2016 Is the Year of Inequality – And Prosperity by Chelsea German

This past weekend, the Economist uploaded a short video to its Facebook page called, “The year of the 1 percent.” The video shows a graph superimposed over the Earth seen from space, while a voice narrates, “2016 is set to be a more unequal world than ever before. For the first time, the richest 1 percent of the population will enjoy a greater share of global wealth than the other 99 percent.”

The Economist’s graph reminded me of another graph, which also shows two lines that eventually cross but tells a very different story. Despite population growth, there are fewer people living in extreme poverty today than ever before:

How can both graphs be accurate? Poverty can decline even as inequality rises, as long as the total amount of wealth in the world is growing.

To ignore this is to fall prey to the “fixed pie fallacy.” Throughout most of human history, global wealth hardly changed. But thanks to trade and industrialization, wealth has skyrocketed, especially since the 1900s, and continues to climb.

At the same time, technological advances have also increased human wellbeing in ways not captured by looking at GDP alone.

Because the pie is growing, focusing solely on inequality, like the Economist’s video does, makes little sense. Most of us would rather have a relatively small slice of a gigantic pie than the biggest slice of a microscopic pie.

In other words, most of us would rather be wealthier in absolute terms, regardless of our relative position. This is why many of us, if given the choice, would choose to be an ordinary person today, instead of a member of the upper crust a century ago or a 17th century king.

Cross-posted from

Chelsea GermanChelsea German

Chelsea German works at the Cato Institute as a Researcher and Managing Editor of

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Emily Skarbek

Diane Coyle has reviewed Robert Gordon’s new book (out late January), The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War.

Gordon’s central argument will be familiar to readers of his work. In his view, the main technological and productivity-enhancing innovations that drove American growth in the early to mid 20th century — electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, TV, chemicals, petroleum — could only happen once, have run their course, and the prospects of future growth look uninspiring. For Gordon, it is foreseeable that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years will turn out to be a unique episode in human history.

Coyle zeros in on the two main mechanisms to which Gordon attributes the slowing of growth. The first is that future innovation will be slower or its effects less important. Coyle finds this argument less convincing.

What I find odd about Gordon’s argument is his insistence that there is a kind of competition between the good old days of ‘great innovations’ and today’s innovations – which are necessarily different.

One issue is the extent to which he ignores all but a limited range of digital innovation; low carbon energy, automated vehicles, new materials such as graphene, gene-based medicine etc. don’t feature.

The book claims more recent innovations are occurring mainly in entertainment, communication and information technologies, and presents these as simply less important (while making great play of the importance of radio, telephone and TV earlier).

While I have yet to read the book, Gordon makes several similar arguments in an NBER working paper. There he gives a few examples of his view of more recent technological innovations as compared to the Great Inventions of the mid-20th century.

More familiar was the rapid development of the web and ecommerce after 1995, a process largely completed by 2005. Many one-time-only conversions occurred, for instance from card catalogues in wooden cabinets to flat screens in the world’s libraries and the replacement of punch-hole paper catalogues with flat-screen electronic ordering systems in the world’s auto dealers and wholesalers.

In other words, the benefits of the computer revolution were one time boosts, not lasting increases in labor productivity. Gordon then invokes Solow’s famous sentence that “we [could] see the computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics.” When the effects do show up, Gordon says, they fade out by 2004 and labor productivity flat lines.

Solow’s interpretation (~26 mins into the interview) of where the productivity gains went is different, and more consistent with Coyle’s deeper point. In short, the statistics themselves doesn’t capture the full gains from innovation:

And when that happened, it happened in an interesting way. It turned out when there were first clear indications, maybe 8 or 10 years later, of improvements in productivity on a national scale that could be traced to computers statistically, it turned out a large part of those gains came not in the use of the computer, but in the production of computers.

Because the cost of an item of computing machinery was falling like a stone, and the quality was at the same time, the capacity at the same time was improving. And people were buying a lot of computers, so this was not a trivial industry. …

You got big productivity gains in the production of computers and whatnot. But you could also begin to see productivity improvements on a national scale that traced to the use of computers.

Coyle’s central criticism is not just on the interpretation of the data, but on an interesting switch in Gordon’s argument:

Throughout the first two parts of the book, Gordon repeatedly explains why it is not possible to evaluate the impact of inventions through the GDP and price statistics, and therefore through the total factor productivity figures based on them — and then uses the real GDP figures to downplay modern innovation.”

Coyle’s understanding of the use and abuse of GDP figures leads her to the fundamental point:

While the very long run of real GDP figures (the “hockey stick of history”) does portray the explosion of living standards under market capitalism, one needs a much richer picture of the qualitative change brought about by innovation and variety.

This must include the social consequences too — and the book touches on these, from the rise of the suburbs to the transformation of the social lives of women.

To understand Coyle’s insights more deeply, her discussion with Russ Roberts gives a fascinating discussion of GDP (no, really!).

In my view, it seems to come down to differing views about where Moore’s Law is taking us. The exponentially increasing computational power — with increasing product quality at decreasing prices — has never happened at such a sustained pace before.

The technological Great Inventions that Gordon sees as fundamental to driving sustained growth of the past all were bursts of innovation followed by a substantial time period where entrepreneurs figured out how to effectively commodify and deliver that technology to the broader economy and society. What is so interesting about the pattern of exponential technological progress is that price/performance gains have not slowed, even as some bits of these gains have just shown signs of commodification — Uber, 3D printing, biosynthesis of living tissue, etc.

