Take women's labor-force participation. From 1950 to 2000, it surged from 30.9 percent to 59.9 percent; but in 2012, it was 57.7 percent, with the falloff starting before the recession. Some older women are retiring; some younger women are staying home. High-school and college graduation rates have leveled off and, in some cases, declined. Business investment rates have also dropped. It seems that "only a surge in [innovation] can keep U.S. economic growth from faltering," writes Lindsey. But innovation, too, has weakened.
Admittedly, predictions like these aren't infallible. Actual growth could exceed expectations. Still, slow growth is more than scare talk. When adjusted for population increases, it reduces per capita income gains to 1 percent to 1.5 percent annually, Lindsey calculates. That's half to three-quarters the historical rate. The amount is small enough to be skimmed off by rising taxes, higher health insurance premiums or growing inequality. For many households, it would mean stagnation or worse.
What looms — it's already occurred in Europe — is a more contentious future. Economic growth serves as social glue that neutralizes other differences. Without it, economic and political competition becomes a game of musical chairs, where "one person's gain is another's loss," King writes. There's a "breakdown of trust," as expectations are continually disappointed. It's an often ugly process that is convincingly confirmed by Washington's current political firestorm.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.