Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Robert J. Gordon

Robert J. Gordon is the author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War.

From the transcript of his interview with Fareed Zakaria:

ZAKARIA: Robert Gordon...Let's start with you. This is a monumental work, but the basic message, is it fair to say, is you're telling us you think we're -- you're living in a world of extraordinary technological progress; you really don't know what technological progress is?

Explain what the progress that you regard as truly transformative was and when was it.

ROBERT GORDON, ECONOMIST: Well, I talk about a special century that goes from 1870 to 1970. There were an enormous number of very important inventions right at the beginning of that century. In 1879 alone, we had Thomas Edison's electric light. We had Karl Benz's internal combustion engine. And we had a little-known Englishman who invented wireless.

If you think about the house in 1870, it was completely isolated. By 1940 it was connected five ways, electricity, gas, telephone, running water and sewage removal. That absolutely, completely, fundamentally changed the way life was for housewives, and at the same time working conditions were changing.

All at the same time, in the early part of the 20th century, we conquered infant mortality. Some people have calculated that that's worth more than everything else put together. In 1890 your chance of having your baby die was 22 percent in the first year. That was down below 1 percent by 1950.

So there -- in all of these different multi-dimensions, phonograph, radio, television, motion pictures -- we had a tremendous change.

And since 1970, we've had, of course, the computer; we've had communications; we have mobile phones, but that's a much smaller part of human existence than the great inventions of the early 20th century.

ZAKARIA: Explain electricity alone, because what it does is it makes it possible to power factories, to transform -- you know, night has turned into a work period.

GORDON: Think of -- think of New York City. New York City is only possible because of electric elevators. That's another example of the multi-dimensions that we have.

By the end of the 1920s, New York was a semblance of its current high- rise self, after only 50 years of electricity. Think of Super Storm Sandy back in 2012. It took away the 20th century for many New Yorkers, who lost power. They couldn't even fill up their cars with gasoline and they certainly could not...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue