Lion of the Blogosphere

The decline of technological advancement

Paul Krugman’s review of Robert J. Gordon ‘s book The Rise and Fall of American Growth is very interesting. (And non-partisan: no attacks on Republicans or conservatives as Krugman often does.)

Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.

By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since.

I might also point out that the 1940s had cars and air travel (although air travel became significantly less expensive in the 1970s with the invention of large jet airliners like the Boeing 707; in the 1940s you probably would have flown on a Lockheed Constellation).

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

January 26, 2016 at 11:55 am

Posted in Economics

65 Responses

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  1. This is all “eye of the beholder” analysis. Is there an objective measure of how much better our phones and homes and cars are now than back then? The fact is that GDP per capita is 3 times what is was then. By that more objective measure, we are much better off.

    Watch some shows from the 70s. See how poor and run down it all seems.

    January 26, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    • Much less hypergamy and a much larger supply of thin women who didn’t ride the cock carousel thereby reducing dating market dislocation. So no, your objective measures are crap.


      January 26, 2016 at 2:00 pm

      • What really was happening is that there was a huge male shortage borne of the war and shitty working conditions for men.

        Men are just as fat as women now so it’s not like women have their pick of hot men or something..


        January 26, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      • hypergamy is good because it prevents low quality betas from passing on their genes.


        January 27, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    • I take your point, but there is a vast gulf between “This phone is janky and that couch is so kitsch” to “Somebody go clean the outhouse. I don’t care that it’s 15 degrees out. It smells that bad.”


      January 26, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      • I don’t think people actually cleaned outhouses, did they?

        Per the basic premise, consider me unconvinced. My grandfather’s house, built in 1853, is much nicer than any other house I’ve ever lived in and much better constructed. People in that day understood things we’ve since forgotten (how to build a home to ensure it was temperate) and the house, though in a portion of the country that swelters in summer, remains pleasant and cool all year round. Of course, they weren’t required to pay union wages.

        On the other hand there was a natural hierarchy to life that we are now missing. Everyone had a place and, for the most part, they stuck to it and operated as best they could within the parameters of their situation. Women obeyed their husbands. Children obeyed adults, etc. The family cemetery was often located nearby so you could visit your ancestors. It gave people a sense of community, belonging and purpose. Now we are spending all our time fighting the parasites.

        Also, I’ve used outhouses. They aren’t that horrible.


        January 26, 2016 at 9:07 pm

  2. Well I guess we’ve invented everything. Time to close the patent office.

    Mike Street Station

    January 26, 2016 at 1:14 pm

  3. I notice science fiction has been way over-optimistic when it comes to advances in physical technology but consistently underestimates advances in computation and communication. One area stayed relatively static or at least progressed linearly. The other developed by orders of magnitude.
    The trouble with most predictions is people tend to just project the current trends, rather than speculating when a trend will peak and change direction.

    Look at all the stories that have moon and mars bases by now yet still have characters using computers with bare bones DOS interfaces with those green screens, flashing fat cursors, computeristic default font, and low refresh rates. Or how “stolen data tapes” are a plot linchpin in a universe with hyperspace travel, tractor beams, and laser guns. How there are flying cars, hoverboards as common toys yet no internet or smartphones.

    While virtual advancements may not change the nuts and bolts of our world as tangibly as the automobile or home refrigeration, I wonder if the effect is in some ways even greater.
    Consider how television created a mass mono-“pop”-culture where previously subcultures had been much more isolated, completing the nationalist project of homogenization of language and conventions.
    Or how televised debates changed politics forever.
    Now, a still-maturing internet is beginning to exert a major influence over politics and the formation of culture.

    What is the greater technology? Rockets that take a few people to the moon a few times, or communications that influence and form the consciousness of billions every day in new ways?
    An automobile that transforms the economy, or access to information that transforms the way most people think?

    Giovanni Dannato

    January 26, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    • The problem is that every age has had it’s amazing communication technology. The internet is no less revolutionary than the telegraph. And that is nowhere less revolutionary than the printing press. There have always existed innovations in moving messages either faster, in-bulk or both.

      What is not always available is amazing transportation technology, which is why transportation tech captures science fiction’s imagination a lot more than communication technology.


      January 26, 2016 at 2:16 pm

      • The easier access to information provided by the printing press was enough to destabilize and remake Western civ.
        The internet undermines gatekeepers even more decisively. With printing, a few publishing houses in New York could still control everyone’s access to written information. TV stations and radio are even more centrally controlled sources.
        Suddenly all kinds of people who think differently can find each other, who would once have been isolated within a stifling consensus. The consequences have yet to be fully realized.

        Giovanni Dannato

        January 26, 2016 at 4:03 pm

      • Life is essentially material. Either you are making something, moving something, mining something or growing something. No one “eats” information. Technological declines in these very real areas of life are a serious concern.

        Most people couldn’t read when Guttenberg’s Bible first came out. The forces that were destablizing Western civilization were probably already there before printing became widespread.


        January 26, 2016 at 5:00 pm

      • We could do something awesome like hyperloop; instead we’re squabbling about the overbudget slow-motion roll-out of “high-speed” rail that may someday connect a few tiny California desert villages.

        Instead of leaping ahead, we’re paralyzed by entrenched special interest capture and NIMBY. People say China is undemocratic. But how is it democratic when a few hundred or few dozen well motivated individuals outweigh and thwart the interests and welfare of millions of citizens?

        Nothing like the destruction of a good natural or unnatural disaster like war to unlock unrealized potential previously blocked by entrenched rent-seekers. Economic growth requires creative destruction but peacetime democracy hates destruction of any kind.

        Thin-Skinned Masta-Beta

        January 26, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    • Read different SF. Seems you have been exposed to pop star trek/wars like SF only.

      Anything from Alastair Reynolds for example.


      January 26, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    • Most people don’t think. If the Internet really made most people think, I would totally agree though.


      January 26, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      • But imagine someone young who doesn’t think much yet has never known a world without texting, facebook, and MMOs. That’s going to have a large influence on how their consciousness works. I was going through the toy section at Target a couple years ago curious about an upcoming generation. I noticed many material toys of creatures could be plugged into a game console and used as characters in-game. The lines between the communication medium and the “real world” are more blurred for them in a way that’s hard for us to imagine.
        As an early millennial I well remember how alien the concept of video games and computer games was to most boomer parents.

        Giovanni Dannato

        January 26, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    • You make interesting points, Giovanni. By this logic, the great technological advancements of the future will probably be in realms we don’t expect. You watch contemporary sci-fi and there are lots of presumptions we’ll all be communicating telepathically through brain-chips, or have our iPhones literally glued to our eyeballs or whatever. But imagine if Americans 100 years from now will look back at us today and think, “geez, they sure were dirty all the time.” Or “man, they still made things out of WOOD?”

      Sanitation and building materials seem like two things we just assume we have plateaued on. Same with animal labor, colonization of nature, and food. What else?


      January 27, 2016 at 11:26 am

  4. The slide from a reading culture to a movies and TV culture hasn’t been beneficial. AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH (1985) by Neil Postman explains why (but don’t read the book, watch Postman interviewed on YouTube).

    Mark Caplan

    January 26, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    • “but don’t read the book, watch Postman interviewed on YouTube”

      LOL. Is that irony or humor? Or both?

      Robert the Wise

      January 26, 2016 at 9:00 pm

  5. Mark Steyn made this observation a while ago in one of his excellent book America Alone, Lights Out, or After America. . .can’t remember which.

    America has become stagnant post-60s. Trillions of dollars of treasure of been blown on welfare (destroying the family) instead of the best and the brightest.


    January 26, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    • It was After America. Steyn imagined the title character in HG Wells’ The Time Machine going from 1895 to 1950 and being amazed at the advancements, then going from 1950 to 2010 and being dismayed at the stagnation.

