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A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth (Yale Series in Economic and Financial History) Hardcover – April 26, 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"...masterpiece....one of the best economics books of the last ten years...one of the best books on the Depression...the only economic interpretation of WWII that makes sense... must reads of the year."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

" ...an extraordinary new book ..." --James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

"An extraordinary new book . . ."—James Surowiecki, The New Yorker
(James Surowiecki The New Yorker)

“Fundamentally rewrite[s] the economic history of the US….Highly recommended.”—Choice

“Alex Field in this pathbreaking book overturns one myth after another about American economic history.  His most important contribution is to unleash the saga of American economic growth from the simplistic story that investment automatically begets growth.  He contrasts the 1920s, with high investment that ended in the collapse of a stock market bubble, with the 1930s when investment had collapsed and yet innovations continued and the world was changed forever.  The 1930s ended with foundations of the standard of living lacking 10 years earlier, including streamlined autos with automatic transmissions, a vastly expanded highway network including the Bay Area bridges and the Hoover dam, diesel railroad locomotives replacing steam, and the transcendant revolution in the motion picture industry created by the 1939 productions of "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."  This book will change forever standard views of which decade's growth was most dynamic, and why.”—Robert J. Gordon, Northwestern University

(Robert J. Gordon 2010-11-23)

"[O]ne of the most important technical economics books of this decade."—David Henderson,  Policy Review
(David Henderson Policy Review)

. . . adds new evidence for the productive role of public spending. It also changes our view of what happened in the American economy during the 1930s, when military investment was not a driving force.”—Fred Block, American Prospect (Fred Block American Prospect)

“Field poses and attempts to answer interesting questions using straightforward number-crunching and reasoning, rather than resorting to obscure mathematics or advanced statistics. The result is a book that represents the best of what economics can be.”—Arnold Kling, The American
(Arnold Kling The American)

“Alex Field begins his provocative new book with the proposition that beneath the misery of the Great Depression, the 1930s were in fact “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.”  This counterintuitive finding launches Field on a vigorous new interpretation of U.S. economic history in the twentieth century.  His narrative is firmly rooted in the quantitative record, yet always accessible and full of surprises.  Everyone concerned about the American economy (past and present) should read this book.”—Gavin Wright, Stanford University

(Gavin Wright 2010-12-17)

“Eight decades later, the debacle of the Great Depression still fascinates many Americans – and for good reason.  Alexander Field’s new book is a major contribution to our understanding of what went wrong and what the country did to fix it.  His finding that the technology of American industry advanced unusually rapidly under the New Deal is an especially valuable corrective to a variety of views held by economists and the general public alike.”—Benjamin M. Friedman, Harvard University
(Benjamin Friedman 2010-10-10)

“Field has written a fine, well-argued book on the history of productivity in the United States, with a focus on the Great Depression. Was the Depression caused by an adverse productivity shock? Or was rapid productivity in the 1930s caused by the Depression? Everyone interested in the Depression or in technology shocks as important short-run macroeconomic events should read this book.”—Peter Temin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(Peter Temin 2010-11-23)

“As we sit mired in the The Great Recession, Alexander Field’s exciting reappraisal of The Great Depression offers surprising solace.  By showing the Great Depression was coupled with the most rapid technological advance in US history, he fundamentally recasts the history of the 1930s.  But he also offers hope that our own depression likely will have no long run costs to the US economy.”—Gregory Clark, University of California, Davis 
(Gregory Clark 2010-12-17)

“[P]athbreaking… [t]he ‘new growth narrative’ offered in A Great Leap Forward allows readers to see the familiar in a different way.”—Paul Rhode, eh.net

"... makes valuable and novel contributions to our understanding of the Great Depression and the Second World War ... highly recommended..."—Jason Taylor, Journal of Economic History
(Jason Taylor Journal of Economic History)

"... an exemplary demonstration of how careful and imaginative use of statistical information can revise deeply entrenched ideas about the past…. this book breaks new ground. Teachers of twentieth-century American history should read Field’s book for its totally convincing demolition of the folklore history idea that World War II was good for the American people because it ended the Great Depression and created the basis for the mass consumer prosperity that followed the war." —Ronald Edsforth, Journal of American History
(Ronald Edsforth Journal of American History)

Winner of the 2012 Alice Hanson Jones Biennial Prize, sponsored by the Economic History Association
(2012 Alice Hanson Jones Biennial Prize Economic History Association 2012-10-02)

Winner of the 2012 National Book Award in the Social Sciences, sponsored by Alpha Sigma Nu.
(2012 National Book Award in the Social Sciences Alpha Sigma Nu 2012-10-10)

"According to Alexander Field in A Great Leap Forward, the 1930s were, in the aggregate, the most technologically progressive of any comparable period in U.S. economic history. . . . It requires some patience, reflection, and time to wrap one's mind around this perplexing assertion. It goes against everything historians know about the 1930s. If, by the end of Field's book, you're not convinced, you'll at least be sympathetic to the idea. Field makes that good a case."—Howard Bodenhorn, Business History Review 
(Howard Bodenhorn Business History Review)

From the Author

Readers may be interested in this book chat I did with David Leonhardt of the New York Times on April 12, 2011.  Amazon's system does not allow hyperlinks in this section, but if you copy and paste the url into your browser it will take you to it.


