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Published by EH.NET (February 2001)

Robert M. Collins, More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar

America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xi + 299 pp. $35.00

(cloth), ISBN 0-19-504646-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William Keech, Department of Social and Decision

Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University.

Robert Collins’ book is a history of economic policymaking from the New Deal

through the middle of the Clinton administration. The phrase “politics of

economic growth” is in the title, and such is indeed the theme of the book,

though if this theme were not featured in the title the book could be mistaken

for a good, general, conventional history of economic policy.

The prologue and the first two chapters remind us that growth was not always a

widely assumed and shared goal in American politics. The prologue shows that

the New Deal was ambivalent about growth, and moved from an early period in

which it was oriented mainly to scarcity and stability to a later period in

which it was more oriented to growth and abundance. World War II shifted the

balance decisively in the direction of production and expansion, culminating

in the Employment Act of 1946, which made explicit the goal of promoting

“maximum employment, production and purchasing power.”

“Economic growthmanship” appeared in the Truman administration’s Council of

Economic Advisors (CEA). Chapter 1, which details this emergence, is to me the

most interesting in the book. Collins is literate about economic theory, and

refers to Samuelson, Harrod, Domar, Kuznets and Rostow, among others in this

chapter. He makes it clear that the emergence of “growthmanship” was not a

result of the influence of economic theory on policy.

The emergence of “growthmanship” had much to do with Leon Keyserling, a CEA

member who was trained as a lawyer rather than an economist, who was not

enthusiastic about economic theory, and who had noted the “poverty of growth

theory.” Keyserling was a tireless advocate of economic growth, and a force

behind the 1949 CEA report, which was a manifesto for this new direction in

national policy. Growth would take priority over redistribution, and reduce

“to manageable proportions the ancient conflict between social equity and

economic incentives.” Collins reflects on the roles of theory and policy in

this altering of the national agenda. It was policy, he says, that caused the

first step to be taken, but policy and theory worked in tandem, “moving

farther and faster than either could have alone.”

The book never actually demonstrates this, and it never quite returns to this

analytical perspective. Remaining chapters show a partisan difference in

perspective during the Eisenhower years, with Republicans being more concerned

with price stability, and Democrats being more expansionist. Growth returned

to prominence in the Kennedy and Johnson years, and made possible the

ambitious policy agenda of the Johnson administration. The treatment of the

Great Society includes a reflective section on the somewhat discordant

impulses to focus on the quality of life, and on adverse consequences of

economic growth for the environment, with mentions, for example, the work and

public impact of John Kenneth Galbraith and Rachel Carson.

There is a whole chapter on the multiple crises of 1968, which stalled growth

liberalism, and a chapter on Richard Nixon’s “Whig growthmanship,” which

brought growth into the “bipartisan mainstream” as a more cautious stance with

more recognition of limits and choices. This stance also foundered in Nixon’s

second term over well-known crises and events. Collins notes that 1973 is

recognized as the end of the postwar golden age of unprecedented economic

growth. “Retreat from Growth in the 1970s” chronicles the critical literature

of E. F. Schumacher, Ronald Inglehart, Barry Commoner, Kenneth Boulding and

the Club of Rome, at the same time that it describes the stagflation of the

1970s and how it was dealt with by the Ford and Carter administrations.

A chapter on the Reagan presidency shows how the former governor of California

did with “flair and fanfare” what Richard Nixon had “sought to do by stealth

and indirection.” Reagan “stole the growth issue that had for a generation

been a Democratic staple, repackaged it, and made it his own.” After a

fair-minded and balanced assessment of the intellectual and political sources

of supply-side economics, Collins shows how this doctrine was used to

revitalize and implement a conservative and anti-statist vision of government.

Economic growth became “both vehicle and camouflage for a larger ideological

agenda.”

Collins observes that Bill Clinton was elected with the help of the economy in

1992, and then faced a choice of increasing public investment as was desired

by many of his Democratic supporters, or reducing the deficit that was one of

the legacies of the Reagan presidency. The deficit hawks won out, as we know,

and the long string of deficits since 1969 have turned into surpluses that

have begun to reduce federal debt. This was not at the expense of what became

the longest sustained economic expansion in American history. Projected

surpluses raise again the issue of choosing between paying down the debt,

cutting taxes, and public investment (or other kinds of public spending).

More comes to four main conclusions: that “the pursuit of exuberant

economic growth was central to the history of the postwar period,” “that

growthmanship was protean,” serving not just as an end in itself, but a

variety of other purposes, that policymaking for growth was very complex.and

that the pursuit of economic growth was more “tricky and dangerous” than

policymakers expected. These conclusions do not grow systematically out of a

sustained analysis in the book. It might have been better if these themes had

been stated up front, and developed throughout the narrative, rather than

being tacked on at the end.

Collins misses an opportunity to be as literate about modern growth theory as

he was about growth theory as it stood in the 1940s. Growth theory is one of

the most active areas of research in economics today, and an economic history

of this period in US history that was sensitive to these theoretical issues

would have been very instructive.

William Keech is Professor of Political Economy and Head of the Department of

Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent

book is Economic Politics: The Costs of Democracy (Cambridge University

Press, 1995). His main research interests center on the intersection of

political science and economics. He is especially interested in the

relationship between political institutions and economic performance, and is

engaged in a study of these issues in Latin America.