Published by EH.Net (July 2012)
Louis Galambos, The Creative Society ? and the Price Americans Paid for It. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiv + 322 pp. $28 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-107-60099-7.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Ahmed S. Rahman, Department of Economics, United States Naval Academy.
Patterns in history suggest a cold truth ? global hegemonic and economic dominance never lasts. When relative decline comes, it inevitably invites questions of what went wrong, and the answers typically are of two possible flavors. The country changed too much and failed to stay true to its core strengths, or the country did not change enough and failed to adequately adapt. These days we wonder if are witnessing the downward plunge of another such wave, and in its wake comes a surge of studies outlining the sources of, and threats to, American exceptionalism. These form part of a larger narrative on the rise and potential eclipse of the West. By understanding the roots of Western success, we might judge whether we have strayed too far or hewed too close to them.
With The Creative Society, Louis Galambos has developed an ambitious work that uncovers a crucial root from which springs much of America?s strength and durability ? its class of professional workers. It is a comprehensive group that includes lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, administrators, business managers, policy specialists, and urban planners. Galambos, a professional himself and startlingly a character in his own tale, has spent his distinguished career studying institutional developments in America. Here he taps into that wealth of knowledge to discuss how these groups of creative Americans interacted with different ideas and institutions, covering (for the most part chronologically) the period from the 1890s up to the present day.
A work mainly about twentieth century America can cover many themes, and this book seems intent on discussing them all.? Race, gender, immigration, politics, national defense, trade, urbanization, corporate downsizing, income inequality ? virtually no potential topic is left off the table. The reader would be unhinged from such a maelstrom of subjects (all compressed in roughly 300 pages) were it not for the common thread tying it all together ? America?s educational system and the entrepreneurial and inventive people who were shaped by it.
There is much here that both economists and historians should enjoy. A critical question hovering over this work is where the rise of professionalism sits in the causal chain of events leading to American growth. Did skill-intensive technological developments raise the need for specialized human capital, or did America?s unique educational system produce the cadre of professionals that in turn developed the innovations of the American Century?
Galambos seems to answer with the latter, and provides a series of compelling examples in support of this. Through their American education and experience, these professionals helped expand scientific knowledge, improve medical care, develop new urban and suburban centers, and revolutionize business. All is not sunshine and roses however ? this creative society also led America into costly and arguably unnecessary wars, fostered hubris and entrenched interests, and helped create huge gaps in inequality along lines of skill, gender and race. The stitching together of all these leitmotifs is the product of robust and eclectic research that challenges us to think of America in a new light.
Like American culture itself, Galambos?s narrative propels forward through stories of bold ascent by unlikely characters: the chemist of modest means who wins the Nobel Prize (Ernest Lawrence), the shiftless student who revolutionizes city planning (James Rouse), the mediocre engineer who becomes a prominent turnaround specialist (Al Dunlap), and yes, the historian struggling to make sense of the world becomes an eminent professor at Johns Hopkins University and writes this book (Louis Galambos). Trying to understand American economic and social history through its most successful professionals is bold and novel. Galambos is a skilled raconteur, and he weaves his tales with style and wit.
There is also much here that may drive some to distraction. The work suggests itself to be a new historical paradigm. I did not quite find it that exactly ? the narrative is a bit too loose and unfocused, with too many shaky and unsupported normative statements. The writing itself is an entertaining and curious mash-up of biography, auto-biography, and institutional and cultural history. The book whipsaws back and forth between close-up personal portraits of individual professionals, and panoramic landscapes of American society. The approach is often enlightening and sometimes disorienting.
If the goal was to produce a truly new perspective of American social history, the approach doesn?t entirely work. The biographies sketched out (including one for our current president) are of exceptional people, who by construction do not constitute a representative sample of the creative society. Inductive analysis that mainly observes society?s winners can get one only so far in understanding the macro forces that shaped society as a whole. Moreover, it tends to undermine the purported importance of America?s education system. The characters portrayed make for compelling reading, but often they come at the expense of the system they are supposed to illuminate. The more impressive the set of characters appear to be, the more it appears that the rise of America was an accident of fortune, the mere product of having the right people in the right places at the right times.?
I also would have welcomed more comparative analysis, using the systems and institutions of other nations to form a backdrop by which to contrast America?s.? How did America?s educational and business systems compare to those from which they originated? The book makes clear that America?s strengths spring from its connections between education and enterprise, but how precisely, and how these differ from other nations, remains underexplored.
The tale ends with a number of contemporary challenges well known to most. Given the slew of problems constantly offered by the chattering class (conceivably a subset of Galambos?s professional class), I appreciated the author?s hopeful message that our rich endowment of creative workers will help us through our challenges. The book offers neither grandiose theories nor explicit solutions. What it does provide is a new and valuable appreciation of how professionals have shaped our history and culture, and the abiding sense that they will save us once again.
Ahmed Rahman is an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author (with Darrell Glaser) of ?Human Capital and Technological Transition: Insights from the U.S. Navy? (Journal of Economic History, September 2011). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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