Goodbye, Uncle Miltie

by Kieran Healy on November 16, 2006

“Milton Friedman has died”: at the ripe old age of ninety four. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution “writes a brief appreciation”: from the point of view of a fan. As “Harry said”: around here only the other day, everyone should read “Capitalism and Freedom”: at least once.

_Update_: The “Milton Friedman Choir”: sings about corporations, markets and social responsibility. (Hat tip: CB.)

Jonathan Strange auf Deutsch

by Henry Farrell on November 16, 2006

Alex Müller emails to tell me that he’s singlehandedly translated the Susanna Clarke seminar that we ran last year “into German”: (as best as I can tell it’s a very nice translation). When you do something under a Creative Commons license, you hope that people are going take it and play with it and do fun things that you can’t do yourself, and it’s wonderful to see it happening. Apparently the China Mieville seminar is next on his list …

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:

bq. 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.