Friday, June 10, 2011

The Irony of TGS

. Friday, June 10, 2011

Tyler Cowen writes a new preface for the pulp-and-glue TGS, and quotes this bit:

The original publication of The Great Stagnation was in eBook form only, and I meant for that to reflect an argument of the book itself: The contemporary world has plenty of innovations, but most of them do not benefit the average household. After all, the average household does not own an eReader. It’s not even clear whether the average household buys and reads books. So I viewed the exclusive electronic publication, somewhat impishly, as an act of self-reference to the underlying problem itself. It was therefore a bit amusing when some critics suggested that the new medium of the eBook itself refuted the book’s stagnation theory—quite the contrary.

I obviously can't judge what Cowen's intentions were, but how many strange arguments are in this paragraph? First, when has the publication of any book ever benefitted the average household in the macroeconomic sense he's talking about? Publishing has been about superstar economics since Gutenberg. But if we're talking about information access, it's inarguable that the average household is way better off than it was in 1890 or 1973. Which fact does not support Cowen's thesis.

Does Cowen remember hearing about an obscure book or music album when he was a boy, and not being able to get it because the local shop didn't carry it? I do, and I'm quite a bit younger than him so I'm sure he does as well. Maybe there was mail-order, but that would take weeks and involve getting a cashier's check or a money order and mailing it off, with hope that you weren't being gypped. That world doesn't exist anymore. That is a good thing. No it hasn't added many high marginal product jobs, but the previous scarcity didn't add many either.

Second, maybe the average/median person does not have an eBook reader, but that's their own fault. eBook readers are literally free, once the hardware is obtained. The average/median person in America has a computer, tablet, smart phone, and/or ready access to one of those devices*. The eBook software on all of those devices is free. If they aren't reading, it's not because of Stagnation. It's because of taste.

Third, why is all this amusing? Tyler Cowen would be practically anonymous were it not for the innovations he now says are mostly inconsequential. Through those innovations he has a famous blog, a NYTimes op-ed column, a notable economics textbook, a book deal with a mainstream press, etc.

I certainly don't begrudge him any of those things... I'm a big fan. I never would have heard of Cowen were it not for 21st century technology, but through new media I've gained access to Cowen in a way I never would have before. Cowen is one of the lower-case superstars in a superstarish economy. He's been able to market himself and his skills because of the very technological innovations that he argues aren't terribly important. Without them, he wouldn't have the forum to make his argument. So the publication history of TGS is just an extension of Cowen's career to this point.

So yes, it is ironic. He can't shrug it off that easily.

*Note I didn't say everyone had access to them, just the mean/median person, who is probably the same person for these purposes.


The Irony of TGS
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