This week's Outside the Box does not make me feel good, but author Benjamin Wallace-Wells does explain Robert Gordon’s views better than anyone I have seen. (And of course the whole point of Outside the Box is to yank us out of our comfort zones from time to time.)
Dr. Robert Gordon is a professor of economics who has held a named chair at Northwestern University for decades; but as the author of this piece says, "[T]he scope of his bleakness has given him, over the past year, a newfound public profile." Gordon offers us two key predictions, both discomfiting. The first pertains to the near future, when, he says, our economy will grow at less than half its average rate over the last century because of a whole raft of structural headwinds.
His second prediction is even more unsettling. He thinks the forces that drove the second industrial revolution (beginning in 1870 and created largely in the US) were so powerful and so unique that they cannot be repeated.
(A corollary view of Gordon's, mentioned only indirectly in this article, is that computers and the internet and robotics and nanotech and biotech are no great shakes, compared to the electric grid and internal combustion engine, as forces for economic change. Which is where he and I part company.)
He thinks, in short, that we do not understood how lucky we have been, nor do we comprehend how desperately difficult our future is going to be. If nothing else, Gordon has provoked some serious reaction from leading figures who are not quite ready to throw in the towel. “Very impressive,” former Treasury Secretary (and leading Fed Chairman candidate) Larry Summers texted Gordon last August, the day after he published a working paper titled “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” Ben Bernanke delivered a commencement address this spring considering the paper’s implications. And of course the techno-optimists have been buzzing around Gordon like angry hornets. (An interesting TED-talk anecdote along these lines is related herein.)
Gordon makes me very uncomfortable, too, but he's got me thinking not only about how we find growth but also about how we do a better job of managing our affairs, nationally and globally. I think Gordon's totally bleak view misses more than half the story, but it's up to all of us who still believe in the future of this country and this planet (and its increasingly dominant if not altogether wise species) to reject naysaying attitudes and stand right up on our hind legs and envision and create that future.
And it is quite possible that we will find ourselves with two very different parallel futures for the world. In one, the haves may see their lives get dramatically better, while in the other those less fortunate may suffer an even greater economic and political disparity. That is not a formula for a workable future.
The BlipBy Benjamin Wallace-Wells
New York magazine, July 21, 2013
What if everything we've come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?
Picture this, arranged along a time line.
For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered. This isn't to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve. All of the wars, literature, love affairs, and religious schisms, the schemes for empire-making and ocean-crossing and simple profit and freedom, the entire human theater of ambition and deceit and redemption took place on a scale too small to register, too minor to much improve the lot of ordinary human beings. In England before the middle of the eighteenth century, where industrialization first began, the pace of progress was so slow that it took 350 years for a family to double its standard of living. In Sweden, during a similar 200-year period, there was essentially no improvement at all. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were litt le better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.
Then two things happened that did matter, and they were so grand that they dwarfed everything that had come before and encompassed most everything that has come since: the first industrial revolution, beginning in 1750 or so in the north of England, and the second industrial revolution, beginning around 1870 and created mostly in this country. That the second industrial revolution happened just as the first had begun to dissipate was an incredible stroke of good luck. It meant that during the whole modern era from 1750 onward – which contains, not coincidentally, the full life span of the United States – human well-being accelerated at a rate that could barely have been contemplated before. Instead of permanent stagnation, growth became so rapid and so seemingly automatic that by the fifties and sixties the average American would roughly double his or her parents' standard of living. In the space of a single generation, for most everybody, life was ge tting twice as good.
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