America's Boring Economy

The Goldilocks recovery continues.

Samrang Pring/Reuters

The last few years of the U.S. economy have been like one of any dozen CBS procedural dramas, where despite several mid-episode twists and the occasional cliff-hanger, the broader plot development is minimal and the resolutions are rather predictable.

For example, take the granddaddy statistic of economic growth: GDP. The government reported this morning that GDP grew at a 4 percent annual rate in the second quarter of 2014, which is great. We snapped back from an abysmal negative-2.1 percent doozie in the first quarter, which was terrible. The previous six months of growth were the best half-year of growth since the first W. Bush administration, which was great.

So many twists! But when you add them all up, you get with an average rate of growth that looks, well ... procedural.

GDP Growth: A Steady Meh 

Or take the employment picture, which is more interesting, not only because job creation more directly touches our lives, but also because we get a new reading every month.

Job creation appears to implode one month and crush expectations a few weeks later, but the broader picture is also one of subtle but consistent improvement. We created 173k jobs/month in 2011; 186k jobs/month in 2012; 194k jobs/month in 2013, and 230k jobs/month in the first half of this year. If, in December 2010, you had said, "you know, we created about 190,000 jobs per month in the last two months, and should probably create about that many jobs per month for the next four years, with slow, jagged improvement every few seasons," that sort of hot take might not have booked you any cable news gigs, but it would have been dead-on.

Jobs Growth: More Steady, More Meh

The bad news about a slow-but-steady recovery is clear: lingering long-term unemployment, stagnant wages, and a housing recovery that is leaving many middle-income families behind. But one interesting side-effect of the boring recovery* is that it puts to rest (for now) the popular fears of a AI/robot revolution taking all of our jobs. In that brave neo-industrial world, one thing you would expect to see is GDP growth rapidly outstripping empoyment, as robots did a bunch of work while Americans sat around waiting for federal welfare checks. Quite the opposite, in the last few years, GDP-per-worker has all but stopped growing.

GDP by Worker: The Last Decade

No need to start a parade over slow productivity growth. Technology and globalization have wiped out a lot of middle-class jobs, but they haven't wiped out overall employment. Young people with less education who might have been in a manufacturing union a few decades ago are more likely to work in retail, restaurants, home-health-care services, or other places that offer short hours and small wages. But it is interesting that, even as I find myself persuaded by theories of our automated future, the present is less scary and more subtly concerning. The robots aren't rising up yet. But neither are productivity and wages.

*Obviously, there are plenty of interesting things happening inside the U.S. economy, like our weird housing market, the future of mobile attention, and Imoji. It's the broader trends of growth and jobs that have been thermostatic.