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The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) Hardcover – January 12, 2016
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Winner of the 2017 Excellence in Financial Journalism Book Award, New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants
Winner of the 2017 PROSE Award in U.S. History, Association of American Publishers
A New York Times Bestseller
One of Bloomberg View’s “Five Books to Change Conservatives’ Minds,” chosen by Cass Sunstein
#36 on Bloomberg’s "50 Most Influential" List
One of Bloomberg’s Best Books of 2016
One of Financial Times (FT.com) Best Economics Books of 2016
One of The Economist’s Economics and Business Books of the Year 2016
One of the Strategy+Business Best Business Books 2016 in Economy
One of Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Books of 2016 in History
One of Bloomberg View’s Great History Books of 2016
One of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2016
One of The Wall Street Journal’s “The 20 Books That Defined Our Year” 2016
One of Foreign Affairs’ Editors’ Picks 2016
One of the Washington Post’s Best Economics Books 2016
Shortlisted for the 2016 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
One of The NewYorker.com Page-Turner blog’s “The Books We Loved in 2016”
Longlisted for the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, McGill University
"The Rise and Fall of American Growth . . . is the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must read of the year."--Rana Foroohar, Time
"This is a book well worth reading--a magisterial combination of deep technological history, vivid portraits of daily life over the past six generations and careful economic analysis. . . . [The Rise and Fall of American Growth] will challenge your views about the future; [and] it will definitely transform how you see the past."--Paul Krugman, New York Times Book Review
"[An] authoritative examination of innovation through the ages."--Neil Irwin, New York Times
"Robert Gordon has written a magnificent book on the economic history of the United States over the last one and a half centuries. . . . The book is without peer in providing a statistical analysis of the uneven pace of growth and technological change, in describing the technologies that led to the remarkable progress during the special century, and in concluding with a provocative hypothesis that the future is unlikely to bring anything approaching the economic gains of the earlier period. . . . If you want to understand our history and the economic dilemmas faced by the nation today, you can spend many a fruitful hour reading Gordon's landmark study."--William D. Nordhaus, New York Review of Books
"Mr. Gordon uses exhaustive historic data to buttress his thesis."--Greg Ip, Wall Street Journal
"[The Rise and Fall of American Growth] is full of wonder for the miraculous things that America has accomplished."--Edward Glaeser, Wall Street Journal
"A masterful study to be read and reread by anyone interested in today's political economy."--Kirkus
"Normally, these kinds of big-think books end with a whimper, as the author totally fails to identify solutions to the problem he is writing about. But Gordon's conclusion offers some admirably definitive policy advice."--Matthew Yglesias, Vox
"Magnificent. . . . Gordon presents his case. . . with great style and panache, supporting his argument with vivid examples as well as econometric data. . . . Even if history changes direction. . . this book will survive as a superb reconstruction of material life in America in the heyday of industrial capitalism."--Economist
From the Back Cover
"The story of our standard of living is a vital part of American history and is well told in this fascinating book. Gordon provides colorful details and striking statistics about how the way we live has changed, and he asks whether we will live happily ever after. His answer will surprise you and challenge conventional assumptions about the future of economic growth. This book is a landmark--there is nothing else like it." --Robert Solow, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"A towering achievement that will utterly transform the debate on U.S. productivity and growth. Robert Gordon chronicles the stunning swiftness with which American lives have advanced since 1870, and raises profound questions about whether we have benefitted from one-offs that cannot be repeated. Combining eloquent description with forceful and clear economic analysis, Gordon's voice is gripping and compelling. This is economic history at its best."--Kenneth S. Rogoff, coauthor of This Time Is Different
"The Rise and Fall of American Growth is a tour de force with an immensely important bottom line. It is packed, page after page, with insights and facts that every reader will find fascinating and new. A profound book that also happens to be a marvelous read."--George Akerlof, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"Keynes dismissed concerns about economic trends by remarking that in the long run, we are all dead. Gordon turns this upside down by reminding us that we inherited somebody else's long run. If you care about the legacy we will leave future generations, read this richly detailed account of America's amazing century of growth."--Paul Romer, New York University
"Robert Gordon has written the book on wealth--how Americans made it and enjoyed it in the past. If we're going to create more wealth in the future instead of arguing about dividing a shrinking pie, we have to read and understand this book."--Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, investor, and author of Zero to One
"This book is as important as it is unsettling. Gordon makes a compelling case that the golden age of growth is over. Anyone concerned with our economic future needs to carefully consider his argument."--Lawrence Summers, Harvard University
"In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Gordon looks at the evolution of consumption and the standard of living in the United States from the end of the Civil War to the present day. His work brims with the enthusiasm of discovery and is enriched by personal anecdotes and insights derived over a long and very productive career."--Alexander J. Field, Santa Clara University
"The Rise and Fall of American Growth makes use of economic history to argue that Americans should expect the rate of economic growth to be, on average, slower in the future than it has been in the recent past. Gordon is the most important exponent of the pessimistic view working today and this is an exceptional book."--Louis Cain, Loyola University Chicago
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To him much of this improvement is due to what he calls the second industrial revolution which was brought into being by the widespread adoption of electricity and the internal combustion engine. along with indoor plumbing remade the economy. In a way his book is a paean to industrial capitalism whose innovations brought about this revolution. Further, although it is hard to believe today, the introduction of the automobile in the early 1900s was the clean technology of its day. Simply put the major cities of the country were knee deep in horse poop and horse piss that local residents struggled to avoid. They were literally swimming in pollution.
