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Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873

Author(s):Lubetkin, M. John
Reviewer(s):Fender, Ann Harper

Published by EH.NET (July 2006)

M. John Lubetkin, Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. xviii + 380 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8061-3740-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ann Harper Fender, Department of Economics, Gettysburg College.

Lubetkin’s major contribution lies in his description, based on numerous primary sources, of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s surveys in the summers of 1871, 1872, and 1873 for its line through the Dakota/Montana territories. A prologue of several chapters provides a setting for the surveys by examining the history of the Northern Pacific Railroad and Jay Cooke’s involvement with it. Early chapters of the book also summarize Cooke’s life and business dealings, especially his selling of Civil War bonds, prior to his involvement with the Northern Pacific. Additional chapters include material on the history of North American European/Indian contact and an interesting technological history of surveying. An epilogue of sorts follows the chapters on the surveys. These chapters focus on the problems of the Northern Pacific, the downfall of Jay Cooke & Co., and the Panic of 1873 and ensuing depression. Along the way, Lubetkin introduces a large, colorful cast of characters, with impressive biographical material about each. He weaves together the unlikely components of his title. U.S. Grant, Sitting Bull, George Custer, Confederate general turned railroad surveyor Tom Rosser, various financial saints and villains, alcoholic generals, the geography of Minnesota and Dakota and Montana territories and their extreme weather are among the people and conditions in his story. A postscript briefly describes what happened to the book’s main characters after 1873; an appendix summarizes an eyewitness account of a post-blizzard rescue of an 1871 surveying party.

The story begins when Jay Cooke, casting about after 1865 for a way to use his bond sales expertise, became interested in Minnesota and virtually empty lands west of it. Simultaneously, the Northern Pacific Railroad, existing in name only, had fallen into the hands of Vermont businessman and politician, J.Gregory Smith, who needed cash and apparently thought he might get it through the proceeds of Northern Pacific bond sales. Smith, the clearest villain of the book, presided over the Vermont Central Railroad. Why anyone would think that a second transcontinental railroad was a good idea so soon after the completion of the first is a bit of a mystery (until one recalls the recent “” bust). Cooke was sufficiently cautious to send in 1870 an expeditionary group to examine the lands along a potential Northern Pacific route from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. That group reported rich soils, possible coal seams, and abundant timber along various parts of the route, which encouraged Cooke to raise money for the railroad. Additional interest was created by what was soon to become Yellowstone National Park and its potential tourism business. Federal land grants along the route gave the promise of funds to complete the line and enrich investors. One cautionary note arose with the unknown area between roughly Bismarck and the Yellowstone River. Nomadic Sioux tribes, having been compressed into this region, understandably did not want their hunting territory further decreased. Pressure from the Crow tribe to the south and from Metis to the north made incursions by settlers intolerable for the Sioux. Despite this Indian threat, the Northern Pacific proceeded, with lines being constructed from east and west. Simultaneously, surveyors were hired to mark the line in the unknown Yellowstone region. Because of the Sioux threat, military escorts accompanied the surveyors; the survey took three summers, partly because Indian attacks materialized. These surveying expeditions included many hundreds of men, wagons, and animals, and created substantial provisioning nightmares. Using his sources Lubetkin brings alive the expeditions and the problems that vexed them. Various Civil War veterans staffed the Dakota Territory military units; an ex-Confederate general was surveyor and then chief engineer for the Northern Pacific. Especially on the 1873 expedition, which included the colorful and self-promoting George Custer, newspapermen were included and made regular reports to eastern papers.

One of the author’s main contentions is that stories filed by these reporters and by Custer greatly exaggerated the Indian attacks, thereby scaring off potential NPRR bond purchasers. This in turn led to problems for the railroad and for Cooke and Co., which had committed substantial resources to it. Cooke’s New York partners, concerned that Cooke had over-committed to the railroad, took (perhaps duplicitous) actions that shut down Cooke’s banking houses and effectively put Cooke into personal bankruptcy. The failure of Jay Cooke & Co. strongly contributed to the Panic of 1873. These contentions along with the descriptions of the nefarious spending and contracting practices of Northern Pacific executives and the relationships between businessmen and politicians, are interesting business history, but without the numbers and detail that might test quantitatively the contentions. Although Lubetkin deserves high marks for pulling together these facets, it seems likely that macroeconomic conditions and slowing credit growth caused the panic and the downfall of Cooke. Lubetkin’s economic history is narrative rather than cliometric, historical rather than economic. Although not expressed as such, however, issues of network industries, economies of scale, principal-agent problems, public choice, and rent seeking fill his book.

