Sunday, January 30, 2011

the great stagnation, part one

Having read the first chapter of Tyler Cowen's new ebook, I'm struck by how it seems so far to be a useful corrective to a kind of capitalist triumphalism that is popular online. I don't know if Dr. Cowen would see things that way. But certainly the first chapter is in part an endorsement of a certain sobriety in analysis of American capitalism at its present moment.

I won't rehash my skepticism about the current order here. What is important to me is that even if you are a committed or enthusiastic capitalist, you can come to see the danger in an overly triumphant perspective on our economy. What happens is that some are so dedicated to the idea of an ever-rising tide of economic growth that lifts all boats that they fail to see the very real material hardship and suffering under which many still labor. To the true believer, the urge to believe that the utopia lies right before us is very powerful. This might sound like an accusation of callousness, but in fact it's not. Indeed, it's often profoundly decent and truly liberal people who are in a rush to declare victory; they want poverty and need to be overcome to such a degree that they are bent on seeing such a thing before it occurs. But this can lead to a distorted worldview that ignores real suffering, and perception influences policy.

So I'm glad someone with the libertarian and pro-capitalist bona fides that Dr. Cowen has is urging probity when considering the next stage of our capitalist enterprise. Some online write about capitalism with a zeal that approaches religiosity; you don't have to have my convictions to think that this is an error.

I've been tinkering with a unified theory of Internet optimism (and in particular how optimism in certain topics is enforced) but I've never really gotten it quite right. It's nice, though, to see Dr. Cowen also express some modest skepticism in the progress that the Internet represents. This is something that I've been arguing for some time. The problem with arguing that the utility of new goods is underrepresented in considerations of progress is that so many of our new goods are reserved for the realm of entertainment, and that so many of them are restricted to the relatively affluent. It's great that a Playstation 3 is so much more advanced than an Atari 2800, but that benefit is of limited use in ameliorating material suffering, and generally reserved for those who can afford a $1000 HDTV and a $400 video game system.

In a definitional statement, Cowen expresses this with "Recent and current innovation is more geared to private goods than to public goods." What a valuable and concise sentiment.


Evan Harper said...

I know you're a fan of HJ Chang; his new book has a section on "The washing machine changed the world more than the internet" which is probably apropos.

Freddie said...

Fixed a sentence; said "perception influences poverty" when what I meant was "perception influences policy."

Afshin said...


I'm having a hard time following your line of thought and grasping your idea of Internet optimism in regards to capitalism. Are you suggesting that from the type of skepticism that Dr. Cowen presents, there's seed of probity that's on the verge of budding depending on personal recognition in the direction that the current form of capitalism is heading, i.e. the drive to innovate private vs. public goods?

Freddie said...

I think you're extrapolating too far. I have a whole host of thoughts on Internet optimism. Here, I'm merely appreciating the fact that someone with Dr. Cowen's expertise isn't overvaluing the importance or transformative potential of the Internet. There's a whole chapter coming up on the subject of the Internet so I'm sure I'll have much more to talk about at that point.

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