Progress versus economic growth

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2006

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has responded to my claim that, once societies have achieved a certain threshold level, continued growth in output doesn’t matter that much (and that inequalities among such societies matter little, certainly when set beside the absolute poverty of the global poor). Tyler writes:

Just as the present appears remarkable from the vantage point of the past, our future may offer comparable advances in benefits. Continued progress might bring greater life expectancies, cures for debilitating diseases, and cognitive enhancements. Millions or billions of people will have much better and longer lives. Many features of modern life might someday seem as backward as we now regard the large number of women who died in childbirth for lack of proper care. Most of all, economic growth limits and mitigates tragedies. It is a simple failure of imagination to believe that human progress has run its course.

I think what is most striking about what Tyler writes here is the way in which he runs together human progress and economic growth, as if they were the same thing. I’ll leave to one side any moralized or perfectionist thoughts about human progress and just notice that there’s a basic distinction to be made between scientific and technological development and economic growth in the sense of increased per capita GDP. Capitalism’s advocates have always had a tendency to equate progress with increased output, but there are other possibilities, chief among them being that output remains constant and people become progressively freed from burdensome toil. Jerry Cohen has some trenchant observations about Max Weber’s enslavement to a Tyler-like view towards the end of his Karl Marx’s Theory of History (p. 321 and thereabouts). If the passage were online, I’d link. But you should all own a copy anyway.

The other thing to note is the way Tyler holds out the carrot of the benefits of medical technology, including “cognitive enhancements”. If scientific progress can come apart from growth in GDP I could just suggest that giving up on growth in one sense doesn’t necessarily require us to forgo such future benefits. (And I could also point to a list of societies that have innovated in medical technology despite not being at the front of economic development: the British invention of MRI scanning in the 1970s being a case in point.) But it is worth noting that the really great advances in longevity (so far) have mainly come from improvements in diet and public health and rather less from hi-tech. Maybe Tyler thinks that all this will change in the future and that we need to incentivize innovators now so that the benefits of “cognitive enhancements” trickle down to ordinary Westerners and then to the global poor. I’m unconvinced.

{ 1 trackback }

Edutheria » Blog Archive » Preference for progress
11.22.06 at 5:52 pm



leederick 11.16.06 at 3:59 pm

“the really great advances in longevity (so far) have mainly come from improvements in diet and public health and rather less from hi-tech.”

I don’t think that distinction between diet/public health and hi-tech works. Diet and public health are intimately connected with high tech and have been in the past.


lemuel pitkin 11.16.06 at 4:08 pm

The striking thing about the Cowen post is its character of pure assertion. There is actual evidence to draw on about the relative impact of economic growth vs economic inequality on life expectancy and health, and it points overwhelmingly in Chris’s direction. Up to about $10-15,000, increased per capita GDP correlates closely with increased life expectancy, above that level, it doesn’t. Similarly, the period 1850-1950 saw lots of “cures for debilitating diseases”, the period 1950-2000 didn’t really see any. But Cowen simply insists that technological progress must bring health benefits, regardless of the historical record.

He then goes on to say he just thinks there is no real standard for “a satisfactory level of well-being,” which is begging the question in the original sense, since that’s exactly what we’re debating here.

It’s nice of him not to call you a communist, though.


lemuel pitkin 11.16.06 at 4:19 pm

You know, the more I think about it, the more I think we’re giving Cowen’s argument far too much credit.

What makes people happy? A loving family, useful and challenging work, autonomy in their daily life, respect of their peers,s ecure access to the necessities of life. How much would you have to pay Cowen to compensate him for never seeing his family again, or to give up the ability to read and write? All the money in the world wouldn’t be enough.

A good economy is one that allows people to be fulfilled as human beings. Once productivity is high enough to guarantee everyone enough the necessities of life with a reasonable input of labor, economic growth has achieved all it can. And countries like the US and Germany have passed that point some time ago.


Slocum 11.16.06 at 4:27 pm

Capitalism’s advocates have always had a tendency to equate progress with increased output, but there are other possibilities, chief among them being that output remains constant and people become progressively freed from burdensome toil.

But capitalism produces both increased output and progressive freedom from burdensome toil. More than that, the progressive increase in freedom is a direct result of the increased output. And still more, growth also tends to produce human progress in that when economic growth makes people feel optimistic about their futures, they are more open and tolerant.

When you consider the ‘burdensome toil factor’ of life in, say, the late 19th century vs now, the differences are astonishing (in developed capitalist countries, that is). It’s true that the formal work week has not continued to shrink below 40 hours, but that tends to obscure the fact that we stay in school much longer, retire earlier, and the amount of ‘burdensome toil’ involved in our necessary unpaid chores continues to decrease (no coal to shovel, no horses to care for, no washboard, no wood to split, no clothes to sew by hand). And this process is by no means over (compared to 15 years ago, the Internet saves me many, many hours of commuting and shopping — and, in the process, reduces my contribution to congestion and my carbon footprint).

I will say that I agree that increases in longevity from technological advances are no sure thing simply because extending life span is such a hard problem. But technological advances have already produced much better health in the elderly (hearing aids, artificial hip joints, heart bypass operations, cholesterol lowering drugs, and so on).