      Here’s Steyn in 2015 on that:


      January 26, 2016 at 8:39 pm

      • “The Astounding World of the Future”

        Oswald Spengler

        January 26, 2016 at 9:53 pm

  6. ** sigh **

    Yet again, a book bemoans the stagnation of the American economy and the flattening out of income and the “rising inequality,” yet it doesn’t even contain the word “immigration” or “out-sourcing.” Which are responsible for about 95% of the “stagnation.”

    What happened between 1940 and 1970 is that America made just about everything in America. Look around whatever room you are in right now. In 1970, other than for some foreign nick-nacks you might have, everything in your room was made in America. The paint on the wall, the rug, the furniture, the clothes in the closet, the television, the electrical outlets, the clock radio, the Venetian blinds, the light bulbs, the picture frames, the windows, the door knobs, the heating unit, the thermostat. Now, more or less none of these things are made in America (maybe the paint still is).

    And this began to truly pick up steam in the 1980s, which is also when immigration started to explode.

    Americans spend trillions on goods. If all those goods were made here, all that wealth retained here, you wouldn’t need a minimum wage because factory workers would be fat, dumb and happy. The wealth would be spread proportionally more among the workforce and less among the top executives and shareholders, which is the case today.

    You simply can’t take an economics book seriously if it doesn’t look at immigration and out-sourcing as major factors. Willful blindness at work.


    January 26, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    • The issue of large scale productivity and innovation slow down is a matter of a lot more than immigration.


      January 26, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    • I think Nixon’s trip to China with CEOs in tow had a lot to do with outsourcing. We thought we were doing them such a big favor..throwing a few bones to their backward industrial base. Look what happened.

      Diplomacy, feh.

      Mrs Stitch

      January 26, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    • peterike has a good point.

      If your factories go overseas, then, eventually, your engineering will go overseas. If your engineering goes overseas, then, eventually, so will your basic research.


      January 27, 2016 at 12:39 pm

  7. Haven’t we been talking about this for years now? “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters …” “Average is Over” …etc…

    It’s going to be a fierce competition over the spoils of what’s left of rent-seeking value-transference sinecures. Can people still inherit titles? Well these rent-seekers feel like they “earned” their positions and having invested so much in the credentials that entitle them to their nice posts they have no appetite for the kind of creative destruction that could make things more efficient and productive.

    We’ll be left with this 1% and those who serve them, their personal chefs, interior designers, yoga instructors, and yes… …. their butlers.

    Thin-Skinned Masta-Beta

    January 26, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    • We can’t have flying cars or moonbases because we spent all that money Making Africans Happy. But that money was well spent, because today Africans in this country are happy, well-educated, productive members of society, right?


      January 26, 2016 at 3:38 pm

      • Actually yes, they are extremely happy. As Steve Sailer says, black people really like being black. They’ve always enjoyed rioting. And now that PC has turned cops into fearful pussycats, you see BLM enjoying themselves at every opportunity.


        January 26, 2016 at 10:30 pm

  8. The 707 went into commercial service in 1958 and dominated air travel in the 1960s. It created the Jet Age of easy intercontinental travel.

    Before that screw aircraft were expensive and slow by comparison, but nowhere near as expensive and slow as the early twentieth century boat travel.


    January 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    • Air travel still remained expensive until the airline deregulation of the 1980’s and the rise of the discount carriers around the same time.



      January 26, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      • yeah but…if you were in LA you could fly to SF for 13 dollars. And that didn’t seem like a lot even back then.

        Flights leaving every hour…great for day tripping.

        Mrs Stitch

        January 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm

  9. This point about how much crappier everything was in the 1870s (and, obviously, earlier) speaks to why Americans of northern European descent — whose ancestors settled this land when it was really hard just to EXIST day to day — reflexively bristle at the idea that we are a “nation of immigrants.”

