Monthly Archives: May 2016

Economic Growth as Salvation

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the fifth (and final) in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first, second, third, and fourth posts in series.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the American economy regained the robust growth that it once had? And wouldn’t it be grand if that economic growth could, to quote Donald Trump, “make America great again”?

According to economist Robert Gordon, it’s not going to happen. Gordon, in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, has one major message that he wants to get across: The great inventions and innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that created the incredible economic growth that in turn drove the standard of living higher in the United States was “a revolution that could only happen once.”

The phenomenal economic growth experienced in this country from 1920-1970 was a perfect storm event that won’t be repeated. Neither a Trump nor Clinton presidency has the power to make an economic golden age return.

According to Gordon, here are the reasons why the economic revolution could only happen once:

*Relatively cheap and available energy stores. Oil became the fossil fuel of choice at the beginning of the twentieth century, fueling incredible economic growth. Today, 75 percent of world energy consumption is yet from fossil fuels. Gasoline is cheap currently, but it’s not as cheap as it used to be, and crude oil extraction is much more difficult than ever before.

*The advantages of America, post-World War I and II. The transfer of gold reserves from Europe to the US and the general lack of territorial devastation in the US helped create conditions for an economic boom.

*Worker productivity skyrockets. New Deal pro-labor regulations (the crucial standardization of the eight-hour workday along with increases in wages), the advent of air-conditioning and improved heating in workplaces, and “continuous learning by doing” forced upon the manufacturing sector during World War II all contributed positively toward productivity. As an example, Henry Ford’s mammoth B-24 bomber plant outside of Ypsilanti, Michigan initially produced seventy-five bombers per month in February 1943. By August 1944, the plant achieved its peak rate of production of 432 bombers per month.

*The plethora of subinventions made possible by electricity and the internal combustible engine. Air-conditioning has already been mentioned; additionally the following made for increased economic growth: public transportation, elevators, and all types of electric and machine tools.

*Widespread use of the assembly line in manufacturing. The nascent American automobile industry adapted the disassembly line from nineteenth century meat packers, and Henry Ford perfected the assembly line for production of his Model T in 1913. Modern commercial manufacturing was born.

*Standardization of manufacturing parts. Already begun in the nineteenth century with gun manufacturing, the standardization of parts allowed for interchangeability and afforded easier assembly and repair of machines. The standardization of seemingly mundane nuts, bolts, and screws in the 1920s was an enormous improvement for industrial efficiency.

*Education boom creates better workers. In 1900, only 10 percent of American youth finished high school. By 1940, the graduation rate rose above 50 percent of the first time ever. Today’s rate of 75 percent has held steady since the early 1970s. The post-WW II GI Bill helped swell American college and university rolls, further creating a more capable and highly skilled workforce.

*Construction of the national highway system. Started in earnest under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, and mostly completed by 1972, the US interstate highway system afforded more versatile and efficient transport for American businesses and consumers.

These revolutionary innovations and improvements, according to Gordon, could only happen once. Current and future innovations and improvements are not ruled out; they simply don’t and won’t have the impact on the rate of economic growth as did the revolutionary ones. The rate of economic growth in the US since 1980 is about 1.5 percent. During the 1960s and ’70s, the tail end of the boom, it averaged 3 percent. It’s time we replaced the term economic growth with the more appropriate term economic development, and its accompanying emphasis of quality over quantity.

Monarchs were the guardians of salvation – a strictly earthly variety for a chosen few – in ancient days. The church and its priests succeeded monarchs as the purveyors of salvation – mostly heavenly – during medieval ages. Since the Industrial Revolution, economic growth has brought, and delivered, salvation back to earth. Economic growth has provided food, clothing, housing, goods, and purposeful employment to millions, liberating many of these from poverty. It also has created a small class of economic elites whose financial holdings are historically gargantuan.

But how much is enough? The days of exponential economic growth are over. If we’d truly like to make America great again, future greatness will be determined more so by economic development that favors many, rather than a status-quo economic system (going on thirty-five years) that favors the elite.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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Why DOMA is Unconstitutional or America’s Grand Heritage of Egalitarianism

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the third in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first and second posts in the series.

 

Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press), an economic history of the United States, highlights important moments of American egalitarianism. Yes, good ol’ American egalitarianism!

gordon book

In the current age of excess that exuberates in chest-thumping hyper-partisanship and the attitude of winner-take-all, the meaning and sense of egalitarianism seems forgotten. A biblical concept, egalitarianism is the cry of the Israelites wanting freedom from Pharaoh and slavery; we hear echoes of it when the apostle Paul, calling for unity in the nascent Christian community of Galatia, challenges the Galatians’ understanding of entrenched identities, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . .” The word itself comes from the French egal – meaning “equal”but it refers to much more than equal parts or measurements. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of dominance-subordination, or inequality. Egalitarianism is opportunity and access for rich and poor alike. Egalitarianism is blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth.

“What Happened to Egalitarianism?” is the title of the third chapter of my book Just a Little Bit More. I reference anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who studies primates and their social relationships. Boehm looks for interplay between the competing spirits of egalitarianism and winner-take-all in our evolutionary relatives as he investigates the origins of morality in the human family. He speaks of the principle of “reverse dominance hierarchy” as a form of egalitarianism; he witnessed weaker members in a group joining forces to combat the dominance of alpha males.* I call this not survival of the fittest, but survival of the united. Egalitarianism is a sociopolitical phenomenon. A group or community engaged in the struggle for self-determination within a larger community or with a competing community seeks or maintains a sense of equality. The achievements of the civil rights era in the United States are a prime example of the workings of egalitarianism, as is the process that led to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

Gordon knows that America has a grand heritage of egalitarianism, starting with the Boston Tea Party and the revolutionary plea “No taxation without representation.” When Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the divine right of kings (sorry, George III) took a decisive egalitarian kick to the groin from which it has not recovered.** The competitive spirit of winner-take-all is legitimate and necessary, and has benefitted American ingenuity, inventiveness, and innovation. The winner-take-all ploy becomes troublesome, however, when there is no mitigating force to keep its excesses in check. Egalitarianism serves as the mitigating force of winner-take-all (and vice versa, for that matter), ensuring that the values of equality and greater access for the many win out over unmerited privilege for the few.

Here are some other gems in the history of American egalitarianism, according to Gordon:

The Price Tag: John Wannamaker opened the nation’s first department store, Grand Depot, in Philadelphia in 1876. Whereas bartering and haggling dominated the ways of buying and selling prior to this time, Wannamaker believed all people were “equal before price.” He eliminated price breaks and discounts for the connected, favored, and powerful. A religious man, he believed that all as equals before the Creator meant “one price for all.” He was the inventor of the price tag, an egalitarian innovation that revoluti0nized the consumer age.

The Networking of  Utilities – Electricity, Heating, Telephone, and Sewer: It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that more than half of Americans lived in cities. A majority of these urban dwellings were constructed after the turn of the century, enabling the inclusion of indoor plumbing, electricity, heat, and telephone. As Gordon says, “Networking implies equality. Everyone, rich and poor, is plugged into the same electric, water, sewer, gas, and telephone network. The poor may only be able to afford to hook up years after the rich, but eventually they receive the same access” (p. 95). Because of American society’s relative youth, the networking revolution of utilities spread much more quickly than it did in older European societies. (The current tragedy of lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan is a shameful example of inequality in this land where we refer to these utilities as “basic.”)

Radio: Pittsburgh’s first department store, Joseph Horne’s, began to sell amateur wireless sets – radios – for 10 dollars in the fall of 1920. On November 2, 1920, KDKA in Pittsburgh made the first radio broadcast in American history by transmitting election results as Warren Harding defeated James Cox to become the nation’s twenty-ninth president. Twenty years later, 80 percent of American households had radios in their domiciles. (For sake of comparison, only 75 percent of American households today have Internet access.) Gordon says the invention and rapid diffusion of radio was an example of “striking egalitarianism . . . enjoyed equally by the richest baron or poorest street cleaner” (p. 193).

Both forces – cooperative egalitarianism and competitive winner-take-all – are legitimate and inherently American; our society shines best when neither force dominates, but when they hold each other’s excesses in check. Too much egalitarianism stifles drive and creativity; too much winner-take-all produces inequality and accompanying ill effects. In Just a Little Bit More, I argue that our much cherished democracy needs egalitarianism in order to function at its best. American egalitarianism has helped make possible the following: emancipation from slavery, women’s suffrage, the many acheivements of the civil rights era, same sex marriage, and other accomplishments. Egalitarianism is a main driver of social progress in American and beyond. May we continue to lift it up and advocate it.

 

*Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press (1999), pgs. 1-3.

**More than two centuries after Jefferson’s famous formulation, we’re still working on fully living out its implied intention.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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Filed under Commentary