Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, And Change, by Edmund Phelps
Whenever one reads about innovation and creativity, and there are a lot of books about the subject, you have to know what the agenda of the person writing the book is. There is always an agenda. Almost always, that agenda is distinctly hostile to traditional morality, and that is generally the case here, although the author does concede at least some limited role for traditional values that increase trustworthiness as being important for the general well-being of others. Once one is aware that this book is a neo-Austrian economic book from someone who (somehow) won a Nobel Prize, then one can account for its own particular bias and the way that it views innovation and creativity as being connected to the decline of corporatist ideals within society as a whole. If you ever wanted to read someone give a positive account of the “dark Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution, this book will certainly strike your interest. The author’s point, though, is somewhat harmed by the way that his thesis about “grassroots innovation” is beneath the level of knowledge about the historical record, though, which does make his argument a bit tautological at some points.
This roughly 300 page book is divided into three parts and twelve chapters bookended by an introduction and epilogue that proclaim the advent of modern economies and discuss how they can be regained, respectively. The first part of the book contains four chapters on the experience of the modern economy (I), in how they became dynamic (1), what their material effects was on the wages and lifestyle of the people of the time (2), the experience of modern life (3), and how modern economies formed (4). The second part of the book then discusses the 20th century hostility to the modern economy (II) in the form of socialism (5), the third way of left or right-wing corporatism (6), an attempt by the author to weigh the rivals on their terms (7), and the satisfaction of nations (8). After that the third part of the book contains four chapters on the decay and the author’s desire to refound the modern economy (III), with discussions of the post-1960’s decline in innovation (9), understanding this decline (10), the contrast between the views of the good life between today’s people and that of ancient philosophy (11), and the relationship between the good and the just (12). After that the book has a timeline of modernism and modernity as well as a bibliography, acknowledgments, and index.
My own thoughts and feelings about this particular book are deeply mixed. The author has an obvious agenda and an obvious ax to grind against socialism and corporatism that severely slants his arguments. At times the author’s hostility towards traditional morality blinds him to the way in which virtuous behavior undergirds the trust that people have in an economic system to deliver them, at least eventually, the rise of a good standard of living that such systems promise. Moreover, the author simply does not have a granular enough understanding of what it is that lifted the economies of Western Europe and North America during the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries to be able to profitably advise nations on what they need to do to get their lost mojo back. While it is obvious that economies are becoming less robust and less generous to those who are not well off, what needs to be done about it is less obvious. And if the author is quick to give some recommendations about how ripping up the social net and setting businesses free from burdensome regulations will cause a rebirth in innovativeness around the world, it is not obvious that contemporary business leaders are willing to give up the lure of crony capitalism to accept the possibility of their own failure.