Robert Gordon's Notable History of Economics and Living Standards


Professor Robert J. Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War is a magisterial volume that will benefit any serious student of economics, demographics or history. I took the opportunity of the 28 hours of sunlight on a round trip from Detroit to Shanghai to read it, which was a productive and delightful way to make the time go faster.

Gordon is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. This review will summarize the basic thesis of the nearly 800 page book, and refers to Gordon's comments on urbanization and transport, which are of particular interest to readers.

The principal value of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, lies in its comprehensive history of the standard of living. Professor Gordon dedicates about 80 percent of the text to this issue, while using the last 20 percent for his prognostications. He uses a passage from Steven Landsberg, the University of Rochester (NY) economist to remind of the substantial and historically recent improvement in the standard of living.

Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. There were wars, political intrigue, the invention of agriculture—but none of that stuff had much effect on the quality of people's lives. Almost everyone lived on the modern equivalent of $400 to $600 a year, just above the subsistence level…. Then—just a couple of hundred years ago—people started getting richer. And richer and richer still.

The bad news, according to Gordon, is that most of the real progress in the standard of living took place between 1870 and the early 20th century --- sparked by groundbreaking advances, such as electricity, the telephone, improved sanitation, and the internal combustion engine. 

Progress, productivity and economic growth have been slower since 1970, according to Gordon, in part because subsequent technological improvements have tended to be incremental rather than transformational. For example, Gordon suggests that: "Leaving aside audio, visual, and computer-related equipment...  the only new piece of household equipment introduced after 1950 was the microwave oven."

Gordon notes that improvements to information technology have not restored the earlier stronger growth rates. He quotes Nobel Prize winning economist, Robert J. Solow, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." Gordon laments the fact that primary and secondary education has made large investments in information technology without any evident improvement in test scores: "Colleges spend vast sums on smart classrooms that require ubiquitous handholding by support staff, without any apparent benefit to educational outcomes."

There are a number of interesting videos on the Internet featuring Gordon. In some he uses an interesting illustration, asking participants what they would rather have the sanitary improvements of the three decades following the Civil War (such as sewers and flush toilets) or the advancements of the Internet and the smart phone? I suspect any choosing information technology over sanitation have not seriously considered what life was like with chamber pots, outhouses, open sewers (if there were sewers at all), water drawn from a remote communal pump and streets covered by horse droppings.


Gordon has his criticisms of post-World War II suburbanization, but graciously points out their advantages without any of the all too familiar polemic.

The distinction between the city and the suburb can be overdone. Adjectives to describe each exaggerate the differences. Cities can be described as bad (dangerous, polluted, concrete) or good (diverse, dense, stimulating), and so can suburbs (homogeneous, sprawling, and dull vs. safe, healthy, and green).

Gordon recognizes that:  

Artists and intellectuals were disdainful of suburbs from the start. They were repulsed by the portrayal of suburbs as “brainless utopias” in the television sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the negativism reflected class divisions—those leaving the cities for the new suburbs of the 1950s were the former working class who were in the process of becoming middle class, including factory workers, retail store employees, and school teachers."  

Gordon describes the economic advantages of US suburbanization:

The suburban sprawl in the United States compared to that in Europe has advantages in productivity that help to explain why the core western European countries never caught up to the U.S. productivity level and have been falling behind since 1995.

One reason for this is that:

The European land use regulations that contain suburban sprawl and protect inner-city pedestrian districts have substantial costs in reducing economy-wide productivity and real output per capita.

He also cites a factor often missed in comparing the greater suburbanization of the US compared to Europe: "An important contributor to sprawl was arithmetic—the U.S. population more than doubled between 1950 and 2010, whereas population growth in countries such as Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom was less than 20 percent.Even so, European suburban growth has dwarfed that of urban core sectors over the past half century.

He also decries the land use regulations that "create artificial scarcity."

Urban Transport

Gordon says that" "Much of the enthusiastic transition away from urban mass transit to automobiles reflected the inherent flexibility of the internal combustion engine—it could take you directly from your origin point to your destination with no need to walk to a streetcar stop, board a streetcar, often change to another streetcar line (which required more waiting), and then walk to your final destination." To this day, this advantage virtually bars any serious increase in transit's importance in the city. Even a more than doubling of gasoline prices and the largest economic decline since the Great Depression were not enough to attract drivers to transit, with the major metropolitan drive-alone market share rising from 73.2 percent in 2000 to 73.6 percent in 2013.

Gordon quotes automobile historian James J. Flink on the benefits of automobility, such as "an antiseptic city, the end of rural isolation, improved roads, better medical care, consolidated schools, expanded recreational opportunities, the decentralization of business and residential patterns, a suburban real estate boom, and the creation of a standardized middle-class national culture."

Further, he says that "One of the benefits of the automobile ... was the freedom it gave to farmers and small-town residents to escape the monopoly grip of the local merchant and travel to the nearest large town or small city." This appropriately stresses the point that the standard of living is not based rising incomes alone, but also requires keeping the prices of goods and services   low through competitive pressures.

The Future?

The only really controversial part of the book concentrates on the future. Here, Gordon indicates the likelihood that future growth will be more modest. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen is more optimistic in  a Foreign Affairs review. Yet of his standard of living history, Cowan says, “Gordon’s analysis here is mostly correct, extremely important, and at times brilliant—the book is worth buying and reading for this part alone."

Gordon also suggests policies he thinks would help spur additional growth, such as raising the minimum wage. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser disagrees on the minimum wage, but is less critical than Cowan about Gordon's view of the economic future.

The latest data (2014) shows real median household incomes to be lower than 1998 and economic growth to be glacial. My fear is that history might be on Gordon's side.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international pubilc policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photo: The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War(