Tyler Cowen and The Great Stagnation


I’ve long been a fan of Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution. It’s interesting, off-beat, and is a great source of lesser publicized news stories and research findings, with plenty of thoughtful commentary thrown in. I had been meaning to read Tyler’s recent book, ‘The Great Stagnation’, for a while now. Then the other day, while sitting in an airport, I caught this Business Week article about Tyler, titled ‘Tyler Cowen, America’s Hottest Economist.’ It’s a fascinating article about what makes him one of the more quirky and unique economists, and made me much more eager to read some of his published work.

‘The Great Stagnation’ is about why our economic growth trend has all but come to a standstill, and why that won’t change without some significant disruptive technological breakthroughs. It turns out that it was released exclusively as an e-book (although as a result of its success, a paperback copy is set to be released this Summer). From the Business Week article:

Cowen thought it was too long for a magazine article and too short for a book, so he suggested that the publisher offer it only as an e-book. The work is priced on Amazon.com (AMZN) at $3.99 for 15,000 words. Cowen gets the sense that Dutton humored him, both on the format and the content.

I have to admit, I’ve been hesitant to make the jump to e-books. I like reading real books. I’m not sure why. Probably just habit, and maybe a little stubbornness. So I don’t have a Kindle or iPad. But this release has been wildly successful, and being short and only $3.99, it seemed like a reasonable e-book to begin with. So I borrowed my Dad’s iPad, and gave it a shot. And it was a great reading experience. I’m thinking it might be time for me to ditch my old hard-copy book habits.

But much more importantly, ‘The Great Stagnation’ is a very thought provoking book. It’s clear, concise, and is built on very simple arguments supported by lots of data presented from many perspectives. At 15,000 words, it’s a small time investment, and I strongly recommend reading it. But here’s a brief synopsis of Tyler’s thesis:

  • On Economic Growth: Our economic growth from the Industrial Revolution through the early 1970s was fueled by a combination of significant technological breakthroughs and what Tyler calls the “low hanging fruit” of economic growth. This “low hanging fruit” includes unsettled frontier land, opportunities to raise education standards so that smart kids have the tools and resources to invent new things, and the dissemination of new types of technology into our daily lives. He argues that the majority of this “low hanging fruit” is gone, and that regardless of what our politicians do, slow economic growth is all but certain until there are new breakthroughs that can fuel new growth. This is why real income growth has been essentially stagnant since the 1970s. He also writes at length about why our GDP growth statistics are likely distorted, and why it’s very likely that our overall economy has been growing more slowly than we previously thought.
  • On the Financial Crisis: Tyler’s quick to point out that there’s no use in trying to focus the blame for the recent financial crisis on bad policies, unethical behavior, or belligerent risk tasking. We all thought the economy was growing faster than it was, we all planned as though the long-term trend was going to continue, and then it didn’t. Bad decisions were made, policies could have been better, but as long as the majority of society was acting as through we could expect GDP growth of 3% per year, a bubble was inevitable.
  • On Politics: Tyler quickly dismisses both Democratic and Republican policy makers, arguing that neither side has any solutions for economic recovery that should be taken seriously. Tax cuts with not stimulate growth. Marginal government spending will not stimulate growth. New breakthrough technologies will stimulate growth, and the best thing our politicians can do is facilitate the creation of an environment where this can happen more easily. And the best thing everyone else can do is to help make science a more prestigious career.
  • On the Internet: The internet is the one new technology that has changed the way we live our lives and conduct business since the 1970s. But it’s fundamentally different from prior innovations in that it hasn’t generated a significant amount of new revenue sources to fuel meaningful economic growth. Sure quite a bit of business is now done online, but this was much more a shift of business than a generation of new business. There are certainly exceptions, and there are economic winners and losers as a result of the internet, but the fact of the matter is that inventions such as the car created new industries that employed millions of people and put significant new resources to work. The same can’t be said for the internet. This doesn’t make the internet less important, but its benefits, such as access to information and inexpensive entertainment, are just realized in a different way. A way that isn’t well captured by our standard economic indicators.

On that last point, the book doesn’t once mention utility*, and I think it could have been useful to frame some of the positive benefits of the internet and related technologies in that context. Maybe real income growth isn’t as important if we have real utility growth. I realize I’m on shaky ground here, in that utility is nearly impossible to measure, and as a result it could never serve as a meaningful and objective economic metric. But that doesn’t make it unimportant.

All in all, the book was full of fresh ideas and new perspectives. Again, it’s worth a read.

Kelly Evans of the Wall Street Journal writes, “in terms of framing the dialogue Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade’s Thomas Friedman.” I would have to agree.

*Since it’s an e-book, I was able to double check by searching. The book does contain the phrase “low hanging fruit” fifty five times. Trying to coin a new phrase that sticks by repeating it over and over again in your own published work is very Tom Friedmanesque.

Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of InnovationI read a great book about the history of innovation and invention on my flight back from Cambodia. It’s called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and it’s by Steven Johnson. The book is a synthesis of historical innovative thinking, covering a broad array of topics ranging from theories such as natural selection, to the gradual development of technologies such as GPS.

Johnson dispels the common myth that most innovations are thought up behind closed doors by brilliant people who are ahead of their times, and goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the majority of useful ideas throughout history were developed very slowly, building incrementally off of existing ideas, often in collaboration with large groups of people from diverse backgrounds. He talks about why densely populated cities are much more likely to generate new ideas than small towns, and why some innovations take decades to be transformed from an idea into something useful, while others are immediately adopted and expanded upon.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be the notion of the “adjacent possible”:

“Good ideas are…constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are the works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number…What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain things can happen.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin with a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

Good stuff. It’s an insightful read, and I highly recommend it if you find this topic interesting.