    Your average white American might not be able to put their finger precisely on WHY that phrase bugs them. But there it is.

    If your family came into a rough territory and tamed it while crapping in an outhouse and participated in the formation of the world’s first republican democracy since Ancient Greece… well, I’m sorry. You are the “posterity” that the Founding Fathers spoke of and this land IS more yours than Devek from Mumbai or Rico from Juarez who got here last Saturday and already have smartphones and AC and a welfare safety net.


    January 26, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    • +1.


      January 26, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    • Which is why 8 years of military service should be required before any foreign born person can collect any kind of entitlement benefit. That includes doctors; send them to the VA.

      get off my lawn

      January 27, 2016 at 10:55 am

  10. There was no residential HVAC, so people were boiling.


    January 26, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    • Not really. Many 19th century brick homes in the South have exterior walls 12″ thick. They stay nice and cool even in August.


      January 26, 2016 at 9:20 pm

  11. The observation has been made before. Our parents or grandparents experienced the real uplift, while we have been living off the fumes, sort of.


    January 26, 2016 at 3:15 pm

  12. When I was a kid I lived in an apartment that was built in the 1930s. Anyone from today who went back in time and lived there would hate, hate, hate it. No closets (standing wardrobes only), no washer/dryer (everyone went downstairs and used a stone tub to wash their clothes then dried them on the line out back), no elevator (have fun walking up 12 flights), very small rooms, no a/c, no dishwasher. Some of that stuff could be retrofitted today, I guess.

    Just googled and apartments in that building now go for over a million bucks. Too bad my parents sold it and moved a looooong time ago.


    January 26, 2016 at 3:36 pm

  13. theres a great book called “future hype” that talks about this. one of the interesting points it makes is that a lot of the allegedly enormous technological revolutions that have been come up with in the past 30 years were small compared to real innovations made before. for example, online shopping may seem revolutionary, but really it is only an extension of cataloging, which, when implemented in the late 19th century, really changed the name of the game in shopping.

    james n.s.w

    January 26, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    • A good point. But cataloging, while it allowed one to avoid physical “in-person” shopping had its limits. First of all, you had to know that a special catalog for the item you wanted existed. Then you had to know where to write or call to order the catalog. Then you had to wait in the mail for it And you couldn’t have much privacy if you lived with another person because they’d know that you ordered the catalog, which usually didn’t come in a distinctive wrapping. Also, catalogs, if you got a large number of them, took up a lot of space in your apartment or house. And it was hard to comparison shop for items because you’d need to have several catalogs with the same item to see which one sold the item the cheapest. Online shopping allows for greater choice, quicker access to information, and a lot more privacy. Also catalogs didn’t contain Amazon-style product reviews.


      January 26, 2016 at 4:26 pm

  14. This may be true of technology in the home, but there have been massive advances in medicine and surgery that make modern life a lot less frightening than it was in 1940, and with the promise of further advances to make old age more bearable too. That’s a big deal.

    prolier than thou

    January 26, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    • yeah, the trend is towards innovation on a micro scale – apps, biotechnology, computing, theoretical physics,

      grey elightenment

      January 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    • I agree. Doctors who go back to 1945 may be just as aghast at the conditions then as doctors in 1945 would be with 1875.
      Throw in advancements in transportation (cars are better, safer, more fuel-efficient, and easier to drive), communications (not just TV/Internet), and we aren’t looking too bad now.

      Half Canadian

      January 26, 2016 at 5:24 pm

      • Cars haven’t changed much since the 1960s. Adding air conditioning to cars was huge, but after air conditioning there have been not big advancement in cars. Self-driving cars will be a big advancement if it ever happens.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        January 26, 2016 at 6:01 pm

      • Still dreaming about self driving cars? Not going to happen.


        January 27, 2016 at 4:09 am

      • Throw in advancements in transportation (cars are better, safer, more fuel-efficient, and easier to drive)

        Only automobile transportation has “advanced”. All other forms of non-air transportation have either become more expensive, more dangerous, harder to access, or all three — if they even exist at all.


