Bryan Caplan  

But All the Other Kids Are Calling It "The Great Stagnation"

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The most common complaint about Tyler's The Great Stagnation is simply that the title is deliberately misleading.  Stagnation means "no growth," not "slower growth" - but the latter is the most that Tyler claims to show.

The complaint is entirely fair.  When you abuse the English language, you forfeit your right to protest that your critics aren't reading you carefully enough.  If he'd merely titled it The Slight Stagnation, much fruitless controversy would have been avoided.

At least in conversation, Tyler only has one response to complaints about his title: "Lots of other thinkers call it 'the Great Stagnation' too."  This merely compounds his original error.  Is he really going to make us trot out classic rhetorical questions about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge?

Long story short: If lots of other people say something you know to be wrong, it becomes especially important to explicitly disavow their position.  Otherwise you're likely to simultaneously confuse all sides - which is exactly what Tyler's book has accomplished.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
frankcross writes:

Might be marketing. I know of academic press authors who were pressured into a dramatic title that made them somewhat uncomfortable but they went along

RD writes:

Was "The Great Stagnation" even a commonly used phrase?

Even if it was, it still doesn't follow that it had to be used as the title, or that it's a good one. It's not like people would be saying, "Oh you mean 'The Great Stagnation?' Well why didn't you say so!"

It doesn't matter too much as the book (ebook?) seems to have been widely read, but I think it has led people to respond to a strawman argument and say "of course there's been progress"

Rob writes:

To be fair, the titles of Tyler's last few books have been pretty bad/misleading too: Create Your Own Economy, anyone?

And I'm a big fan of the books.

agnostic writes:

Stagnation does not mean zero growth, although it can. It has also means having very sluggish progress, e.g. "Our relationship is growing stagnant."

The logistic growth curve shows monotonic growth, never reaching zero, when the initial condition is below the carrying capacity. But in plain English, we say that is starts to saturate or show stagnation when it gets to within however many percent of that carrying capacity.

That's the sense of "having gobbled up all the low-hanging fruit." It follows that there still may be some fruit left, just that it's incredibly high up and costly to get at. In fact, Tyler uses that phrase "low-hanging fruit" in the title, as well as in any talk / writing he's done on the idea, even going further to say that America will eventually get better.

Also none of the examples he or anyone else have given are claimed to show zero growth -- just pathetic growth compared to what was going on before.

Tyler Cowen writes:

There is a lot of assertion in your post, but how much history of economic thought or for that matter linguistics or etymology? For a simple example, here is Britannica on Alvin Hansen: "He built upon Keynes’s theory by developing the stagnation thesis, which states that, as an economy matures, opportunities for productive investment will diminish, which causes the economy’s rate of growth to decrease."

I am *not* suggesting my views are the same as Hansen's, only that he was the seminal writer to circumscribe proper uses of the word "stagnation" in an economic context. And my usage of the word is quite consistent with established practice, for many decades.

Also see Benjamin Higgins, "Concepts and Criteria of Secular Stagnation," in Lloyd Metzler, ed. Income, employment and public policy: essays in honor of Alvin H. Hansen (Norton, 1964).

There is more I could say too!

Just the same, it's common to make the claim that our economy today is "stagnating", even though there clearly has been very mild growth. In any case, "The Great Stagnation" sounds better than "The Mild Stagflation".

Pat writes:

Imitating Tom Friedman and his incorrectly titled books means selling a lot of books to the left. (This explains his May/December courtship of Ezra Klein.) A book about how poorer countries can grow faster than richer ones would only have appeal to the economically literate if they didn't know it already.

The Engineer writes:

Well, he does have a history of changing book titles between editions.

Remember books like, "PowerShift!"? He should rename it something like , "Downshift!", or , "Unintended Deceleration!". ;)

Floccina writes:

The title is at least hyperbole our economy is hardly stagnating. We may not have had a discovery greater than cars, TVs or radios buy we have much more small innovations and improvements. There are more scientist and engineers now and everything keeps getting better at rapid pace.

EclectEcon writes:

Just because other kids split infinitives, does that make it okay for me to split them, too?

James Oswald writes:

He was probably maximizing the marketing effect. You get a boost from a dramatic title, a boost from counterintuitive and original claims and another from running around complaining that you are being misunderstood. People then rush out to buy the book to figure out what you "really" meant.

Engelmann writes:

Over the longer-term one must consider the rate of labor force growth, now about an increase of 1 per cent a year.

If real output over the longer-term grows on average 2 per cent a year the rise in output per economic active person is a per cent annually. If the participate rate falls, output per capita would increase even slower.

No one knows what the future pace of economic growth will be. It could well be on the order of only 2 per cent or less.

In fact, it is increasingly clear we do not even know how to measure the rise in the volume of goods and services. E.g., How does one compare the increase in the "real output" of lawyers between, say, 1950 and today? To society as a whole could the "actual" as opposed to the "measured" increase in "useful" output in fact be negative if one considers the "ambulance-chasing nature" of much of what many lawyers do and the extraordinary "unearned" compensation they receive because judges and juries simply mandate it without regard to its "true" value? One could point to other occupations where one wonders if the "output" they produce could survive in a truly free market.

In terms of any increase in output beneficial to human welfare we probably have reached the point of stagnation, and the slow growth we see measured output is merely an increase in "negative stuff" like expenditures to overcome social disutilities like crime and pollution and unrest in the underclass.

Daublin writes:

If that is your feeling, Tyler, you should have titled it, "The Great Stagnation, Technically Speaking".

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