Ever feel like you just can't get ahead with the bills? You're not alone. More than half of Americans believe the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve. And two-thirds think this goal will be even harder for the next generation. (One reason for the gloominess--average full-time income has fallen 15 percent since 1975.) All this has Benjamin Friedman worried. In his hefty, 549-page tome, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth
, the acclaimed Harvard economist and advisor to the Federal Reserve Board says economic stagnation is bad for the moral health of a nation. Friedman, a former chair of Harvard's economics department, argues that economic growth is vital to social and political progress. Witness Hitler's Germany. Without growth, people look for answers in intolerance and fear. And that, Friedman warns, is where the U.S. is headed if the economic stagnation of the past three decades doesn't soon reverse. It's not enough for gross domestic product to rise, he says. Growth also has to be more evenly distributed. The rich shouldn't be the only ones getting richer.
Friedman's arguments are provocative but at times lack rigor. In his comparisons of various countries, he offers no objective data to measure their levels of social progress, relying instead on his own--sometimes selective--interpretation of historical events. He glosses over the fact that China, where the economy has grown sevenfold since 1978, has seen little political change in that time. He also acknowledges that the Great Depression--which brought Americans together to achieve great social and political progress--tends to disprove his theory. Friedman makes a good case that the economy sometimes influences social movements, but the jury is still out on exactly when and how that happens. --Alex Roslin
From Publishers Weekly
This probing study argues that, far from fostering rapacious materialism, economic growth is a prerequisite for the creation of a liberal, open society. Harvard economist Friedman, author of Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy in the 1980s
, contends that periods of robust economic growth, in which most people see their circumstances palpably improving, foster tolerance, democracy and generous public support for the disadvantaged. Economic stagnation and insecurity, by contrast, usher in distrust, retrenchment and reaction, as well as a tightfisted callousness toward the poor and—from the nativism of 19th-century Populists to the white supremacist movement of the 1980s—a scapegoating of immigrants and minorities. Exploring two centuries of historical evidence, from income and unemployment data to period novels, Friedman elucidates connections between economic conditions, social attitudes and public policy throughout the world. He offers a nuanced defense of globalization against claims that it promotes inequality and, less convincingly, remains optimistic that technology will resolve the conflicts between continual growth and environmental degradation. Friedman's progressive attitude doesn't extend to his cautious approach to promoting growth in America; a critic of Bush's tax cuts and deficits, he advocates fiscal discipline to free savings for investment, along with educational initiatives, including "school choice," to boost worker productivity. Its muted conclusion aside, Friedman's is a lucid, judiciously reasoned call for renewed attention to broad-based economic advancement. (Oct. 25)
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