Why Krugman’s Sort of Pessimism Is Right For the Wrong Reasons

Paul Krugman observes this about the pace of technological innovation (boldface mine):

You see, I got my Ph.D. in 1977, the year of the first Star Wars movie, which means that I have basically spent my whole professional life in an era of technological disappointment.

Until the 1970s, almost everyone believed that advancing technology would do in the future what it had done in the past: produce rapid, unmistakable improvement in just about every aspect of life. But it didn’t. And while social factors — above all, soaring inequality — have played an important role in that disappointment, it’s also true that in most respects technology has fallen short of expectations.

The most obvious example is travel, where cars and planes are no faster than they were when I was a student, and actual travel times have gone up thanks to congestion and security lines. More generally, there has just been less progress in our command over the physical world — our ability to produce and deliver things — than almost anyone expected.

Now, there has been striking progress in our ability to process and transmit information. But while I like cat and concert videos as much as anyone, we’re still talking about a limited slice of life: We are still living in a material world, and pushing information around can do only so much. The famous gibe by the investor Peter Thiel (“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”) is unfair, but contains a large kernel of truth.

Over the past five or six years, however — or at least this is how it seems to me — technology has been getting physical again; once again, we’re making progress in the world of things, not just information. And that’s important.

Progress in rocketry is fun to watch, but the really big news is on energy, a field of truly immense disappointment until recently.

I’ll get to the post title in a bit, but one area Krugman completely neglects is human health. Now, in light of recent work indicating live expectancy among certain demographic groups in the U.S. has decreased, one might think this proves Krugman’s point. But while some demographic groups are doing worse, the wealthiest Americans have seen their health outcomes increase (Krugman himself has been making that point for years). The potential to improve our health exists, and should be viewed as a success story. The deployment of that technological increase has, for too many, been a failure.

By the same token, we could have a vastly better transportation system–faster, more fuel-efficient–but instead we have decided to ‘improve’ (that is, expand its scale) a transportation grid that exacerbates congestion, all the while refusing even to maintain the current inferior infrastructure. In addition, we’ve done things like take improvements in engine efficiency and use those to power SUVs as opposed to higher fuel efficiency. Even in the solar energy arena, a big factor was the shift in policy–and fiscal resources–that enabled solar energy to truly get off the ground.

In other words, I don’t think it’s largely a technological problem, but a political problem. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse….

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2 Responses to Why Krugman’s Sort of Pessimism Is Right For the Wrong Reasons

  1. Well put. We lack the political WILL to develop the technology that is on the cusp of being born. However, that technology can be transient. If we do not PAY the engineers, and scientists in a realistic manner commensurate with their education and talent, then the seeds of that unfulfilled technology will die along with our current generation of exploited/displaced scientists and engineers. The cost of sidelining this type of talent, having them while away their lives making lattes at Starbucks should not be underestimated. We have a knowledge base that will not only remain unfulfilled, it may well be lost for good. The knowledge base will not passed down to the next generation scientists and engineers,if there is no next generation to pass it along to.

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