The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Tyler Cowen responds to charges of pessimism:

If the numbers for median income growth are low we ought to take that seriously, as does Scott Sumner. We are not cheerleaders per se (BC: “I’m baffled why Tyler would focus on slight declines in American growth when the world just had the best decade ever.” Is it then wrong to focus on any other problems at all? I also was one of the first people to make the “best decade ever” argument, which I still accept.) Medians also matter for the political climate, even though the median earner is not exactly the median voter. Adam Smith’s welfare economics was basically that of the median, a point which David Levy has made repeatedly.

I’m also being called a “pessimist” a lot. Yet in my view our current technological plateau won’t last forever. That’s probably more optimistic than the Hacker-Pierson approach, which requires a Progressive revolution in economic policy (unlikely), although it is not more optimistic than denying the relevance of the numbers.

I more often get this from the other direction where people mistake my agreement with the assertion that 2000–2010 was about the best decade ever for humanity with undue complacency about the problems of the world. But the fact of the matter is that it can both be true that rapid catch-up growth in large population poor countries is a huge step forward for human welfare, and also true that developed countries in general and the United States of America in particular, seem to have run aground to an extent. Indeed, even though it’s not rational for people in rich countries to feel threatened or upset about catching-up happening abroad, it’s also very natural. We would probably feel better about the slow rate of growth in the US over the past 10 years if it had nonetheless been the fastest growth in the world. But, plainly, it wasn’t.