Both the book’s “Preface” and the accompanying publisher’s brochure explain how Lubetkin, a retired cable television executive, came to write Jay Cooke’s Gamble and it is a story that gives hope to cynical college professors. The author, as an undergraduate at Union College in the 1950s, found in his fraternity house a book about the College’s class of 1868. He returned to the subject of that volume many years later to write a book. One class member was Edward Jordan, later a surveyor for the Northern Pacific. Lubetkin located Jordan’s journals and correspondence about the Yellowstone surveys. These led him to the research for his second book. Lubetkin writes with infectious enthusiasm. He provides considerable detail. His extensive bibliography includes an impressive array of primary sources; even his secondary sources tend to be from regional historical magazines that are not widely accessible. (He has contributed some of his primary sources to the U.S. Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA.) The book includes old photos of people and places, modern photos that Lubetkin has taken of locations pertinent to the story, and modern renditions of historical maps. The book seems exhaustively researched. Whether it includes the latest more narrowly academic sources on Jay Cooke and others active in railroads and finance circa 1873 I cannot address, but most of the biographies he cites are fairly old. If these are the latest, it seems likely that Lubetkin has opened, or perhaps reopened, a fruitful avenue of research. Certainly his book is informative on a wide array of topics and great fun to read.

Ann Harper Fender is professor of economics at Gettysburg College. Her last publication, “Experimental Economics,” appeared in the papers of a conference at the Varna Economics University, Bulgaria, and resulted from a Fulbright Fellowship in Bulgaria. She is currently working on a book about the fur trade based on Hudson’s Bay Company journals and is contemplating the economic similarities among the fur trade, nineteenth century railroads, and twentieth/first century telecommunications.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Birth of Big Business in the United States, 1860-1914: Commercial, Extractive and Industrial Enterprise

Author(s):Whitten, David O.
Whitten, Bessie E.
Reviewer(s):Mason, David L.

Published by EH.NET (July 2006)

David O. Whitten and Bessie E. Whitten, The Birth of Big Business in the United States, 1860-1914: Commercial, Extractive and Industrial Enterprise. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 2005. xvi + 205 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-313-32395-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David L. Mason, Department of Social Sciences, Georgia Perimeter College.

The roughly fifty-year period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I was one of the most dynamic periods in American economic history, in no small part because of the rise of big business. The Birth of Big Business in the United States, an introductory work intended for students and the general reader, chronicles the developments and processes that led to the rise of large-scale firms in both well-known industries like oil and steel, as well as in the extractive industries like mining and forestry. Throughout the concisely written narrative, the authors highlight the role of government in both encouraging and restraining the expansion of big business. This work succeeds in placing industrialization in the broader context of American history, an important consideration for first-time students of business history.

The book is organized into four major sections, the first of which sets the stage for the birth of big business. In the first chapter, the authors outline the effects of the Civil War on business development. The scale and scope of this conflict forced the government to assume an unprecedented role in the economy, and this need to satisfy the demand for goods and services had far reaching effects on business. Legislation and government incentives spurred innovations in finance, led to more efficient production methods, and promoted the increase in farming output. The war also caused existing industries (like railroads) to grow exponentially, while helping to establish new industries like oil. As the authors note, the experience of the Civil War not only helped business “overcome the hurdles between small-scale and national operations” (p. 17), but was instrumental in solidifying a relationship between government and business that would be critical in the growth of big business in the postwar era.

