EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

U.S. Economic History Since 1945

Author(s):French, Michael
Reviewer(s):Grant, Randy R.

Published by EH.NET (October 1998)

Michael French. U.S. Economic History Since 1945. Manchester and New

York: Manchester University Press, 1997. 256 pp. $24.95 (cloth),

ISBN: 071 9049512.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Randy R. Grant, Department of Economics and Business,

Linfield College.

Michael French, Senior Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the

University of Glasgow, examines the U.S. economy since 1945, dividing the

postwar era topically rather than chronologically. Although each chapter

develops chronologically, the emphasis is on critical events within each theme.

I include the table of contents to provide an initial description of the

topics covered.

  1. The US population since 1945
  2. US government since 1945
  3. US government and management of the economy
  4. US regional economic change since 1945
  5. Work in the United States since 1945
  6. Agriculture and the rural United States
  7. Mastery to uncertainty: corporate America, 1945-90
  8. African-Americans and the civil rights movement
  9. US incomes and consumption since 1945
  10. The United States in the world economy
  11. US productivity growth since 1945

French’s objective is to provide more than just an overview of the era, In

his own words French writes,

“This book charts the main economic changes in the United States

since 1945. In any historical study demarcation lines involve an

uneasy compromise between placing an era in its long-run context

or examining a short span more thoroughly. The period from 1945

to the early 1990s has often been treated as the tail-end to a

longer book surveying two or three hundred years of American

economic development. This establishes the grand schema, but

at the expense of detail.” [Introduction]

Interestingly, French’s perspective is that he is providing a detailed

examination of a shorter period. I was struck initially with the opposite

perception. French’s work, if nothing else, is ambitious. In roughly 200

pages, French attempts to describe and explain adequately events in the U.S.

economy covering a 50+ year span. His efforts are to be applauded,

but the results are mixed. Such is

the nature of the uneasy compromise that French identifies.

Economic historians familiar with the postwar period will have mixed

reactions, dependent on areas of specialization. To illustrate, as one who has

focused on postwar macroeconomic policy, I

found the chapters on the role of government to be seriously deficient in the

discussion of the Employment Act of 1946 and the role of the Keynesians in

policy-making. On the other hand, as one with limited academic experience with

regional economic changes, I saw that chapter as providing a strong overview

of the issues with most of the critical details provided. In short, one must

be aware of one’s own parochial view, as it will likely influence the

assessment of how well French examines each topic.

The other general dissatisfaction with the text is the less thorough

discussion of the 1980s and 90s. While the coverage from 1945 to the 1970s is

thorough, the discussion of the last two decades is, at times, excessively

limited.

The first chapter describes demographic changes in the postwar period.

It is an interesting discussion in and of itself, but it also provides a nice

context for the rest of the topics covered. It almost literally puts a face to

the subsequent content.

Chapters two and three address the federal government’s role in the economy

in the postwar era. A good view of the defense and welfare sectors is

provided, as is a discussion of the prevailing attitudes toward government.

Coverage of key legislative action is inadequate, as is the discussion of the

role of economists (or lack thereof) during the period.

Chapter four, dealing with regional economic changes since 1945, is one of

the clearest in its presentation. Connections to product cycle and industry

structure

models are made, although a more explicit framework for discussion would be

useful. Overall this chapter provides a good overview of regional economic

change, both in identifying the changes and their causes.

The fifth chapter, covering work since 19 45, provides balanced discussion

of women’s labor issues and changes in the power of labor in the postwar

period. This chapter does a better job of covering recent history (i.e. 1980s

and 90s), including a discussion of the Reagan administration’s dealings with

organized labor (such as with the air traffic controllers).

Chapter six addresses issues of agriculture and the rural United States.

Here French emphasizes the roles of changing technology and farm structure, and

the development of agribusiness. A solid discussion of regional impacts and

the rural poor is also provided. The chapter concludes with a fairly extensive

overview of federal farm policy in the postwar period. The section provides

good coverage of both legislative and attitudinal changes since 1945.

