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!


Vacations are for Slackers . . .

It’s summertime – have you taken a vacation yet? A recent national survey claims that 42 per cent of working Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. Wow – keep that stat in mind the next time you have an interchange with a grumpy employee. Maybe he’s having a bad day in part because he hasn’t had time off from the job for a significant stretch. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t lawfully mandate paid vacation days for workers.

Some Americans are workaholics and others actually like their jobs so much they don’t take any vacation days. Workaholics and job-lovers together, however, we can assume to be a minority. Other Americans in low-paying jobs are unable or afraid to take time off (lest they lose their jobs), and other Americans are uncomfortable getting away from the office or workplace lest necessary tasks be forgotten or mismanaged by others. Other Americans, because of our incomplete system of health care coverage, end up using vacation days as sick or family leave days.

Most Americans – whether vacation-takers or not – live in obeisance to the dominant religion of the day: the troika of materialism, commerce, and consumerism. On the surface, it’s a good religion that feeds, shelters, clothes, and employs us. But when the religion goes overboard – too many hours worked is but one example – it breaks bad and damages societal common good.

jalbm neal
The Caddy Man

By the numbers, the three people groups most devoted to working are South Koreans, Americans, and Australians. Only South Koreans take fewer vacation days and holidays than American workers; only Australians work on average more weeks per year than Americans. The Caddy Man, actor Neal McDonough, perfectly describes (albeit unintended) the dominant religion in America. Speaking incredulously of those woosified Europeans: “They take August off – off!”

Once upon a time (in the 1950s), many commentators, confident of increased gains in productivity and innovation, foresaw a shorter workweek and increased leisure time for Americans by the last few decades of the century. Those predictions fell completely flat. Americans worked, on the average, 160 hours more a year in 2000 than in 1970. America, historically associated with the opportunity to work, now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it). Consumerism, of course, has brought about work’s ability to rule.

According to Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics – an organization that serves the travel industry – the average working American leaves five vacation days unused per year. Sacks calls it a culture of work martyrdom: those who don’t use all their vacation are more virtuous than those who do take all their vacation days. Vacations are for slackers.


The star-forming region NGC 3603 - seen here in the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - contains one of the most impressive massive young star clusters in the Milky Way. Bathed in gas and dust the cluster formed in a huge rush of star formation thought to have occurred around a million years ago. The hot blue stars at the core are responsible for carving out a huge cavity in the gas seen to the right of the star cluster in NGC 3603's centre.
Hubble Space Telescope pic

Vacations are also for those seeking renewal and rejuvenation. One of the first stories in Hebrew scriptures tells of the Creator God taking a day off at the conclusion of an extended work project. The moral of the story: creativity and rest go hand-in-hand. We are capable of creating and doing good work on little sleep; but, over the long haul, you and I need rest and downtime in order to be effective in relationships and in work environments.

When will we see a change in the way working America operates? The typical reward for good work is increased pay. While many appreciate (and need) an increase in pay, when will we see a culture shift that rewards employees’ good work with more time off?




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. 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.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

Labor Day and Its Ironies

“Work is a divine gift and those who refuse it are sinners.” Historian Richard Donkin thus describes George Pullman’s secularized version of the Puritan work ethic. At least Pullman (manufacturer of sleeper train cars) understood the connection between a satisfied workforce and increased productivity. His late 19th century worker town, just outside of Chicago, gleamed in comparison to the filthy stockyards and slum settlement of Packingtown, only miles away. Pullman City had parks, schools, a boathouse, and recreational access to Lake Calumet; its company homes even had indoor plumbing. No shit – literally. Pullman, however, had his grabby fingers in every transaction that occurred in the town. With the economic downturn of 1893, Pullman slashed worker positions and wages without reducing rental charges for the company housing, which led to a worker strike. President Grover Cleveland, claiming the strike to be illegal (US mail service had been disrupted), sent in federal troops to quell it.  The ensuing conflict resulted in the deaths of thirty workers, and Pullman City and its architect/owner were doomed. (When Pullman died just a few years later in 1897, his coffin was encased in thick concrete lest any of his legion detractors were to desecrate his grave.)

The Pullman worker strike lasted some two months during the summer of 1894. The conflict and accompanying deaths of workers, ironically, sealed the deal for President Cleveland to nationalize a Labor Day holiday (various states had been passing legislation for such a holiday as early as 1887). Designated the first Monday in September, it was purposely distinct from the May 1st holiday – International Workers’ Day – chosen in 1889 by the worldwide Communist and Socialist movement. This organization was one of many advocating for an eight-hour, five-day workweek.


People rush and race every morning to arrive to their jobs as fast as possible. Is it because of the great love they have for their work? Somehow I don’t think that’s it. Many of us are sleep deprived and we allow minimum prep time before leaving for work. On top that – none of us want to spend more time than necessary on the road arriving to work. That’s why we are racing to work, with a small minority of us every morning getting in a fender bender (or worse) as we participate in the big race. Who in their right mind wakes up in the morning thinking today would be a good day to get into an accident on the way to work? American workers have been described as “crazy, driven, hard-working believers” – and that makes it tough to slow down. Why smell and savor the coffee, when instead, we can have it splash onto our laps when we slam on the brakes? (Sorry, not enough time to have put on the coffee cup lid!)

Some 25% of us will be working this Labor Day. Schools, banks, and government offices are closed for the national holiday. Stores, restaurants, hotels, and other service sectors will be laboring away. Some will be happy to be working and earning; others will not be. For these latter, their taskmasters demand obeisance. The irony of Labor Day – officially born only six days after federal troops violently cracked down and broke the Pullman strike on the side of an autocratic employer – continues in this society so defined, uplifted, and desecrated by work. Remember, at the time of the Pullman strike, Andrew Carnegie’s steel workers were putting in 12 hour days, seven days a week.

Work is, without question, a great blessing. Productivity for self, family, and community makes it so. This Labor Day weekend, it will be good to ask the following question: Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? If you go to worship this weekend, perhaps you’ll hear some recapping of the Exodus story (chapter 3) where God tells Moses that he has heard his people’s cries and has seen the oppression that they have suffered. God did not create his people to serve as the slaves of the Egyptians. Enough was enough. God led the protest, Moses organized the people, and liberation blossomed for a people that had slaved under the hot sun of injustice.

Swiss historian and economist Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi (1773-1842) warned long ago: “Humanity should be on guard against . . . the error of identifying the public good with wealth, abstracted from the sufferings of the humans who made it.” The God of Israel, no less, agrees.


These ideas are adapted from my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo website.