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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.

  • Apr 25 2013: How can the average person, whose technological skill set is limited to email, facebook and shopping on the web, take advantage of the new machine age economy after having their job displaced by techonology?
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      Apr 25 2013: Thats' the $64 Trillion question.
      We need to do at least 2 things:
      1. massively upgrade education, so people have new skills.
      2. invent new industries and jobs that take advantage of the skllls people have.
    • Apr 25 2013: One can witness the obsolesence of older workers as a byproduct of the high demand by Silicon Valley for young high-skilled immigrants who already know modern programming. The innovation that Erik praises will contribute to age discrimination. Things are already bad enough -- economists recently ran an experiment sending out 2000 resumes. There was a significant difference in response to those unemployed less than 6 months vs. over a year. Thus we now have discrimination against the long-term unemployed as well,
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      Apr 25 2013: for most people, the best strategy is to look for jobs that involve skilsl that machines can't easily replace. For instance, creativity, relating to other people, fine motor control, etc.
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        Apr 25 2013: While I agree that these are essentially irreplaceable 'human' skills as outlined in your book, I fail to see how these can apply to an entire middle class of low-skill blue collar jobs. I just don't see the demand for these kinds of jobs in this climate.
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          Apr 25 2013: Luc, you might be right. However, in the past, we've always had difficulty foreseing the new industries that would employ people. I doubt Thomas Jefferson would have realize that Henry Ford would employ millions of autoworkers. But you raise a legitimate concern.
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    Apr 25 2013: That said, there's a big role for gov't in funding basic research -- things that may not pay off for a decade or more.
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      Apr 25 2013: Exactly! Government is the only economic agent who can invest for the welfare of its citizens, and accept this as a return on investment in of itself.
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    Apr 25 2013: Knowing that inequality is such a headwind to overall growth and progress, how can we ensure that we're innovating to solve that problem and not simply working around it?
    • Apr 25 2013: There's inequality at the top and at the bottom. At the top we need to go further in asking why top executives are paid so much and whether our finance industry that pays so much to so few is actually making a positive contribution to the economy. At the bottom we need to deal with educational failure in college by finding ways to control the cost disease of higher education, and we need income contingent loans where people who are unemployed or go into worthy low-paying occupations like school teaching do not have to repay their full loan. Nothing is more important than early childhood intervention to make up for the cultural failure of poverty parents (usually a single mom) to have books in the house and to read to the children.
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        Apr 25 2013: Agreed! And my worry is that when it's only new technologies that are pushing our economy forward, they're always expensive at first and contribute to the inequality. Maybe it's about making sure the innovation to our systems is as emphasized as the innovations in technology?
  • 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.
  • Apr 25 2013: One of the things that has made America Great, has been the ability to look to the future and to place bets/investments that will pay off for decades to come. Think about the infrastructure, Highways, Rail, Pipelines, Bridges etc... These types of investments not only put real people to work, but also stimulated local economies and connected population centers for commerce.

    Today, the US seems to be caught up in short term investments and entitlement programs that consume disproportionate amounts of GDP, without providing much in return for future generations.

    How can the US have better days in front of us when our society rewards those who don't contribute to the economy, education rates and literacy are deplorable, our roads, transportation, bridges and other infrastructure is crumbling. The chasm between the "haves" and the "have nots" has historically been filled by a large middle class that provided a buffer between the groups and provided "hope" that there was a better future with some work and sacrifice now.

    What will it take to get us back on the right track?
  • Apr 25 2013: Great talks from both... Question: What would our social affairs look like if mass unemployment is the result of the coming technological overhaul?
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      Apr 25 2013: mass unemployment would, of course, be a disaster for soceity.

