It's possible the most important non-fiction book this year won't be published on paper.
Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason and co-founder of the influential Marginal Revolution blog has just released an eBooklet called "The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick and Will (Eventually) Feel Better."
I can't say run out to your bookstore and buy it today. You need an eReader. The good news is if you have a smart phone, it's easy to download a free Kindle app and then purchase the book that way. And it's short enough that reading it on your phone is a pleasure.
Cowen argues that the American economy had been coasting for centuries on three kinds of "low-hanging fruit": free, abundant land, technological breakthroughs and smart (albeit uneducated) kids. The country has put all three to good use over the last century and a half-utilizing all that cheap frontier space, adopting key industrial technologies from electric generation to telecommunications, and educating smart kids who in an earlier era would have remained unschooled. In the process America became enormously productive and wealthy. All this low-hanging fruit drove a sense that rapidly improving living standards and technological advance are an American birthright.
But there's much less of this low-hanging fruit than there once was. And that, in Cowen's telling, makes all the difference today.
Obviously the frontier has closed and cheap land is harder to find. And Cowen argues that the technological breakthroughs of today, while impressive, are not as economically significant-in terms of being platforms for new job creation-as those of the period 1880 to 1950. And whereas prior to 1900 many potential American geniuses were "kept down on the farm," never to realize their mental talents for the betterment of society, today any smart kid can receive at least a high school education and the truly gifted have many avenues for intellectual advance available to them.
In other words, the easy pickings driving rapid economic growth and advancement for 150 years are all used up. We have reached a plateau.
Why is this book important?
Cowen does a better job than many others of explaining what is responsible for "The Great Stagnation"-that since the 1970s, per capita median income growth has slowed and that income and wealth inequalities have grown.
Many of those on the political left, such as Paul Krugman, pin responsibility for this stagnation on the policies of Ronald Reagan or the deregulation of the 1970s. Many of those on the political right often deny the reality of some of what Cowen describes or blame expansive government for what has transpired.
One great virtue of Cowen's account is that he brings into the picture several overlooked trends that have played a large role in America's historical economic ascent. Once accounted for, the more politically-motivated accounts of the country's economic performance of the last 40 years are revealed to be incomplete at best (in the case of conservatives) or cartoonish at worst (in the case of Krugman). By upending the standard narratives that describe where the nation has been and where it's headed, the book will influence your sense of the politically and economically possible.
Of course, there's something deeply upsetting about his story, since it suggests there's not much that can be done about some problems the nation faces: if the low-hanging fruit is gone, slower growth and lower rates of innovation are likely inevitable. And when Cowen says we simply must accept that as a nation "we thought we were richer than we were," that's tough for any optimistic American to hear.
So is Cowen right? There are three observations worth making. First, there is one bit of low-hanging fruit Cowen fails to emphasize sufficiently that can be harnessed by the United States going forward-the emerging global middle class in the Far East, South Asia, Africa and Latin America. A market of middle class consumers this large is unprecedented; it's one the United States should be able to exploit for the next 100 years as emerging economies play economic catch-up with the developed world.
And Cowen doesn't put enough weight on the social decay that has driven some of the Great Stagnation, especially the decline of the two-parent family over the last several decades. The human, social and cultural capital that eroded as a result of the family's decline-or, as importantly, was never developed-is surely a factor in the nation's current economic state.
Lastly, it's possible Cowen overstates the degree to which innovation has slowed in recent decades. Indeed, his claim that innovation is slowing is the most controversial assertion, and the one that would have benefitted from greater explication.
But if you are looking for a provocative story that helps make sense of how the American economy is positioned today, this is a better guide than most things on the market.
A final note: not all the ideas in the book are Cowen's, a fact he freely acknowledges. Two influences stand out. One is Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and Facebook investor who is, in my estimation, the most significant intellectual in Silicon Valley today. Readers familiar with Thiel's writings and talks will recognize some of the terrain Cowen covers. Another is Michael Mandel, formerly Business Week's chief economist, who has been charting technological trends and patterns in biotech and IT for years now.
In this manner, Cowen's book features just the sort of entrepreneurial recombination of ideas that yields new knowledge and understanding that has always driven long-run innovation. Here's hoping his eBooklet offering is a harbinger of an innovation explosion in the future.
Nick Schulz is a DeWitt Wallace fellow at AEI.