“Is American Growth Over?” What a provocative question. In America, at least anecdotally, any limitation whatsoever is seen as against the principles we hold dear. This feeling is magnified when considering some limitation on growth for that would imply a limitation on opportunity. Professor Robert Gordon lays out a remarkable claim in his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” that shows that American growth – an idea completely intertwined with the illusory notion of the “American Dream” – is dwindling if not over. Gordon’s main claim is refreshingly accurate primarily because it takes into account an understanding of growth in a practical register. More powerfully, Gordon’s claim has very serious implications for how we go about handling pressing issues because if it is true then that would imply that we cannot (and should not) look to potential technological or economic growth to cure us of our social, political, and economic ails.
Firstly, Gordon is absolutely correct in his understanding of what technological growth actually is. For Gordon, technological growth is not infinite progress marching towards some utopia – there exists a ceiling of what we can achieve in bursts of time. Gordon shows this clearly when he states that “we don’t drive any faster than we did in 1965 or 1975.” For example, there was room to grow in terms of transportation and various factors worked to produce faster and more efficient modes of transportation in rapid succession; however, there has not been much change to transportation since the advent of the interstate system. This is because the amount of technological growth that would need to take place to make a system substantially better than the interstate system is exponentially harder to produce than what was needed to move from before the interstate system to our present system. Ultimately the problem with the idea of an infinite stream of growth seems to naively deny the practical necessities involved in going about the actual growing.
Secondly, the notion of sustainable American growth is intimately connected to the broader conception of the American Dream. The American Dream drives optimism into our hearts, indeed it compels us to look ahead and see the opportunity of the future rather than dwell on the pains of the present. McAfee’s optimism about American growth is dangerous for just this reason – it tells us that happiness through the fulfillment of the American Dream operates on an economic register. For McAfee, any limitation that stifles American growth necessarily stifles American opportunity which is integral to the American Dream; further, the way to secure the American Dream is through this opportunity which is entirely economic in nature. This is so potent, and so dangerous, because it neglects certain solutions to the problems we face today by answering it with a shallow “we’ll get better someday through our American spirit and growth.” For Gordon, an appropriate understanding of American growth as existing in specific pockets of time rather than as a continuous stream allows him to fully grasp the problems we face today and look to solutions immediately present to solve them – for little aid will come from the technological growth that McAfee prophesized.
The issue that Gordon broaches has many consequences that I’m not sure Gordon himself realizes. If he is correct that American growth is over, then he is essentially calling for a revolution in the way we understand ourselves as technologically limitless and in the way we understand our problems and the prudent solutions to those problems. The debate he raises is one of the most important discussions to be had in the next few years.