TED Conversations

This conversation is closed.

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.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Apr 25 2013: A connected world with business systemics: shouldn't the theme be: is the world past it's prime? Following Mr Brynjolfsson's remark on “The Great Decoupling”, are you seeing the same trend in Europe, China, Brazil, etc...?
    • thumb
      Apr 25 2013: The world is NOT past its prime. We've created more wealth, worldwide, in the past decade than ever in history. The next decade promises to be even better. Even in the US, productivity growth was faster in 2000-2009, than the 1990s, 1980s, or 1970s.

      The problem is that this amazing prosperity is not widely shared.

      That's NOT a techonlogy or innovation problem.

      Its a problem of our instiutions, organizations, and skills.
      • Apr 25 2013: How is it a problem of skills that the wealth is being funneled to a very small minority?
        • Apr 25 2013: I think he said that it's a combination of factors. All else equal, skills are priced at their relative value and scarcity. Technology has been replacing the need for some middle-skilled workers... increasing the abundance of those skills and driving down their relative value. The entirety of the issue is much broader than that, as Erik said.
        • Apr 25 2013: The disappearance of middle-skilled jobs includes both assembly line workers in manufacturing and office staff, e.g., receptionists and administrative assistants, who have been replaced both by technology and fanatical corporate cost cutting (note: no cost cutting on CEO salaries!) The assembly line workers have been partly replaced by globalization and outsourcing, and only partly by robots and other types of mechanization.

          In the future we will see a hollowing out at the middle and increased demand for labor both at the bottom and at the top. As for the total amount of employment relative to the total number seeking employment, that requires sufficient aggregate demand. Since moentary policy is trapped at the zero interest rate "lower bound" and fiscal policy is impotent due to the high and growing debt-GDP ratio, we may have no alternative but to wait around until consumer demand, including for housing, gradually picks up.
      • thumb
        Apr 25 2013: Thanks for the reply.
        Playing devil's advocate and question for both of you:
        - increased productivity, creating more wealth, employment decreasing, prosperity not equally shared: how could the next decade be better?

        How could technology help our insitutions and organizations make the shift?
      • Apr 25 2013: I agree with the point that wealth is being created at an increasing rate for those who can participate and who are producing value to the economy. It would be interesting to view those about wealth in constant, inflation adjusted dollars.

        However, one problem with the digital economy is that while tremendous wealth is made by a select few, at the end of the day the things that we "need" have real and tangible value. Cars, roads, TV's, Houses, shingles, pipe, concrete, food, clean water. People spend money on these things.

        If they are made, mined or produced overseas, that is where the money will go and those countries involved in the creation of those actual products will be the beneficiaries of an employed and expanding middle class.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.