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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 – Illustrated, January 12, 2016
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"Professor Robert J. Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth is a magisterial volume that will benefit any serious student of economics, demographics or history."---Wendell Cox, New Geography
"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
"Compulsive reading."---Andrew Hilton, Financial World
"A fantastic read."---Bill Gates, GatesNotes
"One of our greatest economic historians. . . . Gordon's exhaustive research program . . . has knocked me back on my intellectual heels."---J. Bradford DeLong, Strategy + Business
"Robert Gordon's new book on productivity in the U.S. economy, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, is masterful. . . . Gordon skillfully lays out myriad information about the history and trends of productivity. One can learn a great deal."---Edward Lotterman, St. Paul Pioneer Press
"Rich with detailed information, meticulous observations, and even anecdotes and stories . . . a fascinating read."---Ricardo F. Levi, Corriere della Sera
"Gordon's encyclopedic The Rise and Fall of American Growth, a new history of modern U.S. economic life, [is] perhaps the best yet written."---Jonathan Levy, Dissent
"[A]n important new book."---Martin Ford, Huffington Post
"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
- Publisher : Princeton University Press; Illustrated edition (January 12, 2016)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 784 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0691147728
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691147727
- Item Weight : 3.13 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 2.2 x 9.4 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #163,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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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.
Some of the reading can be a little tedious and repetitive, as one by one, the author goes over all the significant factors and inventions which contributed to a huge i ncrease in US incomes since the beginning of the 20th century, and created the worlds biggest economy. Nonetheless, it really is necessary to read every chapter and page because it prepares one to understand better the book's main thesis, which is repeated over and over, but explained more fully in economic terms in the last chapters. All policymakers will have to contend with the conclusions of this work, especially the new government which vows to "make America great again". Robert Gordon's book shows that with the right policies such a goal is achievable in the economic ( and social ) sphere, but the task will not be easy.
The author is skeptical of IT's ability to achieve significant future growth. All key IT inventions have already happened and changed business and individual behavior, according to the author. Any future improvements will be merely incremental over a prolonged time period, he thinks, and nothing compared to the revolutionary changes of the special century. A similar argument is made regarding progress in medicine, robots, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. The ultimate conclusion made is that America is condemned to a future of low growth for the next 25 years.
A weakness of the author's argument is his lack of creativity in trying to predict future inventions. No one really knows what might emerge in the next 25 years but the author is fairly stubborn in his view that it will not be anything transformational. Yet he ignores possible future inventions in the renewable energy field.
The book is meticulously researched with dozens of charts and tables. It is packed with interesting facts. To give one example - in 1940, 93% of American households, on average, had a motor vehicle! Parts I and II describe the inventions and infrastructure developments of the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century and their impact on American lives. They are very readable. However, Part III is more like an economics textbook with heavier analysis of numerical data and formulae. If you lack an economics background, you may get lost with some of this.
At 652 pages, excluding notes, references and the like, the book is a major reading commitment. However, I feel it did not need to be that long. The key points were repeated again and again. Each chapter finished with its own summary which was usually unnecessary. In my view, the length could easily have been trimmed by 10% and probably 20% yet covered the same content as effectively.
Top reviews from other countries
The years 1940 to 1970 were, if anything, even more spectacular. Wages increased even more as productivity boomed. Highways were built which enabled easy travel from all corners of the nation to all of the others. Driveways filled up with automobiles. Air travel became increasingly accessible to everyone, not just the financial elite. And on long hot humid summer days Americans could take refuge in their air conditioning.
Then, with the exception of a brief spurt between 1996 and 2004, the helter skelter growth slowed to an amble. A rust belt developed in areas previously frenetic with production of steel, cars and other goods. The ICT “revolution”, heralded as the bringer of new industrial and domestic advances on a par with those of electricity and the internal combustion engine, has so far failed to deliver in such a grand manner. There’s a limit to the extent to which cat videos and 140-character prattlings can improve the standard of living.
Robert J Gordon’s story of this great unfurling of the American dream is captivating in two ways: first in showing how the meteoric rise and subsequent plateauing (it’s overdramatic to characterise it as a fall, really) came about, using some of the same old sources, though in slightly different ways, maybe, and also drawing on resources such as back-issues of the Sears catalogue to trace the way in which American households advanced from home-made everything, including virtually all clothes, to the ability to order everything – clothes, white goods, musical instruments (the number of musicians who made their start on Sears catalogue instruments, which Gordon doesn’t go into, is phenomenal), and so on – via the postman.
But he also tracks how things have stagnated: with all of the waiting around at airports and all the other attendant hassles of flying it now takes longer by jet to fly New York-LA than it did in the day of propeller-driven aeroplanes, and with all the little extras, like paying for luggage to be carried and food on the flight, both of which used to be included in the fare, it’s more expensive too.
