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The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick,  and Will  (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton von [Cowen, Tyler]
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The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton Kindle Edition

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"One of the most talked-about books among economists right now."
-Renee Montagne, "Morning Edition", NPR

"Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade's Thomas Friedman."
-Kelly Evans, "The Wall Street Journal"

"Cowen's book...will have a profound impact on the way people think about the last thirty years."
-Ryan Avent,

"As Cowen makes clear, many of this era's technological breakthroughs produce enormous happiness gains, but surprisingly little economic activity.
-David Brooks, "The New York Times"


America is in disarray and our economy is failing us. We have been through the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and talk of a double-dip recession persists. Americans are not pulling the world economy out of its sluggish state -- if anything we are looking to Asia to drive a recovery.Median wages have risen only slowly since the 1970s, and this multi-decade stagnation is not yet over. By contrast, the living standards of earlier generations would double every few decades. The Democratic Party seeks to expand government spending even when the middle class feels squeezed, the public sector doesn’t always perform well, and we have no good plan for paying for forthcoming entitlement spending. To the extent Republicans have a consistent platform, it consists of unrealistic claims about how tax cuts will raise revenue and stimulate economic growth. The Republicans, when they hold power, are often a bigger fiscal disaster than the Democrats. How did we get into this mess?Imagine a tropical island where the citrus and bananas hang from the trees. Low-hanging literal fruit -- you don’t even have to cook the stuff.In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed lots of low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century: free land; immigrant labor; and powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are barer than we would like to think. That’s it. That is what has gone wrong.The problem won’t be solved overnight, but there are reasons to be optimistic. We simply have to recognize the underlying causes of our past prosperity—low hanging fruit—and how we will come upon more of it.


  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Dateigröße: 672 KB
  • Seitenzahl der Print-Ausgabe: 128 Seiten
  • Verlag: Dutton (25. Januar 2011)
  • Verkauf durch: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ASIN: B004H0M8QS
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Format: Kindle Edition Verifizierter Kauf
The Great Stagnation is a small essay on the recent development and possible future of the US and to some extent of all developed Western nations. Cowen lists all the common trouble spots but offers no strategy for or any actual solutions.
Looking back from today Cowen assesses past inventions and their subsequent successful commercialization as low hanging fruit, which to my opinion is misleading. Achieving innovation in the past was as difficult as it is today. Inventions have been made during all centuries all over the planet and it took entrepreneurs to turn those inventions into great innovations that produced income and improved the world we live in. All nations had their share here. But it is also true that great inventive nations can falter and lose their place at the top (e.g. the Roman Empire or China).
All other aliments mentioned by Cowen are those of any Western Nation: education and school curriculum, health care, government involvement.
What is true is that today we have a global market, global competition and a global continuous quest for new products, services and processes.
True is also, that the key for success in today`s postindustrial world today is knowledge and creativity.
All Asian nations have understood this since antiquity (at least since Confucius times) and they know, that and prosperity for the individual lies with social advancement and social advancement can be achieved with higher education aka knowledge.
While even former seemingly great innovative nations like Japan don't offer any answers on the above questions now (and probably never had them) other nations like Korea show some interesting concepts and planning. On a global scale there is no stagnation, only wealth is produced also in some other parts of the world and we have to accept the challenges to stay competitive.
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This book presents in excellent style and language actual economic and social currents in the US and compares them to former periods in US economic history laying out the origins and the development of the current phase of 'Stagnation'. The author makes a very clear distinction between structural changes in the economic system and our personal everyday impressions highlighting sharply that actual marketing dynamics (like those driven by the internet) only have a small impact on the real economic outcome. This is certainly an eye-opener for people confounding automated service processing with ground breaking innovation. It's a great read because it combines sharp thinking with clear and fluent language for an elegant scientific essay. However, the book offers more an analysis of the current inertia than possible solutions as the author seems to stick with the scientific thinking box of our present time. But his brilliant overview and structural analysis may certainly help to start thinking out of this box - the sooner the better! I can only recommend this insightful lecture.
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The book advocates a plausible thesis but contains much too little material to support it. In particular it fails to look at alternative explanations. Good introductory material, but not more.
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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) HASH(0x90da2180) von 5 Sternen 107 Rezensionen
171 von 177 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
HASH(0x90dc9c84) von 5 Sternen Well-written and perceptive, but raises questions... 27. Januar 2011
Von Bill Jarvis - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Kindle Edition
"The Great Stagnation" offers a very concise and well thought-out essay on the relationship between innovation and prosperity. The first chapter, which shows how median incomes have stagnated in recent years as the economy's "low hanging fruit" has gotten scarce is especially well done. The parts on health care and education are also very good.

