Why the future will be unfair

An economist argues that the US needs to start looking at inequality (as, indeed, do other developed economies) in a more dispassionate and analytical way.

Of all the many changes to American society since the 1960s, one of the most unexpected is also one of the most overlooked. Between 1969 and 2009 the median income for men in the US fell somewhere between 9 and 28 per cent, depending who you talk to. This is the departure point for Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average Is Over.

Having chronicled the US’s economic vulnerability in The Great Stagnation, Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia, says we have entered the age of “hypermeritocracy”, in which the top 10 to 15 per cent of Americans are “extremely wealthy” and lead “fantastically comfortable lives” and the rest work in “stupid and frustrating” jobs for falling or stagnant wages.

These trends are clearly evident in the US today. He writes that 60 per cent of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs, while 73 per cent of the jobs created were for workers on $13.52 (£8.36) an hour or less. In the longer term, intelligent computers will further dampen demand for mid-wage jobs and only those with the ability to work with intelligent machines, or whose skills are irreplaceable, will benefit.

Free online education – something that Cowen is already pioneering with his online economics courses at the Marginal Revolution University – will offer opportunities to those from deprived backgrounds to join the new elite, and so the future will be both “more meritocratic and more unfair”.

Cowen says that many will struggle to reconcile this tension between meritocracy and fairness. “This juxtaposition is a kind of deliberate confusion,” he says to me when we speak over the telephone. “The point is that this world will be confusing and it will be disorientating . . . The final picture is one with both utopian and dystopian elements.”

He says he doesn’t want to tell his readers what to think, but argues that the US needs to start looking at inequality (as, indeed, do other developed economies) in a more dispassionate and analytical way. “There are many books on inequality but quite quickly they tend to run on the left to preaching some message; and on the right, maybe a kind of denialism or moralising about people who aren’t doing as well,” he says. “I tried to avoid both directions to see if we can get our understanding a bit further.”

Cowen was New Jersey’s youngest-ever chess champion, aged 15 when he won in 1977, and he devotes a whole chapter to the intrigues and wider implications of freestyle chess, in which players are allowed to use computer programs to improve their game. In the future, the “wisest” of us will entrust computers to make decisions for us, not only on chess moves but for affairs of the heart, he believes.

For Cowen, algorithms can hold the key to a happy marriage. He met his wife through the online dating site match.com in 2003. She is a liberal but he describes himself as a “libertarian” and “conservative”, and admits that his wife might have been less keen on a first meeting if she had known his political leanings. The medium of online dating forced her to abandon her usual intuitions – to their mutual benefit.

“I have quite a few friends who are single and I find a lot of them have quite arbitrary standards,” he says. “Over time, programs are going to nudge us out of that. The people who are willing to be nudged will on average marry better and they will make a lot of better choices.” If average is over, so is romance.

Russian chess world champion Vladimir Kramnik plays his sixth and last chess match against chess computer 'Deep Fritz'. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear