In “The 2012 Sidney Awards, Part II” Bobo asks what did you think of the first round of winners of the best essays of the year? Well, here are the rest! Prof. Krugman also has a question: “Is Growth Over?” He says we’ve been hearing a lot about the short-run projections for our economy. But when it comes to the prospects for the long run, we know less than we think. Here’s Bobo:
Sixty years ago, scientists believed that schizophrenia was caused by emotional conflict with the patient’s parents. A cold mother would deliver conflicting messages of hope and rejection and drive her child into madness.
Then scientists rejected that cruel model and concluded that schizophrenia was a brain disease. But the drugs that treated schizophrenia as a biological disorder did not work well. Now, as Tanya Marie Luhrmann notes in an essay, “Beyond the Brain” in The Wilson Quarterly, that model has failed, too.
Schizophrenia is seen as the result of a complex interaction of unrelated causes: myriad genes, a mother’s illness during pregnancy, childhood stress, cultural factors and many other things. Researchers have been driven to this conclusion, in part because this mental illness shows up differently, at different rates, in different cultures.
Patients in India, for example, do much better than patients in the West. Indian society regards mental illness differently. Indian doctors, for example, tell patients they are perfectly well, but should take certain pills to rebuild their strength. This deception seems to work.
Luhrmann’s article wins a Sidney Award as one of the best essays of the year. The award was designed to encourage people to step back at this time of the year and look at the big picture. Walter Russell Mead’s “The Once and Future Liberalism” in The American Interest certainly encourages that.
Mead argues that our current political argument is a conflict between two versions of liberalism, the small state Manchester liberalism of the 1890s (the current doctrine of the Republican Party) and the big organization managerial state liberalism of the 1950s (the current doctrine of the Democratic Party).
Both are obsolete. He spends much of his essay describing how the latest version of liberalism, which was great in its day, is breaking down. It rested on economic and demographic foundations that no longer exist.
Mead says it’s time to gratefully say farewell to both. He doesn’t offer a replacement, but persuasively asks you to think anew.
The exclamation point was not a standard feature on typewriters until the 1970s. Nobody wore blue or pink or yellow ribbons to show their emotional attachments to various causes until 1979. No state specifically allowed victim statements at sentencing hearings as late as 1978.
But all that has changed. Today we are awash in exclamation points and affiliation symbols and sentiment more generally. This transformation has been nicely analyzed by Pamela Haag in “Death by Treacle” in The American Scholar.
Haag writes, “Maybe this century’s culture is a culture of feeling in which the ideal citizen-feeler has the qualities of soulful transparency, audacious disclosure, and candor, and who knows the skills of whispered confession. …” The interesting thing, she notes, is that all this sentiment is not actually bringing people closer together.
There is a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in the belly of an orb spider. The larva releases chemicals that alter the spider’s brain so that it weaves webs in the shape of larva cocoons, instead of normal spider web patterns. The spider even weaves a specific geometric pattern to camouflage the cocoon.
This is not the only parasite that releases chemicals to change its host’s thinking. The scientist Jaroslav Flegr believes parasites transmitted by cat feces have altered his brain. Kathleen McAuliffe tells his story in “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” in The Atlantic. Men infected in this way tend to wear more rumpled clothes and have fewer friends. Infected women wear nicer clothes and have more friends.
There are many more essays worthy of Sidney Awards that I want to bring to your attention, so let me just briefly list a few:
“The Thought Police” by Paul Berman in The New Republic, on how radical Islamist thugs used intimidation to defeat Arab liberals in their struggle for the future of the Middle East.
“The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. One gets the sense that the inhumanity of our prisons will be regarded with disbelief by future generations. This essay surveys the scene.
“The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. About a school on Staten Island that improved its academic outputs by teaching its underprivileged students the nuts and bolts of writing.
“Broken BRICs” by Ruchir Sharma in Foreign Affairs. Everyone assumes that the rising economies of Asia and elsewhere (BRICs, Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will own the future. Sharma challenges this thesis. Emerging economies are fading. In 2011, Sharma notes, “the difference in per capita incomes between the rich and the developing nations was back to where it was in the 1950s.”
