Technology and Economic Growth

ROME: The story of Elihu Thompson, the inventor of the electric dynamo, and ultimately a founder of one of America's great companies, General Electric, recurs frequently in the speeches of Alan Greenspan. The chairman of America's Federal Reserve Board is understandably fascinated by the great inventions of the late 19th century which revolutionized industrial production in America and around the globe.

Some may be surprised that a central bank governor is interested in technological innovation, and even more that economists at the Fed are studying the impact of computers on economic growth (their research on this subject, indeed, may be found on the Fed's internet site: Such research may also shed light on whether the current extraordinary expansion of the U.S. economy, which has lasted uninterrupted for the past nine years, is simply a prolonged streak of luck or represents the effect of a new technological revolution, similar to the one which occurred at the end of the 19th century and which is best symbolized by the spread of electric power. The answer to that question not only has important consequences for American monetary policy, but also suggests a few reflections on today's economic conditions in Europe as well as Europe's new single currency.

The reason why the Federal Reserve is studying the electric dynamo is, obviously, not the Fed's interest in history. The story of the diffusion and utilization of the dynamo offers strong analogies with the opportunities and problems posed by today's new information technologies for the organization of enterprises. The first industrial applications of the dynamo began in 1890, but one needed to wait some thirty years before seeing the effects of that then “new technology” on the productivity of enterprises. The most important reason for this delay was the resistance of managers towards adapting the organization of labor in their firms to the new mode of production. Once this transformation took place, however, rapid growth in productivity followed fast.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable

    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.