NYTimes | The American economy is running on empty. That’s the hypothesis put forward by Robert J. Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s right. The political consequences would be enormous.
In his widely discussed National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” Gordon predicts a dark future of “epochal decline in growth from the U.S. record of the last 150 years.” The greatest innovations, Gordon argues, are behind us, with little prospect for transformative change along the lines of the three previous industrial revolutions:
IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830; IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.
Gordon argues that each of these revolutions was followed by a period of economic expansion, particularly industrial revolution number two, which saw “80 years of relatively rapid productivity growth between 1890 and 1972.” According to Gordon, once “the spin-off inventions from IR #2 (airplanes, air conditioning, interstate highways) had run their course, productivity growth during 1972-96 was much slower than before.” Industrial revolution number 3, he writes
created only a short-lived growth revival between 1996 and 2004. Many of the original and spin-off inventions of IR #2 could happen only once – urbanization, transportation speed, the freedom of females from the drudgery of carrying tons of water per year, and the role of central heating and air conditioning in achieving a year-round constant temperature.
Over most of human history, in Gordon’s view, the world had minimal economic growth, if it had any at all — and “there is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely.” Gordon’s paper suggests instead that “the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.”
The United States faces “headwinds” that could cut annual growth in Gross Domestic Product to as little as 0.2 percent annually, which is one tenth the rate of growth from 1860 to 2007.