Here's a thought experiment. Whose generation witnessed the greatest progress – my grandmother's generation, my mother's, or our own?
It's tempting to say ours. My beloved grandma struggled through life without a personal computer. She only got three channels on TV. To stay in touch with friends, she had to write a letter, buy a stamp, then wait three weeks for a reply. Things were tough.
Nonetheless, Granny witnessed a dazzling explosion in technology and innovation – the greatest in the history of humankind, and one that liberated masses of women from domestic servitude. In 1892, when she was born, most households had no central heating, no electricity, no running water, no refrigeration. The privy was outside. Women toted tons of water every year for cooking, cleaning and bathing. They made their own clothes, canned food they'd grown themselves, and broke their backs on laundry. The internal combustion engine had not yet replaced the horse, which produced mountains of manure and rivers of urine and gobbled up a quarter of American agricultural farmland. Death claimed about one in five children by the age of five. By the time Grandma died in the 1970s, people's lives had been utterly transformed. You can't say that for our time. Apart from our 10,000 channels and our smartphones, our lives haven't really changed in 50 years. In the immortal words of venture capitalist Peter Thiel, "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."
This is the theme of Robert Gordon's contentious new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. It's the kind of work that makes Thomas Piketty's musings on inequality seem downright cheery. "Maybe economic growth is almost over," Mr. Gordon declares gloomily in his TED talk. "Americans in the future can't expect to be twice as well off as their parents."
Mr. Gordon, an economist at Chicago's Northwestern University, is a thorn in the side of the techno-optimists who think that despite our current doldrums, progress is inevitable. He scoffs at the potential of robotics and cloud computing to enhance productivity. Robots are not about to take your job. The bad news is that we're stuck with stagnant growth for years to come. From 1891 to 2007, U.S. growth averaged 2 per cent a year. At that rate wealth doubles every 70 years. From now on it's likely to be a little more than 1 per cent – with most of the gains going to the people at the top.
This argument has huge political implications, especially at a time when global financial jitters are pervasive and the middle class is feeling stuck. Economic stagnation breeds resentment and upheaval as people fight over a pie that's barely growing. Just ask the Europeans – or the Americans, who are facing seismic quakes in politics because no mainstream party has a credible idea for how to get the mojo back. Here in Canada, we have rolled the dice on politicians who assure us that growth will pick up just as soon as they pull a few infrastructure rabbits out of hats. Nothing to worry about, folks! The essence of Mr. Gordon's thesis is that these times are not an aberration – they're probably the norm. He calls 1870 to 1970 a "special century" that's unlikely to be repeated. The astonishing leap from three-mile-an-hour horse-drawn carriages to 60-mile-an-hour automobiles can happen only once – even if the cars are eventually driverless, or even fly.
The same goes for other breakthroughs such as electricity, flight and even the Internet. We've already reaped most of the productivity benefits of the computer revolution, he claims, and further improvements will be incremental. Sure, we'll invent new stuff. But ask yourself: What has Twitter done for productivity? As for the promise of life-extending new technologies, perhaps we've gone about as far as we can go. As Mr. Gordon grouses, "Extending life without curing Alzheimer's means people who can walk but can't think."
Several other headwinds will slow down growth. The mass entry of women into the work force served as economic rocket fuel. But that, too, can happen only once. Now we face a demographic stall as the boomers get old. Fewer people working means that growth slows. Lots of folks don't agree with Mr. Gordon. They point out that just because he's right about the past doesn't mean he's right about the future. Also, we are conditioned to expect progress – or we boomers are, at any rate. Despite a few blips along the way, many of us became more affluent. Why shouldn't it always be that way?
Personally, I'm an optimist. I believe in the extraordinary power of human ingenuity to expand prosperity and make the world a better place. But at the moment, I have very little faith that the wise men and women who run our institutions have the slightest clue what to do.
In the long run, I'm still an optimist. But in the long run we'll all be dead. In the meantime, Mr. Gordon makes a powerful case that's not easy to refute.