innovation

The Boy Who Cried Wolf Was Eventually Right

“We are reaching end times for Western affluence,” warns economist Stephen King (insert obligatory horror joke here) in yesterday’s New York Times. King, who has authored a book entitled When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence, joins the ranks of economic Cassandras like Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon, both of whom have made waves with pessimistic takes on the U.S. economy’s prospects. Like Cowen and Gordon, King couches his claims in overstatements that make it easier for skeptical readers to dismiss his arguments. Peel away the hype, though, and these growth pessmists are still fundamentally correct. The wolf really is at the door this time. In other words, the growth outlook really is darkening.

Cowen put the hype right in the title of his attention-getting book: The Great Stagnation, his term for the past 40 years or so. Of course, real GDP per capita has nearly doubled since 1973, so stagnation is obviously an inapt term. It’s true that productivity growth and growth in median incomes have slowed down, but The Moderate Slowdown is a pretty boring book title. Meanwhile, Gordon saw Cowen and raised him with the highly provocative and speculative argument that technological progress is largely exhausted and, therefore, the 250-year era of modern economic growth is winding down. You don’t have to be Raymond Kurzweil to find that contention unpersuasive.

Now King warns that Western affluence is coming to an end. Well it’s not: even if all growth stopped tomorrow, today’s advanced economies are affluent beyond the wildest dreams of yesteryear.

Push past the hype, though, and Cowen, Gordon, and King are making a point that really needs to be more widely understood: growth is getting harder for the U.S. economy, and there are strong reasons for thinking that growth rates over the next decade or two will fall short of the long-term U.S. historical average. As I explain in a new Cato paper released today, you don’t have to be a pessimist about the future of innovation to be pessimistic about the U.S. economy’s medium-term growth outlook. The main source of weakness lies in demographics: the 20th century saw big increases in both the percentage of the population in the workforce (thanks to the changing role of women in society) and the overall skill level of the workforce (thanks to a huge increase in formal schooling). The rise in schooling has slowed down considerably since 1980, and the labor force participation rate has actually been falling since 2000 (it’s now back to where it was in 1979). What were tailwinds for growth have turned into headwinds.

ObamaCare’s False Promise of Cost Savings: ACO Edition

One of ObamaCare’s selling points was that it would supposedly reduce costs through such innovations as “accountable care organizations” or ACOs. I have explained how ACOs are an innovation with many benefits, how markets developed ACOs decades before the government’s central planners caught on, and have predicted that ObamaCare’s centrally planned ACO program would fail to deliver on the promised savings.

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: The Online Education Revolution

As Joseph Schumpeter famously wrote, markets are agents of “creative destruction”: when market forces are free to operate, and when entrepreneurs are free to act on their ideas, the old must often give way to the new.

Innovation and cultural dynamism are the hallmarks of a free economy. This state of constant flux is to our way of thinking a welcome and valued thing. Only an economy that is constantly in transition can hope to approximate the changing needs and wants of a robust and flourishing society.

Economic Lessons from Obituaries

Where is the best place in the newspaper to learn about how the economy works?

In today’s Washington Post the business section has the usual stories about Ben Bernanke’s manipulations, government debt, and regulatory issues. But there is little on the innovation and dynamism that is at the heart of long-run economic growth.

Why Are There No Googles or Apples in Education?

Invent a better way to search the Web and you can conquer the world in a few years. Make better tools for communicating and accessing the Web and it’s the same story. But come up with a better way to teach reading or math and … nada. Excellence routinely “scales up” in every field except education. Why?

But Don’t We Really Need Government Research?

It’s a valuable public good, research is, isn’t it? Think of where we’d be without it! I mean, it was government research that came up with the Internet, for heaven sake.

That’s a response to the argument I made last week against government funding of scientific research. Moving away from public funding of scientific research would solve the problem of private companies capturing publication spoils from research that taxpayers funded.

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