The subject of Tyler Cowen’s book—the slow and at times even negative economic growth of the American economy for almost the past forty years, with all its distressing social and political consequences—is of singular importance; given that all the advanced capitalist democracies are experiencing the same protracted stagnation, the subject is perhaps the most serious systemic question of our time.footnote1 We would all wish for a better understanding of the causes of the slowdown, in order to find ways to break free of the quandary that is increasingly threatening the workings of democratic polities across the developed world.
From the web, we quickly learn that Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia with two personas: he is an able economist, reputed to be influential not just because he has published several books, but because his views on diverse issues appear frequently in several leading newspapers; but he is also a polymath or a dabbler, depending on how one evaluates his voluminous publications and blogs on numerous topics relating to the economy, politics, philosophy, culture and even ethnic cuisines. Regrettably, The Great Stagnation is an intellectual trompe l’oeil by a dabbler. The book is reminiscent of a campaign speech by a politician on the stump, touching eloquently on any subject that might beguile the populace to vote for him, while cherry-picking the facts to enhance his arguments. So Cowen, writing with undoubted journalistic facility, has enchanted enough readers to make his little book a bestseller, while often making dubious use of the data and of the results of other economists’ research.
Cowen, however, differs from the average politician in two, closely related respects. Firstly, a candidate generally speaks as a member of an identifiable political party, while Cowen has for some reason decided to obfuscate his own ideological leanings, proposing himself instead as a spokesman for ‘the honest middle’—a piece of campaign-trail hokum if ever there was one. In claiming to speak ‘above the din’ of partisan debates, Cowen avoids the kind of ideologically principled discussion indispensable for real debates over strategic decisions in a democracy. Secondly, politicians are expected to propose credible policies that will deliver tangible goods to their electoral base. In contrast, Cowen has eschewed rigorous, fact-based analysis and properly evaluated policy proposals in favour of catchy phrases about ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘getting sick’ and ‘feeling better’, suggesting a cartoon Uncle Sam with a temporary bout of dyspepsia. As a result, his slender volume has garnered at least eighteen high approbations, listed in the opening pages as well as on the back cover; all by well-known journalists, mostly from leading newspapers.
Nevertheless, this strategy has exacted a very high price on the book’s argumentation, with the result that both its portrayal of the principal reasons for the prolonged stagnation affecting the capitalist democracies and, above all, its proposal for reinvigorating an anaemic economic order are largely meretricious. This is evident in Cowen’s core observation, on which all the rest of his discussion is directly or indirectly based:
In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed lots of low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century, whether it be free land, lots of immigrant labour, or powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are more bare than we would like to think. That’s it. That is what has gone wrong.