Yes, the American Economy Is in a Funk — But Not for the Reasons You Think

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With all the sexy inventions of the digital revolution, why isn't America seeing the same standard-of-living boost as that caused by the Second Industrial Revolution? (photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The U.S. is not likely to ever again see economic growth like that of the 20th century, says economist Robert Gordon. (photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Yes, the American Economy Is in a Funk — but not for the Reasons You Think.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

As sexy as the digital revolution may be, it can’t compare to the Second Industrial  Revolution (electricity! the gas engine! antibiotics!), which created the biggest standard-of-living boost in U.S. history.  The only problem, argues the economist Robert Gordon, is that the Second Industrial Revolution was a one-time event. So what happens next?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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If you ever find yourself running for president of the United States — first of all, my condolences. But that’s not what I want to focus on. If you are running for president, one of your duties is apparently to pretend you’re a doctor and that your patient is the American economy, and that only you have the power to figure out what is making your patient so sick.

[MUSIC: Fullscore, “Emergency Room Situation One”]

JEB BUSH: We should be growing at four percent, not this new normal.

DONALD TRUMP: This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico. Both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.

HILLARY CLINTON: We must raise incomes for hardworking Americans so they can afford a middle-class life.

There’s a long list of potential diagnoses and an even longer list of potential causes. It’s like when you catch a cold, and then you try to figure out — of all the sneezing, sniffling, snotty people you saw recently — who did this to you?

BERNIE SANDERS: The greed of the billionaire class, the greed of Wall Street is destroying this economy.

TED CRUZ:  The sad reality is big government, massive taxes, massive regulation, doesn’t work.

And even though the U.S. economy is far healthier than most countries’ economies — and also, it should be said, way healthier than most economies throughout history — the prognosis given by the candidates is usually somewhere between dire and fatal.

MARCO RUBIO: This country is running out of time. We can’t afford to have another four years like the last eight years.  

BEN CARSON: We’re on the verge of economic collapse.  

[MUSIC: Mark Petrie, “Frenetic Waltz”]

Most presidential candidates are of course not M.D.s. But nor are they economists, which you might think would be kind of, sort of helpful for a job that seems to have so much to do with the economy. So, today on Freakonomics Radio, let’s talk to someone who is an economist.

ROBERT GORDON: I’m just a regular economist who has a fancy title.

Someone who’s spent his career giving full answers to the questions that presidential candidates spend a sound bite on.

GORDON: That’s about right. And let’s provide an order of magnitude.

And his diagnosis may surprise you.

GORDON: The data give an unambiguous answer that—

Whoa whoa whoa! You’ve got to listen to the show to get that.

[MUSIC: The Hitchhikers, “Mr. Fortune” ]

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Robert Gordon is an economist at Northwestern University and the author of a book called The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Think about that title for a moment. The rise — and fall — of American growth.  So Gordon’s view may be as dark as all those presidential candidates’ views. But while politicians generally look for easy villains — immigrants or China or Wall Street — Gordon takes a less, shall we say, hysterical view of things.  It is a view based on how innovation and inventions affect the economy, especially the inventions of the past few decades.

GORDON: The big debate is about how important these new inventions will be, how rapidly they will be  diffusing throughout the economy, and that’s where we get into some of the controversy that’s been caused by my book.

[MUSIC: Fine Prince,  “Log Lady” (from Lookout)]

Anyway, like I said, Gordon is an academic.

GORDON: I’m Stanley G. Harris Professor of the Social Sciences at Northwestern University.

DUBNER: “Professor of social sciences,” not professor of economics. Why is that?

GORDON: That sounds better. And it wasn’t my idea. I didn’t give myself that title. It was made up for me.  

DUBNER: So you’re not on the side an anthropologist and a psychologist and all of that?

GORDON: No, but I have gotten deeply into history.

Gordon does indeed go deep into history, examining the trajectory of economic growth over the last few millennia.

GORDON:  We had virtually no progress in human life between the Roman Empire and the late Middle Ages. Studies of England, where they have some of the best data and statistics, show that over 400 years between 1300 and 1700, economic  growth was only at a rate of 0.2 percent a year. And to put that into concrete terms, something growing that slowly, at 0.2 percent, requires 350 years to double.

Not only was growth extraordinarily slow, but even as new inventions came along — steam-powered railroads and a broader network of food distribution — they didn’t exactly transform society overnight.

