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Noah Smith

Maybe This Is as Good as Innovation Gets

If that’s the case, the fastest economic growth is behind us.

It was easier back then.

It was easier back then.

Photographer: FPG/Archive Photos/Gettyng Images

One of the scariest ideas in the world is the possibility that technological progress is petering out. Without it, there can be no long-run economic expansion or ongoing improvement in the human condition. Modern societies and economies are built on the assumption of growth, but even if they were to be reorganized to adapt to a static world, it could be very bad. The return to a zero-sum world could bring back the constant warfare and strife that prevailed in the distant past, if the only way for people to prosper was at other people’s expense.

But what does it mean for innovation to slow down? Technology isn’t just one thing — progress can be rapid in some areas but slow in others. Economists typically measure a society’s overall level of technology by looking at total factor productivity, a measure of how much an economy produces relative to inputs of capital and labor. Here, we do see a worldwide slowdown in developed countries since the mid-2000s: