This was one of the more popular books to come out of the GFC as we all grappled with the ramifications of the “new world order” so to speak. A rising Asian hemisphere, a decline in the influence of western economies and wars in the middle east that never seemed to end. It was first published in 2013. The author is a well known, libertarian leaning, economist who blogs at Marginal Revolution (an excellent blog) and is also a professor at George Mason University. A full disclaimer, I am personally inclined to like a book by these types of authors, read into that what you may.
The book itself is okay? It’s not phenomenal. Nor is it terrible. It’s a fairly well written, fairly solid affair which skims across the surface of a number of different areas. I found some of this skimming to be a little bit of a reach but overall the general thrust of the argument was good.
I took away two main ideas from the book, one of which I have already internalised but it’s worthwhile repeating here.
The first, the titular namesake of the book, but average is over, if indeed it ever existed. That is, the distribution is widening throughout society. All of the gains and the benefits that society is making is going to the few at the top who are able to capture them. This is showing up in employment data and wages. Median wages are stagnant whilst the labour force participation rate continues to contract. The returns for the uber wealthy are still on the rise though.
The second idea is that the returns of the future, which decides who fits where in society, will increasingly go to people who are able to capture and reap the benefits of working with intelligent machines. These machines won’t replace the top performers, instead they’ll enhance them. The corollary is that anyone who can’t work with the intelligent machines will be replaced. Machines won’t replace us all, instead, one guy or gal working hand in glove with the machine will replace 10 other people.
Cowen’s thesis is that it’s better to be the guy/gal working hand in glove with the machine than to be the one that is replaced by it. This is extended using the argument of freestyle chess, a chess format that pairs man and machine to compete. Cowen argues that in freestyle chess it’s not the best individual, nor the best machine that provides the difference. Instead it is the best team of people who are able to work with the machines. More simply, the combination of man and machine is greater than the sum of it’s parts but only if the man is well trained and experienced in working with the machine.
It’s an interesting idea, that’s for sure. I need to make sure I keep current in my programming skills that’s for sure. I can already see the benefit in my own area. It’s not the person with the best knowledge that makes the best decisions, it’s the person who can best extract value from the tools that does so.
Overall, a 3/5. It was okay, nothing ground breaking.