The first section concludes with a broad and comprehensive discussion of the changes in communications and transportation before and during industrialization. The authors cover all the major improvements (canals, cars, roads, airplanes, postal service, the telegraph and telephone), and they place a special emphasis on the role of government in fostering the success of these commercial enterprises. The chapter also provides sufficient factual details to give the reader a true understanding of how important these innovations were to the growth of big business.

The remaining three parts of the book (11 chapters) focus on specific industries and firms. Of these, the four chapters on retailing and the extractive industries are the most interesting and set this book apart, since these industries are often not included in comparable introductions to business history. The authors place these industries in a historical perspective and achieve a good balance of broad overviews with specific factual information. The chapter “The Commercial Response to a Mass Market” focuses on how urbanization sparked a revolution in the scale and scope of consumer retailing. The “Giant Farms” chapter gives an overview of the rice, sugar, corn and cattle industries, with an emphasis on how government land policy encouraged the development of the large farming enterprise. The chapter on forest products details how changes in technology and transportation after the Civil War transformed an industry dominated by small family-owned firms into one characterized by vertically-integrated businesses engaging in professional land management activities. The section on mining focuses primarily on how the struggles between coal producers and the railroads “swept independent mine operators into several large combinations that were themselves eventually forced to combine” (p. 112). Like the chapter on farming, the authors emphasize the role of the government in fostering business growth. Finally, all these chapters include brief discussions of the major firms in the respective industries and contain tables and factual details to illustrate the authors’ broader points.

The seven chapters that focus on specific big business firms tend to be more uneven than the industry overviews. These profiles include the United Fruit Company, Singer Sewing Machine, American Sugar Refining Company, American Tobacco Company, Standard Oil, U.S. Steel and the Meat Packers (Swift, Armour, Morris, and Cudahy), and they range in length from three to sixteen pages. While each is adequate for the target audience, more advanced students of business history would likely only have their appetites whetted.

The goal of The Birth of Big Business in the United States, 1860-1914 is to provide the student and general reader a concise yet comprehensive history of one of the most important periods in American economic history, and in large measure it succeeds. It offers a good foundation for understanding why big businesses appeared after the Civil War, and the role of the government in this process. As such it serves as a springboard for undergraduates and general readers who wish to delve deeper into the field of business history.

David Mason is an instructor at Georgia Perimeter College. His most recent book is From Buildings and Loans to Bailouts: A History of the American Savings and Loan Industry, 1831-1995 (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Texas Railroad Commission: Understanding Regulation in America to the Mid-Twentieth Century

Author(s):Childs, William R.
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary

Published by EH.NET (March 2006)

William R. Childs, The Texas Railroad Commission: Understanding Regulation in America to the Mid-Twentieth Century. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. x + 323 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 1-58544-452-9.

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

In a time of deregulation and globalization, it is easy to forget that local bureaucratic agencies have often had enormous power in affecting how resources were used, in determining which companies could participate, in authorizing when production could take place and how much could occur, and in fixing the prices that could be charged. The early-to-mid twentieth century United States was a time when state and local regulatory bodies had unparalleled influence in the market. Foreign trade was a small portion of the overall economy and the reach of federal institutions was relatively limited. In many cases, state regulations held supreme, and in no case is this more apparent than in the history of the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC).

The TRC is the ultimate regulatory agency. In its heyday, from the 1940s through the 1960s, the TRC controlled Texas oil production, the largest in the nation, and coordinated its production with that of the other major producing states in order to fix U.S. prices, in conjunction with restrictions on the import of cheaper foreign oil. Under the regulatory regime of the TRC, monthly individual firm output was restricted to limit the losses of common-pool extraction; production quotas were allocated across producing firms in ways that benefited influential, small, high-cost producers; and Texas output was constrained in cooperation with other states through the Interstate Oil Compact Commission (IOCC) to maintain high oil prices. Until superseded by OPEC in 1972, the TRC and the structure of state regulation under the IOCC was a domestic oil cartel. The Commissioners of the Texas Railroad Commission were the most important local government officials in the world.