GORDON:  One of the things that keyed my interest in the great inventions was a paperback book that I found in a bed and breakfast in Michigan, where guests were invited to leave books and pick them up. And so I picked up this book. It was a book by Otto Bettmann of the famous Bettmann photographic archives. And it was full of wonderful line drawings and cartoons of the horrors of railroad travel in the late 19th century with boilers that would blow up, of milk that was adulterated and mixed with water or chalk. The complete lack of protection of the quality of the foods. And so this set of horrors, of how terrible life was in the old days, led me naturally down the path of exploring what were the things that changed us and improved it.  

Gordon looked hard at what’s generally called the First Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-18th century.

GORDON: When we had the invention of steam engines, steam ships, locomotives, factories making cotton fabrics, and then the telegraph. All of those things were invented in the century between 1770 and 1870. And they set the stage for the inventions that happened after 1870.

And that’s when the Second Industrial Revolution would begin. We’ll get there. But first, as Gordon was saying about the stage-setting inventions of the First Industrial Revolution.

GORDON: One example of setting the stage was the telegraph, which was the single biggest invention in human history in shortening the time it took to communicate a fact or a piece of news. Before the telegraph, which was invented in 1844, the fastest that news could travel was by the speed of a horse or a sailing ship. And indeed, we have a famous example, of the Battle of New Orleans, won by Andrew Jackson in January 1815, which took place three weeks after the peace treaty was signed between Britain and the United States, ending the War of 1812. So after the telegraph, of course the human mind started imagining, “Well, what if we could find a way for people to talk over these wires instead of just sending dot-dot-dash-dashMorse codes?” And that dream was realized fairly promptly in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell and his  competing inventor. Bell beat the competitor — whose name was Elisha Gray — Bell beat him to the U.S. Patent Office by about three hours. And if it had not been for that, we would have had the Gray telephone system instead of the Bell telephone system.

As we all know, the telephone was but one of many, many, many inventions produced during the Second Industrial Revolution.

GORDON: The Second Industrial Revolution included electricity, the internal combustion engine, chemicals, plastics, running water, the conquest of infectious diseases, the conquest of infant mortality, the development of processed food, the fact that women no longer had to make their clothes at home, but could buy them either in department stores or mail-order catalogs. So all of those things, every dimension of human life, was affected by the Second Industrial Revolution, with the inventions mainly taking place between 1870 and the early 1900s, and having their big impact on such economic measures as productivity during the middle part of the 20th century, especially from 1920 to 1970.

[MUSIC: Bill Wolford, “Brush With” (from Album Title)]

Now, remember what Robert Gordon said about the rate of growth between 1300 and 1700?

GORDON:  Something growing that slowly, at 0.2 percent, requires 350 years to double.

[MUSIC: The Wandas, “1 in 4” (from New Wave Blues)]

And how did that compare to the Second Industrial Revolution?

GORDON: Since 1870, the amount of time that it’s taken for the standard of living to double has been more like 30 years, not 350 years.

Wow! Think about that. If you had the good fortune to be born in the early 20th century, let’s say, rather than the early 19th century — well, that was a lot of good fortune! OK, but wait a minute. As lucky as you might have been to be born in the early 20th century, how much luckier still would it be to have been born in the mid- or late 20th century? Because that’s when we got the Third Industrial Revolution, the one that’s been so helpful if someone wants to, say, make and distribute a radio program that you can carry around with you and stick in your ears whenever you want.

GORDON: The Third Industrial Revolution started off around 1960, with the first mainframe computer. And went further into the mini computer, the personal computer in 1980, and then followed by the marriage of communications with computers that we call the Internet, or the dot-com revolution that happened in the late 1990s. So all of these changes radically changed our ability to process information. Along the way we had a similar revolution in entertainment.  So the Third Industrial Revolution includes entertainment, information through the computers, and communication as we moved from landline phones to what we can call dumb mobile phones in the 1990s, then into smart mobile phones in the last 10 to 15 years. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Third Industrial Revolution. Each of those fields was dramatically and completely changed, particularly the information processing by the computer and the invention of such things as e-commerce and search engines and email and web browsing. But those inventions, as monumental as they were, were taking place just in a narrow slice of human life in terms of the economy.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Colonel Summers” (from Blueprint of Soul)]

And this brings us to the central argument of Robert Gordon’s book, the argument that many economists and others are not willing to accept, at least not without a fight. Gordon believes that as bright and shiny and wonderful as the many manifestations of this Third Industrial Revolution may be, well, they can’t compare to the more essential inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution when it comes to increasing the average person’s standard of living. Moreover, Gordon has come to think that the great inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution were a one-time event, and that the resulting spike in American prosperity was therefore also a one-time event, which may account for all the gloom and doom on the presidential campaign trail. Even though you could easily argue that more people around the world are better off today than they’ve ever been, we all know that leaping forward feels a lot better than inching forward, especially when the nature of the inventions that we’ve been given these last few decades make it seem as if we are leaping forward.

