Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Review (#5 of 2013) Average is Over by Tyler Cowen

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation is supposed to be a longer sort of sequel to his Great Stagnation (my review).
Tyler Cowen forsees a future with a continually widening gap between the top 1% and the bottom 10%, but without the guillatines and other doom predicted by modern Progressives. He believes our society will grow more conservative as the elderly make an increasing percentage of the population and will accept the new norm and what comes with it. Competition with China will settle the country to accept other status quos much as competition with the USSR did in the U.S., Cowen predicts.

The "winners" in the coming economy are those who can effectively use machines-- not necessarily programmers but those with enough skill to use the data that machines can give us, while making the machines do what we want.

"Overall, these job market trends are bringing higher pay for bosses, more focus on morale in the workplace, greater demands for conscientious and obedient workers, greater inequality at the top, big gains for the cognitive elite, a lot of freelancing in the services sector, and some tough scrambles for workers without a lot of skills. Those are essential characteristics of the coming American labor markets."

The "losers" will be those who do not adapt, they will continue to see decreases in their real wages but some will get along fine, enjoying what would once have been considered marvellous luxuries-- cheap high-speed internet and cellphone service, education, food, and clothing. Others will not fare so well, and will create problems for society much as one sees today.

As higher taxes are an inevitability to pay for the greater debts the government is projected to run due to entitlements like Medicare, people will continue to move to places like Texas where they will settle for "C-level" local government but enjoy cheaper housing, helping their paychecks go further.

Cowen's chapters on and frequent references to the evolution of technology in chess play are a bit of a digression, these made the book rather boring. Also, is it not obvious that those who can effectively use technology today are the ones who have an easier time finding jobs? Isn't the future he's predicting already here? Perhaps he's just staying it will stay the way it is, more of the same. In some cases, a technology-oriented future needs more people, but they all need to be more highly skilled as well.

"Keeping an unmanned Predator drone in the air for twenty-four hours requires about 168 workers laboring in the background. A larger drone, such as the Global Hawk surveillance drone, needs about 300 people...an F-16 fighter aircraft requires fewer than 100 people for a single mission."


He considers his take different because it doesn't predict much of the gloom-and-doom but more acceptance of the status quo.

"Right now the biggest medium for envy in the United States is probably Facebook, not the yachting marinas or the rather popular television shows about the lifestyles of the rich and famous."

The book does not touch foreign policy much at all. Cowen admits that many of the middle-class, low-technology jobs have gone to China, and argues that allowing more immigrants would help bring those jobs back-- and thus create jobs for more native-born Americans in creating the infrastructure for those companies. That would also help ease the funding burden for programs like Social Security by having a larger number of workers paying in.

The military's huge component in our economy is not properly dealt with, I believe. Cowen sees somewhat of a retreat of the U.S. military from the world stage, but doesn't explain what this will mean for jobs directly or indirectly dependent on the military. That's a weakness of the book.

I did enjoy his critique of behavioral economists, how their own studies fall into the pitfalls of cognitive bias that the subjects they critique generally do.

"(Behavioral economists) are looking for behavioral theories that are too elegant, too simple, or too intuitive, such as the abstract strictures of mathematical decision theory."

Whether you like this book or not depends on whether you like the prophecies. Like any book with somewhat broad predictions, it is hard to judge. His references and beliefs are well documented, 25% of the book are references-- it's well-known that Cowen may be the most well-read person on the planet.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Not the best Cowen book.

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