Slocum 11.16.06 at 4:35 pm

Similarly, the period 1850-1950 saw lots of “cures for debilitating diseases”, the period 1950-2000 didn’t really see any.

Ever heard of cochlear implants? Artificial hip joints? Arthroscopic knee surgery? Heart bypass operations? All post 1950 I believe.


lemuel pitkin 11.16.06 at 4:35 pm

Slocum, the whole argument here is that is that economic growth ceases to contribute to huamn happiness after a point. No one is suggesting that point is the equivalent of the alte 19th century. So coal-shoveling and wood-splitting are really irrelevant.

Do you really think that Americans work less than they did, say, 30 years ago?


abb1 11.16.06 at 4:35 pm

What makes people happy? A loving family, useful and challenging work, autonomy in their daily life, respect of their peers,secure access to the necessities of life.

The only problem is to define the “necessities of life”.


Tim McG 11.16.06 at 4:38 pm

Tyler’s argument isn’t so much that technology makes life better but that wealth makes life better: it makes vacations with our families possible. It makes work rewarding rather than desperate. And furthermore, increased wealth creation worldwide is necessary for the possibility of ameliorating the plight of the truly impoverished.

Furthermore, you haven’t addressed his real question: is it not a failure of imagination to think that “this is the best it can be”? Who’s the progressive, here, I wonder: you or he?


steven 11.16.06 at 4:41 pm

Once productivity is high enough to guarantee everyone enough the necessities of life with a reasonable input of labor, economic growth has achieved all it can.

This rather dodges this issue, don’t you think? Prof. Cowen’s whole point is that human’s aren’t adept at picturing the future, and so we shouldn’t fix 2006 standards (or previous standards, as you imply) as “the necessities.”

Even apart from life-extending medicines (which Bertram seems to conflate with health improvements in his last paragraph), there are serious improvements in welfare derived directly from economic growth. This first example I can think of is a car–I drive a fairly low-end model (Honda Civic) which is still loaded with safety features that were far from standard several decades ago. I emailed last night with a college friend from Singapore–we would have lost contact 15 years ago. I had fairly serious acne as a teenager–medicines from the last decade made my life much much brighter. I’m sure we can all think of personal examples, but I can’t see how growth isn’t central–the technology for many of these improvements existed beforehand, but only recently have they trickled into the basic economy,


Jim Harrison 11.16.06 at 5:23 pm

Time for a necessary caveat. Everybody around here seems to agree with Charles Fourier that we’re presently going to turn the Arctic Ocean in to orangeade. Hey, maybe technology will allow the production of goods and services to keep up with increases in population while finding substitutes for vanishing resources like cheap liquid fuels and fending off the threat of environmental degradation. On the other hand, maybe it won’t. Marx famously underestimated the productivity gains made possible by industrialization. Are we making the same kind of mistake (with the signs reversed) by blithely assuming that science is the Great Pig whose eminent arrival will mean endless plenty for votaries of the Caucasian Cargo Cult?


Will 11.16.06 at 5:38 pm

If scientific progress can come apart from growth in GDP I could just suggest that giving up on growth in one sense doesn’t necessarily require us to forgo such future benefits.

These two can’t be separated. For health care to progress, you need basic research (e.g. public funded science) *and* the incentive to create new products (e.g. private sector R&D). The science in its raw form doesn’t help the dying patient on the operating table. The dying patient needs actual products like precision scalpels and motivated doctors.

New health care products are developed in the hopes of profiting from their sale and the profit motive implies economic growth.

Of course, money isn’t only active incentive. People care about reducing human suffering, for example. The question is could we build the large, capital intensive institutions necessary to do the R&D to develop the new health care products on the back of those sorts of incentives? Could you sustain such institutions over time?


Paul 11.16.06 at 5:50 pm

“What makes people happy? A loving family, useful and challenging work, autonomy in their daily life, respect of their peers,s ecure access to the necessities of life. How much would you have to pay Cowen to compensate him for never seeing his family again, or to give up the ability to read and write? All the money in the world wouldn’t be enough.”

You know what else makes people happy? Increases in their income. Not permanently happier of course, but the funny thing is that pretty much nothing, including deprivation of family contact or removing the ability to read and write, makes a permanent impact on average happiness. Perhaps permanent changes in happiness aren’t much a basis for policy formation, and we ought to take tranistory changes (like those provided by income) a bit more seriously.


Dan Karreman 11.16.06 at 6:05 pm

One wonders were we leave scarcity-driven economics and were Battaillian economics kicks in. At one point this is bound to happen, otherwise growth is not really growth. Maybe that has already happened, at least in affuent societies (which seems to be Chris point). Excess-driven economics sure sounds a lot of fun, but I’m not sure we have the conceptual tools to really understand it. Maybe it leads to a scenario where economics becomes pure sociology, and everything is all about positional goods. Think iPod.

Regarding innovation, I sometimes wonder why Tyler insists on a fairly crude materialist understanding of how it happens. Clearly innovation, be it pharmaceutical or technological, is driven by a cluster of elements, and not brute financial force. Sure, money helps, but I fail to remember a single innovation that was bought on a market.


maureen 11.16.06 at 6:10 pm


Time to read Durkheim’s Suicide again, no?


