Dr. Pangloss’s Panopticon

by Henry Farrell on February 27, 2024

So Noah Smith has a quite negative review of Acemoglu and Johnson’s recent book, Power and Progress, a book that I myself liked very much. Before letting rip, Noah says nice things about Acemoglu and Johnson, and I’ll do the same here for him. There are a lot of people on the left who detest Noah, but I know him to be a genuinely decent person. What he says of Acemoglu and Johnson is what I’ll say about him – his heart is in the right place. Sometimes … he does not go out of his way to make himself lovable to lefties, but as someone who has been known to get involved in stupid and tendentious spats on the Internet myself, I’m in no position to heave rocks at glasshouses. What I do think (and I’ve said more or less this to him in person – my views won’t come as news) is that Noah represents a style of economics that has an overly Panglossian view of power, economics and progress.

For those who haven’t read Voltaire’s novel Candide, Dr. Pangloss is the parodic Enlightenment thinker who keeps on insisting that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, as disaster and catastrophe unfold around him. To make an even more labored Enlightenment joke, Noah’s style of economics has a blind spot about panopticons. Acemoglu and Johnson represent a different understanding of economics, which doesn’t (in my view) have the same blind spot, and indeed has set out over the last several years to correct it. Political scientists like myself have their own blind spots – but for obvious reasons, I am not the right person to ask what they are! So consider this, if you like, an effort to remove the mote from my brother’s eye, while ignoring the whopping beam in my own.

My operation in mote removal will not engage Noah’s lengthy critique of the historical details of Acemoglu and Johnson’s book or the labor/automation debate among economists. In a couple of cases, Noah seems to me to be right (e.g. Henry Ford’s attitude to unions), and I imagine Acemoglu and Johnson can respond much better than I can to the rest, if they care to. What I am going to focus on is Acemoglu and Johnson’s account of power, and why Noah finds it, in his own description, bewildering. Noah just doesn’t understand what they are saying about power. This leads him to provide a very incomplete account of their actual, broader argument. And that is connected to economists’ obliviousness about panopticons. I’ll talk about each in turn.


Noah says that Acemoglu and Johnson’s

entire chapter on power and persuasion left me bewildered. I do not understand why we should put accidental success in a nonviolent marketplace of ideas in the same conceptual category as chattel slavery and feudalism. [all Noah’s italics]

He suggests that Acemoglu and Johnson’s argument is both impossibly capacious and intellectually incoherent:

it’s clearly true that technology can be used to benefit average people or to hurt them. But how does society choose how to use technologies? Acemoglu and Johnson’s answer is “power”, from which they get the title of their book. But what is power? Here, in Chapter 3, Acemoglu and Johnson deploy a definition that veers into the tautological:

Power is about the ability of an individual or group to achieve explicit or implicit objectives. If two people want the same loaf of bread, power determines who will get it.

Using this definition, how could we ever conclude that power wasn’t the reason for an observed outcome? Two people want a loaf of bread, and one of them gets it; we know this was due to “power”, because “power” is defined by who gets a loaf of bread. This kind of definition is semantically valid, but empirically useless; if you define “power” such that it simply means “whatever caused an outcome to happen”, you haven’t isolated causality, you have simply given it a new name.

Acemoglu and Johnson have a reason for employing a definition this infinitely broad; it allows them to include persuasion and compulsion in a single category of “power”.

It isn’t unreasonable for Noah to want to know how to identify power when he sees it. Nor is it unreasonable for him to note that social scientists find it hard to prove that power inequalities caused this or that outcome, when the power dynamic doesn’t come out of the barrel of a smoking gun.

However, the fact that causation is really hard to isolate for certain social phenomena does not, ipso facto, mean that they lack causal force. And Noah muddles the two when he lurches from the (correct) claim that it is often hard to disprove power-based explanations, to the (completely wrong) claim that Acemoglu and Johnson’s notion of non-coercive power reduces down to accidental success in the marketplace of ideas.

What Acemoglu and Robinson are saying is something quite different than what Noah depicts them as saying. For sure, they acknowledge that persuasion has some stochasticity. But they stress that it is not a series of haphazard accidents. Instead, under their argument, there are some kinds of people who are systematically more likely to succeed in getting their views listened to than other kinds of people. This asymmetry can reasonably be considered to be an asymmetry of power.

Under this definition, power is a kind of social influence. Again, it is completely true that it is extremely difficult to isolate social influence from other factors, proving that social influence absolutely caused this, that, or the other thing. But if Noah himself does not believe in the importance and value of social influence, then why does he get up in the morning and fire up his keyboard to go out and influence people, and why do people support his living by reading him?

I imagine Noah would concede that social influence is a real thing! And if he were actually put to it, I think that he would also have to agree to a very plausible corollary: that on average he, Noah Smith, exerts more social influence than the modal punter argufying on the Internet. Lots of people pay to receive his newsletter; lots of other people receive it for free. That means that he is, under a very reasonable definition, more powerful than those other people. He is, on average, more capable of persuading large numbers of people of his beliefs than the modal reply-guy is going to be.

This understanding of power is neither purely semantic nor empirically useless. Again, it may be really difficult to prove that Noah’s social influence has specific causal consequences in a specific instance. But the counter-hypothesis – that Noah’s ability to change minds, given his umpteen followers, is the same as the modal Twitter reply guy – is absurd. Occasionally, random people on the Internet can be temporarily enormously influential. Sometimes, super prominent people aren’t particularly successful at getting their ideas to spread. But on average, the latter kind of people will have more influence than the former. We can reasonably anticipate that people with lots of clout (whether measured by absolute numbers of followers, numbers of elite followers, bridging position between sparsely connected communities or whatever – there are different, plausible measures of influence and lively empirical debates about which matters when) will on average be substantially more influential than those with little or none. This means, for example, that it will be very difficult for ideas or beliefs to spread if they are disliked by the highly connected elite.

Now in fairness to Noah, Acemoglu and Johnson don’t help their case by using a wishy-washy seeming term like “persuasion.” But if you think about “persuasion” as some combination of “social influence” and “agenda control,” you will get the empirical point they are trying to make.

Finally, as Acemoglu and Johnson mention in their bibliographical essay, there is some quite solid empirical research – and by economists too! – explaining situations in which social influence has been very consequential indeed! Specifically, Elliott Ash, Daniel Chen and Suresh Naidu FOIA-ed the hell out of George Mason University, and put the results together with other data. They wanted to discover what happened when right wing foundations paid for judges to attend seminars in nice resorts, with great food and drink, where they listened to Milton Friedman and his mates explaining The Virtues of Free Markets, the Evils of Government Regulators, the Benefits of Chicago School Antitrust Doctrine, and the Healthy Incentives Provided by Harsh Criminal Sentences.

