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The Creativity Decline: Evidence from US Patents

Economists have long struggled to understand why aggregate productivity growth has dropped in recent decades while the number of new patents filed has steadily increased. I offer an explanation for this puzzling divergence: the creativity embodied in US patents has dropped dramatically over time. To separate creative from derivative patents, I develop a novel, text-based measure of patent creativity: the share of technical terminology that did not appear in previous patents. I show that only creative and not derivative patents are associated with significant improvements in firm level productivity. Using the measure, I show that inventors on average file creative patents upon entry, and file derivative patents with more experience. I embed this life-cycle of creativity in a growth model with endogenous creation and imitation of technologies. In this model, falling population growth explains 27% of the observed decline in patent creativity, 30% of the slowdown in productivity growth, and 64% of the increase in patenting.

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