Stories of Progress and Stagnation

I grew up around computers and have always taken it for granted that we lived in a time of enormous innovation and growth. Within my lifetime, my family has gone from something that looks like this:

To all individually having iPhones, which are enormously more powerful machines, connected to the Internet, and robust platforms for a huge variety of independently developed software. Never mind our various laptops and desktop computers!

It seems to me that from around the point that the term “web 2.0” was coined to the market crash of 2008, the story about the state of things that most people accepted was the one I was inclined to accept by default; that we lived in an era of accelerating progress. That every year would see huge leaps over the previous year, and the year after that would see a leap of similar relative magnitude, and this would go on indefinitely.

There have always been stagnationists, but it’s only in the last couple of years that stagnation stories have started to become fashionable again. Tyler Cowen deserves no small amount of credit, as The Great Stagnation made an enormous splash when it came out in January of last year. While discussions of the recession up until then had been made up almost entirely of diagnosing the financial bubble, post-TGS discussions had to face the possibility that our present predicament might be part of larger, more structural trends. Regardless of whether the book changed anyone’s minds directly, there can be little doubt that it played a huge role in setting the agenda.

The debate that has emerged has fascinated me, both as someone who is deeply interested in our propensity to tell stories, and simply because it is extremely hard to determine who is correct.

The Death of Ambition and the Modern Game of Inches

Tyler Cowen credits PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel with inspiring the story behind The Great Stagnation. Recently, Thiel debated Google Chairman Eric Schmidt on the subject of technology and progress. One section of that debate that made the rounds in the economics blogosphere concerned Google’s $50 billion in the bank.

Thiel argued that “if we’re living in an accelerating technological world”, Google should be able to invest that $50 billion in technology in a way that returns their investment many times over. Even if Googlers are claiming that we live in an era of progress, their actions speak to a more pessimistic assessment.

Thiel believes that we live in a deterministic world in which progress is made by making big bets on enormous projects. Part of the reason we no longer pursue some ambitions is that we have all become indeterminists; our resources are all tied up in hedging against uncertainty. Even though the tech sector is characterized by progress so stable and relentless that we refer to several specific trends as “laws”, the players are, if anything, more indeterminist in their worldview than average.

Google’s low-yielding $50 billion is the ultimate symbol of this. Google made nearly $10 billion in profits in 2011, and almost all of that came from search, their core product. Thiel’s argument is that if Google believed that we lived in a time of accelerating technological progress, where $10 billion a year breakthroughs were just lying around waiting to be invented, they would be spending every penny they had on attempting to make those breakthroughs happen.

More important than the cultural change, however, is the fact that public policy has systematically outlawed ambitious projects of any sort. From the debate with Schmidt:

The why questions always get immediately ideological. I’m Libertarian, I think it’s because the government has outlawed technology. We’re not allowed to develop new drugs with the FDA charging $1.3 billion per new drug. You’re not allowed to fly supersonic jets, because they’re too noisy. You’re not allowed to build nuclear power plants, say nothing of fusion, or thorium, or any of these other new technologies that might really work.

So, I think we’ve basically outlawed everything having to do with the world of stuff, and the only thing you’re allowed to do is in the world of bits. And that’s why we’ve had a lot of progress in computers and finance. Those were the two areas where there was enormous innovation in the last 40 years. It looks like finance is in the process of getting outlawed. So, the only thing left at this point will be computers and if you’re a computer that’s good. And that’s the perspective Google takes.

Further down, responding to criticism of the financial sector, he adds:

I disagree with the premise behind the question that there’s some sort of tradeoff between finance and other areas of innovation. I think it’s easy to be anti-finance at this point in our society, and I think the reality is we have an economy that got very lopsided towards finance, but it’s fundamentally because people weren’t able to do other things.

