Ben Bernanke has delivered his commencement speech for this year’s graduates of Simon’s Rock, a quirky graduate school in Massachusetts.
The whole thing is here. It might be the only commencement speech all year to contain footnotes.
The speech is about economics, but rather than discuss the short or medium term, he talks about the very long run, and whether things are likely to change a lot over the next 50 years, and what role technology or innovation will play.
And in doing that, he looks back at some of the amazing changes from the past centuries and decades.
A few of the facts that Bernanke cites:
- Between 1700 and 1970, he notes, worker productivity has jumped approximately 30x.
- Just in the last 50 years, life expectancy has jumped by 8 years, from 70, to 78.
- In 1913, life expectancy was a mere 53 years.
- In 1913, 60 hour work weeks at exhausting manufacturing jobs were the norm.
So then Bernanke asks whether the long-run will see massive changes in technology and life improvement like we’ve seen since 1913 and 1963.
Bernanke answers unequivocally yes, based on the fact that the world is seeing more and more innovators and geniuses working together in a way like never before:
Finally, pessimists may be paying too little attention to the strength of the underlying economic and social forces that generate innovation in the modern world. Invention was once the province of the isolated scientist or tinkerer. The transmission of new ideas and the adaptation of the best new insights to commercial uses were slow and erratic. But all of that is changing radically. We live on a planet that is becoming richer and more populous, and in which not only the most advanced economies but also large emerging market nations like China and India increasingly see their economic futures as tied to technological innovation. In that context, the number of trained scientists and engineers is increasing rapidly, as are the resources for research being provided by universities, governments, and the private sector. Moreover, because of the Internet and other advances in communications, collaboration and the exchange of ideas take place at high speed and with little regard for geographic distance. For example, research papers are now disseminated and critiqued almost instantaneously rather than after publication in a journal several years after they are written. And, importantly, as trade and globalization increase the size of the potential market for new products, the possible economic rewards for being first with an innovative product or process are growing rapidly.6 In short, both humanity’s capacity to innovate and the incentives to innovate are greater today than at any other time in history.
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