UPDATE: Feel free to ignore what follows and just jump ahead to Noah Millman’s super-smart and super-provocative response to it. Go ahead: GO.

As I wrote in a post a while back, economic growth is wonderful—but what if it doesn’t happen? The economist Robert Gordon thinks it won’t—indeed that it can’t—and he’s trying to spread the bad news:

The forces of the second industrial revolution, he believes, were so powerful and so unique that they will not be repeated. The consequences of that breakthrough took a century to be fully realized, and as the internal combustion engine gave rise to the car and eventually the airplane, and electricity to radio and the telephone and then mass media, they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives. Mechanized farm equipment permitted people to stay in school longer and to leave rural areas and move to cities. Electrical appliances allowed women of all social classes to leave behind housework for more fulfilling and productive jobs. Air-conditioning moved work indoors. The introduction of public sewers and sanitation reduced illness and infant mortality, improving health and extending lives. The car, mass media, and commercial aircraft led to a liberation from the narrow confines of geography and an introduction to a far broader and richer world. Education beyond high school was made accessible, in the aftermath of World War II, to the middle and working classes. These are all consequences of the second industrial revolution, and it is hard to imagine how those improvements might be extended: Women cannot be liberated from housework to join the labor force again, travel is not getting faster, cities are unlikely to get much more dense, and educational attainment has plateaued. The classic example of the scale of these transformations is Paul Krugman’s description of his kitchen: The modern kitchen, absent a few surface improvements, is the same one that existed half a century ago. But go back half a century before that, and you are talking about no refrigeration, just huge blocks of ice in a box, and no gas-fired stove, just piles of wood. If you take this perspective, it is no wonder that the productivity gains have diminished since the early seventies. The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

It’s that last sentence that really gets me thinking: What if the amazing achievements of information technology, cool though they undoubtedly are, prove incapable of addressing certain underlying material realities that limit economic growth? That is, what if our electronic gadgets and the world-wide informational networks they plug us into have, over the long haul, only a relatively superficial effect on our overall economic health?

Moreover, it’s important to note that economic prosperity has the strong tendency to establish a new baseline of normalcy. I grew up half-a-century ago in a ramshackle old house in Birmingham, Alabama where our house lacked, among other things,

  • air-conditioning
  • central heat
  • cable television (we got four channels)
  • a microwave oven
  • a dishwasher (other than my grandmother)
  • a shower (tub only in our single bathroom)
  • a clothes dryer

—and, of course, computers. We didn’t even have a typewriter until I asked for one for Christmas when I was in high school. Our one automobile had neither air-conditioning nor power steering nor power brakes. Power windows had been invented but we didn’t even know anyone who lived in such luxury. And yet we were by no means poor: we had an economically stable working-class urban life, with access to good medical and dental care and the ability to buy almost any kind of food we were interested in.

But if you threw me back into that world now, and equipped me exactly as I was equipped then, I would feel horribly impoverished and it would surely take me years to stop thinking of myself as constantly afflicted and deprived—if I ever managed to get there.

So if Robert Gordon is right, and if what I have just said about how we respond to prosperity is right, then it becomes easy to imagine a society in which people become ever more dependent on their network connections to distract them from a stagnant or perhaps even increasingly dismal economic condition. Shades of Philip K. Dick.

All this just makes me want to re-emphasize a point I made in that earlier post: “We need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good—what a delightful bonus.” Those who think they can make growth happen, go for it—I’ll cheer you on. But the great majority of us will need to be tending our cultural and moral gardens so that our children will be founded and established as persons in such a way that (relative) poverty will not crush them. It was possible to flourish as a human being in the conditions I grew up in—in fact, people do it all the time, even today, and have flourished in worse environments in the past.

Such flourishing will still be possible in the future, even if economic conditions decline. But because of the (real or imaginary) baseline that has been established in recent decades, and is reinforced by almost all of our mass media, it won’t be easy. As I try to prepare myself to let my son go out into the world on his own—he’s a rising junior in college—I hope my wife and I have helped prepare him to make a good living for himself and his future family. But even more I hope we have prepared him to be the kind of person whose mental and moral health will not depend on his achieving a historically high level of economic success. Because the level we think of as average or normal may in the not-too-distant future be available only to a select few.