      Historically, it leads to massive disruption, and even violence and revolution.
      Already, many Americans are disgruntled and angry, as are many citzens in other countries. Whether its the Tea Party or OWS, people are looking for solutions.
      IN the 1930s, some nations even turned to fascism.
      However, I don't think massive unemployment is inevitable. We need to work to head off such an outcome.
      • Apr 25 2013: Indeed we do, but by doing what? The creative industries cannot absorb all of those who are going to be displaced. How is this enormous wealth potential being brought about by advanced technology going to be distributed?
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          Apr 25 2013: The first-best option is to redouble our efforts at finding ways to make as many people as possible productivity, skilled and genuine contributors to the economy. People get a real sense of satisfaction from work and from contributing, so I'm not ready to give up on that yet, even if it seems hard.
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    Apr 25 2013: Right now, our technologies have vastly outstripped our institutions and skills.
  • Apr 25 2013: When are America’s economic priorities going to shift toward education, saving, and long-term investment, and away from excessive reliance on military power and cheap energy?
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      Apr 25 2013: When more people like you demand it. Simple as that.
      • Apr 25 2013: Heckman has shown that the problem is not that we don't spend enough resources on education. Reducing class sizes has no effect. The problem is that educational resources are not distributed evenly. In an ideal world we would get rid of property taxation as the basis for educational finance, since that gives an advantage to communities with wealthy residents. We should have education funded by a nationwide value-added tax. The problem with our military, besides the needless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the endless buckets of cash poured into ridiculous projects like the F-35 fighter which has no known enemy to justify its cost. We built the B-17 in WWII for $250,000 per plane!
        Finally, what's wrong with cheap energy? Are you in favor of expensive energy?
  • Apr 25 2013: It is possible, Dr. Gordon, that you are missing some very important innovations. A hundred years ago, progress meant BIG infrastructure (e.g. railroads) that everyone could see. Forty years ago, innovation was more human-sized (e.g. PC and cellphones). Today, some of the most exciting innovations involve biochemistry (where the effects are inside our bodies or our crops) or involve organizations and business models (e.g. hackathons and crowdsourcing).
  • Apr 25 2013: Hi! Can you each comment on how progress is measured Infant mortality? GDP? Surveys of happiness. Stock market capitalization? In 50 words or less, lol.
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      Apr 25 2013: None of those is counted in GDP. So we have to remember therefore, that GDP does not equal progress.
      Likewise, productivity stats, whicich are base on GDP, also miss a lot of the value we create in our society.
      • Apr 25 2013: What do you think of the Obama Admininstration's decision to adjust GDP statistics to include investment in intangibles (like production of movies or music)? What else should be added?
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          Apr 25 2013: I fully support this decision. It's an improtant step. As I said in my talk, we need to account for intangibles like music. Intangibles are a bigger and bigger part of our economy and we can't manage what we dont measure. Lots more to do here, though.
      • Apr 25 2013: is it unrealistic to expect a shift to using new and different measures of our profitability and productivity?
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    Apr 25 2013: Answering the question about whether America is past her prime or not is a matter of prognostication. It cannot be be denied though that she has seen better days as a global competitor. What one action could most facilitate a return to her esteemed reputation in the world?
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      Apr 25 2013: I disagree with the premise that the world is zero sum game. It's wonderful that other nations are getting richer. We will benefit from the inventions and discoveries made in India, China, Brazil and every where. Perhaps someone in another nation will cure cancer.
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        Apr 25 2013: So, America should adapt to her current status on the global economic roster?
    • Apr 25 2013: The most important contribution to raising America's reputation in the world would be to fix gridlock in Washington. Even though our Constitution is a Great and Wonderful Thing that has served us for 220+ years, it is creaking and groaning now. We have had many occasions in the past with a President in one party and at least one house of Congress in the other, but never before such polarization. America's reputation will only improve when Grover Norquist and the Tea Party stop threatening primary opposition to modern Congressmen and when members of Congress start paying more attention to what the public supports and less to what the NRA support.
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        Apr 25 2013: How will amendments to the COTUS remedy the economic lethargy that has gripped America? Is the NRA responsible for our money ills?
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    Apr 25 2013: the challenge is to reinvent our organizations to take better advantage of technology
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    Apr 25 2013: Thank you all so much for your wonderful contributions!
  • Apr 25 2013: Erik: "The first-best option is to redouble our efforts at finding ways to make as many people as possible productivity, skilled and genuine contributors to the economy. People get a real sense of satisfaction from work and from contributing, so I'm not ready to give up on that yet, even if it seems hard."