Cowen's central idea is that the pace of innovation has slowed, and that we are now on a "technological plateau" that makes further growth challenging. If you consider technology in the broad sense (energy, transportation, home, etc), this makes sense as things have not changed a lot in recent decades. However, I think it is also true that progress has been highly concentrated in information technology and communications, and that things continue to advance rapidly in this area. Cowen notes this but seems to feel that the Internet is the only really major innovation.

Cowen argues that what we need is a new burst of innovation that will propel economic growth. Here is the problem I see with that: Cowen writes that "a lot of our major innovations are springing up in sectors where a lot of work is done by machines, not by human beings." In fact if you look at companies like Google or Facebook, or entire industries like semiconductors, computers, Internet or biotech, there are really not a lot of jobs in total and certainly not a lot for middle skill people. If there is manufacturing it is either heavily automated or offshore.

The question is: if today's innovations are already creating industries that are not labor-intensive and rely instead on technology, why would the future be different? Won't the new burst of innovation that Cowen calls for create even more technology-intensive industries...and few jobs?
188 von 205 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
HASH(0x90dcc078) von 5 Sternen Great essay, wish people would read it before reviewing it 31. Oktober 2011
Von Chuck Crane - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
Some reviewers have done a good job here, but some have utterly missed major points, if they have read the essay at all, which I doubt, so I will give potential readers an outline.

I. The low-hanging fruit we ate
..A. Examples in the United States
....1. Free land (Homestead Act, etc.)
....2. Technological breakthroughs (electricity, motor vehicles, telephone, radio, television, computers etc.)
....3. Smart, uneducated kids (who were made productive through excellent public education).
....4. This is a partial list; clearly other candidates can be proposed, e.g. cheap fossil fuels.
..B. Examples in other countries ("catch-up growth")
....1. Leveraging the technological breakthroughs of the West (e.g. China, India)
....2. Smart, uneducated kids (e.g. China, India)
..C. MEDIAN income growth in the U.S. has slowed notably since 1973.
....1. Decline in household size is not the cause.
....2. Unmeasured quality improvements (think electronic gadgetry) are not a counter (because there is
...... also unmeasured quality degradation, think traffic jams and AIDS)
..D. Rate of technical innovation has declined notably since 1873 and even more since 1955
....1. Innovation is getting harder; the low fruit has been picked.
....2. Recent innovations have slight marginal benefits
..E. Recent and current innovation is more geared to PRIVATE goods than to PUBLIC goods.
....**This is the driver of the Great Stagnation.
....1. Extracting resources from the government (subsidies for solar power, farm products, other junk;
.....useless construction; useless government employees; legal services, etc.) by lobbying.
....2. Extreme protections of intellectual property (e.g. by ridiculous patent laws that grant monopolies for
...... incandescently obvious ideas, enabled by our retarded judiciary)
....3. Recent financial innovations (CDO's, derivatives, etc.) that benefit Wall Street at public expense.

