Wall Street Journal: “Has all the important stuff already been invented?”
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“Whether or not Lord Kelvin really asserted in 1900 that nothing new remained to be discovered in physics,” began a January 2013 media report in this venue, “the prediction surfaces from time to time, usually to be criticized or even mocked. For many in the technorealm, the recent Wall Street Journal essay ‘Why innovation won’t save us’ would call to mind its confident pessimism.”
Now a WSJ article has reintroduced that essay’s author. “Robert Gordon, a curmudgeonly 73-year-old economist,” the 16 June front-page piece begins, “believes our best days are over. After a century of life-changing innovations that spurred growth, he says, human progress is slowing to a crawl.” The new article continues:
Joel Mokyr, a cheerful 67-year-old economist, imagines a coming age of new inventions, including gene therapies to prolong our life span and miracle seeds that can feed the world without fertilizers.
These big-name colleagues at Northwestern University represent opposite poles in the debate over the future of the 21st century economy: rapid innovation driven by robotic manufacturing, 3-D printing and cloud computing, versus years of job losses, stagnant wages and rising income inequality.
Gordon’s op-ed of a year and a half ago called the future of American economic growth “dismal.” The current article mentions his then-new academic paper “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” It’s paywalled, but a blurb page begins this way:
This paper raises basic questions about the process of economic growth. It questions the assumption, nearly universal since [Nobel economist Robert] Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s, that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever. There was virtually no growth before 1750, and thus there is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely. Rather, the paper suggests that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.
The WSJ portrays Gordon’s pessimism as grounded in his view of the economy as hobbled by an aging workforce, declining employment, declining pay, and growing income inequality, and in his view that prospects for compensating technological advances are limited because the “biggest breakthroughs—like electrification or the discovery of antibiotics—are behind us.” The article declares that Gordon’s ideas “fly in the face of modern economic orthodoxy” associated with Solow, who “first argued in the 1950s that growth was driven by new technology.” It adds, “Progress may be uneven, according to this view, but there is no reason to expect the world to run out of ideas.”
The article cites two authorities partly sympathetic to Gordon’s view, though unwilling to go as far as he does: Lawrence Summers, former chief economic adviser to President Obama, and Tyler Cowen of George Mason University. It also cites experts who agree with Mokyr, including former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, who reportedly declared in a commencement speech last year, “Both humanity’s capacity to innovate and the incentives to innovate are greater today than at any other time in history.”
Maybe it was inelegant to begin this media report by recycling text from its January 2013 predecessor. Please indulge the further inelegance of recycling that earlier report’s ending, which applies again here: “Nowhere...does Gordon mention the profound unpredictability of scientific results or acknowledge the legions of researchers laboring optimistically with, as the British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow once put it, the future in their bones.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.