Airplanes, Economic Growth, and Giants

I am in love with flying, every single part of it. I like packing luggage, and holding a paper ticket, the smell of coffee in an airport, surrounded by a sea of cultures, the feeling in your stomach when you’re taking off, the sound of the flaps on the wings extending, a little bit of ticklish turbulence, and most of all the clouds. I love the clouds. It’s a whole different universe above the clouds. And yes, I even love the sanitized air. Every time I fly it’s like the first time; my amazement never goes away.

But there’s a sad truth to flying a commercial jet, they debuted in 1952 and even though we have gadgets for gadgets now, planes are not any more efficient in terms of time now than they were in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s, besides the fact that we’re now packed like sardines when we board. Between 1960 and now, we’re still traveling at the same speed. For example, on my flight this weekend max speed was somewhere around 560 miles per hour. It sounds fast but when you think that in the last 60 years air travel hasn’t become any faster, it’s a little bit depressing.

It’s not just planes though. There was a “golden age” in the 20th century where it seemed like virtually anything that humanity touched turned to gold, we could distribute people, products, and news in the matter of hours or days, whereas before it took weeks or even months. Since about the 1970’s though, that growth slowed down. It’s hard to really grasp this when we have computers the size of our hands, and everyday there’s some new app coming on the market, but it’s important to realize that for the late 19th century up until the 1970’s, everything that came out was like reinventing the wheel. We’ve improved the quality, and quantity of those products today with faster smaller computers, free apps that allow the average Joe to communicate internationally, and more fuel efficient cars but; at the same time, we haven’t reinvented the wheel, we haven’t reinvented electricity.

30 years ago, we thought we’d have jetpacks, now we have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and all other social media that instead of making us productive actually increases our procrastination and our b variable in an economics behavior equation that measures how much patience we have (not much). We thought we’d be farther than we are, but we’ve become complacent with an app dense world. I use social media, obviously, but as a 22 year old adult I’m looking for ways to make the most out of my time, to be the most efficient and find better ways to make my life productive. I don’t need better methods to buy something through Instagram.

A slow down in productivity starts with what we use at home. A big boost for the American economy was when women entered the workforce. Why were they able to do that? Because of washing machines, that could now turn an entire weeks worth of work into a couple of hours. That effect hasn’t been replicated in the household for a while, and it’s not being replicated outside the house either.

But I am an annoying optimist and where I disagree with points brought forward by other economists is here: some believe that the technological breakthroughs of the 19th and 20th centuries were easy and that it will become progressively harder to keep replicating those breakthroughs because the material has also become progressively difficult. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Humanity had been trying to fly since the Greek myths with Icarus and his wings of wax, we didn’t achieve flight until 1871 with the Wright brothers. I still believe that by flying next to the shoulders of giants, we can seek out greater technology and keep reinventing the wheel.

For more information on this topic check out the author Robert Gordon and these links:

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