27 September 2012

Is US Economic Growth Over?

Here is how it starts:
Over that past month there has been much discussion of a new paper by Robert Gordon, a prominent economist at Northwestern University, which carried the provocative title: Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds.” (See for instance, Annie Lowrey here, the Economist here and David Keohane here).

In what Tim Harford called “the summer’s most talked about working paper in economics,” Gordon argues that the economic growth of the past century may represent an aberration from the normal state of society, which experiences little economic growth. Look far enough back in time Gordon says and the world had minimal, if any economic growth, and looking ahead, we may be returning to that dismal state. Gordon explains that he is raising “the audacious idea that economic growth was a one-time-only event.”

Over the past month I have taken a close look at Gordon’s paper, the data he relies on and the papers that he cites. My conclusions are that Gordon’s analysis is deeply flawed and tells us essentially nothing about the potential for future economic growth. It does help to reveal a big gap in the discipline of economics, and that is the utter lack of an explicit theory of growth and the mechanisms by which it actually takes places. What Gordon has provided, in his own words, is a “a provocative fantasy” one that tells us much about the discipline of economics but little about the state of the world.
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