Reconciling The Coming Prosperity with the Great Stagnation: Excerpt from my Interview with Richard Florida

Richard Florida and I have been friends, and at times colleagues, since the late 1990s. He was insightful and articulate back then, as he is now. Back when Richard first started working on the “three Ts”–talent, technology, and tolerance–he was just about the only economist seriously looking at the role of creative individuals in driving the development or regions and nations.  That’s changed … though, as the continued fixation with industrial policy and clusters indicates, the technocratic tendency is still to relegate actual human beings to the footnotes.

Richard generously offered to write a blurb for The Coming Prosperity. A couple of weeks ago he interviewed me about the book, and posted the exchange to Atlantic Cities. Richard’s questions were great. Here’s an except from that interview that gave me that chance to reconcile my view of the next quarter century with the seemingly opposite view offered by my George Mason University colleague Tyler Cowen in his Spring 2011 bestseller, The Great Stagnation:

Why specifically do you disagree with economists and others who believe that we are entering an age of prolonged stagnation and decline?

It all comes down to who is “we” and what is “prolonged.”

If we’re talking about the world as a whole over the next quarter century and beyond, the trend really is unambiguous. And, by the way, none of this requires wishing away the very real threats to future prosperity posed by climate change, water scarcity, reduced biodiversity, and other 21st century challenges. If people are the problem, people are also the solution.

If the “we” is people in the United States and the “prolonged” is the next decade, then the “Great Reset” that you first described three years ago in the pages of The Atlantic captures the dynamic more accurately. That reset isn’t easy… and it’s not getting easier anytime soon. So, yes, the next five or ten years in the U.S. may continue to look like stagnation, even decline. But that appearance will only be part of the story.

I’ll come back to this topic in future posts.

The interview drew some great comments that pulled the conversation in a different direction. Alexandra pointed out the need to ensure that the coming prosperity does not come at the expense of those people and communities around the world who are most deeply connected to their native environments and ancestral practices:

Whenever we think that promoting globalization at all costs will somehow “save” those people, we are completely ignoring the fact that they have been self-sustaining for thousands of years. They don’t need consumer products to live or be happy. They only need them when the rest of the world takes over their land and resources, and enslaves them into forced labor. This mode of thought is just modern day imperialism, rebranded for the 21st century… and that’s what’s bothering me. I believe that the answer is to live and let live – and that’s the most difficult answer of all.

Alexandra is dead on. As I point out in my response, I’ve for the past year involved in a project focused on using technology to strengthen the ability of marginalized and vulnerable populations to make and defend land claims. The Amazon Conservation Team is one organization doing great work along these lines. Landesa and Madeem are two others. Much, much more needs to be done, however, to ensure that legal institutions–including land rights–are accesible and inclusive on a global scale.