How did an obscure state agency set up to regulate railroad rates get to be this way? In this well-written, carefully-researched, and very useful book, William R. Childs outlines the development of the TRC. He emphasizes personalities, politics, regional culture, and wariness of federal intrusion, along with an understanding of basic economic forces to provide a nuanced description of the rise of the agency and its important regulatory role.

Childs begins with a description of the rise of the TRC in the 1880s as a commission to regulate railroad rates (as its names suggests). The first four chapters of the book place the TRC into the broader context of a national movement both at the state and local level to regulate the power of one of the country’s first big industries, railroads. Because of their ability to link remote, local markets to national ones, railroads were tremendously important. At the same time, because of their huge size and capitalization, (often) near-monopoly position in the supply of transportation services, and vulnerability in holding fixed, non-deployable assets in railroad tracks, yards, and support facilities, railroads were the center of the development of commission regulation of prices. States and the federal government competed for preeminence within the U.S. federal structure, and Childs describes this early tension. He also outlines the growth of the Texas economy in the post-Civil War period and the interest groups that lobbied for regulation of railroad rates. Personalities played key roles in determining the details of how regulation was written, its exact timing of adoption, and how Texas institutions were linked to those of the federal and other state governments. James Stephen Hogg, Attorney General and Governor of Texas molded the structure of the TRC which was established in 1891. Childs discusses the genesis of the agency in its early years. The National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners coordinated state agencies in their sometimes contentious relationships with the federal government in general and the Interstate Commerce Commission in particular over regulations and rates. One area of conflict was whether intrastate shippers could receive preferential regulation as compared to interstate shippers in order to protect local producers. This led to the well-known 1914 U.S. Supreme Court Shreveport case that strengthened the federal role, but also provided for clearer state regulatory mandates.

Part II of the book moves from the early years of the TRC to expansion of its activities in the post-World War I period, especially into the new area of oil production regulation. The next four chapters describe the TRC and its regulation of oil. Beginning at the turn of the century and accelerating after 1920, new oil discoveries in Texas changed the history of the state and the country forever. With low capital and labor requirements for entry and the prospect for fabulous new riches, individuals rushed to the Texas oil fields during the “gusher” period. Excessive output and capitalization followed. The tragedy of the commons was everywhere and the TRC was called to step in not only to limit these losses, but also to bolster oil prices which cycled from boom to bust. This regulatory intervention made the TRC famous. Childs describes the colorful local characters who became Commissioners, such as Ernest O. Thompson (who served from 1932 to 1965), and who in many ways determined the profits of the country’s most spectacular new industry, petroleum. He outlines the nature of the agency’s price and conservation regulations; its interaction with the New Deal in the 1930s to control “hot oil;” and its maturity as a regulatory agency in the 1950s and 1960s when it was at the height of its power. He also discusses the addition of other regulatory mandates, including control over motor carriers within the state of Texas in 1927 and the molding of the agency’s rulings by powerful constituent groups and federal agencies, as well as by state politicians. Even so, oil regulation and Texas’s huge contribution to it were what made the TRC distinctive. Childs points to the challenges presented by the huge East Texas oil field where small producers ignored commission regulations and produced wildly. Only martial law in 1931-32 brought some stability.

The latter part of the book describes the role of the TRC as part of the IOCC in cartelizing U.S. oil production. As Childs notes, these actions stabilized prices, but they did not effectively conserve U.S. oil stocks. Indeed, by limiting the import of cheap foreign oil, the structure of U.S. regulation, with the TRC at its head, helped to “drain America first,” and insure the dependence of the country on foreign sources of supply today. The conclusion to the volume summarizes key aspects of the development of state regulation as illustrated by the TRC and its impact on the structure of rates, industry development, and the wary collaboration and competition between state and federal regulatory agencies. This is a superb history of the details of regulation and how they fit into the broader macro development of the American economy.

Gary D. Libecap is Anheuser Busch Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Arizona. He currently is completing a book on the Owens Valley water transfer to Los Angeles, 1905-35 and its implications for western water re-allocation today.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800

Author(s):Lebergott, Stanley
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Stanley Lebergott, Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. xii + 561 pp.

Review Essay by Robert A. Margo, Department of Economics, Boston University.