Seth Finkelstein 11.16.06 at 6:55 pm

Well, there’s a return per unit effort curve, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that there is improvement all along the curve.

Sanitation, immunization, antibiotics – these are huge gains in life-expectancy for the effort involved, “low-hanging fruit”.

Right now, we’re pushing the high-end of the curve for those who can afford it – minimally-invasive surgery, better diagnostics, drugs with fewer side-effects. These don’t have the cumulative impact of the above, but they are undeniably advances. And yes, while rich Westerners have these goodies, much of the world is starving, and distribution is vastly unequal – thats the topic of relative inequality in a nutshell.

I think we’re at something of a plateau right now in medical terms. Without going all Singularity, if the human race survives, there will probably be another jump in bio-engineering terms in the next century. This will *not* make us immortal, I’m not being silly. But I think it will do things like being able to give people much better lives in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, etc. with e.g. selected organ revitalization from tissue implants (for example, if you have a heart attack, the damaged tissue might be able to be regrown).

Simple question: If someone developed a painless near-certain cure for cancer, via bioengineered drugs, would this be counted as huge, or not all that much, for this discussion?


Eric 11.16.06 at 7:28 pm

I’m not sure “happiness” is the right metric but…

It is not clear that people in, say, the US are more (subjectively) happy now then people were in 1950.


Paul 11.16.06 at 7:33 pm

That’s correct eric, but as I suggest above, it’s a terrible basis for policy formulation, because the same can be said of the happiness levels of people who have all kinds of (objectively) horrible things happen to them.
Given that people habituate to more or less anything, those who harp on about habitutation to increased income are playing dirty pool.


roger 11.16.06 at 8:01 pm

Re – technics and illness. I believe it was Rene Dubos who pointed out an oddity about the revolution in medicines that came in the golden post WWII period. Tuberculosis, which was a great scourge, was one of the diseases for which a pharmacological cure was found – streptomycin. And yet, the great decrease in tuberculosis cases came before the advent of streptomycin, in the West. Dubos thought that the change had to do with life style pattern changes.

In fact, in the future, we may just face decreasing abilities to control diseases – the idea that there’s been a linear ascent, in defiance of evolutionary pressures, seems way too optimistic. The return of TB is as likely as organ revitalization – spurred by the fact that we have too promiscuously applied drugs. And of course there are the new ‘neo-liberal’ plagues. AIDS, for instance, would not have been spread among hemophiliacs if the unregulated international blood trade hadn’t been as it was in the seventies and eighties. That was a pure free trade borne disease.


Erik Rosaen 11.16.06 at 8:56 pm

Happiness’s a moving target.I seem to recall a recent survey that showed that what we all want is 20% more than what we have. Every time we try to take economics out of the equation we loose. And Marx was a genius not because he was right about Communism (he was dead wrong) but that economics matter and that to say it does not is just plain BS.


vivian 11.16.06 at 9:02 pm

Re 16: “It is not clear that people in, say, the US are more (subjectively) happy now then people were in 1950.”

Well, on the plus side there’s GI Bill and no-more-depression, the US is in between wars, lots of consumer goods available, great science fiction being written, awesome jazz, blues and R&B. On the minus side there are women pressured to leave the workforce, anti-communist rules, anti-miscegenation laws, social conformity taught in schools (like everyone in town eating the same meal each night of the week, fetishizing nuclear families), Jim Crow, lynchings, etc.

Happiness and changes kind of depend on where you fit, as well as adaptability and social psych.


Joe (Slovoj) Chavez 11.17.06 at 12:13 am

Ah yes, the argument for plasma TV, 5/8 sheetrock, and the perfect red tomato that tastes like wet sand.

Shantytowns might well be more creative than a dead city core. Some of the best Brazilian music came from the favelas of Salvador and Rio. The slums of Kingston, Jamaica, bred reggae. New Orleans experienced its greatest cultural blossoming in the early 20th century, when it was full of shanties. Low rents make it possible to live on a shoestring, while the population density blends cultural influences. Cheap real estate could make the city a desirable place for struggling artists to live. The cultural heyday of New Orleans lies in the past. Katrina rebuilding gives the city a chance to become an innovator once again.”

I’m sure once he accepted the importance of Hip Hop Tyler would change his mind about “dead city core[s]” Perhaps next he’ll make Mother Theresa’s argument, which after all was accepted Doctrine 700 years ago, that the poor serve to teach us the importance of pity.
That you even engage with such people leaves me feeling slightly ill.


Martin James 11.17.06 at 1:07 am

Whether human progress or economic growth, I don’t really know what Bertram believes about the future.

Does he believe in exponential growth or does he not?

Take the last 1 million years. How much human progress or economic growth for teh first 800,000 years? How much to 10,000 years ago? How much to 200 years ago?

How can anyone look at those changes and not be completely humbled by what the future might bring.

The future will be futuristic.


David Wright 11.17.06 at 1:45 am

1. Let me explain why economists tend to conflate “technological progress” and “economic growth”. A technology is a production function t(I1,I2,…) — a function that measures how much of some good can be produced given a set of inputs I1, I2, etc. A second second production function t’ is superior to t if it can produce the same output with less of each input.

