Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology & Prosperity, by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, PublicAffairs, 560 pages, $32
I wrote this review without the aid of a secretary or a typist. The authors of the book I am reviewing seem ambivalent about this. Is the word processor really such a good thing? Maybe, they submit, the corporations of the 1980s should not have used “software tools” to “downsize their workforces.” After all, automating clerical tasks destroyed “well-paying jobs for noncollege workers.”
Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson are economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Power and Progress, they contend that “shared prosperity” arises only when the government and advocacy groups steer digital technologies in a “more worker-friendly direction.” They want the state to “hold entrepreneurs and technology leaders accountable,” both by overseeing technological development and by asserting greater control over public discourse. Ultimately, they want the economy to operate as it did 50 years ago, when they believe extensive regulation and a strong labor movement produced a widely shared rise in wealth.
The starting point of Acemoglu and Johnson’s argument is that “there is nothing automatic about new technologies bringing widespread prosperity.” The authors devote enormous energy to bolstering this painfully obvious claim. The reader learns that feudalism and slavery are poor economic systems. He is warned against being invaded by the Normans, and he is admonished not to liquidate the kulaks. He is told that sanitation and democracy are good, and that child labor and the Chinese Communist Party are bad.
Acemoglu and Johnson tell us that a circle of Silicon Valley insiders with “commanding social power” are imposing a “narrow vision” on the rest of us. They depict this “vision oligarchy” as hegemonic and monolithic, a clique of tech bros that feels no “need to consult the rest of the population.” But it has “charisma, in its nerdy way,” and it has supposedly “mesmerize[d] the influential custodians of opinion: journalists, other business leaders, politicians, academicians, and all sorts of intellectuals.” One of the most pressing issues of our time, if you believe Acemoglu and Johnson, is to create “countervailing forces” that can “break” the tech visionaries’ “monopoly over agenda setting.”
This ceaseless griping about “the visions of powerful elites” is hard to take seriously. The authors appear to have slept through the ongoing techlash—a panic stoked by the purportedly mesmerized media—and they are blind to the many competing power centers with which tech firms must contend. They clamor for more nonprofit pressure groups, oblivious to the swarms of such outfits already attacking the tech sector. They want “cacophonous voices” engaged in political debate, but they won’t admit that information technology has benefited the raucous average citizen at the expense of the elite legacy media. And they never reflect on the fact that they themselves are two elites who have written a book full of conventional elite opinions.
Acemoglu and Johnson can’t make up their minds about the common man. They accuse tech leaders of thinking that “most humans are not that wise and may not even understand what is good for them.” But they themselves think most people are easily manipulated by misinformation and propaganda. Many internet users are not “privacy conscious,” the authors declare, because “they do not understand how data will be utilized against them.” Acemoglu and Johnson think people need the protection of a modern “fairness doctrine” for social media (a scheme likely to include “the monitoring of the most heavily subscribed accounts”). An undercurrent of the book is that, deep down, the “voiceless” want whatever progressive intellectuals want them to want. Apparently, it’s good to manipulate the lower orders, but only if you do it the right way—the way that ensures they “have an informed view” by the lights of prominent academics.
In the authors’ telling, it is always those other people who are “infused by the prejudices of [their] time” and vulnerable to “bad but catchy ideas.” It is those other people who have a “false sense of confidence.” Yet it is this book that claims to speak for the masses (“people outside of the tech sector…feel frustrated”), and it is this book that proposes new ways to direct everyone else’s activities. The authors think they know how tech venture capital should be allocated, what artificial intelligence researchers should try to do, what YouTube’s business model should be, and how work at Ford’s manufacturing plants should be automated.
Acemoglu and Johnson want the government (aided by a throng of NGOs) to “redirect technology.” Although they are aware that history is littered with errant predictions about the path of technological development, they are uninterested in explaining why their predictions should be any better. Their logic amounts to something like “real industrial planning has never been tried.” What they want is not “traditional ‘industrial policy,'” they “hasten to point out,” but a program to identify “classes of technologies that have more socially beneficial consequences.”
As anyone familiar with the Haber-Bosch process—a leap forward for both fertilizer and explosives—can attest, knowledge does not arrive in “good” and “bad” buckets. The book praises Airbnb (homestay brokerage software) and denounces Kronos (real-time employee scheduling software). How could developers building “data-crunching and AI technologies” have gotten one off the ground but not the other? The book doesn’t say.
The authors never consider what their model of intensive government- and NGO-guided “redirection” might have done to the shale revolution, or what it might do to efforts to move industrial production into orbit. They never mention the earlier generation of allegedly enlightened planners who blocked the expansion of nuclear power. Innovation is a complex and emergent phenomenon. The world is full of surprises. Beware rulers who would “optimize” progress via directives handed down (to steal one of the book’s phrases) “from [their] comfortable chairs.”
Acemoglu and Johnson like the New Deal, the administrative state, robust labor unions, and the French approach to regulation. They dislike low taxes, Section 230, and shareholder primacy. They tend to dismiss opposing views in brusque strokes. Their treatment of modern antitrust law, another of their bêtes noires, is especially slapdash. They ridicule the consumer welfare standard for caring only about whether a dominant firm has increased prices. The standard also covers quality and innovation, of course, as they later acknowledge.
When discussing current antitrust disputes, the authors deal in caricature. Does Google offer the best search engine? Is Facebook actually a monopoly? They don’t really care: Just break ’em up. If you disagree, you’ve probably been groomed to do so by the Federalist Society.
The authors are constantly tripping on themselves. They admit France’s putatively pro-worker policies cause high unemployment. They concede that the Airline Deregulation Act was a success, and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation was a failure. They acknowledge that past technological advances did not produce mass joblessness, and that current advances in A.I. are not likely to do so either. When they sketch out their plan for a better social media platform, it’s clear that all the real work—building a popular forum where users “deliberat[e] constructively,” and moderators suppress “sensational” or “misleading” content (because we all agree on what that is, apparently)—remains to be done.
Back in 2012, Acemoglu worried that if America “were to switch to…cuddly capitalism, this would reduce the growth rate of the entire world economy.” (“We cannot all be like the Nordics!” he exclaimed.) Now he frets that even European countries are not doing enough to protect “blue-collar jobs and clerical occupations” from technological disruption. He was right the first time. Measured against the living standards of 50 years ago, today’s working-class Americans are rich.
Decentralized, unplanned, unsupervised innovation continues to improve life for everyone. Keep your hands off my word processor.