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The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern…

von Tyler Cowen

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2751576,317 (3.55)2
Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation, the eSpecial heard round the world that ignited a firestorm of debate and redefined the nature of our economic malaise, is now-at last-a book. America has been through the biggest financial crisis since the great Depression, unemployment numbers are frightening, media wages have been flat since the 1970s, and it is common to expect that things will get worse before they get better. Certainly, the multidecade stagnation is not yet over. How will we get out of this mess? One political party tries to increase government spending even when we have no good plan for paying for ballooning programs like Medicare and Social Security. The other party seems to think tax cuts will raise revenue and has a record of creating bigger fiscal disasters that the first. Where does this madness come from? As Cowen argues, our economy has enjoyed low-hanging fruit since the seventeenth century: free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies. But during the last forty years, the low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau. The fruit trees are barer than we want to believe. That's it. That is what has gone wrong and that is why our politics is crazy. Cowen reveals the underlying causes of our past prosperity and how we will generate it again. This is a passionate call for a new respect of scientific innovations that benefit not only the powerful elites, but humanity as a whole.… (mehr)
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Very quick read, which offers several reasons why high economic growth in the U.S. has limits, and an economic cooling off period is to be expected. I liked the fact that, unlike many Republicans who will say a decline in U.S. GNP is the fault of the Democrats / Obama, or unlike many Democrats who will say the same about the Republican / Bush policies, Cowen takes the politics out of it, and just offers reasons which are for the most part, attributable to a number of causes outside the spectrum of politics. ( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
Sloppy. It doesn't consider a myriad of possible causes for The Great Stagnation. Like Mancur Olson's argument that democratic stability multiplies rent-seekers, which means more entry barriers. You can't just go around inoculating random kids with cowpox blisters anymore, like Edward Jenner did in 1796 when he invented the modern vaccine. You have to dance around with the FDA for years and spend a ton of money. That practically ensures that only the Pfizers and J&Js of the world can create new medicines. Same with transportation, energy, just about any industry. There is also Jeremy Grantham's hypothesis that we've been living in an "oil boom" - that the prosperity of the 20th century was due to cheap energy. Maybe neither of these theories is right, who knows, but Cowen doesn't even bother to engage them.

Things get extra sloppy towards the end. So the 2008 financial crisis was due to... overconfidence? What sort of explanation is that? I don't expect a 70-page book intended for the general public to get heavy on the causality discussion but dammit, it can't be a NYT opinion article either. The man is brilliant, I've learned so much from his blog over the years, and then I finally read his book and he says that we should "raise the social status of scientists" and that "We simply need to will it, and change our collective attitudes, for it to happen." What the heck?

I did enjoy the discussion about what GDP doesn't capture, and some bits of trivia he throws around here and there (the RAND experiment that showed people use more medical care when it's free; that the top 5% income bracket pays for more than 43% of the US government). But overall this book was a big disappointment. ( )
  marzagao | Jun 1, 2021 |
Very rarely do I read an essay where I agree so strongly with the overall premise, yet disagree so strongly with so many of the supporting arguments. Cowen is a fairly libertarian economist best-known for his blog, but even though I'm much more liberal than he is I still keep up with him just because he's one of the more intellectually ecumenical economists out there, and one of the few who seems truly comfortable with the rapidly changing technological landscape we live in (indeed, this extended essay is being published Kindle-only - try to imagine John Nash or Joe Stiglitz doing that!) There's a lot packed in this short work, and I feel bad oversimplifying, but the basic premise is that America has reached a point where the steady year-after-year increase in living standards that we've become accustomed to is obsolete - in other words, the second derivative of GDP might be getting close to zero or even negative from here on out. Looking at the past decade you'll find a great deal to support his thesis: skyrocketing tuition costs and medical expenses, literally no net gain in jobs since the end of the Clinton administration, the worst decade ever for the Dow, soaring inequality, important societal institutions increasingly devoted to bubble-chasing... it's tough to argue with that stuff.

Last year I read a really interesting book by Joseph Tainter called the Collapse of Complex Societies whose basic argument was that societies are problem-solving systems, and eventually a society will get too complex (read: use too many resources) to be sustainable, and eventually collapse. The marginal benefit of adding more problem-solvers decreases over time and eventually turns negative, and society has no choice but to keep growing ever-faster or simply disintegrate a la the Romans or the Mayans. While very abstract, and seemingly refuted by most of American history, I think the overall argument fits neatly with the very recent story Cowen presents here, of a country which has run out of low-hanging fruit to pluck (not only has the rate of innovation slowed, new innovations are simply harder to get to) and must now work harder just to stay full, let alone collect a surplus. I do disagree with many of the specific examples he picks, though: the Affordable Care Act was not that large relative to total health spending, and even if it was a big marginal cost for the health care system, which it wasn't, surely it was a large marginal gain for the people affected?

