Butting Heads (and iPhones): Economists Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr Duke it Out in the Wall Street Journal

Photo Credit: WSJ.comNorthwestern Professors of Economics Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr just can’t seem to get along.

In this past weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, the two voice some distinctly adverse ideas about technological innovation in the twenty-first century – on the one hand, its success, and on the other, its stagnation.

Professor Mokyr, author of The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy and co-author of The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times is an economic historian who’s altogether positive about the economic direction of the world-at-large. But this isn’t just blind optimism; in fact, it’s due in large part to the rapid rate of technological innovation. Mokyr notes that “new tools have led to economic breakthroughs,” and that since the field of technology is vast and unremitting, we’re hardly in danger of economic collapse.

“The divergent views are more than academic. For many Americans, the recession left behind the scars of lost jobs, lower wages and depressed home prices. The question is whether tough times are here for good. The answer depends on who you ask.”

But Professor Gordon, a macroeconomist and author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Rainbow: The American Standard of Living Since the Civil War (Princeton), and of the best-selling textbook, Macroeconomics, is hugely skeptical of such theories. He asks us to compare useful and revolutionary objects, like the flushing toilet, to the newest iPad; the former, already invented, is indispensable. Everything created thereafter is simply excess – the cherry on top, if you will. And, as new developments become only incrementally more advanced than their predecessors, technological progress will slowly grind to an anticlimactic halt.

The op-ed also gives some interesting background on both Gordon and Mokyr and tries to posit the origins of their respective beliefs, whether positive or negative. Despite their conflicts, the two can concede to one point: that the twenty-first century is unarguably the best time to be born, and the revelation is certainly an encouraging one.