NYT: There Was A Sustained Lack Of Productivity Growth From 1300 To 1700. Really, What`s The NYT Printed On?

Thomas Edsall writes in the New York Times about a paper by economist Robert J. Gordon entitled “Is American Economic Growth Over?” Gordon argues that America has benefited from various overlapping waves of technological advance: steam, electricity, electronics. But that doesn`t have to keep on happening.

“Gordon’s chart demonstrates that there was a sustained lack of productivity growth from 1300 to 1700, which supports his argument that economic expansion is a relatively recent phenomenon and by no means inevitable.”

This may sound persnickety, but it`s actually crucially important to understand that there was huge productivity growth in Europe from 1300 to 1700. Most notably, the greatest invention of them all, the printing press from the 1450s onward, seeded Europe with ideas and information. (The single most obvious cause of Islam falling hopelessly behind Christendom was Muslim society and state`s hostility to the printing press. Around 1700, as I vaguely recall, there were about as many printing presses in the entire Muslim world as on the Spanish colony of Guam way out in the Pacific.)

But there were many other technological advances, such as the spread of clocks, which allowed life to be much more efficient, much less hurry-up-and-wait. Eyeglasses were another wonderful development, especially as they solved problems (e.g., myopia) worsened by the spread of literacy. 

Thus, the life of, say, an English farmer who owned 160 acres was much more pleasant in 1700 than in 1300. 

The problem was that England was still somewhat in the Malthusian trap, with the bottom half of society, mostly farm laborers, still hungry or at least unable to marry young. Good times led to earlier marriages which led to more babies which led to more mouths to feed which led to hard times on a per capita basis. England didn`t have famines, but life was still a serious business. (Compare Pride & Prejudice to Bridget Jones`s Diary in their heroines` pursuits of Mr. Darcy.)

Edsall continues:

Intellectually, both the Obama and Romney campaigns are undoubtedly aware of the general line of thinking that lies behind Gordon’s analysis, and of related findings in books like “The Great Stagnation” by Tyler Cowen of George Mason University. Cowen argues that innovation has reached a “technological plateau” that rules out a return to the growth of the 20th century. 

For Obama, the argument that America has run out of string is politically untouchable. In the case of Romney and the Republican Party, something very different appears to be taking place. 

There are two parallel realizations driving policy thinking on the right. The first is the growing consciousness of the threat to the conservative coalition as its core constituency – white voters, and particularly married white Protestants — decreases as a share of the electorate. Similarly, the conservative political class recognizes that the halcyon days of shared growth, with the United States leading the world economy, may be over. 

While Gordon projects a future of exacerbating inequality (as an ever-increasing share of declining productivity growth goes to the top), the wealthy are acutely aware that the political threat to their status and comfort would come from rising popular demand for policies of income redistribution. 

It is for this reason that the Republican Party is determined to protect the Bush tax cuts; to prevent tax hikes; to further cut domestic social spending; and, more broadly, to take a machete to the welfare state. 

Insofar as Republicans prevail in their twin aims of cutting – or even eliminating – social spending, and maintaining or lowering tax rates, they will have succeeded in obstructing the restoration of social insurance programs in the future. 

Affluent Republicans – the donor and policy base of the conservative movement — are on red alert. They want to protect and enhance their position in a future of diminished resources. What really provokes the ferocity with which the right currently fights for regressive tax and spending policies is a deeply pessimistic vision premised on a future of hard times. This vision has prompted the Republican Party to adopt a preemptive strategy that anticipates the end of growth and the onset of sustained austerity – a strategy to make sure that the size of their slice of the pie doesn’t get smaller as the pie shrinks.

This is the underlying and inadequately explored theme of the 2012 election.

I think the overclass is reasonably pleased with how things are going, especially how the triumph of globalist and diversitarian ideology allows them to push policies cutting themselves free from the broader fate of the American people. Thus, the Big Money swings back and forth between Obama and Romney and Obama. If you are on the Forbes 400, it`s all good.

For those interested in their fellow American citizens` welfare, however, we need to recognize that Malthus`s insights still apply to some extent, but more relatively than absolutely. Malthusian theory was largely invented not by Thomas Malthus in 1798, but by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 who framed it in happier, more American terms: the Franklinian Theory is not about starvation, it`s about affordable family formation. In empty America, people can marry more universally and more youthfully than in crowded Europe. Therefore, Franklin argued, immigration should be restricted.

Few are hungry in today`s America, but the steady growth in population, mostly driven by immigration of highly fertile Third Worlders, means that it is increasingly a struggle for average and, especially below average, Americans to attain the basics of middle class respectability: a stable job that pays well enough to afford to marry and a house with a yard in a decent public school district.

Is this really too much to ask?