Manpower after Forty Years

During the first half of the twentieth century classical musicians routinely incorporated their personalities into their performances. One recognizes immediately Schnabel in Beethoven, Fisher in Bach, Cortot in Chopin, or Segovia in just about anything written for guitar. As the century progressed performance practice evolved to where the “text” — the music — became paramount. The ideal was to reveal the composer’s intent rather than putting one’s own stamp on the notes — the performer as conduit per se rather than co-composer.

Personal style played a major role in the early years of the cliometrics revolution. Hand a cliometrician an unpublished essay by Robert Fogel or Stanley Engerman, and I am quite sure she could identify the author after reading the first couple of paragraphs (if not the first couple of sentences). No one can possibly mistake a book by Doug North for a book by Peter Temin or an essay by Paul David for one by Lance Davis or Jeffrey Williamson. To some extent this is because personal style mattered at the time in economics generally — think Milton Friedman or Robert Solow. But mostly it mattered, I think, because these cliometricians were on a mission. Men and women on a mission put their personalities up front, because they are trying to shake up the status quo.

So it is with Stanley Lebergott. Indeed, of all the personalities who figured in the transformation of economic history from a sub-field of economics (I am tempted to write “intellectual backwater”) that eschewed advances in economic theory and econometrics to one that embraced them (I am tempted to write “for better and for worse”), Lebergott’s style was perhaps the most personal. In re-reading Lebergott’s most famous book — his Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800 (1964) — one sees that style front and center on nearly every page, as well as the conflicting emotions as its author tried, not always successfully, to marry the anecdotal and archival snippets beloved by historians with the methods of economics. Manpower was (and is) substantively important for two reasons. First, prior to Manpower, the “economic history of labor” meant unions and labor legislation. By contrast, Lebergott made the labor market — the demand and supply of labor — his central focus and in doing so elevated markets and market forces to a central tendency in the writing of economic history. Second, Lebergott produced absolutely fundamental data — estimates of the labor force, industrial composition, unemployment, real wages, self-employment, and the like — that economic historians have relied on (or embellished) ever since.

These two accomplishments aside, I emphasize style not because, in Manpower‘s case, it is light years from the average article that I accept for publication in Explorations in Economic History. Economic history, like all economics, is vastly more technical than it was in the early 1960s. Burrowing into the style of Manpower reveals an author transfixed with what he perceived to be the grandness of the American experiment, the transformation of a second-rate colony into the greatest economy the world had yet seen. The core of Manpower would always be its 33 appendix tables and 252 (!) pages of accompanying explanatory text lovingly produced and so relentlessly documented as to drive any reader to distraction (or tears). So much the line in the sand, daring — indeed, taunting — the reader to do better. Lebergott knew that, in principle, one could do better, because he did not have ready access to all the relevant archival materials. I would conjecture, however, that he would always be surprised if anyone did, in fact, do better. Tom Weiss, himself one of the great compilers of American economic statistics, spent several years redoing Lebergott’s labor force estimates using census micro data rather than the published volumes that Lebergott relied on (Weiss 1986). In commenting on Weiss’s work, Lebergott (1986) characterized the differences between his original figures and the revisions as “very small beer” and then took Weiss to task for failing (in Lebergott’s) view to fully justify the revisions. “One awaits with interest,” he concluded, “further work by the National Bureau of Economic Research project of which this is a part.” When Georgia Villaflor and I (Margo and Villaflor 1987) produced a series of real wage estimates for the antebellum period drawing on archival sources that Lebergott did not use, I received a polite letter congratulating me but requesting more details and admonishing me to think harder about certain estimates that Lebergott felt did not mesh fully with his priors. There are thousands of numbers in those 33 appendix tables and one’s sense is that each number received the undivided attention of its creator for many, many, many hours.

