Wall Street Journal

In ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth,’ a 2016 challenge

In his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War,” Northwestern University economist Bob Gordon argues that the century between 1870 and 1970 was exceptionally good for U.S. households (particularly 1920 to 1950) but that the years since 1970 have been disappointing and the future looks disappointing too.

His postscript includes a few thoughts that deserve immediate attention in today’s economic policy debates: Whatever the causes of the distressing slowdown in the growth of productivity (the amount of stuff produced for each hour of work) and the increase in inequality, what policies might both increase productivity and decrease inequality? 

Many years ago, economist Art Okun argued that we had to choose between policies that increased efficiency and those that increased equity. Perhaps. But  if there are policies that could achieve both, it’s time to try them. 

Mr. Gordon lists several at the end of his book, some conventional and others less so. They include: 

1. Make the earned-income tax credit (a bonus paid by the government to low-wage workers) more comprehensive and generous, a complement to raising the minimum wage. The earned-income tax credit, most economists agree, encourages work. 

2. Reduce the share of Americans who are in prison, which is costly, disproportionately hurts the poor, and has long-lasting negative effects on former prisoners and their families. Also, legalize drug use to save money on enforcement, raise tax revenue, and eliminate the negative consequence a criminal record has on employment.

3. Shift financing of K-12 schooling from local property taxes to statewide revenue sources to reduce inequality and improve outcomes. Shift college financing from loans to income-contingent repayment administered through the income tax system, which is what Australia does.

4. Roll back regulations that hurt the economy and the less affluent, including copyright and patent laws (which have gone too far), occupational licensing (which is a barrier to entry and employment), and zoning and land-use regulations (which boost housing costs). 

5. Reform immigration laws to encourage high-skilled workers, including those trained at U.S. graduate schools. 

Mr. Gordon notes (Page 314) “the extraordinary investment” by state and local governments in education and infrastructure between 1870 and 1940 and cites the substantial boost to productivity created by the interstate highway system. He doesn’t put increased public infrastructure investment on his list, though it belongs there. 

Every presidential candidate should be asked what policies he or she would offer to increase the pace of U.S. productivity growth and to narrow the widening gap between winners and losers in the economy. Bob Gordon’s list is a good place to start.


Editor's note: this post first appeared in the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire blog.