GORDON: Our total spending on all electronic communications and computer devices, on entertainment, on the services that provide us with Internet services and telephone services, you add that up and it’s only about seven percent of the economy. That leaves the other 93 percent of the economy that has not been nearly so profoundly affected by the Third Industrial Revolution.

DUBNER: On the other hand, I could say, “My goodness, for seven cents of every dollar I earn, look at how much stuff I’m getting,” right? Because part of the appeal of this is because it’s scalable. It’s also presumably potentially really cheap, right?  Why would you use spending as the proxy for the lack of significance in our lives as opposed to the affordability of it?

GORDON: Well, when you think, for instance, of e-commerce, the convenience of being able to buy things from the comfort of our home is indeed a great step forward for some things that are amenable to that kind of buying. But so far, if we look at total retail sales, e-commerce only accounts for six to seven percent of total retail sales. There are still lots of things that people like to buy in person, including clothing that they want to try on. Things like automobiles. Lots of things are still purchased from traditional kinds of outlets.

DUBNER: It sounds as though your argument is essentially that many of the inventions provided by the Digital Revolution, while exciting and appealing and sexy — and maybe, because they are so sexy, they gain more of our attention than they warrant — that as exciting and sexy, etc., as they are, that they are primarily refinements of previously existing things. So they make transportation more portable or convenient, or communication more the same, shopping more the same, but that they don’t stand at all in comparison to the breakthroughs of the earlier technological revolution.

GORDON: I think there are breakthroughs and indeed, if we look at business practices and procedures, we had a complete change from paper and file cabinets, calculating machines and typewriters, into the modern world of flat screens and search engines. And electronic storage and electronic catalogs. That was a profound transformation that affected the lives of almost everybody who works in an office. It took place over the 25 years or so between 1980 and 2005. Yes, during the heyday of the dot-com revolution, we had our nationwide measures of progress, namely productivity growth, catching up, briefly, for about a decade to the kinds of measures of progress that we had back in the Second Industrial Revolution. So it was transformative. But it didn’t last long. The revival of productivity growth occurred only between about 1995 and 2005 — in contrast to the similar big surge of productivity growth created by the Second Industrial Revolution that lasted for a full 50 years from 1920 to 1970. So it’s a matter not of whether we had breakthroughs, but how big and important they were and how much they boosted the amount people could produce per hour of work.

DUBNER: So this brings us, I guess, to part of the controversy of your book, which also brings us to the title of your book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. So as much as one can get excited about the inventions and the technologies of the past, let’s say, 40 years, your argument is much broader than that, which is that growth has peaked as we know it. And that, if I understand correctly, in your view, it will never resume as we had it before. Is that about right?

GORDON: That’s about right. And let’s provide an order of magnitude. We have a measure of the impact of innovations that economists call “total factor productivity.” And that tells us how much progress our economy is making, relative to the hours of work that we put in and relative to the number of machines that we use.  And so improvements in efficiency per unit of labor and per unit of machine is called total factor productivity. And you might just translate that into simple words: the impact of innovation. Well, our economist measures of that growth rate were three times as fast between 1920 and 1970, as they have been in the 45 years since 1970. That’s the sense in which the data give an unambiguous answer that we had the rise of economic growth through the middle of the 20th century, and then a falling off, a slackening of the pace, of innovation and economic growth since then.

[MUSIC: Mohkov, “Midnight Hope” ]

DUBNER: Most people, when discussing the lack of growth that you’re now talking about, gravitate not toward the economic structure, through which you look at it, but more political structures. Or at least it strikes me. They look to the political realm and they look for scapegoats. They look for the policies that have destroyed jobs or created low-paying jobs at the expense of better ones, or they look at policies that create too many burdens on businesses. So, does your argument about our slowing growth or lack of growth overlap with those political points, or does it really lie outside it, and is it, therefore, a different argument?

