Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and the director of the Mercatus Center, a free-market research center and think tank. He is also the co-founder of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, and the host of the podcast series Conversations with Tyler. In his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation, Cowen argued that the U.S. was stuck in a “technological plateau … waiting for the next major growth revolution.” In response, along with Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, he has proposed a new discipline, “progress studies,” which attempts to theorize the causes of economic, technological, scientific and cultural growth. This January, Cowen and I spoke over Zoom about the meaning of progress, the role of technology in human happiness and Tolstoy.
JON BASKIN: In the 2019 Atlantic article that you and Patrick Collison co-authored introducing “progress studies,” you define progress as the “combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.” Reading that I have a pretty good sense, I think, of what you mean by technological progress, economic progress, scientific progress. I was wondering if you could say more about what you mean by cultural progress.
TYLER COWEN: In my lifetime in the United States, I would cite the civil rights movement and gay rights as two examples of cultural progress. Obviously, the answer will depend upon the country. But there are just many groups of human beings who, it seems to me, are treated much better than they used to be treated. I don’t take that for granted. In most wealthy countries, putting oil autocracies aside, we’ve seen broadly similar trends.
JB: Do you think there is a relationship between that kind of progress and the other kinds of progress you’re interested in—technological and economic progress?
TC: Absolutely. And theorists since the eighteenth century, at least, have suggested this: Montesquieu, Adam Smith. That commerce makes people more tolerant. You want to sell what you’re doing to a larger audience, discrimination is costly. Those are not perfect mechanisms. But overall, we see the wealthier, freer, democratic countries of the world becoming more tolerant.
JB: Do you believe we make progress in art?
TC: William Hazlitt wrote that famous essay in the early nineteenth century, suggesting the notion of progress in art is not well defined. I think in some areas of the arts we’ve moved backwards. It seems to me what you might call the design of neighborhoods, in the United States, is not obviously progressing. I think Hollywood movies are getting worse. For the last ten to fifteen years, the overall menu is much, much better, pretty much all the time. But there are definitely areas where there’s either no progress or retrogression.
JB: And what about in ethics or morality? Do you think there’s ethical or moral progress?
TC: That’s a very big question. First, it depends what your ethics are. I said in one of my books, I’m a two-thirds utilitarian, which is pretty utilitarian, but not by any means solely utilitarian. So in wealthier societies, people on the whole are better off. That part of ethics is going quite well. I don’t think every part of ethics is going well. Do we treat animals better than we used to? I’m not sure. It seems we can oppress them on a larger scale at lower cost. So I would give a mixed, hesitant, mostly yes, but by no means entirely sort of answer to your question. I haven’t seen data like, do more or fewer people beat their spouses?— but I strongly suspect it’s fewer people. Child abuse seems to be lower in wealthier countries, and so on.
JB: The definition of progress that you give in the Atlantic article implies that the different kinds of advancement can be unified. But given that you’ve described yourself as a values pluralist, what do you think of the idea that different kinds of progress could conflict with one another?
TC: Well, how we treat animals would be one example. Right?
TC: In countries where the wealth is concentrated in an autocracy, like the oil-rich Gulf states, it seems to me that, overall, they’re better off than they used to be. But it’s a much more complicated question than, say, whether Denmark is going fine and better than it was in 1910. So I don’t know if those are quite exceptions, but they’re much more complicated stories. And you do see cases where wealth is used to oppress or destroy—Nazi Germany at the time.
JB: And technology too, right?
TC: Exactly, yes. So I agree with Steven Pinker, the overall trends are positive, but some of the bumps are significant, to say the least.
JB: Is it a form of progress to give people the option to die how they want, as is happening now and increasingly in Canada and Europe?
TC: That’s a complicated issue. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, since I believe in individual autonomy, I think you should have the right to end your own life, provided you are of sound mind. But on the other hand, when that is bundled with government nudges and subsidies to do so, it seems to me you end up with some depressed people who maybe even feel pressure from their families. And they end their lives when they shouldn’t. And it moves us in the direction of not valuing life highly enough. So I don’t know exactly how to balance those two considerations.
