Rock climbing and the economics of innovation

Richard Jones:

The rock climber Alex Honnold’s free, solo ascent of El Capitan is inspirational in many ways. For economist John Cochrane, watching the film of the ascent has prompted a blogpost: “What the success of rock climbing tells us about economic growth”. He concludes that “Free Solo is a great example of the expansion of ability, driven purely by advances in knowledge, untethered from machines.” As an amateur in both rock climbing and innovation theory, I can’t resist some comments of my own. I think it’s all a bit more complicated than Cochrane thinks. In particular his argument that Honnold’s success tells us that knowledge – and the widespread communication of knowledge – is more important than new technology in driving economic growth doesn’t really stand up.

The film “Free Solo” shows Honnold’s 2017 ascent of the 3000 ft cliff El Capitan, in the Yosemite Valley, California. The climb was done free (i.e. without the use of artificial aids like pegs to make progress), and solo – without ropes or any other aids to safety. How come, Cochrane asks, rock climbers have got so much better at climbing since El Cap’s first ascent in 1958, which took 47 days, done with “siege tactics” and every artificial aid available at the time? “There is essentially no technology involved. OK, Honnold wears modern climbing boots, which have very sticky rubber. But that’s about it. And reasonably sticky rubber has been around for a hundred years or so too.”

Hold on a moment here – no technology? I don’t think the history of climbing really bears this out. Even the exception that Cochrane allows, sticky rubber boots, is more complicated than he thinks.