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The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume III: The Twentieth Century

Author(s):Engerman, Stanley L.
Gallman, Robert E.
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary

Published by EH.NET (March 2001)


Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume III: The Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. vii + 1190 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-55308-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Libecap, Department of Economics, University of Arizona.

This is, of course, a volume about an extraordinarily successful economy in the twentieth century. Surely, in terms of individual welfare and economic advancement, there has been no parallel in human history. We not only are extremely lucky to be part of it, but are challenged to understand its origins and progress across the century. This volume is indispensable for such an undertaking. The chapters address key aspects of the American economy and are written by leading scholars in the field. In this review, I summarize some of the highlights from each of the seventeen chapters. There is a very useful bibliographic essay at the end of the volume for more details on the broad patterns described in each chapter. This is the third volume in the Cambridge series on the development of the American economy, and one that serious economic historians will want to have readily available for reference in research and for use in the classroom.

The volume appropriately begins with an overview of the macro economy, “American Macroeconomic Growth in an Era of Knowledge-based Progress: The Long Run Perspective,” by Moses Abramovitz and Paul David. The introduction provides an excellent summary of the recent history of the American economy. Abramovitz and David point out that in the twentieth century there was a shift from extensive productivity growth that characterized the nineteenth century to intensive growth that relied more on technological and organizational change. This is sensible since the American economy moved from a frontier, natural-resource-based economy to a more mature, technology, energy-based economy. While late nineteenth-century technological change tended to be capital using and labor saving, twentieth-century technological change was more intangible capital using and tangible capital and labor saving. Data are provided detailing changes in total factor productivity growth in the transitional decades of 1879 to 1909. Beginning at this time, there was a shift to a greater role for intangible assets — education and training and organized investment in R&D — that would define the twentieth century. Key areas in the new economy were electricity, telecommunications, petroleum, the internal combustion engine, and later, the digital computer. Abramovitz and David outline the rising global position of the American economy over the century. They begin with a statistical profile of American growth since 1800, noting measurement problems, in the early period due to a lack of basic data and in the later period due to problems of comparability and definition of inputs and outputs. Interpretation of production during wars also presents challenges. Many of these issues are familiar to economic historians and were raised in Volume II of the Cambridge series. The authors examine what measured growth fails to capture in reflecting well-being, chiefly improvements in product quality and introduction of new goods and services for consumers whose qualities are not well represented in standard consumption bundles.

Over the twentieth century, the American population became more urban, more western, and more geographically mobile. In Chapter 2, “Structural Changes: Regional and Urban,” Carol Heim outlines the broad regional and urban/rural shifts that have taken place. Cities have grown and regionally, the West and South have gained, especially in the post-WWII period in terms of population and income per capita. There has been general convergence in population and income per capita across the country over the century. Heim emphasizes market and non-market forces, and what she calls hypermarket factors, resource decisions within large firms, in explaining these trends. As part of urban/regional changes, there has been a shift from manufacturing to service, an issue addressed later by Claudia Goldin in her chapter on labor markets. The chapter includes useful data by region on the breakdown of gainful employment by major sector in geographic divisions that reflect the major trends of the century.

The U.S. experience in the twentieth century was really a North American experience, and the growth of the Canadian economy is described in Chapter 3, “Twentieth Century Canadian Economic History,” by Alan Green. He has a particularly heavy load to carry, describing one hundred years of Canadian development in a single chapter. The patterns are similar to those observed for the United States with increased urbanization and industrialization and a movement away from the older wheat and timber-based economy. He points out, however, that the Canadian economy in the 1970s shifted to new natural resources — oil and iron ore production. All in all, Green outlines a record of economic and population growth that for many periods exceeded that of the United States. He briefly examines the sources of economic growth — increases in factor inputs and the growth of total factor productivity. Most interesting is his overview of the wheat economy from 1896-1929, which includes a description of the wheat boom and the staple theory of growth. Green summarizes Canada’s experience with the Great Depression, and although the Canadian economy suffered a sharp drop between 1929 and 1933, as did the U.S., there was a noticeable rebound thereafter that exceeded that of the U.S. The Canadian economy continued to grow, until a slowdown after 1973, where it performed less well than its southern neighbor.

