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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

3.7 out of 5 stars 103 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0525952718
ISBN-10: 0525952713
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"One of the most talked-about books among economists right now."
-Renee Montagne, "Morning Edition", NPR

"Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade's Thomas Friedman."
-Kelly Evans, "The Wall Street Journal"

"Cowen's book...will have a profound impact on the way people think about the last thirty years."
-Ryan Avent, Economist.com

"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. He is the author of Discover Your Inner Economist and The Age of the Infovore, and he coblogs at www.marginalrevolution.com, one of the world's most influential economics blogs. He writes regularly for The New York Times and has been a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Wilson Quarterly, and Slate, among many other popular media outlets.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton (June 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525952713
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525952718
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #202,512 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
"The Great Stagnation" offers a very concise and well thought-out essay on the relationship between innovation and prosperity. The first chapter, which shows how median incomes have stagnated in recent years as the economy's "low hanging fruit" has gotten scarce is especially well done. The parts on health care and education are also very good.

Cowen's central idea is that the pace of innovation has slowed, and that we are now on a "technological plateau" that makes further growth challenging. If you consider technology in the broad sense (energy, transportation, home, etc), this makes sense as things have not changed a lot in recent decades. However, I think it is also true that progress has been highly concentrated in information technology and communications, and that things continue to advance rapidly in this area. Cowen notes this but seems to feel that the Internet is the only really major innovation.

Cowen argues that what we need is a new burst of innovation that will propel economic growth. Here is the problem I see with that: Cowen writes that "a lot of our major innovations are springing up in sectors where a lot of work is done by machines, not by human beings." In fact if you look at companies like Google or Facebook, or entire industries like semiconductors, computers, Internet or biotech, there are really not a lot of jobs in total and certainly not a lot for middle skill people. If there is manufacturing it is either heavily automated or offshore.

The question is: if today's innovations are already creating industries that are not labor-intensive and rely instead on technology, why would the future be different? Won't the new burst of innovation that Cowen calls for create even more technology-intensive industries...and few jobs?
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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.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Tyler Cowen: The Great Stagnation

This nice little book is worth reading. Tyler Cohen has correctly identified several almost unique circumstances that helped America become great and powerful. Some low hanging fruit like free land, innovation, millions of immigrants seeking work (and ready to work for pennies), millions of young people wanting to get education; scientific progress and technical innovation.

The book contains very sharp observations. For instance, the author notices that innovation has moved lately in the wrong direction:
"If one sentence were to sum up the mechanism driving the Great Stagnation, it is this: Recent and current innovation is more geared to private goods that to public goods. That simple observation ties together the three major macroeconomic events of our time: growing income inequality, stagnant median income, and, as we will see in chapter five, the financial crisis.:

Not only this. Cowen points out that "Top American earners are increasingly concentrated in the financial sector of the economy."

The booklet is easy to read, the style is lively and intellectually entertaining. When I reached the end, however, I said: Oops, was that all? Too many blank spots left!

Here is a major blank spot: The dollar. Talking about low hanging fruit, the author somehow missed the dollar. By becoming the world reserve currency after WW2, the dollar gave this country an enormous financial advantage. It became not only a low hanging fruit, but a ready fruit on the table. The benefits of this fruit only increased when it was freed from gold in 1971 and when OPEC agreed to trade oil only in dollars in 1974. What is the future of the dollar? What are the perspectives to enjoy it free on the table?
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