Readers may also be interested in this link to a video of a presentation I made at the book launch event. The video sets forth my central argument, and includes pictures.  It's made with a system that allows you to switch between or resize the talking head and the powerpoint windows.  Again, you will need to copy and paste the url into your browser to view it.


-- Alex Field

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Product Details

  • Series: Yale Series in Economic and Financial History
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (April 26, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300151098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300151091
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,522,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book focuses on total factor productivity (TFP), that is increased productivity that flows from neither an increase in labor or in capital. TFP soared during the Great Depression, a period usually associated with economic stagnation. Business investment was down and everyone was unemployed, but productivity continued to rise. This book investigates the causes, among them the build out of our now failing road, bridge and tunnel system and the rise of industrial research and development labs. It also investigates the fall of TFP in the 70s, which interestingly correlates with the final roll out of the interstate highway system and decreased regulation.

To be honest, it's a dry read, written in an academic style, and it assumes some familiarity with the various databases used in the analysis. Since I've poked around the bls.gov and bea.gov a bit, I could follow things, but others may find themselves marooned. It's also properly cautious. Most popular books on economics start with a coin toss landing heads and build an entire edifice about our unbalanced economy on it. This book speaks more moderately, opening avenues for thought and investigation. I enjoyed it a great deal. If you are looking for food for thought and don't mind stretching a bit, you might enjoy it as well.

(If you are used to reading this kind of work, count this as five stars. I had to deduct one as a warning to the otherwise unprepared reader.)
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Depression seems to be something that most economists have to confront at some point in their career. Several memes have developed over time in the dialectic among economists, historians and the education system that disseminates their views. When you think nothing new could be said, along comes this book, which is genuinely novel in its focus and its claims, presenting extremely detailed in-depth research, analysis and synthesis of economic data in US history, principally but not exclusively 1929-1941, in support of the proposition that the era was one of dramatic growth in productivity, which partly influences total employment in that period but more importantly lays the foundation for economic growth post-WWII. It is quite convincing to a lay reader, although it is beyond my circumstances to interrogate the data on my own and I am also not familiar with most of the sources relied on. The principal focus is on the private, nonfarm economy: manufacturing, R&D,etc. Amazing statistic: in contrast with the plunge in general employment during the 1930s, employment of scientists and other R&D personnel quadrupled in the same period. It would be interesting to go back a couple of decades and investigate the connection between that and the growth in educational institutions.

In addition to the close analysis of productivty growth in the 1930s, there is a fantastic discussion of economic aspects of WWII.
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Format: Hardcover
Summer is almost here and many of you are thinking about summer reads. Consider something deeper read than your normal beach novel: A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth.

Prof. Field is a globally-renowned expert on economic history and and a skillful author. This is serious history but written for all of us with clear examples and data.

Ask your friends for about their best guess for the most technologically progressive decade of the century. Bet them some money.

Then bring out your copy of A Great Leap Forward and show them the agruments for the years 1929-1941. I won't give away the story, but I can assure you that you will find opportunities to use the ideas in this book to put a positive spin on the current economic downturn.
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Format: Hardcover
Certain periods in American history are so important, such key psychological anchors for ideologies and narratives and subsequent lives, that even the passage of decades or centuries hasn't managed to build a truly solid and universal consensus about what they mean, even if they're recognized as having made something about the way life before was lived impossible to continue or recapture. There's a truism concerning the way that many students are taught about the Civil War that illustrates this idea: in elementary school, you learn it was about slavery; then in middle school, you learn that it was about states' rights (airbrushed postbellum statements from former Confederate officials leavened with cherry-picked Jeffersonian quotes typically feature heavily); and then in high school and college you learn that, no, it really was a war primarily and specifically fought and won over whether it was possible for a nation conceived in liberty to permit the institution of human bondage to persist, whether or not individual states or groups of citizens disagreed.

The answer to the question of what the Civil War was "about" isn't just a question of historiography, it's a question of what kind of country America is, and what values that implies. If the Civil War was really about states' rights, then that implies a different set of lessons to be learned about what America is about, and also, implicitly, a different way of thinking about how it should be run in the future.
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