The United States has produced one of the most successful economic stories in human history.
We've had a lot of inherent advantages: abundant natural resources, favorable demographic trends, relative political stability supported by the protective benefit of two oceans, to name a few.
But from colonial times to the present, our happy economy has also been powered by three separate industrial revolutions: 1) the introduction of steam engines and railroads, 2) the inception and widespread use of electricity and the combustion engine, and 3) the invention of computers, the web and mobile communications.
As Northwestern economist Robert Gordon points out in a new paper, these three interlocking events gave rise to a widespread assumption that "economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever."
That's because each of these industrial revolutions produced a virtuous economic circle.
Each advance built upon the innovations of the previous ones, along the way boosting productivity and revving the American economy, which in turn made American consumers richer and more able to buy stuff.
Well, guess what?
Gordon writes that future growth in consumption per capita — the main engine of the consumer-based US economy — could fall below 0.5 percent a year for what he calls "an extended period of decades."
Yes, that would be a big deal. For some context, between 1860 and 2007 that annual growth rate was 1.9 percent.
What's driving this structural economic slowdown, according to Gordon?
He argues that six "headwinds" are buffeting the US economy, and that these factors were in place even before the Great Recession of 2008.
Count 'em: 1) changing and unfavorable demographics, 2) rising education costs and poor secondary school performance, 3) growing economic inequality, 4) increased competition due to globalization, 5) energy and environmental costs and challenges, and 6) high levels of consumer and government debt.
Taken together, these headwinds will slow growth dramatically into the foreseeable future.
Here's the money quote of Gordon's paper, which is titled "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds":