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Horse and Buggy to Boeing 787: Robert Gordon on What’s Next for America’s Economy

Lecture Livestream: Watch Facebook at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 29, for a livestream of the Cornelson Lecture with economist and author Robert Gordon, whose latest book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, has been reviewed by outlets including the New York Times and The Economist.
Robert Gordon
Robert Gordon takes on the notion that the rapid economic growth experienced in America from 1870-1970 can and will continue into the future.

Whatever you think of Donald Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," economist Robert Gordon will make you think again.

Gordon, author of the 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, will deliver Davidson's annual Cornelson Distinguished Lecture in Economics at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 29, in Tyler-Tallman Hall, Sloan Music Building. Gordon holds the Stanley G. Harris Professorship in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University.

In his book, Gordon argues that five Great Inventions powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970–electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication–and declares that the rapid economic growth American experienced during that period is in fact a one-time-only event. 

Professor Clark Ross holds Gordon's latest work in high esteem and considers it among the top three most influential economics books he has read. Ross, who is Davidson's Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics, prominently cites Gordon in a recent Charlotte Observer op-ed, titled "Here's how Trump could ‘Make America Great Again.'"

Ross wrote: "Donald Trump's 2016 call to ‘Make America Great Again' suggested that the country's economy is paling in comparison to prior times and can be reignited toward a renewed economic prosperity.... Gordon argues that the century from 1870 to 1970 was unique. Imagine the improvement in quality of life due to water and sewer systems, public transportation, electricity; provisions of privacy; and time saved, particularly for women."

Those changes, brought about by the industrial revolution, altered fundamentally how human beings lived their lives, Ross said, in a way that the changes of our more modern "instantaneity revolution" do not.

In a lively and engaging 2013 TED talk, "The death of innovation, the end of growth," Gordon himself illustrated the point with a slide portraying a toilet, a smartphone and a choice: You get to keep everything invented up until about 10 years ago, or give all that up and keep your smartphone. Choose the latter, and you will need to use it to help light your way to the outhouse.

Ross, who was instrumental in creating the Cornelson Lecture earlier in his own academic career, said this year's lecture is especially timely in relation to current global political and economic events that will affect today's youth.

"The probability that an individual is going to live better than his parents is 50 percent or less now," said Ross, citing metrics derived from the macroeconomics "Rule of 72" formula. "Is this college generation really going to have to struggle just to stay even, and save even more to retire?"

The answers lie in the future, but are rooted in understanding the past.

"Gordon's book really is a liberal arts masterpiece as well as a macroeconomic one," said Ross. "It is a tour de force at the culmination of his career, and I could not be more pleased that he is coming to Davidson."

The annual Cornelson Lecture was inaugurated in 1987 by Juanita Kreps, who during the Carter administration became the first female secretary of commerce. Other Cornelson lecturers have included Jack Coleman, former president of Bryn Mawr and pioneer for social justice; Nobel Laureate James Tobin; William "Sandy" Darity, a leading economist on issues of disparity, particularly racial; Greg Mankiw, Harvard economist and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors in the George W. Bush administration; and Claudia Goldin, whose work on education and inequality has been the standard in that field for a generation.

The event is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required; seating will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

John Syme