9:26:11 The Great Stagnation, a book review

[book cover]Tyler Cowen's ebook, The Great Stagnation: How American Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better--if nothing else--is notable as an ebook phenom. First published in February 2011, it was only available as an ebook. No print versions were forthcoming. A special internet price of $3.99, its relevance to our current economic woes, it quickly became a bestseller. Although a print version, now, is on the way.

In a short-ish 15,000 words, Cowen argues cogently about how we came upon our present economic woes. But what does he mean by "low-hanging fruit"? Simply put, three factors helped: cheap land, pioneering technologies, and rural, uneducated kids.

Certainly, as a fairly young country, America offered plenty of low-cost, fertile land to immigrants from our founding. But once spoken for, we're not creating more.

Technology, the second factor, analyses show reached a maturity in the 1960s. Cowen suggests our subsequent advances have been more private (think the iPod/iPhone), not large and public (as a Interstate Highway System with its last link completed in the 70s).

As he states, "It makes my life only slightly better to have a larger refrigerator that makes ice in cubed or crushed form. We all understand that difference from a personal point of view, yet somehow we are reluctant to apply it to the economy writ large. But that's the truth behind our crisis today--the low-hanging fruit has been mostly plucked, at least for the time being."

Factor Number Three is Cowen's "smart, uneducated kids," or the great migration of rural youths--many potential geniuses--from the farm to the city. Giving up dirt farming, getting college educations, settling in industrial parks of America. But that move is played out.

If the reader agrees America's low-hanging fruit has been picked, it is pretty straightforward to follow Cowen's arguments from there about getting to the present crisis. Yes, some of it's living beyond our means individually. The house equity as super credit card gotchas are well-documented. More of an eye-opener, though, are his nuanced reasons why government spending (and health care and education, in particular) continues to rise.

Tyler Cowen is optimistic we'll get past our present economic malaise. He notes "if the internet changes everything," much of it is also a free, shared good, enriching our lives cheaply. That is, perhaps, one clue to living within our means in our shared, austere future.

The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen. Penguin Group, New York. 2011. eISBN: 978-1-101-50225-9.

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

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