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The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better [Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged] [MP3 CD]

Tyler Cowen , Paul Boehmer

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Book Description

June 30 2011
America has been through the biggest financial crisis since the great Depression, unemployment numbers are frightening, median 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 than 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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Product Details

  • MP3 CD
  • Publisher: Tantor; MP3 - Unabridged CD edition (June 30 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1452653682
  • ISBN-13: 978-1452653686
  • Product Dimensions: 19 x 13.5 x 1.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 91 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,483,097 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"As Cowen makes clear, many of this era's technological breakthroughs produce enormous happiness gains, but surprisingly little economic activity." ---David Brooks, The New York Times

About the Author

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Paul Boehmer graduated with a master's degree and was cast as Hamlet by the very stage actor who inspired his career path. He has worked on Broadway and extensively in regional theater, and has been cast in various roles in many episodes of Star Trek. Paul's love of literature and learning led him by nature to his work as a narrator for audiobooks, his latest endeavour.

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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
153 of 168 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great essay, wish people would read it before reviewing it Oct. 30 2011
By Chuck Crane - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some reviewers have done a good job here, but some have utterly missed major points, if they have read the essay at all, which I doubt, so I will give potential readers an outline.

I. The low-hanging fruit we ate
..A. Examples in the United States
....1. Free land (Homestead Act, etc.)
....2. Technological breakthroughs (electricity, motor vehicles, telephone, radio, television, computers etc.)
....3. Smart, uneducated kids (who were made productive through excellent public education).
....4. This is a partial list; clearly other candidates can be proposed, e.g. cheap fossil fuels.
..B. Examples in other countries ("catch-up growth")
....1. Leveraging the technological breakthroughs of the West (e.g. China, India)
....2. Smart, uneducated kids (e.g. China, India)
..C. MEDIAN income growth in the U.S. has slowed notably since 1973.
....1. Decline in household size is not the cause.
....2. Unmeasured quality improvements (think electronic gadgetry) are not a counter (because there is
...... also unmeasured quality degradation, think traffic jams and AIDS)
..D. Rate of technical innovation has declined notably since 1873 and even more since 1955
....1. Innovation is getting harder; the low fruit has been picked.
....2. Recent innovations have slight marginal benefits
..E. Recent and current innovation is more geared to PRIVATE goods than to PUBLIC goods.
....**This is the driver of the Great Stagnation.
....1. Extracting resources from the government (subsidies for solar power, farm products, other junk;
.....useless construction; useless government employees; legal services, etc.) by lobbying.
....2. Extreme protections of intellectual property (e.g. by ridiculous patent laws that grant monopolies for
...... incandescently obvious ideas, enabled by our retarded judiciary)
....3. Recent financial innovations (CDO's, derivatives, etc.) that benefit Wall Street at public expense.
....4. THESE ALL RESULT IN INCREASED INCOME INEQUALITY.

II. Our New (not so productive) Economy
..A. Most recent productivity gains in the private sector have been achieved by cutting out dead wood
....("discovering who isn't doing much and firing them").
..B. GDP statistics are flawed because they value expenditure at cost; actual value of the expenditure is
.... unknown in sectors where market forces do not operate.
..C. Underperforming sectors where valuation at cost is a big problem:
....1. Government.
......a. The marginal value of government, even if positive, falls as government grows larger.
........(1) Basic expenditures deliver high value. e.g. police, basic infrastructure, national security)
........(2) Ancillary expenditures deliver less value (e.g. bridges to nowhere, urban renewal boondoggles,
......... salaries for school administrators and federal drones
......b. Because government contribution to GDP is valued at cost, the larger the government grows,
........ the more GDP growth and living standards are overstated.
....2. Health care
......a. No bloody clue what things are actually worth; they are valued at cost.
......b. America currently spends 17% of GDP on health care, with outcomes worse than countries
....... that spend far less.
......c. Disproportionate spending on end care for the elderly.
......d. David Cutler's study: health care productivity growth 1995-2005 was negative.
....3. Education
......a. 6% of GDP at present.
......b. No improvements in student reading or math performance since mid 70's.
......c. But we are spending (constant dollars) twice a much now per student as we did then.
......d. High school graduation rate peaked at 80% in late 60's.
......e. Government claims of 88% graduation rate are nonsense.
......f. 20% of all new high school credentials each year come from passing equivalency tests.
..D. INNOVATION MUST OCCUR IN THESE UNDER-PERFORMING SECTORS
... This is where Cowan fails to state solutions clearly, which may disappoint readers, but his point is that
... these are areas where innovative thinking is required and good solutions need to be developed. My summary
... and suggestions:
....1. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." Use market approaches, intelligently ascertain value by
..... other means, and if measurement fails, arbitrarily force cuts in low-performing sectors (as a last resort).
....2. Government: 10% staff cuts. Strict spending limits pegged to per-capita government spending during a
.... benchmark period.
....3. Education: Standardized tests, charter schools, e-learning, vouchers (all of course resisted by the
..... education lobby).
....4. Health care: determine what works and pay only for that. Extending the life of an 90-year-old terminally
..... ill person for one month at a cost of $200,000 is not something that works.

