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: I'm seeing lots of "we need to do this" and "we need to do that" when the reality is the economy and innovation are driven by individuals who voluntarily set out to accomplish goals, without forcing everyone else to go along with their plan.

    "we" need to get out of the way, and let innovators innovate.

    I see lots of talk about education - how "we" need to change this and that. Again "we" need to get out of the way, and return education to the parents, who know what is best for their children.

    The "we" the people keep referring to is the government. Government is the enemy of innovation. It kills everything it touches. Education should be the easiest, most obvious example of this.
    • Apr 25 2013: I am a physician with three boys in various stages of their education. They are learning things in middle school and high school that I 1) never knew, 2) knew but forgot or 3) learned incompletely. If you "turn their education over to me" I will turn it back to an educator (public or private). I cannot properly provide a full education to my children and I am an educated person. Please, education is NOT an obvious example of this.
      • Apr 25 2013: Turning their education over to you means that you would be able to choose how they are educated, and you wouldn't be forced to pay for a failed public education system.
    • Apr 25 2013: Tom, I'll have to double-check this, but I'm fairly certain you posted your comment using the "Internet," which began as a government invention. By deriding the characterization of the government as a "we" made up of people from our own society, you seem to be promoting the notion of the government as a "they" an otherworldly entity that has no real connection to the people it represents. The private sector does not have a monopoly on good ideas (see: Crystal Pepsi, the 1972 Ford Pinto), nor does government. The private and public sectors are both viable laboratories from which good ideas can be hatched.
      • Apr 25 2013: LOL, the old "the internet was created by government" myth.

        Nobody is saying that everything the voluntary (private) sector does is great, or successful. It makes mistakes. But unlike the coercive (public) sector, when the voluntary sector makes mistakes, those responsible go bankrupt and pay for their mistakes. When the government makes mistakes, they just spend more money and fail even harder.
        • Apr 25 2013: You're painting pictures of the private and public sectors with very large brushes. Large banks that played fast and loose with subprime mortgages in the lead-up to the housing market collapse did not "pay for their mistakes" and go quietly into the night. They had us pick up the tab and they are richer than they were before. And government institutions have shown the ability to adjust their approach. Public housing is a great example. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development no longer pours money into dense, sprawling mini-cities like Chicago's Cabrini Green or St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe to house the poor, and has instead diverted more resources to tax credits that can be used by entice private developers to build affordable housing.
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      Apr 25 2013: Government programs have funded innovation in fields and technologies that the private sector has not been able or willing to pursue on their own: the interstate highway system, the space program, the transistor, the internet are examples that come to mind … as well, of course, public education for those who can't afford private schools.

      Cheep fossil fuels will run out and will no longer be so cheap. The private sector has not invested in alternative energies sufficient to replace fossil fuels. This is an area where the government can effectively subsidize a critical industry.
      • Apr 25 2013: The interstate highway system was an "innovation?" It's just roads. Roads have been around for thousands of years.

        But please tell me more about how coercively funded mega-highways that are free for all to use are good for the environment and encourage less fossil fuel consumption....
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        Apr 25 2013: Michael -- I agree that private individuals and organizations don't generally have economic incentives to invest in technologies and inventions that benefit society generally if they can't capture profits from them.
        That creates a role for gov't investment in fundamental science and national infrastructure. We shouldn't forget that.

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