For example, an old technology for gallstone removal, surgery, might require 2 surgeon-hours, 2 anestheologist-hours, and 10 kWh of electricity. A new technology for gallstone removal, ultrasound, might require 1/2 surgeon-hour, 0 anestheologist-hours, and 8 kWh of electricity.

As long as a superior technology is applied (and in a market economy you can assume it will be), the total output of goods will increaase, and since the market gives all goods a dollar value, GDP will increase.

2. “Happiness” has some problems as a metric for measuring human progress. Humans tend to calibrate their happiness relative to those around them, so you will not find a radically different happiness spectrum at any time in history, dispite the fact that (I assume) you believe that humanity has made progress.

A better metric is “preference”: if people would choose situation B over situation A, situation B represents progress over situation A. And I think it is overwhelmingly clear that the vast majority of people would choose say, West Germany’s standard of living in 1988 over East Germany’s standard of living in 1988. So by this definition of progress, Capitalism yielded more human progress than Communism, even starting from the same point, and even when both systems were basically able to feed everybody.

I hasten to belabor the point that I believe this to be true on a straight-up comparison of standards of living, completely ignoring the fact that the DDR was a police state. Feel free to imagine the DDR standard of living without a police state; the vast majority of its inhabitants would still prefer to live in the BRD.


Walt 11.17.06 at 2:01 am

I never thought of “exponential growth” as something one believes in.


Chris Bertram 11.17.06 at 2:09 am

David Wright at 23 above writes

“As long as a superior technology is applied (and in a market economy you can assume it will be), the total output of goods will increaase, and since the market gives all goods a dollar value, GDP will increase.”

Since the entire thrust of the main paragraph I wrote after the quotation from TC was to point out the logically impeccable fact that improved technology gives you the choice either the increase output of something for the same labour input OR to produce the same output with less work (and all points in between of course), I take it you didn’t read me very carefully.

David also writes about using preference as a measure of progress. It would appear to follow from his view that if peoplle would prefer to live in a 1960s society to now, and if, perchance that were realizable, that would represent progress. Fine by me, but that point neatly detaches progress from the connection he claims to technological improvement. Using preference as a measure of betterness, btw, also gives us the result that, if people would prefer to eat more hamburgers rather than fewer, it is better that they do so. You can buy into that if you like David!

(Note further that he invites comparison between the BRD and the DDR, and between the BRD and the DDR without a police state. Since the point of the comments from me that he is referring back to was to say that above a certain threshold liberties are more important than living standards, it is odd that he didn’t make a BRD with a police state versus DDR without comparison, since that’s the relevant one for evaluating the claim.)


Martin James 11.17.06 at 2:27 am


Some definitions of believe

1. To have firm faith, especially religious faith.
2. To have faith, confidence, or trust:
3. To have confidence in the truth or value of something:
4. To have an opinion; think: They have already left, I believe.

To me it make sense to ask of a person,say Bertram, do you have faith or confidence in the exponential growth of human progress?

I can see reasons to say no (we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, ecology will catch up with us, there is a limit to human progress, etc.)

I can also see reasons to say yes, for example, neither Homo Erectus or Shakespeare had prozac or knew about the role of DNA in evolution.

I think the key point of Tyler’s is that “Productivity is everything”.


Paul 11.17.06 at 2:29 am

Chris and David,

I think you’re both getting the link between technology and GDP backwards. Notwithstanding the “Engalnd invented the MRI when it was poor” argument, it is generally assumed, and seems plausable, that technological advance is fueled by the availability of productive resources to do the fueling.
That’s part of the reason for the exponential growth we have experienced (notwithstanding Walt at #24’s skepticism). Certainly it’s a virtuous circle, one creates the other and visa versa, but the model of innovation that relies on the lone inventor struck with inspiration is decades if not centuries out of date – technological innovation is tremendously costly, and the more productive the economy the more of it we can afford.


bad Jim 11.17.06 at 3:59 am

Clearly no one believes that the earth can sustain exponential growth of population or energy use indefinitely.

It’s far from clear that the rate of innovation increases with the rate of consumption, at least beyond a threshold level. Rather, innovation is the product of our accumulated knowledge and an educated population. It didn’t slow down when consumption was constrained during World War II, and it’s unlikely to slow down during the downsizing which will most likely be necessary to ameliorate global warming.

Technological progress will most likely continue to improve our lives, but it doesn’t entail giving everyone a McMansion and a 3-ton truck.


David Wright 11.17.06 at 4:59 am

Any people who would prefer to live in a society like the U.S. in the 1960s, or the DDR in the 1980s, etc. are welcome to do so. Get together with a bunch of like-minded people, buy some land, (throw away your computers, cell phones, prozac, etc.) and have at it. I only stipulate that (1) even if it is your preference that I and others live like you and your compatriots, you don’t get to force us to do so and (2) you allow free movement in and out of your commune, so that people can vote with their feet about how they prefer to live.