So, if you ask why did all the rocket scientists go to work on Wall Street in the ’90s to create new financial products, and you say well they were paid too much in finance and we have to beat up on the finance industry, that seems like that’s the wrong side to focus on. I think the answer was, no, they couldn’t get jobs as rocket scientists anymore because you weren’t able to build rockets, or supersonic airplanes, or anything like that. And so you have to ‑‑ it’s like why did brilliant people in the Soviet Union become grand master chess players? It’s not that there’s something deeply wrong with chess, it’s they weren’t allowed to do anything else.

In short, we have grown risk averse in both our culture and in our policy.

Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson is firmly in the stagnationist camp, and he definitely believes it is all about risk aversion. He has written:

 Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously — supposing they were noticed at all — by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist.

In Stephenson and Thiel’s story, true innovation is risky, bold, and visible, while what passes for innovation in modern times is peanuts by comparison. Stephenson pointed to the ongoing competition to build the world’s tallest building as an emblematic example of the problem. These days the tallest building in the world is only a few inches taller than the previous record-holder, and only holds the record for a few months as another slightly taller building is always being constructed in near parallel.

What Stephenson wants is for us to build a structure several orders of magnitude larger than anything that’s ever been built before; a structure that will hold the record for decades before it becomes technologically possible or financially conceivable to surpass it. To Stephenson as well as Thiel, that is what innovation should look like.

The stagnationist has no problem with the ground game, but is frustrated that there doesn’t seem to have been any passing game in forty years. Meanwhile everyone is going around presenting the incremental gains as though they were big breakthroughs. Neither Stephenson, Thiel, nor indeed Cowen, are impressed. You talk about all the wonders we’ve seen since the mass adoption of the Internet, but have they really moved the needle? Just think about penicillin, anesthetics, the automobile and the airplane, not to mention all the spillover innovations that came from putting a man on the moon!

At Founder’s Fund, the venture capital firm at which Thiel is a partner, they have a saying: “we wanted flying cars, and instead we got 140 characters.”

The Value of the Unseen

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

-Frederic Bastiat, What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

I see a lot of truth in pieces of the arguments made by Thiel, Stephenson, and Cowen, but am uncertain whether I buy into all of it. My natural inclination has always been to dismiss stagnationist stories, and Stephenson’s fixation with big, visible things made me all the more skeptical. The stories I have grown close to over the years frequently point out how what seems to be plain truth is often, when you take a step back, a lot less clear and sometimes completely wrong. You think, for instance, that making something as simple as a pencil is the easiest possible task, but it turns out that there’s this huge process behind it in which no individual has enough knowledge to assemble a single pencil.

Take GDP as an example. It’s a nice point of reference, but if you start assuming that GDP–or even GDP per capita–is synonymous with national wealth, you run into some serious problems. GDP is essentially just aggregate spending. When you buy an iPhone for $199.99, you are adding $199.99 to this year’s GDP. It’s a great proxy for national income but it has many recognized problems. In what is perhaps a dated and vaguely sexist sounding example, Paul Samuelson came up with the following scenario:

Take Samuelson’s example of the man marrying his maid. Samuelson’s point is that the new bride continues doing the housework without being paid. But that would not mean that the work suddenly had no market value. So, in this case, GDP actually understates the market value of all final goods and services because this particular service is no longer exchanged on the market.

The valued activity–the housework–is still being done, but because there isn’t any spending involved, it isn’t measured in GDP.

Bryan Caplan has pointed out repeatedly that the consumption done on digital devices and on the Internet is hugely mismeasured by metrics like GDP. In one post, he points out one implication of all the various network products seeing success in the market today:

In the real world, network goods visibly improve all the time. But suppose they didn’t. Suppose the Facebook of today used the same source code as it did five years ago, but still attracted new users at the same rate as it did in the real world. Many economists would be tempted to call this “stagnation,” but they’d be wrong. Even if Facebook’s source code stayed the same, the mere fact that more people are using the product causes it to be better. Why? Because the point of the product is to amusingly interact with your friends. The more friends who use it, the more amusing it is.

The upshot: Economists (and people generally) underestimate true economic growth for all expanding network products. When you measure the quality of network products, you can’t simply look at them in isolation. You have to measure what you can do with them.

