An important question and a vexing one: Why is the US recovery still so weak? Five years after the official end of the Great Recession, growth remains maddeningly subpar. Folks on the right like to talk about “uncertainty” stemming from President Obama’s economic policies, from Obamacare to environmental regulation to Dodd Frank. Folks on the left have latched onto a theory called “secular stagnation,” cooked up by former Obama White House economist Larry Summers, which see chronic inadequate demand – partially driven by income inequality — as the big problem.
Blogger, ex-banker, and current entrepreneur Ashwin Parameswaran has an intriguing thesis of his own — much of it concerning automation –outlined in his marvelous essay “Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation.” This alternate explanation also attempts to explain why “the “benefits of the current economic recovery have flown disproportionately towards corporate profits with wages and employment lagging far behind.” In this episode of the Ricochet Money and Politics Podcast, I chat with Parameswaran about his ideas. Here are some edited highlights from our chat:
Let’s start by laying out your theory. and then I’m going to try to push back a bit on it.
There are more than two ways of looking at what’s wrong with the economy right now, and there are a lot of contradictory positions. One of the contradictions that a lot of people don’t seem to focus on is the fact that we seem to be worried about technological unemployment and that robots are going to make human beings obsolete. And at the same time, we seem to have this idea that we are in the midst of this great stagnation [as seen in] Tyler Cowen’s great book on this topic.
This essay in particular and a lot of my other work is trying to argue that these two are not opposing phenomena. They both can happen at the same time. The primary argument is really that we are getting a lot of process innovation which means that we are making things that we consume today in a more efficient and cheaper manner which means less manpower. That leads to a lot of technological unemployment. But we are not getting enough product innovation. We are not getting enough disruptive innovation, which means we are not making new products that people consume.
The combination of these two things means that we can have long-run stagnation, but at the same time we get technological unemployment. It’s easy to argue why we have process innovation and technological unemployment because of it. But the larger question is why we don’t have enough disruptive innovation.