Chapter 4 returns to the American economy with “The Twentieth-Century Record of Inequality and Poverty in the United States” by Robert Plotnick, Eugene Smolensky, Eirik Evenhouse, and Siobhan Reilly. Many of the chapters in the volume address the growth of the economy. This one examines distribution. The authors define inequality and poverty, with the poverty rate equaling the proportion of the population with income below a particular income level fixed in real terms. Inequality was at its highest levels in the century during the period from 1900 to World War I. It then declined during the war, but rose once again through 1929. Inequality fell during the Great Depression and WWII and continued to fall until 1967. It was flat and then trended upward after 1979. The authors claim that there is no single factor that underlies the record of income inequality. In the latter part of the century, where the data are the best, labor supply and demand factors play key roles. After 1979, increases in the demand for skilled labor and technological change bias toward skilled labor led to a premium for those workers. Additionally, there have been changes in the composition of industry, with a shift away from manufacturing toward services, that have increased the earnings of skilled labor and reduced the relative position of the less skilled. The end of the chapter contains an assessment of the public policy effects of tax and expenditures on inequality. The authors find that despite substantial changes in the level and composition of government spending programs in the post-WWII period, there has not been a detectable impact on the trend of inequality. Turning from inequality to the issue of poverty, there has been a clear, generally persistent downward trend through the century. The elderly have experienced a marked decline in poverty, but single-parent households have done less well. In assessing the effects of government programs on poverty, the authors conclude that policies have tended to reinforce, not offset, market factors. The chapter ends with very useful data appendices.

Certainly, one of the major events of the American economy during the twentieth century was the Great Depression, and Chapter 5, “The Great Depression,” is by a leading scholar of the issue, Peter Temin. Temin argues that credit tightness explains most of the fall in production and prices during the first phase of the depression. He discusses the confounding effects of five events that have been cited in the literature as contributing to the start of the depression — the stock market crash, Smoot-Hawley tariff, the first banking crisis, the world-wide decline in commodity prices, and a decline in consumption. He examines the role of the Fed and its adherence to the Gold Standard. Temin argues that a serious macroeconomic downturn due to these factors was turned into the Great Depression by the Federal Reserve’s actions in late 1931 to preserve the Gold Standard. The devaluation that followed the movement off the Gold Standard by the Roosevelt Administration was not followed by aggressive fiscal policy so that the economy deteriorated sharply through 1933. There was recovery between 1933 and 1937, before another downturn. Temin discusses the first New Deal and the actions of the NIRA and AAA and then briefly turns to the second New Deal. Gold inflows from an increasingly unstable Europe increased the money supply, and this helped fuel the recovery through 1937. But government policy brought about an end to that recovery with the recession of 1937. Recovery followed in 1939, largely stimulated by new gold inflows and then the build up for World War II.

Besides the Depression, the other major events of the twentieth century were wars, and in Chapter 6, “War and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century” Michael Edelstein, attempts to gauge the costs of war. This is a very interesting and ambitious chapter. During the twentieth century, there were four major military conflicts — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — along with the Cold War. These conflicts demanded considerable change in the amount of resources devoted by the United States to military activities, which were quite small in the late nineteenth century. Edelstein gauges the direct and indirect costs of these wars, with the direct costs being expenditures for labor, capital, and goods, and the indirect costs including the lost lives, injuries, and destruction of capital and land. Estimates are provided for each as a share of GNP in Table 6.1. The Cold War was the most costly conflict in terms of direct expenditures. Edelstein then turns to the financing of these military conflicts, examining total expenditures and their funding through taxes, borrowing and inflation. Financing approaches are outlined in Table 6.2-6.9. One long-term effect was the apparent permanent increase in the income tax, which was raised by the Revenue Acts of 1941 and 1942. WWII and Korea were financed more by taxation, while Vietnam more by inflation. Finally, Edelstein examines the opportunity costs of the wars by examining the lost capital and investment in public and private enterprises, as described in tables 6.10-6.12. WWI’s opportunity costs included a reduction in nondurable goods consumption and investment in residential and business structures. WWII, held back any growth in consumption, and reduced investment, and the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam reduced non-durable consumption and relied on deficit financing.

Another broad trend of the twentieth century was the growth of international trade. Peter Lindert, in Chapter 7, “U.S. Foreign Trade and Trade Policy in the Twentieth Century,” examines changes in America’s competitive advantage, the goals of government policy, and their impact on trade. Over the century, he finds a steady increase in the advantage of American skill-intensive goods, with exports increasing. This was not the case for natural resource-based exports. Lindert notes that some industries lost competitive advantage over time, particularly, steel and autos. Although protectionism rose and fell, efforts to promote infant industries never dominated U.S. trade policy. Lindert concludes that U.S. government intervention played no major role in determining which sectors increased or lost competitiveness. Market forces were dominant.

