Looking Backwards and Forwards at the Same Time

Janus and Bi-Directional Smarts

The Roman god Janus looks backwards and forwards at the same time and learning to be somewhat Janus-like is very conducive in the metaintelligence (i.e., larger overview) quest.

There’s a useful French phrase, “reculer pour mieux sauter” which means like a high jumper, you have to take steps backwards to jump higher. In other words, learn to look bi-directionally at the world.

First look back, then forward.

Here’s a concrete example:

W. Arthur Lewis, the “father” of development economics, originally from the Caribbean, taught at Princeton. He won the Nobel in 1979 and wrote various classics such as Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913 (1978).

Lewis writes:

In this book we shall not be attempting to give formal or complete explanations of why fluctuations occurred. Like the captain of a ship navigating in stormy seas, we shall need to identify the waves, without needing an exhaustive theory of what causes waves.

When analyzing these fluctuations economists have identified four different cycles, distinguished by length of periodicity, each of which is named after the economist who first wrote about it:

the Kitchin (about three years)
the Juglar (about nine years)
the Kuznets (about twenty years)
the Kondratiev (about fifty years)

(W. Arthur Lewis, Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913, 1978, page 19)

Lewis gives us a quick overview of how we got to the era covered by his book:

“The essence of the industrial and agricultural revolutions in the first three quarters of the nineteenth century was in new ways of doing old things—of making iron, textiles and clothes, of growing cereals, and of transporting goods and services. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the revolution added a new twist—that of making new commodities: telephones, gramophones, typewriters, cameras, automobiles and so on, a seemingly endless process whose twentieth century additions include aeroplanes, radios, refrigerators, washing machines and pleasure boats.”

(Growth and Fluctuations, 1870-1913, page 29)

Professor Norman Stone in his masterpiece on WWI calls this late nineteenth century explosion of material change and inventions the greatest fast quantum leap in world history in transforming the world.

If one reads these lines with a “Janus mind” we wonder, looking forward from the Lewis book and its era:

  1. How does his catchy metaphor of waves in the ocean relate to fluctuations and cycles? When Ben Bernanke (Fed Chair) describes recent decades as “The Great Moderation” does he mean to imply that Lewis-type waves disappeared or got much smaller?
  2. Can computers and mobile phones really match cars and planes in profundity of impact? Or is it only the tremendous spread of mobile or smartphones in the Global South that can?

In fact, the recent economic history classic, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth argues against the assumption of endless technical change as a growth accelerator or endless frontier:

In the century after the Civil War, an economic revolution improved the American standard of living in ways previously unimaginable. Electric lighting, indoor plumbing, home appliances, motor vehicles, air travel, air conditioning, and television transformed households and workplaces. With medical advances, life expectancy between 1870 and 1970 grew from 45 to 72 years. Weaving together a vivid narrative, historical anecdotes, and economic analysis, The Rise and Fall of American Growth provides an in-depth account of this momentous era. But has that era of unprecedented growth come to an end?

Gordon challenges the view that economic growth can or will continue unabated, and he demonstrates that the life-altering scale of innovations between 1870 and 1970 can’t be repeated. He contends that the nation’s productivity growth, which has already slowed to a crawl, will be further held back by the vexing headwinds of rising inequality, stagnating education, an aging population, and the rising debt of college students and the federal government. Gordon warns that the younger generation may be the first in American history that fails to exceed their parents’ standard of living, and that rather than depend on the great advances of the past, we must find new solutions to overcome the challenges facing us.

A critical voice in the debates over economic stagnation, The Rise and Fall of American Growth is at once a tribute to a century of radical change and a harbinger of tougher times to come.

  1. Why does one not read of the four cycles mentioned by Lewis (i.e., Kitchin) and the rest listed above in today’s business and financial press? Has there been some great discontinuity?

If you apply a “Janus mind” to the past (described by Lewis) and our sense of the future (described by techno-pessimists like Gordon) you get a more thoughtful sense of “the human prospect.”