"Robert Gordon's “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” argues that an unprecedented and unrepeatable “special century” of life-changing inventions has produced unrealistic expectations, so the future will disappoint: “The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique ... . No other era in human history, either before or since, combined so many elements in which the standard of living increased as quickly and in which the human condition was transformed so completely.”
In many ways, the world of 1870 was more medieval than modern. Three necessities — food, clothing, shelter — absorbed almost all consumer spending. No household was wired for electricity. Flickering light came from candles and whale oil, manufacturing power from steam engines, water wheels and horses.
Urban horses, alive and dead, complicated urban sanitation. Window screens were rare, so insects commuted to and fro between animal and human waste outdoors and the dinner table. A typical North Carolina housewife in the 1880s carried water into her home eight to 10 times daily, walking 148 miles a year to tote 36 tons of it. Few children were in school after age 12.
But on Oct. 10, 1879, Thomas Edison found a cotton filament for the incandescent light bulb. Less than 12 weeks later in Germany, Karl Benz demonstrated the first workable internal combustion engine. In the 1880s, refrigerated rail cars began to banish “spring sickness,” a result of winters without green vegetables. Adult stature increased as mechanical refrigeration and Clarence Birdseye's Birds Eye frozen foods improved nutrition. By 1940, households were networked — electrified, with clean water flowing in and waste flowing out, radio flowing in and telephonic communications flowing both ways.
Today's dwellings, Gordon says, are much more like those of 1940 than 1940 dwellings were like those of 1900. No more lack of privacy for people living and bathing in the kitchen, the only room that was warm year-round. Since 1940, however, only air conditioning, television and the Internet have dramatically changed everyday life. And these combined have not remotely matched the impact of pre-1940 changes.
...But the classic modernization trek from rural conditions into sanitized urban life and the entry of women into the workforce were vast, unrepeatable advances. Today the inflation-adjusted median wage of American males is lower than in 1969; median household income is lower than when this century began. If the growth rate since 1970 had matched that of 1920-1970, instead of being one-third of it, per capita GDP in 2014 would have been $97,300 instead of $50,600.
America's entitlement state is buckling beneath the pressure of an aging population retiring into Social Security and Medicare during chronically slow economic growth. Gordon doubts the “techno-optimists” who think exotic developments — robots, artificial intelligence, etc. — can match what such by-now-banal developments as electricity and the internal combustion engine accomplished."