There are many dimensions in which Caplan argues that our measurement biases are worse than ever, but our standard of living is actually better than ever.

Looking at my own daily life, a huge amount of my consumption is simply not counted in GDP. I consume an enormous amount of content without paying anything for it. There’s also the reverse benefit–I can write lengthy posts like this one and put them in a public place, whereas before the Internet only the lucky few who managed to get published could do anything roughly equivalent.

If we are a groupish species, and I believe we are, then the ability to connect with others and increase the number of our shared experiences is a huge benefit. Clay Shirky’s excellent book, Here Comes Everybody, discusses how modern technology has reduced the transaction costs associated with group action, the benefits of which we are only beginning to understand. In his followup, Cognitive Surplus, he described how central hubs like Wikipedia are able to aggregate a few minutes of effort from enough sources to result in one enormously valuable resource.

Even after The Great Stagnation, many defend the story that progress is accelerating. In Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that technological innovation has been going at a breakneck pace for decades, and we’re only now entering the second half of the chessboard. Yet their vision of progress has a caveat–we are currently at a moment where technology is replacing humans in performing certain tasks faster than entrepreneurs are coming up with new jobs that humans are better at than machines. Arnold Kling said it best:

 The paradox is this. A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

Still, overall well-being is going way up as machines become much, much more efficient at providing us with things that we value for rock bottom prices. So on net, we’re seeing tremendous progress.

Radical Uncertainty

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

If our culture has embraced indeterminacy, or more accurately uncertainty, as Thiel thinks we have, then Taleb has taken this story farther than anyone. Whereas Thiel will argue:

 Several people have successfully started multiple companies that became worth more than a billion dollars. Steve Jobs did Next Computer, Pixar, and arguably both the original Apple Computer as well as the modern Apple. Jack Dorsey founded Twitter and Square. Elon Musk did PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity. The counter-narrative is that these examples are just examples of one big success; the apparently distinct successes are all just linked together. But it seems very odd to argue that Jobs, Dorsey, or Musk just got lucky.

Taleb has no compunction with arguing that they got lucky–or, at the very least, that we are incapable of determining the difference between pure luck and its opposite. In Fooled By Randomness, he conjures up a scenario in which an eccentric rich person will pay $10 million to whomever wins a game of Russian Roulette. Someone might get lucky and win, but if they keep playing, the odds will eventually catch up with them. However, if the pool of players is large enough, you will get a handful of consistent winners even after many rounds of playing the game.

In addition, in time, if the roulette-betting fool keeps playing the game, the bad histories will tend to catch up with him. Thus, if a twenty-five-year-old played Russian roulette, say, once a year, there would be a very slim chance of his surviving until his fiftieth birthday–but, if there are enough players, say thousands of twenty-five-year-old players, we can expect to see a handful of (extremely rich) survivors (and a very large cemetery).

What you always miss out on when citing examples of people like Steve Jobs whose success seems so improbable at the individual level is that, with a big enough “cemetery” of people making similar attempts but failing, the probability of having a few people like him increases. Moreover, after the first success there is some preferential attachment, so to speak–while most startups that get funding do not succeed, the vast majority of startups don’t get any funding. Jack Dorsey’s first success increased the odds that even a stupid sounding idea would get funding the next time around, which increased his odds of succeeding. Now, there are a lot of people in a similar situation who did not then go on to have another success, but again, if the cemetery is big enough, you will end up with a few Jack Dorseys.

Again, the point is not to argue that everything is pure luck. The point is that the role that randomness plays in anything is unknowable. We have stories that persuade us to a greater or lesser extent, but in the end there is enormous uncertainty. Take the very debate over whether we are in a stagnation or a period of accelerating progress. The debate is very robust; with a great deal of evidence brought to bear on both sides of the argument. And everyone can think of alternative stories to fit the data–when I brought up Thiel’s conclusions about Google’s large cash horde, people immediately came up with alternative interpretations.