“The Education of Dasmine Cathey” by Brad Wolverton in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This humane article takes us into the world of one midlevel college football player, who, among other things, tried to teach himself to read.
Here are some honorable mentions, too: “Atonement,” by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, about an Iraq war veteran who seeks out the family he harmed; “The Meme Generation,” by Matt Labash in The Weekly Standard, about the impact of the Web’s viral-content culture on America; “In Nothing We Trust,” by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton in National Journal, about how Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great; “Happyism,” by Deirdre N. McCloskey in The New Republic, about the creepy new economics of pleasure; and, lastly, “Not Fade Away,” by Robert Kagan in The New Republic, about the myth of the American decline.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
The great bulk of the economic commentary you read in the papers is focused on the short run: the effects of the “fiscal cliff” on U.S. recovery, the stresses on the euro, Japan’s latest attempt to break out of deflation. This focus is understandable, since one global depression can ruin your whole day. But our current travails will eventually end. What do we know about the prospects for long-run prosperity?
The answer is: less than we think.
The long-term projections produced by official agencies, like the Congressional Budget Office, generally make two big assumptions. One is that economic growth over the next few decades will resemble growth over the past few decades. In particular, productivity — the key driver of growth — is projected to rise at a rate not too different from its average growth since the 1970s. On the other side, however, these projections generally assume that income inequality, which soared over the past three decades, will increase only modestly looking forward.
It’s not hard to understand why agencies make these assumptions. Given how little we know about long-run growth, simply assuming that the future will resemble the past is a natural guess. On the other hand, if income inequality continues to soar, we’re looking at a dystopian, class-warfare future — not the kind of thing government agencies want to contemplate.
Yet this conventional wisdom is very likely to be wrong on one or both dimensions.
Recently, Robert Gordon of Northwestern University created a stir by arguing that economic growth is likely to slow sharply — indeed, that the age of growth that began in the 18th century may well be drawing to an end.
Mr. Gordon points out that long-term economic growth hasn’t been a steady process; it has been driven by several discrete “industrial revolutions,” each based on a particular set of technologies. The first industrial revolution, based largely on the steam engine, drove growth in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The second, made possible, in large part, by the application of science to technologies such as electrification, internal combustion and chemical engineering, began circa 1870 and drove growth into the 1960s. The third, centered around information technology, defines our current era.
And, as Mr. Gordon correctly notes, the payoffs so far to the third industrial revolution, while real, have been far smaller than those to the second. Electrification, for example, was a much bigger deal than the Internet.
It’s an interesting thesis, and a useful counterweight to all the gee-whiz glorification of the latest tech. And while I don’t think he’s right, the way in which he’s probably wrong has implications equally destructive of conventional wisdom. For the case against Mr. Gordon’s techno-pessimism rests largely on the assertion that the big payoff to information technology, which is just getting started, will come from the rise of smart machines.
If you follow these things, you know that the field of artificial intelligence has for decades been a frustrating underachiever, as it proved incredibly hard for computers to do things every human being finds easy, like understanding ordinary speech or recognizing different objects in a picture. Lately, however, the barriers seem to have fallen — not because we’ve learned to replicate human understanding, but because computers can now yield seemingly intelligent results by searching for patterns in huge databases.
True, speech recognition is still imperfect; according to the software, one irate caller informed me that I was “fall issue yet.” But it’s vastly better than it was just a few years ago, and has already become a seriously useful tool. Object recognition is a bit further behind: it’s still a source of excitement that a computer network fed images from YouTube spontaneously learned to identify cats. But it’s not a large step from there to a host of economically important applications.
So machines may soon be ready to perform many tasks that currently require large amounts of human labor. This will mean rapid productivity growth and, therefore, high overall economic growth.
But — and this is the crucial question — who will benefit from that growth? Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to make the case that most Americans will be left behind, because smart machines will end up devaluing the contribution of workers, including highly skilled workers whose skills suddenly become redundant. The point is that there’s good reason to believe that the conventional wisdom embodied in long-run budget projections — projections that shape almost every aspect of current policy discussion — is all wrong.
What, then, are the implications of this alternative vision for policy? Well, I’ll have to address that topic in a future column.