Seen and Heard: Tyler Cowen on the Great Stagnation

Katherine Jin

On Tuesday September 11th, Tyler Cowen and Andrew Coyne treated a full house at the Isabel Bader Theatre to a provocative and pertinent lecture and discussion on our current economic woes.

New York Times best-selling author Tyler Cowen presented his most recent publication, “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better”, hosted by the School of Public Policy and GovernanceMASS LBP, the Metcalf Foundation, and the Literary Review of Canada. Cowen is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, a regular contributor to The New York Times, and a leading blogger at marginalrevolution.com. He was joined on stage by National Post columnist and SPPG Fellow Andrew Coyne, who provided Canadian context to the issues, and by moderator Wendy Dobson of the Rotman School of Management.

Cowen argued that the United States is not as innovative or as wealthy as it believes itself to be. While admitting that levels of social tolerance have risen and exciting technologies such as the internet have increased our quality of life, Cowen believes that material and financial progress has been disappointing because America has eaten all its “low-hanging fruit”. This fruit includes historical drivers of economic growth such as gains in education, the exploitation of cheap resources, and major technological breakthroughs, all of which have been at temporary plateaus since the early 1980s.

Cowen argues that Americans must first accept the seriousness of this stagnation and understand its long term causes before they can begin to solve their economic difficulties.  However, Cowen is optimistic that America will eventually resume progress as it has done many times in the past.

Andrew Coyne provided a Canadian take on the issues, arguing that there are significant differences between Canada and the US. Canada did not have the same housing bubble, the financial crisis was not as severe, smarter regulation was in place, and incomes have not been as stagnant. However, Coyne argues that Canada has similarly run out of “low-hanging fruit”, and has been hurt by “bad policy”— expensive programs that could not be afforded and an educational system that lacks innovation.

The lecture did not disappoint; it was highly engaging and thought-provoking. However, more debate between Cowen and Coyne could have provided for a more interesting back-and-forth conversation. The lecture was also generally vague on how technological innovation would pick up again and create middle-class jobs, tended to downplay the significance of the social gains of the recent decades, and skimmed over the potential ramifications of the economic challenges facing China and Europe. However, whether one agrees or disagrees with Cowen’s arguments, it was undoubtedly a night that was not to be missed!

Katherine Jin is a 2014 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She also holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Guelph.

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