This is David Warsh on the worries about a great stagnation in our future (I remain an optimist about the future, at least when it comes to productivity. I think that, since we are part of it, it's hard to see how big of an impact the digital revolution will have on the future, or even how big of an impact it has had already. So I believe we will continue to grow robustly once our current troubles are behind us. But as digital technology advances and eliminates working class jobs -- jobs with decent pay and decent benefits -- there is a danger of an increasingly two-tiered society. For that reason, I think we are worried about the wrong thing. The big problems of the future will be about distribution, not production. We'll have plenty of stuff, but wil it be distributed in a way that allows prosperity to be widely shared?):
Hard Times Come Again Once More?, by David Warsh: I keep a couple of books on the shelf above my desk to remind me of how much things have changed over the past hundred years. One is Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, by Frederick Lewis Allen, which first appeared in 1931. The other is The Great Leap: The Past Twenty-Five Years in America, by John Brooks, published in 1966. Some crackerjack journalist is surely working today on a similarly successful treatment of the as-yet hard-to-characterize years since 1966. In the meantime, The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement 1945-1995, by Robert Samuelson, takes the story forward.
The really interesting question, though, has to do with what to expect in the next twenty years.
One thing that Yesterday and Leap have in common, a characteristic that in all likelihood will be shared by the book that eventually joins them, is that there are hardly any numbers in them – nothing to link together the two epochs, or to foreshadow the future. Measurement is the province of economists. Compelling journalism seldom has time.
Therefore I have been reading, with special interest (and a certain dread), Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds, by Robert J. Gordon, of Northwestern University. In fact, I read it last summer, even before it was a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, since Gordon is a friend. It’s a short report (25 pages) on an ambitious work in progress.
Beyond the Rainbow: The American Standard of Living Since the Civil War, a book version of the article, already long in preparation, will be anything but brief when it’s finally done. It will, however, be the definitive survey of American living standards over the last 150 years. (Think Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time Is Different, on the history of financial crises.) It will formulate an educated guess about the future as well. And since that prediction has implications for anyone following the election campaign (and more than just them!), there is good reason for considering it now.
The standard assumption is that, after the disruptions of the financial crisis, and once various fiscal imbalances have been resolved (pensions, health care obligations, etc.), the United States will resume the real per capita GDP growth of around 2 percent a year that we’ve enjoyed since 1929. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, I toyed with it myself. Technology, the growth of knowledge, will see us through.
What if it won’t? ... There are two sides to Gordon’s argument... [continue reading] ...