A challenge to techno-euphoria

After plucking it off the shelf for yesterday’s post on the ebb and flow of economic power in the long sweep of history (or – what I did on my holidays), Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (read it online here) absorbed me. He identifies three forces driving long term growth: conquest and settlement; trade (specialisation and the division of labour); and technological innovation. On the last of these, he writes:

“It is clear that technological progress has slowed down. It was a good deal faster from 1913 to 1973 than it has been since. The slowdown in the last quarter century [ie. to 1999] is one of the reasons for the deceleration of world economic growth. ‘New economy’ pundits find the notion of decelerating technological progress unacceptable and cite anecdotal or microeconomic evidence to argue otherwise. However, the impact of their technological revolution has not been apparent in the macroeconomic statistics until very recently, and I do not share their euphoric expectations.”

I would really challenge the implication here that macroeconomic statistics are facts and microeconomic evidence just anecdote. SInce Maddison wrote this, we have had the early 2000s boom and then the financial crisis and its aftermath. It will be a while before the macro data can make sense of it all.

It’s quite clear though that there are some innovations that have not improved productivity or welfare – see Thomas Philippon’s marvellous paper Has the US Finance Industry Become Less Efficient? (Answ: Yes) The Maddison challenge is a good one to those of us who do think there is important technological innovation occurring – just as when Solow made his famous comment about computers, there is a question about why it doesn’t show in macro data. One answer might be that GDP data don’t capture the welfare gain due to new technologies (see my¬†GDP for more). Another might be that the technologies are doing more for growth outside the OECD countries – think mobiles in Africa, South Asia or Latin America. But if Maddison is right, the interesting question then is why this wave of technology uniquely has not translated into faster growth and social welfare?

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