trading credit default swaps, derivatives and securitised financial products may enrich the tiny part of the workforce concerned with such chimera, but they tend to relatively impoverish everyone else and do not spread wealth around as in the industrial age, when millions of people were employed in designing and making real, useful things which improved people's lives and which everybody wanted. Cowen predicts we might be in for a longer and deeper economic recession before new scientific innovations can renew society again, and that the rate of progress will remain uneven and people might "look back to the current era with a gloss of nostalgia" - hardly an optimistic prognosis.
The text of this hardcover was originally an e-book, printed to take in new audiences and offer a more permanent artefact than an online blog. Despite its shortcomings its 89 pages present punchy, lucid arguments and make for an easy read of a few hours, brevity and clarity among its chief recommendations.