II. Our New (not so productive) Economy
..A. Most recent productivity gains in the private sector have been achieved by cutting out dead wood
....("discovering who isn't doing much and firing them").
..B. GDP statistics are flawed because they value expenditure at cost; actual value of the expenditure is
.... unknown in sectors where market forces do not operate.
..C. Underperforming sectors where valuation at cost is a big problem:
....1. Government.
......a. The marginal value of government, even if positive, falls as government grows larger.
........(1) Basic expenditures deliver high value. e.g. police, basic infrastructure, national security)
........(2) Ancillary expenditures deliver less value (e.g. bridges to nowhere, urban renewal boondoggles,
......... salaries for school administrators and federal drones
......b. Because government contribution to GDP is valued at cost, the larger the government grows,
........ the more GDP growth and living standards are overstated.
....2. Health care
......a. No bloody clue what things are actually worth; they are valued at cost.
......b. America currently spends 17% of GDP on health care, with outcomes worse than countries
....... that spend far less.
......c. Disproportionate spending on end care for the elderly.
......d. David Cutler's study: health care productivity growth 1995-2005 was negative.
....3. Education
......a. 6% of GDP at present.
......b. No improvements in student reading or math performance since mid 70's.
......c. But we are spending (constant dollars) twice a much now per student as we did then.
......d. High school graduation rate peaked at 80% in late 60's.
......e. Government claims of 88% graduation rate are nonsense.
......f. 20% of all new high school credentials each year come from passing equivalency tests.
... This is where Cowan fails to state solutions clearly, which may disappoint readers, but his point is that
... these are areas where innovative thinking is required and good solutions need to be developed. My summary
... and suggestions:
....1. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." Use market approaches, intelligently ascertain value by
..... other means, and if measurement fails, arbitrarily force cuts in low-performing sectors (as a last resort).
....2. Government: 10% staff cuts. Strict spending limits pegged to per-capita government spending during a
.... benchmark period.
....3. Education: Standardized tests, charter schools, e-learning, vouchers (all of course resisted by the
..... education lobby).
....4. Health care: determine what works and pay only for that. Extending the life of an 90-year-old terminally
..... ill person for one month at a cost of $200,000 is not something that works.

III. Does the Internet Change Everything?
..A. Similar to early years of industrial revolution (advances made by amateurs)
..B. Hard to measure its productivity because its value lies largely in the mental dimension; most stuff on the
... internet is free.
....1. Traditional activity does occur (advertising, sale of goods). eBay, Amazon, Craigslist, ads on Google.
....2. While a public good, benefits of the Internet skewed to the intellectually curious.
....3. GDP is understated to extent it does not include the value of free internet pleasures.
..C. As an innovation, the internet has generated few jobs and revenue, compared to earlier innovations.
... (Example: Google employs 20,000, Twitter 300)
..D. Internet has also destroyed jobs in the music industry, book stores, and other forms of entertainment.
..E. So we're getting away from materialism, but it really hurts and people are yelping about it.

IV. The Government of Low-hanging Fruit
..A. Days of government largess are past; we can't slop the public trough like we used to.
..B. We won't be getting real income growth of 2% to 3%. We'll be lucky with 1%.
..C. Tax cuts without spending cuts (right wing approach) are untenable in the long term.
..D. Taking from the rich is also untenable in the long term; top 5% already pays for 43% of the federal
... government; top 1% for 27%.
..E. As real growth stagnates, demands from interest groups (corporations for tax breaks, K-12 teachers for job
... security, medical device makers for Medicare payments, public employees for pensions) will grow more
... strident. Expect more vociferous arguments about how to divide up the stagnant pie.
..F. Because government cannot continue to grow under current conditions, Liberals have become the new
... conservatives, supporting the status quo of handouts, bribes, and squandering.

V. Why did we have such a big financial crisis?
....1. We made plans expecting continued 3% productivity growth and the asset prices such growth would bring.
....2. We were lulled by successful handling of prior crises (e.g. the S&L bust and real estate bubble in the
..... 80's) into believing all risk could be managed effectively.
....3. Overconfidence was the problem. For everyone. Borrowers, investors, bankers, politicians, regulators.
..B. Markets and government failed miserably in estimating risk.
..C. Government encouraged risk by taking by overlooking accounting scandals (Freddie and Fannie) and promoting
... home ownership for everybody.
..D. Short-term response to stagnant incomes was to borrow against appreciated assets (home equity loans,
... mortgage refis), foolishly expecting continued asset appreciation. From 1993 through 2005,
... homeowners extracted equity equal to 11.5% of GDP.
..E. Fiscal stimulus in 2009 was inadequate, but a larger stimulus would not have helped. Problem is not lack of
... aggregate demand, but lack of revenue-generating innovation.
..F. Replacing private debt with public debt solves nothing. Sooner or later you have to pay the piper.
..G. The internet, by giving people much to do for free, may be exacerbating the current stagnation.

