Monday, February 9, 2015

Thoughts on Tyler Cowen's OU Talk

I had the privilege of hearing Tyler Cowen speak at OU this evening. It was a very good lecture and the Q&A after was equally rewarding. I was impressed by the OU students' questions. My thoughts follow.

He began by saying how his job is to view the world "weirdly"--to look beyond the obvious in a way many find weird. As such he wanted to discuss three basic contentions or predictions (my apologies for any butchering from poor memory):

  1. Globalization will decline. 
  2. There is a myth of the rational autocrat.
  3. "Fortress (North) America" will see a continuation of the current stagnating trend. 

To be fair he qualifies these predictions with the caveat that they may be the most likely of many altogether unlikely outcomes. Perhaps there is a 30% chance of one being correct where that is still the most likely outcome possible. 

Much of what he predicts I agree with, and part of the thesis supporting his three contentions is too vague in my understanding for me to form sharp disagreement. In fact I think he is wrongly maligned because of inferences people create from The Great Stagnation and Average Is Over that are not his actual argument. Nevertheless, I find some disagreement in how significant the trends he sees are or how meaningful they are as a guide to the near future. 

Thinking back over the past 115 years in American history I can think of a few periods where change and trends would lead one to make very similar arguments to The Great Stagnation and Average Is Over, but in each of those cases the future turned out quite a bit different (better in fact). My question going into tonight was if he had a testable hypothesis (i.e., how will we know if he was wrong 20 years from now?). In his talk he did give some specificity to the three contentions, but it was not as definitive as I would have liked.

My thoughts and questions on each contention:
  1. Globalization will decline, which he defines this as cross-border trade as a percentage of global GDP declining (peak trade).
    • Isn't this a natural process as wealth grows, as local markets get deeper? Local economies seem to import the good until they can import the technology to do the work themselves--sort of a territorial vertical integration. Oklahoma can produce a lot now that it used to import from more developed states. The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market--hence, a larger market allows for greater division within it.
  2. There is a myth of the rational autocrat. 
    • I was confused by what he meant here thinking "rational" meant responding to incentives in self-beneficial ways, but instead I think he means rational to be peaceful or choosing or agreeing to good outcomes. 
    • I think he is largely correct that it is wrong to assume autocrats will choose or can be made to choose good outcomes.
  3. "Fortress (North) America" will see a continuation of the current stagnating trend. 
    • He looks at 1999 as a turning point stating that real median income has declined since then. This one I was able to discuss with him briefly afterwards. I asked how many (if any) 15-year periods over the past 115 years would match this pattern. He said there were some. And he agreed that we are probably in the beginning half of a ~40 cycle between the major advancements of a technology and the benefits reaching the entire economy. It is just that he sees the interim as quite painful for many and not as typically fulfilling for most as in previous cases. 
    • We were specifically comparing the early automobile and today's tech sector. What became clear is how he was focusing on the labor implications while I was considering the consumption implications. To me he is caught up in considering labor income, but that is a cost. The economic benefits of a technology are not how it employs people; it is how it enriches their lives.
    • Related to this I had another question I didn't get to ask. He stated that median, male, real income was lower today than in 1969. But isn't this a data-mined straw man? If the typical man can get by (and really thrive) in 2015 vs 1969 because his wife works or stuff is cheaper or his family wealth from prior generations allow, isn't this progress to the good? I fully agree that the patterns to labor, the risk factors to labor, the options for labor have changed and are changing dramatically. I am just not convinced it is necessarily bad for labor or that we can tell with any reasonable certainty.
Again, it was a very engaging and educational talk.