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Concrete Economics: The Hamiltonian Approach to Economic Growth and Policy

Author(s):Cohen, Stephen S.
DeLong, J. Bradford
Reviewer(s):Salsman, Richard M.

Published by EH.Net (December 2016)

Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong, Concrete Economics: The Hamiltonian Approach to Economic Growth and Policy. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2016. xi + 223 pp. $28 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-422-18981-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard M. Salsman, Program in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Duke University.

When the U.S. has prospered most has it been due mainly to a limited state that ensures equal legal treatment and relatively free markets, or has it been due to an active, intervening state that regiments activity and protects or subsidizes favored products, firms and sectors, at the expense of others? The latter, say the authors of this brief but rather interesting volume. Take note, any remaining fans of Adam Smith, true believers in “invisible hands,” or diehard devotees of “laissez faire.”

DeLong, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley and Cohen, professor emeritus and co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable in the International Economy (BRIE), deserve credit for reminding us that no economic policy is truly “hands off.” As a discipline, political economy properly recognizes and studies the unavoidable interaction of politics and markets; the latter can’t even function without some basic provision of public goods (e.g., law and order, security of private property, legal sanctity of contract). They deserve kudos also for at least stipulating that prosperity (“the wealth of nations”) is a worthy goal (as it was for Smith), for that’s surely not a key premise of today’s environmentalists, social-justice warriors, or the Pope.

But is more needed, for prosperity, than the provision of basic, rights-protecting public goods? Yes, say these authors — substantially more. In their view the state is an economy’s designer, the one institution which can (must!) identify and clear out “spaces” where entrepreneurs can then confidently operate. They believe the U.S. has suffered economic crises and stagnation since 1980 because economic policy has been too pro-business — i.e., excessively-low tax rates, free trade, deregulation, entrepreneurialism, and promotion of “zero-sum” financial activity at the expense of value-added manufacturing. They tout five prior episodes in U.S. history when “real” prosperity occurred, due (they claim) to their preferred policy mix of high income tax (and tariff) rates, heavy regulation (especially of finance), infrastructure spending, and protectionism: the 1790s and early 1800s (via “Hamiltonian” principles), the post-Civil War Gilded Age (via Lincolnian prescriptions), the progressive era (via Teddy Roosevelt’s policies), the New Deal of the 1930s (via FDR’s New Deal), and the post-WWII decades of infrastructure/aerospace buildout (a by-product of the “military industrial complex” which Eisenhower both encouraged and distrusted).

By intention, the methodology here isn’t very rigorous. No new historical database is cited or analyzed. The authors eschew careful, disciplined treatments of history, empirics, and models. They offer, unapologetically, a selective historical narrative designed mainly to corroborate their theme. They believe policy formation (and analysis) goes awry if ever animated by “ideology,” especially in free-market form. Declaring themselves “non-ideological,” they focus on what they call the “concretes,” instead of abstractions; they endorse only what “works” (“pragmatically”), not what should work (“theoretically”). But can anyone specify what “works” without reference to some criterion? The authors implicitly deny that scientific methods require hypothesizing and testing — that some theory is necessary even to know where to look in a vast empirical record.

DeLong and Cohen’s methodology — more accurately, their anti-methodology posture — is worth mentioning, because in truth they cleverly apply a specific theory in choosing their anecdotes and structuring their narrative, one which economists have variously characterized as “economic nationalism” or “industrial policy.” In this model, popularized in the 1970s and early 1980s by Robert Reich and Lester Thurow, public officials and planners are presumed to be sufficiently wise and prescient to distinguish future economic “winners and losers” and thus able to generate sustainable prosperity by fostering the former and discouraging the latter, while (somehow) also avoiding the corporatist and labor union rent-seeking such policy targeting typically invites. A more recent example of the approach is Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State (2013).

When a theory doesn’t explain economic reality very well, its adherents might elect to eschew theory altogether or instead to cherry-pick the historical record, to make the dubious theory “fit.” Hedging their bets, these authors try both. As for the cherry-picking, they cite nearly every major economic innovation in the U.S. since its founding era and attribute it to the encouragement of some government policy. Thanks mainly to Washington, America has had firearms, railroads, radio, aerospace, autos, trucking, assembly lines, nuclear power, electrification, central banking, paper money, infrastructure, computers, semiconductors, the Internet (yes, they credit Al Gore), and even smart phones. If the U.S. government has ever even remotely touched these things, the authors imply, it pretty much made them possible. At the same time, they blame failed products, eroded industries, and recession-depression decades in U.S. history on overly-free markets.

