How America Became Great

Review: Robert Gordon, ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War’

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• March 13, 2016 5:00 am


Last fall, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio attempted to rebut "Make America Great Again," the slogan of his rival, Donald Trump. America, Rubio said, is great right now. Trump responded thus: "You can’t be satisfied [with where the country is now]. You have to use the word ‘again.’ It’s very important, because if he’s saying that, then that means there’s no room for improvement…"

This nostalgia for a supposedly lost America is a major factor in Trump’s appeal, but it has remained vague. Aside from favorably referencing Patton, McArthur, and Eisenhower, Trump hasn’t identified the Golden Age from which America has declined. Though Robert Gordon likely did not intend to flesh out Trump’s vague nostalgia—in economic terms, at least—that is precisely the accomplishment of his new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. Gordon, a Northwestern University professor, believes the American "economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history," yielding incredible progress in health, wealth, transportation, communication, the spread of utilities, and more.

Much of the book surveys the extent of this century of progress. Prodigious research and voluminous data are deployed in service to Gordon’s case. While not a single home in 1880 had electricity, virtually all did by 1940. While there were 8,000 registered automobiles in 1900, there were 26.8 million 30 years later. While in 1900 almost 18 percent of males did not reach their first birthday, today the same mortality rate does not obtain until age 62. Gordon’s survey is impressive enough that one can forgive the occasional repetition of sometimes curious preoccupations—such as Rural Free Delivery, horse manure, and Muncie, Indiana—that don’t need quite this much attention.

Yet as profound as this revolution was, Gordon believes it is "unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could only happen once." Its dramatic innovations were, as Peter Thiel—who endorsed the book and is quoted approvingly within—might say, "zero to one" leaps, such as the spread of electricity into the home, to previously incomprehensible living standards. As Gordon puts it, "…many inventions are one-time only events subject to a long succession of subsequent incremental improvements." Hence the mostly pleasant but less-dramatic growth of post-1970 America. Gordon even downplays the largely computer-driven advances in information, communication, and entertainment.

When discussing these 100 years of economic history, Gordon’s thesis seems strong: America in 1870 was dramatically different from America in 1970, arguably much more so than between 1970 and the present.

But as Gordon moves closer to 2016, and from description to prescription, his argument weakens. His solutions to the problem of slowing progress proceed from references to contested matters he assumes settled: e.g., the New Deal was an unqualified good for America; it and World War II ended the Great Depression; the suburbs bear much responsibility for modern American inequality; high income gains come at the expense of those with lower incomes; and more.

Though he mentions the inequality-aggravating effects of regressive regulations, such as strict occupational licensure, and Charles Murray’s description of "adverse sociological trends, particularly the decline of marriage of an institution," most of his solutions to the problem of slowing progress are uneven. He attributes the relative income equality of pre-1970 America to, among other things, immigration restrictions, but advocates more immigration. He highlights the plight of poor Americans, but advocates a regressive carbon tax, and a minimum wage increase that will increase their unemployment (an assertion he challenges unconvincingly). He calls for universal pre-k and regional education financing, but neglects education’s multi-level inefficiencies. Gordon, then, transitions with difficulty from positive to normative economics.

Despite these and other flaws (consider this sentence: "As life expectancy has increased while the retirement age for Social Security remained fixed until recently, the portion of life spent in retirement has steadily grown, and the question of future for the Social Security system remains a hot potato that is regularly kicked down the road.") the book still expertly describes America’s 20th century economic transformation, and makes a compelling case that America today experiences nothing so dramatic.

Gordon claims to be more sanguine than is suggested by the book’s title, which "might seem to imply a message of success followed by failure." Perhaps he is. Even if so, his book does make one uneasy about America today, and provides insight into those who want to make it great again. Unfortunately, Gordon doesn’t seem to know how to do that.

In this he is hardly alone.

Published under: Book reviews