I took on Robert Gordon’s two-pound tome, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” because of its thesis: America’s economy was based almost entirely on one-time inventions “subject to a long succession of subsequent incremental improvements” that gave us a century (1870–1970) of unprecedented growth that, according to author Robert Gordon, cannot be repeated. I had questioned the concept of infinite economic growth from the perspective of an environmentalist: How can you have infinite growth on a finite planet?
If you can get through the intermediate-level economics, Gordon provides sound economic reasoning to be skeptical of the infinite growth theory. “Continuous economic growth requires a continuous stream of new inventions.” But the inventions that could happen only once — electricity, central heating, indoor plumbing — all happened and transformed American life before 1940. Nothing else since has made such a drastic impact on everyday life, Gordon argues, and he doesn’t envision anything else that could.
His discussion of the process and proliferation of such inventions are interesting in and of themselves, if a bit zealous on the details. But he peppers part one of his book with novel links between inventions and outcomes that could keep you reading for their intrigue factor alone, apart from any economic interest. The development of indoor plumbing, for example, led to privacy during bathroom activities (it never occurred to me that this hadn’t always existed). The proliferation of central heating allowed windows to be larger and let more light in, improving mood and health of residents. Railroads drove established merchants out of business due to competition and marked the emergence of the concept of the separation of work and home. The invention of the phone made living alone possible and contributed to the breakup of multi-generation households.
We postmodern people often disparage the olden days, thinking of them as dirty, primitive and unenlightened, so it makes sense that “no other era before or since [1870-1940], combined so many elements in which the standard of living increased as quickly.” But Gordon points out how doctors used to make house calls and life insurance agents used to pay weekly visits to their clients. Whatever you think of today’s world, that such arrangements seem strange to us now is an indication of how steeped we are in individualism.
One thing that hasn’t changed is people blaming the indigent for their poverty; since the 1880s, the upper and middle class have had no sympathy for the variability in income and the lack of social safety net for working-class people. The upper class viewed poor people as lazy or unwilling to work, and they still do.
Gordon also points out that the mechanization of jobs at first did not improve conditions but added new, industrial-strength dangers while eliminating jobs for skilled craftspeople. “The invention of the sewing machine created the archetypal sweatshop.” Unmarried women were employed at twice the rate of married women, but women were mistaken if they thought work outside the home was any less tedious or isolating. Conditions for women were often worse than those for men.
As machines replaced human work, the boring and remedial work that was left over fell to women working for lower wages. And, lest you think that technology is the savior and we can invent our way out of poverty and deepening economic inequality, the creation of such household appliances such as the washing machine, the fridge and the iron did not reduce the hours spent on home production. It merely raised the standards of such chores.
Gordon’s discussion of the more modern inventions — packaged food, pharmaceutical and medical intervention, synthetic chemicals, sterilization of food and water — is equivocal, and it could go further. He applauds Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, but this theory has actually led to the rise of superbugs with antibacterial resistance. He commendably points out the difference between what wealthy Americans eat and what the poorest eat and that obesity is highest among the poor.
He discusses demographics, particularly the retirement of baby boomers, as a potential slowdown for economic growth. But is it possible that, since the 2008 recession, many boomers are unable to retire, and are leaving fewer living-wage jobs for their children?
Each chapter until the postscript has an intro and a conclusion, plus most of the material interacts with itself, so there’s plenty of opportunity to mull over previously presented information — which can serve as good reminders because the book is so long. Like many similar works, though, the bulk of it is spent explaining a problem rather than offering solutions. The solutions he does suggest have been relegated to the 15-page postscript. Many have been or are currently being tried. We already know there are problems with education, the tax structure, mass incarceration, carbon emissions, inequality etc. What we don’t seem to know is how to fix them given the current political climate.
Gordon’s proposals are too vague. He writes, that income inequality “can be alleviated and productivity growth promoted by combating overly zealous and regressive regulations.” He never says exactly how.
His suggestions for immigration reform as a way of dealing with the retirement of baby boomers and the “decline of labor force participation” of those younger than 55 is absurd, given the current political climate, and neglectful of the reasons for the decline in labor-force participation of people who would like to work but are unable to find a worthwhile job. His suggestion for a carbon tax doesn’t take into account that nearly all of the costs will be passed down to consumers, should such a thing get implemented (unlikely under the incoming administration). Those hit the hardest will be the poor. It’s not that we shouldn’t do something about tax inequality or the damage we are doing to the environment; we’re just going to need to be a lot more creative than a carbon tax.
Overall, I’m left wondering: Does the fact that Gordon relegated his policy-change proposals to the postscript of his tome indicate the that we are well-versed in eloquently explicating problems but have not been trained to think of creative, healing solutions to the problems we face? Where are the thoughtful, challenging books that are primarily about solutions?