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Envy of the World: A History of the U.S. Economy and Big Business

Author(s):Botti, Timothy J.
Reviewer(s):Bodenhorn, Howard

Published by EH.NET (February 2007)

Timothy J. Botti, _Envy of the World: A History of the U.S. Economy and Big Business_. New York: Algora Press, 2006. xxx + 701 pp. $36 (paper), ISBN: 0-87586-431-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard Bodenhorn, Department of Economics, Yale University.

Timothy J. Botti, an independent scholar, holds a Ph.D. in the history of American foreign policy, but considers himself an expert on the history of empires, military and strategic history, and economic and business history. In the foreword to his book, Botti informs us that his aim is to provide the reader with an approachable narrative about how four centuries of individual and collective action generated a $12 trillion modern economic powerhouse that is the “envy of the world.” In doing so, he traces the increase in business activity and economic output from the Jamestown arrival up to the present. Modern Americans, he correctly notes, are virtually awash in the cornucopia of goods and services provided by a post-industrial economy. It is the breadth and depth of U.S. material wealth that sets the country apart from most of the world.

Botti’s fundamental question: “How did this come to pass?” is, of course, of fundamental importance and enduring interest to economic and business historians. It is a shame that the author fails to provide meaningful insights. What he provides, instead, is a mountain of information without much analysis. There is no theoretical structure underlying the narrative so that, at the end of the book, I was left wondering what I had learned. Botti’s thick book is lacking in depth.

Botti arranges his material chronologically and, for expositional purposes, divides U.S. history into four epochs: Foundations (1607-1860); Business and Government Compete for Supremacy (1861-1945); Economic Possibilities (1946-1989); and Old versus New Economy (1990-2004). Every author is, of course, free to divide history into as many and as large or small segments as suits his or her purpose, but the fact that fourteen years of the “new economy” are covered in 215 pages versus the 95 pages devoted to the first 253 years of the “ancient economy” is a nod to contemporary fascination with the ubiquity of the microprocessor and the so-called “dot-com” boom, while failing to appreciate legitimate doubts about the microprocessor’s true transformative effect.[1]

My substantive complaint has little to do with the author’s choice of chronological divisions or fascination with the new economy, but with his expositional style. The historian’s task is to organize material in such a way as to make sense of the rush of past events. Without imposing some narrative structure, history becomes little more than a recitation of what one of my college history professors labeled “one damned thing after another.” Rather than accept the historian’s task, Botti reinforces the apparent randomness of events through his narrative structure. In the ten paragraphs devoted to consumer expenditures as a driver of the U.S. economy in the postwar (1946-1960) period, he tells us that political leaders did not want to swing back toward interwar protectionist policies; that pent-up consumer demand “brought greater prominence and profits to a raft of companies;” that, despite mounting evidence of the health risks associated with cigarettes, R. J. Reynolds’ sales soared; that increased competition between the oligopolies squeezed out small producers; that Gillette introduced Foamy saving cream and Right Guard deodorant in aerosol form; that Kodak hit it big with the Brownie Starmatic camera; that wartime gasoline rationing nearly devastated the Howard Johnson restaurant chain; and that Aramark emerged as major vending machine-based retailer (pp. 292-95).

Each of these topics might serve as a springboard into a meaningful discussion of larger implications, such as the waxing and waning of corporate calls for protectionism, or oligopolistic practices, or massive investments in corporate R&D or the growing pressure on corporations to behave in socially responsible ways. But here, as throughout the volume, such opportunities go unexploited.

As a full-time economic historian I found the volume disappointing because it fails to demonstrate a grasp of, or even acknowledge, some of the most important contributions of thirty years of new economic history to our understanding of the American experience. It is troubling how few of these new interpretations have found their way into the historical discourse. It is particularly troubling in this instance that they haven’t even found their way into a volume ostensibly describing the economic history of the United States.

As a part-time business historian I found the volume disappointing because, at its best, business history is by turns insightful and engaging, informative and entertaining, interesting and eclectic. Botti’s volume exhibits few of these qualities.

As I read Botti’s book, I kept wondering about his intended audience. The book is inappropriate as a primary, or even supplementary, reader in an economic or business history course, mostly because it lacks any substantive analysis, organizing theme or theoretical superstructure. Readers in search of source material in business history may find some of Botti’s thumbnail sketches of firms and their founders of some value, but several business history encyclopedias better serve that purpose. Finally, it is unlikely to attract a popular audience because the narrative is not particularly engaging. I am therefore at a loss in identifying an appropriate audience.

Note: 1. Robert Gordon, “U.S. Economic Growth since 1870: One Big Wave,” _American Economic Review_ 89:2 (May 1999), 123-28; Joel Mokyr, “Are We in the Middle of an Industrial Revolution,” Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City _Economic Review_ (1997); and Jeremy Greenwood and Mehmet Yorukoglu, “1974,” _Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy_ 46 (June 1997), 49-95 all cast doubt on whether the computer represents a fundamental technological change of the same magnitude of the technological breakthroughs of the late nineteenth century, such as electricity, the internal combustion engine, or plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Howard Bodenhorn, Visiting Professor of Economics at Yale University, is author of _A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Age of Nation Building_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and _State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). He is currently writing a history of free African Americans in the antebellum South.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII