Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Davis History 1870-1970 Is a Microcosm of The Most Important Century in Human History? (260)


Robert Gordon’s majestic, thousand-page treatise titled The Rise and Fall of American Growth is best known for the argument that rapid economic growth from about 1870 to 1970 was a one-time artifact of a unique conjunction of innovations that cannot and will not be repeated.  

The declining and sluggish growth since the 1970s is therefore not easily remedied or perhaps even remediable. Such a thesis is, of course, heresy to the political left and right alike.

As important as the economic growth issue may be, it is not the reason I want in this post to draw attention to Gordon’s wonderful book.*

I savored this work a bit at a time over several weeks because I was enchanted by the “unique century” claim of Gordon’s informing thesis that economic growth was essentially zero in human history before 1870, climbed greatly between 1870 and 1970, after which it has declined and will continue to be low.

Because of a flurry of physical and social innovations over 1870-1970, that century can be claimed to be the single most significant one in human history. The burden of the great bulk of this extraordinarily complex book is to, chapter after chapter, chronicle the “Great Inventions,” the networking of American homes (water, sewer, electricity, etc.), and other widely adopted technical and social innovations.