Book Review: Slouching Towards Utopia

The origins of economic progress, and what comes next

Every once in a while it’s good to zoom out.

This newsletter is normally about how technology businesses are evolving, and can succeed or fail through strategy. I extract lessons from the events of the past few years (occasionally longer) so we can better understand what might happen next. But what if we’re living through a bigger shift that requires a longer lens to see? What if our economic future does not fit a simple extrapolation of the recent past? What if the tectonic plates of civilization are moving beneath us in a way that you need to go back centuries to understand?

If you want highly credible answers to these massive questions, I recommend Slouching Towards Utopia—a new book that came out to critical acclaim this week by economist Brad DeLong. It does what all the best nonfiction books do: change the way you understand the world around you.

For me, the most important thing the book did was help me understand a feeling I’ve had since around 2010—this turns out to be an important year for DeLong—that human progress is faltering. In this time, stock valuations went wild, but real GDP growth stagnated. One big social revolt after another has unfolded, in every part of the globe, with no signs of stopping. Depopulation is coming for many of the world’s largest economies. Climate change is no longer theoretical. It’s to the point where Timothée Chalamet is promoting his movies by saying stuff like “societal collapse is in the air.”

But, at the same time, we’re still seeing pretty incredible advances in many areas of technology, and economic progress continues its march forward.

What is happening?

A Grand Narrative of Progress

A few years ago Tim Urban (aka Wait But Why) posted this graphic in an article about AI, and asked “what would it feel like to stand here?”

Of course, he reminds us that nobody can see the future, so it would feel like this:

In that article, Urban predicted that AI would unlock a rapid increase in human progress—which is why the scale of the Y-axis is so huge and makes all past progress look squashed. But since we don’t know what’s next and certainly can’t “feel” it yet, the graph should probably look more like this edited version I just made:

Slouching Towards Utopia explains why the rate of progress shot dramatically upward 152 years ago (an oddly specific number, I know, but DeLong claims human history changed dramatically around the year 1870), and then began to slow down and enter uncertain territory around 2010. He calls this span of time from 1870 to 2010 “the long twentieth century.” Some parts of this story were already familiar to me, other parts radically—yet convincingly—challenged my worldview.

DeLong’s grand narrative of human progress goes something like this:

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