TED Conversations

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Is America past its prime? DISCUSS WITH Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson in a LIVE DEBATE, Thursday at 4pm Eastern.

Mark your calendars for Thursday, 4/25 at 4pm Eastern Time:

Is job growth over in the United States? Will the future economy look anything like the past? Whither American innovation?

At TED2013, two economic experts aired radically opposing views. Watch their TED Talks, then join us for a live discussion with speakers Erik Brynjolfsson and Robert Gordon. This Thursday, 4pm Eastern Time, right here on TED Conversations.


Closing Statement from TED Debates

From Robert J. Gordon:

The most striking aspect of today’s dialogue is that the questions had little to do with my litany of important historical inventions or Erik’s list of promising future inventions. Rather, the questions showed a concern about what I call the “headwinds” and related issues. A common question was whether there would be replacement jobs for those, particularly the middle skill group, whose jobs are being replaced by robots and other machines. Erik in his speech, his “60 Minutes” interview, and our debate, has consistently identified this as the biggest source of concern for the economy moving forward from here.

In this sense Erik has added to my list of headwinds by adding an extra one, the direct threat to employment and the indirect threat to well-being and social stability, created by the very machines whose virtues he praises.

Many of the questions to me involved possible solutions for problems, including education and inequality, that the questioners seemed to accept as real problems. One question went outside the scope of our speeches and debate by asking what could be done to restore America’s reputation and standing in the world; I answered “fix the political gridlock at home.” In raising the question of whether our 220-year-old Constitution is up to the task, I didn’t have time to remind everyone of the pros and cons of the parliamentary system as practiced in Canada, Japan, and much of Europe. The great advantage is that if the victorious party wins a substantial majority, it can do anything it wants, and this is why the 1945 Atlee government achieved so much nationalization and why in 1979-90 Thatcher was so quickly able to dismantle it. There are two great disadvantages. One is if your party loses and watches the governing party dismantle everything you believe in, or institute en masse a set of policies you oppose. The other is that there is no majority, so you get political stalemate as in today’s Italy.

Overall, a lot of fun to see that most of the issues concerning the participants did not involve technology!

From Erik Brynjolfsson:

I’d like to thank all the participants for their thoughtful questions and comments. My research agenda has very much been inspired by the learning about the challenges and opportunities that people are facing, and hearing some of the ideas they have for addressing them.

My TED talk, as well as the book (Race Against the Machine) that Andrew McAfee and I wrote, were inspired by the very real economic problems that so many people are facing in today’s economy. Bob Gordon has put forth one provocative explanation – that we may be reaching the end of growth. However, I don’t see it that way. Not only do the economic data tell us that productivity grew briskly over the past 10 and 20 year periods, but perhaps more importantly, I see an amazing array of new technologies in the pipeline that promise even more productivity and progress.

Why then is the middle class not benefitting? The answer is that while our technologies are racing ahead, our institutions, organizations and skills are not adapting fast enough.
Ultimately, I’m optimistic because I think we can meet these challenges. That will require not just more investment in education, but a complete reinvention of how we learn, drawing heavily on the digital technologies that have already transformed many other industries. It will also require changes in the way we organize work, including learning to “race with machines”, meaning using technology to complement human efforts, not substitute for them. And it will mean rethinking some of the more fundamental institutions of our political and economic system. I know Bob and I agree on many of the steps we can take to create shared prosperity. I hope we have inspired you to help address in these challenges.

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  • Apr 25 2013: Fred Wilson wrote a nice piece on why his firm, Union Square Ventures, cares about public policy so much. He says: "The longer answer has to do with the power of networks, which are central to our investment thesis, to be an economic force in society. These networks will reshape markets, lower costs, bring efficiencies, and disrupt the ways that things are done. And those who are incumbents in today's model will fight these networks tooth and nail, because they threaten their incumbency. And that will lead to policy fights. We want to get out ahead of all that as much as we can."

    Having read both of your work and seen your TED debate, I'm much more convinced by Erik's point of view. I do think that entrepreneurs today lack some imagination, but that's a side bar. Having said that, I think that political economy is often discounted at the peril of prediction makers.

    My question to both of you is: supposing Erik is right, how big of a role will the political environment play in shaping the way our society accepts or rejects unfettered technological advancement? Or more to the point, how will society sort out the winners (those racing with machines) compensate the losers (those racing against machines and lost)? This is a non-trivial issue to consider in the context of an otherwise well thought-out theory.
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      Apr 25 2013: Hi Ian.
      Unfortunately, politics seems to be the part of society that's most dysfunctional. I found Larry Lessig's TED talk compelling.

      We need to either fix the system or find a way to improve society in some other way.

      Let's work on both approaches.
    • Apr 25 2013: We need higher taxes on the super-millionaires, and a value-added tax, and a carbon tax. Putting these together would give us the resources to deal with our core problems.

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