Underrated Transformations- More Than Meets the Eye
By Amy Willis
This episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed back Tim Harford to discuss his book, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, based on a BBC podcast series he did by the same name. Their conversation (and Harford’s book) is a whirlwind tour of the mundane, and that’s exactly what makes it beautiful. According to Harford, his goal with each of his 50 picks was to “teach people a lesson about the way the world economy works through the medium” of each invention. Their chat is full of economic “mysteries,” such as, “Why is Manhattan one the greenest cities in America?” And “Why is it better for the environment to ship juice boxes rather than oranges?”
1. Both Roberts and Harford muse that we don’t even know that names of many of the people who originated these transformative inventions. In thinking about invention and innovation, why do you think we have a tendency to think in terms of the spectacular?2. What does Harford mean when he says we should think of the elevator* as a mass transportation system? (You may want to revisit this episode on skyscrapers with Jason Barr, a favorite of both Russ and mine.)
3. To what extent do we owe our iPhones to the government? What sorts of policy implications does this suggest? What sort of policy suggestions would you offer in response?
4. What gets your vote for the most transformative yet underappreciated invention? Do you have any quibbles with Harford’s selections? (For example, what about the TV dinner versus the washing machine?)
* Bonus Question: Harford suggests (channeling Bessen) that the elevator operator is the only job ever to be totally replaced by technology. To what extent do you think this is true? Any other/counter examples?