The evidence shows, unsurprisingly, that the judges were influenced! Not only were there measurable long term consequences for the judges’ decisions after they were wined and dined but there were secondary consequences, via social influence osmosis, for other judges whom the first set of judges worked with.

Noah suggests that we live in a thriving “marketplace of ideas.” Ash et al. focus in contrast on ideas of the marketplace, and how they are reshaping U.S. society. Do hold onto their findings about judges: we’ll return to them later.


Of course, Acemoglu and Johnson’s aren’t just arguing that ideas have consequences in general. They are worried about some very specific ideas. As Noah rightly notes, they are unhappy with Silicon Valley’s “techno optimism.” But they don’t push back against progress in general. Instead, they tell us that we can’t just opt for progress and sort out the distributional implications post hoc.

As they themselves put it:

People understand that not everything promised by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or even Steve Jobs will likely come to pass. But, as a world, we have become infused by their techno-optimism. Everyone everywhere should innovate as much as they can, figure out what works, and iron out the rough edges later.

So how is it that Musk et al. have persuaded people to the contrary? According to Noah, Acemoglu and Johnson say that “silver-tongued technologists managed to persuade American society to weaken pro-worker institutions” but have no real theory of how this happened. Instead, in Noah’s account, Acemoglu and Johnson “just sort of shrug and put it all down to luck. For some reason, the techbros just wrote really good posts, and by doing so they ruled the world.”

This is both spicy and very, very wrong. Power and Progress is not, actually, constructed around the Proof From Excellent Techbro Poasting. Instead, as per the last section, it is about the structural reasons why some people have more power to influence than others. In Acemoglu and Johnson’s own, actual words:

Economic and political institutions shape who has the best opportunities to persuade others. The rules of the political system determine who is fully represented and who has political power, and thus who will be at the table. If you are the king or the president, in many political systems you will have ample influence on the agenda—sometimes you can even directly dictate it. Likewise, economic institutions influence who has the resources and the economic networks to mobilize support and, when necessary, pay politicians and journalists.

It’s silver, rather than silver tongues, that’s doing the work. Or as Piketty puts it pungently elsewhere:

We know something about billionaire consumption but it is hard to measure some of it. Some billionaires are consuming politicians, others consume reporters, and some consume academics.

Network ties matter too:

Wall Street’s broader social network helped in its agenda setting because it encompassed many of the other people who had a say regarding what should be on the agenda. The revolving door between the financial sector and officialdom played a role, too. When your friends and former colleagues are asking you to see the world in a particular way, you pay attention.

Finally, Acemoglu and Johnson repurpose some arguments from cultural evolutionary theory to explain why widely celebrated elites are likely to be more influential even apart from their silver-plated megaphones and contact books. Our capacities for social intelligence lead us to imitate and be influenced by those who seem to us to be successful (I don’t know which particular source in the literature they’re drawing on, but if you’re interested in this general set of arguments, you can’t go wrong by starting with Boyer’s Minds Make Societies).

The result is that economic inequality tends on average to compound into political inequality, and inequality of social influence, in a kind of feedback loop. And even the feedback has feedbacks! Just as social influence is magnified by economic clout, so too social influence can translate into economic and political benefits. As Acemoglu and Johnson say in a crucial passage:

persuasion power generates strong self-reinforcing dynamics: the more people listen to you, the more status you gain and the more successful you become economically and politically. You are thus enabled to propagate your ideas more forcefully, amplifying your power to persuade and further boost your economic and political resources. This feedback is even more important when it comes to technology choices. The technological landscape not only determines who prospers and who languishes, but it also critically influences who holds social power. Those enriched by new technologies, or whose prestige and voice are magnified, become more powerful. Technological choices are themselves defined by dominant visions and tend to reinforce the power and status of those whose vision is shaping technology’s trajectory.

There are long standing battles about feedback processes within the profession of economics. Many economists – in particular right-leaning economists – Do Not Like increasing returns processes because they mess up a lot of the economic standard arguments for market efficiencies. But at this point, I think that most reasonable economists accept that feedback helps explain how some trajectories of technological progress get locked in, and why some get locked out. So Acemoglu and Johnson take that one step further, arguing that technological trajectories are shaped by political and social feedback in ways that will magnify the influence of elites, absent strong countervailing forces.

This is not stupid, and everyday experience suggests that Acemoglu and Johnson are right on the mark. Noah has spent quite a lot more time in Silicon Valley than I have. I’d be startled if he hasn’t repeatedly seen punters fawning over self-evidently idiotic ideas propounded with great confidence by Silicon Valley founders and VC stars. I’ve seen a remarkable amount of this meself – and I’m only in SV occasionally (of course, Washington DC, where I live, has its own versions of this pathology). One of the great virtues of Margaret O’Mara’s fantastic history of Silicon Valley, is that it discusses how hype and lobbying as well as technological advances helped get Silicon Valley up and running.

As I read it, this dynamic is the engine that drives Acemoglu and Johnson’s book – but it doesn’t feature at all in Noah’s summary. Nor does Noah have anything to say about their proposed broad alternative.

Succinctly, Acemoglu and Johnson want MOAR equality and MOAR democracy. The first borrows from J.K. Galbraith’s notion of countervailing power:

We need to reshape the future by creating countervailing forces, particularly by ensuring that there is a diverse set of voices, interests, and perspectives as a counterweight to the dominant vision.

The second derives from a more recent body of findings about problem solving and social cognition, which I and various co-authors have also drawn from.

There is also another reason for democratic success: cacophonous voices may be the greatest strength of democracy. When it is hard for a single viewpoint to dominate political and social choices, there are more likely to be opposing forces and perspectives that undercut selfish visions imposed on people, regardless of whether they want them or benefit from them.


The democratic advantage may not be just the aggregation of separate views, but rather the encouraging of diverse perspectives to engage with and counterbalance each other. The strength of democracy is thus in the deliberation among different viewpoints, as well as in the disagreements that this often generates. Hence … a major implication of our approach is that diversity is not a “nice to have” feature; its presence is necessary to counteract and contain the overconfident visions of elites. Such diversity is also the essence of democracy’s strength.

There are bits of their argument that I disagree with, and the final chapter isn’t very satisfying (such chapters almost never are). But I still agree with lots! And my own likely biases lead me to believe what you most need to understand about this book is what largely gets left out of Noah’s review of it.