    Your data seemed to show we are going the other way - clearly technology is taking away people's opportunity to contribute. I believe the need to adapt our social institutions will inevitably outpace the need to reallocate labor.
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      Apr 25 2013: We just need to Open Source Our Future, at the same time give Ownership to opensourced creations.
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    Apr 25 2013: Economic debates can sometimes be kind of depressing. What should we be optimistic about?
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      Apr 25 2013: we should be optimistic because:
      1) we've created record wealth in the past decade, boht in the US and world wide.
      2) produtivity is at a record high level and grew strongly in the past decade (more than the 1990s, 80s or 70s).
      3) there are some wonderful amazing tehcnologies in the pipeline, that will save lives, and improve our well-being.
      The problem is that these benefits are not currently widely shared. That's a probelm of institutions,organizations and skills.
      I think we can address those problems. We're fortunate that our technologies friends have created such bounty, with more to come. Now its up to the rest of us to create an economic system that's worthy of these new technologies.
      I think we can do that.
  • Apr 25 2013: While it is true that in many fields, such as the previously mentioned education, there is great room for innovation and integration of technology, I have to wonder if there is not perhaps a gap between the possible and the likely. Although this is admittedly conjecture, as I haven't done a lengthy and large scale comparison, isn't it true, at least on average, that the jobs that fit within the same category as the also aforementioned ad click optimization will ultimately offer better pay? After all, there is immediate demand and funding for them.

    I don't mean to imply that every person bases their job decisions purely off pay or the like, as I certainly don't believe that to be the case. However, I am rather curious as to your opinions on it as an overall factor creating a brain drain of sorts away from more sweeping innovations.
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      Apr 25 2013: In an ideal system, the value created by a job would correspond to its pay. However, that's not always, or even usually, the case.

      Part of what defines a good economic system is aligning these two numbers. We could do a lot better than we are doing today.

      Fortuntately, many people, esp. in education, health, science and the arts, don't just work for money.
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    Apr 25 2013: Erik, driverless cars are cool, but are they really going to help the economy? :)
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      Apr 25 2013: Yes! There are billions of hours wasted drving that could be put to better use. That's a huge help to the economy -- probably a trillion dollars of value, if not more.

      and yes, they are really cool!
      • Apr 25 2013: Yes, they are cool. But to think that our societal norms would encourage any time freed up to be put to more productive work is a bit optimistic.

        A more likely scenario would be that any time freed up from the task of driving would be occupied with leisure time activities.
  • Apr 25 2013: Hi all, I watched both of the TED Talks on this. Very interesting.

    Mr. Gordon, what do you make of Erik's idea that we don't see the full impact of an innovation for decades? why do you think the gains of the IT economy are already played out?
  • Apr 25 2013: That "Great Decoupling" is the point where I think a lot of people are feeling the frustrations in the current economies around the world. Will there be a future time, Erik, when you predict that once we manage our working "with" machines, we'll 'recouple' those items?
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      Apr 25 2013: I hope so, but there's no guarantee.

      I think that's the grand challenge of our generation.
      • Apr 25 2013: When I ask "Is US Growth Over?" I deliberately do not ask this question for other nations. Emerging markets are gowing fast by adopting the technologies invented in the advanced nations over the past century. If we limit the comparison of the US to Canada, Europe, and Japan, then we find ourselves somewhere in the middle and need to ask ourselves what we can learn from other countries. It is amazing how seldom in the Ameircan political debate we ever look carefully at other countries.

        Some European countries are in much worse shape than we are -- the southern European countries from Portugal over to Greece. Others like France are headed in the same direction. But we can learn from Canada and the Nordic countries. First, we need to broaden our tax base so that we can afford more generous college scholarships and early-childhood remedial education. We need to encourage charter and magnet schools and weaken the stranglehold of some teachers unions on educational innovation.

        But there's something else that we don't talk about, and this is the cultural attitude toward education among many children of Asian immigrants vs. native Americans. We need fewer soccer moms and more math moms. Stuyvesant HS in NYC has only one admission criterion, test scores, and its entering class was something like 25 blacks and hispanics, maybe 150-200 whites, and 680 Asians. That's an achievement of the parents and their attitude toward education
  • Apr 25 2013: When I was a teenager I thought that by 2000 we'd be close to reaching utopia, we all wouldn't have to work very much and robots would take care of a lot of things. What if economic growth does indeed level off, is that idea still a possibility for 2080 or beyond?
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      Apr 25 2013: My reading of the evidence is that we are NOT leveling off. However, it does sound like your teenage predictions were unrealistic. But I think its very likely that by 2080, "we all wouldn't have to work very much and robots would take care of a lot of things". Let's hope you and I live to see that day.
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    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...?
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      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.
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        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.
  • Apr 25 2013: Erik, does Feynman's limit pertain only to exponential growth or is that a limit pertaining specifically to computations? And either way, do you believe that limit will dramatically hinder future computation abilities in computers within 30 years?
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      Apr 25 2013: That limit is the theoretical smallest size transistor using existing concepts of computation.