Gordon is not, however, blaming anyone or anything in particular. The problem is, he suggests, that all the good stuff has been done, and everything now is just new ways of doing those things (emails for letters, online orders for mail orders, incremental improvements in TV picture definition, DVDs or Netflix for videos or the cinema, and so on). Likewise with productivity: ICT may be able to achieve improvements, but the potential is nowhere near as striking as that for advances of previous industrial revolutions.
In his final chapter, then, he advances proposals not so much for kick-starting a productivity revival as for alleviating the fallout of its demise. Like Thomas Piketty, whom he makes a point of acknowledging and citing, he recognises the enormous chasm that has opened up between top and bottom of American society. In a particularly poignant chart he shows how between 1945 and 1975 – the years of the “great compression” - incomes advanced at similar rates across American society, and how since then the top 10% have continued to enjoy steady growth (those at the very top, as Piketty pointed out, have enjoyed obscene growth in their wealth in comparative terms) whilst those at the bottom have suffered ongoing contraction.
In all, I would rate this book, as a piece of economic history, almost on a par with the works of Landes (The Unbound Prometheus and The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations), as a research piece at least in the same ball park as Piketty’s Capital (yes, I have read it), and as a piece to dip into alongside Porter’s three best-known works (yep, I read them too; I didn’t just look at the pictures).
Nevertheless, like all of those publications, it also deserves, demands even, critical appraisal. For starters, I find the central thesis too alarmist, like the head of the US Patent Office at the turn of the 20th Century believing he could close it down as everything had already been invented. There are many reasons for guarded optimism. The Economist recently ran a Special Report outlining some of the many potential productivity improvements in Agriculture in the pipeline (if only we could get past the Frankenfoods pitchforks and torches in the dark mentality some of them may one day get used). Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing to most of us) has only just begun to find its role, so far in specific niches, but plenty of work is being done on breaking loose of that straitjacket. And who knows, somewhere within ICT there is that killer app like the motor car or electric lighting waiting to be found (I don’t think the so-called “internet of everything” is it, though; I don’t need my fridge to tell me I’m out of milk, thanks).
Secondly, Gordon appears to dismiss out of hand the role of government in revitalisation, but as Mariana Mazzucato and Carla Perez, among others, have pointed out, without government there would be no internet, no ICT revolution, no (shock horror) iPhone. In The Entrepreneurial State, Mazzucato advanced the idea that government could be doing far more for the development of alternative energy.
Furthermore, without the government-built network of Interstate Highways, what would Americans do with all those cars?
Thirdly, Gordon gives a very confusing account of the benefits of immigration. First he assigns responsibility to immigration for bringing down wages in some sectors, then seems to be saying that it is really only the wages of immigrants that are affected. He partly credits immigration control in the US after the second world war for rising wages, but makes no mention of the many Mexicans who moved, under the Programa Bracero, to the US during the period covered by that war and the one in Korea in order to fill in for the Americans serving in the armed forces, which saw the Mexican population in the US double to five million. And he proposes a points system for permitting immigrants to enter the US, making the classic economist’s mistake of commodifying people, in the belief that a price can be put on everything.
And finally, at least for this review, there is Gordon’s US-centricity, almost to the exception of everywhere else. One of the great strengths of Piketty’s work was that whilst it spoke of “Les Trente Glorieuses”, it did so in an international context. Gordon’s “Great Leap Forward” only applies to the US. There is nothing in Gordon about how improving economies in the rest of the world may benefit the US. The rest of the world more or less doesn’t exist in the bubble he constructs.
However, to reemphasise my earlier point, notwithstanding a few quibbles I consider this book to be of extraordinary value: a record of spectacular progress and how it was achieved, and a warning that, unless somebody brings more beer, the party’s over.
It is rich in detail and well supported with evidence.
As a reader it is well written therefore it’s length was not an issue for me though it could be a consideration for some (it is a heavy book even in paperback form).
If I am going to say anything critical I would say a more ruthless editor could have made a difference and not lost any of the central message. Secondly I would point out that the policy prescriptions in the final chapter are a bit on the weak side and less sophisticated than the historical analysis that supports them.
Robert Gordon and his team are to be congratulated on the amount of information they have gathered and put into a single book.
The Postscript at the end lists a number of policy changes that should be seriously considered going forward if we are to avoid the severe impact of protracted very low growth when a lot of people think we can keep on growing at a significant rate forever.
Not sure how we get the Politicians to understand that things need to change as it will take time and significant effort, something today's politicians do not understand
Sadly the book is the absolute opposite of today's off the cuff ( non measured fact based ) quick fix populist politics.