147 of 159 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and enjoyable biography of the American Economy
Forests have been cleared for all the books that have been written on American History. While a few stand out from the pack, it is harder to find one that is fresh, interesting, and informative. "An Empire of Wealth" is all of those things and I strongly recommend it to you. Instead of being a military, political, or diplomatic history, John Steel Gordon has written an...
Published on October 15, 2004 by Craig Matteson
2.0 out of 5 stars Tattered
Copy was in worse condition than advertised. Lots of wear on cover and pages were yellowed badly; content was as expected...insightful.
Published 6 months ago by Ernest R. Maddox
Most Helpful First | Newest First
147 of 159 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and enjoyable biography of the American Economy,
Forests have been cleared for all the books that have been written on American History. While a few stand out from the pack, it is harder to find one that is fresh, interesting, and informative. "An Empire of Wealth" is all of those things and I strongly recommend it to you. Instead of being a military, political, or diplomatic history, John Steel Gordon has written an economic biography of our country. Do not mistake this approach for a dry treatise on economics. Far from it, this book is full of struggle, wild success, bitter failure, dislocation from wrenching changes in the economy due to the rise of new technologies, and marshalling resources for war.
He begins with the resource rich, but hostile wilderness that the early explorers found. The British made the first permanent settlement at Jamestown in what is now Virginia. The settlers had come for gold, found mica that they mistook for gold ore, and only 38 of the 105 survived the first winter. They kept coming from England and they kept struggling until they began to grow and export tobacco. Mr. Gordon then takes us on a fast paced, and amazing journey through the nation's founding, the movement west, our major wars, depressions, and the rise (and fall) of technologies such as steam, the railroads, machine supported agriculture, banking, and international trade. He ends the book with the horrible events we experienced on September 11, 2001.
Not only is this a fun read for anyone interested in American History, it would be a fine addition to the history readings for high school or college students. I especially like the author's honesty about the good and the bad in our history without making us the bad guys or the source of all pain and suffering on the planet. The reader comes away with a richer understanding of our history and feels good about our place in the world.
The book has a particularly nice bibliography in addition to the chapter notes. The readings offered in the bibliography would enrich anyone and I also urge you to look at them and read as many as you can. There is also an index to help you find certain topics. (I am a big fan of indexes and cannot understand any modern book without one - given how easily computers can create them and allow the editor to work them into something useful. Yet, we still get books without indexes because people think they will be more popular. What I want is useful!)
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very pleasantly surprised...,
I purchased "Empire of Wealth" to address the glaring deficit in my knowledge of American history from an economic perspective. At the same time, I was dreading that this history would be boring and dry.
It is anything but. Gordon's effort is downright gripping, a compelling read chock full of information. Gordon has a knack for finding the most intriguing aspects of history and explaining difficult concepts in a manner that is quickly grasped. He is able to get to the heart of a concept without dragging along pedantic baggage. His writing is flawless and the raw historical material is seamlessly synthesized with consummate professionalism.
Gordon wraps his discussion of larger economic themes around the impact that invention, infrastructural development, and politics had on the burgeoning American economy. Examples include the Erie Canal, road and railroad building, the cotton gin, or the bessemer furnace.
From an "ideological" perspective, Gordon falls into the typical free-market, pro-deficit camp, which is consistent with the vast majority of economists today. However, he is far from dogmatic or simplistic, as some reviewers maintain. He acknowledges that unregulated capitalism is "red in tooth and claw" but that labor unions have overstepped their bounds, for example. Gordon devotes much time to the monopolies, oligopolies and collusion of post- Civil War America. At the same time, he fairly points out that not all political attempts to defang raw capitalism were the panaceas so keenly hoped-for.
A nice feature of Gordon's approach is his recognition of less-appreciated historical actors. For example, he gives the much-derided Hoover some credit for helping make possible the New Deal, insofar in that he tried every means possible short of big-government alphabet-soup to stem the growing depression. FDR would not have been able to introduce his heavy-handed methods, Gordon contends, without voter experience with Hoover's more gradualist and ultimately ineffective policies.
The author narrates far too much in "Empire of Wealth" to describe here in detail, but particularly stellar is Gordon's discussion of money supply, deficits, trade balances, the role of a national bank, Northern vs. Southern economies, income tax, the history and role of Wall Street and the pernicious boom-and-bust cycle engendered by Jeffersonian opposition to Hamilton's central bank.
"Empire of Wealth" surpassed all of my expectations. Gordon's effort is a surprisingly enjoyable and very necessary history that will not disappoint.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, Well written, fast paced and informative,
This has got to be one of the best history books that I have read. The book chronicles the start of the United States and the inovations and trials that made the nation great. I particularly enjoyed how it intertwined the innovations with information on the thoughts of politicians, businesmen, and others of the era, and how events such as slavery impacted the economics of the time.