Acemoglu and Johnson’s core claims, as I read them are:

  1. That the debate about technology is dominated by techno-optimists [they actually write this before Andreessen’s ludicrous “techno-optimist manifesto” but they anticipate all its major points].
  2. That this dominance can be traced back to the social influence and agenda setting power of a narrow elite of mostly very rich tech people, who have a lot of skin in the game.
  3. That their influence, if left unchecked, will lead to a trajectory of technological development in which aforementioned very rich tech people likely get even richer, but where things become increasingly not-so-great for everyone else.
  4. That the best way to find better and different technology trajectories, is to build on more diverse perspectives, opinions and interests than those of the self-appointed tech elite, through democracy and countervailing power.

Since I more or less endorse all these claims (I would slightly qualify Claim 1 to emphasize mutually reinforcing pathologies of tech optimism and tech pessimism), I think that Power and Progress is a really good book, in ways that you won’t understand if you just relied on Noah’s summary of it (I note that this book and my own with Abe Newman are both shortlisted for a very nice prize, but that is neither here nor there in my opinion of it). I haven’t read another book that lays out this broad line of argument so clearly or so well. And it is a very important line of argument that is mostly missing from current debates. Noah speculates that the book hasn’t gotten much attention because it is lost amidst the multitudes of tech pessimistic accounts. My speculation is that it has gotten less attention than it deserves because reviewers and readers don’t know quite how to categorize it, given that it approaches the issues from an unexpected slant.


So, I’ve made it clear that I like Noah. I’ve also spent a couple of thousand words explaining at great length why I think he is very badly wrong in his understanding of Acemoglu and Johnson, and what is at stake in current debates over Silicon Valley. Now, I want to speculate about why he is so bewildered (again: his own word) by Acemoglu and Johnson’s argument.

Let’s start with another question that clearly perplexes Noah – why Acemoglu and Johnson “explicitly try to rehabilitate the original Luddites,” and argue that these Luddites “were right to worry about knitting frames decimating their livelihoods.” So let’s ask a Luddite for the answer! From Power and Progress:

The Luddites themselves seem to have understood not just what the machines of the age meant for them but also that this was a choice about how to use technology and for whose benefit. In the words of a Glasgow weaver, “The theorists in political economy attach more importance to the aggregate accumulation of wealth and power than to the manner of its diffusion, or its effects on the interior of society.”

The Glasgow weaver still has a point, some two centuries later. Many “theorists in political economy” still attach importance to the collective accumulation of wealth and power, without inquiring closely how it is distributed, or what second order consequences it may have for society. Acemoglu and Johnson are, of course, themselves political economists, but they look to push back against some of the main tendencies in the field.

Economists – including Noah according to my estimation – who are fondly attached to those main tendencies, accordingly find it hard to understand Acemoglu and Johnson style arguments, let alone accept them. In fairness to Noah, this is likely exacerbated by the form of presentation: popular books don’t pull together the arguments in the explicit ways that economists are used to. Hence, it is easier (I think) for a semi-outsider like myself to fill in the blanks than it is for someone who is drenched in the common assumptions that Acemoglu and Johnson want to move away from.

There are two parts to the Glasgow weaver’s complaint. One is a distributional concern: in their words, economists usually pay more attention to aggregate social benefits than how those benefits are diffused to particular groups in society. They all too readily leap from a broad utilitarian-philosophical claim – that we ought maximize on some notion of the general social benefit – to the empirical assumption that if we maximize aggregate benefits at time t1 we can expect that the distributional problems will sort themselves out in some proximate future period, t2. More crudely put: they assume that if you let ‘progress’ rip right now, the particulars of who gets what will sort themselves out in some broadly acceptable way in the future.

But if Acemoglu and Johnson are right, this style of thinking does not make sense. If (a) there are different technological trajectories, (b) these trajectories have long term distributional implications (they lock in economic patterns of who gets what), and (c) this in turn affects the distribution of political and social power, then you can’t assume that these problems will sort themselves out in some fair and equitable fashion in the long run. They will not: instead, whatever solutions are created in the future will reflect inequities that are being generated today.

That, I think, is why Acemoglu and Johnson are so keen on having these questions decided democratically through processes that allow ordinary people to have some countervailing power against elites. The downside of democracy is that it is slow, conflictual, and a massive pain in the arse. The upside is that it allows people with different interests to defend their interests, and to collectively draw on diverse understandings of the world for a more complex mapping of plausible future developments. And when you are making decisions that may set patterns in stone for very long periods of time, you really want those who are affected by these decisions to have a say.

The second part of the weaver’s complaint is a social concern – that maximizing on aggregate wealth and power may have adverse effects for society, and may hurt some groups particularly badly. This of course, fades into the distributional problem, but it has some broader consequences too. Polanyi’s understanding of society, for example, descends in some important ways from the weaver’s critique. And again, there is an unfortunate tendency in the mainstream of economics towards a callous calculus of the ultimate good, in which the travails of those who suffer through economic adjustments are regarded as sad, in some abstract and generalized way, but a necessary cost of building a better world that will manifest itself at some hazy point in the future. At the extreme, this can turn into statements like Nassau Senior’s infamous quip that the Irish famine “would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.”

Acemoglu and Johnson are not responding to sentiments as vile as those of Nassau Senior. But I suspect that they are familiar with the attitude of much of their profession to workplace innovations that seem to improve ‘efficiency’ at the expense of making workers’ lives worse. This, I think, is why they invoke the metaphor of the panopticon early, and return to it, explicitly or implicitly, throughout. I would guess that most readers are familiar with the notion of the panopticon – a system with a central surveilling point that can overlook the activities of myriads of subjects. If you are concerned with power in the workplace, as Acemoglu and Johnson are, then the panopticon is a potent metaphor for the nexus where economic claims for efficiency may justify terrible things.

The idea springs from the same improving tradition as classical economics, and the assumption that prosperity and efficiency are intertwined to the point that they are effectively indistinguishable. Jeremy Bentham, who came up with the idea of the panopticon, was a key figure in utilitarian philosophy and a kind of proto-economist:

Samuel’s idea was to enable a few supervisors to watch over as many workers as possible. Jeremy [Bentham]’s contribution was to extend that principle to many kinds of organizations. As he explained to a friend, “You will be surprised when you come to see the efficacy which this simple and seemingly obvious contrivance promises to be to the business of schools, manufactories, Prisons, and even Hospitals.…”

The panopticon may indeed have efficiency benefits. People can get away with far less slacking, if it works as advertised. But it also comes with profound costs to human freedom. And the technologies that are at the heart of the book’s argument – machine learning and related algorithms – bear a strong and unfortunate resemblance to Bentham’s panopticon. They too, enable automated surveillance at scale, perhaps making hierarchy and intrusive surveillance much, much easier and cheaper than they used to be. As Acemoglu and Johnson note:

The situation is similarly dire for workers when new technologies focus on surveillance, as Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon intended. Better monitoring of workers may lead to some small improvements in productivity, but its main function is to extract more effort from workers and sometimes also reduce their pay

This is, I think, why Acemoglu and Johnson worry that machine learning might immiserate billions, another claim that Noah finds puzzling. Acemoglu and Johnson fear that it will not only remake the bargain between capital and labour, but radically empower authoritarians (I think they are partly wrong on this, but that authoritarian machine learning could instead lead to a different class of disasters: pick yer poison).

