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 little 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 getting twice as good.
At some point in the late sixties or early seventies, this great acceleration began to taper off. The shift was modest at first, and it was concealed in the hectic up-and-down of yearly data. But if you examine the growth data since the early seventies, and if you are mathematically astute enough to fit a curve to it, you can see a clear trend: The rate at which life is improving here, on the frontier of human well-being, has slowed.
If you are like most economists—until a couple of years ago, it was virtually all economists—you are not greatly troubled by this story, which is, with some variation, the consensus long-arc view of economic history. The machinery of innovation, after all, is now more organized and sophisticated than it has ever been, human intelligence is more efficiently marshaled by spreading education and expanding global connectedness, and the examples of the Internet, and perhaps artificial intelligence, suggest that progress continues to be rapid.
But if you are prone to a more radical sense of what is possible, you might begin to follow a different line of thought. If nothing like the first and second industrial revolutions had ever happened before, what is to say that anything similar will happen again? Then, perhaps, the global economic slump that we have endured since 2008 might not merely be the consequence of the burst housing bubble, or financial entanglement and overreach, or the coming generational trauma of the retiring baby boomers, but instead a glimpse at a far broader change, the slow expiration of a historically singular event. Perhaps our fitful post-crisis recovery is no aberration. This line of thinking would make you an acolyte of a 72-year-old economist at Northwestern named Robert Gordon, and you would probably share his view that it would be crazy to expect something on the scale of the second industrial revolution to ever take place again.
“Some things,” Gordon says, and he says it often enough that it has become both a battle cry and a mantra, “can happen only once.”
Gordon assumed his present public identity—as a declinist and an accidental social theorist, as a roving publicist of depressing PowerPoints—last August, when he presented his theory in a working paper titled “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” He has held a named chair at Northwestern for decades and is one of the eminent macroeconomists of his generation, but the scope of his bleakness has given him, over the past year, a newfound public profile. It has been a good time to be bleak, and Gordon, bleaker than everyone else, commands attention. “Very impressive,” the former Treasury secretary Larry Summers wrote Gordon from his iPad the day after the paper appeared. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, delivered a commencement address this spring considering the paper’s implications, and the financial press has weighed in vociferously for and against.