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Wall Street Journal Features Northwestern’s ‘Economic Odd Couple’

Professors Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr share their opposing views on America’s future

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University professors Robert J. Gordon, the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences, and Joel Mokyr, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, were profiled in the Wall Street Journal and shared their thoughts about innovation and the future of America’s economic growth.

In “Economists Debate: Has All the Important Stuff Already Been Invented?” Gordon, considered to be one of the most influential macroeconomists in the world, and Mokyr, an economic historian who has long studied how new tools have led to economic breakthroughs, share their opposing views on whether America’s best days are over.

With a focus on unemployment, inflation and both the long-run and cyclical aspects of labor productivity, Gordon raises questions about the process of economic growth -- questioning whether economic growth is a process that will persist forever. His controversial 2012 academic paper “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” predicts that the economy will grow less than half as fast as the 2 percent it averaged between 1870 and 2007.

According to the June 15 article, Gordon described an aging citizenry, jobs lost abroad, government debt, stagnant rates of Americans earning college degrees and growing income inequality as just a few of the troubling signs ahead for the economy. As a result, Gordon said, economies need technological advances to compensate. He believes, however, that the biggest scientific breakthroughs, like electricity, are behind us.

For example, recent inventions, including the Internet, “won’t pack the same punch,” and cellphones are just a refinement of the telephone, Gordon said.

The more optimistic Mokyr “imagines a coming age of new inventions, including gene therapies to prolong our life span and miracle seeds that can feed the world without fertilizers. I think the rate of innovation is just getting faster and faster,” Mokyr said in the article.

Mokyr added that in the past many economists like Gordon, his long-time colleague, have proclaimed the end of progress but they in time have always been proven wrong.

Read more in the full Wall Street Journal article (subscription required).

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