And algorithms, including machine learning algorithms, are having more immediate consequences within the U.S. workplace, as illustrated by this Bloomberg article on Amazon’s work practices. There are, for sure, efficiencies, of the sort that Bentham predicted, and a pay bonus that is in some ways reminiscent of Henry Ford’s (again: Noah is right about Henry Ford).

Rather than making the customer wait, Flex drivers ensure the packages are delivered the same day. They also handle a large number of same-day grocery deliveries from Amazon’s Whole Foods Market chain. Flex drivers helped keep Amazon humming during the pandemic and were only too happy to earn about $25 an hour shuttling packages after their Uber and Lyft gigs dried up.

But the efficiencies come at a stark human cost:

the moment they sign on, Flex drivers discover algorithms are monitoring their every move. Did they get to the delivery station when they said they would? Did they complete their route in the prescribed window? Did they leave a package in full view of porch pirates instead of hidden behind a planter as requested? Amazon algorithms scan the gusher of incoming data for performance patterns and decide which drivers get more routes and which are deactivated. Human feedback is rare.

… former Amazon managers … say the largely automated system is insufficiently attuned to the real-world challenges drivers face every day. Amazon knew delegating work to machines would lead to mistakes and damaging headlines, these former managers said, but decided it was cheaper to trust the algorithms than pay people to investigate mistaken firings so long as the drivers could be replaced easily. …

Inside Amazon, the Flex program is considered a great success, whose benefits far outweigh the collateral damage, said a former engineer who helped design the system. “Executives knew this was gonna shit the bed,” this person said. “That’s actually how they put it in meetings. The only question was how much poo we wanted there to be.”

Nobody particularly wants to work in an environment where algorithms are perpetually surveilling them, deciding whether they are hired or fired, with little or no recourse to human decision makers. From the perspective of management, algorithmic bedshitting is wonderfully efficient! It costs less, and is much less of a pain in the ass. And if drivers have to piss into bottles in their vans because they fear being punished by the algorithms, then so be it. This is a cost that they pay, not investors, nor managers, nor customers. Of course, human beings who care about fairness and dignity and such are likely to have a different sets of responses.

Economists, of course, are caring human beings too. But their professional dispositions may partly cut against their caring instincts, in much the same way e.g. as realist scholars in my own discipline may stifle their outrage against humanitarian catastrophes in the belief that ignoring them is to to the greater good. Perhaps, from some ethical perspectives, they are not wrong – there are a lot of look-to-the-future utilitarians out there, even if their reputation has been dented by the travails of Sam Bankman-Fried. But they are also likely to systematically underemphasize certain hurts in their understandings of the world.

Redressing such blind spots is part, I think, of what Acemoglu and Johnson want to do. Their book is written to put these questions at the center of debate rather than shoving them off to the side. They want to rescue Amazon Flex workers from the enormous condescension of futurity, and, for that matter, of the economics profession. And this is what I would love Noah to get. He is neither stupid nor evil. Nor is he unique – I think he is representative of a considerable number of economists! But not all, and there should be fewer.

Understanding Acemoglu and Johnson’s project seems really important to me. Talking, as Noah does in his review about how income inequality seems to be less of a problem right now given hot labor markets, misses their point. It is immediately unconvincing as a rejoinder to Acemoglu and Johnson’s claims about AI/automation, but more profoundly, it fails to acknowledge the difficulties that workers have had in turning this temporary market advantage into enduring structural power. If workers had unions, they could bargain over labor conditions, and push back against their workplaces being turned into automated Benthamite dystopias. That is the kind of politics that Galbraith meant to encourage with his discussion of countervailing power. And that is what Acemoglu and Johnson want to build today.

But building it is vastly harder than it ought to be, in part because of all that social influence that went into persuading judges of the joys of Law and Economics. Just a couple of weeks ago:

In the latest sign of a growing backlash within corporate America to the 88-year-old federal agency that enforces labor rights, Amazon argued in a legal filing on Thursday that the National Labor Relations Board was unconstitutional. … Amazon’s filing was part of a case before an administrative judge in which labor board prosecutors have accused Amazon of illegally retaliating against workers at a Staten Island warehouse known as JFK8, which unionized two years ago. … Wilma Liebman, a chairwoman of the labor board under President Barack Obama, called the arguments by Amazon and SpaceX “radical,” adding that “the constitutionality of the N.L.R.B. was settled nearly 90 years ago by the Supreme Court.”

Amazon believes it might get away with this, because the agenda has been set in just the ways that Noah finds bewildering. This is the result of decades of effort to reshape judicial thinking, along the lines that Ash, Chen and Naidu document. And it is paying off. There are people in Silicon Valley who not only like this agenda, but want to press it in further and more radical directions. According to e.g. Rob Reich, democracy itself is an unappealing notion to many key people in Silicon Valley. The trajectory of technology, politics and growth that they want to direct us toward is not one that I actually want to be on. And I suspect that if Noah thinks about it a little, it isn’t one that he wants to be on either. There are, indeed, parts of his response to Acemoglu and Johnson that suggest as much, and that indeed provide useful ideas to build on.

So I really, really want economics to move in the direction that Acemoglu and Johnson suggest, abandoning the Pangloss-meets-Panopticon vision at the heart of much classical political economy. Perhaps we are indeed in the best of all possible worlds, a thriving marketplace of ideas where the rich and the poor alike can aspire to accidental success in persuading judges of their views on workplace oppression! But I suspect not. Having economists thinking more systematically about the political, economic and technological conditions that would underpin a genuine and shared long term trajectory of abundance and prosperity would be a very good thing.

