2011-01-28

Scott Sumner the Insufferable Pessimist

I have not read Tyler Cowen's new book, and I don't plan on reading it. Scott Sumner, however, has read it and written a lengthy review of it.

As a side-note, he has written my favorite kind of book review: one that actually engages the ideas contained in the book and supplies feedback on those ideas. Whatever happened to this kind of book review? There was a time when most reviews read like this. But anyway...

Perhaps the main idea contained in Sumner's review is this:
From the horse and buggy era to the moon landing in one life.  And all I’ve seen is the home computer revolution.  Not much consolation for a technophobe like me.  I’m probably even more pessimistic than Tyler.
Pessimistic is indeed a good word for it. I want to contrast this view with something Jeffrey Tucker wrote on the Mises Institute Blog not long ago:
The Jetsons video phone was hooked on the wall and you had a special chair to sit in. It was surely expensive. I walked around with mine and I paid nothing. Where are the headlines? This new world seems to have arrived without much fanfare at all. And why? It has something to do with the nature of the human mind but that’s too much for this post. 
Obviously, Sumner's self-professed "technophobia" can go along way toward explaining why we can be, as Tucker puts it, "surrounded by miracles, and nobody cares." Being largely afraid of new technology, Sumner is sadly unaware of the revolution occurring all around us.

After all, twenty years ago I could never have communicated directly with some of the world's brightest economic minds at the touch of a button. More importantly, unless I was a student, they never would have engaged me.

But information is available to all of us now, largely for free. This breathtaking technological achievement goes far beyond crass iPhone apps and the cruise ship economy Sumner wants to see. It reminds me of Alexis de Tocqueville's merry proclamation that "the gradual development of the concept of equality is a Providential fact."

Not to put too fine a point on it: we are not all Keynesians now; We are all economists now. Information flows to me every minute of every day. As I increase the number of subscriptions on my Google Reader (by the way, thanks again for another brilliant invention, Google!), I increase the breadth and depth of my understanding of mathematics, economics, science... and (fortunately for Sumner) cooking, travel, construction, and the service industries.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that Scott Sumner can't see the future because the future doesn't belong to him, nor to Tyler Cowen. These men have reached a position where any additional forward progress (and creative destruction) means a significant negative impact in their way of life. Traditional university professors are growing obsolete, their ideas are being discarded, and instead of human salvation being left in the hands of "the best scientists" (who are already in the sciences and need no further incentive to be productive, ha ha) our future belongs to...

...The younger folks, and folks like Jeffrey Tucker who spot every changing moment as an opportunity to do something differently and invent something new.

I now believe the Mises Academy (like MIT's free online courses before it) heralds the end of traditional higher education. The reason Cowen and Sumner can't see optimism on the horizon is because they're stuck in the past. They study economics as though the economy were one massive NGDP model. They remain in the 20th Century idea pool with the rest of the Baby Boomers, listening to Phil Collins and wondering why a generation of Alan Ginsbergs couldn't save the world from itself.

The world don't wanna be saved,
Only left alone