Now, I personally believe that very few people will want to live in your commune, and I feel reinforced in that belief by the history of the DDR. But the wonderful thing about a free society is that the truth (or falsity) of my belief won’t hinder you and your compatriots from founding your DDR-commune one iota.

By the way, at least speaking for myself, I would vastly prefer to live in a BRD police state than a DDR police state. If I am going to be oppressed, I might as well do it with a high standard-of-living. I don’t really see the difference between comparing (DDR – police state) to BRD and comparing DDR to (BRD + police state).


Chris Bertram 11.17.06 at 6:01 am

David: the _only_ relevant comparison (for the purpose of evaluating my claim), even if we were to accept your preference test, is BRD+police state with DDR minus police state. And you haven’t even discussed that comparison.


David Wright 11.17.06 at 6:05 am

Let me also address Chris’ comment about the possibility of using technology to increase leisure instead of output. Chris is, of course, correct that this option, in theory, exists.

Of course, in practice, in the face of enumerable technological advances, people have not chosen that option. It’s not that they didn’t have the choice; it’s that they choose to use the technology to acquire more goods.

Chris seems to posit some sort of meta-preference that he imagines most people have, wherein they wish that they had chosen more leisure, or wish that the government had compelled them to choose more leisure. This idea seems bizarre to me.

Or perhaps his idea is that many people would have been happy to choose more leisure, but saw the Jonses choosing more goods, and thus felt compelled by their desire for relative status to choose more goods, too. This group of people wishes the Jonses had chosen more leisure. Such a group of people may well exist, but I see no moral grounds on which they should be able to compel the Jonses to choose more leisure. If one believes there are such grounds, why doesn’t the argument work the other way around, too? Why shouldn’t the Jonses be able to compel their lazy neighbors to work harder?

Of course, the choice between more income and more leisure afforded by a new technology is not binary: suppliers could choose adopt the new technology and work a bit less, but not so much less that they don’t get any income gain at all from the new technology. It is entirely possible for the adoption of a new technology to cause output to increase (but not by as much as it would have if the suppliers had continued working the same hours) and leisure to increase (but not by as much as if suppliers had held output constant).

If you look at emperical labor supply curves, you will find that Chis is precisely backwards in his assumption about when people will most favor leisure. The phenomenon of a strong preference for leisure (called a “backward-bending supply curve for labor”) occurs mostly in subsistance societies where people have very little leisure because they have to work all their waking hours in order to stave off starvation. Having so very little leisure, they use the windfall of a productivity increase to “buy” some. (On several occasions, when firms have paid third-world workers far-higher-than-market wages to placate first-world protesters, they have been dismayed to see the number of hours of work sought by their laborers drop precipitiously.)

It may offend Chris’s morals, but the inhabitants of rich societies generally choose to “spend” some of their productivity windfall on a higher standard-of-living.


David Wright 11.17.06 at 6:22 am

Chris: My understanding of your claim was that, once standards-of-living had progressed to at least the level of the late DDR, most people would prefer increasing their nation’s equality over increasing their nation’s standard-of-living. That is to say, your claim was that, if the DDR had not been a police state, people would have prefered the DDR over the BRD. That is the claim I was repudiating when I said that I would prefer the BRD over the DDR – police state.

By trying to compare the DDR – police state with the BRD + police state, you seem to be asking whether political or economic freedom is more important, or whether standard-of-living or liberty is more importnat. This is an entirely different question. Fortunately, that is a choice that the real world does not force us to make.


abb1 11.17.06 at 6:29 am

Perhaps the Amish experience (with their rumspringa thing) would be more relevant and more intersting to examine here than the DDR.


bad Jim 11.17.06 at 6:29 am

It’s less and less the case that “technological innovation is tremendously costly”. Word processing eliminated the need for typists, as CAD did for draftsmen. My startup required fewer people than the old company precisely because previous innovations had drastically reduced the cost of further innovation.

Which is why we keep getting cool new stuff faster and cheaper. The driving force is not the GNP or the GDP but the GIP, the gross intellectual product, which is to a considerable degree available to everyone.

To suggest that the cost of innovation increases exponentially is to predict that it will cease or stall in the foreseeable future. In fact, progress gets cheaper all the time.


Chris Bertram 11.17.06 at 7:14 am

David, my claim was, to repeat, that above a certain threshold of wealth, it is, morally speaking, very important to have free institutions and not very important to have more wealth. Nowhere, I think, did I express myself by hypothesizing about what people would prefer, what their “meta-preferences” might be, etc.

I’m glad you’ve conceded the point about leisure and income, by the way, which I made in order to demonstrate the _conceptual_ difference between technological development and economic growth understood as growth in output. The preferences people actually have concerning leisure-income tradeoffs are a completely different, and irrelevant, matter.


Joe (Slovoj) Zizek 11.17.06 at 9:55 am

Reason is not a value it is a function. As a value it defends forward motion, by which argument the country that is best at turning men into machines wins. The DDR lost. But the reason I put in that obscene quote from Cowen at #21 was not only to remind[?] you of the obscenity but also of the silliness.

Cowen’s arguments from anything other than economic ‘instrumental’ reason are some of the most absurd anti-intellectual and deeply incurious pronouncements and opinions I’ve ever read. His writings are beyond parody: the archetypical American who tears through every European country/museum/palace at top speed to fit them all in one vacation.