I do think that the profession is moving, albeit slowly. A decade ago, there were ferocious blogospheric debates about left neo-liberalism. This was a different version of the fight over whether we could just solve for progress and economic growth and assume that the distributional issues would somehow take care of themselves. I found myself on the opposite side of some very sharp disagreements with Noah’s podcast-mate and intellectual partner, Brad DeLong. I am not at all sure that we’d find ourselves on the opposite sides now, and if we did, at the least, I think we’d be able to debate each other more clearly and usefully than we did back then. So too, if Noah goes back and re-reads Acemoglu and Johnson’s book, this time with clearer signposts towards their actual argument, I think that he’d be in a much better place to contribute to this debate.

Update: See also Bill Janeway’s review, which gets much deeper into the history, and makes a broadly complementary argument.

[Reposted from Substack]



William S Berry 02.27.24 at 3:03 pm

Great piece, HF. I’ll take time later to carefully re-read and write some notes and to possibly a more analytical response. Just now I’m waking up with coffee and a late breakfast.

I do want to observe that, in the end (IIANM; it’s been like forty years since I read the book), the good doctor has the brilliant insight to finally declare that “we must cultivate our garden”.

We need a lot more cultivators!

I see Panglossian insouciance as a major curse of our time. At its absurd, mostly unacknowledged extreme (of which Pinkerism is synecdoche), it is effectively the same as the most cynical pessimism in terms of its destructive tendencies.

It is an imperative that we strike a healthy psychological balance here; otherwise, we’re bound to lose our way. We have to see and understand our condition with real clarity while somehow managing to find the strength required to fight on for life and peace and social justice in our time.


Mike Huben 02.27.24 at 3:33 pm

I love Noah, and have since I first read him long ago. He’s a great polymath who is sufficiently skeptical and liberal that I find his ideas very useful. But I think he has a few gaping holes here and there in his understanding.

Noah is incredulous about: “But Acemoglu and Johnson also spend a lot of time arguing that persuasion is also a form of power.” I think a lynching victim would consider the orator who whipped up the mob to have power. Donald Trump has no official power, yet seems to be very powerful within the Republican party. “The power of words” is obviously true. If you can establish a causal chain between the persuasion and an act of enforcement or violence, then there is obviously power in the persuasion: just indirect. Likewise if the effect is stochastic: if (say) advertising causes X% to make a decision, would using more direct power to force the same results be any different?


J, not that one 02.27.24 at 8:23 pm

No one would deny that people who are able to get the public ear are able to influence others. But that doesn’t mean we’re all clay to be molded by these “great men.” A theory that people like Jobs are the cause of society’s reluctance to regulate technology does need a theory about what base Jobs was working from. It can’t be just “I personally think common sense is that technology is always dangerous and should need special permission to do anything, so someone thoughtless must have used an illegitimate soapbox to influence the masses. If someone feels that way, they have every right to say so, of course. (Whether they get heard or not depends on their power.

I’ve noticed the concept of power works in a funny way. If I successfully get a hearing, I can claim that’s because power is on my side and that power proves I’m legitimate. If you successfully get a hearing, I can claim that’s because you have power and that proves you’re not legitimate.

I assume there is a wider project here of trying to persuade people to avoid tech worldviews, whatever those are, for something else (whatever that might turn out to be), thus the somewhat alarming idea that you might have no basis for your beliefs than that Elon Musk got into your head. I don’t want Elon Musk in my head either, but I find diminishing returns in reading yet another long argument to the effect that all the bad things are because the voters can’t defend their brains against him.


Bill Benzon 02.27.24 at 9:01 pm

Excellent, Henry, at least as far as I got. I made it about half-way though before I just had to make a comment. I’m thinking about the piece you and Cosma Shalizi did about the culture of Doomerism, which is very much a Silicon Valley phenomenon. And is also very relevant to any discussion of ideas, influence, persuasion, and POWER. I was shocked when such a mainstream magazine as Time ran a (crazy-ass) op-ed by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

I am reasonably familiar with his work. I have several times attempted to read a long piece he published in 2007 about Logical Organization in General Intelligence. I’ve been unable to finish it. Why? Because it’s not very good. It’s the kind of thing a really bright and creative sophomore does when they’ve read a lot of stuff and decide to write it up. You read it, think the guy’s bright, if he gets some discipline, he could do some very good work. Well, 2007 was awhile ago, but as far as I can tell, he still doesn’t have much intellectual discipline and certainly doesn’t have deep insight into current AI or into human intelligent. But Time Magazine gave him scarce space in their widely read magazine.

That’s power. Now, as far as I know, he’s not again been able to place his ideas in such a venue. But even once is pretty damn good.

How’d that come about? Well there’s a story, one I don’t know in detail. But the story certainly involves money from Silicon Valley billionaires. He’s been funded by Elon Musk and, I believe, by Peter Thiel (who’s since become disillusioned with some of those folks). There’s a lot of money coming into and through the world centered around LessWrong (which, BTW, has the best community-style user interface I’ve seen) from tech billionaires.

On technological trajectories, Acemoglu is one of a team of writers of a 2021 report out of Harvard, How AI Fails Us. Here’s the abstract:

The dominant vision of artifcial intelligence imagines a future of large-scale autonomous systems outperforming humans in an increasing range of felds. This “actually existing AI” vision misconstrues intelligence as autonomous rather than social and relational. It is both unproductive and dangerous, optimizing for artifcial metrics of human replication rather than for systemic augmentation, and tending to concentrate power, resources, and decision-making in an engineering elite. Alternative visions based on participating in and augmenting human creativity and cooperation have a long history and underlie many celebrated digital technologies such as personal computers and the internet. Researchers and funders should redirect focus from centralized autonomous general intelligence to a plurality of established and emerging approaches that extend cooperative and augmentative traditions as seen in successes such as Taiwan’s digital democracy project and collective intelligence platforms like Wikipedia. We conclude with a concrete set of recommendations and a survey of alternative traditions.

That is much better than the view that dominates AI development today. Moreover, I believe it to be more technically feasible. But, despite the Harvard imprimatur, it doesn’t have nearly as much power


Bill Benzon 02.27.24 at 9:03 pm

Whoops: The last sentence should read:

But, despite the Harvard imprimatur, it doesn’t have nearly as much power behind it as the Silicon Valley view of “a future of large-scale autonomous systems outperforming humans in an increasing range of fields.”


Alex SL 02.27.24 at 9:44 pm

It seems quite obviously correct that choices made yesterday about how to operationalise certain technologies (and not to regulate certain of those arrangements out of existence) have today locked in who gets what and who doesn’t get anything. Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are effectively monopolies in certain fields of digital services, locking everybody from small companies to entire governments into these vendors, with all the logical consequences from the vendors having virtually-guaranteed cash flow outsized negotiating leverage across these vendors having become massive single points of failure to these vendors having outsized ‘too big too fail’ style influence over policy decisions. It need not have ended up like that.