JB: When did you first become interested in progress as a concept?
TC: My whole—what you might call my whole sentient life. I started reading economics and philosophy when I was thirteen. And I was already interested in the topic when I was ten.
JB: Do you remember some of the things you read initially that made you start thinking about progress in a deeper way?
TC: Well, Adam Smith, Plato, any economics I read. The theme of most interest to me, then as now, was wealth creation. That’s been a pretty steady interest throughout my life.
JB: What did you learn from reading Plato?
TC: Reading Plato, it struck me—I’m thirteen years old here—but it struck me how much the whole rest of the world is by no means on board with the things I thought were good. So Socrates is constructing his ideal republic, and you can debate whether Plato really favored it, or whether Socrates really favored it, but those ideas are out there. You ban the poets? You want to be like Sparta? Those are big issues.
And even then, when I read Plato, I saw it as a dialogic mode of thinking, rather than believing that Plato was endorsing everything Socrates said. The dialogues are rich and fruitful. And people hold a lot of different points of view. So to try to refine dialogic modes of thinking about progress, and indeed everything: that was the biggest lesson I got from Plato. And then just how smart some of the early people were. And that’s not unrelated to progress studies. In the modern world there are a whole bunch of ways we’re clearly much smarter, like programming computers. Are we smarter in every way? Will we produce our own Adam Smith or Plato? Tough questions.
JB: What made you decide to start progress studies as a distinct project?
TC: From my point of view, I’ve always been doing progress studies. So there was not a discrete decision to start it other than to become an economist. One day, Patrick Collison and I were chatting, and Patrick had the idea of doing this article. And if you work with Patrick, the Google Doc is open before you’ve even said yes to the idea. So it was not very contemplative. We wrote it over the course of maybe a week. But the contents to me were really very familiar from my whole life.
JB: But what did you think was missing from existing academic disciplines, say, from the history of science or history more generally, that made you feel this was something new that we needed right now?
TC: To give you an example from my own field, economics of science is a tiny, tiny area—it barely exists. It’s actually much larger now than it was, say, four years ago. And it seemed to me economics of science should be at least 10 percent of economics, rather than a small fraction of one percent. So there’s good work done now. It’s much bigger than it used to be—that’s great. But it should really be central to economics. I think the East Asian economic miracles should be taught in every curriculum. They are not. The Industrial Revolution should be taught in every curriculum. It is not. Those are some simple examples. I’m not denying there’s plenty of great work already on the Industrial Revolution; clearly there is. But how central is it to our understanding of economics? I would say not nearly enough.
JB: It’s interesting because there’s a sizable group of intellectuals, a lot of whom are in academia, who would self-identify as “progressives” and yet, at the same time, it seems that progress in the sense you are describing it has sort of slipped off their agenda, or there’s a suspicion of studying it in the way you’re talking about—i.e. here are some examples of progress, and what can we learn from them? Why do you think that is?
TC: The humanities, obviously, are a very large area. I think there’s a lot of work being done now that I would consider progress studies that isn’t labeled as such or thought of as such, and the people writing it either worked before Patrick and I coined the term or maybe wouldn’t even like our concept of it. But they’re thinking hard and carefully about issues such as moral progress or, for instance, how prosperity shaped the novel in the nineteenth century. There’s plenty of good work on those questions. But I think there is, in general, a suspicion of economic growth that goes back a long ways in Western thought. It starts with Plato and it persists in a lot of the progressive left movements today. It’s especially strong in academia, a part of our society where you don’t, in a direct way, have to earn your keep. Where there is not always the direct understanding that wealth has to be produced.
JB: You’re right that there’s a suspicion of progress that goes back all the way. But my sense of things is that there was a time—let’s say before the 1960s— when, for Western intellectuals, the role of science and technology in a unified vision of human progress was more secure. Of course some of the contemporary suspicion of technology can be traced back to the atom bomb. Are there other specific developments that you think are responsible for the disappointment and skepticism that’s common in intellectual circles today?
TC: The new Peter Thiel hypothesis, which he presented at Stanford not long ago, is that people were so worried about the risks of nuclear war that they turned against technology. I’m not sure I agree with that. My go-to explanation has been that since 1973, technology has done much less for us than it did in previous eras. So of course people value it less. There was simply less progress. Now, circa 2023, as I have a bunch of mRNA vaccines in my arm, I think both the reality has changed and attitudes have changed. There’s a lot more interest in science and progress than there was five years ago, from a lot of different points of view. And if those points of view are critical, that’s fine. But it feels to me very fruitful, the changes we’ve seen. There’s artificial intelligence, large language models are another breakthrough, and green energy is looking much more promising than we had thought. I think we’re entering a new era of technological marvels. I don’t mean that will win the debate for any particular side, but it will really shift the terms of the debate.
JB: So you just mentioned one of the basic arguments of your book, The Great Stagnation: that since 1973 we’ve stopped making progress at the rates we had been making it before. Could you briefly sum up the argument of that book?
TC: If you look at either rates of productivity growth or, say, median wages in the United States—indeed, most of the West—growth seems to slow down around 1973. And it’s somewhat of a puzzle why. So from 1973 to about the time of Trump, the real median wage, depending how you measure it, has gone up much more slowly than it had in the immediate postwar era. The idea that every twenty or 25 years we doubled our standard of living for a while, that just wasn’t true anymore. And we’re still not sure why. But that was a fundamental break in American history. And I think it led to a more pessimistic country. You then have 9/11, the financial crisis, and the whole national mood changed, including about progress. In my opinion, that era of relative stagnation is now over. But it was going for forty years.
JB: One obvious objection to your narrative is the internet. The period you’re talking about covers the beginning of mass computing and social media and so, for people reading on their iPhone 15s—and this is something you cover in the book—how would you relate those advances to this claim about stagnation?
TC: There are some papers by Chad Syverson, at the University of Chicago, where he attempts to measure the unpriced benefits of the internet. And he adds the mean to productivity-growth figures, and they just don’t close the gap. If you’re lucky, they close a third of the gap. And one way to think about it is the internet is monetized more and more. So I love to buy things on Amazon, I buy books—that’s great. It’s all about the internet. But that’s in GDP, right? The books I buy on Amazon, that’s captured by GDP. So more and more the value of the internet has been captured by GDP figures. Nothing wrong with that. But it does mean the observed productivity shortfall probably was real.
JB: Wouldn’t you think that just the increase in access to information would have led to more technological breakthroughs or scientific breakthroughs?
TC: I think it has, I think that’s why we got out of the stagnation. But these things take longer than most people expect. We had computers for decades, and they didn’t do that much for us, right? In 1969, they helped put a man on the moon, but they didn’t change your everyday life very much. And we’d had computers since World War II. You see it also in the history of electricity, that it takes longer than people expect to rearrange the rest of your infrastructure to take advantage of the new development. And the same is true of the internet, the recent breakthroughs we’ve had, I think they’re due to computers, computation, internet communications. But it took a while.
JB: What kind of benefits do you see AI delivering? Will it bring us some of those big public benefits that you’ve talked about have been missing since 1973?
TC: I think within two years or so, AI will write about half of all computer code, and it will write the boring half. So programmers will be freed up to be more creative, or to try new areas where the grunt work is more or less done for them. That will be significant. Of course, the code has to be edited and checked, there will be errors. But it writes so much of it for you so quickly. And I think that will lead indirectly to some fantastic breakthroughs and creativity of programming.
And then, individuals will have individualized tutors in virtually every area of human knowledge. That is something that’s not thirty years off—I think it’s within one year, when GPT-4 is released, or when Anthropic is released. So imagine having this universal tutor. It’s not perfect, but much better than what you had before. We’ll see how these things are priced and financed. But that, to me, is a very significant breakthrough.
JB: Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety among, I guess, humanities people, broadly speaking, but also people like the effective-altruism crowd thinking about the ways that AI could go terribly wrong. Do you think those worries have merit? How do we create a market and situation where we are able to advance the beneficial parts of AI and limit some of the potential damages?
