Tyler Cowen

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Some prominent American captains of industry of the 1930s openly admired Italy’s Fascism, even Hitler’s Nazism, sure the crushing grip on workers those authoritarian regimes maintained would defeat American liberalism. This popular idea was useful to Charles Lindbergh and others in selling the original “America First” mentality. Of course, those same totalitarian impulses helped push both nations to disaster unparalleled in modern times.

In a Cato Institute essay that wonders whether free societies will be ascendant in the coming decades, Tyler Cowen argues China’s ballooning share of the GDP has served as significant soft power, encouraging other players on the world stage that their system is superior. I’m not convinced. While it stands to reason that any supersized idea in the market will hold some sway, it doesn’t seem like insurgent forces in the U.S. and the U.K.–and certainly not their rank-and-file supporters–aspire to the Chinese model. The factors provoking the political tumult seem to be economic concerns, underlying bigotries exploited by opportunists and the aftereffects of 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse and the very uneven outcomes of the Arab Spring. 

Of course, there’s no exact science to decide where the blame lies.

An excerpt:

The percentage of global GDP which is held in relatively non-free countries, such as China, has been rising relative to the share of global GDP held in the freer countries. I suspect we are underrating the noxious effects of that development.

Just think back to the 1930s, and some other decades, and consider how many Westerners and Western intellectuals were infatuated with communism and also Stalinism, even at times with fascism, at least before WWII. I would say that if a big idea is around, and supported by some major governments, some number of people will be attracted to that idea, even if we don’t understand the mechanisms here very well. Nonetheless that seems to be an unfortunate sociological truth. Today that big idea isn’t so much communism as it is various forms of authoritarianism. Authoritarians have more presence on the global stage today than has been the case for a while. Furthermore, a lot of the authoritarian states are still in their “rising” forms, rather than their decadent forms, as was the case for Soviet communism in say the 1980s. For instance, while predictions about the future of China are difficult to make, the Chinese Communist Party hardly seems to be on the verge of collapse, and thus its authoritarianism may not be discredited by current events anytime soon. On the global stage, Putin’s Russia has won some recent successes as of late, including in Crimea and also by interfering with democratic elections in the West, apparently with impunity.

To put it simply, global authoritarianism is probably poisoning our political climate more than many people realize.•


Malcolm Gladwell has a great many talents, but analyzing comedy and satire is apparently not among them. Unfortunately, he held forth on these topics in a recent conversation with economist Tyler Cowen.

The writer once derided satire for not being significant enough to prevent the rise of Nazism, failing to acknowledge that diplomacy, protest, church and media also failed to thwart this mass tragedy. All those institutions and activities have great value, even if they were depressingly unable to avert this particular horror.

Speaking to Cowen, Gladwell forwards the bizarre theory that Tine Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was great for the comedian’s career but made the politician “more acceptable and likable.” This is an absurd contention. If Katie Couric’s interview with Palin was a mortal wound, Fey’s imitation was the coup de grâce.

Gladwell’s judgment that the impersonation stemmed from Fey’s self-interest is peculiar. Certainly he writes his articles and books to improve his career, and he also does corporate speaking engagements, a very dicey move for a journalist, which I don’t believe Fey does. (Perhaps Gladwell donates all this money to charity, but it remains a potential conflict of interest.)

In the direct aftermath of the Presidential election, when New Yorker EIC David Remnick appeared on TV to warn against the normalization of Trump, he commented that although he believed Hillary Clinton would have been a great President, he thought it was wrong that she accepted huge fees for speaking engagements from investment banks. He probably should hold his staff to the same standard.

Gladwell’s criticism of Alec Baldwin is almost is as wrong-minded. SNL certainly deserves brickbats for allowing the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to host the show during his disgracefully racist campaign, but Baldwin’s characterization isn’t a superficial performance Gladwell describes. Well, at least it’s clear to him that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonation is greatness.

As for Cowen’s question to Gladwell about Baldwin’s Trump–Is it not sufficiently negative?–he should be asking himself that same query in response to his tepid comments about Peter Thiel, a former interview subject who aggressively enabled a sociopath into the White House. This Administration isn’t merely “flawed” as the economist labeled it in a recent Ask Me Anything. It’s utterly shameful and highly dangerous.

An excerpt:

On Tina Fey, Melisa McCarthy, and good satire

COWEN: It’s been said that satire sometimes reaffirms power, while poetry affirms only its own power. You have a podcast where you express a worry that Tina Fey, by mimicking and satirizing Sarah Palin, actually made her more acceptable and more likeable in doing so. So fast-forward to the current moment: we have Saturday Night Live.


COWEN: Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Is that useful satire? Is it not sufficiently negative? Should we be deploying poetry or is that the effective medium for social commentary?

GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .


GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.

With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”


GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.

GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .


GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump. There are many directions you can go with Trump, the extraordinary insecurity of the man. Like I said, there are many things you could pluck out, but that for one, the idea of doing an impersonation where you really thought deeply about what it would mean in a comic way to represent this man’s almost tragic level of insecurity. Alec Baldwin is not . . . he’s a little too glib . . .

That’s the problem with Saturday Night Live, the larger problem — I was trying to get at it in that podcast episode on satire — the problem with doing satire through the vehicle of a show like Saturday Night Live is, they’re not incentivized to do that kind of deep thinking. The Melissa McCarthy thing is an exception; it’s not the rule.

Really what they’re incentivized to do is, for the actor — who is in many cases as famous or more famous than the person they are impersonating — the actor is using the character to further their own ends. Tina Fey is infinitely more popular, more accomplished, more whatever than Sarah Palin will ever be. And so she’s using Sarah Palin to further her own ends. That’s backwards. She’s not inhabiting the character of Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Sarah Palin, she is inhabiting Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Tina Fey.

I feel, so long as satire is done by a television show which has such a lofty position in the cultural hierarchy, it’s always going to be the case that that’s what’s going to drive their impersonations. They’re always going to be sitting on their hands. Remember they’re making fun of Trump six months after they had him on the show, right? After they were complicit in his rise, and after Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on camera. Maybe that’s fine. My point is you can’t be an effective satirist if you are so deeply complicit in the object of your satire.•

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Economist Tyler Cowen just did a fun Ask Me Anything at Reddit, discussing driverless cars, the Hyperloop, wealth redistribution, Universal Basic Income, the American Dream, etc.

Cowen also discusses Peter Thiel’s role in the Trump Administration, though his opinion seems too coy. We’re not talking about someone who just so happens to work for a “flawed” Administration but a serious supporter of a deeply racist campaign to elect a wholly unqualified President and empower a cadre of Breitbart bigots. Trump owns the mess he’s creating, but Thiel does also. The most hopeful thing you can say about the Silicon Valley billionaire, who was also sure there were WMDs in Iraq, is that outside of his realm he has no idea what he’s doing. The least hopeful is that he’s just not a good person.