Additionally, during his discussion of how the Internet creates a lot of consumer surplus without necessarily creating wealth, when I read that Facebook or Twitter is worth billions without actually employing many people or directly adding much value to the economy, I don't think "wow, the economy has certainly changed", I think "man, this reminds me of the dotcom bubble". It's perfectly possible for new businesses to replace old ones without employing many people (in fact, performing the same service for a lower cost is almost the definition of progress), but something about social media companies in particular makes it seem unlikely that they're the foundation of a new, more prosperous future. I also think his dismissal of Paul Krugman's calls for a revival of New Deal institutions (see Krugman's excellent The Conscience of a Liberal) are taking Mancur Olson's warnings about special interests a bit too far and relying too much on Brink Lindsey's flawed defenses of skill-biased technological change as the main driver of inequality. His jabs at the Recovery Act are too flip and not supported by data, marring an otherwise great section on the financial crisis and its aftermath. However, the final chapter on how to approach potential solutions to this slowdown challenge is great, if somewhat devoid of specifics, and ultimately, like I said, many of my disagreements could be worked into the book without altering his overall point. Rarely do you see a work so small with so many big ideas in it. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Concise but brilliant, this book is a great bird's-eye-view of the state of modern American society and economy. Cowen's contention is that much of the country's problems stem from a single cause: a technological slowdown in which the easy "low-hanging fruit" has been plucked, leaving new gains generally expensive and costly. The big exception is the Internet, but Cowen notes that its benefits A) haven't produced much actual money, in the grand scheme, and B) accrue chiefly to a small subset of society, the educated cognitive elite of knowledge workers. Still, Cowen finds hope at the end — we're already doing many things right, and adjusting to his "great stagnation" may be largely a matter of lowering our expectations.

My chief concern with this book is that it strongly reinforces my existing biases and preconceptions, which makes me skeptical. Is it really brilliant, or do I just think that way because I already agreed with it? ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
If you have time to read only 70 odd-pages today and yet you want to understand what lies at the root of the seemingly endless (and often frustrating) debate of re-distributionists vs fiscal conservatives in United States, you must read this lucid book written in the kind of accessible language that Tyler Cowen prefers on his marvelous blog 'Marginal Revolution' (which I must admit I have followed for years). Tyler, one the sharpest heterodox thinkers of our times postulates that the United States has entered a period of 'Great Stagnation' since the 1970s, wherein despite superficial and marginal improvements in living standards, wide-ranging availability of free/cheap online pleasure and accessibility to information on the internet- technological progress has largely plateaued because the national economy has already picked the 'low hanging fruits' to their fullest, and as a consequence median incomes remain stagnant. He further clarifies that the fiscal-stimulus driven minimal growth that has accompanied the post-financial crisis recovery has also largely been 'jobless' and the country is looking toward a future where the most dynamic sectors of its economy are employing historically minuscule numbers of people (i.e digital companies) while at the same time the sectors of the US economy where government spending is increasing the most are displaying worse-than expected levels of productivity/ return on investment. If any of you follow Eric Weinstein's Portal you would know that what Tyler is essentially articulating in this book is what Weinstein calls the EGO (Embedded Growth Obligations) of institutions that were designed and premised to function in a world where growth is endless, and so is technological progress. Every line of this book is a cold hard wake-up call for an obsolete gamut of politics that surrounds the kind of wishful thinking surrounding 'economic growth'. ( )
  etaibektigoto | Sep 17, 2020 |
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Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation, the eSpecial heard round the world that ignited a firestorm of debate and redefined the nature of our economic malaise, is now-at last-a book. America has been through the biggest financial crisis since the great Depression, unemployment numbers are frightening, media wages have been flat since the 1970s, and it is common to expect that things will get worse before they get better. Certainly, the multidecade stagnation is not yet over. How will we get out of this mess? One political party tries to increase government spending even when we have no good plan for paying for ballooning programs like Medicare and Social Security. The other party seems to think tax cuts will raise revenue and has a record of creating bigger fiscal disasters that the first. Where does this madness come from? As Cowen argues, our economy has enjoyed low-hanging fruit since the seventeenth century: free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies. But during the last forty years, the low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau. The fruit trees are barer than we want to believe. That's it. That is what has gone wrong and that is why our politics is crazy. Cowen reveals the underlying causes of our past prosperity and how we will generate it again. This is a passionate call for a new respect of scientific innovations that benefit not only the powerful elites, but humanity as a whole.

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