Freedom of inquiry is not freedom of inquiry in one direction but in any direction. It’s the right, and the value, of being able to stop the car get out and walk around whenever one wants. History is not economic history, it is the history of various competing systems and forces, one of which, a central one, is economic.

Cowen’s economic determinism is the sort of thing the right has been attacking Marx for for 100 years, but he gives us the Stalinism of the individual rather than the collective (that the individual is Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch is another problem).

The thinness and vulgarity amazes me. And his blinkered disinterest in the world allows for amorality. Or is it immorality? Does the fact that Cowen chooses to wear blinders rather than fudge the data make him somehow better than Herrnstein and Murray?


Martin James 11.17.06 at 11:15 am

So, to sum up Bertram says in his opinion, morally speaking, economic growth above a certain level is not important and Tyler is saying that Bertram’s type of moralist will be irrelevant in the future if some less moral cultures have greater sustained economic growth.

The future will tell, but some recent North American history is on Tyler’s side.

Take the case of the profoundly moral Nez Perce leader, Hinmaton-Yalaktit, AKA, Chief Joseph.

His morals came to him from his father like this.

“My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more, and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

It ended like this.

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”


Martin James 11.17.06 at 11:42 am

What are morals if they are not preferences? Transcendent truths?

So much for human progess.


Chris Bertram 11.17.06 at 11:47 am

Martin, there isn’t an qualifying exam for participation in my comments threads, but if there were, you would have received a failing grade. Please consider yourself flunked and find somewhere else on the internet to post.


Joe (Slovo) Zizek 11.17.06 at 11:50 am

I’m not worried about Cowen winning the argument. There are times of crisis when people become machine-like in their pursuits, but this fades. I only worry about how much damage is done in the process. And then there’s the simple humanist disgust I feel at the intellectual defense of vulgarity. Art and commerce need each other, in opposition. I like the fat trader for his lack of pretension. But when the fat man becomes a philosopher, under the guise of ‘science,’ it’s like the prosecutor offering to work for the defense: “We both want justice. Let me help”

As with the objectivity and the press, the myth of the science of communication is just that. I wish some of you understood the reasons behind the rule of law: that it opposes both one-off decision making and the freedom of the individual. Do none of you understand why the mad scientist has replaced the evil ruler in the popular imagination? It’s just silly how little attention you people pay to the world.

Technocracy is not democracy. Pick one or the other as an ideal if you want, but at least understand the issues.


dan bednarz 11.17.06 at 11:58 am

All systems need energy and resources to maintain complexity and ward off entropy. With global warming and peak oil standing in the path of perpetual economic growth, much of the (no irony or sarcasm here) entertaining and erudite discussion on this topic is ungrounded in reality.


Chris Miller 11.17.06 at 2:13 pm

So at last night’s DEP hearing in Westbrook, Maine, they were taking testimony for and against the burning of construction debris. Certainly it’s economic growth to let Sappi burn it, to put the lead and other heavy metals and dioxins into the environment – distributed widely. It’s good for Sappi, probably good over the long run for our health care industry and probably good for Nestle’s and their bottled water industry. GDP up. Growth.

Is it progress? The regulators certainly think it is good progress, because they are claiming to be tough on pollution AND business friendly.

The words “progress” and “growth” have gotten too slippery. One might talk about an economy where people live *better* but I don’t feel that one can assume that growth and progress – according to conventional measures – mean that any more. We’ve overgrown so many limits that progress and growth must be qualified in terms of “for whom”, eg Sappi profits and everyone downplume gets safe amounts of poison. Progress and growth are now cover phrases for redistribution to an ever shrinking segment of the very wealthy.

Smart growth is to shrink. It will be progress when we understand that. :-)


Joe (Slovo) Zizek 11.17.06 at 2:37 pm

Pubic health is cheaper and would save more lives than high tech research But there’s no romance to clean water: there’s no genius in acknowledging the obvious.


David Wright 11.17.06 at 5:54 pm

Chris says: above a certain threshold of wealth, it is, morally speaking, … not very important to have more wealth. Nowhere, I think, did I express myself by hypothesizing about what people would prefer. … The preferences people actually have … are a completely different, and irrelevant, matter.

If you regard people’s preferences as irrelevent, what basis do we have for disucssion? You simply make an a priori assertion about morality. It’s nice that you find your assertion self-evident, but you won’t convince those of us who don’t share your moral certitude that way.

I prefer to fall back on emperical preferences because they provide some basis for discussion. If many more people would choose to live in a BRD (growth-oriented) society than in a DDR – police state (equality-oriented) society, I see that as an argument that favors the BRD society.

Now certainly there are other basis for ethical comparison besides majority preference, but I don’t see where you invoke them. Can you outline an argument that begins from a widely recognized moral principal and ends with equality > growth? Or do you simply believe that equality > growth is a moral principal unto itself?


radek 11.17.06 at 6:22 pm

Or perhaps his idea is that many people would have been happy to choose more leisure, but saw the Jonses choosing more goods, and thus felt compelled by their desire for relative status to choose more goods, too. This group of people wishes the Jonses had chosen more leisure.