GORDON: Well, it’s a little bit of both. What makes my forecast more radical — more radically pessimistic — are four headwinds, as I call them. And the first of those is inequality. Over the last 35 years, an amazingly high fraction of our economic progress has been siphoned in to the incomes of the top one percent of the income distribution. That’s a tremendously important feature that causes the slowdown. It’s not just the lack of innovation. We’re seeing plenty of innovation. But it’s the fact that not everybody is sharing in the fruits of that innovation.

We’ve had, as the second headwind, a slowing in the pace of improvement of educational attainment. This is particularly true for American young men. So we have a lot of undereducated males who are not able, through their education, to contribute to highly productive occupations. And the rate of improvement in that was a substantial source of economic growth throughout most of the 20th century.

Then we had the third headwind, which is demographics. That’s simply the aging of the population. The retirement of the Baby Boom generation means that millions and millions of people are making a transition from working and creating income to not working and being dependent on income through Social Security and Medicare, provided by the working generation.  

And then finally, we have the universally recognized day of reckoning coming within the next 10 to 15 years as Social Security and Medicare run out of money. That can be fixed only by raising taxes or cutting benefits to those in the over 65 age group. And that raising of taxes or cutting of benefits will reduce further what we call the disposable income, the income that people actually have to use for consuming what they want.

[MUSIC: The Cheebacabra, “Operation Anaconda” (from Metamorphasis)]

DUBNER: So, between these four headwinds — inequality, education, demography and a fiscal issue — and your view that the Third Industrial Revolution is wildly overvalued, or at least, overappreciated, I’m scared to ask you, but what are you then predicting for the American economic future? And do you see that prediction as applying to the global economic future as well? How singular is the American position?

GORDON: Those are two different questions. And first, if we just want to put some numbers on this, the growth of output per hour, our productivity, over the next 25 years, is likely to be quite similar to what it’s been the over the last 10 to 11 years. And that’s about 1.2 percent a year. Not bad; not that different from what occurred back in the 1970s and ‘80s. We had a brief respite in the late 1990s when our productivity did better than that. But leaving aside the late 1990s, our productivity growth is going to be fairly similar. And so that means I’m not predicting the end of innovation or the end of technological progress.

DUBNER: Or the end of the world, we should say.

GORDON: Or the end of the world. All right. But then the 1.2 percent has to be reduced, because that’s output per hour.  Our population is not working so many hours as the Baby Boomers retire. That cuts the 1.2 down to 0.8 growth in output per person. Then the inequality — the fact that so much of this is going to the people at the top — cuts the growth rate for the median income per person down from 0.8 to 0.4. And then the fiscal reckoning cuts us down further to 0.3. So 0.3 percent growth in disposable income of the median person in America is hardly progress at all. It means as many people will be falling back as those who are moving ahead.

You asked, as a second question: what does this mean for the rest of the world? You have to divide the rest of the world into the developed countries like western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada — that’s the developed part of the rest of the world — from the rest of the world, the emerging markets — China, India, Southeast Asia. And the emerging markets will continue to catch up to the standard of living that has been achieved by the developed nations. But as I look around the world, this slowdown in productivity growth is pervasive. So they’re following in our footsteps. We’re not alone. Where we are alone is the pervasiveness of this increase in inequality is an American phenomenon that is not repeated everywhere. Our educational attainment is not as impressive as some other countries.  So we’re doing as well as anybody on productivity, but we’re suffering from headwinds that are not shared equally elsewhere.

[MUSIC: The Fog People, “Alecto Chaos Theory”]

DUBNER: So, if I’m listening to this program, I’m trying to figure out whether I should kill myself now and get it over with, or live out this long economic doldrum. In other words, what does all this mostly terrible economic news translate into? Are we looking at, in your view, at least in the rich countries, widespread underemployment and perhaps unemployment? Are we looking at economic chaos? Are we looking at anarchy and war? What do you foresee?