Compare this to the third industrial revolution we are experience today involving information technology, computers and communications. Sure those technologies have improved our lives, but how do they compare to indoor plumbing and electric lights. Gordon demonstrates through a careful analysis of the data that the information revolution peaked from 1996-2004 and has since slowed down. Specifically Moore’s Law which states computer chip capacity doubles every 18-24 months which held from the late 1960s to the early 2000s broke down in the past decade to a pace of doubling every four to six years.
Going forward Gordon is a “techno-pessimist.” He views the 1870-1970 period as a one off event. The recent slowdown in productivity and economic growth certainly supports his view. Whether he is right, or not, only time will tell. Where I would disagree with Gordon is that he labels the rise of income inequality as an impediment to growth. To me that is a stretch because during his golden age of 1870-1940 there were two distinct periods of high and rising income inequality. The first was the gilded age of 1895-1910 and second was the roaring twenties. During those two time periods the standard of living for the average American grew rapidly and it is hard to see in the data that it was an impediment to growth especially when Gordon admits the official data grossly understated overall economic growth.
I know that this review has hardly done justice to Gordon’s magisterial work. I highly recommend it for those interested in how our lives came to be.
The book is split into 3 parts with the first two focused on the periods 1870-1940 and 1940-2015. The author discusses the main advances made in each section. In particular the period from the 1870s saw the introduction of electricity and the shift from transportation dependent on horse and carriage to the automobile. The spread of indoor plumbing is discussed as well and the trends of urbanization that occurred as a combination of all of these technologies is discussed. It is impossible not to reflect on electrification as of fundamental importance to productivity growth. Electricity itself has to be the most important ingredient to the growth of an economy that we have encountered so far and it facilitates a huge portion of daily interaction. The author discusses the introduction of the automobile from several angles. He discusses how sanitation levels improved as horse refuse levels declined. In particular the combination of debt horses and manure definitely catalyzed health epidemics and the automobiles introduction at low price points via the model T had large positive spillover benefits from a health perspective. The author reminds us of when the telephone was invented and its density in households over time. The author also spends time on non GDP related concepts like quality of work and discusses how the manual labor and in particular agricultural proportion of the workforce steadily was in decline which improved qualities of like substantially. Throughout the section the author discusses how the foundational improvements in the late 19th/early 20th century were partially missed in GDP statistics and the tangible improvements in quality of life were also missed when one considers the type of labor people were engaged in.
The second part starts with the high growth in the 40s after the war when the US went back to closer to full employment with strong growth. The author documents how automobile ownership rates trended along with electrification. One of the messages conveyed throughout is that the time lag between the invention of something and its full impact on productivity and growth is on the order of decades. The author gets into things like air travel and antibiotics. Noting that airplane travel times are in line with how they were historically and that the wait times in airports offset improvements in transit times. In terms of medical advances the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics had much greater marginal benefits than what is being discovered today. The author also goes on to complain about medical inflation and the structural problems with US healthcare that make productivity growth particularly challenging. The author does discuss the large technology capex that was witnessed in the 90s and the improvements in computer hardware and entertainment systems but subordinates their benefit to other inventions witnessed earlier in the century.
In terms of the message that the ability to grow GDP has entered a lower level and that the inventions of the 20th century were one of a kind the message is quite convincing. But despite the resonance of the idea that GDP growth at the pace of last century will be greater than next due to the examples presented the narrative is at times quite trivial. It is a fact that if you improve child infant mortality rates that the incremental improvement to longevity declines and that is a one off... Such arguments are not what needs to dispute. Will the benefit of semiconductor technology be greater than that of the automobile from a productivity growth perspective. To make a GDP argument about such a topic you will likely be right but the marginal costs of technology products has been in such remarkable decline due to manufacturing technology gains that you are comparing apples to oranges. Currently the great strides of moving from agricultural to urban has taken place and the inventions of 150 years ago have catalyzed that. Will strict productivity growth from a GDP accounting perspective be as high as it was in the past most likely not. Is growth becoming more difficult to account for given technology is a non-rival good, yes. As a consequence the main point of the book is unimpressively argued. I recommend reading this for understanding when and how technologies were adopted in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This book documents the US very well. To be convinced that the GDP growth golden years were behind us because we cant reinvent the lightbulb, you didn't need to read this book...