VI. Can we fix things?
..A. Promote favorable trends
....1. India and China
......a. Science and engineering interest in India and China: should yield innovations we can exploit.
......b. Offloading unskilled labor abroad gives us more time to pursue innovation (if we are smart enough).
......c. Consumers in China and India can offer a market for our innovations.
....2. Internet may do more for revenue generation in the future
......a. Promotes scientific learning and makes science more of a meritocracy; ideas rapidly shared and improved.
........ (Archaic intellectual property laws will need to change if we are to take advantage of this)
......b. Promotes self-education; a lot better than watching TV.
......c. These should all yield productivity gains.
....3. Improvements in K-12 education
......a. Majority of electorate no longer sides with education lobby.
......b. School choice, charter schools, incentives, better monitoring are now in favor.
....4. Raise the social status of scientists
......a. Science is what fuels economic growth, yet we reward law, medicine, and finance.
......b. [Aside: this is not the case in China and India, where engineers and scientists are more highly
....... esteemed, and occupy the highest offices in government. Here, we have poli sci graduates running things.]
......c. Culture of science is what drove the industrial revolution.
......d. We should not trust individual scientists uncritically, but we should respect science at the higher
....... level (a lot more than law or finance)
..B. Avoid unfavorable trends
....1. Cool the rhetoric, avoid useless strife.
....2. Stick to facts. Educate yourself. Don't demonize those you disagree with.
....3. A prolonged period of slow growth need not be bad -- Japan has tolerated it very well.
..C. Final Word
....1. The next low-hanging fruit may pose dangers. Be vigilant and quick to respond.
....2. Axis and Communist powers turned new technologies to destructive and oppressive ends.
....3. Balance of power can be upset.
56 von 63 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
HASH(0x90dcd558) von 5 Sternen Some good points, but many blank spots 9. Juni 2011
Von Chris Varo - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Kindle Edition
Tyler Cowen: The Great Stagnation

This nice little book is worth reading. Tyler Cohen has correctly identified several almost unique circumstances that helped America become great and powerful. Some low hanging fruit like free land, innovation, millions of immigrants seeking work (and ready to work for pennies), millions of young people wanting to get education; scientific progress and technical innovation.

The book contains very sharp observations. For instance, the author notices that innovation has moved lately in the wrong direction:
"If one sentence were to sum up the mechanism driving the Great Stagnation, it is this: Recent and current innovation is more geared to private goods that to public goods. That simple observation ties together the three major macroeconomic events of our time: growing income inequality, stagnant median income, and, as we will see in chapter five, the financial crisis.:

Not only this. Cowen points out that "Top American earners are increasingly concentrated in the financial sector of the economy."

The booklet is easy to read, the style is lively and intellectually entertaining. When I reached the end, however, I said: Oops, was that all? Too many blank spots left!

Here is a major blank spot: The dollar. Talking about low hanging fruit, the author somehow missed the dollar. By becoming the world reserve currency after WW2, the dollar gave this country an enormous financial advantage. It became not only a low hanging fruit, but a ready fruit on the table. The benefits of this fruit only increased when it was freed from gold in 1971 and when OPEC agreed to trade oil only in dollars in 1974. What is the future of the dollar? What are the perspectives to enjoy it free on the table? The author should have addressed these questions.

Tyler Cowen understands very well the importance of technical innovation as the engine of general prosperity. Close to the end he says something good about science and scientists - raise the social status of scientists!

This is very nice, indeed, but seems to be just wishful thinking. The decline of science has a long history. Hollywood movies and popular media have generated and confirmed a very negative image of the man of science. He is usually weird, a loner, with grey standing up hair, and very often with mental of physical problems. The scientist is definitely not a role model. How can one change this? May be by government financing?

Remember the Texas Superconducting Supercollider? In 1993, after investing more then $2 billion into this project, President Clinton and Congress cancelled it entirely. The Supercollider would have been a great boost for science. This 1993 decision reveals something important about the priorities of the establishment.

Tyler Cowen's comments and suggestions for fighting the recession, unfortunately, are almost naïve. There is nothing written in the book about the problems and expenses of health care, social security and defense spending. Talking about scientific and technological innovation, one should consider the general industrial picture. A country cannot successfully develop scientific innovation without the underlying foundation of industry and manufacturing. When manufacturing is outsourced, science follows too. Toyota's hybrid car Prius, for instance, was not born in an ivory tower; it was the culmination of a long sequence of engineering efforts. Such innovation can only be born in the womb of a vibrant manufacturing industry. But manufacturing is not vibrant now in America. Vibrant is the financial industry, attracting the best and the brightest, and producing derivatives, credit swaps and speculative bubbles. All this is very profitable for a small group of people, but detrimental for the whole society.