GORDON: None of the above. And let me go to the issue of employment. There’s a considerable divide in those that look forward over the next 25 years, between those I call the techno-optimists, who think that we’re on the verge of revolutionary advances in technology and innovation, and thus fear that robots and artificial intelligence will be taking away jobs and leaving mass unemployment. As compared to me, where I think that new technologies are coming, but they’re occurring at an amazingly slow pace. There’s an awful lot of ordinary, everyday human activity that robots cannot come close to duplicating. And so I see the robots as much collaborating with and complementing human activity as replacing it. I think the idea that computers can win at quiz-show games is very impressive, but the artificial intelligence computers have not yet shown that they can match human judgments.  These innovations are coming, but they’re not black and white. They’re not going to arrive tomorrow all in one fell swoop.

[MUSIC: Jeff Thall, “Robot Chat”]

And because it won’t happen in one fell swoop, Robert Gordon says, he’s not so worried about employment. The economy will keep producing jobs as it has during past technological shifts.

GORDON: We no longer have encyclopedia salesmen. We no longer have elevator operators. We no longer have blacksmiths. Machines have been replacing humans throughout the history of all three industrial revolutions. And I don’t see any reason why this should be any different. What is happening and this is really part of the story of inequality and the evolution of the top incomes compared to the incomes in the  middle and the bottom is that the jobs that are being created are in many cases not as high-paying and not requiring as much education as the jobs that are being lost to not just automation, not just the computers, but we also have lost an enormous number of jobs to globalization, to trade, to the impact of imports. So what we should worry about, and I don’t have a great answer for this, is the downshifting in the quality of jobs and the menial nature of jobs.  So I’m worried about the quality of jobs, not about us having enough jobs. We are, after all, down to 5.0 percent unemployment.

DUBNER: So, to summarize your overall argument about  our rise and fall of American growth: would it be an overstatement to say that there was a lot of low-hanging fruit — physical and labor, and all other kinds of fruit that we picked beautifully and ate hungrily, and we did really well with — and that those things, once used up, that kind of gain will never appear again as far as you can see?

GORDON: I think that’s too strong. It’s not that all the fruit has been picked. The problem with that analogy is the fruit tree is continually growing new fruit and there’s new fruit to be picked. The idea that many of the inventions were of more fundamental importance could perhaps be squeezed into the fruit analogy by saying that the pieces of fruit were larger that were hanging in the lower part of the tree. And the tree is continuing to grow new fruit , with self-driving cars, 3D printing, robots, and artificial intelligence. So the tree is not barren by any means. But the new fruit is growing very slowly. It takes a long time to pick. And the total amount of fruit that we wind up with is not as much as we did in the old days when the fruit was lower down and larger in size.

DUBNER: You call the other camp the techno-optimists. Are you inherently then a techno-pessimist or do you not go that far?

GORDON: The distinction is fast versus slow. It’s the speed of the change. The techno-optimists act as if we’re going to have a rapid revolution that within the next five or 10 years, is going to see universal world of robots and mass unemployment as a result of artificial intelligence. I just think that the best way of looking into the future is to look at the recent past.

DUBNER: Let’s pretend we were talking back in the 17th century, even the early 18th century. We could say, “You know, there hasn’t been much economic change in lo these many centuries.” Ergo, the best prediction will be more of the same. And then boom, it did happen. So who’s to say, or why are you to say, that that is not going to happen?

GORDON: That’s one reason why I don’t forecast beyond 25 years. It’s possible that things can be invented 50 or 100 years from now that we can’t even imagine. But we’ve got pretty widespread agreement on the inventions that are coming down the road over the next 25 years. And so just to have a disagreement over how fast or how slow that is, is very different than the qualitative kind of mistake that you were just imagining for the 18th century.

[MUSIC: Louis, “A Strike of Lightning”]

Robert Gordon’s interpretation of our economic past and future is certainly open to your interpretation. You may find it sobering, even frightening. Or you might find it comforting. Because while political conversations about the economy always look for a scapegoat, a villain, Gordon’s economic conversation tells a different story – that our runaway growth of the past was essentially a golden age. And while it might be nice to repeat it, it’s not like we’re not still reaping the benefits, every day. No one has taken away our electricity, or clean water, or refrigeration or air conditioning and the antibiotics and cars and telephones, smart or dumb phones. And it may be that once so many of these external, concrete needs have been met, what’s left is the really hard stuff: the internal needs. Things like psychological and cognitive gains. Learning to find true happiness. Or, perhaps better yet, to be satisfied with what we have. If you could achieve that, then yes, it might make even electricity and clean water and antibiotics seem like pretty basic stuff.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry, and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

 Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:


  • Robert Gordon, Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Northwestern University