This was a very well written book. I initially picked it up from the library, and then purchased a copy to add to my library.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars American history of the perspective of economic activity,
There are many theories as to why the United States rose to economic dominance in the world. To some, this result was inevitable, but that success was achieved in spite of some major setbacks. Gordon describes the history of the United States in economic terms, and from many of the events, we can see much about what has been done well and that which was done poorly. From these events, we can also find some guidance concerning how things should be done in the future.
There were three major economic crises in the first two hundred years. The first was the aftermath of the revolution for independence. Since most of the colonial trade was with England and many of the wealthy were opposed to freedom from England, there was a major economic downturn after the war ended. Many types of currency were in circulation and the new country was an economic basket case. Fortunately for the future of the country, there was a person who knew how to solve the problem and had the stature to carry it out. That man was Alexander Hamilton and his program of establishing and funding a national debt was a resounding success. In 1789 the United States government was financially insolvent, yet five years later it had the highest credit rating in Europe. Hamilton also established a central bank, which served as a financial anchor for the nation as long as it existed. Gordon gives Hamilton his due credit for this, noting some of the opposition by other founding fathers who couldn't fathom it and what it has meant for the country since then.
The second major crisis was much more long term, namely the abolition of the central bank by Andrew Jackson. His actions led to the deepest and lengthiest economic depression that the country has ever seen. The early years of the 1830's were a boom time, all government debt had been retired and there was a revenue surplus. His executive order in 1837 requiring land be paid for in gold and silver led to a banking collapse, interest rates skyrocketed and in less than a year, 90 percent of the nation's factories were closed. The bottom of this depression was not reached until six years after Jackson's order. As Gordon points out, the lack of a central bank was a problem that continued to fester until the Federal Reserve System was established in 1913. Even then it was not up to the task and it was the depression of the 1930's that led to the changes that molded it into the form we know today. It can be argued that the greatest single mistake ever made by an American president was Andrew Jackson's destruction of the central bank.
The third major crisis was the great depression of the 1930's. What made it so much more devastating than the depression of the 1830's were the different demographics of the country. In 1930, a much larger percentage of the people worked in factories and fewer could rely on subsistence agriculture to survive. It was also a time when there were political alternatives that seemed more effective. Fascism appeared to have solved many of the problems in Germany and Italy and the communist façade of success in the Soviet Union was attractive to many.
What makes this book outstanding is how Gordon treats problems such as these, in explaining the causes and why the solutions worked. It is easy to see many of the reasons why the United States has grown to economic dominance, such as an abundance of natural resources, very low military spending for most of time, the large influx of a labor force determined to succeed and a legal system that protected individual rights.
One other fundamental lesson that can be derived from the book is the value of targeted government spending and support for critical infrastructure. The Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad were both incredible achievements that cost a great deal but returned enormous economic advantages. Fully one-third of the capital in New York was used to fund the Erie Canal, yet it took less than ten years for this debt to be paid off. Government support was critical in steering those projects to success, and we also have the modern example of the Internet.
To many, the rise of the economic power of the United States was inevitable. As Gordon points out, that is probably, but not necessarily the case. In any case, this is an epic history of the rise of American economic power.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Colonization through Reaganization"... excellent,
This is an excellent historical treatment of economic change from the settling of the American colonies through the economic policies of the Reagan presidency. Savvy citizen investors and consumers need to understand economics and the economy, and Gordon definitely helps us do that.
Major strengths in this book:
* How the original American colonies were established and grew economically. Have NEVER seen this material so well put together. It's an economic genealogy of the states.
* How changes in transportation and manufacturing impacted economic development (rivers and canals, steamboats and railroads, steam engines and cotton gins, etc.) LOTS of insight here.
* How the American economy went through not one or two but many recurring depressions over time. Good treatment of differing policies of presidents and congresses. Good treatment of historical conflict about having a central Bank of the United States. IMPORTANT changes in American mindset here.
* Good review of changes in money. This was a wild and crazy topic in American practice.
* How the American economy went from few to many stockholders. Good treatment of changes in regulation and deregulation.
* Good start on oil. How it came in. How it became dominant.
* Depth of treatment suffers after Reagan era. No mention of Clinton or Bush(es) even though book is copyright 2004.
* The switch from nuts and bolts topics like steam engines to abstract topics like fiscal policy could use more elaboration. This is a valuable and critical point he's making in the history of the country's mindset and it needs more treatment.
* Treatment of computers and internet lacks subtle analysis and is "gee whiz" - would like the author to apply same depth of thinking here as he applied discussing impacts of earlier technologies.
There is a bit of "rah rah" especially at the end, however it is not a major distraction.
The comprehensiveness and insightfulness of the material from Colonization through Reaganization is excellent. I know there are conflicting opinions about politics but savvy citizen investors and consumers need to understand economics and the economy. Gordon helps us do that.
29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great insight on almost every page,
What a great effort by John Steele Gordon. Empire of Wealth covers the history of the economy of the United States from Jamestown through today and does so in an insight-filled, page-turning manner. Even as a fairly avid reader of economics and history, I found myself learning something about why our country is the way it is on almost every page in this book.
