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Free Solo and Economic Growth

Summary:
We recently watched "Free Solo", the great movie about Alex Honnold's free (no aids, no ropes) solo climb of El Capitan. Among many other things, it got me thinking about economic growth.The abilities of modern day rock climbers are far beyond those of just a generation ago. The Wikipedia history of El Capitan starts with a ...

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We recently watched "Free Solo", the great movie about Alex Honnold's free (no aids, no ropes) solo climb of El Capitan. Among many other things, it got me thinking about economic growth.

The abilities of modern day rock climbers are far beyond those of just a generation ago. The Wikipedia history of El Capitan starts with a 47 day climb in 1958, using pitons, ropes, and all sorts of equipment, and continues through development of routes and techniques to Alex's three hour romp up the face. 

Why wasn't it done long before? There is essentially no technology involved. Ok, a bit. Alex is wearing modern climbing boots, which have very sticky rubber. But that's it. And reasonably sticky rubber has been around for a few hundred years. There is nothing technological that stopped human beings from climbing much like this thousands of years ago. Alex, transported to 1890, might not have free soloed El Capitan without his current boots, but he would have climbed a lot more big walls than anyone else.

Clearly, there has been an explosion in human ability to climb rocks, just as there has been in human productivity, our knowledge of how to do things, in more prosaic and more economic activities. And, reading the history, the rate of improvement has grown over time. 

I think that in studying economic growth, we (and especially we in the Silicon Valley) focus way too much on gadgets, and too little on the simple fact of human knowledge of how to do things. Southwest Airlines' ability to turn an airplane around in 20 minutes, compared to the hour or so it took in the 1970s, and still does at many larger airlines, is just as much an increase in productivity as installing the latest gadget. Growth is about the knowledge of how to do things, only sometimes embodied in machines. Free solo is a great example of the pure advance of ability, from a pure advance of knowledge, completely untethered from machines.

And the same patterns emerge that growth theorists tell us about. 

Knowledge externalities When one person learns how to do something, and can and does communicate that knowledge to others, then the others can quickly benefit from knowledge and the group advances. 

Alex, like Newton, climbed from the shoulders of giants. Just how do you get up El Capitan? There are now many established routes. A "route" is, as the movie made clear, a succession of incredibly tiny holes cracks and ledges in a 3000' face of rock, that experienced climbers figure out how to stitch together. Alex didn't have to figure all that out, and chose an established route.

Likewise, nobody in 1958 had any idea that you could hang by your thumbs and fingers to exploit little pieces of rock. This knowledge, demonstrated in the movie, emerged from the community of rock climbers and boulderers over time. Alex is incredibly good at it, but he learned from others.

Knowledge transmission Everyone is all upset about intellectual property these days, but nobody patents anything in rock climbing. (There is some patentable technology in the devices people use to climb with ropes, and that has enabled free climbing, but it's really not central.) The knowledge gets produced, which is costly to the individual producing it, and then passed on, where it is much easier to learn than it is to innovate, and the whole group gets better. 

Once a piece of knowledge is produced it is in society's interest to pass it on as quickly as possible. The whole IP business trades a later reduction in growth -- slowing adoption while the innovator gets to earn some rents -- for the idea that these rents are vital to creating knowledge in the first place. But lots and lots of productivity-increasing knowledge -- most, I would hazard -- is created like new hand-holds or new routes, for free. There are other social institutions that promote the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and rock climbing is full of them. 

The size of the group and the cost of transmitting information The key insight of modern growth theory is that, as a result of the process described above, the larger the group studying any problem, the faster knowledge advances. If 1000 people are figuring out how to climb, and each of their good ideas disseminates through the group, each member of the group gets to use new ideas more quickly than if there are 100 people doing it. 

(I think our models don't pay enough attention to the dissemination question. Most new ideas are bad, so the process of sifting through new ideas, figuring out which are good and bad, refining them, is a lot of what a group does, and all that and learning takes time and effort. The world does not just have one individual innovating at great expense, then the rest learn for free. Academics, who spend a lot of time reading hard papers, writing referee reports and comments that distill the ideas, throwing most new ideas out, distilling again to teach, see that every day!)

The move makes clear, that the world of rock climbing has expanded vastly since the 1950s. Bouldering is a weekend recreation for thousands, unlike dedicated mountain climbing in the 1950s. No surprise then that the rate of knowledge creation is higher. 

The size of the group is limited also by its ability to communicate. I locate the beginning of growth and science with Gutenberg. (An idea also unpatented and quickly improved on and copied.) Printing means that if you run a costly experiment, then you can share that with a much larger group, and a much larger group can discuss and refine the idea. If you can only share it by word of mouth or handwritten note, few will learn of it and be able to use it. 

So, similarly, I would say in the end that rock climbing is much more advanced than before because of technology -- but the technology of communication. First, the technology of print and media -- notice the magazine covers in the movie. And now, the technology of the internet. Each new idea in rock climbing is accessible quickly all over the world. Without that large group of interested people, this communal knowledge would not have advanced so far. 

Which gives me hope, in the end, for growth. We just unleashed a reduction in the cost of communication larger than Gutenberg created.  The group of people studying any problem is much larger, and the number of problems that can be effectively studied by groups of efficient scale (1000 - 10000 seems to be the size of an academic field before it splinters into subfields, and the same seems to be true of recreation) has exploded, the fraction of the human population that can work together on any problem has exploded. At least the possibility is there. It still took 200 years from Gutenberg to the scientific revolution, and lots can go wrong along the way. 

The movie, of course, is about the psychology of extreme danger. But I'll leave that for another day. 


John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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