But numbers do not a narrative make. Chapter One, “The Matrix,” has little in common with the archetypal introduction that gives the reader a roadmap and a flavor of the findings. It begins rather with an 1802 quote from “The Reverend Stanley Griswold” about the frontier that lay before the good minister. “This good land, which stretches around us to such a vast extent … large like the munificence of heaven … [s]uch a noble present never before was given to any people.” (Reviewer’s note: any people? Which people?) The first sentence goes on to describe an incongruous scene from Kentucky in 1832, “a petit bon homme” and his wife and their “little pile of trunks” sitting in a restaurant in the middle of (literally) nowhere. We then learn of a “great theme” of American history, that which motivated those who wrested the land from the “wilderness” — a belief in an open society, of which there were three elements. First, “hope” — an unabashed belief that things will always get better, and were better in America than in Europe. Second, “ignorance” — Americans were always willing to try something new, no matter how crazy. Third, America had a huge amount of space for people to spread out in. OK, the reader says, but where’s the economics? Ca. page 13 Lebergott emphasizes that the three elements made Americans unusually restless people, willing to move all the time. Ordinarily, Lebergott opines, it is the smaller (geographically-speaking) countries that have higher labor productivity because, ordinarily, people do not like to move. But Americans liked to move, he claims, and they did so on the slightest provocation. Excessive optimism, misinformation, and folly are core attributes of the American spirit and key factors in the American success story. In the end, the errors didn’t matter anyway (“small beer” indeed) because the land was so rich. More people moved to California in 1850 than could be rationally justified by the expected returns to gold mining but, as a result, California entered the aggregate production function sooner than otherwise. Labor mobility per se was a Good Thing, and American had it in abundance.

Chapter Two asks where all the workers would come from. Lebergott notes that certain labor supplies were highly predictable — slaves, for example. But once the slave trade was abolished the supply of slave labor grew at whatever the natural rate of increase. If the riches of America were to be tapped, free labor would have to be found — all the more difficult if the required number of workers to be assembled in any given spot was very large.

Another element of the Lebergott style is a dry wit, as evidenced in his exchange with Weiss. In a section on “[t]he Labor Force: Definition” we are told that ‘[t]he baby has contributed more to the gaiety of nations than have all the nightclub comics in history. We include the comic in the labor force … as we include [his] wages in the national income but set no value on the endearing talents provided by the baby.” In discussing the then-fashionable notion that the aggregate labor force participation rate (like other Great Ratios) was “invariant to economic conditions” Lebergott notes that small changes can nevertheless have great import. “The United States Calvary,” he observes, “was sent to the State of Utah because of the difference between 1.0 wives per husband and a slightly greater number.” The remainder of the chapter considers segments of the labor force whose labor was, indeed, “responsive to economic conditions” — European immigrants, internal migrants, (some) women and children as well as the impact of social and political factors on labor supply; it demonstrates the extraordinary flexibility of the American labor force and its responsiveness to incentives. While this conclusion would not surprise anyone today it was, I think, quite revolutionary at the time. It is as good an example of any I know of the power of historical thinking to debunk conventional wisdom derived from today’s numbers.

By now the reader is accustomed to Lebergott’s modus operandi — the opening paragraph that sometimes seems to be beside the point but really isn’t; quotations in the text from travelogues, diaries, plays, literature and what-not; obscure (to say the least) references in the footnotes; all interspersed with economic reasoning that has more than a tinge of what would be called today “behavioral” economics. In Chapter Three Lebergott talks about the “process” of labor mobility, which is really one extended probing into the relationship between mobility of various sorts and wage differentials. We get to see some univariate regression lines, superimposed in scatter-plots of decade-by-decade changes in the labor force at, say, the state level, against initial wage rates. Generally, labor flows were directed at states with higher initial wage rates, although Lebergott is quick to assert that “[m]igrants suboptimized” because the cross-state pattern was far less apparent at the level of regions. Next, Lebergott takes on the notion that economic development is an inexorable process of labor shifting out of agriculture. The American case, Lebergott claimed, challenges this notion. American workers shifted out of agriculture when the economic incentives were right; that is, when the value of the marginal product of labor was higher outside of agriculture.