A great story of people, culture, technology, money, and a country - this book truly deserves its high rating.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Schumpeter plus capitalist triumphalism,
The name Joseph Schumpeter does not appear in the index of this delightfully readable popular economic history of the U.S. But the Schumpeterian thesis of economic development - the self-made entrepreneur implementing technological innovations to produce economic revolutions - runs through the book: the steam engine that started the historic Industrial Revolution, the railroad, the automobile, the computer, the Internet. And in addition to the heroically innovating entrepreneurs, the book also serves up political heroes including notably Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
I was disappointed, however, with the author's treatment of the Great Depression. No mention is made of the fact that the 1929 stock market crash was transformed into the Depression, because the Federal Reserve under Treasury Secretary and ex officio Board Chairman Andrew Mellon refused to increase bank reserves for four years thus nearly destroying the banking system the Federal Reserve was created to preserve. And that his successor, John Eccles, appointed by Roosevelt turned the economy around in 1934 by increasing bank reserves by 50 percent in 1933, then 25 percent in 1934, and then another 25 percent in 1935. Schumpeter had a better appreciation than Gordon does of economic institutions.
I also found the book's title misleading. When I saw the term "empire", I expected more about how the U.S. influences international politics and especially the other great powers of the world. There is little about empire until Gordon's last chapter where he describes the Soviet Union as the last of the old-fashioned empires based on military force in contrast to the American "empire" based on wealth. In fact I still don't know just how he applies the term "empire" to this nation or its world situation.
Thomas J. Hickey, Econometrician
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely well-written, but misses important stuff,
I really enjoyed "Empire of Wealth." It was an easy-to-read book. The little nuggets of information in it were fascinating. There is no doubting Gordon's central premise: the economy of the US, which is based in capitalism and the pursuit of wealth, has allowed the nation to become the most powerful in the world. At the same time, getting to that position of power caused a LOT of pain in many regular folks. Gordon appropriately points out slavery, but the pain has been constant. That is not to say it hasn't been worth it, but there is always another side to every story, and Gordon - as well as those who have made lots of money - focus more on the positiive side. The section on the 1980s offers me a little more of an ability to comment. In pointing out the magic of de-regulation and tax cuts under President Reagan, I am sure much capitalistic energy was released. At the same time, Gordon doesn't mention how Reagan increased taxes, Bush increased taxes, and Clinton increased taxes. Any or all of those moves should have reversed positive economic trends that Gordon celebrates. Of course, we know it didn't happen that way. Even after Republicans in the early 1990s cried that Clinton's tax increases would send the nation back into recession, those Republicans were wrong. And the Reagan-80s also left a lot of regular folks without any gains, if not losses. Those stories are no less important. There is far more to a successful nation than unbridled capitalism. But I don't doubt that a country is more likely to be successful with more capitalism rather than less. In fairness to Gordon, he does an excellent job in highlighting FDR's New Deal and how it helped bolster the US when the nation was in difficult times.
I highly recommend that after reading this fine book, everyone looks up Jeff Madrick's fantastic review essay from the New York Review of Books (V 52, # 4, 03/10/05). He makes some excellent points that need to be considered along with Gordon's book.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Historical Page Turner?,
This book was required reading for my Business History class. I bought this book expecting boring text that I would probably not even read, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is a very informative and enjoyable book. You can learn much about not only the history of American economy, but about American history as a whole. The best part is that you will enjoy the reading, which I found to be page turning. Not many historical books can be put in that category. Reading this book is a must!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The American Economic Miracle,
How did America become the unparalleled economic colossus of the modern world? John Steel Gordon puts it all together.
"The American economy in the first six decades after the adoption of the Constitution had proved one of the wonders of the world. The country's territory had more than tripled, and its population had increased eightfold." The economy, however, increased an unbelievable eighteen fold.
But this was nothing compared to the growth in the post-Civil War period. "Railroad mileage doubled in a mere eight years, while wheat production did likewise... And as the railroads grew and spread across the land, their suppliers and, increasingly, they're freight customers became larger and also became corporations."
And then there was steel. Once Andrew Carnegie learned of an English discovery, the Bessemer converter, to make steel in quantity, he set out to become a lowest-cost producer in the country. And so he did. By 1897, the United States was out producing Germany and Britain combined.
At the beginning of the 20th century, America had one third of the world's railroad mileage, 40% of its steel production and it was the largest exporter of agricultural products. Even on a per capita basis, Americans were way ahead of even Great Britain, the number two country.
And this was only the beginning as the 20th century truly became the American Century.
John Steele Gordon analyzes America's peculiar historical, cultural and geographical circumstances which made all as possible. And he does it in a way that is fun to read. If this were the textbook of American economic history, college students would be graduating with an infinitely better understanding of our unique history.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (P.S.) by John Steele Gordon (Paperback - October 25, 2005)