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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 [Hardcover]

Tyler Cowen
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 9, 2011 0525952713 978-0525952718
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.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Editorial Reviews

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 --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult (June 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525952713
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525952718
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #101,344 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
151 of 165 people found the following review helpful
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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing September 16, 2012
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Just Barely Worth the Price October 22, 2012
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars An agglomeration of blogging
For active followers of MarginalRevolution.com, this book is unnecessary. The book is a jumbled collation of bloggish thoughts. Read more
Published 1 month ago by ljm
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Points, but Also Important Omissions
Cowen helps put our current economic malaise in perspective, pointing out that our really good years are behind us because their major underlying contributors are 'used up. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Loyd E. Eskildson
4.0 out of 5 stars What you missed about the last 3 decades
According to Tyler Cowen, Land, Technology and Uneducated Kids provided the America of early days an incredible diet of “low hanging fruit. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Dave Kinnear
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise & simple overview of past, present and future economics
This book does a great job of putting in simple terms the origins of our 2008 economic crisis and what we can expect from it in the coming years. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Samuel C. Pence
5.0 out of 5 stars intriguing and well writen
greatly enjoyed both the opinion and the way in which Mr. Cowen presented his argument. A very well referenced and researched piece and one that i iwll be recommending to... Read more
Published 18 months ago by FCBwolf66
5.0 out of 5 stars Promotes an Unpopular, But Thought Provoking, Thesis
My review is probably a little biased since I arrived at a similar conclusion about the state of economic development in the world a few years ago. Read more
Published 20 months ago by David Clark
2.0 out of 5 stars Where's my teleporter?
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. Read more
Published 20 months ago by ThomasW
3.0 out of 5 stars Good observations, simple analysis
This little book contains some very good observations, albeit with fairly simple economic analysis, once we get past the overused metaphor of having picked the low hanging fruit. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Gderf
4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh Ideas Concisely Presented
This is a short and sharp discussion of why America's growth prospects currently seem so dim. Cowen argues that we have already captured all the benefits to be had from our... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Samuel J. Sharp
4.0 out of 5 stars Joe Cocklin's review of Tyler Cowen's "The Great Stagnation"
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Published on May 8, 2012 by Arthur M. Diamond, Jr.
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