No Country for Creative Destruction

Imagine a country whose inhabitants reject every unpleasant byproduct of innovation and competition.

This country would be Frédéric Bastiat’s worst nightmare: in order to avoid the slightest maladies expected to emerge from creative destruction, all their advantages would remain unseen forever.

Nevertheless, that impossibility to acknowledge the unintended favourable consequences of competition is not conditioned by any type of censure, but by a sort of self-imposed moral blindness: the metaphysical belief that “being” is good and “becoming” is bad. A whole people inspired by W. B. Yeats, they want to be gathered into the artifice of eternity.

In this imaginary country, which would deserve a place in “The Universal History of Infamy” by J.L. Borges, people cultivate a curious strain of meritocracy, an Orwellian one: they praise stagnation for its stability and derogate growth because of the stubborn and incorruptible conviction that life in society is a zero-sum game.

Since growth is an unintended consequence of creative destruction, they reason additionally, then there must be no moral merit to be recognised in such dumb luck. On the other hand, stagnation is the unequivocal signal of the good deeds to the unlucky, who otherwise could suffer the obvious lost coming from every innovation.

In this fantastic country, Friedrich Nietzsche and his successors are well read: everybody knows that, in the Eternal Return, the whole chance is played at each throw of the dice. So, they conclude, “if John Rawls asked us to choose between growth or stagnation, we would shout at him: Stagnation!!!”

But the majority of the inhabitants of “Stagnantland” are not the only to blame for their devotion to quietness. The few and exceptional proponents of creative destruction who live in Stagnantland are mostly keen on the second term of the concept. That is why some love to say, from time to time, “we all are stagnationist” – the few contrarians are just Kalki’s devotees.

These imaginary people love to spend their vacations abroad, particularly in a legendary island named “Revolution”. Paradoxically, in Revolution Island the Revolutionary government found a way to avoid any kind of counter-revolutionary innovation. It is not necessary to mention that Revolution Island is, by far, Stagnantlanders’ favourite holiday destination.

They show their photos from their last vacation in Revolution Island and proudly stress: “Look: they left the buildings as they were back in 1950!!! Awesome!!!” If you dare to point out that the picture resembles a city in war, that the 1950 buildings lack of any maintenance or refurbishment, they will not get irritated. They will simply smile at you and reply smugly: “but they are happy!”

Actually, for Stagnantlanders, as for many others, ignorance is bliss, but their governments do not need to resort to such rudimentary devices as censure and spying to prevent people from being informed about the innovations and discoveries occurring in other countries, as Revolutionary Island rulers sadly do. Stagnantlanders simply reject any innovation as an article of faith!

Notwithstanding, they allow to themselves some guilty pleasures: they love to use smartphones brought by ant-smuggling and to watch contemporary foreign films which, despite being realistic, show a dystopian future to them.

As everything is deteriorated, progress is always a going back to an ancient and glorious time. In Stagnantland, things are not created, but restored. As with Parmenides, they do not believe in movement, but if there has to be an arrow of time, you had better point it to the past.

Moreover, Stagnantland is an imaginary country because it does not only lack of duration, but of territory as well. As the matter of fact, no man inhabits Stagnantland, but it is indeed stagnation that inhabits the hearts of Stagnantlanders. That is how, from dusk to dawn, any territory could be fully conquered by the said sympathy for the stagnation.

Nevertheless, if we scrutinise the question with due diligence, we will discover that the stagnation is not an ineluctable future, but our common past. Human beings appeared very much earlier than civilisation. So, all those generations must have been doing something before agriculture, commerce, and institutions.

Before the concept of creative destruction had been formulated by Joseph Schumpeter, it was needed a former conception about how people are conditioned by institutions: Bernard Mandeville pointed out how private vices might turn into public benefits, if politicians arranged the correct set of incentives. The main issue, thus, should be the process of discovery of such institutions.

That is why the said aversion to competition and innovation is hardly a problem of a misguided sense of justice, but mostly a matter of what we could coin as “bounded imagination”: the difficultly of reason to deal with complex phenomena. Don’t you think so, Horatio?

From the Comments: Is US Economic Stagnation A Myth?

The short answer is “yes.”

In the ‘comments’ section of Dr Delacroix’s recent article on the myth of American economic stagnation, Dr Amburgey, who works at the University of Toronto’s business school, dropped three arguments at my feet. I gave him three responses and he chose to address Issue #2 first. I will await his responses to Issues #1 and #3 respectively, but I want to make sure that we are all on the same page before we get to Issues #1 and #3.

At the heart of this discussion lies Dr Delacroix’s observation:

So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:

A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.

B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)

With this in mind I think it is important to point out that because what we are discussing brings out a lot of passion, it is easy for people to look at some numbers and believe them just on principle. For example, Dr Amburgey writes:

The numbers I use come from [here]. Median household income for 1975-2012 in constant (2012) dollars. There is a picture on the wikipedia entry I gave above [found here – bc] that charts GDP per capita and median household income. Go look at it. It’s pretty much flat for median household income. In other words pretty stagnant. Numbers wise in 1975 its $45788. In 2012 it’s $51017 (less than it was in 1989 by the way). Plug the numbers into my handy dandy econometrics software and regress median household income on year and the average annual change is $232.32 per year.

I suppose ‘stagnant’ is in the eye of the beholder but I’d say that’s 38 years of economic stagnation for the American economy as a whole.

Can you see why Dr Amburgey’s statement above is untrue? I can spot two big errors in his logic (feel free to correct me or add your own in the ‘comments’ section):

  1. Median household income has, on paper, indeed stagnated. Yet this says nothing about economic decline or stagnation in the US because median household income cannot tell us what such income has been able to buy in the past 40 years. That is to say, the measurement used by Dr Amburgey, and the ensuing numbers they produced, tells us nothing about the purchasing power of the American consumer.
  2. This second error is huge in my mind. Dr Amburgey and others are plainly stating that the American economy has been economically stagnate for 40 years. This is a good example of looking superficially at some numbers and then kowtowing to proper social norms. After all, Dr Amburgey’s handy-dandy econometrics software was around in 1973, right?

None of what I am arguing denies that the US economy sucks today. I am not blaming this on the Obama administration (though it has certainly kicked us while down). Nor am I denying that there are real structural issues that need to be addressed. What I am arguing, and what I think Dr Delacroix is arguing, is that the numbers and the issues used by Leftist factions to push their beliefs through the political process are based on faulty assumptions and even faultier logic.

I am still waiting for Issues #1 and #3 to be addressed. Dr Amburgey actually has access as an author on this blog, so maybe Christmas will come early for me this year and I’ll be able to read one of his posts here at NOL.