It is an alarming, jaw-dropping conclusion. The U.S. standard of living, says superstar Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon in a new paper, is about to experience its slowest growth “over any two-decade interval recorded since the inauguration of George Washington.” That’s right, get ready for twenty years of major-league economic suckage. It is an event that would change America’s material expectations, self-identity and political landscape. Change in the worst way.
Now it’s not so much that the Great Recession will morph into the Long Recession. More like ease into the Great Stagnation. As Gordon calculates it, the economy will average only 2.4 percent annual real GDP growth over that span vs. 3 percent or so during the previous 20 years. On a per capita basis, the economy will grow at just a 1.5 percent average annual rate vs. 2.17 percent between 1929 and 2007.
That might not seem like much of a difference, but it really is. Over time, the power of compounding would create a huge growth gap measured in the trillions of dollars. To look at it another way, assume you had an annual salary of $100,000. If you received a 1.5 percent raise each year, you would be making $134,000 after 20 years, $153,000 after 40 years. But a 2.17 annual raise would boost your income to $153,000 after 20 years and $236,000 after 40 years.
For Gordon, the culprit is weaker productivity. Productivity, economists like to say, isn’t everything — but in the long run it is almost everything. A nation’s GDP growth is little more than a derivative of how many workers the nation has and how much they produce. And if Gordon is correct, U.S. productivity is about to weaken. He forecasts that over the next two decades, the metric will grow at just a 1.7 percent annual rate. From 1996-2007, economy-wide productivity averaged just over 2 percent with GDP growing at 3.1 percent.
Gordon’s argument is simple: The productivity surge starting in the 1990s was driven primarily by the Internet, though drastic corporate cost-cutting in the early 2000s helped, too. Going forward, though, Gordon thinks the IT revolution will be marked by diminishing returns. He concludes, for instance, that most of the product innovations since 2000, like flat screen TVs and iPods, have been directed at consumer enjoyment rather than business productivity. (Also not helping are a more protectionist trade policy and a tax code where the penalties on savings and investment are about to skyrocket with rates soaring 60 percent on capital gains and 200 percent on dividends.)
All this dovetails nicely with research showing financial crises are followed by negative, long-term side-effects such as slow economic growth and higher interest rates. Lots of debt, too. Indeed, researchers Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff find advanced economies with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent grow more slowly than less-indebted ones. (Japan is the classic example.) America is on track to hit that level in 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But maybe Gordon is wrong. Productivity has been surprisingly robust during the downturn, helping the overall economy (though not the labor market) weather the storm better than most expected. Maybe nanotechnology or genetic engineering will be the next Internet and ignite further creative destruction. Yet even if Gordon is correct, Americans still control their own economic destiny.
Since the 2008 election, American economic policy has been about wealth preservation (keeping the economy from sliding into a depression) and wealth redistribution (healthcare reform.) Wealth creation? Not so much. That needs to change. Washington needs to focus on growing the economy and competing with the rest of the G20 nations, including the other member of the G2, China. Every policy — from education to trade to the tax code — needs to be seen through that lens.
America faced a similar turning point a generation ago. During the Jimmy Carter years, the Malthusian, Limits to Growth crowd argued that natural-resource constraints meant Americans would have to lower their economic expectations and accept economic stagnation — or worse. Carter more or less accepted an end to American Exceptionalism, but the 1980 presidential election showed few of his countrymen did. They chose growth economics and the economy grew.
Now they face another choice. Preserve wealth, redistribute wealth or create wealth. Hopefully, President Barack Obama will choose door #3. Investing more in basic research (not just healthcare) would be a start, as would slashing the corporate tax rate. A new consumption tax would be better for growth, but only if it replaced the current wage and investment income taxes. Real entitlement reform would help avoid the Reinhart-Rogoff scenario. The choices made during the next few years could the difference between America in Decline or the American (21st) Century.