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An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy Hardcover – November 8, 2016
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"Levinson, an economist and ex-journalist, has the virtues of both-an eye for detail and an understanding of the broader picture."
- Washington Post, Best Economics Books of 2016
"A smoothly written account of the U.S. and the world economy.... Mr. Levinson is a smart enough author not to be tempted into some breathless mono-causal account of either the earlier 'boom' or the later slowdown. He's excellent at description."
-Wall Street Journal
"A provocative book."
-Robert Samuelson, Washington Post
"[Levinson] has a journalist's appreciation for the power of on-the-ground observation."
"A valuable antidote to all passionately held economic ideologie."
-Paul Collier, Times Literary Supplement (UK)
"It is this story of the coming and passing of that long boom-and apparently the inability of politicians to do much about resuscitating it-that Levinson crisply tells."
"An Extraordinary Time provides a well-balanced (and surprisingly entertaining) tour of global economic and political history since 1973...Excellent book. Highly recommended."
-Inside Higher Ed
"Levinson has unmatchable understanding of economics and an extraordinary ability to explain intricate economics to laymen."
-Washington Book Review
"Levinson's account of this vexed era is lucid, well-paced, and entwined with vivid sketches of economists, central bankers, and politicians who failed to restore the pre-1973 good times. He also succeeds at translating complex economic issues into understandable terms for lay readers. Levinson's admirably evenhanded treatment of recent economic history steers clear of dogmas on both left and right to explore knottier truths."
-Publishers Weekly, starred review
"[Levinson's] view is absolutely worth heeding in these days of unprecedented worldwide financial experimentation.... A cogently argued account that lays bare the similarities and differences between the world today and earlier theoretical shortcomings."
"I've heard it said that economic history is a dying art. Well, not in Marc Levinson's hands. This account of how the extraordinary economic times from 1948 to 1973 turned into the very ordinary (or worse) times that followed is comprehensive, artfully presented, and largely persuasive. That's quite an achievement."
-Alan Blinder, Princeton University, author of After the Music Stopped
"A provocative account of recent economic history which argues the good times have gone, and no government-neither left nor right-can bring them back. A sobering read."
-Eric Rauchway, University of California, Davis, author of The Money Makers
"Marc Levinson has given us a fascinating and perceptive account of the economic difficulties of the 1970s and the response of policymakers. As the United States and other countries struggled with the turbulent end of the post-World War II boom, seeking to cope with stagflation and higher unemployment, they often turned politically to the right-embracing tax cuts and deregulation. How did this process work its way out? This timely book of an important period is not just informative, but helps put our current economic difficulties in perspective."
-Douglas Irwin, Dartmouth College, author of Free Trade Under Fire
"A lively, well-researched tour of the transformation of the American economy in the decades after World War II-how it happened and why the pace didn't last. A great read for those who lived through those years and those who want to learn about them."
-Alice M. Rivlin, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
About the Author
Marc Levinson is the former finance and economics editor at the Economist and the author of five books, including The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. He lives in Washington, DC.
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Turns out I was only looking at part of the reason for our apparent success.. The entre post-war period was filled with other events and government action which magnified these already huge advantages which our economy temporarily enjoyed., while the rest of the world rebuilt, with modern equipment. and low cost labor, we enjoyed a fools' paradise--the grasshopper years. This book provides a fascinating tour through the well-intended mistakes which, we can see in retrospect, deluded us into thinking that this was God's plan. It wasn't.
He starts off by setting the framework in the 1970s, as economic growth reached its peak in the rich countries as they (unknowingly at the time) neared the pinnacle of their economic growth and frequently productivity growth (although the latter had already started to slow in several countries). Levinson then goes into great and fascinating detail about various countries' responses to this, from the rise of Thatcher in Great Britain to the shift towards new industries in Japan as the old "smokestack" export industries declined. Throughout it all, he poses a question - "Why did economic growth and productivity drastically slow down worldwide after the early 1970s?" There are no easy answers, and Levinson goes into great detail examining each potential reason why it might have occurred.
All of the above might make this book seem more dry than it is. It is not a dry book at all - as mentioned above, one of Levinson's great strengths is that he can make this all incredibly interesting and very readable. I strongly recommend this to anyone who might be curious about what has happened in the world's economy since the 1970s.
The author’s golden age is ill defined. At times it is vaguely defined as post WWII to 1973, at other times it is precisely 1950-1973, at others it is 1960-1973. And, there are many iterations throughout the book I am not mentioning. Invariably, this is to support that whatever economic metric he is looking at was “so much faster” in the pre 1973 period vs. the post one. But, you can’t do that in rigorous economic analysis. You have to segment your time series in consistent segmentation across all the macroeconomics variables you are looking at. Otherwise, you end up with essentially meaningless, cherry picked, obfuscating misinformation.
Just a word back to the failure of policies, while the author advances vague narratives that are correct some of the time, you can also find long and material exceptions when growth was pretty robust during the post 1973 era. This is the case with the US under Reagan’s two terms in the 1980s (with policies of the right, tax cuts) and the following two terms of Clinton in the 1990s (with policies of the left, increase in taxes). Also, in the post 1973 era both China and India have achieved historically staggering rate of economic growth. It is only recently that China has supposedly hit a wall and is now growing at “only” 6% a year. That’s a rate of economic growth that would be considered ridiculously high for any other major country let alone one with 1.5 billion people. India with about the same population is still continuing to grow at 7% per year.
When you look at the data, focusing on the US, the actual visual information is less dramatic than the author suggests. Labor productivity in the post 1973 period is lower than in the pre period. This is in good part because we experienced a decade of the Great Recession and its hallowed recovery. However, when you look at a ranking of the top 10 years for annual productivity 4 of those come in from the post 1973 era (close to a 50/50 split between pre and post 1973 eras). Focusing on overall real GDP growth parallels very much the findings of labor productivity. Meaning the difference between the two eras is not as dramatic as the author suggests.
Labor productivity, economic growth, and GDP per capita are all bound to eventually slow down anyway on a Global basis. This is true for a couple of reasons.
The first one is the aging of the worldwide population associated with the prospective or already prevalent shrinkage of the labor forces in countries.
The second and main reason is because from a simple arithmetic standpoint it is inevitable. Take the well-known rule of 72 that allows you to figure how long does it take for a value to double when growing at a specified compound rate. So, let’s assume one thinks we could really maintain an increase in labor productivity of 2% per year (a bit less than in pre 73 era and more than in post 73 era). This would translate into a doubling of our actual output per worker every 36 years (calculated as 72/2). This entails that output per worker would increase by a multiple of nearly 8 times every century! Is this even plausible? No it is not. Even if this staggering level of production is undertaken by robots (which would remove any labor input constraints), you would need a gargantuan demand side from individuals to match this gargantuan supply side. We won’t ever need 8 homes, 16 cars, and 5 proprietary cloud-computing networks per individual. It just does not make sense. The demand is not and will never be there to accommodate such an absurd world. This simple math can readily tell you that. You don’t need to read an obfuscating 300 page economic treaty to figure that out.