Who are the drivers of prosperity? Economists would say it’s them. At least the ones who work for the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury and numerous think tanks and lobbying firms in Washington DC would say that. They capture economics in mathematical models, with variables like money supply, government spending, workforce participation, and mysterious forces like technological advance. By tweaking their variables, they believe they can forecast outputs such as GDP and employment levels. The economy is a mathematical machine and they are the geniuses in charge.
Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Cook would say it’s them. They run the tech companies that dominate global commerce, employ people, provide retail platforms for minion companies that sell apps and gadgets and groceries. Without them, there’d be no economy and no prosperity.
Larry Fink at BlackRock, Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase, David Solomon at Goldman Sachs, Warren Buffet at Berkshire Hathaway, and the other titans of finance would say it’s them. They are the financial capitalists who supply the juice to keep the economic lights burning.
Edmund Phelps was awarded the economics Nobel Prize for revealing that it’s none of these. It’s you and me. You can read his theorizing in Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, And Change.
Prosperity on a national scale—mass flourishing—comes from broad involvement of people in the processes of innovation: the conception, development, and spread of new methods and products—indigenous innovation down to the grassroots. This dynamism may be narrowed or weakened by institutions arising from imperfect understanding or competing objectives. But institutions alone cannot create it. Broad dynamism must be fueled by the right values and not too diluted by other values.
Note the term “broad involvement”. Phelps means everyone in the nation: he describes a culture of innovation.
the stuff of flourishing—the change, challenge, and lifelong quest for originality, discovery, and making a difference.
Modern economies display what he calls dynamism: the appetite and capacity of “indigenous innovation”, and “original ideas born of creativity and grounded on the uniqueness of each person’s private knowledge, information and imagination”. Phelps is not an Austrian economist – he can’t afford to be, since he chooses to make his name and his living inside the academic fortress of Keynesianism, not assaulting it from the outside. But he certainly sounds like one in his invocation of subjectivity in identifying these personal, individual, and psychological drivers of prosperity.
There are great benefits for the individuals who populate and participate in a dynamic modern economy:
the mental stimulus, the problems to solve, the arrival of a new insight, and the rest. I have sought to convey an impression of the rich experience of working and living in such an economy. As I considered this vast canvas, I was excited to realize that no one had ever depicted what a modern economy felt like.
“What a modern economy felt like”! Isn’t that the ultimate in subjectivism in economics? He goes further into subjectivism by identifying attitudes and beliefs as the drivers of economic results.
attitudes and beliefs were the wellspring of the dynamism of the modern economies. It is mainly a culture protecting and inspiring individuality, imagination, understanding, and self-expression that drives a nation’s indigenous innovation.. (with) a new set of values – modern values like expressing creativity for its own sake, and personal growth for one’s own sake.
As measures of prosperity, Phelps focuses largely on survey data: people answering questions about how they feel. Among the most important of these, in Phelps’s mind, are job satisfaction scores and life satisfaction scores. He conducts a comparative analysis across (mostly Western) countries that leads him to conclude that people derive more life satisfaction from activities as producers than activities as consumers. This finding stands in opposition to many of the critics of capitalism, who deride the system for making conspicuous consumers of us all, focused on what we buy rather than what we make.
As producers, it is our individual knowledge that gives us power:
it would appear that only increasing economic knowledge—knowledge of how to produce and knowledge about what to produce—could have enabled the steep climb in national productivity and real wages in the take-off countries.
With time, the modernist emphasis on increasing knowledge—and the presumption that there is always more knowledge to come—triumphed over traditional emphases on capital, scale, commerce, and trade. But where did that knowledge come from? Whose “ingenuity” was it?
The ingenuity is yours and mine.
In a follow-up work called Dynamism: The Values That Drive Innovation, Job Satisfaction And Economic Growth, Phelps gives us more specificity about the “modern values” people in dynamic, innovative economies hold:
- More satisfaction from non-material rewards than from material rewards;
- An outsize desire for achieving something through one’s own efforts (and being recognized for it);
- Huge satisfaction in succeeding and prospering;
- Delight in the sense of flourishing that comes from life’s journey and the thrill of voyaging into the unknown;
- Satisfaction from making a difference, making a mark.
Underlying these satisfactions are the values of individualism, vitalism, and self-expression. Modernist satisfactions are inherently individualistic: one’s own and one’s closest family. Vitalism looks to challenges and opportunities that contribute to the feeling of being alive. Self-expression is the imagination and creation of new things and new ways that enable an individual to reveal who they are. Mass flourishing occurs in a dynamic economy where these humanist values fuel the necessary desires and attitudes for innovation and growth.
Phelps fears (and presents data to support those fears) that these values are being eroded in today’s America. Opposing values are gaining ground. There is considerable dissatisfaction among many participants in the modern economy. There appears to be a falloff in the non-material rewards of work. Household surveys show losses in reported job satisfaction and life satisfaction. There is a loss in the sense of agency, of the experience of succeeding at something and the sense of voyaging into the unknown. Some sociologists point to a rising narcissism among young people that makes them self-indulgent. They place more value on trying to be someone than on trying to do something.
We may be losing the dynamism of indigenous innovation that leads to mass flourishing. Check your attitude.