A few exchanges follow.


What is an issue or concept in economics that you wish were easier to explain so that it would be given more attention by the public?

Tyler Cowen:

The idea that a sound polity has to be based on ideas other than just redistribution of wealth.


What do you think about Peter Thiel’s relationship with President Trump?

Tyler Cowen:

I haven’t seen Peter since his time with Trump. I am not myself a Trump supporter, but wish to reserve judgment until I know more about Peter’s role. I am not in general opposed to the idea of people working with administrations that may have serious flaws.


In a recent article by you, you spoke about who in the US was experiencing the American Dream, finding evidence that the Dream is still alive and thriving for Hispanics in the U.S. What challenges do you perceive now with the new Administration that might reduce the prospects for this group?

Tyler Cowen:

Breaking up families, general feeling of hostility, possibly damaging the economy of Mexico and relations with them. All bad trends. I am hoping the strong and loving ties across the people themselves will outweigh that. We will see, but on this I am cautiously optimistic.


Do you think convenience apps like Amazon grocery make us more complacent?

Tyler Cowen:

Anything shipped to your home — worry! Getting out and about is these days underrated. Serendipitous discovery and the like. Confronting the physical spaces we have built, and, eventually, demanding improvements in them.


Given that universal basic income or similar scheme will become necessity after large scale automation kicks in, will these arguments about fiscal and budgetary crisis still hold true?

And with self driving cars and tech like Hyperloop, wouldn’t the rents in the cities go down?

Tyler Cowen:

Driverless cars are still quite a while away in their most potent form, as that requires redoing the whole infrastructure. But so far I see location only becoming more important, even in light of tech developments, such as the internet, that were supposed to make it less important. It is hard for me to see how a country with so many immigrants will tolerate a UBI. I think that idea is for Denmark and New Zealand, I don’t see it happening in the United States. Plus it can cost a lot too. So the arguments about fiscal crisis I think still hold.


What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?

Tyler Cowen:

Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.


I am a single guy. Can learning economics help me find a girlfriend?

Tyler Cowen:

No, it will hurt you. Run the other way!•

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If I’m not mistaken, the economist Tyler Cowen guessed post-election that Donald Trump would initially throw some bloody red meat to his base before moderating, which certainly hasn’t been the case. A 70-year-old sociopath simply isn’t going to metamorphosize. The 45th President has instead, in the early days, combined the propaganda of Putin with the paranoia of McCarthy. It’s likely to be the most extreme Administration of our lifetimes.

In a Bloomberg View column, Cowen wisely dissects Trump ordering Sean Spicer and other aides to speak astonishing lies directly into cameras. It’s a loyalty test and also a nihilistic gambit to obscure truth, allowing a radical agenda to be jammed through as soon as possible. With a cabinet full of James G. Watts, folks decidedly unfriendly to science and environment, that will mean many shocks to the system. It would also seem to offer China an amazing opportunity to become the long-term global leader in renewables.

Another BV piece, one by Leonid Bershidsky, draws parallels between Trump and Putin, particularly in image-making, though the writer differentiates between the two personalities, believing the Russian dictator’s cooler head gives him an advantage over the angst-ridden American.

Two excerpts follow.

From Cowen:

Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.

These lower-status lies are also a short-run strategy. They represent a belief that a lot can be pushed through fairly quickly, bundled with some obfuscation of the truth, and that long-term credibility does not need to be maintained. Once we get past blaming Trump for various misdeeds, it’s worth taking a moment to admit we should be scared he might be right about that.•

From Bershidsky:

The parallels began in earnest with Trump’s pre-inauguration news conference, when Alexei Kovalev, known for debunking Russian government propaganda, compared the event to Putin’s circus-like annual meetings with the press. The piece resonated with Western journalists, who are not used to being denied questions by the president and also expect that he will be nice to them. It also resonated with their Russian colleagues, who have been dealing with carefully staged press appearances and punitive access restrictions since Putin’s first term in power. 

Over the weekend, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer all but invited comparisons to his Russian counterpart by offering “alternative facts” about the inauguration crowd’s size. With a straight face, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, has denied the involvement of Russian troops in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and claimed that a $620,000 watch he wore was a present from his wife, an Olympic figure skater.

Trump’s preference for inviting his supporters to potentially tough rooms is shared by Putin as well. Earlier this month, Russian-language social networks throbbed with reports that several people kept reappearing in various meetings between Putin and “ordinary Russians.” One of them, Larisa Sergukhina, was revealed to be a small-business owner working on government contracts. Even if, as Putin loyalists argued, the same people were legitimately invited to several meetings in a particular region, Putin’s travels are carefully staged in a time-honored Russian tradition that dates back — at least — to Prince Grigory Potemkin. No group of people allowed to come close to Russia’s leader is ever random, and you’ll never see anyone heckling or berating Putin on television there. Everybody’s always happy to see him.

The budding resemblance between Trump and Putin is, of course, unsettling to Americans. They are not used to a leader behaving like a czar. But Putin doesn’t do his czar act because he likes it.•

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Libertarians, it seems to me, are perpetual adolescents when it comes to politics. They see idealism where I see immaturity. Laws and regulations will always be less than perfect, but I still trust those things a great deal more than corporations, Silicon Valley billionaires and those who get hard when reading about Dickensian boot-blacking factories.

Before forming a political alliance with far-right wingnuts and white nationalists, Peter Thiel, a rich man and a very, very poor one, had been out front among technologists in supporting the wet dream known as seasteading, hoping to swim away from those pesky regulations so that he could, I suppose, breathe as easily as the Chinese. Perhaps there would be no “soulless children” there expecting free lunches.

More specifically, Thiel and others in 2008 established the Seasteading Institute to build a floating nation in the ocean, many nautical miles beyond regulation, where Burning Man could walk on water. This planned “soaktopia” never worried me, except for revealing a scary mindset, a longing by some for a runaway free market here on solid ground. Thiel himself ultimately came back to earth and worked toward exactly that goal. For the non-superrich, the next four years may not go so well.

In a Bloomberg View piece, Tyler Cowen extols the virtues of seasteading, believing retired people could float away their golden years on endless cruises, which seems to ignore both human psychology and the immense number of seniors in the population. An excerpt:

Although seasteading is sometimes viewed as an extension of self-indulgent Silicon Valley utopianism, we should not dismiss the idea too quickly. Variants on seasteading led to the founding of the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with the caveat that conquest was involved, as these territories were not unsettled at the time. Circa 2016, there is a potential seasteading experiment due in French Polynesia (more information here). The melting of the Arctic ice may open up new areas for human settlement. Chinese construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea raises the prospect that the private sector, or a more liberty-oriented government, might someday do the same. Along more speculative lines, there is talk about someday colonizing Mars or even Titan, a moon of Saturn. On the intellectual front, a book about seasteading, by Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman, is due out in March of 2017.

