Very Short Book Review: “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War”
This is part 3 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.
The third book in this series is called “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War”.
I will not bury the lede here: I hated this book.
I do not recommend you waste your time with it. It is 779 pages of economics, written by an economist, ostensibly for consumption by other economists. I hesitate to call it “bad”, because the author knows his stuff and it’s entirely possible that I am just not the right audience for it. Strange though, considering I’ve studied economics and read plenty of enjoyable books on the subject in the past. Also strange because plenty of Amazon reviewers seem to have enjoyed it, as well as places like Bloomberg and the New York Times. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Here is a sampling of what you’re in for should you decide to dive into this tar pit:
Now we take a closer look at the behavior of TFP growth for the years since 1970. Shown by vertical bars in figure 17-2 are the growth rates of TFP for 1890-1920, 1920-1970, and three subperiods since 1970. The first of these intervals, 1970-94, exhibits TFP growth of only 0.57 percent per year, less than a third of the 1.89 percent growth rate achieved in the fifty years before 1970. Then the two most recent decades between 1994 and 2014 are shown separately, with TFP growth notably faster in 1994-2004 than in the other two post-1970 intervals. Black is used to fill in the bars for the two periods with relatively rapid TFP growth 1920-1970 and 1994-2004. Light grey is used to show the contrast with all the other intervals in which TFP growth is below 0.6 percent per year.
Imagine 778 more pages of that and you’ll be roughly where I am at today. On the bright side, I was able to brush up on my speedreading skills, tapping through page after page as quickly as possible, slowed only by the occasional accidental tap on a footnote link.
I did learn exactly one memorable thing from this book: if you lived in Boston in 1844, you needed a doctor’s note to legally take a bath. So there’s that.
As far as I can tell, the point of this book was to provide a mind-numbingly comprehensive economic history of the United States and explain why 1870-1970 will never again be repeated in terms of economic growth. Because that period contained so many “one-time inventions” like indoor plumbing, electricity, and the combustion engine, the author contends that every year thereafter will be pretty marginal in terms of impact. He points to a group of “techno-optimists” (that I guess I am part of) who think that technology will continue to propel us forward in dramatic and unexpected ways, but he doesn’t seem to share that view.
This book was supposed to be one of the “books to change conservative minds”, but there isn’t any material even remotely provocative until the final 30 or so pages, and by then, you just want to throw this thing in the fire already.
I did not enjoy reading this book at all and I’m trying to think of a single type of person I would recommend it to, other than professional economists maybe. Really hoping this is the only book in the series of ten that is this much of a slog. So far, the list is 2 for 3.
(deletes from Kindle)