Attention Conservation Notice: tl;dr. 9000 words trying to work my way through and in the process provide a reader's guide to the techno-growth stagnation arguments of Robert Gordon, Tyler Cowen, and Brink Lindsey. The arguments are powerful. The authors are very serious economists. I wind up skeptical, and optimistic--partly because I am a techno-optimist by nature, partly because I am a politico-optimist and I think the literature confuses the past generation's failures in distribution and demand-management due to political dysfunction with failures in accumulation and innovation, and partly because I have a different more micro-incremental conception of the process of economic growth than does Robert Gordon.
I. Once and Future Ages of Diminished Expectations
Back in 1990 Paul Krugman wrote a little book--a very nice little book--called The Age of Diminished Expectations. The central point was that the long era of more than a century during which Americans could expect 2%/year growth on average in their real per capita incomes and standards of living was over. This era stretched back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. This era saw each generation attain a level of material wealth and well-being twice that of its predecessors: 2%/year growth for 35 years is a doubling. And, Krugman wrote, the slow growth from 1973-1990--during which real GDP per worker had been a mere 1%/year--was a harbinger of a new, more pessimistic future: an age in which Americans' formerly-great expectations of the future would have to be diminished.