III. Does the Internet Change Everything?
..A. Similar to early years of industrial revolution (advances made by amateurs)
..B. Hard to measure its productivity because its value lies largely in the mental dimension; most stuff on the
... internet is free.
....1. Traditional activity does occur (advertising, sale of goods). eBay, Amazon, Craigslist, ads on Google.
....2. While a public good, benefits of the Internet skewed to the intellectually curious.
....3. GDP is understated to extent it does not include the value of free internet pleasures.
..C. As an innovation, the internet has generated few jobs and revenue, compared to earlier innovations.
... (Example: Google employs 20,000, Twitter 300)
..D. Internet has also destroyed jobs in the music industry, book stores, and other forms of entertainment.
..E. So we're getting away from materialism, but it really hurts and people are yelping about it.

IV. The Government of Low-hanging Fruit
..A. Days of government largess are past; we can't slop the public trough like we used to.
..B. We won't be getting real income growth of 2% to 3%. We'll be lucky with 1%.
..C. Tax cuts without spending cuts (right wing approach) are untenable in the long term.
..D. Taking from the rich is also untenable in the long term; top 5% already pays for 43% of the federal
... government; top 1% for 27%.
..E. As real growth stagnates, demands from interest groups (corporations for tax breaks, K-12 teachers for job
... security, medical device makers for Medicare payments, public employees for pensions) will grow more
... strident. Expect more vociferous arguments about how to divide up the stagnant pie.
..F. Because government cannot continue to grow under current conditions, Liberals have become the new
... conservatives, supporting the status quo of handouts, bribes, and squandering.

V. Why did we have such a big financial crisis?
..A. Eight words: "WE THOUGHT WE WERE RICHER THAN WE WERE".
....1. We made plans expecting continued 3% productivity growth and the asset prices such growth would bring.
....2. We were lulled by successful handling of prior crises (e.g. the S&L bust and real estate bubble in the
..... 80's) into believing all risk could be managed effectively.
....3. Overconfidence was the problem. For everyone. Borrowers, investors, bankers, politicians, regulators.
..B. Markets and government failed miserably in estimating risk.
..C. Government encouraged risk by taking by overlooking accounting scandals (Freddie and Fannie) and promoting
... home ownership for everybody.
..D. Short-term response to stagnant incomes was to borrow against appreciated assets (home equity loans,
... mortgage refis), foolishly expecting continued asset appreciation. From 1993 through 2005,
... homeowners extracted equity equal to 11.5% of GDP.
..E. Fiscal stimulus in 2009 was inadequate, but a larger stimulus would not have helped. Problem is not lack of
... aggregate demand, but lack of revenue-generating innovation.
..F. Replacing private debt with public debt solves nothing. Sooner or later you have to pay the piper.
..G. The internet, by giving people much to do for free, may be exacerbating the current stagnation.

VI. Can we fix things?
..A. Promote favorable trends
....1. India and China
......a. Science and engineering interest in India and China: should yield innovations we can exploit.
......b. Offloading unskilled labor abroad gives us more time to pursue innovation (if we are smart enough).
......c. Consumers in China and India can offer a market for our innovations.
....2. Internet may do more for revenue generation in the future
......a. Promotes scientific learning and makes science more of a meritocracy; ideas rapidly shared and improved.
........ (Archaic intellectual property laws will need to change if we are to take advantage of this)
......b. Promotes self-education; a lot better than watching TV.
......c. These should all yield productivity gains.
....3. Improvements in K-12 education
......a. Majority of electorate no longer sides with education lobby.
......b. School choice, charter schools, incentives, better monitoring are now in favor.
....4. Raise the social status of scientists
......a. Science is what fuels economic growth, yet we reward law, medicine, and finance.
......b. [Aside: this is not the case in China and India, where engineers and scientists are more highly
....... esteemed, and occupy the highest offices in government. Here, we have poli sci graduates running things.]
......c. Culture of science is what drove the industrial revolution.
......d. We should not trust individual scientists uncritically, but we should respect science at the higher
....... level (a lot more than law or finance)
..B. Avoid unfavorable trends
....1. Cool the rhetoric, avoid useless strife.
....2. Stick to facts. Educate yourself. Don't demonize those you disagree with.
....3. A prolonged period of slow growth need not be bad -- Japan has tolerated it very well.
..C. Final Word
....1. The next low-hanging fruit may pose dangers. Be vigilant and quick to respond.
....2. Axis and Communist powers turned new technologies to destructive and oppressive ends.
....3. Balance of power can be upset.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tyler Cowen brings a fresh perspective to economic slowdown in an easy-read text Oct. 17 2011
By The Guardian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Sept. 16 2012
By Paul Moreno - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While I agree with most of the message, it was a disappointing book in the depth of economic history presented and the analysis. More importantly, there is no good explanation of how the stagnation will eventually be overcome.

At least Cowen acknowledges that we are in a stagnation and that the technologies that contributed to economic growth in the past are subject to diminishing returns. The productivity slowdown dates to the early 1970s and is well known to economists. (See the works of Denison, Robert J. Gordon and Alexander Field and Robert Ayres)

Books that anticipated the stagnation were Turning Point by Robert Ayres and The Evolution of Progress by C. Owen Paepke, both excellent. The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin is also recommended. Perhaps the best economic explanation is by Gordon Bjork in The Way It Worked and Why It Won't: Structural Change and the Slowdown of U.S. Economic Growth. Bjork shows how structural change in the size of economic sectors affected productivity and economic growth. In the transition from agriculture to manufacturing, workers moved to a higher output per hour, high productivity growth sector. As productivity in manufacturing succeeded in lowering prices and employment, shrinking the relative sector size. The growing sectors of government and services are lower output per hour and lower productivity growth.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Just Barely Worth the Price Oct. 22 2012
By John Harllee - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Other reviews have laid out the major themes of the book, so I will confine myself to some points not covered.

Cowan evidently believes government productivity is stagnant or worse. Talking about government productivity may be a category error for many types of governmental activity: Japan's crime rates are enormously lower than those of the US: Does that mean Japanese law enforcement personnel are enormously more productive? Is the Swedish military unproductive because it never fights wars? Federal statutes over recent decades have gotten longer and longer, no matter who was in power: Do more pages mean the Congress has become more productive?

Page 19 has a chart from a paper by Jonathan Huebner that shows the pattern of global innovation per capita per capita since 1455. The reference to Huebner's paper (easily available as a pdf) IMHO constitutes much of the intellectual content of the book.

If the subject interests you, find Professor Gordon Wood's recent paper, "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?" which is easily available online. It is much better than Cowan's book.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Where's my teleporter? Oct. 19 2012
By ThomasW - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In essence, Mr. Cowen is arguing that the technological change has slowed down and living standards aren't increasing as fast as they used to. Great new technologies like railroads and the automobile were introduced in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, but since then we've only gotten improvements to existing technologies. Mr. Cowen seems to think that if technological change had continued we would see aircars (ala the old cartoon The Jetsons), jetpacks, and teleportation machines. Instead we have larger refrigerators.

This is contrary to most accounts that we live in a period of rapid technological change. Computers and electronic products are sold for under a year before an improved model is available, where in the past products would have multi-year lifetimes. But I'm not sure of Mr. Cowen's opinion of computers and electronics, the only technological advance since 1970 he mentions is the internet (which uses computers but is not the same thing).

Talking about the internet, Mr. Cowen abandons any argument about technological change, and instead complains that it's mostly free and doesn't employ enough people, thus not contributing to GDP. Everyplace else in the book he talks about changes in technology and living standards, but for the internet it's the lack of jobs.

The rest of the book is similarly confused. While there are some good points in the book, it really seems to be a complaint that many of the technologies envisioned by science fiction, which some "experts" have predicted would arrive soon, are not here today.

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