If you buy Gordon’s story, then the effect of the second industrial revolution was to replace the specific entitlement of the Gilded Age (of family, of place of birth) with a powerful general entitlement, earned simply through citizenship. “Just the fact of being an American male and graduating from high school meant you could have a good-paying job and expect that you could have children who would double your own standard of living,” Gordon says. This certainty, that the future would be so much better than the past that it could be detected in the space of a generation, is what we call the American Dream. The phrase itself was coined only in 1931, once the gains of the second industrial revolution had dispersed and inequality had begun to dissipate. There is a whole set of manners, which we have come to think of as part of our national identity, that depends upon this expectation that things will always get better: Our laissez-faire-ism; our can-do-ism; the optimistic cast of our religiosity, which persisted even when other Western nations turned toward atheism; our cult of the individual. We think of the darkening social turn that happened around 1972 as having something to do with the energies of the sixties collapsing in on themselves, but in Gordon’s description something more mechanistic was happening. “The second industrial revolution had run its course,” he says, and so, in many ways, had its social implications.
It is at about this point in his litany that Gordon’s face will achieve its fully elfin dimensions, and he will grin and say: “How do you like your smartphone now?”
Gordon has been getting e-mails from regular people who have learned something about his theory, and who have been trying to make sense of the consequences. He has a separate e-mail box where they have accumulated; he tries to reply to each one. The messages are more muted than you might think, more introspective. From a Cincinnati investment manager: “There is no way productivity growth in the future will achieve the rate of the sixties, right?” From an attorney: “I have reached comparably pessimistic conclusions from a less rigorous analysis.” From an activist in Rhode Island: “I strongly believe if we understand the end of growth, we can make provisions for the economy we actually have.” This is not a bad way of thinking of the cultural corrections that in retrospect we will probably categorize as Obama-ism: The renewed skepticism about capitalism, the urgency of the problem of inequality, the artisanal turn away from modernity, the rapid decline of American exceptionalism. We may be making provisions for the economy that we actually have.
Gordon’s recent work has been suffused with a sense of loss, of the end of things. In certain ways these have also become the themes of his life. He lives in Evanston in a grand house, built in 1889, the second one in from Lake Michigan. Gordon and his wife, a film scholar, bought the place fifteen years ago and restored it, including the stables, though they have no horses, and the extra rooms, though they have no children. Gordon comes from a famous family of economists; his parents, Harvard graduate students in the dismal science, met at a departmental event during the thirties, and ever since, the Gordons (the parents, Gordon himself, and his more radical younger brother, David, who died in 1996) have been tabulating the effects of this spectacular American century. Gordon’s own father had grown up not well-off in Baltimore, but once he started teaching at Berkeley, the family experienced its growing prominence and prosperity as a subset of the country’s own. Returning to the West Coast during college, Gordon would mark the progress of the last spokes of the great interstate-highway system, a new road laid down each vacation. “When I went to lunch together with my friends in grad school,” Gordon said, “I would draw the whole interstate-highway system. It was that incredible. I could number every road.”
One recent afternoon, I met Gordon at his house, and we drove to lunch through Northwestern’s main campus. Around Gordon and me—bicycling across the quad, wandering half-drunk into the streets—were the members of the first American generation who would be no more educated than their parents. “You look at the numbers, at how much more it costs now to get ahead—all the tutors, the college-prep courses, in some cases the private admissions consultants—and it is just astonishing,” Gordon said. What he was describing was a society where the general privilege of simply being American was once again losing out to the specific, inherited privilege of being born rich.
All of which moved Gordon to talk about the emotions that accompanied the beginning of the great boom. “Try to imagine what a contemporary person might feel,” Gordon said, referring to the twenties and thirties. Movies were getting unbelievably better—in just fifteen years after the first talking motion picture, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the studios produced four of the top ten movies (per the American Film Institute) ever made.
He kept talking about movies: The “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment when The Wizard of Oz switches from black and white to “the paradise of full color.” The great three-year public frenzy about who would play Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, maybe the first full incarnation of the modern celebrity machine, which ended when three studio executives arrived at a movie theater in the San Fernando Valley and replaced the ordinarily scheduled feature with the new print. “There was a pause, and the movie didn’t start. And then the public-address system came on and said, ‘The program—’ ” Gordon stopped. He was crying. “You see how choked up I get about this,” he said. He rubbed his eyes a bit and continued. “ ‘The program originally scheduled for tonight has been replaced with Gone With the Wind.’ And suddenly they’re going to be able to tell their children and their grandchildren. This stuff is just so powerful.”
In the book that Gordon is writing now, in which he details his theory, he breaks his narrative between the Old World and the New at 1940. That year is a convenient midpoint, because it more or less splits the difference between the beginning of the second industrial revolution and the present day. It also happens to be the year of Gordon’s birth. There is a certain degree of solipsism in Gordon, in the insistence that human existence has reached its peak during his lifetime, in his conviction that he can detect the trajectory of the future. But perhaps this is a corrective to the solipsism of our own optimism, to the convenient way that we forget our distant history and assume that something like this version of America progress, ever-escalating, is both inevitable and sustainable, to our certainty that the future must contain something better to come.