Chapter seven is arguably the best this text has to offer. It provides a

comprehensive yet concise history of the growth, decline(?), and power of

corporations since 1945. What is especially appreciated is the pre-1945

background discussion, which is critical to understanding the postwar

activities of

corporate America. While appropriate attention is given to mergers, joint

ventures, etc., a discussion of corporate interlocks (aka interlocking

directorates) would help complete what is already a good picture of corporate

America since World War II.

Chapter eight, “African-Americans and the civil rights movement,”

integrates the earlier discussions of demographic and regional economic

changes. As with the chapter on corporations, the chapter reaches back to

before 1945 to establish necessary background information on the struggles of

African-Americans. It blends well the personalities, legal changes,

and economic realities underlying the civil rights movement. As with all of

the topics this book addresses, more could be added, but overall this chapter

covers this extensive topic well.

Chapter nine deals with income and consumption issues. While it provides an

adequate overview, every topic addressed within the chapter warrants, at the

minimum, its own chapter in a work of this nature.

French first deals with income distribution, but only barely scratching the

surface. His pre-1945 data are more thorough than the postwar data he

provides. A first pass is made at explaining trends in inequality, but it is

not enough to provide even a cursory understanding of the forces involved. The

chapter then moves to a discussion of poverty which, like the income

distribution, warrants a more complete analysis. Weak also is the discussion

of gender issues. The best part of chapter nine is the examination of changes

in the consumer society in the postwar period.

If a choice had to be made between leaving chapter nine as is or deleting it,

it should remain in the text, but I would hope that any revision of the book

would include expanded coverage of these important topics.

The US in the world economy is the topic of chapter ten. Any author would

be hard pressed to provide adequate coverage of this subject in a single

chapter. Despite this, French does manage to introduce the central themes in

US

global economic activities, providing sufficient overview of economic policy,

multinationals, and US economic performance in the global economy since 1945.

French’s concluding

chapter addresses productivity growth in the postwar period, and the slowing

of productivity growth in the 1970s and 80s. He summarizes the standard

explanations, providing a brief overview of the evidence for each.

While I would have liked to keep

this review focused on content, I digress to three technical issues affecting

the book’s usefulness.

For its size, the text contains a wealth of information on each topic.

Furthermore, the bibliography is extensive. The book has the potential to be a

nice reference complement to a library collection on the postwar era. The

problem is that the index is a woefully inadequate guide to important

subtopics.

The second technical matter regards the writing style. I approach the book

from the perspective of teaching economic history to undergraduates. In my

quest for text materials I must look both for content and how well it is

communicated. In some chapters I found the arguments difficult to follow

because of the style. I am desperately trying to avoid

sounding nit-picky or simplistic, but a more generous use of paragraphs would

improve dramatically the readability of this work. In some places the typical

undergraduate would get bogged down in the structure and lose sight of the

important information

which French’s work offers.

Finally, I am left with the question, “for whom is this book written?”

It has the appearance of a text that one might find in an undergraduate or

graduate economic history course, but in places it assumes knowledge that the

typical undergraduate will likely not possess, especially in the area of

theoretical models. French demonstrates the application of the models,

but does not establish the theoretical framework. The usefulness for

undergraduate study is thus limited, leaving open the question of audience.

As noted previously, those with expertise in these areas may be unsettled by

what they see as gaps in the content. It is uncertain which master this work

intends to serve, and it may be that it serves no master well.

As I look back at this review, it appears even to me to be somewhat

schizophrenic. I leave it as such, as it reflects the mixed reaction I have to

this work. Some parts excite while others disappoint. For those seeking a

clear recommendation for or against this book, I am loathe to give it. I

believe it is worth a look, but I say that knowing that some will be

disappointed.

Randy R. Grant Department of Economics and Business Linfield College

Randy Grant specializes in U.S. Economic History and

Public Policy. His doctoral dissertation focused on the relationship between

corporate power and the distribution of income. Articles he has authored

include

“Measuring Corporate Power: Assessing the Options” (June 1997) and “Class

Conflict, Corporate

Power, and Macroeconomic Policy: The Impact of Inflation in the Postwar

Period” (June 1991, co-authored with Ann Mari May). Both articles appeared in

the Journal of Economic Issues.

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