Just finished reading David Brooks latest column in the NY Times. It’s an interesting observation on a book by Tyler Cowen called “The Great Stagnation” that I have yet to read. I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own to Brooks ideas. The idea of the book is that as society in the United States has changed from an industrial and manufacturing base to a more consumer oriented society we have lost a few things. First off, more people now choosing careers that create fewer jobs. For instance that manufacturing nowadays is reliant on less people and that jobs for other companies require less people. This isn’t really surprising at all. In many ways its merely a confirmation of the fact that more of the jobs we used to do by hand, or that were labor intensive, are now being done by computer controlled robots or have moved overseas. Is there really a big surprise in that Mr. Brooks?
Brooks then seems fascinated by this in the sense that he thinks there was some sort of golden age. That according to Cowen’s book, and Brooks seemingly agrees, the economic growth accomplished by the United States up to the seventies was done cheaply. Ok, that may be the case when you run it through certain economic modeling, but as most people can figure out for themselves the problem lies with what your pricing mechanism is. For instance we have built a society based around the Automobile. What if we then run out of cheap fuel? Then our very way of life at the moment, which is (has been?) extremely cheap in the United States (a post-industrial nation), suddenly becomes more expensive. Once again how one makes such calculations so as to conclude that things were cheap seems tricky at best. Add to this that the nostalgia for the way things used to be is usually based on a false understanding of the past. To belabor the point: how we view the past is always dependent on our current situation, both when it comes to means and how we are doing in terms of psychology.
For example, I am unemployed at the moment and have a hard time finding work in the field that I studied. Therefore I tend to conclude, at the moment, that I have done something wrong during my academic years and that this is having an affect at this moment. Whether or not this notion is based on reality is another thing. Were I to be employed I would instead conclude that I had studied exactly the right thing at the right time. To be fair to Brooks I should probably read that book…