The Boy Who Cried Wolf Was Eventually Right

“We are reaching end times for Western affluence,” warns economist Stephen King (insert obligatory horror joke here) in yesterday’s New York Times. King, who has authored a book entitled When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence, joins the ranks of economic Cassandras like Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon, both of whom have made waves with pessimistic takes on the U.S. economy’s prospects. Like Cowen and Gordon, King couches his claims in overstatements that make it easier for skeptical readers to dismiss his arguments. Peel away the hype, though, and these growth pessmists are still fundamentally correct. The wolf really is at the door this time. In other words, the growth outlook really is darkening.

Cowen put the hype right in the title of his attention-getting book: The Great Stagnation, his term for the past 40 years or so. Of course, real GDP per capita has nearly doubled since 1973, so stagnation is obviously an inapt term. It’s true that productivity growth and growth in median incomes have slowed down, but The Moderate Slowdown is a pretty boring book title. Meanwhile, Gordon saw Cowen and raised him with the highly provocative and speculative argument that technological progress is largely exhausted and, therefore, the 250-year era of modern economic growth is winding down. You don’t have to be Raymond Kurzweil to find that contention unpersuasive.

Now King warns that Western affluence is coming to an end. Well it’s not: even if all growth stopped tomorrow, today’s advanced economies are affluent beyond the wildest dreams of yesteryear.

Push past the hype, though, and Cowen, Gordon, and King are making a point that really needs to be more widely understood: growth is getting harder for the U.S. economy, and there are strong reasons for thinking that growth rates over the next decade or two will fall short of the long-term U.S. historical average. As I explain in a new Cato paper released today, you don’t have to be a pessimist about the future of innovation to be pessimistic about the U.S. economy’s medium-term growth outlook. The main source of weakness lies in demographics: the 20th century saw big increases in both the percentage of the population in the workforce (thanks to the changing role of women in society) and the overall skill level of the workforce (thanks to a huge increase in formal schooling). The rise in schooling has slowed down considerably since 1980, and the labor force participation rate has actually been falling since 2000 (it’s now back to where it was in 1979). What were tailwinds for growth have turned into headwinds.

In his op-ed King closes with a largely sensible list of policy recommendations: in particular entitlement reform, deficit reduction, and trade liberalization. Matt Yglesias, though, makes the clever point that these prescriptions are jarringly inconsistent with King’s diagnosis. If growth really is over, “politics really should consist of a bitter zero-sum scramble over the distribution of a fixed pool of resources.” Without the possiblity of growth, redistribution is the only thing policy change can accomplish.

Fortunately, growth isn’t over, it’s just getting harder. Which means that, to revive the U.S. economy’s faltering performance, wrenching policy changes are needed to remove obstacles to innovation and growth. In this environment, more bitter zero-sum scrambles are the last thing we need.