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The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  2,098 ratings  ·  195 reviews
America is in disarray and our economy is failing us. We have been through the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and talk of a double-dip recession persists. Americans are not pulling the world economy out of its sluggish state -- if anything we are looking to Asia to drive a recovery. Median wages have risen only sl ...more
ebook, 64 pages
Published January 25th 2011 by Dutton Books (first published January 14th 2011)
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 ·  2,098 ratings  ·  195 reviews

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Start your review of The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better
Thomas Bach
Oct 09, 2011 rated it did not like it
Stagnation as Misinformation

Alerted by Matthew Yglesias to a "bravura performance by one of the most interesting thinkers out there" on the cause of the current economic mess, I rushed, metaphorically speaking, to the Kindle store and spent 4 dollars on Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. This is fairly awful book. Cowen's tone is condescending; his use of history is superficial, his notion
Peter McCluskey
Nov 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Tyler Cowen wrote what looks like a couple of blog posts, and published them in book form.

The problem: US economic growth slowed in the early 1970s, and hasn't recovered much. Median family income would be 50% higher if the growth of 1945-1970 had continued.

I criticized this book when I reviewed the more carefully researched Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh). So I felt obligated to read The Great Stagnation and evaluate it more carefully.

Josh presents decent evidence that inno
Jun 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful mini-book reflecting on the slowing pace of technological process, how US economic growth has changed as a result, and what that means for the next 30 years. Cowen's thesis--that much of the growth from 1940-'75 came from "low-hanging fruit" and will not easily be duplicated--makes a lot of sense to me, as does his assertion that further improving educational attainment will be worthwhile but very hard. As usual, Cowen is at his best not at developing revolutionary ideas but ...more
Mar 17, 2012 rated it it was ok
Cowen takes a stab at the problem of America losing its economic mojo since the 1970's. His theory: the unparalleled prosperity of the US from the 1800's through 1950 was the result of easy pickins in the areas of:
1. free (stolen) land
2. productivity increases resulting from public education
3. technology breakthroughs (steam engine, radio/electrical devices, plastics and so on)
While the internet is the main breakthrough we can point to since the 1970's it does not represent a huge improvement in
Dec 23, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
In this quick, conversational read, Tyler Cowen makes several astute points that I find myself easily agreeing with. His central argument is how our level of technological innovation is not nearly what it was during the so-called era of "low-hanging fruit" (1870-1970), which has in turn impacted our productivity and wages; and the three sectors of our greatest growth in the last 40 years (government, healthcare, and education) suffer from a "massive government distortion of incentives." He views ...more
Andrew Carr
Aug 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
A re-read as research for an academic article. Still holds up as an insightful long essay/novella that captured a number of broad social themes in a pithy and telling series of analogies (low hanging fruit, stagnation).

In particular, I think there is a much in the suggestion of a technological plateau. For all that we have fun/different tech, most of it is very minor evolutions. Life in 1970 and 2019 are largely the same (save having interactive TVs). Where as life in 1870 and 1920, purely in t
Jan 29, 2019 rated it liked it
I’ve been fascinated by the slowdown in US productivity growth over the last 10-15 years in spite of the explosion of technology as we have seen. We seem to be going through a transition as a result of automation and a realignment of preferences in consumption. I like Tyler Cowan even though I often disagree with him. He does a great job outlining his hypothesis (mostly convincing) about the causes. The productivity slowdown doesn’t just impact us financially, but impacts our politics. My belief ...more
Lee Richardson
Feb 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a quake-book for me. Main idea: we're having economic problems because the low hanging fruit from big, high-impact scientific discoveries is down. This is called "The Great Stagnation".

This rings true to me. When I did my PhD, the system was deranged. Everyone was under so much pressure, and there was so much competition, that most of the research focused on marginal gains to established problems (myself included!).

The entire system is predicated on growth: Professor's train students to
Lis Carey
Apr 24, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a long essay about what Tyler Cowen considers to be the real roots of our current economic and political frustrations: a stagnation in technological advances that started around 1970. This sounds counter-intuitive, but Cowen makes a good case for his approach.

Up until that point, America always had a great deal of what Cowen refers to as "low-hanging fruit": first, and for a very long time, land so abundant it was practically free. Europeans could come to America, stake their claim, work
Umair Khan
Mar 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
The Great Stagnation, a 15,000 word e-book by economist Tyler Cowen, has become the most discussed non-fiction book of the year.

The main thesis of the book is that advanced economies, particularly the American economy, have been facing low rates of growth because they have not experienced any scientific or technological paradigm shifts (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term), for a long time.

