The rise & fall of American growth

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The rise and fall of American growth

It has been five years since The rise and fall of American growth was written by Robert J Gordon. When it was first published it was a New York Times bestseller and won awards from the FT and McKinsey. I felt that it was particularly interesting to go back and visit now, given current economic circumstances and the view that its data provides on the techno-optimism versus techno-pessimism that is currently raging on.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Understanding the author’s perspective

Robert J Gordon developed his career as an economist in a crucible. He started his career during a time of battle between Keynesian and the monetarist supporting economists. Keynesian ideas had reached their peak in the 1950s. It was challenged by economists such as Milton Friedman and George Stigler. Both of whom were from the Chicago School. The Chicago School was the University of Chicago. It became a centre for economic conservativism. The Chicago School At his time, drew on the likes of Hayek for its ideas.

Gordon became a ‘New Keynesian’. They assume that there is imperfect competition in price and wage setting to help explain why prices and wages can become “sticky”. They do not adjust instantaneously to changes in economic conditions. Wage and price stickiness, and the other market failures present in their models, imply that the economy may fail to achieve full employment. They argue that macroeconomic stabilisation by the government and the central bank leads to a more efficient macroeconomic outcome than a laissez faire policy would.

American growth and techno-optimism

The techno-optimism viewpoint is that continuing technology innovation is going to bring about a new golden age. There are essays trading perspectives on this back-and-forth.

Gordon’s research suggests that the kind of growth suggested by techno-optimists as an outcome is usually because of very special circumstances.

When he looked at American growth through the 19th century; growth had occurred in short spurts and much of it wasn’t driven by technology, but was multiple factors coming together. He further posits that those factors that drove American growth are unlikely to be repeated in the future.

The last spurt of this growth was during the irrational exuberance of the dot com era.

As you’d expect from an economist, Gordon pulls together to support his ideas very carefully and it is based on empirical analysis. IT has driven little economic growth, which makes one wonder about the benefits of digital transformation as touted by management consultancies.

Gordon’s work is also an argument against globalisation, at least for the American economy. It brings into question the American dream.

Finally, with technology unlikely to drive the kind of stellar growth promised, it brings into question the massive premium set on growth stocks over the long term and venture capital investments in the technology sector and the current Silicon Valley model.

Gordon’s current research is focused on looking at European and American growth so it will be interesting to see commonalities and differences. I expect to see a spurt of growth from second generation mobile devices that freed up small businesses by providing an instantaneous connection with the customer. Rather than relying on an answer machines or a member of their family as receptionist.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War: 70 (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World, 70)

More book reviews can be found here.

More information

Robert Gordon’s academic papers here.

Answering the Techno-Pessimists (complete) – Noahpinion 

Interview: Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe – Noahpinion