Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Al Gore and the age of hyper-change

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 27, 2013 21:04 UTC

This book review was originally published in The Washington Post.

Sprawling, earnest and ambitious — its modest title is “The Future”—Al Gore’s new book embodies both the virtues and the flaws of its author. But those hardy souls who slog past the weaknesses will be rewarded by a book that is brave, original and often fun. Inevitably, there’s a lot here about the two signature Gore preoccupations — climate change and technological innovation — but what really makes “The Future” worth reading is two newer ideas.

The first is the premise. Gore believes we are living in a “new period of hyper-change.” The speed at which our world is changing, he argues, is unprecedented, and that transformation is the central reality of our lives. The technology revolution, Gore writes, “is now carrying us with it at a speed beyond our imagining toward ever newer technologically shaped realities that often appear, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘indistinguishable from magic.’ ”

This is not a truth universally acknowledged — some economists, such as Tyler Cowen, argue that innovation has stalled and that our low-growth economies are the result — and that is part of what makes “The Future” interesting.

Characteristically, Gore doesn’t play down his conviction that this time, things really are different. He thinks that the world is experiencing “exponential change,” that the transformation is different not just in degree but in kind from previous periods of tumult and — in one of the leaps across millennia in a single paragraph that are a leitmotif of this book — that our Ice Age brains are struggling to cope with a world governed by the kind of exponential increases suggested by Moore’s Law.

Gore’s thesis of hyper-change is the justification for the vast, messy range of this book. It is risky to write about all of human and geological history, about the whole world, about all the important frontiers in science, about business and politics and society and nature. But Gore makes no excuses for this widest of lenses. On the contrary, his thinking demands it. If humanity is changing more profoundly and faster than ever before, you have to try to connect as many dots as your Stone Age neocortex can bear — and if the result isn’t the neatest of narrative arcs, that hardly seems to matter.

Technology, the economy and pool cleaning

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 21, 2013 22:28 UTC

One way to divide people is into foxes and hedgehogs. Another is into those who think this time is different and those who believe there is never anything new under the sun.

The latter split can be a matter of temperament, of politics or even of religion. But today it is relevant for another, more urgent reason: It describes how people think about the most critical economic problem in the industrialized world today — the dearth of well- paying middle-class jobs.

The this-time-is-different school attributes a lot of what is happening to the technology revolution. That makes them an intellectually eclectic bunch. On one hand, they include wide-eyed enthusiasts who believe in human progress and in the transformational power of technology. But they also include grim hand-wringers who fear the unprecedented changes may bring unprecedented woes.

China, technology and the U.S. middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 15, 2013 16:27 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. Jason Reed/REUTERS

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech this week confirmed it: The pre-eminent political and economic challenge in the industrialized democracies is how to make capitalism work for the middle class.

There is nothing mysterious about that. The most important fact about the United States in this century is that middle-class incomes are stagnating. The financial crisis has revealed an equally stark structural problem in much of Europe.

Even in a relatively prosperous age — for all of today’s woes, we have left behind the dark, satanic mills and workhouses of the 19th century — this decline of the middle class is more than an economic issue. It is also a political one. The main point of democracy is to deliver positive results for the majority.

Putting the magnifying glass on the one percent

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 8, 2013 19:15 UTC

Academics can be dismissive of the concerns of the popular media. But when it comes to the growth of the super-rich, the tabloids may have gotten it right.

The numbers tell the story. According to a study by John Van Reenen of the London School of Economics and Brian Bell of Oxford University, the share of national income earned by the top 1 percent in the United States surged to 18.3 percent in 2007, from 8 percent in 1979. In Britain, the trend was almost identical: The top 1 percent received 15.4 percent of the national income in 2007 compared with 5.9 percent in 1979. And these figures exclude capital gains.

“A lot of the action has been at the very top end of the distribution, the top 1 percent or the top 0.1 percent,” Van Reenen, director of the Center for Economic Performance at the LSE, told me. “It shows you that the media’s focus on the very rich and on bankers’ bonuses wasn’t misplaced.”

The key to the meaning of Keystone XL

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 1, 2013 18:03 UTC

Is oil like red meat or is it like tobacco? Your answer to that question determines how you feel about the North American boom in unconventional sources of fossil fuel, particularly the Canadian oil sands.