      However, it is true that ALL exponential trends must eventualy end. That includes computation, and many others.

      At the same time, the ingenuity of humans is that we keep inventing new technologies and starting NEW expoential trends. I don't see any limit to the number and power of ideas we can invent, so I'm optimistic.
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    Apr 25 2013: Yes. This is problem that Andrew McAfee and I call “The Great Decoupling”

    Employment and median income are no longer growing alongside productivity, like it did in the past.

    If we continue business as usually, I think this will worsen in the coming decade.
    • Apr 25 2013: More importantly, the "Digital Divide" or the "Great Decoupling" will further the divide between the "haves" and the "have nots". We are obviously living in a Digital World. Those who have access to the technology and an understanding of how to use the technology to create something other than requests for your friends to feed your digital farm animals while you are at work will improve economically.

      Those who either don't have access to the technology or who use it to otherwise waste countless hours of the day in an otherwise enjoyable but non-productive manner will flounder.
  • 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.
  • Apr 25 2013: A question for Mr. Gordon. Sir, in your TED talk you mentioned the increased labor available for economic activity thanks to women being freed from the chores of washing clothes and fetching water. Do you think that the demise of industrial scale manufacturing might also free up labor to move into sectors where it is more productive? I am thinking about the difference between an assembly line worker and a CAD designer who has access to a 3D printer at a manufacturing center down the street.
    • Apr 25 2013: The number of assembly line workers has steadily decreased since 1950 and the number of computer programmers and designers has steadily increased. The route from low-skilled manual jobs to higher-paying non-routine cognitive jobs lies through education and training (e.g., German-type apprenticeship system). In my talk I looked only at the tip of the iceberg about what's wrong with the US educational system.
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    Apr 25 2013: Capitalism has created more wealth by far for more people than any other system. However, have we reached a point in our technological history when the pendulum must swing back toward more socialist economics to achieve more prosperity for more people?
    • Apr 25 2013: You have to distinguish between "socialism" and the capitalist welfare state as exemplified by Sweden, the Netherlands, etc. Socialism involves government ownership of the means of production and was practiced by the postwar UK Labour government which nationalized Steel, Transport, etc. It was Thatcher's achievrement to reverse all that, and Britain went from being a laggard to one of Europe's most dynamic economies.

      Yes, we need more of a welfare state, particularly to prepare children in poverty to compete in our educational system. Now they are dropping out of highschool and condemning themselves to lives of manual labor and unemployment
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      Apr 25 2013: Capitalism has created massive wealth, but it has been tweaked and modified along the way. I'm sure there will be additional changes, but I'm not sure they can be easily described along a simple 1 dimensional axis between capitalism and socialism. We're in the early stages of a new kind of system, call it capitalism 2.0, which might be as different from our current system as capitalism was from feudalism.
  • Apr 25 2013: I'd love to hear Mr. Gordon and Mr. Brynjolfsson's perspective on the role of energy in driving economic growth.
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      Apr 25 2013: Energy is important, but Jon Koomey has shown that the amount of energy needed per computation is dropping exponentially. This is known as "Koomey's Law".