Refreshingly, the book has no ideological leanings. In fact, Cowen has criticised the approach of both Republicans an
C. Varn
Oct 17, 2014 rated it liked it
Cowen's discussion of the technological plateau and move away from innovation in the productive economy is insightful at first. He is right that the 30 year cycle we saw with major innovations in most fields seemed to stop in the 1960s, and these cycles have shifted. He does mention as a off-hand aside that this was partly because of stolen land, and he does seem to talk about educational plateaus. He mentions India and China, and then things start to slide. For example, he seems to think market ...more
Jun 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a must read for those who care about current economic trends. So often, the media parrots the same old tired cliches regarding the economy which seem to have become outdated in a rapidly changing world.

I've thought a lot about many of the ideas Cowen describes in this book, but they've all kind of been a patchwork in my mind, and this book helped me to start to bring together these ideas into a more cohesive line of thought. A few of these ideas include:

1) The fundamental reason for our
Apr 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economics
This is an interesting little book. It is tightly written and well argued, which serve to make it a very easy read. In fact, I managed the whole book on one return train ride to London.

There are a number of ideas that are worth exploring within the book, but the core message is that technology has driven economic growth since the late Eighteenth Century, and that the pace of innovation has fallen to the point where the pace of growth is slowing as well. What does that mean? well, first and forem
Feb 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics
Cowen presents an economic history that is much more believable than most. There are no good guys or bad guys, and we all make some good decisions and some bad ones (still some people are more helpful than others). Notably we all do a number of things just because they are easy and "make sense at the time", which is a powerful force in decision-making that economics as a field is just starting to integrate.

One example of his central thesis, is that while The Railroad/Highways/Air freight (as inv
Andreas Jungherr
In this essay the economist Tyler Cowen advances an enlightening conjecture on the reasons for the ongoing troubles of the US economy. He argues that there are two sources for widespread economic growth. To him one source is the development of new technologies and the attempt to solve hard social and scientific problems. As a second source he identifies economic growth based on the widespread adoption of new technologies and solutions of formerly hard problems. For Cowen the US, and probably in ...more
Aug 24, 2011 rated it really liked it

You may not agree with much of what Cowen has to say, or even with his (depressing) main theme, but I found this book stimulating and often refreshing.

Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, and the main message in this e-book is that the progress of America and the rest of the developed world in the past century or so has been driven largely by "low hanging fruit" that has now disappeared -- cheap and abundant land, new technologies that revolutionized our economies and increased inc
Jan 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Cowen argues that the "low-hanging fruits" of innovation have largely been picked already – railroads, electricity, and modern plumbing were greater and wider-ranging improvements to human life than any technological development since then, including the Internet. He offers some economic literature to support this, including a study that suggests that rates of innovation peaked in the late 1800s. (A related paper that Cowen does not cite, but which is equally relevant, is Robert Gordon's "Is US ...more
Nov 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: economics, america
Considering how often we hear about the immense innovation happening on the Internet, it is jarring to read a book which argues that this innovation is largely useless from an economic perspective. But this short book (which is damn cheap for Kindles!) makes a strong argument that the American economy isn't going back to where it was before 2008 without some fundamental changes that aren't going to come around as a result of fiscal or monetary policy. The strong economic era of the recent past, ...more
Sep 14, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very quick read, which offers several reasons why high economic growth in the U.S. has limits, and an economic cooling off period is to be expected. I liked the fact that, unlike many Republicans who will say a decline in U.S. GNP is the fault of the Democrats / Obama, or unlike many Democrats who will say the same about the Republican / Bush policies, Cowen takes the politics out of it, and just offers reasons which are for the most part, attributable to a number of causes outside the spectrum ...more
Diego Petrucci
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating quick read about the causes of the recent recession and the apparent (or not) stagnation.

Cowen's main thesis - that we "ate" all the low hanging fruit - is probably right and a bit depressing. What lies ahead of us is a general slowdown, but we probably shouldn't despair - it's just a phase, even if it may take a while to end (and you can thank the "free-ness" of the internet for that).
Dec 30, 2019 rated it did not like it
Technically speaking, Tyler argues for expanding the potential output of the US economy as the only effective solution to enjoy higher growth rates as all the low-hanging fruits for growth have been consumed. However, he fails to offer any systematic or constructive antidotes to this malaise of slow economic growth in the US.
Jan 27, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: business
This is a breezy book about the recent economic decline in the West. It is long on analogies and short on data and models.
Jon Green
It's important to remember what this is: a relatively short (under 100 pages and they aren't particularly packed with text). So don't expect a deep exploration of American stagnation. But it's at least an introductory look at the idea that America is in a bit of a rut. Cowen explains that much of America's historic economic dynamism was due to "low-hanging fruit" that we've exhausted and thus expecting booming economic growth at this point is misguided. Cowen contains that we overestimate how ri ...more
Soham Chakraborty
Apr 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
If you have time to read only 70 odd-pages today and yet you want to understand what lies at the root of the seemingly endless (and often frustrating) debate of re-distributionists vs fiscal conservatives in United States, you must read this lucid book written in the kind of accessible language that Tyler Cowen prefers on his marvelous blog 'Marginal Revolution' (which I must admit I have followed for years). Tyler, one the sharpest heterodox thinkers of our times postulates that the United Stat ...more
Aug 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business
This short book (or long article) written in 2010 has held up extremely well and packs the most punch for its length of just about any other business or economics writing I can think of. Cowen tackles complex questions about economic growth, income and innovation in a clear, persuasive style using simple examples and images.

Some highlights were Cowen's discussion of why GDP growth is so hard to track and is often misleading, the explanation of why we spend too much on education and healthcare wi
Brad Revell
May 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: how-tos, wealth
The reason I bought this book to read was given it was labeled a prequel by many readers to Cowen's latest book; The Complacent Class. It would provide a good introduction to the next book I'm about to read in how we have become quite complacent as a society given the low-hanging fruit and resulting financial crisis. It is an easy book that would take you 1 - 2 hours to read at most. Like most reviews I read prior this doesn't look to solve the problems, but more presents the problem and why it ...more
May 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is basically an essay so it is a quick read. Cowen is an economist and a professor at George Mason University. He argues that the West grew exponentially because of the “low-hanging fruit” of vast resources that allowed for technological and industrial revolutions. Once those resources were used up, we stagnated and are basically scratching our heads as to how to recreate that growth. He posits the internet brings great information but not much revenue. Most of the services (Netflix vs movi ...more
Andy Mcloughlin
Jun 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Published in early 2011, Tyler Cowen's parvum opus is an early formulation of an idea which is now accepted in some form or another by most economic observers: U.S. economic growth ain't what it used to be.

Cowen argues that previous drivers of rapid growth: discovery of the new world, the advent of mass education and rapid technological change, can no longer be relied on to compensate for falling returns to investment in public goods such as healthcare and education. After a brief discussion of
Jim Crocker
Jun 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
This great little book was published in 2011, but it's not really dated at all. Its thesis is this: "We have been living off low-hanging fruit for at least three hundred years. We have built social and economic institutions on the expectation of a lot of low-hanging fruit, but that fruit is mostly gone."

There you have it. The book goes on to explain a zillion economic areas of low-hangers. Wrapped up in all this "prosperity" that is "expected" to go on forever is our ideas about growth and progr
I agree with Cowen on his assertion that much American success comes from our abundant resources (natural and human). However, he lost me when he failed to see the parallels between the industrial and technical revolutions. He views the Internet as a toy and cheap entertainment, but fails to see the business and productivity implications of these technologies. I'll acknowledge that the book is 8 years old, but anyone paying attention (certainly an academic who specializes on such things) should ...more
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Tyler Cowen (born January 21, 1962) occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author, with Alex Tabarrok, of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. He currently writes the "Economic Scene" column for the New York Times and writes for such magazines as The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly.

Cowen's primary research interest is

News & Interviews

You know the saying: There's no time like the present...unless you're looking for a distraction from the current moment. In that case, we can't...
22 likes · 8 comments
“...apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn't so different from what it was in 1953...The wonders portrayed in THE JETSONS, the space-age television cartoon from the 1960s, have not come to pass...Life is better and we have more stuff, but the pace of change has slowed down compared to what people saw two or three generations ago.” 3 likes
“Most Web activities do not generate jobs and revenue at the rate of past technological breakthroughs. When Ford and General Motors were growing in the early part of the twentieth century, they created millions of jobs and helped build Detroit into a top-tier U.S. city. Today, Facebook creates a lot of voyeuristic pleasure, but the company doesn’t employ many people and hasn’t done much for Palo Alto; a lot of the “work” is performed more or less automatically by the software and the servers. You could say that the real work is done by its users, in their spare time and as a form of leisure. Web 2.0 is not filling government coffers or supporting many families, even though it’s been great for users, programmers, and some information technology specialists. Everyone on the Web has heard of Twitter, but as of Fall 2010, only about three hundred people work there.” 2 likes
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