If you think oil is like tobacco, it is a strictly noxious commodity, which seriously harms its users and those around them. We should stop consuming it at once and at all costs. But if you think oil is like red meat, you take a more nuanced view. For the health of the planet, we should find greener alternatives to it whenever we can, but used wisely and in moderation it has an honorable role in the 21st-century economy.

This morality play is being acted out with the greatest intensity in the fight over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Davos prescriptions for the U.S. economy

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 25, 2013 16:30 UTC

DAVOS, Switzerland – Get ready for a new elite consensus on the U.S. budget deficit. One of the functions of the World Economic Forum – decide for yourself whether this is a virtue or a vice – is to give the plutocrats a venue for figuring out their party line. Think of it as crowdsourcing for the 0.1 percent.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom among this crew has been that the deficit and the debt were the United States’ chief economic problems. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Martin Sorrell, the head of the global communications giant WPP, referred to the deficit as the country’s most important economic issue at a breakfast discussion he moderated at the forum this week. The conversation was off the record, but when I asked Sorrell if I could quote his comment, he happily doubled down: Not only was the deficit the United States’ most important economic woe, it was the most important economic issue in the entire world.

“This is the world’s gray swan,” Sorrell told me, in a play on the idea of unpredictable, powerful “black swan” events, popularized by the financial scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Interview with Christine Lagarde at the IMF

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 18, 2013 16:27 UTC

Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde sat down for an interview with Chrystia Freeland yesterday, January 17th, following the IMF’s New Year Press Briefing.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND:

Thank you for joining me, Madame Lagarde.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE:

My pleasure.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND:

One of your themes as we enter 2013 is that financial reform must continue.  And you have just said that you’re concerned, you see a waning commitment to financial reform.  What do you see going on?

CHRISTINE LAGARDE:

I see a lot of pressure coming out of the industry.  Which is clearly part of their job.  They will naturally lobby to support more flexible, more accommodating regulations.  I think, you know, the financial sector is so particular and so special because of the confidence factor associated with it and the role played by the authorities sometimes in order to support that sector, that it warrants stronger regulations.

Finding economists’ common ground

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 11, 2013 15:41 UTC

This is a tough time for experts. Empowered by the Internet and embittered by the sour economy, many people doubt the wisdom of expert elites. Journalism sometimes casts further doubt by seeking polarized positions that can draw an attention-grabbing debate, or by taking refuge in he-said-she-said accounts to avoid the harder job of figuring out who’s right.

Now one tribe of specialists – economists – is striking back. Concerned that the great unwashed have come to see all economic proposals as being equally valid, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has led an effort to figure out what economists agree on, where they diverge and how certain they are about their views.

To do that, the Booth school called on reputable economists to join its panel of experts. Each week, the panelists are asked whether they agree or disagree with a particular economic idea.

Politics makes a comeback

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 13, 2012 20:43 UTC

Prepare for the revenge of politics. For the past few decades, the quants – mathematicians, physicists and technologists – and their younger brothers, the economists, have been in the ascendant. With their mathematical models and their ability to crunch vast quantities of data, they have shaped the way businesses understand the world and operate within it.

But politics is making a comeback. That was one of the persistent themes at an invitation-only high-powered international conference about systemic risk in the financial services convened by the Global Risk Institute in Toronto this week (I was the rapporteur). As one of the bankers put it, if you want to understand the world economic outlook for 2013, and where your company should invest, you can’t just talk to economists anymore: “You need to talk to political scientists.”

I tested that idea with two thinkers – one an economist, the other a political scientist – who make their living helping businesses understand the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ian Bremmer, the political scientist and founder of the Eurasia Group, instantly agreed.

Falling birthrates: the threat and the dilemma

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 7, 2012 16:28 UTC

Which is the more powerful agent of social change: fear or sympathy? Women in rich and middle-income countries may soon find themselves enrolled in a real-life experiment testing this proposition. That is because birthrates are dropping in much of the world. Demographics may soon rocket to the top of the political agenda, demanding an entirely new way of thinking about women and motherhood and the economy.

One reason for the shift was, as it were, born in the USA. That is because, for a long time, the United States has watched declining birthrates in places like Western Europe, Russia and even China with an air of superiority. The United States, lusty and fertile, was bucking the demographic trends.

Then, last week, new data showed that in 2011 the U.S. birthrate fell to the lowest level ever recorded: 63.2 babies per 1,000 women of childbearing age.

  •