The remainder of Chapter 3 is divided into two brief sections, both of which contain some of the most interesting writing in the book. In “Social Mobility and the Division of Labor,” Lebergott examines the relationship between occupational specialization and growth. In the nineteenth century most workers possessed a myriad of skills, farmers especially. They were jacks of all trades, masters of none. Lebergott speculates that this was a good thing because the master of none was more inclined to try something new, rather than assume he was, well, the master and therefore knew everything. If some fraction of novel techniques were successful, this could (under strong assumptions) lead to a higher rate of technical progress. “Origins of the Factory System” considers the problem posed earlier in the book of assembling large numbers of workers at a given location. Rather than pay higher wages, manufacturers turned to an under-utilized source of labor, women and children. Some years later, the ideas presented in this section would develop in full bloom in a celebrated article by Claudia Goldin and Kenneth Sokoloff (Goldin and Sokoloff 1982) on the role of female and child labor in early industrialization.

At 89 pages, Chapter Four, “Some Consequences,” is the longest chapter in the book. The first few pages, highly influential, are given to the formation of a national labor market, revealed by changes over time in the coefficient of variation of wages across locations. We are then given an extended tour of the history of American real wages, back and forth between the relevant tables in the appendix, quotations from contemporaries and other anecdotal evidence. The “Determinants of Real Wage Trends” comes next. The first, productivity, is no surprise. The second, “Slavery,” isn’t really either, but here Lebergott’s contrarian instincts, I think, get the better of him. Lebergott would have the reader believe that, first, free and slave labor were close to perfect substitutes; and, second, slave rental rates contained a premium above what the slave would have commanded in a free labor market. Consequently, when slavery ended, wages fell and there was downward pressure on real wage growth for a time. No question that wages fell in the South after the Civil War but Lebergott’s analysis is incomplete at best. Slave labor was highly productive before the Civil War because of the gang system, and when the gang system ended, the demand for labor fell in the South. Because labor supplies were not perfectly elastic, wages fell too. “Immigration,” the third purported influence, had negative short run effects on wages but positive long run effects via productivity growth.

What follows next is a 25-page section that years later produced two high-profile controversies in macroeconomics. This is the (celebrated) section where Lebergott presents his long-term estimates of unemployment. In thinking today about his work, we would do well to remember that, at the time he prepared his estimates, the United States had only a relatively brief experience with the direct and regular measurement of unemployment, courtesy of the 1940 Census and the subsequent Current Population Survey (CPS). (By “direct” I mean answers to questions about a worker’s time allocation during a specific period of time — if you did not have a job during the survey week, were you looking for one?)

Like all the estimates in the book, Lebergott’s unemployment figures were the product of detailed, painstaking work that, inevitably, required strong assumptions. The fundamental problem was that, if one wanted annual estimates of unemployment, there was no way to obtain these directly from survey evidence prior to the CPS. For some benchmark dates one could produce tolerable direct estimates from the federal census, but the federal census was useless if one wanted to generate an estimate, say, for 1893 or, for that matter, 1933.

Lebergott’s solution was to rely on an identity. By definition, the labor force was the sum of employed and unemployed workers. One might not know the number of unemployed workers but perhaps one could extrapolate between benchmark dates the number of workers in the labor force and employment, one could estimate unemployment levels via subtraction.

The first high profile controversy involved Lebergott’s estimates for the 1930s, which included in the count of unemployed workers persons on work relief. After 1933 there were many such workers, and so, by historical standards, unemployment looks, of course, rather high. This generated a lot of theoretical work for macroeconomists who thought they had to explain how unemployment rates could remain above 10 percent while real wages were rising (after 1933).

Michael Darby (1976) suggested that this effort was misplaced because Lebergott “should” have included the persons on work relief in the count of employed workers. Darby showed that doing so made the recovery after 1933 look much more normal. I’ve written a few papers on this issue, and my view is somewhere in-between Darby and Lebergott (Margo 1991; Finegan and Margo 1994; see also Kesselman and Savin 1978). Ideally, in constructing labor force statistics we should be consistent over time, so if persons on work relief were “employed” in the 1930s we should consider adding, say, “workfare” recipients to the labor force (or, possibly, prisoners making license plates) today, but this ideal may not be achievable in practice. The real issue with New Deal work relief is not the resolution of a crusty debate between competing macroeconomic theories but whether the program affected individual behavior. Here I think the answer is a resounding yes — unemployed individuals in the 1930s did respond to incentives built into New Deal policies. Wives were far more likely to be “added workers” if their unemployed spouses had no work whatsoever, than if the spouse held a work relief job, so much so that, in the aggregate, the added work effect disappeared entirely in the late 1930s, because so many unemployed men were on work relief.