      As a result, I can imaging our economy becoming less energy intensive over time -- it already is using less energy per dollar of GDP created.
      at the same time, technology has helped us find new sources of energy, e.g. via fracking.
      In the near future, people like Craig Ventner may deliver on more exotic options like Algae that create oil.
  • Apr 25 2013: I am new to these ted talk -debates-, is there sound or do we just read the comments frenzy? is what I've used before for up to 1000 listeners. This would be much cooler if there was sound and you guys could pick and choose the best questions to answer. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! Really interesting stuff here!!!
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      Apr 25 2013: Hi Dillon -- sadly, no sound, and yes, the format is flawed. But I hope you agree that Bob and Erik are doing a valiant job at trying to answer/field the great questions being put to them. Thanks for taking part!
      • Apr 25 2013: Thanks Helen, was just a little confused at the layout. Got the hang of it now. :) You guys are doing a great job! Thanks again and Mr. Gordon and Brynjolfsson for an awesome discussion!!!
    • Apr 25 2013: I agree Dillon. Collect the questions, combine similiar ones, then have our two speakers respond to them (and to each others' answers) via voice. The bandwidth would be MUCH higher (and the answers much richer).
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        Apr 25 2013: I hear you. I think there's something compelling about this being a live chat, and having the opportunity to quiz the speakers in real time... but it's definitely not perfect, and there's a repetition factor for sure. The sound factor is interesting... You would prefer to hear the speakers' responses than read them?
  • Apr 25 2013: Decades ago, most innovations occurred within one field; today, many innovations are occuring where disciplines combine or overlap (e.g. biology + chemistry + statistics = bioinformatics). Erik, how will the increase in multi-disciplinary innovation affect the rate of innovation and the types of innovation? The type of jobs and skills needed?
  • Apr 25 2013: Good afternoon to you both - I was intrigued by the shift or divergence of growth in income/lifestyle and productivity - what model do we look to that will stabilize and see increases in personal wealth (for the 99%)?
    • Apr 25 2013: Wealtth, income, and well-being for the bottom 99% are different concepts. The best way to build wealth is to save, and most people aren't saving enough for their retirement. People also fail to follow basic investment advice. When the marked tanks as in 2008-09, they panic and sell out. Now suddenly with the S&P near 1600, they say, gosh, is it too late to get back in? They should sell high and buy low, but they tend to do the reverse.
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      Apr 25 2013: Part of the solution is for people to develop new skills, that aren't easily automatable.

      However, we also need to work on inventing new organizations and business models that "race with machines". Just as Wikipedia, Kaggle, oDesk, RelayRides, and others developed new models. But we still have a long way to go.
      • Apr 25 2013: And here I'll admit that I have a particular interest as an educator (teaching anatomy to nursing students is my main work). How can we shift education so that learning is done that supports that integration of machines and non-'machinable' skills? Where should we focus for our students?
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          Apr 25 2013: I think education will see a huge revolution in the next 10 years, mainly because of digitization.
          This can create a much faster feedback loop about what skills are needed.

          The technology willl let us gather enormous data about what’s working and not working. Apply big data techniques to improve teaching methods and to personalize how things are taught. Adapt pace and methods, based on students unique situation. Continuous learning by the educators, not just students.
  • Apr 25 2013: It seems that as a society we are only developing bigger and faster modifications to the devices we already have such as computers, iPads, etc., however we do not seem to be focused on the innovation aspect of creation as much.
  • Apr 25 2013: I see incremental change, not revolutionary change. Baxter the robot and his pals will continue to replace humans but also create some in-sourcing that may reverse the 50-year decline of American manufacturing. But we still will need most of today's occupations that are not going to be entirely replaced by robots, including nurses, waiters, truck drivers, airline pilots, and many types of manual workers like airport baggage handlers.
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    Apr 25 2013: Mr. Brynjolfsson, while I do agree that working with the machines is the success to being productive while retaining jobs (as Toyota's success has demonstrated), what new areas do you believe are created by the creative destruction of this process? In other words, where will the displacement of low-skill workers end up, and what skill set should they be trained towards?
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      Apr 25 2013: Technology is always destroying jobs and always creating jobs. Right now, the destruction is outpacing the creation.

      People who do work that involves routine cognitive processing are particularly vulnerable.
      On the other hand, people who deal with exceptions, or with other people, or who do non-repetitive physical work, are less vulnerable.
  • Apr 25 2013: Mr. Brynjolfsson, you stated in your talk that you feel that we need to "race with machines" rather than against them. In what manner do you feel that this effects the future of education?
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      Apr 25 2013: great question, Ryan.

