New Faculty Books: Gordon Delves into Economic Challenges

By Monika Wnuk and Matt GolosinskiMarch 8, 2017

Today’s innovations may seem impressive, but they pale by comparison with earlier breakthroughs. In fact, new advances are unlikely to have the same transformative impact as those of the past, according to eminent Northwestern economist Robert Gordon.

His latest book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War, highlights the conditions that led to a century of unparalleled economic growth between 1870 and 1970. That period of rapid and far-reaching advances — including electric lighting, motor vehicles, and air conditioning — uniquely laid the foundation for many of the technological and economical developments since, Gordon contends.

“We have plenty of innovation now, but it’s affecting the economy very slowly and in fringe areas, such as voice recognition or virtual reality,” says Gordon, Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences and professor of economics. “We’re not experiencing the top-to-bottom revolution that we saw in those days.”

Gordon’s analysis hinges on his claim that growth seen during the century after the Civil War can never be repeated. Society’s transformation from a rural to urban setting happened just once. Similarly, advances such as air conditioning confer one-time benefits. Even the marvel of air travel has limits: Commercial airlines today achieve speeds no faster than in 1958, and planes have become even less comfortable.

“If you think of an office, by 1970 it was equipped with typewriters, clunky calculating machines, file cabinets, and paper,” Gordon says. “By the 1980s, we had computers with spreadsheets and word-processing software. With the 1990s arrived the Internet and e-commerce, but by 2005 the digital revolution’s main fruits had been harvested.”

“One simple way to think about this is that, in 1870, the house stood in isolation,” Gordon says. “But by 1940, that house was connected in five ways: electricity, gas, telephone, running water, and waste removal. We haven’t seen this kind of comprehensive change since.”

In his book, Gordon encourages an assessment of growth that goes beyond the conventional use of GDP, which doesn’t account for many signs of growth that humans care about and that contribute to an elevated standard of living. For example, in the century after the Civil War, life expectancy jumped from 45 to 72 years, infectious disease and infant mortality were significantly reduced, manual housework was largely replaced by electric appliances, and television brought images of the world into the living room.

Policy also accelerated progress for laborers through the introduction of the five-day workweek, restrictions on child labor, and government-supported retirement — all staples of American life today. Policy also supported growth through free high school education and labor unions.

But today, Gordon argues, four “headwinds” are stalling progress. Rising inequality, stagnating education, an aging population, and the ballooning debt of college students and the federal government are all factors that stunt growth. Yet even with these obstacles, Gordon says he remains optimistic about employment.

“There’s not a quick fix for our nation’s stagnant growth, but one thing I’m not worried about are jobs,” he says. “We’ll have plenty of jobs in the service sector, in healthcare and education, and in many other industries where machines are unlikely to displace humans over the next few decades.”

No Tea, No Shade Finds New Paths and Consolidates Existing Ones

In this follow-up to the groundbreaking Black Queer Studies, E. Patrick Johnson, African American studies and performance studies, curates a collection of 19 essays from the next generation of scholars, activists, and community leaders doing work on black gender and sexuality.

No Tea, No Shade — an expression rooted in an attempt to speak with conviction and authenticity — builds on the foundations laid by the earlier volume, with contributors speaking new truths about the black queer experience while providing convincing evidence for black queer studies as a rigorous and vital area of study. Topics include the carceral state, gentrification, sex, gender nonconformity, social media, the relationship between black feminist studies and black trans studies, the black queer experience throughout the black diaspora, and queer music, film, dance, and theater. The text’s contributors push black queer studies in new and exciting directions, proving that the field is substantial and enduring, despite early critiques that this scholarship was a passing trend.

Digital Platform Brings Revolutionary Theatre to Life

Northwestern University Press has published Dassia N. Posner’s second book, The Director’s Prism: E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Russian Theatrical Avant-Garde.

In this book, the theatre and Slavic languages and literatures expert investigates the revolutionary innovations of three Russian directors — Vsevolod Meyerhold, Alexander Tairov, and Sergei Eisenstein — through the lens of each one’s fascination with German Romantic fantasy writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. Many of the devices associated with avant-garde theatre — breaking the “fourth wall,” for instance — emerged from this intercultural exchange, she writes.

Posner’s book is accompanied by a web-based archive, the first to be featured on the new publishing platform Fulcrum, which provides a stage for multimedia materials and born-digital projects that can’t be accommodated in traditional monographs. Posner traveled to Russian, German, and US archives to extensively research the book and its online archive. She says that the digitally enriched source materials, such as theatrical designs, film clips, and playbills, illustrate the vivid and innovative approach to theatre-making that later was suppressed by Stalin. Additionally, the easy access and high quality of these digitized items brings a new dimension to the medium from which they originated.

“Performance is ephemeral and does not exist as a physical object, which makes it challenging to analyze as one would a painting or a dramatic text,” she says. “The materials in this online archive show that we can analyze historical performances by engaging deeply with the traces they leave behind.”