Even if the claim were true, that these products and sectors were made possible by Washington, it’s worth noting that the authors find that they entail primarily spin-offs from the outlays and projects of the U.S. Department of Defense — a state function even classical liberals can heartily endorse. Are prosperity-fostering spinoffs likely to flow also from the explosion of entitlement-transfer outlays in the half-century since the start of “Great Society” schemes? U.S. federal spending on national defense is now just 12% of all outlays, down from 16% in 2000, 23% in 1980, and 50% in 1960. It’s about as likely as the authors’ more liberal sympathizers being pleased to hear what aspect of U.S. spending most boosts the economy. These Berkeley dons are in the odd position of wishing devoutly for the “military-industrial complex” Ike warned against.

A misleading aspect of the book is the authors’ insistence that theirs is “the Hamilton approach to economic growth and policy.” In truth Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury secretary (1789-1795) wanted (and implemented) a constitutionally-limited federal government, by no means a state engaged in “industrial planning” of the kind DeLong and Cohen want (let alone “social insurance” or “redistribution”). Hamilton rejected British mercantilism, which stunted American manufacturing; and unlike his Jeffersonian-agrarian opponents (and successors), he wanted low and uniform tariffs. Hamilton also defended and implemented a gold-silver based dollar, sustained reductions in the national debt, and a limited-power, privately-owned national (nationwide) bank (not a “central bank,” as the authors claim). Also unlike DeLong and Cohen, who devote a whole chapter to denouncing what they claim is a cancer-like “hypertrophy of finance” since 1980, Hamilton saw the financial sector as productive (if left free of government influence — as it surely isn’t today), not one that displaces real and healthy economic sinews.

Two periods in U.S. economic history are particularly misrepresented in the book, to fit the author’s theme. The “Gilded Age,” the half-century between the ended of the Civil War and start of World War I — supposedly entailed “vast accumulations of conspicuous wealth” and a “confiscation of the nation’s wealth” due to “the crushing power of trusts” (p. 71). In fact that was a half-century of stupendous invention, entrepreneurship, and wage gains, due to economic freedom, not theft; it was accomplished without a central bank, a federal income tax, centralized industrial planning, or a regulatory state. The other period misrepresented is the 1930s; the authors say FDR’s heavily-interventionist New Deal revived the economy, but in fact it mainly prolonged the stagnation.

It’s reasonable to expect a book authored by fans of “industrial policy” to highlight Japan, as did Reich and Thurow in the 1980s. After all, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (“MITI”) was heralded as the model for planning agencies globally and the progenitor of its post-war economic “miracle.” Yes, Japan’s industrial production increased nearly 10% per annum from 1950 to 1991; but since then it has shrunk at a compounded rate of 0.4% per annum. Does this quarter-century contraction reflect free market policies enacted after 1991? Hardly. Somehow “things changed,” the authors report, dead-pan. “Japan had become a solidly rich nation.” “Asset values then crashed and stayed crashed,” and “rapid growth became dishearteningly elusive. Why? We do not claim to know” (p. 133).  Herein lies the futility (and dishonesty) of historical cherry-picking: when the facts don’t fit, plead humility and ignorance; otherwise, proclaim boldly and often that every sustained economic success necessarily has flowed from astute state planning.

DeLong and Cohen deserve thanks for issuing a reminder that the humane state should facilitate prosperity and higher living standards, as that’s become a minority (but much needed) view in recent decades. The book’s more refutable parts include the claim that prosperity is achievable by actively countermanding markets, the belief that today’s burgeoning welfare-transfer state (which they condone) can spawn wealth-producing “spinoffs,” and above all, the presumption that their book has the imprimatur of a truly Hamiltonian (pro-capitalist) political economy.

Richard M. Salsman is the author of The Political Economy of Public Debt: Three Centuries of Theory and Evidence (Edward Elgar, 2017).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII