Book Review: Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014)

This book from two MIT professors is part big-picture history, and art techno-optimism. McAfee is also the author of the excellent 2020 book More from Less, which is better-argued from a public policy perspective.

The opening chapter sets the historical stage. Living standards were poor and stagnant for nearly all of human history, from our birth as a species until about 1750 or so. If you put human well-being on a graph, it runs almost perfectly flat for thousands and thousands of years. Then it spikes sharply upwards starting around 1750-1800, like a hockey stick on its side. This giant wealth explosion is still happening today, and the authors believe it will continue for some time to come. This is one of the biggest changes in human history.

What caused it? Brynjolfsson and McAfee think it was technology. More specifically, it was the steam engine. Even more specifically, it was James Watt’s iteration of the steam engine. Steam power existed as early as ancient Rome, but it was mostly used for amusement purposes, and not industry. That changed in Watt’s lifetime. This was the start of Bynjolfsson and McAfee’s First Machine Age.

The Second Machine Age is the computer revolution. The First Machine Age revolutionized physical power. The Second Machine Age is revolutionizing mental power. Just as Watt’s steam engine took time to influence manufacturing, technological development, government, and culture, so too is the Second Machine Age. It is far enough along where they argue its fundamental difference from the First Machine Age is clear. But it is also early enough where its impact is only beginning to be felt. The future has almost limitless potential—and some tradeoffs.

The larger arc they draw is the right shape, though I don’t know that their need for two separate Machine Ages is much more than a useful gimmick for talking about technology. I would also submit that the true cause of both revolutions goes a level deeper than just technology. Yes, steam engines and computers are necessary for the two machine ages. Necessary, but not sufficient.

They need another ingredient in the mix: culture. Larger cultural values are difficult to quantify, which is why economists and many other social scientists do not use them. They are still significant, even if they are immune to regression analysis and other quantification. Statistically significant? No. Real-world significant? Very.

Culture shifted in the centuries leading up to Watt’s generation. People were gradually becoming a little more open to change, progress, and improvement. It showed in literature, trade patterns, philosophy, and a new prestige for science and its discoverers. That is why a technology that was already around now began to be used more differently—people allowed it, approved of it, and were willing to countenance large fortunes being made from it.

After setting up their two-machine-ages framework, Brynjolfsson and McAfee go on a tour of new and emerging technologies to see where the Second Machine Age might take us. They take a ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars, among other highlights, and draw encouraging pictures of some of the things new technologies could do for people over the next few decades.

One area where they fall short is their discussion of inequality. They are so focused on the mathematical ratio of the differences between rich and poor peoples’ incomes, that they forget to ask how people at the bottom are actually doing. They also focus almost solely on wage income, which is a significant mistake. This leaves out non-wage income such as employer-sponsored insurance, tuition assistance, free meals, company cars, and other perks that do not show up in income data.

More to the point for a book about technology, Brynjolfsson and McAfee should have asked a question similar to one Don Boudreaux likes to ask: would you rather have 1970-quality medical care at 1970 prices, or today’s health care at today’s prices?

Very few people would rather have 1970’s health care, even at its lower price. That means people view themselves as better off with today’s options. Most people would similarly answer related questions about televisions, computers, cars, appliances, and many other products that both rich and poor people consume.

In fact, society today has substantial consumption equality. Most low-income households have cars that drive at the same speeds on the same roads as wealthy people. They watch the same television shows and have similar Internet connections. More tellingly, rich people are not substantially taller or longer-lived than poor people. In the olden days, one could tell nobles and peasants apart at a glance by their height. Children of nobility got enough to eat, while peasant children were often so malnourished that their growth stunted. There were also substantial differences in infant mortality and life expectancy.

While the very wealthy have orders of magnitude more wealth than ordinary people do, they don’t consume very much of it. Nor do they keep it in a Scrooge McDuck-like vault. They invest it, in an unexpected type of income redistribution. When it’s invested, borrowers use that money to buy homes, go to college, and start businesses. The wealth doesn’t just sit there, people make use of it. It is a subjective question how much of this type of wealth is the “right” amount. But this positive use of wealth is something inequality scholars need to account for, and rarely do. In fact, invested wealth is where most of the capital that funds the amazing technologies Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in this book comes from.

They make another lapse in quoting a professional trade association for civil engineers in calling for more infrastructure spending. Of course civil engineers want more infrastructure spending, they have a vested interest in it! This is basic public choice theory. While they briefly acknowledge this conflict of interest, they also do not acknowledge the seriousness of the point, or look at data from less self-interested sources.

Their promotion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is similarly idealistic. This model, essentially a straight cash grant, is an objectively better system of poverty relief than the current welfare state. A UBI is easier to administer and more flexible for the recipients. A UBI also makes it more difficult for nanny statists to tell the poor what they shall eat, what things they may and may not buy, what types of health care they may receive, or where they shall educate their kids.

The trouble is politics. Again, a little public choice theory would go a long way in this discussion. Replacing the current welfare state with a UBI would be a fantastic tradeoff, both for the poor and for taxpayers. But the way politics works in practice, this would not happen. A UBI would be negotiated in a Congress led by people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or whoever succeeds them in a few years. Real-world politicians are unlikely to enact a well-functioning UBI, nor will their constituents let them. Public sector unions whose members administer the current system will block any reform they possibly can.

Tis means any politically-possible UBI would be added on top of the current system, preserving the current system’s flaws and minimizing a UBI’s advantages. Unless this problem is addressed, a UBI risks causing more harm than benefit.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are consistently a little too idealistic. Some of the technologies they explore in this 2014 book turned out to be flops, and others are still materializing. Similarly, they assume that their political reforms will actually work as they intend them to.

They are certainly right about the larger arc of progress and prosperity. And though I take their technological hyper-optimism with a grain of salt, it is also inspiring. Books like this one and by other thinkers such as Kevin Kelly give me confidence that my daughter’s life will be richer, longer, healthier, and frankly, cooler than mine. This is a source of happiness for me, and gives me inspiration to continue my work on improving economic policy and defending liberalism against populists who would tear it down for no good reason.

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