In a three-month period at the end of 1879, Thomas Edison tested the first practical electric lightbulb, Karl Benz invented a workable internal-combustion engine, and a British-American inventor named David Edward Hughes transmitted a wireless signal over a few hundred meters. These were just a few of the remarkable breakthroughs that Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon tells us led to a “special century” between 1870 and 1970, a period of unprecedented economic growth and improvements in health and standard of living for many Americans.
Growth since 1970? “Simultaneously dazzling and disappointing.” Think the PC and the Internet are important? Compare them with the dramatic decline in infant mortality, or the effect that indoor plumbing had on living conditions. …Life at the beginning of the 100-year period was characterized by “household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death,” he writes. By 1970, American lives had totally changed.
Why the slowdown? Could it be today’s bureaucratized science that rewards presenters instead of inventors, or it could be a huge increase in government regulation? Or was technology just easier then?
And the explosion of inventions and resulting economic progress that happened during the special century are unlikely to be seen again, Gordon argues in a new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. “The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once,” he writes.
The book attempts to directly refute the views of those Gordon calls “techno optimists,” who think we’re in the midst of great digital innovations that will redefine our economy and sharply improve the way we live. Nonsense, he says. Just look at the economic data; there is no evidence that such a transformation is occurring.Indeed, productivity growth, which allows companies and nations to expand and prosper—and, at least potentially, allows workers to earn more money—has been dismal for more than a decade.