There’s actually some interesting economics that can happen here. If people care about their consumption relative to the Joneses, what are the effects on saving rates and labor supply? It turns out the answer is actually theoretically ambigous. because you’re not just trying to keep up with the Joneses today, but also tomorrow. So you have an additional intertemporal margin of substitution. And it also depends on whether leisure and consumption are complements or substitutes.
So “keeping up with the Joneses” could actually result in more leisure, paradoxically enough.
I haven’t worked out all the details on this. There’s a final I have to write.


Chris Bertram 11.17.06 at 6:34 pm

If you regard people’s preferences as irrelevent,..

_Do_ try to pay attention. I said that the matter of people’s actual preferences is _irrelevant to the conceptual distinction between growth in output and technological progress_ .


radek 11.17.06 at 7:02 pm

“…put the lead and other heavy metals and dioxins into the environment…GDP up. Growth”

A priori it can go either way. In practice it gets worse then gets better – the environmental Kuznets curve. Yeah fast growing poor countries usually screw up their environment. But it takes resources to clean up the mess you’ve made. And that means you got to have more growth to be able to afford it.


David Wright 11.17.06 at 7:13 pm

Chis: Do pay attention yourself, and answer my question: Can you outline an argument that begins from a widely recognized moral principal and ends with equality > growth? Or do you simply believe that equality > growth is a moral principal unto itself?

[No, I’m really not going to bother providing arguments in favour of my views _as mischaracterized by you_ , David. Life is too short. By the way, the word is “principle”. CB]


David Wright 11.17.06 at 7:56 pm

Radek@45: That’s a very interesting observation. You wouldn’t happen to have a citation handy, would you? Thanks.


radek 11.17.06 at 8:26 pm

David, no, it’s just something I’ve been playing around off and on.


Joe (Slovo) Zizek 11.17.06 at 10:53 pm

There doesn’t seem to be any interest in history here, or in psychology at all. This sort of generalization is merely intellctualization in the service of bureaucracy. I realize that’s what you specialize in around here, but it gets to be a bit much.

Most western Europeans prefer to be in Western Europe as opposed to the US and the reverse is true for people in the US. What does that say about what the “people” want? Go pick up a NYRB and read this


Timon Braun 11.17.06 at 11:08 pm

A less tedious version of this debate may be contained in the anecdote Antonin Scalia uses to defend his philosophy of constitutional construction: A man and his friend are camping and hear a rustle, and are terrified to see a bear coming toward them threateningly. They run and are exhausted after a few hundred meters, with the bear still giving chase. “It’s hopeless,” one says, “we’ll never outrun the bear!” The other says, “I’m not trying to outrun the bear, I’m trying to outrun you!” Markets do not have to demonstrate philosophical and empirical inerrancy, they just have to be preferable to the alternatives. Zizek certainly makes a compelling case! It reminds me of a Pakistani Islamist critique of Clinton that offered #42 as proof of the superiority of Quranic governance, since there is no infidelity or venality in the perfect state.


Joe (Slovo) Zizek 11.17.06 at 11:24 pm

There’s nothing wrong with thinking there’s a difference between what most people want and what most people should want. The history of human culture is the documentation of confused desire. But by your logic [and I mean almost all of you here] the appropriate reaction to the failed imposition of moral codes is the moral nutrality of the scientific study of popular will. The press as the neutral observer; a politics of polling and passivity. As I said somewhere else:

Philosophers [and scientists] want to “know,” and they despise systems that allow them only to participate. A lawyer may not be a philosopher in the courtroom any more than an actor may be one on the stage. Those conversations begin after the workday is done.

It is obligatory of everyone to have a moral, not just a technical philosophy, though here Mark Halpern argues otherwise. He reminds me of the German painter Gerhard Richter saying that since it’s dangerous for Germans to have opinions about poltics, he doesn’t have any. This from the maker of some of the coldest most melancholic art of the post war era: the promulgator of the philosophy of willed autism.
I’m done. It’s like yelling at teenagers. it does no good.


john c. halasz 11.18.06 at 12:21 am


Does “participation” here mean “performance” or “methexis”: where, if anywhere, does one take one’s stand? Adolescent minds want to know…


Timon Braun 11.18.06 at 12:39 am

I’m actually trying to convince you, Slovo! Skepticism is not a moral abdication, it is a kind of communitarianism. One way to close the gap between what people should want and what they claim to want is to convince them that they should look to something else, which is the point of this kind of “participation.” My aim viz popular will, which I am marginally if infinitesimally furthering here, is that it will move toward some principles that I am not neutral about, while I expand and modify them by learning new information and making new relationships.


Joe (Slovo) Zizek 11.18.06 at 1:07 am

“Skepticism is not a moral abdication, it is a kind of communitarianism.”
Yes it is. And I’m a skeptic. Libertarians and Futurists are not.

