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Robert J. Gordon

The subtitle is: The U S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2016, 762 pgs., index, references, notes, appendix.


Reviewer comment:
This is a huge text that describes the author's thesis that the increase of the standard of living in the US since 1870 is unprecedented in history in size and rapidity but since about 1970 has slowed to almost zero and will not expand over the next 25 years. The author denies there was much if any improvement in people's standard of living prior to the mid 19th century and that since the 1970's there has been an unprecedented increase in the gap of living standards between rich and poor in America. He claims the causes of this are the usual 'headwinds' of the elitist liberal academe and recommends the typical leftist political solutions. He uses the standard leftist concept of the economy as a 'pie' and claims that the 'rich' (wealthy 1%) are "taking" a larger slice of this thus leaving a smaller slice to the poorer 99%. But the voluminous facts he well describes show that the economic 'pie' is what has expanded vastly thus raising the standard of living of all. By begining his analysis in 1870 and focusing on the US. he falsely claims that there was no improvement of people's standard of living for all the centuries before that and in his discussion of 'inequality' he ignores the much greater differences between the living standards of the most wealthy and poorest in many societies in the past as well.
As David Hackett Fischer describes much of academe today in his important "The Great Wave", the method here is to conceive an hypothesis concept first and then assemble selected data to prove it. Dr. Gordon and his readers would also benefit from study of Peter Spufford's Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe and Edward Cheyney's The Dawn of a New Era and many other real economic histories to learn about the great improvement in the standard of living in the later Middle Ages. And for real inequality study ancient Greece and Rome or Europe until the mid 19th century. The gap of standard of living of the wealthiest 1% in Rome of 50 BC and the poor (they were slaves after all) was vastly greater than the gap between Forbes' list of the wealthiest 400 billionaires in the US today and American poor. And the practical difference in living between richest and poorest Americans over the past 200 years has been reduced, not expanded.

In short, this book contains a wealth of valuable and interesting information about the changes (causes and effects) in every-day life in America since 1870 but these facts themselves deny the validity of the analysis of life today and the political policy recommendations the author advances. The author is a member of the category 'clerisy' that Dr. McCloskey describes as finding reasons to disparage 'capitalism'. Her three books on Bourgeois refute his theories, but show the real origins of the undoubted improvement in standards of living that he documents. But Frank Trentmann describes another aspect of the same development from the 15th century in Empire of Things.And his view of technological stagnation is countered by many authors including George Gilder.


Preface Introduction


Chapter 1 - Introduction - the Ascent and Descent of Growth -
Well I do not like this title - better would be the increase and decrease in the rapidity of expanding living standards.


Part I - 1870-1940 - The Great Inventions Create a Revolution inside and outside the home


Chapter 2 - The Starting Point: Life and Work in 1870 -
A very convenient arbitrary begining point for economic analysis (a typical method to prove a point).


Chapter 3 - What they Ate and Wore and Where They Bought It


Chapter 4 - The American Home: From Dark and Isolated to Bright and Networked


Chapter 5 - Motors Overtake Horses and Rail: Inventions and Incremental Improvements


Chapter 6: From telegraph to Talkies: Information, Communication and Entertainment


Chapter 7: Nasty, Brutish and Short: Illness and Early Death


Chapter 8: Working Conditions on the Job and at Home


Chapter 9: Taking and Mitigating Risks: Consumer Credit: Insurance, and the Government


Part II - 1940-2015 - The Golden Age and the early warnings of slower growth


Chapter 10: Fast Food, Synthetic Fibers, and Split-Level Subdivisions: The Slowing Transformation of Food, Clothing and Housing


Chapter 11: See the USA in Your Chevrolet or from a Plane Flying High Above


Chapter 12: Entertainment and Communications from Milton Berle to the iPhone


Chapter 13: Computers and the Internet from the Mainframe to Facebook


Chapter 14: Antibiotics, CTScans and the Evolution of Health and Medicine


Chapter 15: Work, Youth, and Retirement at Home and on the Job


Part III: The Sources of Faster and Slower Growth


Chapter 16: The Great Leap Forward from the 1920's to the 1950's What Set of Miracles Created It?


Chapter 17: Innovation: Can the Future Match the Great Inventions of the Past?


Chapter 18: Inequality and the Other Headwinds: Long Run American Economic Growth Slows to a Crawl


Postscript: America's Growth Achievement and the Path Ahead


Data Appendix



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