Is technological progress and innovation slowing down or speeding up? As my AEI colleague Nick Schulz notes
in another must-read Forbes column, there are some pretty smart folks taking both sides of that bet:
On one side you can find economist Tyler Cowen, author of the best-selling e-book
; investor/entrepreneur/intellectual The Great Stagnation Peter Thiel, who wrote an influential essay in National Review called “ The End of the Future”; and now comes economist Robert Gordon, author of a new paper “ Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds.” In case you couldn’t tell from the titles, these are the pessimists about the future.
On the other side you’ll find Eric Brynjolfsson and
Andrew McAfee, authors of ; Mark Mills, author of a much-discussed essay “ Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy The Next Great Growth Cycle”; Singularity theorist Ray Kurzweil; and Matt Ridley, author of and the The Rational Optimist Wired cover story “ Apocalypse Not.”
Which side of the bet should you take? Acceleration or stagnation? Schulz cleverly reframes the issue in the context of mathematician Blaise Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God:
Pascal argued that rational people should wager on the side of theism over atheism. The reason? If you believe in God and it turns out that God exists, then you lived in accordance with objective reality and would enjoy the Heavenly reward of eternal life.
But what if God did not exist and a person chose to believe he did? For Pascal, an individual would still enjoy great benefits in this life – a sense of peace, hope, and fraternity, and an impulse to do good works and to live harmoniously with others. These blessings would far outweigh any loss of autonomy or foregone material pleasures.
So for Pascal, the choice in his wager was obvious – choose theism over atheism: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.”
Thus we should treat the innovation slowdown as if it is happening and take whatever policy steps we can to hit the gas pedal. And if it turns out the slowdown is merely a statistical quirk or mismeasurement, then the worse that happens is the U.S. undertakes a bunch of really smart moves that make us even more innovative than we would be otherwise. Schulz: “Call it Schulz’s Wager: you should believe that The Great Stagnation is upon us. Now it’s time to get to work and put growth at the top of the agenda again.”
The question of innovation should permeate our politics, including the current presidential campaign.