The Genesis of the Tech Industry, and Vice Versa

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I recently re-read the Book of Genesis as part of a two-day conference with a small group of scholars. It struck me that the book is, among other things, our first look at the wonders and dangers of technology.

The stories have so much religious significance that it is easy to miss the embedded tale of technology-led economic growth, similar to what you might find in the work of Adam Smith or even Paul Romer. Adam and Eve eat of “the tree of knowledge, good and evil,” and from that decision an entire series of economic forces are set in motion. Soon thereafter Adam and Eve are tilling the soil, and in their lineage is Tubal-Cain, “who forged every tool of copper and iron.”

Living standards rise throughout the book, and by the end we see the marvels of Egyptian civilization, as experienced and advised by Joseph. The Egyptians have advanced markets in grain, and the logistical and administrative capacities to store grain for up to seven years, helping them to overcome famine risk (for purposes of contrast, the U.S. federal government routinely loses track of assets, weapons, and immigrant children). It is a society of advanced infrastructure, with governance sophisticated enough to support a 20 percent tax rate (Joseph instructs the pharaoh not to raise it higher). Note that in modern America federal spending typically has run just below 20 percent since the mid-1950s.

Arguably you can find a story of quantitative easing in Genesis as well. When silver is hard to come by, perhaps because of deflationary forces, the Egyptian government buys up farmland and compensates the owners with grain.

Most of all, in the Genesis story, the population of the Middle East keeps growing. I’ve known readers who roll their eyes at the lists of names, and the numerous recitations of who begat whom, but that’s the Bible’s way of telling us that progress is underway. Neither land nor food supplies prove to be the binding constraints for population growth, unlike the much later canonical classical economics models of Malthus and Ricardo. Instead, sinning can lead to population destruction (as in the stories of Noah or Sodom and Gomorrah), or warfare can lead to a thinning of the ranks (such as when Simeon and Levi kill the males of Shechem to avenge the rape of Dinah). But those are growth problems quite separate from those of economics.

In the Book of Genesis, the underlying model of economics is a pretty optimistic one, and that is another way in which Western history draws upon its Judeo-Christian roots.

That said, Genesis is by no means entirely positive about the impact of technology. While the Egyptians are relatively wealthy and have a strong state, they end up enslaving the Hebrews, hardly a virtuous outcome. God, rather than telling people to build technology in the style of the Egyptians, gives instructions for building the ark of Noah, and later in Exodus there are instructions for the ark of the covenant. Those technologies are more pointed toward carrying along the will and later word of God, rather than the mastery of nature per se.

The story of the Tower of Babel is the clearest instance of the possible dangers of technology. On one hand, it is striking how much potential productive efficacy is ascribed to mankind. People with a single language are building a tower with a top reaching up to the heavens and “now nothing they plot to do will elude them.” God then scatters the humans and takes away their common language, to limit their productive capacity. There is a hint that people are seeking to become the rivals of God, who needs to keep their ambitions in check.

If we transplant this tale into a modern setting, you might think that God is skeptical of globalization, world government, a universal language and unhindered communication. While it would be a further leap across time to read the Babel story as a criticism of the internet, it is nonetheless striking how much the internet has done in the last 20 years to enable common and broad-reaching communication. Arguably, again to transplant some more modern concepts into the narrative, Genesis can be read as suggesting that a nation-based regime, not too obsessed with productivity growth or spreading the word, is the better way to go.

That is far from my own pro-GDP, pro-globalization views. Nevertheless, I am willing to accept the wisdom of this book as a kind of cautionary note. I used to think of the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity as far predating the history of economic growth and technology. I now appreciate just how much our obsession with tech and economics has been with us from the very beginning.

My quotes are taken from the newly published translation of the Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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