Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is an optimist when it comes to our long-run economic prospects (i.e. he does not endorse the notion that productivity is slowing). I'm with him. (This is a graduation speech Bernanke gave at Bard College at Simon's Rock, Great Barrington, Massachusetts):
Economic Prospects for the Long Run: Let me start by congratulating the graduates and their parents. The word "graduate" comes from the Latin word for "step." Graduation from college is only one step on a journey, but it is an important one and well worth celebrating.
I think everyone here appreciates what a special privilege each of you has enjoyed in attending a unique institution like Simon's Rock. It is, to my knowledge, the only "early college" in the United States; many of you came here after the 10th or 11th grade in search of a different educational experience. And with only about 400 students on campus, I am sure each of you has felt yourself to be part of a close-knit community. Most important, though, you have completed a curriculum that emphasizes creativity and independent critical thinking, habits of mind that I am sure will stay with you.
What's so important about creativity and critical thinking? There are many answers. I am an economist, so I will answer by talking first about our economic future--or your economic future, I should say, because each of you will have many years, I hope, to contribute to and benefit from an increasingly sophisticated, complex, and globalized economy. My emphasis today will be on prospects for the long run. In particular, I will be looking beyond the very real challenges of economic recovery that we face today--challenges that I have every confidence we will overcome--to speak, for a change, about economic growth as measured in decades, not months or quarters.
Many factors affect the development of the economy, notably among them a nation's economic and political institutions, but over long periods probably the most important factor is the pace of scientific and technological progress. Between the days of the Roman Empire and when the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe, the standard of living of the average person throughout most of the world changed little from generation to generation. For centuries, many, if not most, people produced much of what they and their families consumed and never traveled far from where they were born. By the mid-1700s, however, growing scientific and technical knowledge was beginning to find commercial uses. Since then, according to standard accounts, the world has experienced at least three major waves of technological innovation and its application. The first wave drove the growth of the early industrial era, which lasted from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. This period saw the invention of steam engines, cotton-spinning machines, and railroads. These innovations, by introducing mechanization, specialization, and mass production, fundamentally changed how and where goods were produced and, in the process, greatly increased the productivity of workers and reduced the cost of basic consumer goods. The second extended wave of invention coincided with the modern industrial era, which lasted from the mid-1800s well into the years after World War II. This era featured multiple innovations that radically changed everyday life, such as indoor plumbing, the harnessing of electricity for use in homes and factories, the internal combustion engine, antibiotics, powered flight, telephones, radio, television, and many more. The third era, whose roots go back at least to the 1940s but which began to enter the popular consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s, is defined by the information technology (IT) revolution, as well as fields like biotechnology that improvements in computing helped make possible. Of course, the IT revolution is still going on and shaping our world today.
Now here's a question--in fact, a key question, I imagine, from your perspective. What does the future hold for the working lives of today's graduates? The economic implications of the first two waves of innovation, from the steam engine to the Boeing 747, were enormous. These waves vastly expanded the range of available products and the efficiency with which they could be produced. Indeed, according to the best available data, output per person in the United States increased by approximately 30 times between 1700 and 1970 or so, growth that has resulted in multiple transformations of our economy and society.1 History suggests that economic prospects during the coming decades depend on whether the most recent revolution, the IT revolution, has economic effects of similar scale and scope as the previous two. But will it?