There are good reasons to think that in the past we have failed to capture all the gains from innovation in measures of total factor productivity and labor productivity, as Gordon rightly points out. But if this is true, it seems strange to me to look at the current patterns of technological progress and not see the potential for these innovations to lead to sustained growth and increases in human well-being.

This is, of course, conditional on the political economy in which innovation takes place. The second cause for low future growth for Gordon concerns headwinds slowing down whatever innovation-driven growth there might be. Here I look forward to reading the relative weights Gordon assigns to factors such as demography, education, inequality, globalization, energy/environment, and consumer and government debt. In particular, I hope to read Gordon’s own take (and others) on how the political economy environment could change the magnitude or sign of these headwinds.

The review is worth a read in advance of what will likely prove to be an important book in the debate on development and growth.

This post first appeared at Econlog, where Emily is a new guest blogger.

Emily SkarbekEmily Skarbek

Emily Skarbek is Lecturer in Political Economy at King’s College London and guest blogs on EconLog. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @EmilySkarbek.​

Government Caused the ‘Great Stagnation’ by Peter J. Boettke

Tyler Cowen caused quite a stir with his e-book, The Great Stagnation. In properly assessing his work it is important to state explicitly what his argument actually is. Median real income has stagnated since 1980, and the reason is that the rate of technological advance has slowed. Moreover, the technological advances that have taken place with such rapidity in recent history have improved well-being, but not in ways that are easily measured in real income statistics.

Critics of Cowen more often than not miss the mark when they focus on the wild improvements in our real income due to quality improvements (e.g., cars that routinely go over 100,000 miles) and lower real prices (e.g., the amount of time required to acquire the inferior version of yesterday’s similar commodities).

Cowen does not deny this. Nor does Cowen deny that millions of people were made better off with the collapse of communism, the relative freeing of the economies in China and India, and the integration into the global economy of the peoples of Africa and Latin America. Readers of The Great Stagnation should be continually reminded that they are reading the author of In Praise of Commercial Culture and Creative Destruction. Cowen is a cultural optimist, a champion of the free trade in ideas, goods, services and all artifacts of mankind. But he is also an economic realist in the age of economic illusion.

What do I mean by the economics of illusion? Government policies since WWII have created an illusion that irresponsible fiscal policy, the manipulation of money and credit, and expansion of the regulation of the economy is consistent with rising standards of living. This was made possible because of the “low hanging” technological fruit that Cowen identifies as being plucked in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the US, and in spite of the policies government pursued.

An accumulated economic surplus was created by the age of innovation, which the age of economic illusion spent down. We are now coming to the end of that accumulated surplus and thus the full weight of government inefficiencies are starting to be felt throughout the economy. Our politicians promised too much, our government spends too much, in an apparent chase after the promises made, and our population has become too accustomed to both government guarantees and government largess.

Adam Smith long ago argued that the power of self-interest expressed in the market was so strong that it could overcome hundreds of impertinent restrictions that government puts in the way. But there is some tipping point at which that ability to overcome will be thwarted, and the power of the market will be overcome by the tyranny of politics. Milton Friedman used that language to talk about the 1970s; we would do well to resurrect that language to talk about today.

Cowen’s work is a subversive track in radical libertarianism because he identifies that government growth (both measured in terms of scale and scope) was possible only because of the rate of technological improvements made in the late 19th and early 20th century.

We realized the gains from trade (Smithian growth), we realized the gains from innovation (Schumpeterian growth), and we fought off (in the West, at least) totalitarian government (Stupidity). As long as Smithian growth and Schumpeterian growth outpace Stupidity, tomorrow’s trough will still be higher than today’s peak. It will appear that we can afford more Stupidity than we can actually can because the power of self-interest expressed through the market offsets its negative consequences.

But if and when Stupidity is allowed to outpace the Smithian gains from trade and the Schumpeterian gains from innovation, then we will first stagnate and then enter a period of economic backwardness — unless we curtail Stupidity, explore new trading opportunities, or discover new and better technologies.

In Cowen’s narrative, the rate of discovery had slowed, all the new trading opportunities had been exploited, and yet government continued to grow both in terms of scale and scope. And when he examines the 3 sectors in the US economy — government services, education, and health care — he finds little improvement since 1980 in the production and distribution of the services. In fact, there is evidence that performance has gotten worse over time, especially as government’s role in health care and education has expanded.

The Great Stagnation is a condemnation of government growth over the 20th century. It was made possible only by the amazing technological progress of the late 19th and early 20th century. But as the rate of technological innovation slowed, the costs of government growth became more evident. The problem, however, is that so many have gotten used to the economics of illusion that they cannot stand the reality staring them in the face.

This is where we stand in our current debt ceiling debate. Government is too big, too bloated. Washington faces a spending problem, not a revenue problem. But too many within the economy depend on the government transfers to live and to work. Yet the economy is not growing at a rate that can afford the illusion. Where are we to go from here?

Cowen’s work makes us think seriously about that question. How can the economic realist confront the economics of illusion? And Cowen has presented the basic dilemma in a way that the central message of economic realism is not only available for libertarians to see (if they would just look, or listen carefully to his podcast at EconTalk), but for anyone who is willing to read and think critically about our current political and economic situation.

The Great Stagnation signals the end of the economics of illusion and — let’s hope — paves the way for a new age of economic realism.

This post first appeared at Coordination Problem.

Peter J. BoettkePeter J. Boettke

Peter Boettke is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

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