Book Review

  I include this book review which I posted on Amazon because it deals with the American Industrial Revolution which was fostered by the American Energy Revolution. This review is  of Robert Gordon’s new book entitled: “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)
     This is a remarkable book by noted economist Robert Gordon and his team of undergraduates and graduate assistants who did much of the heavy lifting collecting data and histories of the American experience of the last 145 years from 1870 to the present. His thesis briefly stated is that progress and the great inventions and innovations of the period primarily from 1870 to 1940 were transformational like no other period before or since and are not likely to be repeated. Gordon states that these great “innovations” were among others, the invention and distribution of electricity, the light bulb, the telephone, the radio, indoor plumbing, clean water, the invention of the internal combustion engine, the automobile and the airplane, cleaning up the food supply and elimination of the horse with its associated manure pollution were the great innovations of the period and responsible for the enormous growth and development of the United States. His conclusion is that this growth period is now over and not likely to be repeated. His economist critics say “Nonsense!”. The next epoch will have a whole new revolution of Artificial intelligence, robotics, and so forth to continue the growth process.Gordon’s conclusion is that the party is over as the title of the book implies. I have high praise for the first third of the book which covers the period from 1870 to 1940. The next 30 years were primarily improvements to the innovations of the first 70 years and the last 40 years to the present are remarkable only for the computer age and improvements in communications. The first third of the book is worth the price of the book and is a must read for the most dynamic period in American History and as a readable economic historian, Robert Gordon has few peers with the exception of perhaps J.K. Galbraith. The glaring flaw in this book is the same glaring flaw in most contemporary books by economists. Economists look at this enormously productive period and explain and measure it by outputs, productivity, GDP, income,capital flows, labor efficiency and productivity and a myriad of other statistical analyses. What these economists and what Gordon misses entirely are the causes of this incredible growth. Why did this period happen to this country when it did? Gordon says that it was an unprecedented flowering of genius and invention occurring in a new world of seemingly unbounded resources and promise far removed from the stagnation, wars and decay of the Old World. It was indeed that. But Why? How? Gordon almost nowhere in the book uses the term “Industrial Revolution” in his explication. But of course that is what it was. It was a continuation of the Industrial Revolution running on coal which began in England a hundred years before but in the case of the United States, it was a turbocharged industrial revolution. But again. Why here? Why then? This period happened when it did and where it did primarily for one single reason. It was a revolution powered by almost free energy never before available in the history of the world. The United States had fossil energy in huge quantities which came on line just before 1870. The first oil well was sunk in Pennsylvania in 1859 and invention of the first internal combustion engine followed just 15 years later. Firewood and coal were just becoming available in huge quantities and it was this cheap and abundant energy which allowed the utilization and exploitation of the other abundant resources of the New World. The jump in productivity was made possible because it was now machines instead of animal and human muscle that was unleashed by the energy from coal and oil. Amazingly in 762 pages, this is given scant attention . Energy to an economist is a subset of the economy. In fact the economy is a subset of energy in this writer’s opinion. Gordon also misses in his conclusions why growth in America is falling and will continue to fall. Earth is a finite planet with finite resources and finite energy resources. The wealth of America was facilitated by almost free energy which generated enormous productivity gains, innovations, a population explosion and sadly unimaginable pollution and societal complexity yielding ever more diminishing returns. It is stunning to me that Gordon misses this possible conclusion why American Growth is at an end
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About cal48koho

I was born in Montana and raised in a dozen Air Force SAC bases. I attended Holy Cross,West Point and UNC in Chapel Hill(MD"71). Army doc in the last years of the Viet Nam fiasco. My wife and I live in a log cabin I built in Jackson Hole in 1975 when we aren't on our Cal 48 yawl. I've done a dozen different jobs and retired from ER and Anesthesia in 2004. I've written magazine articles and am writing a Kunstleresque novel about life in a past Peak Oil world. We are living in a beautiful alpine setting where we hike and ski when we're not thinking about economics and spreading the implications of PO to anyone who will listen.
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