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Dealing With the Great Stagnation

Author Tyler Cowen argues that the United States has "eaten all the low-hanging fruit," and that future prosperity isn't guaranteed, but new technologies like RFID could help.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 20, 2011A friend of mine, John Eckhouse, recommended that I read The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better (a Penguin eSpecial from Dutton), by Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The book is written in a clear, intelligent style, and is extremely provocative in its cogent conclusions.

I encourage you to read the book, but to briefly summarize it: Cowen argues that the United States has basically had it easy for the past 200 years, and that things will become much more difficult in the coming decades and centuries. After its founding, the United States was blessed with abundant land and natural resources. In the late 1800s, it benefitted from a wealth of free immigrant labor, and then saw great advances in technology—telephones, automobiles, airplanes, home appliances and so much more.

"Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there," Cowen writes. "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."

This makes a lot of sense. My wife's grandmother was born in China in 1898. At the time, the British were forcing the Chinese emperor to lease the New Territories to the British Empire, so the East India Company could continue dominating the trade with the East, which relied on ships. People traveled by horse and buggy. There was no radio, telephone or television. Most families resided in the countryside and farmed for a living. Before she passed away in 1996, she saw most people traveling by car and airplane, watched a man walk on the moon, and enjoyed myriad consumer goods manufactured around the world.

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