      We really need to reinvent education. My industry has lagged other industries in digitizing. Far behind music and other media, finance, manufacturing, retailing, etc.
      But that’s good news: lots of room to improve.
      Digitization of education will do 2 things.
      1. much higher quality and lower cost as very best teachers and methods reach larger audiences. Superstars like Sal Khan of Khan academy (see or learn physic from best MIT profs at
      2. more importantly, gather enormous data about what’s working and not working. Apply big data techniques to improve teaching methods and to personalize how things are taught. Adapt pace and methods, based on students unique situation. Continuous learning by the educators, not just students. My students are already doing this to optimize ad clicks – can soon do it for education.
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    Apr 25 2013: Mr. Gordon, do you not think it slightly disingenuous and short-sighted to (negatively) appraise the full potential of mobile technology half a decade after its release?
    • Apr 25 2013: No, actually we just marked the 40th anniversary of the invention of the mobile phone. It looked and felt like a brick back in 1973, but that's when we mark the invention of mobile technology, not with the iphone 5 years ago. Everything involving computing has become smaller, lighter, more capable since the first mainframe computers in 1960. What else is new?
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        Apr 25 2013: The ubiquity of internet access for the layman, the proliferation of social services, the broadening of the user base, all leading to the fact that out new generation is extremely tech-litterate.
        Everything can be placed on a trend, innovation can be both incremental and disruptive.
        • Apr 25 2013: This relates to another question. Yes, today's generation is very tech literate, and 10-year-olds know more about operating ipads and iphones than do their grandparents. But that doesn't mean that many tech-savvy young people have the skills to obtain high-skilled jobs in high-tech industries. Our college completion rate is 41 percent compared to Canada's 56 percent, our community colleges are remediation factories for the failure of many students to pay enough attention in HS to get basic skills. Plenty of high-school dropouts have iphones or Androids.
  • Apr 25 2013: That reinforces my point that today's innovation is not creating really important stuff analogous to the invention of the PC in 1982 or the development of Windows and the web between 1995 and 2002.
  • Apr 25 2013: Is there an American cultural issue here or is it an educational or infrastructure concern?
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    Apr 25 2013: Absolutely. This is the core problem we face.
  • Apr 25 2013: I think our economy is just getting started, and even though the government tries to stifle it and feed off of it like a parasite, it finds a way to keep going and to keep innovating. Unfortunately the government has been pretty successful lately and so many people are out of work and a lot of wealth is leaving the country, but I think the free market will eventually conquer the government. At least I hope so.
  • Apr 25 2013: American capitalism didn't discourage Bill Gates and Steve Jobs from inventing really important things. There is plenty of venture capital money out there for inventions of large importance or even mediium importance. But what is being invented these days just isn't as important as, say, the personal computer in 1982.
  • Apr 25 2013: Hello Mr. Gordon and Brynjolfsson, thank you both for your excellent ted talks on the state of the US economy. My question is... Are we not headed to an inevitable end of capitalism and towards a sort of techno-communism where the allocation of supplies/resources is handled by algorithms.
  • Apr 25 2013: Hi Robert and Erik,

    My question: Do you think there's a gap between what technology can do and how it's currently being applied? Like when one of the Facebook founders said "the best minds of this generation are focused on thinking about how to make people click ads"?

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      Apr 25 2013: I'd love to see more of my super smart students at MIT figuring out how to get kids to learn faster and better, instead of just how to click on more ads. We can do a lot better.
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    Apr 25 2013: Not necessarily. In many ways, America has been a leader in breakthrough technologies
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    Apr 25 2013: Hello Mr. Gordon and Mr. Brynjolfsson,

    I assume you've both already read this article in the Economist:

    I have a question about this line: "Private investors rationally prefer modest business models with a reasonably short time to profit and cash out."

    Does American-style capitalism discourage big, uncertain bets? If so, does that hurt our progress, and how can we change it?
    • Apr 25 2013: I would disagree that we currently have a capitalist system. We have more of a modern mercantilism with a marriage of government and favored corporations. A good example of this is the new internet tax being pushed by Wal Mart and Amazon.

      As to taking risks - it's hard to take risks without capital. Thanks to the Federal Reserve, there's not much real capital out there.
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    Apr 25 2013: Hello everyone, and welcome to today's sure-to-be scintillating, one-hour Live TED conversation. Our topic today: "Is America past its prime?" In the red corner, we have Robert J Gordon, Stanley G Harris professor of the social sciences at Northwestern University. In the blue corner, the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Erik Brynjolfsson. PLEASE USE THE "POST A COMMENT" BOXES ABOVE AND BELOW TO SUBMIT YOUR QUESTIONS! Ready..... set..... go!