Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book Review - The Great Stagnation

Actually the full title is: The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, by Tyler Cowen and published by Dutton Adult, 2011.

For the d-n-d, read Chuck Crane's review on Amazon (no sense in restating it all here). Chuck does a more than adequate job of outlining as you'll see.

My interest in the book is self serving of course as the idea's presented sync with mine nicely. I heard Mr. Cowen interviewed on NPR and what he said not only made sense, but also added perspective to my own similar ideas. I have his most recent book Average Is Over on order.

Listed below are 5 key points from the book as outlined by Chuck Crane in his review.

  • The economic low hanging fruit that has historically propelled growth and prosperity in the US, is drying up. Examples include: free land, technological breakthroughs (big ones - electricity, motor vehicles, radio, telephone, computers, etc.), public education, cheap fossil fuels, and so on.
  • Other countries are experiencing "catch-up growth" including India and China, where technological innovations in the West have been leveraged and leap-frogged, resulting in a sudden flattening of the playing field.
  • Median income growth has slowed since the early '70s, something I have written about frequently. I am amazed how little scrutiny this gets in the media. I guess the slow boiled frog analogy fits here.
  • The rate of technical innovation has slowed, since 1873 and most notably since 1955.
  • Recent and current innovation is geared more to private goods than to public goods, leading to an increase in economic inequality.

Books like this naturally interest other economists. But what about those noodling social issues? Furthermore, what about those in the greater workforce field, from high school guidance counselors to headhunters and WIA implementers? And yet, as big as the workforce field is, it's not big enough. What about lawmakers and real social policy movers-n-shakers?

If Tyler Cowen is correct and the US has hit a plateau (and stagnation will continue) what are we doing about it? From my perspective, next to nothing. I hate to say it as much as I hate to see it.

The current super-gridlock in Washington DC is proof in the pudding. For the time being (and it may be a very long time being at that) government is shackled. As Cowen notes, one party can't come up with a real plan to address the budget deficit (driven in no small part by Social Security and Medicare) and the other party can't stop pounding the tom tom that tax cuts (the apparent answer to everything) will increase revenue and pull us out of the muck.

Cowen's ideas add to my contention that this is the era of the Free Agent worker. And again, by worker I mean nearly everyone other than those not needing to generate income (those enjoying inheritances, the truly retired, and passive owners). That leaves 90%+ of the population as WORKERS in one form or another.

When it comes to finding a job, advancing in a job, moving to a better job, being a Free Agent means it's all about you - not I hope in a narcissistic and selfish manner, but rather in a heads-up way. In order to achieve your career and life objectives, you must see things as they actually are - that you are a Free Agent. And the younger you are, the more important the acceptance of this concept becomes.

Tyler Cowen knows this and I hope he makes it a point to pass it along to his students at George Mason.

The question is, do you know it?

Travel well.
John Jeffrey Lundell

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