Chapter 8, “U.S. Foreign Financial Relations in the Twentieth Century” by Barry Eichengreen, continues the examination of international trade and monetary patterns. This is one of the best summaries of the financial history of the twentieth century I have seen. It is so complete that students should find it especially useful. The theme of the chapter is that international financial transactions and the institutions that governed them significantly influenced the growth and formation of the American economy. More narrowly, foreign investment led to railroad construction, and more broadly, the business cycle and responses to it were shaped by international capital flows. A related theme is that U.S. financial flows have affected other economies. U.S. capital contributed to European reconstruction following WWI and less positively, transmitted the American depression in the 1930s to other economies. American capital flows had an even greater impact after WWII. Eichengreen examines the gold standard and international financial management during WWI and the associated transformation of U.S. foreign finance. He notes that the United States became more of a creditor at that time, raising policy tensions for balancing internal and external financial markets. This tension was very apparent during the start of the depression, when the U.S. retreated from its international financial position with devaluation and the move off the gold standard. World War II and post-war reconstruction once again increased the role of the United States in the international monetary system. Eichengreen cites Lend Lease, other foreign aid through the Marshall Plan, international borrowing for reconstruction, the Bretton Woods Conference, and the IMF as examples of the key contribution provided by the U.S. in the latter part of the century.

Chapter 9, “Twentieth Century American Population Growth,” by Richard Easterlin shifts attention from financial flows to demographic patterns. This chapter by another leading scholar in the field provides valuable demographic data and charts that outline key trends. Easterlin summarizes patterns that emerged during the century — fertility and mortality continued to decline — and discusses contributing factors. Internal migration to the West, noted earlier in the volume by Carol Heim, is examined in more detail. During the twentieth century, international migration ebbed and flowed, and by the end of the period became a major contributor to population growth. Easterlin concludes with discussion of the implications of the general aging of the population, a pattern offset somewhat by immigration.

Another very complete and useful chapter is by Claudia Goldin, “Labor Markets in the Twentieth Century,” Chapter 10. Goldin summarizes major trends in American labor markets and provides valuable data to demonstrate those trends. Labor gained enormously over the century in terms of increases in real hourly earnings, enhanced worker benefits, reduced hours per week, a reduction in years of work over lifetime, and greater security in the face of unemployment, old age, sickness, and job injury. Goldin argues that these improvements were not really due to union activity or to legislation. They mostly followed from market conditions. Over the century, the face of labor changed. There was a decline in child labor and work by the elderly. The labor force participation of women, however, rose sharply from around 18 percent at the turn of the century to close to 50 percent of the labor force by the end. There were other changes in the labor market, including a shift from manufacturing to service with greater emphasis on skill. The distributional implications of this change in labor markets were noted earlier in Chapter 4. Goldin also points out that workers gained more protection from unemployment, acquired more formal education, and developed increased long-term relationships with firms over the century. At the same time, less discretion was given to supervisors and foremen in hiring and firing and more labor decisions were determined by formal workplace rules. There were fewer strikes and greater reliance on rewards than on punishment by managers. The observed evolution of modern labor markets in the U.S. has affected both individual well being and the performance of the macro economy. Still, Goldin points out that there are differences across region, among immigrants, and across skill levels. She summarizes major twentieth century intervention in the job market, including the enactment of Social Security legislation, OSHA, and the passage of the Wagner Act. Even so, Goldin argues that these actions did not fundamentally change labor markets. Rather, they reinforced market trends. Among the useful data provided are labor force participation; the industrial distribution of the labor force; occupational distribution; self employment figures; productivity measures; data on earnings, benefits, and hours; union membership; unemployment; wage inequality; black/white differences; and the contribution of education.

The discussion of labor markets continues in Chapter 11, “Labor Law” by Christopher Tomlins. Tomlins provides institutional background for the experiences described by Goldin. He traces the beginning of labor law in England and its transfer to the United States in the eighteenth century. He examines the roles of the judicial and legislative bodies in the U.S. in framing labor markets. Unionization, the adoption of workers’ compensation, the granting of anti-trust exemption to unions, the labor provisions of the NIRA and the Wagner Act, as well as Taft Hartley legislation are described.

Chapter 12 turns to agriculture, “The Transformation of Northern Agriculture, 1910-1990,” by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. The well-written introduction summarizes changes in American agriculture in the north during the century, including the decline in the number of farms and farmers and increases in productivity. Improvements in transportation and communication better linked agriculture with the rest of the economy. Olmstead and Rhode examine three themes: sources of technological change, the farm crisis, and government intervention. They begin with discussion of regional contrasts in farm size and number of farms between 1910 and 1990. They emphasize the importance of technological change in explaining these trends. Most productivity change occurred after 1940. There was a labor-saving bias, and a machinery and fertilizer-using bias in technological change. Mechanization was spurred by the internal combustion engine and improved tractor design. The chemical and biological revolutions brought hybrid seeds. Olmstead and Rhode describe the roles of the federal government in providing telephone and electricity to rural areas, in promoting research through the Hatch Act and the agricultural experiment stations, and in subsidizing agriculture. Declining commodity prices, worsening terms of trade, and falling farm populations led to greater federal support of agriculture, beginning in the 1920s, expanding during the New Deal, and continuing through the rest of the century.

While international financial flows were described in Chapter 8 by Barry Eichengreen, Eugene White completes the discussion with focus on internal developments in Chapter 13, “Banking and Finance in the Twentieth Century.” White argues that twentieth century American economic growth was financed by a expanded flow of funds, channeled by alternating waves of financial institutional innovation and government regulation. Government regulation was expanded through adoption of the Federal Reserve System and through various pieces of New Deal legislation, such as the Glass-Steagall Act. White describes the tension that subsequently emerged later in the century between market forces and the regulatory structure that ultimately resulted in political pressure for deregulation. He describes the actions of the Federal Reserve Bank between1913 and 1929 and its relative ineffectiveness in the late 1920s and early 1930s in response to bank failures. This discussion effectively supplements that provided by Eichengreen and Temin. He outlines the consequences of the New Deal and its legacy for financial markets in the last part of the century.

The role of technological change in twentieth century American economic development was emphasized by Abramovitz and David in Chapter 1 and by Goldin in Chapter 10. David Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg examine technology in more detail in Chapter 14, “Twentieth-Century Technological Change.” The distinctive feature of the twentieth century, according to Mowery and Rosenberg, was the institutionalization of the inventive process within firms, universities, and government laboratories. There was emphasis on the use of the scientific method to promote invention and practical use of technology. The authors describe the organization of research and development and the incremental adoption of new technology to improve products and processes. They link the contribution of technology to the pattern of American economic growth. Mowery and Rosenberg note, as well, that as the century progressed, international flows of technology increased through reductions in trade barriers. They show that early technological change tended to be linked with resource endowments and occurred within the chemical and petroleum industries. But there were other examples and the chapter includes short case studies of the internal combustion engine, the automobile and airplane industries, plastics, synthetic fibers, pharmaceuticals, electric power and electronics in production and in consumer products, semi conductors, and of course, computer hardware and software. They provide measures of the growth of industrial R&D and its ties to university research and government investment.

Much R&D occurred within modern corporations, and Louis Galambos describes the development of the corporation in Chapter 15, “The U.S. Corporate Economy in the Twentieth Century.” He outlines the U.S. business system, and argues that there were three major changes: a shift to the corporate form of organization and the development of a high degree of concentration at the beginning of the century; the movement toward the multi-division firm in the 1940s and 1950s, as illustrated by Ford and AT&T; and most significantly, the development of global organizations in the latter part of the century.

Big business and big government collided, as described in Chapter 16, “Government Regulation of Business,” by Richard Vietor. Vietor argues that the growth of regulation over the century in part was due to market failure and in part due to the strategic use of government by firms to enhance their competitive position. He usefully summaries theories of regulation, including the public interest and capture views. Vietor also describes the role of regulatory bodies, which were increasingly influential across the century. He highlights early anti-trust policy, New Deal regulation, and social and environmental regulation in the latter part of the century. He also discusses the deregulation that took place in some industries, notably, in airlines, telecommunications, petroleum and natural gas, and utilities.

The final chapter, “The Public Sector,” by Elliott Brownlee completes the discussion introduced by Vietor. Brownlee describes the growth of government in the twentieth century with data on the relative sizes of the federal, state, and local sectors. He emphasizes Robert Higgs’ crisis argument in explaining the expansion of the public sector. The importance of WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII are noted. Deregulation, however, remains more difficult to understand.

As I indicated in the beginning of this review, Volume III of the Cambridge Economic History of the United States is a superb companion to the earlier two volumes and is an essential addition to the libraries of all serious students of the American economy.

Gary D. Libecap is former editor of the Journal of Economic History. His books include Titles, Conflict and Land Use: The Development of Property Rights and Land Reform on the Brazilian Amazon Frontier (with Lee Alston and Bernardo Mueller) University of Michigan Press, 1999; The Federal Civil Service and the Problem of Bureaucracy: The Economics and Politics of Institutional Change, (with Ronald Johnson), University of Chicago Press and NBER, 1994, The Political Economy of Regulation: An Historical Analysis of Government and the Economy (co-editor with Claudia Goldin), University of Chicago Press and NBER, 1994, and Contracting for Property Rights, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


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