What puzzles me about A&J is how they seem to think that, once that power is locked in and the trajectory already foreseeable, we can change anything by saying, hey, let’s have more democracy and equality. Their own observations disprove that being a solution, because of the power already accumulated by people who will flip over the metaphorical game board before allowing any democratisation or equality.


LFC 02.28.24 at 2:32 am

Re social influence as a form of power — see, e.g., E.H. Carr’s discussion of “power over opinion” in The Twenty Years’ Crisis or, for probably the most telegraphic and bluntest version, Marx’s dictum that the ruling ideas of an age are those of its ruling class.

Even if one rejects the view, as I’m inclined to, that there is a single, unified ruling class, the notion that people with a larger megaphone — whether by virtue of, say, their academic positions or, in the case of the SV tech titans and the Koch brothers et al., their wealth — have more social influence than the modal “punter” (whatever a punter is exactly, I’m not taking the time to look it up in the dictionary of slang) seems hard to disagree with.

Indeed, the normative thrust (for lack of a better word) of A & J as described in the OP — more equality (economic and political), more democracy, more countervailing power — seems hard to disagree with. Or put more positively, it seems like a program or a set of preferences that most left-liberals already agree with.


Richard Melvin 02.28.24 at 3:33 pm

I think a lynching victim would consider the orator who whipped up the mob to have power. Donald Trump has no official power, yet seems to be very powerful within the Republican party. “

I do think this is misleading to the point of being obfuscatory, Trump is not some rhetorical genius whose superpowers dupe the unwitting. He merely represents a faction that has sufficient explicitly coercive and violent power that the authorities feel limited in how they can respond. Those authorities are, presumably, currently hoping that going through all the procedural norms perfectly will forstall violence; they may even end up being proven correct.

Just as in a lynching, the actual power is in the mob. For example, it would have taken an implausible degree of rhetorical prowess to have convinced them to go lynch a respectable white person. And many lynchings happened without there being any noticeably skilled individual instigator.

So the physical power of the mob, based on violence, was necessary and sufficient to actually perform the deed. And, for a long time, and until it wasn’t, to deter punishment. There was almost always some fraction of the police and judiciary who ideally would have liked to arrest murderers; they rarely felt able to arrest half the citizenry.

If lynching fully returns, as some recent incidents have skirted the edge of, it will not be because of a more inequal distribution of individual rhetorical skill. But because of change in the distribution of actual power between lynchers, lynchee and police.

On the other hand, if such considerations were to entirely cease being politically relevant, then it would be fine to repurpose the now-obselete ‘power’ to refer to simple persuasiveness, or plain wealth.

Such a time may come to pass; it would be a true Panglossian who would say that time is now.


someone who remembers the banh mi in the oberlin cafeteria 02.28.24 at 4:19 pm

but LFC, don’t you know that billionaires have no power and the girl at starbucks with a good haircut who rolls her eyes at you when you ask for her number is an elite? elon musk bought a whole social media company and he posts on it constantly about how hes downtrodden and silenced by the woke mob. this is not an uncommon position, around 100 million americans agree with him.

to put it another way, the ruling idea of our current ruling class, here in america in the year of our lord 2024 is that “actually if you think about it a 14 year old trans girl who posts ‘lmao, opinion discarded, terf’ in response to a j k rowling tweet is the most serious threat to the earth that can be imagined”. they are absolutely frantic for more deference and can’t get enough even when they literally own the newspapers, tv channels and social media companies.

to turn specifically to the dominant american tech ideology, they routinely argue that the worst possible outcome is a powerful ai BUT ITS WOKE!! there’s literally millions of dollars right now being spent trying to figure out a way to have the ai say racial slurs but only some of the time! the entirety of investment in grok exists, for example, because a rich tech guy got mad that the ai wouldn’t say racial slurs to save a life. the primary ideology of tech elites is the hatred of black people and, of course, women


Neville Morley 02.28.24 at 8:08 pm

Pedantically – and I’m not sure how tangentially – “il faut cultiver notre jardin” is the concluding thought of Candide, not Pangloss; at best, the latter doesn’t contradict it:

“…et Pangloss disait quelquefois à Candide: Tous les événements sont enchaînés dans le meilleur des mondes possibles; car enfin si vous n’aviez pas été chassé d’un beau château à grands coups de pied dans le derrière pour l’amour de mademoiselle Cunégonde, si vous n’aviez pas été mis à l’inquisition, si vous n’aviez pas couru l’Amérique à pied, si vous n’aviez pas donné un bon coup d’épée au baron, si vous n’aviez pas perdu tous vos moutons du bon pays d’Eldorado, vous ne mangeriez pas ici des cédrats confits et des pistaches. Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.”


MrMister 02.28.24 at 9:37 pm

First: I agree that Noah Smith’s critique of A&J’s notion of power misses the mark. Nonetheless, after reading both Noah’s review, and this review of his review, I was surprised by seeing what struck me as some very cogent objections to A&J which receive no attention.

The A&J thesis as I understand it from these reviews, and as endorsed here, is: technological innovations can either be worker-assisting or worker-replacing; the former are equality-promoting and the latter are equality-undermining; the feedback effects of inequality, where those with unequal power are positioned to get even more of it, in combination with path-dependence of social evolution, make it very hard to start down a worker-replacing path and then switch to a worker-assisting one; so we need people/worker power that will evaluate new technologies and engage in research priority setting, so we only end up going down the good path.

One critique of Noah’s is that A&J do not operationalize the distinction between worker-assisting and worker-replacing technologies, and that in fact almost every technology does both. So when they hooray one development and boo another, and weave all the results into a big narrative, it looks like the actual work is all being done by arbitrary choices in how they code the phenomena. He also argues that, even taking their possibly made-up coding of this distinction for granted, they do not offer reasonable empirical evidence that it can be mapped onto how well labor is doing in absolute terms or against capital. These don’t strike me as just “historical details” (is that what that line refers to?), but instead an attack on whether A&J have managed to state something clear enough to test, and, if so, whether there is any reason to believe it is true.

Another critique is that, however vexed trying to untangle and sum the worker-assisting versus worker-replacing effects of historical technologies is, it is infinitely easier to do that forecasting the effects of future technologies. Hence, while you could get committees of deep state mandarins together, or empanel citizen assemblies, or whatever else, and task them with only approving new technologies and research directions when they lead us in pro-social directions, this would have serious liberty and efficiency costs without necessarily realizing any equality gains–because what they are being asked to do is impossible. You can also empanel a citizen assembly to weave straw into gold, but you won’t get any gold. I have some experience in the regulation of medical research, and this point certainly struck a chord with me. Nobody likes IRBs! While I do think there is an important place for prior restraint in medical research due to special features of medicine, the notion of society-wide IRBs for every time someone tries to invent twitter or whatever is an idea that should make the blood run cold.

This, I think, connects more directly to what you say about growth and distribution at the end of your post, and another way of putting it would be: I don’t think “move fast, break things, grow grow grow and let god sort it out” is true. However, I think it’s still probably closer to true than “first we decide our social ideals, then we empower a committee, and then, IF the committee gives you a permit, you are allowed to grow.”


Peter Dorman 02.29.24 at 12:03 am

This is a very nice post, but I’d like to add two things to it. First, the concept of power in any setting is connected to the concept of interest (broadly construed of course). So, when talking about the structure of power, it is nearly imperative to also talk about the structure of interest. My sense of A & J is that they tend to be too abstract on the interest front, at least some times. Is that fair?

Second, it’s important not to get hung up on the front end of persuasive or cultural power. Yes, at first glance what we see and hear are pundits, advertisers, influencers, public intellectuals, etc., but their careers, opportunities, resources and even sometimes scripts are directed by organizations that have to be funded and managed. The Koch academic empire is a great example of this. Its role in cultural power is much more consequential than the rhetorical skills of a particular academic on their payroll. For the past century or more we have seen the rise of a massive industry whose product is public opinion. It spends many billions per year, and by now it should be clear that, if it didn’t have its intended effects, it wouldn’t be raking in the revenues.

Incidentally, I don’t want to give the impression that industrialized thought-shapers always promulgate the ideas of their own paid propagandists. Often the money goes toward rewarding journalists who cover favored opinion-mongers, paying for media that amplify their message, and so on. I’m not saying that the specific tech bro’s A & J are railing against are paid stooges. Rather, resources are deployed to ensure that their views are the ones we’ll hear and not those of their colleagues or peers who have a different take.

For an example of this perspective applied to a particular policy issue, see the research that’s been done on the Atlas network, which funds and promotes climate denial wherever it can find it.


notGoodenough 02.29.24 at 11:30 am

An interesting discussion. If I may offer a rushed thought I have yet to tease into a coherent comment, I would suggest that it is worth delineating between power (in the sense of social regulation) and power (in the sense of social regulation by the few). I am wary to offer definitions (one never knows if a Cynic holding a plucked chicken might be lurking nearby!), but (for the purposes of this comment only, and being careful to note that I realise other people are not using these terms in this way) if we imagine that there is Power (a form of social regulatory function; a set of processes by which society generates, applies, and enforces norms) and Domination (a form of social regulatory function exercised by only a subset of society; power exercised by a privileged sector implying hierarchical relationships), then it seems reasonable to me that Power could be considered a product of culture formed from social relations – essentially norms as a central operation of society, determined not a priori but rather developed as social constructs forged by a dialectic reality between individuals and society, influenced by the culture and society from which it springs (society being produced collectively, but modelled individually, so to speak). By way of contrast, Domination could then be considered to be a distortion in which Power is determined not collectively but rather (to put it crudely) through relations of command and obedience by the minority over the majority. Thus. Influence (representing asymmetries of reciprocal determinations as a function of asymmetries of personal characteristics) can be neutral within a Power system but not within a Domination system– in essence, it is when Influence is a tool of Domination that it becomes problematic. This would also, of course, be applicable to other asymmetries – for example, Authority (representing asymmetries of reciprocal determinations as a function of asymmetries of competences) could be similarly problematic when deployed in service of Domination. From this very crude hypothesis, perhaps some general ideas could be formed. The first is that Domination (in the sense I use within this comment only) is the issue; the second is that it is when Influence is used within a Domination system that it becomes a problem; and thirdly that Influence, within a Domination system, would be one tool (and not the only tool) in service to the minority. Thus, it would be reasonable to suggest that Influence without Domination is not necessarily problematic; but also, if one happens to live within a Domination system it would be rather short-sighted to ignore the issue that Influence represents (but also, crucially, equally short-sighted to ignore other tools of Domination too, or to ignore the underlying problem of Domination). I would also note that there do seem to be some misconceptions about Influence floating about – we are not talking about hypnotising an audience with charisma so that they obey your every command, but rather the Power (or Domination) which comes from asymmetrical relationships leading to changes in behaviours and beliefs (small nudges rather than big pushes) that then impact social norms. Within a Domination system, it is about promoting some narratives (those which serve the minority) and casting doubt on others (those which do not); it is about ensuring that those promoting the minority serving arguments are listened to, have a supportive network they can draw upon, and can reinforce that narrative while others are isolated and frozen out; it is about creating narratives so that most people (who, let’s be realistic, rarely have the time, interest, or expertise to delve deeply into these sorts of discussions) do not have a clear thread to follow which can lead to organising around opposition to Domination. Finally, I would point out that individual Influence, as a tool, is neither successful all the time nor successful with all the people – but it is not supposed to be, nor does that matter (the point, in a Domination system, is that it acts in concert with other forms of individual Influence so that the overall narrative is shifted to something more favourable). Or, to put it metaphorically, the Merchants of Doubt are ultimately part of the same guild as the Merchants of Fear, and of Wrath, and of Self-Interest, etc.

Just a thought.


TM 02.29.24 at 2:34 pm

“In the words of a Glasgow weaver, “The theorists in political economy attach more importance to the aggregate accumulation of wealth and power than to the manner of its diffusion, or its effects on the interior of society.””

Thatweaver sue was well educated and well read, and eloquent too. Did he have a PhD?

The kind of thought (expressed by Peter Dorman) also popped into my head:
“it’s important not to get hung up on the front end of persuasive or cultural power. Yes, at first glance what we see and hear are pundits, advertisers, influencers, public intellectuals, etc., but their careers, opportunities, resources and even sometimes scripts are directed by organizations that have to be funded and managed.”

There is a huge discourse around the idea that this “cultural elite” thing (OMG they are so woke!) is where the real power in Western democracies is centered, as opposed to, say, billionaire capitalists and their bought politicians. Many people actually believe this. It’s a very powerful piece of political persuasion.


TM 02.29.24 at 2:34 pm

“In the words of a Glasgow weaver, “The theorists in political economy attach more importance to the aggregate accumulation of wealth and power than to the manner of its diffusion, or its effects on the interior of society.””

That weaver sure was well educated and well read, and eloquent too. Did he have a PhD?

