I really enjoyed Ryan Avent’s piece on the case for and against pessmism about technological innovation, but I wanted to take issue with one part of the argument that he embraces, namely that we should attribute recent stagnation in living standards to a past lack of technical innovation. This is obviously a larger subject but I think there’s kind of a joint myth here where a lot of people (mostly on the left) exaggerate the scale of stagnation in living standards while a lot of other people (mostly on the right) exaggerate the impact of technological advance in order to distract attention from politics.
The narrower issue has to do with kitchens. Here’s Avent’s summary of a common argument about kitchen progress:
The third argument is the simplest: the evidence of your senses. The recent rate of progress seems slow compared with that of the early and mid-20th century. Take kitchens. In 1900 kitchens in even the poshest of households were primitive things. Perishables were kept cool in ice boxes, fed by blocks of ice delivered on horse-drawn wagons. Most households lacked electric lighting and running water. Fast forward to 1970 and middle-class kitchens in America and Europe feature gas and electric hobs and ovens, fridges, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers. Move forward another 40 years, though, and things scarcely change. The gizmos are more numerous and digital displays ubiquitous, but cooking is done much as it was by grandma.
I think people making this argument ought to watch a few episodes of Iron Chef America. They’ll see cooks working with immersion circulators, commercial grade vacuum sealers, blow torches, French tops, pressure cookers, convection ovens, and blast chillers. Most people don’t cook with that stuff. A huge share of Americans has an old-fashioned electric stove rather than an induction stove that heats much more rapidly and efficiently. Even things like high-quality enameled cast iron and multi-clad metal cookware aren’t that common. In all those cases it’s not because the technology doesn’t exist but because that stuff is expensive. If we’d had a more equitable distribution of income over the past 35 years, more people would own the most advanced kitchenware.
You could go to Namibia and write that from 1900 to 1970, Namibia went from being a country where nobody had a car to being a country where some people had cars but in the past 40 years it’s been stuck as a country where most people don’t have cars. That’s completely true, but everyone knows it’s a case of lack of money holding back car-acquisition rather than technological stagnation. Even the richest Gilded Age American couldn’t get a pair of contact lenses or an effective treatment for his kid’s ear infection. That’s a technological issue. Middle class kitchens have stagnated because people don’t own the best stuff, not because nothing better exists. What’s more if the income was out there to buy more and better kitchen stuff, then clever people would have more incentive to invent better mass market kitchen products rather than new financial products. Business jet technology has improved a lot over the past forty years.