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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

In a new working paper, Stanford economist Charles Jones sets out to answer a simple question: Why over the past 150 years has GDP per person in the U.S. increased exponentially at a relatively stable rate of around 2% per year?

The big picture: Growth comes from ideas and ideas come from people — and new population projections suggest the U.S. will have fewer of those in the future.

  • That could mean economic growth slows as well, but smarter policies around education, opportunity and technology could keep the new ideas coming.

What's happening: One answer to Jones' question is what's known as the semi-endogenous growth model, which holds that income per person depends on the aggregate number of ideas in the economy.

  • While a capital improvement — like a new computer — can only be used by one worker at a time, new ideas "can be used by any number of people at the same time, so every improvement has the potential to benefit everyone," Jones writes.
  • That means economic growth is ultimately dependent on the growth of the number of researchers or innovators, which in turn is dependent on population growth overall.

The catch: New census data released this week confirms that U.S. population growth is slowing and the country as a whole is getting older.

  • That would seem to be bad news for long-term economic growth, as the supply of the fuel for new ideas — people — begins to dwindle in the future.
  • While the growth of ideas has outpaced population growth since 1950 thanks to rising educational attainment and increases in the percentage of the population devoted to research, it won't be easy to expand education or the sheer number of researchers in the U.S.

Yes, but: There's still some room to expand educational opportunities and researcher populations in less-developed countries, as well as at home — Jones notes that just 12% of inventors in the U.S. are women.

  • Already artificial intelligence models are making inventions, including a new antibiotic, and it's possible that better AI could more than make up for fewer flesh-and-blood innovators.

Go deeper

Housing slowdown threatens China's economic muscle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China Evergrande and a growing group of Chinese housing developers are inching toward defaulting on their debt.

Why it matters: While that's unlikely to cause a crisis of Lehman proportions, as Axios’ Felix Salmon has reported, just how much China's real estate sector cools could impact the nation's role as a growth driver for companies around the world.

3 hours ago - Health

FDA authorizes mix-and-match for COVID booster shots

Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) on Wednesday gave its approval for Americans to get booster shots that are different from the COVID vaccine they initially received.

Why it matters: The recommendation from the FDA, which also authorized booster shots for people who received Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines on Wednesday, paves the way for an expansion of booster shots.

GOP congressman forfeits committee seats after indictment

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) on Wednesday stepped down from his committee assignments after being indicted for lying to federal investigators amid a probe into illegal campaign donations.

What they're saying: In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Fortenberry said he is "grateful for the outpouring of support from my friends and colleagues as we work against the injustice confronting me."