The kind of thought (expressed by Peter Dorman) also popped into my head:
“it’s important not to get hung up on the front end of persuasive or cultural power. Yes, at first glance what we see and hear are pundits, advertisers, influencers, public intellectuals, etc., but their careers, opportunities, resources and even sometimes scripts are directed by organizations that have to be funded and managed.”

There is a huge discourse around the idea that this “cultural elite” thing (OMG they are so woke!) is where the real power in Western democracies is centered, as opposed to, say, billionaire capitalists and their bought politicians. Many people actually believe this. It’s a very powerful piece of political persuasion.


J, not that one 02.29.24 at 3:57 pm

I don’t see how A&J are compatible with a traditional idea of a ruling class (which they seem to have replaced with a frictionless economic model that can only be distorted by extraneous forces such as people with the wrong values). If they had, they would see tech as the replacement of one ruling class with another, rather than the replacement of democracy with a ruling class.

The identification of the ruling class as of 30 years ago with “democracy” suggested either a mystical belief in the unity of the (right sort of) ordinary people with (the right sort of) elites, under supposedly normal conditions. Either that or a belief that democracy means educated elites vote and get what they want, and others can take their chances at rising if they like, and otherwise don’t count as part of “the people.” At best, it suggests a lack of any clear idea of what democracy might be and the use of the term purely rhetorically. Which is fine, of course, as long as one doesn’t take it too seriously.


LFC 02.29.24 at 8:57 pm

J not that one @16

I’m not sure whether your comment is intended as a comment on mine @7.
However, assuming it might have been partly that, I’ll say a couple of things.

First, I’ve read Henry’s OP but haven’t read A&J’s book, so I would prefer not to say much of anything about what A&J might or might not think about various things. (Of course that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.) Offhand, based on reading the OP, it’s not clear to me that A&J see current technology titans as representing “the replacement of democracy with a ruling class” (quoting your phrase), but as I say I haven’t read the book. Nor did I mean to imply @7 that A&J saw things that way, though perhaps I did imply it inadvertently.

Second, there are of course various definitions of “democracy” and, no doubt, various definitions of “ruling class.” As I said @7, I don’t think the U.S. has a single, unified ruling class, but I perhaps could be persuaded otherwise.

On some definitions of “democracy,” a democracy is compatible with what could be called a governing class, if not a ruling class. Take for example Britain in the late 19th century, after the Third Reform Act (1884). The male franchise had been expanded several times but was still not universal, and women did not have the vote. Per Wiki, some women (those over 30 who met certain property qualifications) got the vote in 1918, but not until 1928 were there universal male and female voting rights for those over 21. Still, many people would say that Britain in 1890 was (a sort of) democracy, and it’s also fairly clear that it had a governing class (though as with every such statement one could doubtless find disagreement).


William S. Berry 02.29.24 at 9:27 pm

I’m thinking that “Glasgow weaver” was mostl likely a fellow named Adam Smith.

I’m also guessing he had the degree of Doctor of Natural Philosophy, which might be something like a Ph.D.?


J, not that one 03.01.24 at 7:48 pm

LFC @ 17 I mentioned “ruling class” because you did, but I don’t see my comment as really discussing your own comment. Is it possible that A&J are making arguments in defense of “democracy” but find it possible to believe they’re part of democracy but (say) I am not? Sure. Would that eventuality absolve me from ever reading their book or caring about their arguments? Absolutely.

Do I think that’s what they have in mind? No. I think they’re just starting from the assumption that “democracy” is the base level of politics, society, culture, and so on, and perceiving “Elon Musk” as representative of everything new and toxic about the newest technologies. Those are perfectly fine assumptions for some purposes, but probably not part of where their real expertise lies.

Do I think that’s what some readers who refer to them uncritically have in mind, not so far below the surface that it’s undetectable? Absolutely, I think some do.


Ray Davis 03.01.24 at 9:57 pm

TM & William S. Berry, although Google has declined as a general purpose search engine, Google Books remains useful.
The source and the author.


William Berry 03.01.24 at 10:52 pm

@Ray Davis: thnx

I was distracted by the Glasgow; the uni there has an Adam Smith School of Economics (style?).

As an aside, I want to observe that: Just as there are “Millers” who might live in big, rambling houses on The Floss (or something), there is a flour-caked, sweaty fellow scooping grain, filling and lugging big sacks of flour or meal, and taking care of the stones and other machinery, all while earning a few pennies a day, there are also “Weavers” and weavers.

The latter are the actual millers and weavers. The owners can refer to themselves however they like, because of course they can. I’m pretty sure that none of them ever refer to themselves as greedy capitalist pigs, but that’s just how it was (and still is; at least from the POV of one particular, mostly burned out, union activist I can think of!).


Phil H 03.03.24 at 1:45 am

You literally quote the Luddites with approval? This is… nonsense. Smith gives specific examples of where he sees the book as going wrong, for example, the Haber process. You just give theoretical arguments. Specifics are better!
As I understand it, there are two processes under discussion here: (1) the process of increasing total wealth; (2) the process of equalising the distribution of wealth. Smith is saying, crudely, yay for the first. You and the book under discussion seem to be saying boo because the second has been neglected.
But these aren’t contradictory positions! One can legitimately hold both – and I certainly think that one should hold both. The increase in total wealth brought about by automation and other industrial advances is to be celebrated; at the same time, we can acknowledge that there is much to do on the equity side, because social inclusion and equality are also goods. Confounding these two separate issues is not helpful in any way.
(The right wing claim that equity has to be sacrificed for total gains is just another way of confounding these two separate questions, and is equally wrong, IMO.)


eg 03.03.24 at 5:59 pm

You are very kind to Noah Smith. I am less surprised when a courtier expresses (feigns?) bewilderment at critical analyses of the power for which they are committed apologists.


TF79 03.04.24 at 1:11 am

Nice discussion, but I’m chuckling at the idea of Acemoglu as some plucky outsider trying to get the economics profession to listen, as opposed to him being a professor at MIT with a quarter million citations, who happens to be the most influential economist of the last 10 years https://ideas.repec.org/top/top.person.all10.html.

Also, “The panopticon may indeed have efficiency benefits. People can get away with far less slacking, if it works as advertised. But it also comes with profound costs to human freedom.” Reducing the cost to produce some good or service by creating massive costs for others is not efficiency! Destroying the environment to save a nickel in production costs is not economically efficient! I can see how you chide some economists for forgetting that people’s utility functions should also be accounted for in the First Fundamental Theorem, but the idea that “economics” as a field overlooks such things is a bit dismissive (particularly given that there are fields like public economics, environmental economics, labor economics etc that very much think about these things).

Comments on this entry are closed.