In Taleb’s world, progress and ill fortune are not smooth trendlines in either direction; they are lumpy. You get big, sudden breakthroughs, and huge, unexpected catastrophes (think of the turkey). So it can seem for a very long time like we’re going in either direction, and then one dramatic event today can have more of an impact on our well being than the past thirty years combined. In a way, the relatively short period since the onset of the Industrial Revolution is a big, dramatic event in the timescale of human history, and there is no guarantee that it will last. The progress could stop tomorrow, or the gains could be completely reversed by some countervailing dramatic event–say, nuclear war or a particularly virulent disease. Or, conversely, we could be at the foothill of a positive breakthrough of such a magnitude as to make the past 200 years look like nothing. There is simply no way to say.

F. A. Hayek was also a proponent of radical uncertainty; he believed that the only possible path to progress was through rote trial and error. It is possible to do the big things that the stagnationists want to see, but you’d better be prepared to see some colossal failures along the way. This begins to look more like Stephenson’s story about the role of risk, and there is certainly some overlap here.

But Thiel’s deterministic worldview is well outside of that overlap. Contra Thiel, the economist Frank Knight believed that the world is filled with irreducible and unquantifiable uncertainty. What’s more, Knight believed that progress was made and profit was found by entrepreneurs who deliberately sought out niches that had high degrees of uncertainty.

In this story of uncertainty and lumpy progress, Google’s $50 billion makes a lot of success. In a direct response to Thiel, Arnold Kling pointed out that under high uncertainty there is a high option value to waiting to invest.

Picture two possible scenarios–one in which Google develops the next big breakthrough in-house, another in which someone else develops it and Google acquires them. Google is clearly pursuing a lot of the former–famously, they are developing wearable computing and they have already clocked hundreds of thousands of miles on their fleet of automated cars. But their tens of billions of dollars in the bank suggests that they believe the big breakthroughs are going to come from outside of Google, rather than through their internal process.

This is frustrating to a hard determinist like Thiel who thinks we should be able to see what’s coming down the road and simply invest that $50 billion in it. But ultimately this is no different than any other make or buy decision that firms face; and how that split is made is a question that economists have analyzed since Coase. The fact that Google is sitting on so much money, from the perspective of this particular story, does not imply that they think we’re in the middle of a stagnation. Rather, it implies that they believe the market is more likely to supply the next $10 billion a year breakthrough than their own internal processes. That could speak to the weakness of their internal processes, or it could simply mean that the market is that much better at developing big breakthroughs than a single corporation could ever be.

Alex Tabarrok asked who will make the future if Google is just waiting for it. The answer provided by this story is that many players, in many firms, scattered across the market and across time will make the future, and many will do so in the hopes of a big payday from Google.

Cycles of Control and Resistance

This is the last story that I will examine here, and it comes from my former classmate Eli Dourado.

To really understand Eli’s story, you have to understand his larger framework. Despite the fact that economically-saavy libertarians believe very strongly in the power of incentives, most still seem to harbor the notion that the practical path forward for policy reform is through persuasion. And there is a story to be told in which this strategy has seen some success, with the neoliberal revolution for example.

In Eli’s framework, the incentives against governments adopting libertarian policies in a broad way are simply too powerful to overcome in the long run. Think about the big spam botnets. Botnets build up over time and become a low cost way to send people spam emails. After a while, one or two botnets will account for the vast majority of all spam. Security groups will get together and work to get one of the top ones taken out, and it will result in a big short term payoff–a recent takedown resulted in an estimated 50% drop in spam.

But the cost of building up a botnet is low enough, and the payoff for spam with an infinitesimal success rate is so high, that it doesn’t take long before the volume of spam is right back to where it was before the takedown. In Eli’s world, most good policies are like botnet takedowns–short term gains but a wash in the long run.

With that in mind, here’s is Eli’s more specific story about innovation:

First we need to differentiate between two kinds of innovation and think about their effects. The first kind of innovation is geared toward brute maximization of production. It is typically centralized and makes use of economies of scale. Examples might include an assembly line factory or a big, coal-fired power plant. Because these innovations tend to be centralized, they introduce points of control. The capital is typically fixed and therefore easy to tax and regulate. It’s well known in the development literature that it’s really hard for governments to control rural peasants who live off the grid. Once they move to the cities and plug into centralized services, it is easier to require them to send their children to school, for instance. Because these innovations introduce points of control, I will call them technologies of control.

