Wake Up, You've Been Asleep for 50 Years

Nintil suggests: “Maybe there was a monocausal event in 1970.”

Many graphs to follow, but first:

And of course, WTF Happened in 1971.

Constitutional Amendments [1]

Energy Use

GDP Doubling Time

Peer Review

Donald Braben, author of Scientific Freedom: “'academic research before about 1970 was essentially unmanaged”

Leaded Gas

Oil Shock


Male Income

R&D’s Share of the Federal Budget

Senate Filibusters

See Also:
Scott Alexander: Wage Stagnation: Much More Than You Wanted To Know
Scott Alexander: 1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled
Noah Smith: How the 1970s Changed the U.S. Economy

[1] I’m cheating a bit here. The 27th amendment was proposed in 1789, but ratified in 1992. So we have ratified something since 1971, we just haven’t ratified anything written since then. Having said that, it’s a really boring amendment.

Okay, the obvious objection here is that it’s easy to cherry pick examples for any 5 year period. But is it actually? Maybe you could do WWII, but that wouldn’t be weird, that would just be WWII. This is notably because the events seem largely unrelated.

But you might be right, and it’s possible this is all just noise. I’m genuinely unsure.

A compelling explanation would be that a lot of this is related. Energy use slowed becaused GDP per capital slowed. Inflation skyrocketed because we got off the gold standard. We stopped passing constitutional amendments because of the filibusters.

Compiling this post, I came across several mentions of Mike Mansfield. He’s responsible for changing the filibuster bylaws (1970), prohibiting military funding of research without a direct military application (1969) and limiting DARPA’s scope (1973). Darpa, of course, was responsible for both ARPANET and the Mother of All Demos. For more on why this matters, see Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley, summarizing the influence of military funding on seemingly unrelated innovations.

So sure, there are some specific causes we can point to.

But just imagine being around in these years. In 1962 JFK announces we’re going to the Moon, and a mere 7 years later we’re there. That very same year, the internet comes out. 3 years later we have video games, and a year after that, cell phones.

Of course, the average American wouldn’t really have cared. The internet existed in some lab, not in your home. Maybe it’s the same situation today. We have CRISPR, but it hasn’t yet had a big impact on our lives. Google announced quantum supremacy, but I won’t have a quantum computer for a long time. GPT-3 can synthesize shockingly good music, but nothing I would actually listen to. It’s possible 50 years from now we’ll look back at 2018-2023 as an incredible period of innovation, with nearly miraculous coincidence.


[Edit: 2021/02/19] From Tyler Cowen:

The break point in America is exactly 1973 and we don’t know why this is the case. It’s often argued that 1973 is the breakpoint because the price of oil goes up a good deal because of OPEC and the embargo, that might be true. But since that time, the price of oil in real terms has fallen a great deal and productivity has not bounded back. But at least in the short term, that seems to be the relevant shock.