TC: I’ve never been convinced by the scenario that the AI will rise up and destroy the world, or turn us into paper clips. I just don’t see the evidence. It doesn’t interact with the physical world in a way where it can do that. It doesn’t think. It’s a predictive language model.
You know, the humanities are going to have a lot of problems. So people are right to feel angst. But it’s also an opportunity. So far the most visible problem is students using GPT to write their term papers, right? I don’t know how we’ll deal with that. I don’t pretend to have the answer. I think there’ll be other problems related to misinformation, or maybe people treating it like a religious oracle. Every technological advance has difficulties, and this one will too.
JB: In the book, you suggest some ways we can jump-start technological innovation, like funding science or trying to make being a scientist a more high-status job. But if your larger story about the past century is right—the story you tell about the growth of government and the growth of corporations at the same time in the middle of the twentieth century and the way they both benefited and then benefited in turn the larger public—then isn’t there also an argument that maybe that form of social organization has just yielded the best things it’s going to yield? And that we’re now on the downside or the decadent side, as some have put it, of what this kind of society can do technologically? And maybe we need a whole new way of thinking about society after that?
TC: I would agree with most of that. I don’t know what “whole new way of thinking” means in your context. But I view the flattening-out point as temporary. You hit these temporary plateaus, maybe for decades. And we were at one. But now I think we have this breakthrough. And AI will help us have breakthroughs in many other areas, like these new protein-folding results in biology. Those come from AI. I think it’s just going to spread more, and eventually it will be at some new plateau. But it will be much better and higher.
JB: By “new way of thinking” I guess I mean new forms of social organization. Your solutions seem plausible to me, but they’re quite local. Could it be that we reached the climax of what the twentieth-century Western states—liberalism, democracy, the free market, etc.—can achieve technologically and economically? And maybe now there are other kinds of states that are better suited to make the next leaps in progress?
TC: It’s hard to predict the very distant future. But if I think about where I’d like to live for the next thirty years, it’s all in countries with big governments and big corporations—the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Denmark. So from my point of view, those models are working. I wouldn’t have the kind of arrogance to suggest they will work forever. Nothing does. But I think they’re working extremely well. Go to Australia, it’s just a tremendous country. You know, it can get better, but what’s not to like? It’s incredible how many countries we have that are just fantastic.
JB: I want to talk a little bit about Tolstoy. Max Weber, in his famous 1917 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” says that Tolstoy is the person who most sharply raises the question of whether the advances of science and technology have any meaning that go beyond the purely practical and technical. And he quotes Tolstoy saying that, basically, for the person who puts progress at the center of their life, life can never be satisfying, because they’ll always die in the middle of progress. How would you respond to this charge from Tolstoy about progress?
TC: I’m pretty happy and Tolstoy was not, would be my gut-level response.
I would put it this way. If there was backwards time travel, and you had to send me back to his time, apart from satisfying some historical curiosity, I would be terrified at that prospect. Life in Tolstoy’s Russia was quite horrible. Even for the intelligentsia, never mind the peasants who had been recently freed from being serfs. And then that’s followed by Soviet Communism, as the reaction against how bad things were under the tsar. That’s awful. Give me Australia and Denmark and northern Virginia. Ask random immigrants or would-be immigrants: Would you rather migrate to Fairfax County or, you know, to Tolstoy’s Russia? It’s not even a choice. I don’t think you’d get many people going to Tolstoy’s Russia. And that, to me, suggests the importance of progress.
JB: You don’t buy his argument that the peasant who lives in the cycles of nature dies in some way a happier man or a more satiated man than the man of culture and progress?
TC: I think people should have the option to move to a cabin in Oregon or whatever they want to do. Some people do that. I suspect a lot of them are pretty happy. But it’s best to do that in a wealthy society, when you can drive to the hospital for antibiotics when you need them. Maybe we could make it easier somehow. Like, if we deregulated land, the cabin would be cheaper. There’s things we could do to enable more Tolstoy-like choices, I’d be all for that.
JB: What would you say tech is for?
TC: Tech is to realize individual human potential, and to boost or protect our autonomy, to give us choice, to make our lives more meaningful, and to bring us together with other human beings.
Art credit: Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.