On the other hand, not all innovations are about brute maximization of production. Some are about producing things that we already know how to produce in ways that have ancillary benefits. An important ancillary benefit is evading control. Examples of these innovations include 3D printers and solar power. The evasion of control that is possible with 3D printers is the subject of Cory Doctorow’s short story Printcrime. And portable solar power cells can make people harder to control by supplying electricity without the need to register an address, have a bank account, stay put, and so on. These are obvious examples, but control can be evaded through more subtle innovations as well. I will call innovations that circumvent points of control that can be used by governments or monopolies to exploit, tax, or regulate technologies of resistance.

Eli explicitly splits the difference between The Great Stagnation and Race Against the Machine. He posits that the Industrial Revolution was all about the technologies of control–people clustered into dense urban populations, and were employed in mass numbers by factories that produced on a scale that was unprecedented in human history. We saw massive improvements in the standard of living of industrializing nations in the blink of an eye.

But all the concentation and the mobility-reducing high capital costs made the sources of our new wealth easy targets for governments to come in and take a bigger and bigger cut. Beyond straight taxation, interest group pressures also created an incentive to exercise specific forms of control through government regulation, reducing the effectiveness of the technologies of control.

Still, the productive capacity of these technologies was such that we coasted all the way into the 1970’s before the deadweight of government regulation and taxation slowed us down. Since then, our resources have shifted to developing technologies of resistance, which is why Brynjolfsson and McAfee see accelerating innovation. It is accelerating, but it’s accelerating in a very specific area because of how difficult it is to control that particular area.

We do see welfare gains from innovation in the technologies of resistance, but they are not nearly as big as we could get with the technologies of control, were they not so bogged down with regulation. Resources are spent on creating robustness against control that would have otherwise been spent on maximizing pure economic growth, in the absence of efficiency-reducing regulation.

In this story, ideology, persuasion, and democracy will not help us. Every time the median voter swings more libertarian, we see the technologies of control begin to give us bigger gains again. But, like the botnet takedowns, it is only a matter of time before the regulations creep back in again. And we almost never see anything comparable to a botnet takedown in terms of orders of magnitudes–we see some small reforms that may be bigger or smaller in impact, but we’re talking 1% or 2% improvements, not 50% or 75%.

The only way to move to a better long run path is to change something fundamentally structural. Eli imagines an extreme version of such a change in his post on the utopia of infinite elasticity.

It’s tempting to think that the bond market is powerful because of corruption, but that is at most a proximate source of power. The real source of power is elasticity. The supply of financial capital is highly elastic; it moves around the globe in milliseconds. Try to tax it and the incidence of the tax will go elsewhere; burden it with regulations and it will flea to a more hospitable climate.

Imagine a world in which all factors of production were as mobile and elastic as financial capital. If labor and physical capital could flea instantaneously and at low cost from bad policies, there would be little danger from either the predatory or incompetent state. In short, it would be a libertarian utopia.

As with any ideal, Eli does not believe that such a world is possible to get to, but he does think that we can move closer to it. Maybe, rather than simply developing specific technologies of resistance, we can build a whole infrastructure of resistance. Maybe mass adoption of 3D printing and wireless mesh networks helps move us to a much more elastic world.

Otherwise, we will just be stuck in this race against coercion where we eek out progress in inches rather than big leaps. We may occasionally widen the gap, or set back coercion with the reform movement of the moment, but we’ll never see the enormous gains of the early Industrial Revolution on a regular basis again. In this story, you can take everything that Cato, the Hoover Foundation, and even Milton Friedman accomplished, and throw them in the garbage, and you won’t see much of a difference in the long run.

Instead of investing in lobbying, we should be investing in an infrastructure of resistance.

I have to admit that I find this to be the most fascinating story of all.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.