The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Robert Gordon Princeton University Press, 762 pages, $39.95


On Tuesday, those who see themselves as the global elite will gather in Davos, Switzerland to contemplate the “fourth industrial revolution,” the theme chosen by Klaus Schwab, the ringmaster of the circus known as the World Economic Forum. This revolution will be bigger than anything the world has seen before, he says. Anybody who is tempted by this argument should read Robert Gordon’s magnificent new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War.” An American economist who teaches at Northwestern University, Gordon has long been famous in academic circles for advancing three iconoclastic arguments. The first is that the Internet revolution is hyped (and one fault of his book is that he is overly dismissive of it). The second is that the best way to appreciate the extent of the hype is to look at the decades after the Civil War, when America was transformed by inventions such as the motor car and electricity. The third is that the golden age of American growth may be over.

In his latest book, Gordon presents his case for a general audience — and he does so with great style and panache, using vivid examples as well as econometric data, while keeping a watchful eye on what economic change means for ordinary Americans. Even if history changes direction, and Gordon’s rise-and-fall thesis proves to be wrong, this book will survive as a superb reconstruction of material life in America in the heyday of industrial capitalism.