I still recommend the book. The good points are many and the omissions have the potential to provoke a healthy dialog with the author.
35 von 40 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
HASH(0x90dcd24c) von 5 Sternen cogent, interesting analysis of US economy and future prospects 2. Februar 2011
Von bottomofthe9th - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Kindle Edition Verifizierter Kauf
This is a wonderful mini-book reflecting on the slowing pace of technological process, how US economic growth has changed as a result, and what that means for the next 30 years. Cowen's thesis--that much of the growth from 1940-'75 came from "low-hanging fruit" and will not easily be duplicated--makes a lot of sense to me, as does his assertion that further improving educational attainment will be worthwhile but very hard. As usual, Cowen is at his best not at developing revolutionary ideas but in putting ideas together in a new, interesting, thought-provoking, and meaningful ways, that make you think about old issues differently.

He raises interesting points about the productivity growth of the last 30 years: that, really, neither labor nor capital has gotten much richer, so maybe productivity didn't improve that much after all?; and that much of the productivity gains in recent years have come from producing the same amount (or close to it) with fewer people, rather than doing more with the same workforce.

And his thesis about economic growth being perhaps overstated...due to fast growth in sectors--education, health care, government--where expenditures are valued at cost rather than reflecting a market price...rings very true to me. He points out that schools today have MUCH better facilities than they did 40 years ago, and all of that shows up in published GDP numbers--but what is the true benefit of such? Or of highways, unnecessary doctor visits, etc.

His writing about the Internet, and its effect on GDP, also is insightful and important. That is, quality of life has improved in meaningful ways that are destructive to GDP: using wikipedia instead of buying a dictionary, posting on Internet bulletin boards rather than paying to go to the dance hall, etc. Certainly I would spend more than $20/month on movie theaters/rentals if Netflix weren't available. But it is, so I almost never go to the theater, and spend less on rentals than I would have 10 years ago. The immense value--if unmeasured--of the Internet means that GDP/income may be less relevant to quality of life than they used to be. However, our fiscal obligations can't be funded with improved quality of life, so reconciling a slower pace of economic growth with liabilities will be very difficult--especially given that, at present, we don't even really acknowledge the underlying problem. Cowen raises an interesting contrast with Europe, which--perhaps due to WWII--doesn't have the same experience with all their wants being fulfilled.
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HASH(0x90dcd5ac) von 5 Sternen Asking the Right Questions about the U.S. Economy 25. Januar 2011
Von DRDR - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Kindle Edition Verifizierter Kauf
Who's to blame for the low-growth state of the U.S. economy? In a country filled with partisan finger-pointing and China-bashing, Tyler Cowen attempts to bring the theory of a technological plateau to the forefront. This is not a new idea -- every Econ 101 student learns that there was a productivity slowdown in the 1970s -- but Cowen provides an accessible synthesis of the latest statistics and academic research on the subject. He addresses several counterviews, such as whether inflation is mismeasured and why the technological change wrought by the Internet is distinct from what his grandmother experienced. Today's leading innovators, Google and Facebook, employ smaller numbers of people than General Motors because now the machines and users do most of the work.

Cowen's primary policy prescription is to raise the social status of scientists, who aren't as respected as doctors, lawyers, and bankers. I'm surprised he chose the word scientists rather than entrepreneurs: gifted children are spoon-fed that public service, non-profits, and academic status are noble ambitions, rather than really being encouraged to pursue good ideas. Yet I'd argue society is moving in the right direction in honoring innovators. Mark Zuckerberg initially disliked "The Social Network" movie for its fabrications, but he was pleased to discover that it was inspiring entrepreneurs. Larry Page will achieve higher status now that he is once again CEO of Google in addition to co-founder.

Overall I'm not sure I learned much new from this book, but it framed much of what I did know clearly. The topics addressed by Cowen are too vast to present definitive and convincing answers, but I appreciate the book for asking the right questions.

(edit: corrected errors mentioned in first comment)
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