Saturday

May 21st, 2022

Insight

It's getting better and worse at the same time

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published Oct. 27, 2020

It's a widely shared belief that technological and scientific progress in America has slowed down since the moon landing.

You hear it from Peter Thiel, Robert Gordon, Ross Douthat and other commentators. The U.S. Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office now incorporate lower productivity into their forecasts, and actual productivity has been sluggish.

The larger question is how to know when this great stagnation is ending. Counterintuitively, the answer might be when people are most upset - because that's generally how most humans react to change, even when it proves beneficial in the longer run.

These feelings arise in part from the chaos and disruption brought about by some pretty significant changes.

Consider the rather simple question of how Americans spend their time. The arrival of smart phones in 2009, and the growth of social media shortly thereafter, was a revolution. People now spend a big chunk of their day communicating with their mobile devices or just staring at them - more than three hours a day, by one estimate. This is a major revision to almost one-fifth of most people's waking hours, the biggest such change in my lifetime.

In addition to the obvious gains of having your friends and the world's information at your fingertips, there are risks to these innovations, just as the advent of printing press may have accelerated religious and political conflict. At the very least, mobile devices and social media have turned American politics upside down. Can you imagine Donald Trump as president or AOC in Congress without Twitter?

Or consider health care. As late as April, experts were saying that a covid-19 vaccine would take four years or more. There are now multiple vaccine candidates slated to arrive by early to mid-2021, and the Chinese are already using their vaccine, albeit with uncertainty about its quality. Vaccine production has been turned upside down forever, induced by a crisis. It's not obvious now, but later observers will look back on today as a time when biomedical progress was remarkably rapid.


Are you worried about climate change? You should be, as its costs are becoming increasingly evident, but there are some hopeful developments: Over the last 10 years, costs for solar modules have fallen by about 90% and for lithium-ion batteries by 87%, with further progress likely in both cases. Neither of those gains were obviously in the cards until they happened, and they were brought about by a sense of crisis.

These innovations still need to be integrated into the energy infrastructure, but the idea of a near-zero-carbon-emissions future no longer seems absurd.

Ideas such as lab-grown meat and biofueled jets are more speculative and perhaps further from widespread implementation. Yet a decade ago they seemed laughable.

Last week the New York Times published a story with this headline: "Compact Nuclear Fusion Reactor Is 'Very Likely to Work,' Studies Suggest." It made the rounds on Twitter for about a day, but then everybody went back to talking about the latest news from the presidential campaign.

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Even space exploration seems to be "a thing" again, thanks largely to SpaceX and its ability to send rockets to space for an affordable price, and more amazingly to land them intact on earth for further use.

There is a good chance that this is the year life was discovered on Venus and frozen lakes on Mars, which also could mean life of some kind. It's become a topic of serious speculation, based on data from the U.S. Navy, that alien probes are visiting earth. That is significant in terms of its statistical expected value, even if the chance of alien origin is only 1%.

People, here is the good news and the bad news: Change is upon us. We are entering a new era of crises - in politics and biomedicine, with climate and energy, and not incidentally, about how prudently we spend our time.

The regretful truth is that progress is never going to be easy. The great technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, remember, were followed by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. Innovations such as radio and the automobile improved countless lives but also broadcast Hitler speeches and led to destructive tanks.

I'm not predicting the same catastrophe for today. I'm only saying that when the discontent is palpable, as it is right now in America, keep in mind that true breakthroughs may already be underway.

(COMMENT, BELOW)

Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

Previously:
09/14/20 How to be happy during a pandemic
09/04/20 Trump is winning the vaccine debate with public health experts
07/01/20 Why Americans are having an emotional reaction to masks
05/20/20 Covid-19 will expose the ghosts in the U.S. economy
05/07/20 Are aliens visiting us? US military seems to think so
05/06/20 America's reopening will depend on one thing --- trust
04/22/20 How the covid-19 recession is like World War II
04/15/20 America is returning to 1781
04/08/20 Covid-19 is is upending everything for status seekers
03/17/20 The coronavirus will usher in a new era of entertainment
01/28/20 Social Security isn't doomed for younger generations
01/08/20 Why 2020 is harder to predict than 2019 was
12/02/19 Equality is a mediocre goal so aim for progress
11/25/19 Inflation inequality creates winners and losers
11/09/19 OK kids. This boomer has had enough
10/20/19 Would you bet against Trump in 2020?
09/25/19 The right industrial policy for America
09/24/19 Harvard's legacies are nothing to be proud of
09/02/19 Yes, the Fed could still stop a recession
08/20/19 A trade deal with China wouldn't change much
07/29/19 How your personality traits affect your paycheck
07/16/19 Internet 101 should be a required class
05/28/19 How Dems actually are the ANTI-immigrant party
04/23/19 Want to help fight climate change? Have more children
03/22/19 America isn't as divided as it looks
03/12/19 The Twitter takeover of politics: You ain't seen nothing yet
03/04/19 How to tell which Dem dreams won't come true
02/07/19: Now the Dems want to end America's nuclear first strike option. How clueless is that?
01/29/19: The shutdown hit a lot of government workers --- hard. But, ultimately, who is responsible for their unfortunate circumstances?
12/12/18: The West is abusing its legal power to punish people or institutions that do things it doesn't like. It better stop
10/23/18: The US needs Saudi Arabia, and vice versa
10/19/18: The right finds the perfect weapon against the left
07/24/18: The drive for the perfect child gets a little scary
06/04/18: Side effects of the decline of men in labor market
05/14/18: Proving Marx's theories right
05/08/18: Holding up a mirror to intellectuals of the left
05/01/18: Virtual reality will make lives better ... mostly
04/16/18: It's hard to burst your political filter bubbleIt's hard to burst your political filter bubble
04/09/18: The missing key to grasping why American politics seems to have become more polarized, with no apparent end in sight
04/05/18: Two American power centers are about to clash
03/22/18: We fear what we can't control about Uber and Facebook
03/08/18: How to stop the licen$ing insanity
01/10/18: Polarized Congress needs to bring back earmarks
12/27/17: The year when the Internet collides with reality
11/07/17: Would you blame the phone for Russian interference?
10/23/17: North Korea is playing a longer game than the US
10/12/17: Why conservatives should celebrate Thaler's Nobel
08/02/17: Too many of today's innovations are focused on solving problems rather than creating something new

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