The Paradox of Bailouts
I have a new piece up at Discourse addressing the idea of a “Great Stagnation”—the idea that we aren’t making as many new inventions as we used to and that’s why we got social media instead of flying cars.
I do not actually have a strong opinion about whether we are really in a Great Stagnation. The pace of innovation is very hard to measure. “What counts as an important scientific breakthrough versus a mundane extension of existing knowledge? How do you count the number of innovations or rank their importance?” I don’t have any good answers to those questions, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. As with anything that’s hard to measure objectively, this offers a lot of scope for subjective impressions shaped by our biases. In this case, I suspect there is a bias in favor of older, industrial technology, which is seen as “real” innovation, while software is viewed on not being real innovation. Yet, “as the past two years have taught us, maybe it’s easier and better to have ubiquitous videoconference technology that lets everyone work at home than to find a faster way to get to the office.”
While I’m up in the air on whether we are stagnating, I have a strong opinion on why this doesn’t feel like an era of innovation, because we are doing things that ought to lead to stagnation.
To be sure, techno-pessimism is nothing new. I recently had a conversation with Louis Anslowof Pessimists Archive, which documents past hysterias over such nefarious new technologies as the bicycle and the telephone. Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, we’ve been convinced that science and technology are going to produce monsters. But perhaps this conviction is more powerful now than before. Anslow calls it the “Black Mirror” fallacy, after a British television show in which every episode is a projection of how some new technology could go horribly wrong. This captures our tendency to see only the negative possibilities in new technology, when a look at history, and particularly the history of the past 200 years, shows us that the long-term benefits of new technology massively outweigh the costs. If we are not already in a Great Stagnation, we are certainly asking for one.
There is a lot of interesting material here, including the role of “general purpose technologies” and speculation about what the next one will be, so read the whole thing.
The Man in the Middle
Also check out a current events podcast I did with David Kelley for The Atlas Society in which we discuss the recent stimulus bill—excuse me, the “Inflation Reduction Act”—and Supreme Court rulings on executive powers.
David has some good observations on the Supreme Court rulings, tying them back to the court’s New Deal-era split between economic freedom and other freedoms—in the infamous Footnote 4—and through that back to the mind-body dichotomy. This really struck a chord with me because Ayn Rand’s observations on how the mind-body split shapes the contemporary left and right were among the first things I read by her, and they really made me sit up and take notice that this was someone with profound and interesting things to say.
I took the lead in commenting on the “Inflation Reduction Act” and concluded that “from the name, to the context, to the various things they are trying to do [in it], it’s this carnival of evasion of reality.” Washington, DC, is the land of A Is Non-A.
But I also point out that this is what you get with “moderate Democrats.”