Seasteading obviously faces significant obstacles. The eventual constraint is probably not technology in the absolute sense, but whether there is enough economic motive to forsake the benefits of densely populated human settlements and the protection of traditional nation-states. Many nations have effective corporate tax rates in the 10- to 20-percent range, which doesn’t seem confiscatory enough to take to the high seas for economic motives alone. Furthermore, current outposts such as Dubai, Singapore and the Cayman Islands offer varied legal and regulatory environments for doing business, in addition to the comforts of landlubber society. More and more foreign businesses are incorporating in Delaware to enjoy the benefits of American law. So, for all the inefficiencies and petty tyrannies of the modern world, seasteading faces pretty stiff competition.

Counterintuitively, I see the greatest promise for seasteading as a path toward more rather than less human companionship.•

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When Time magazine published Tyler Cowen’s 2013 cover story “Why Texas Is Our Future,” which argued that the Lone Star State was America’s new bellwether, I disagreed with the premise, wondering if Texas, as we’ve long known it, was even the future of Texas.

The article notes the large-scale migration to the state by citizens from other parts of the country but assumes these newbies would gladly live within Texas’ regulations (or lack thereof) rather than altering them. In this vision, the bargain of low taxes and real estate prices would have outweighed concerns about environmental damage, the lack of the Medicaid expansion for the Affordable Care Act and the scary high childhood poverty rate. That’s a big assumption. The piece also failed to speak of the growing young Latino population which was going to leave its mark as it aged into voting eligibility. Rather than doubling down on business as usual, the traditionally red state was actually likely to take on a much more purplish hue.

The first signs of a change may be manifesting in the 2016 Presidential election, as Texas is shockingly too close to call. Now granted Trump is nothing like a normal candidate, but he and his border wall would have still risen to an easy victory in the state in years gone by.

From Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight:

Another day, another traditionally Republican state that Donald Trump could shockingly manage to lose. Yesterday, I wrote about Utah, where Trump’s weakness with Mormon voters could throw the state to Hillary Clinton or to independent candidate Evan McMullin. Today, we turn to Texas, where two new polls show a tight race: A University of Houston poll has Trump up just 3 percentage points there, while SurveyMonkey puts Trump’s lead at 2 points.

Trump will probably win Texas. Earlier polls had shown a close-ish race there, but with a Trump lead in the high single digits. And as a hedge against the polls, our forecast still assigns a little bit of weight to our regression-based analysis, which is based on demographics and voting history. Thus, our model still has Trump ahead by 5 or 6 percentage points in Texas, and puts Clinton’s chances of an upset at 17 percent.

But to put that in perspective, Texas is closer than Pennsylvania right now (where Clinton leads by 7 to 8 points). And Clinton is more likely to win Texas than Trump is to win the election, at least according to the polls-only model, which puts Trump’s overall chances at 12 percent.

As in Utah, demographics play a role in Trump’s struggles in Texas. The state’s white population is well-educated, and includes some workers who have moved from other parts of the country to take advantage of the state’s burgeoning economy. (College-educated whites have turned away from Trump.) Texas also used to have its share of Republican-leaning Latinos — George W. Bush won almost half of the Latino vote there in 2004 — another group that Trump has turned off. Meanwhile, only 43 percent of Texas’ population consists of non-Hispanic whites, down from 52 percent in 2000. However, because 11 percent of Texas’ population consists of non-citizens — many of them recent immigrants from Mexico — its electorate is whiter than its population overall.•

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Don’t know if Uber is driving city dwellers to move to suburbia or if ridesharing is simply there to convenience those squeezed out of urban areas by rising costs. Globalization has meant, among other things, increased competition for square feet in popular cities from non-locals, which has helped drive real-estate prices sky high. That’s true in New York, of course, but also in less-obvious locales like Vancouver. Exacerbating matters, Airbnb enables landlords (if illegally) another avenue to collect rent sans leases, elevating prices in the thinned-out stock of residences available to longer-term tenants. 

Zoning laws are often blamed for lower-income folks being routed out of cities, but I’ve witnessed segments of NYC build new houses with abandon, without the necessary corresponding infrastructure projects to support the expansion, which can severely limit livability. These new buildings also are not a realistic option in major metropolises for those who aren’t already doing very well financially.

Regardless, it seems presently that some Americans are headed to less-dense places, though it’s not yet clear if that’s a long-term trend, since a significant percentage of us are drawn moth-like to bright lights. Tyler Cowen, who was among the first to announce that average is over (which may be more true in demand than supply), believes Uber and Lyft and the like have played a role in the shift, and he anticipates driverless, when it arrives, will further this reverse migration. Perhaps, but that would signal that people flocked to cities mainly to avoid commuting, which likely has never been the primary attraction of the urban enclave. The economist further feels that drones, VR, the IoT and other new tools will soup up the suburbs, exurbs and rural spots, making them more desirable.

From Cowen’s Bloomberg View column:

Self-driving vehicles are also likely to help the suburbs most. One of the worst things about the suburbs is the commute to the city or to other parts of the suburbs. But what if you could read, text or watch TV – safely — during that commuting time? What if you could tackle your day’s work just as you do on a train or plane? Commuting would seem a lot less painful. As driverless vehicles evolve to accommodate work and leisure uses of the automobile space, pleasure will replace commuting stress. 

What about drones? They too would seem to favor remote areas where it is harder to access useful goods and services. Drones may do more for exurbs and rural areas than for the suburbs, but it seems cities will gain least. Walking or biking to nearby shops is a potential substitute for drone delivery. Rolling sidewalk drones might find it harder to negotiate crowded cities, and cities with a dense network of tall buildings may be less friendly to flying drones. Population density may increase the risk of a drone falling on someone.

Now think about virtual reality. Its advocates claim that it will be used for sex, to simulate travel and to watch sporting events and concerts with an intense 3-D accompaniment. You will be able to do all that in the comfort of your living room or basement. So you won’t need a city for vivid cultural experiences.•



Really wonderful conversation between Sean Illing of Vox and the economist Tyler Cowen, whose thinking I always admire even when I disagree with him. The two discuss, among other topics, the Internet, biotech, politics, war, Kanye West and the “most dangerous idea in history.” An excerpt:


How do you view the internet and its impact on human life?

Tyler Cowen:

The internet is great for weirdos. The pre-internet era was not very good for weirdos. I think in some ways we’re still overrating the internet as a whole. It’s wonderful for manipulating information, which appeals to the weirdos. Now it’s going to start changing our physical reality in a way that will be another productivity boom. So I’m very pro-internet.


What do you think will be the next major technological breakthrough?

Tyler Cowen:

If you mean a single thing that you could put in a single headline, I would say self-driving vehicles. But I think a deeper and more important thing will be a subtle integration of software and hardware in way that will change everything and won’t have a single name.


Are you thinking here of the singularity or of something less radical?

Tyler Cowen:

No, nothing like the singularity. But software embedded in devices that will get better and smarter and more interactive and thoughtful, and we’ll be able to do things that we’ll eventually take for granted and we won’t even call them anything.


Do you think technology is outpacing our politics in dangerous, unpredictable ways?

Tyler Cowen:

Of course it is. And the last time technology outpaced politics, it ended in a very ugly manner, with two world wars. So I worry about that. You get new technologies. People try to use them for conquest and extortion. I’ve no predictions as to how that will play out, but I think there’s at least a good chance that we will look back on this era of relative technological stagnancy and say, “Wasn’t that wonderful?”•

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It seems intuitive that good times will breed feelings that match, but often a comfortable, steady temperature makes people overheat. It’s like we crave imbalance for some evolutionary reason. Remember before 9/11 and the 2008 economic collapse and ISIS, when Bill Clinton’s intern shenanigans were a national outrage? George W. Bush, who led the single most failed administration in generations, was elected in good part to restore “honor” to the White House. That really seemed important to an awful lot of people. Today, an utter lack of honor–and competency and sanity–makes no difference to Trump supporters, despite the financial recovery (an uneven one, admittedly) we’ve experienced in the past eight years. They’re mad and want to break something.

National moods aren’t always rational, not always driven by the bottom line, but perhaps there’s something other than the spoiling effect of complacency driving the current ill feelings. Maybe our new tools have made it easier for a toxic airborne event to occur at any spot in the Global Village?

In a smart Bloomberg View column, Tyler Cowen theorizes that bad moods are traveling in a viral manner today, even settling over a relatively fortunate nation like Australia. An excerpt:

Australia does have problems and identity crises of its own, but still it seems the country has caught a dissatisfaction bug from abroad, most plausibly from the pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., the Trump and Sanders movements in the U.S. and the common global feeling that much of the world is slanting askew.

For some time now, equity returns in Australia have had one of the highest correlations with equity returns in the U.S., and some of this probably has to do with the transmission of moods and not just shared economic shocks. What’s changing is that the risk of negative mood transmission may be going up, even though the Australian economy still appears to be fine.

It is a common theme in political science that low levels of trust in government tend to translate to inferior political performance.Trusting citizenries give their governments the resources to produce valuable public goods, as is often the case in the Nordic economies, but falling trust leads to higher social conflict and corruption. And so, because of its recent pessimism, Australia may be on the verge of losing some of the good governance it has enjoyed for the last few decades.

The broader and more disturbing implication is that the entire global economy may be more vulnerable to mood swings.



The developed world is having a time of it trying to transition into the Digital Age with its robots and automation and virtual stores. Europe is considering defining robot workers as “electronic persons” who must pay into social security and Paris is threatening tax measures to bring Amazon Prime to heel, hoping to prevent its neighborhood shops going the way of the city’s decimated brick-and-mortar bookstores. In the U.S., workers have gone missing in scary numbers, leading some to suspect the displacement has fueled our Baba Booey of an election cycle. In the long run, this changeover may lead to the end of scarcity, but in the short term it’s an economic, political and cultural problem.

The fallout may prove even more dire for countries in the developing world which relied on Industrialization’s hunger for cheap labor to create a path to relative prosperity. From Sarah O’Connor’s Financial Times article about “radical insourcing”:

Rich countries are beginning to see factories return to their shores — and they have the robots to thank.

Take Adidas. When Herbert Hainer, chief executive, joined the German sportswear company in 1987, factories were beginning to close in Germany and move to China. This month, he announced Adidas would bring some shoe production back to Germany for the first time in three decades thanks to a highly automated factory in Bavaria. “I find it almost uncanny how things have come full circle,” he said.

It is important to keep some perspective. Adidas made 301m shoes last year; the two new factories (the other will be in the US) will produce about 1m. Still, you can see how this trend could take off. …

Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University in the US, believes robots and 3D printers could create a world of “radical insourcing” where developed countries no longer need to outsource production to countries where wages are low.

“Why should a wealthy nation buy from a poorer exporter when it can automate and produce similar goods at home without incurring high labour costs?” he asked in a recent paper.

This would not do much for jobs in developed countries, admittedly. The new Adidas factory will have about 160 staff, a fraction of the number required to make the same number of shoes in Asia. But set aside the rich world for a moment. What would “radical insourcing” mean for all the developing countries that saw manufacturing exports as their path to prosperity?•

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One of the San Bernardino shooters was a woman and extremism has attracted its brides, sure, but statistics show that violence (mass shootings included) is largely a male problem in the United States–and everywhere else. 

Religion may have informed the self-loathing behind the horrific Orlando massacre, but the downward spiral of too many American men transcends faith. It’s a masculinity issue, a deep insecurity, ignited by mental illness or extremist politics or any other gas can laying around. A scary number of us have brains that just aren’t operating properly.

The actual crime statistics nationally aren’t at all bad, at least not when compared to past eras, but the unstable among us are really unstable, with large-scale violent acts now mind-numbingly common. 

Were men on the fringes of the country always like this, with the easy access to automatic weapons the only difference? Or is there some fundamental shift in the world that some are unable to assimilate or accept, whether it be rooted in economics or patriarchy or otherwise? 

Even before Orlando, economist Tyler Cowen worried about this new abnormal, the aspects expressed in violence and in in myriad other ways, thinking it may be a rebellion by “brutes” against cultures becoming nicer and more feminized. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

The opening of last month’s Marginal Revolution post “What in the Hell Is Going On?“:

Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky “park bench” socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria.  I could list more such events.

Haven’t you, like I, wondered what is up?  What the hell is going on?

I don’t know, but let me tell you my (highly uncertain) default hypothesis.  I don’t see decisive evidence for it, but it is a kind of “first blast” attempt to fit the basic facts while remaining within the realm of reason.

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males.  The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?

Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.•



Asking if innovation is over is no less narcissistic than suggesting that evolution is done. It flatters us to think that we’ve already had all the good ideas, that we’re the living end. More likely, we’re always closer to the beginning.

Of course, when looking at relatively short periods of time, there are ebbs and flows in invention that have serious ramifications for the standard of living. In Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the economist argues that the 1870-1970 period was a golden age of productivity and development unknown previously and unmatched since.

In an excellent Foreign Affairs review, Tyler Cowen, who himself has worried that we’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit, lavishly praises the volume–“likely to be the most interesting and important economics book of the year.” But in addition to acknowledging a technological slowdown in the last few decades, Cowen also wisely counters the book’s downbeat tone while recognizing the obstacles to forecasting, writing that “predicting future productivity rates is always difficult; at any moment, new technologies could transform the U.S. economy, upending old forecasts. Even scholars as accomplished as Gordon have limited foresight.” In fact, he points out that the author, before his current pessimism, predicted earlier this century very healthy growth rates.

My best guess is that there will always be transformational opportunities, ripe and within arm’s length, waiting for us to pluck them.

An excerpt:

In the first part of his new book, Gordon argues that the period from 1870 to 1970 was a “special century,” when the foundations of the modern world were laid. Electricity, flush toilets, central heating, cars, planes, radio, vaccines, clean water, antibiotics, and much, much more transformed living and working conditions in the United States and much of the West. No other 100-year period in world history has brought comparable progress. A person’s chance of finishing high school soared from six percent in 1900 to almost 70 percent, and many Americans left their farms and moved to increasingly comfortable cities and suburbs. Electric light illuminated dark homes. Running water eliminated water-borne diseases. Modern conveniences allowed most people in the United States to abandon hard physical labor for good.

In highlighting the specialness of these years, Gordon challenges the standard view, held by many economists, that the U.S. economy should grow by around 2.2 percent every year, at least once the ups and downs of the business cycle are taken into account. And Gordon’s history also shows that not all GDP gains are created equal. Some sources of growth, such as antibiotics, vaccines, and clean water, transform society beyond the size of their share of GDP. But others do not, such as many of the luxury goods developed since the 1980s. GDP calculations do not always reflect such differences. Gordon’s analysis here is mostly correct, extremely important, and at times brilliant—the book is worth buying and reading for this part alone.

Gordon goes on to argue that today’s technological advances, impressive as they may be, don’t really compare to the ones that transformed the U.S. economy in his “special century.” Although computers and the Internet have led to some significant breakthroughs, such as allowing almost instantaneous communication over great distances, most new technologies today generate only marginal improvements in well-being. The car, for instance, represented a big advance over the horse, but recent automotive improvements have provided diminishing returns. Today’s cars are safer, suffer fewer flat tires, and have better sound systems, but those are marginal, rather than fundamental, changes. That shift—from significant transformations to minor advances—is reflected in today’s lower rates of productivity.•

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In a belated London Review of Books assessment of The Second Machine Age and Average Is Over, John Lanchester doesn’t really break new ground in considering Deep Learning and technological unemployment, but in his customarily lucid and impressive prose he crystallizes how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades. Two passages follow: The opening, in which he charts the course of how the power of a supercomputer ended up inside a child’s toy in a few short years; and a sequence about the way automation obviates workers and exacerbates income inequality.


In 1996, in response to the 1992 Russo-American moratorium on nuclear testing, the US government started a programme called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The suspension of testing had created a need to be able to run complex computer simulations of how old weapons were ageing, for safety reasons, and also – it’s a dangerous world out there! – to design new weapons without breaching the terms of the moratorium. To do that, ASCI needed more computing power than could be delivered by any existing machine. Its response was to commission a computer called ASCI Red, designed to be the first supercomputer to process more than one teraflop. A ‘flop’ is a floating point operation, i.e. a calculation involving numbers which include decimal points (these are computationally much more demanding than calculations involving binary ones and zeros). A teraflop is a trillion such calculations per second. Once Red was up and running at full speed, by 1997, it really was a specimen. Its power was such that it could process 1.8 teraflops. That’s 18 followed by 11 zeros. Red continued to be the most powerful supercomputer in the world until about the end of 2000.

I was playing on Red only yesterday – I wasn’t really, but I did have a go on a machine that can process 1.8 teraflops. This Red equivalent is called the PS3: it was launched by Sony in 2005 and went on sale in 2006. Red was only a little smaller than a tennis court, used as much electricity as eight hundred houses, and cost $55 million. The PS3 fits underneath a television, runs off a normal power socket, and you can buy one for under two hundred quid. Within a decade, a computer able to process 1.8 teraflops went from being something that could only be made by the world’s richest government for purposes at the furthest reaches of computational possibility, to something a teenager could reasonably expect to find under the Christmas tree.

The force at work here is a principle known as Moore’s law. This isn’t really a law at all, but rather the extrapolation of an observation made by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of the computer chip company Intel. By 1965, Moore had noticed that silicon chips had for a number of years been getting more powerful, in relation to their price, at a remarkably consistent rate. He published a paper predicting that they would go on doing so ‘for at least ten years’. That might sound mild, but it was, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in their fascinating book, The Second Machine Age, actually a very bold statement, since it implied that by 1975, computer chips would be five hundred times more powerful for the same price. ‘Integrated circuits,’ Moore said, would ‘lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communications equipment’. Right on all three. If anything he was too cautious.•


Note that in this future world, productivity will go up sharply. Productivity is the amount produced per worker per hour. It is the single most important number in determining whether a country is getting richer or poorer. GDP gets more attention, but is often misleading, since other things being equal, GDP goes up when the population goes up: you can have rising GDP and falling living standards if the population is growing. Productivity is a more accurate measure of trends in living standards – or at least, it used to be. In recent decades, however, productivity has become disconnected from pay. The typical worker’s income in the US has barely gone up since 1979, and has actually fallen since 1999, while her productivity has gone up in a nice straightish line. The amount of work done per worker has gone up, but pay hasn’t. This means that the proceeds of increased profitability are accruing to capital rather than to labour. The culprit is not clear, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, persuasively, that the force to blame is increased automation.

That is a worrying trend. Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour. We get a glimpse of it in those quarterly numbers from Apple, about which my robot colleague wrote so evocatively. Apple’s quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: $74.6 billion in turnover, and $18 billion in profit. Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, said that these numbers are ‘hard to comprehend’. He’s right: it’s hard to process the fact that the company sold 34,000 iPhones every hour for three months. Bravo – though we should think about the trends implied in those figures. For the sake of argument, say that Apple’s achievement is annualised, so their whole year is as much of an improvement on the one before as that quarter was. That would give them $88.9 billion in profits. In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight.•

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In a piece at the Los Angeles Review of Books about Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, a meditation on meritocracy run amok, Guy Patrick Cunningham compares tomorrow’s potentially technologically divided society, a sci-fi-ish dystopia few people would find acceptable, to life in the Middle Ages. An excerpt:

“Though Cowen doesn’t see it, the future he lays out seems rife with obvious, intrinsic structural inequalities that will make it very hard for anyone born outside the elite to actually show enough ‘merit’ to rise into it. And when he breezily asserts, ‘The more that the high earners pull in, the more people will compete to serve them, sometimes for high wages, and sometimes for low wages,’ and that, ‘making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future […] Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved,’ it becomes hard not to see this as a new form of aristocracy — one where people born with certain advantages are able to leverage them even further than today’s wealthy. Certainly, a smart, capable aristocracy, one theoretically open to talented outsiders, but an aristocracy all the same.

Cowen is careful to note that this system ‘is not necessarily a good and just way for an economy to run,’ but he certainly sees it as a given. Interestingly, he is also keen to emphasize the autonomy of the individual in the hyper-meritocracy. This isn’t itself surprising. But Cowen’s efforts to square the system he anticipates with humanistic ideas about individual agency fall flat. When he defends the possibility of building third-world style slums in the United States, he insists, ‘No one is being forced to live in these places […] I might prefer to live there if my income was low enough.’ Cowen essentially defines choice down to the absence of force. But this is meaningless — after all, no one chooses to live in a slum, unless the alternative is homelessness. Choice only matters when there are real alternatives to pick from. When Cowen compares a hyper-meritocratic society to the Middle Ages, he does so merely to point out that it is possible for a deeply unequal society to remain stable over a long period of time. But the comparison brings to mind another thought instead — that the values that underlie hyper-meritocracy are as un-humanist as those of the Medieval period.”

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In a post for the “Upshot” section of the New York Times, economist Tyler Cowen suggests a variety of ways technology may begin to reverse the income inequality it has lately helped grow. Many of the ideas are modest and incremental, but there’s one giant one: The rising fortunes of emerging powers like China may eventually also help enrich Americans when such nations lose interest in making knockoff Apple products and create original companies as innovative as Apple. An excerpt:

“A final set of forces to reverse growing inequality stem from the emerging economies, most of all China. Perhaps we are living in a temporary intermediate period when America and many other developed nations bear a lot of the costs of Chinese economic development without yet getting many of the potential benefits. For instance, China and other emerging nations are already rich enough to bid up commodity prices and large enough to drive down the wages of a lot of American middle-class workers, especially in manufacturing. Yet while these emerging economies are keeping down the costs of manufactured goods for American consumers, they are not yet innovative enough to send us many fantastic new products, the way that the United States sends a stream of new products to British or French consumers, to their benefit. 

That state of affairs will probably end. Over the next few decades, we can expect China, India and other emerging nations to supply more innovations to the global economy, including to the United States. This shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. It will lead to many good things.

Since the emerging economies are relatively poor, many of these innovations may benefit relatively low-income Americans.”


At Pacific-Standard, Steve Swayne predicts that brain damage caused by football will force the end of most American high school and college programs within 15 years. It’s difficult to imagine that the coup de grâce will be administered so swiftly, but class-action suits will likely proliferate as we proceed. One note: The editor who wrote the article’s subheading should realize that “futból” also has a nasty head-injury problem. From Swayne:

“I’m not the first to make these suggestions; in a 2012 story in Grantland, economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen looked at historical models of businesses dying off and provided some illustrations about how America would look without football. And the NCAA’s recent announcement giving more autonomy to the biggest conference schools will, in my estimation, only accelerate the speed of the changes as colleges and universities re-evaluate their finances and mission and weigh the place of football to both.

Even if football’s demise doesn’t come to pass as starkly as I imagine and they outline, we all can see that the world of football is changing rapidly and dramatically. At first the NFL was a league of denial when it came to the connection between concussions and brain damage. Then, having been sued by former players, the league offered a limited settlement. Now, ‘the N.F.L. has made an open-ended commitment to pay cash awards to retired players who have dementia and other conditions linked to repeated head hits,’ according to the New York Times. In short, the league is acknowledging that football can be extremely hazardous to your mental health.

It’s why I believe institutions of learning are going to re-evaluate the place of football and other high-impact sports in their missions. And I believe this re-evaluation is coming sooner than any of us imagine.”

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Great interview by Tyler Cowen at American Interest with Ralph Nader, the consumer watchdog and politician who’s mostly been right and occasionally colossally wrong, tied to the latter’s publication of Unstoppable, a book about finding political common ground in a divisive age. In one exchange, Nader decries the corporatization of sports, which he believes has made us passive spectators. I suppose this might be true of athletics, but I don’t think in a broader sense that the average person has ever participated more in society than right now. Of course, a participatory culture is only as good as its participants. An excerpt:

Tyler Cowen:

Do you think we need a more communitarian culture to push back against the corporate state and its abuses? I’m very struck by something in your book The Seventeen Solutions, for instance, where you talk about how America needs a new tradition of sports. Sports, you say, shouldn’t be something corporate-run that people watch on television, but something they do themselves, something that creates community, something that brings people together. Is that kind of social cohesion a necessary first step?

Ralph Nader:

Yes. We’ve become too much of a spectator culture, spending the better part of each day in front of screens. One of the consequences is that the few more athletic kids play while the rest watch, and the lack of physical activity leads to obesity. It’s not just youngsters; adults conform with the purposes of corporate advertising. The processed food producers and some other corporations, like pharmaceuticals, get rich when Americans get fat.

Corporations are also extremely adept at commercializing childhood and maneuvering around or undermining parental authority. They urge children to nag their parents at a young age to buy junk food, soft drinks, and violent video games. You see fewer kids out in the street now, just playing. These old games we used to play, like hopscotch—kids today wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about. But they do know a lot about video game violence and the heroes and villains involved.

So I think we do need a broad recognition of the need to bring the neighborhoods and communities into more participatory sports. Just a hoop, and throwing the ball into a hoop—anything to connect human to human rather than let kids wallow more and more in virtual reality. The whole electronic world is affecting us in ways we have yet to discover. That amount of time spent day after day in front of these screens can’t not have an effect on the human mind, and probably not a healthy one.”

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I put up a post just a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and since then it’s quickly become an unlikely blockbuster, sold out in brick-and-mortar stores and ranked #1 on Amazon, the latest green shoot in the Occupy mindset which blossomed in these scary financial times. At Foreign Affairs, economist Tyler Cowen provides a well-written review of the work, which he finds impressive but (unsurprisingly) disagrees with in fundamental ways. The opening:

Every now and then, the field of economics produces an important book; this is one of them. Thomas Piketty’s tome will put capitalist wealth back at the center of public debate, resurrect interest in the subject of wealth distribution, and revolutionize how people view the history of income inequality. On top of that, although the book’s prose (translated from the original French) might not qualify as scintillating, any educated person will be able to understand it — which sets the book apart from the vast majority of works by high-level economic theorists.