        January 27, 2016 at 9:58 am

    • Kind of… The procedures you speak of are financially off the table for probably 85% of people. Those 85% of people will be blown off and told to suck it up and hurt. If people can’t access meaningful healthcare, it’s not really innovative is it?

      The day that I see people being able to get up from their desks for an hour and exercise in the company gym is the day I’ll acknowledge any kind of healthcare talk as meaningful.

      get off my lawn

      January 27, 2016 at 11:02 am

  15. Let’s take a period of time, between, say, 1920 and 1970. Consider what kind of revolutionary advances in technology occurred in that period:

    Commercializing aircraft and automobiles.
    Microwave ovens
    Atom bomb
    Nuclear power
    Jet aircraft
    Discovering DNA

    Of course, various medical advances and other a achievements due to the World Wars.

    Since 1970. what revolutionary advances have we had? Mind you, I mean revolutionary technologies, not evolutionary improvements. Personal computers, maybe?

    The period of technological decline corresponds coincidentally with the influx of minorities into the sciences, btw.


    January 26, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    • Television has gotten a lot better since 1970. Anything involving communication has gotten a lot better since 1970.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      January 26, 2016 at 5:58 pm

      • One can make a case that vintage Long Playing Records sound naturally better, than any digitally mastered sound.


        January 26, 2016 at 7:54 pm

      • Novels? Music?


        January 26, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    • Hmm. The cellphone has certainly taken the world by storm. Let’s see if it lasts. Could people get tired of being always tethered and monitored?

      I guess the field of consumer credit has had a lot of innovation too. Credit cards, ATMs, not to mention the various mortgage miracles. Yay for us?


      January 26, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    • Video games, mobile phones, digital media storage (from cd to ipod), thumb drives, LCD and touch screens. But there is no need for revolution, there were so many crude technologies that needed massive brain power to develop further. The internet is the prime example.


      January 27, 2016 at 12:01 am

  16. This gordon guy has been saying this for the last 10 years. Of course growth would make a lot of difference when you start of at 1 (pre 1850) and go to 10 (1940) then go from 10 to 20 (2016). I still think this century will have some huge changes – they may not take place for another 40 for 60 years. We will have mars colonies, colonies saturn’s moons, etc. Not mention medical breakthroughs as well melding of robotics and human body. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had better eyesight. better heart, etc.


    January 26, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    • You know when the last man walked on the moon? Look it up and think twice about how likely a “Mars Colony” in 2060 would be.
      There is not only the factor of satiation and lack of real tech progress but also the economics of diminishing returns. Spaceflight beyond getting satellites up is basically only prestige. Hardly any returns.

      As for the technical gadgetry: Isn’t it obvious that almost any motor car (at least as soon as it was mass-marketable and affordable, which was in the 1920s/30s in the US and in the 1950s/60s in most other Western countries) is a huge step up compared to horse and buggy whereas a fancy 2015 car with all kinds of gimmicks is a fairly trivial step compared to a 1950s car (or even a Model T). (Although in urbanized regions cars did not replace horse-drawn carriages but rather supplement bikes, trams and railroads, a smaller step.)
      Almost every time the first (or one of the first) steps of a new technology has the strongest impact.

      Or something many of us witnessed in our lifetime: Were 1980s/early 90s videogames that ran on machines with 512k RAM or less really so much less fun than today’s games? They were a lot of fun for us kids and often had smarter gaming ideas than today’s stuff. In any case, today’s games are not a million or a billion times more fun (which would have to be the case if one compared some measures of computing power).

      nomen nescio

      January 27, 2016 at 9:06 am

  17. Back in the 1940s, airline travel was still a pricey luxury. The 707 was an improvement over the Constellation or DC-6, yes, but not an improvement to the same degree that the Connie was over the DC-3, for example.

