Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Great Stagnation

by Tyler Cowen (Dutton 2011 – ISBN 978-0-525-95271-8)

This is an interesting little book. It is tightly written and well argued, which serve to make it a very easy read. In fact, I managed the whole book on one return train ride to London.

There are a number of ideas that are worth exploring within the book, but the core message is that technology has driven economic growth since the late Eighteenth Century, and that the pace of innovation has fallen to the point where the pace of growth is slowing as well. What does that mean? Well, first and foremost, it means that the singularity is not near. This is a position that I have agreed with for a few years now.

In part, the author ascribes this to knowledge passing from being a public good to becoming a private good. This is fortunate for the few lucky owners who possess that knowledge - they do well in the 'winner takes all' economy that it creates. However, for the rest of us - for whom we call the 99% nowadays - it is not so fortunate. Our ability to consume at the levels to which we are accustomed has been maintained not by growth, but by debt in recent decades. However, the lack of productivity growth has undermined our ability to repay the debt we have taken out.

This is an important message for governments. Debt reduction and austerity plans presume that we shall be able to return to previously attained growth levels. What happens if we can't? I guess that means we are due for a very long period of stagnation. And this is the important message coming from the book. We are heading towards a new normal, and a return to business as usual is no longer an option. This is what policy makers are not yet getting.

I would strongly recommend this book. It is an antidote to the blind optimism we find in technology nowadays. It explains why a policy of austerity will only make things worse. And it serves as a warning that we are unable to continue as if the financial crisis did not happen. We have reached the point where the bills have to be paid.

© The European Futures Observatory 2012

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