Piketty is best known for his collaborations during the past decade with his fellow French economist Emmanuel Saez, in which they used historical census data and archival tax records to demonstrate that present levels of income inequality in the United States resemble those of the era before World War II. Their revelations concerning the wealth concentrated among the richest one percent of Americans — and, perhaps even more striking, among the richest 0.1 percent — have provided statistical and intellectual ammunition to the left in recent years, especially during the debates sparked by the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests and the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

In this book, Piketty keeps his focus on inequality but attempts something grander than a mere diagnosis of capitalism’s ill effects. The book presents a general theory of capitalism intended to answer a basic but profoundly important question. As Piketty puts it:

‘Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, as Karl Marx believed in the nineteenth century? Or do the balancing forces of growth, competition, and technological progress lead in later stages of development to reduced inequality and greater harmony among the classes, as Simon Kuznets thought in the twentieth century?’

Although he stops short of embracing Marx’s baleful vision, Piketty ultimately lands on the pessimistic end of the spectrum. He believes that in capitalist systems, powerful forces can push at various times toward either equality or inequality and that, therefore, ‘one should be wary of any economic determinism.’ But in the end, he concludes that, contrary to the arguments of Kuznets and other mainstream thinkers, ‘there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.’ To forestall such an outcome, Piketty proposes, among other things, a far-fetched plan for the global taxation of wealth — a call to radically redistribute the fruits of capitalism to ensure the system’s survival. This is an unsatisfying conclusion to a groundbreaking work of analysis that is frequently brilliant — but flawed, as well.”

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It’s not that we’re entering a post-jobs world but one where automation, along with other economic factors, may make for permanently higher unemployment levels. Many types of work will vanish and not everyone will be suited for the new normal. Not all clerks can become nurses. From Tyler Cowen in the New York Times:

“How afraid should workers be of these new technologies? There is reason to be skeptical of the assumption that machines will leave humanity without jobs. After all, history has seen many waves of innovation and automation, and yet as recently as 2000, the rate of unemployment was a mere 4 percent. There are unlimited human wants, so there is always more work to be done. The economic theory of comparative advantage suggests that even unskilled workers can gain from selling their services, thereby liberating the more skilled workers for more productive tasks.

Nonetheless, technologically related unemployment — or, even worse, the phenomenon of people falling out of the labor force altogether because of technology — may prove a tougher problem this time around.

Labor markets just aren’t as flexible these days for workers, especially for men at the bottom end of the skills distribution.”


Very happy to see that the bizarre attack on economist Tyler Cowen at George Mason didn’t result in any serious injury. Strange world.

I think any nation as mobile and armed as this one (though thankfully there was no gun involved in this case) desperately needs universal healthcare with a strong mental-wellness component. Are there fewer incidences of gun violence in a country which has abundant firearms and universal coverage (e.g., Canada) than in the U.S., which is only now belatedly trying to guarantee care for all its citizens, because insured people can see a doctor when they need to? There are probably lots of cultural reasons for the disparity, but it seems like focus in this area could be beneficial.

From a really interesting 2009 interview Cowen conducted with philosopher Peter Singer, a dialogue about using immigration as a poverty-fighting tool:

Tyler Cowen:

For instance, in my view, what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work, and that’s what’s called ‘immigration.’ I don’t even see the word ‘immigration’ in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us. Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?

Peter Singer:

That’s an interesting point, Tyler. I suppose, one question I’d like to ask is: is it sustainable? Isn’t it the case that if we take, as immigrants, the people who are the most enterprising, perhaps, of the poor countries that we’re still going to leave those countries in poverty, and their populations may continue to rise, and eventually, even if we keep taking immigrants, we will reach a capacity where we’re starting to strain our own country?

Tyler Cowen:

There’s two separate issues: one is ‘brain drain’ from the third world. I think here’s a lot of research by [Michael Clemens], showing that it’s not a problem, that third world countries that have even somewhat functional institutions tend to benefit by sending people to other countries. India’s a good example: a lot of Indians return to India and start businesses, or they send money back home. Mexico is another example. Maybe North Korea is somewhat different, but for the most part immigration seems to benefit both countries.

I don’t think we could have open borders; I don’t think we could have unlimited immigration, but we’re both sitting here in the United States and it hardly seems to me that we’re at the breaking point. Immigrants would benefit much more: their wages would rise by a factor of twenty or more, and there would be perhaps some costs to us, but in a cost-benefit sense it seems far, far more effective than sending them money. Do you agree?

Peter Singer:

I must admit that I haven’t thought a lot about immigration as a way of dealing with world poverty. Obviously, from what you’re saying, I should be thinking more about it, but I can’t really say whether I agree until I have thought more about it.”

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The opening of “The Robots Are Coming,” Gavin Kelly’s smart and sober-minded Guardian piece about the rise of the machines and what that will mean for job markets in automated societies:

“Whether it’s our humdrum reliance on supermarket self-service tills, Siri on our iPhones, the emergence of the drone as a weapon of choice or the impending arrival of the driverless car, intelligent machines are woven into our lives as never before.  

It’s increasingly common, a cliche even, for us to read about the inexorable rise of the robot as the fundamental shift in advanced economies that will transform the nature of work and opportunity within society. The robot is supposedly the spectre threatening the economic security not just of the working poor but also the middle class across mature societies. ‘Be afraid’ is the message: the march of the machine is eating into our jobs, pay rises and children’s prospects. And, according to many experts, we haven’t seen anything yet. 

This is because the power of intelligent machines is growing as their cost collapses. They are doing things reliably now that would have sounded implausible only a few years ago. By the end of the decade, Nissan pledges the driverless car, Amazon promises that electric drones will deliver us packages, Rolls-Royce says that unmanned robo-ships will sail our seas. The expected use of machines for everyday purposes is already giving rise to angst about the nascent problem of ‘robot smog‘ as other people’s machines invade ever more aspects of our personal space.

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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The Robots Are Here” is an excellent, thought-provoking article by Tyler Cowen at Politico Magazine which considers what our progress with data and automation has wrought. If you’re not familiar with the George Mason economist’s work, this piece is a wonderful entry point. He begins by looking at the prescience of an Isaac Asimov story which predicted the intersection of deep data and the democratic process. An excerpt:

“Nearly 60 years after Asimov anticipated a decidedly dramatic intrusion of machines into our politics, we may not (yet) be offloading our democratic responsibilities to computers, but we are empowering them to reshape our economy and society in ways that could be just as profound. The rise of smart machines—technologies that encompass everything from artificial intelligence to industrial robots to the smartphones in our pockets—is changing how we live, work and play. Less acknowledged, perhaps, is what all this technological change portends: nothing short of a new political order. The productivity gains, the medical advances, the workplace reorganizations and the myriad other upheavals that will define the coming automation age will create new economic winners and losers; it will reorient our demographics; and undoubtedly, it will transform what we demand from our government.