I, dunno John. Is the Living Theater your thing? if so that’s cool.
But this feels like arguing with fundamentalists. And fundamentalism is, fundamentally, opposed to language, or any other mediation.


john c. halasz 11.18.06 at 1:49 am

Perhaps the nub of the problem is the denuded modern sense of “theory”. The Greek philosophers lifted the term “theoria” from a root meaning “to participate in a delegation sent by one polis to look-on in another polis at a festival honoring the gods”. (And how else could they have articulated their meaning, if not by lifting words, since they had no other means?) Now economics is precisely a “classical” discipline, at once highly deductive and laying claim to an immense overview. But how can one lay claim to such a “logic” without experiencing participation in the world it lays claim to?


Timon Braun 11.18.06 at 2:01 am


Stop pretending you don’t love this! Do aversion to force and coercion, and the observation of rapid technological change, really bespeak a fundamentalist bias, even when its only expression is forensic pseudoblogging?


Isn’t GDP growth simply a measure of increased possibilities, that can be rejected moralistically, as with the Amish?


Seth Edenbaum 11.18.06 at 10:44 am

The rule of science is not the rule of law.
Technocracy is not democracy.
You figure it out. I’m done.


Bruce Wilder 11.18.06 at 5:32 pm

There’s an element of magical thinking in the economics of Tyler Cowan, which is deeply rooted in the way economics chooses to treat “technology” as a black box.

Economics defines itself in terms of the efficient allocation of resources. That focus on economic organization as a matter of allocative efficiency, to the exclusion of consideration of the details of technical or managerial organization, leads economists into deliberate ignorance about much of what constitutes the modern, highly organized economy.

The great advances of the industrial revolution were not primarily a matter of more efficient allocation of resources — of eliminating subsidies or tariffs or managing the supply of money well enough to avoid deflation, that is, the kind of things economists concern themselves with.

It has been about advances in science and technology, applied to the organization of production and distribution of goods and services.

If you consult an economic textbook, looking for a theory of production, you will find a rather odd presentation, asserting that (maximum) product output is a function of factor inputs. No where in this theory of production will you see featured the two, most prominent features of the industrial revolution: the application of energy (e.g. fossil fuels) and the advances in control of production processes. Even Adam Smith’s specialization, observed in his famous pin factory seems curiously remote, from the economic theory of production.

This economic theory of production consigns the sources of economic growth — the energy devoted to production/distribution activities and the improvements in control of production/distribution processes — to an unexamined area beyond their analysis. And, with that curious consignment, the economist loses all perspective.

Energy use in economic activity is a source of huge increases in productivity, and it is also, necessarily, the reason all production is polluting. It is simply the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics in action. But, the necessary connection between production and pollution is unrecognized by fundamental economic theory, even though “externalities” are recognized, elsewhere.

Control of production/distribution activities is the second great source of productivity improvement. Embodied in machines it is a source of great power and even delight. But, it is also a source of rigidity in our society. Most people in advanced societies are working in vast bureaucracies, the better to control our economic production/distribution processes. Coordination of work has become a paramount imperative, which is always threatening our individual autonomy. And, such simple questions as how much time in our life is leisure or whether we will have time to raise our children have become questions of national political policy.

The Tyler Cowans of the world seem to be unable to fully grasp either these two capital facts of the modern economy: energy and pollution, control and error. Economics, with its defective theory of production, allows them to ignore them.

So, we get Tyler making linear projections concerning the future products of a magical technology, while praising the “freedom” attendant on a “market” economy, completely dominated by giant corporations and government. It is unreal.

We cannot simply multiply the amount of energy devoted to production. We are running out fossil fuels, we are running out of clean air and water, we are running out of places to put the junk. We need to get realistic about how much energy we can divert into production processes, and about the implications for the total number of humans the earth can support in a style, we would all like to be accustomed to.

And, we ought to be realistic about creating and preserving individual autonomy in an ever more organized and controlled society. The means of control — monitoring and communication and modeling and calculation — are cheap and getting cheaper very fast, for the first time in human history. “Free markets” is a long-outdated 18th century slogan. Libertarian sentiment needs to make itself a good deal better informed.

Control of human behavior is one of the foundation stones of the huge increases in productivity, which underlie the prosperity of the developed world. That prosperity and organized control has made individuals more powerful, and the high degree of organization has made government as well as private corporations more powerful, as well. It has also made society more fragile and complex.

Medical advances to cure diseases are all very well and good to anticipate, but it would be nice if someone were to notice the implications of guys with box cutters flying airplanes into tall buildings — and I mean implications other than an opportunity for morons to try to establish a fascist state. To wit, has anyone noticed that is now possible to “design” a lethal flu virus?

Well, that was a nice rant. I seem to have run out of steam, before I reached an climactic peroration, for which I am truly sorry. I’ll work on that.


abb1 11.19.06 at 7:21 am

To wit, has anyone noticed that is now possible to “design” a lethal flu virus?

Ah, yes, the dialectics: unity of opposites, internal contradictions, the universality of contradiction. This is what these silly triumphalists (any kind of triumphalism, really) are missing. I guess they never studied the great works of comrade Mao, poor bastards.


lemuel pitkin 11.21.06 at 9:20 pm

Seth/Joe, I’m sorry you’re done. I for one was enjoying your contributions, and even learning from them. The Tyler Cowans are indeed infuriating, but most of us here are not on their side.

Comments on this entry are closed.