I read The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon last after reading an extremely favorable review of the book in The New Review of Books (August 18, 2016). Two sentences from the last paragraph of the review, written by William Nordhaus, are. "To summarize, Rise and Fall is a magnificent book on American economic history of the last century and a half. . . . If you want to understand our history and the economic dilemmas faced by the nation today, you can spend many a fruitful hour reading Gordon's landmark study."
If we discount some of the flowery language, I believe the publishers blurb on the inside of the paper cover of the hardcover edition fairly summarizes the book:
"In the century after the Civil War, an economic revolution improved the American standard of living in ways previously unimaginable. Electric lighting, indoor plumbing, home appliances, motor vehicles, air travel, air conditioning, and television transformed households and workplaces. With medical advances, life expectancy grew from forty-five to seventy-two years between 1870 and 1970. Weaving together a vivid narrative, historical anecdotes, and economic analysis, The Rise and Fall of American Growth provides an in-depth account of this momentous era. But has the era of unprecedented growth come to an end?
"Gordon challenges the view that economic growth can or will continue unabated, and he demonstrates that the life-altering scale of innovation between 1870 and 1970 can't be repeated. He contends that the nation's productivity growth, which has already slowed to a crawl, will be further held back by the vexing headwinds of rising inequality, stagnating education, an aging population, and the rising debt of college students and the federal government. Gordon warns that the younger generation may be the first in American history that fails to exceed their parents' standard of living, and that rather than depend on the great advances of the past, we must find new solutions to overcome the challenges facing us."
I have divided the 652 pages of The Rise and Fall of American Growth into fourteen roughly equal
readings. A look at an abbreviated Table
of Contents gives an idea of how Robert Gordon has organized the subject and of
how we will study it.
1. Introduction: The Ascent and Decent of Growth
PART I. 1870-1940—THE GREAT INVENTIONS CREATE A
REVOLUTION INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE HOME
The American Home: From Dark and Isolated to Bright and
From Telegraph to Talkies: Information, Communication, and
8. Working Conditions on the Job and at Home
Entr’acte. The Midcentury Shift from Revolution to Evolution
PART II. 1940-2015—THE GOLDEN AGE AND THE EARLY
WARNINGS OF SLOWER GROWTH
Fast Food, Synthetic Fibers, and Split-Level Subdivisions: The
Slowing Transformation of Food, Clothing, and Housing
13. Computers and the Internet from the Mainframe to Facebook
15. Work, Youth, and Retirement at Home and on the Job
Entr’acte. Toward an Understanding of Slower Growth
PART III. THE SOURCES OF FASTER AND SLOWER GROWTH
The Great Leap Forward from the 1920s to the 1950s: What Set of
Miracles Caused It?
Inequality and the Other Headwinds: Long Run American Growth
Slows to a Crawl
Postscript: America’s Growth and the Path Ahead