    In the 1940s, airplane travel was costly, uncomfortable, and not always safe. In the 50s, it was still expensive, somewhat safer, and faster. By the 60s, it was safe, fast, and pretty comfortable, but still expensive.

    Today? Cheap and remarkably safe. But slower than it was 50 years ago, not to mention less comfortable, and less pleasant all the way around.

    Sgt. Joe Friday

    January 26, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    • Modern airplanes aren’t much different than the Boeing 707 first introduced in 1958. But airports have gotten a lot worse.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      January 26, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      • Wrong. They are “the same” in that they have wings, a fuselage, and jet engines. The avionics, reliability, and safety of those planes are very different.

        “Classic” airplanes, like “classic” cars, actually suck.


        January 26, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    • The real tragedy of today’s air travel is the extreme rarity of attractive stewardesses. On Delta they’re mainly Nell Carter clones, or effeminate gays.

      The only time you see a hot flight attendant now is if you’re at the international terminal.


      January 26, 2016 at 9:11 pm

  18. This is a deeply conservative view. The foundation of the Liberal secular religion is the idea of human progress. Things like religion and our ignorant and hateful belief that human differences exist can be cast aside as we march forward into a glorious sunshiny future. This explains I think why the Sci-Fi types are so liberal. This sort of thing strikes at the root of that.


    January 26, 2016 at 6:33 pm

  19. By the end of this week we will know if Trump is for real or not.

    6 days before IA in 2004, Dean’s poll numbers showed the first sign of decline. In the Fridays polls before the caucus Dean was already down to 3rd place, with the momentum rapidly moving against him.

    If Trump is winning IA in the polls released Thursday and Friday, the primary is already over. Trump will win all 50 states. He might lose PR and some territories though.

    Otis the Sweaty

    January 26, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    • “Trump will win all 50 states. He might lose PR and some territories though.” Although Puerto Ricans are citizens there’s no presidential vote there.

      Oracle du Bogota

      January 27, 2016 at 6:43 am

  20. “Nothing like the destruction of a good natural or unnatural disaster like war to unlock unrealized potential previously blocked by entrenched rent-seekers. Economic growth requires creative destruction but peacetime democracy hates destruction of any kind.”

    It doesn’t matter. Destruction is coming whether they want it or not.

    Robert the Wise

    January 26, 2016 at 8:56 pm

  21. Lion,
    Peter Thiel has written a lot about this. He has an article in National Review a few years ago: The End of the Future. Here it is:

    Here is something similar that he helped publish:

    Also, here is what Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber said about the future, which Peter Thiel wrote about. This was a very popular view back then when extrapolating productivity:

    In 30 years America will be a post-industrial society. . . . There will be only four work days a week of seven hours per day. The year will be comprised of 39 work weeks and 13 weeks of vacation. With weekends and holidays this makes 147 work days a year and 218 free days a year. All this within a single generation.


    January 26, 2016 at 10:23 pm

  22. Yeah this Krugman is one of those guys who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. In 1870 they might not have had “modern” conveniences, but if you owned land, YOU OWNED IT. No government official could tell you what you could build or do with it, the neighbors didn’t have covenants preventing you from doing what you wanted. The kids went outside to play instead of sitting around all day eating corn and corn syrup sodas while blankly viewing some LCD screen. You may love the convenience of your cell phone, but the NSA is using it to track you. Snowden says they can turn on the camera without it lighting up so they can actually see you.
    Back then there was no income tax, and there were no welfare tourists running down your neighborhood. If anyone who wasn’t a citizen crossed the Rio Grande the Texas Rangers or a posse would track em down and escort them out with guns. You may have a smartphone, a self-parking car, appliances that set and make food and drink themselves, but the average college student is an uneducated boob that knows virtually nothing about history at all. Back then you had to pay for schooling out of pocket, but if you did, you read the classics in the Original Latin and Greek. Everyone knew more about history and politics and government when they graduated than even the Grad Students today.

    Joshua Sinistar

    January 28, 2016 at 6:06 pm

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