The rise of the machines builds on deeper economic trends that are already roiling American society, including stagnant growth since 2001 and a greater openness to trade and foreign outsourcing. But it’s the rapid increase in machines’ ability to substitute for intelligent human labor that presages the greater disruption. We’re on the verge of having computer systems that understand the entirety of human ‘natural language,’ a problem that was considered a very tough one only a few years ago. We’re close to the point when we can fit the (articulable) knowledge of the entire world into the palm of our hands. Self-driving cars are making their way onto streets in California and Nevada. Whether you are a factory worker or an accountant, a waitress or a doctor, this is the wave that will lift you or dump you.”

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I’ve written before that I don’t think it’s clear how we reconcile an automated society and a capitalist one. We managed to reinvent work in America during the Industrial Revolution by throwing ourselves into new information businesses (marketing, public relations, advertising, etc.). Perhaps such alternatives will emerge again. If not, we need to reconfigure our economic model, maintaining free markets but sharing the wealth somehow. Otherwise inequality will reach traumatic levels. At the New Yorker blog, Joshua Rothman interviews Tyler Cowen about these issues and others. I have questions about Cowen’s vision of America’s future, but he always makes intelligent points. The interview’s opening:


In Average Is Over, you argue that inequality will grow in the U.S. for the next several decades. Why?

 Tyler Cowen:

There are three main reasons inequality is here to stay, and will likely grow. The first is just measurement of worker value. We’re doing a lot to measure what workers are contributing to businesses, and, when you do that, very often you end up paying some people less and other people more. The second is automation—especially in terms of smart software. Today’s workplaces are often more complicated than, say, a factory for General Motors was in 1962. They require higher skills. People who have those skills are very often doing extremely well, but a lot of people don’t have them, and that increases inequality. And the third point is globalization. There’s a lot more unskilled labor in the world, and that creates downward pressure on unskilled labor in the United States. On the global level, inequality is down dramatically—we shouldn’t forget that. But within each country, or almost every country, inequality is up.


You think that intelligent software, especially, will make the labor market more unequal. Why is that the case?

 Tyler Cowen:

Because of the cognitive requirements of working with smart software. And it’s also about training. There’s a big digital divide in this country.”

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I really enjoyed “Why Texas Is Our Future,” economist Tyler Cowen’s Time cover story about the Lone Star State becoming the template for America, but I have to wonder if Texas is even the future of Texas, let alone the rest of the country. I’m not saying demographic shifts will completely change its nature–some things are deeply ingrained–but I wonder if the state will always be so red. It may have been better for Time to do a split-cover issue asking if Texas or California will be America’s future. (Though Massachusetts may actually have them both beat.) A few more quick questions and comments about the piece:

  • Growing Mexican-American voting power goes unmentioned. It likely won’t help Republicans in that state or nationally in the near future.
  • The politicians who favor the type of policies Cowen thinks are the future (low taxes, little or no social safety net) are also usually the same ones with extreme views on social policies. You can’t uncouple the two and far-right stances on reproductive rights and immigration and race and education and child health care may cost them at the ballot box.
  • You can’t assume that the influx of new citizens from disparate places to Texas won’t alter its political landscape. New arrivals may initially be attracted by no state income taxes, but they may grow weary of some of its less-appealing side effects.
  • It’s hard to see how Texas’ seemingly endless cheap land could apply to most smaller American states. The supply just isn’t there. Zoning-law changes can help somewhat, but you can do just so much with so little.
  • Citizens moving to Texas in large numbers is impressive, but many more people just voted against the Texas model in the last Presidential election. And, no, it was not just about the candidates’ personalities.
  • On this passage: “The individuals moving up the economic ladder are the ones who’ve responded to this competition by upgrading their skills and efforts. The ones moving down are largely those who have failed or been unable to respond at all.” I know people like Cowen who have been successful for a long time believe stuff like this, but it just isn’t true. There’s a lot more randomness and luck than a statement like this acknowledges.
  • It’s certainly not Cowen’s responsibility in predicting the future to skew his opinions to the more humanistic path, but I think he’s way too fatalistic about Americans accepting greater and greater income inequality. His view of the future is pretty chilling and only some of it has to be true. Sure, automation will become more prominent, but we do not have to politically allow our country to become an even more extreme version of haves and have-nots. I don’t think people will forever be satisfied by bread and Kardashians.

From Cowen on the Texas model:

How did Texas do it?

Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder credits the ‘Texas model’ in her recent book, Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas. “The Texas model basically calls for low taxes and low services,’ she says. “In a sense, it’s just a limited-government approach.” Chief Executive magazine has named Texas the most growth-friendly state in the nation for nine years in a row. The ranking is based on survey results from its CEO readership, who grade the states on the basis of factors such as taxes and regulation, the quality of the workforce and the living environment. Cheap land, cheap labor and low taxes have all clearly contributed to this business-friendly climate. But that’s not the whole story.

“Certainly since 2008, the beginning of the Great Recession, it’s been the energy boom,” SMU’s [Bernard] Weinstein says, pointing to the resource boom’s ripple effect throughout the Texas economy. However, he says, the job growth predates the energy boom by a significant margin. “A decade ago, before the shale boom, economic growth in Texas was based on IT development,” Weinstein says. “Today most of the job creation, in total numbers, is in business and personal services, from people working in hospitals to lawyers.”

Of course, not everyone’s a fan of the Texas model. “We are not strong economically because we have low taxes and lax regulation. We are strong economically because of geography and geology,” says Scott McCown, a former executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities who is now a law professor at the University of Texas. “We’ve built an economy favoring the wealthy … If that’s the ultimate end result of the Texas model in a democratic society, it will be rejected.”

So will the rest of the country follow Texas’ lead? People are already voting with their feet. The places in the U.S. seeing significant in-migration are largely in relatively inexpensive parts of the Sun Belt. These are, by and large, affordable states with decent records of job creation–often with subpar public services and low taxes. Texas is just the most striking example. But Oklahoma, Colorado, the Carolinas and other parts of the South are benefiting from the same trends–namely that California, New York and the other high-tax, high-cost states are no longer such good deals for much of the U.S.’s middle and lower-middle classes.

The Americans heading to Texas and other cheap-living states are a bit like the mythical cowboys of our past–self-reliant, for better or worse.•

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