The second high-profile debate involved Christina Romer’s important work on the long-term properties of the American business cycle. Prior to her work it was (and in some quarters still is) a “stylized fact” that the business cycle today is less volatile than it was in the past. Lebergott’s original unemployment series combined with standard post-war series were often used to buttress claims that the macroeconomy become much more stable over time. Statistical measures of volatility estimated from the combined series clearly suggest this, whether volatility is measured by the average “distance” (in percentage points) between peaks and troughs or standard deviations.

Romer (1986) argued that, to a large degree, this apparent decline in volatility was a figment of the way the original data were constructed. In particular, in constructing his annual series, Lebergott assumed (among other things) that deviations in employment followed one-for-one deviations in output. Romer invoked Okun’s law, arguing that the true relationship was more like 1:3. Constructing post-war series by replicating (as close as possible) Lebergott’s procedures produced a new series that was not less volatile than the pre-war series, thereby contradicting the stylized fact that the macroeconomy became more stable over time. This was, needless to say, a controversial conclusion, with many subsequently weighing in. Now that the dust is settled, my own view — a view I think that many share, although I could be wrong — is that there is definitely something to Romer’s argument; at the very least, she demonstrated (as she claimed in her original article) that before one draws conclusions from historical time series, one should be very familiar with how the series are constructed. Chapter Four ends with another of Lebergott’s meditations on the alleged constancy of aggregate parameters — in this case, factor shares.

Chapter Five (“Some Inferences”) concludes the narrative portion of the book. It repeats the book’s earlier mantra that “Yankee ingenuity” and initiative, especially that embodied in immigrants, were central to American success as opposed, say, to “factor endowments.” It ruminates on how highly mobile labor influenced the choice of technique, in ways familiar to the first generation of cliometricians, especially those who found H.J. Habakkuk a source of (repeated) inspiration. It notes how “thickening markets” made finding continuous work easier over time, reducing the wage premium associated with unemployment risk. Today’s economic historians, infatuated with “institutions” v. “geography” would probably disagree with the emphases in the chapter but I think there is much to admire in Lebergott’s “inferences.”

Some economic historians make their mark as much through their graduate students as their writings. Lebergott spent his academic career in a liberal arts college and did not, therefore, directly produce graduate students like a William Parker, Robert Fogel or (more recently) Joel Mokyr. In certain ways he was an outsider to economic history, an economist with a vast and deep appreciation for history in all of its flavors, who saw the past for what it can say about the present, not as an end in itself like a more “traditional” historian would. Compared with other classic works of cliometrics such as Fogel’s Railroads and American Economic Growth or North and Thomas’s The Rise of the Western World, Manpower‘s quirkiness can be a frustrating, more suitable for dabbling than a sustained read. By today’s standards the book falls short in its treatment of racial and ethnic differences (gender is more balanced) although this would hardly distinguish it from most other work in economics and economic history at the time. Yet Lebergott’s influence on economic history has been profound. There are few activities that economic historians can engage in of greater consequence than reconstructing the hard numbers. In this line of work Lebergott had few peers. Manpower put the labor force — people — at the center of economic history, not the bloodless “agents” of economic models but real people. As if to underscore this, the style asserts, like a triple fff in music: a real person not a (bloodless) “social scientist” wrote this book, one in deep and abiding awe of the economic accomplishment of his forbearers.


Darby, Michael. 1976. “Three and a Half Million US Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, An Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84 (February): 1-16.

Finegan, T. Aldrich and Robert A. Margo. 1994. “Work Relief and the Labor Force Participation of Married Women in 1940,” Journal of Economic History 54 (March): 64-84.

Goldin, Claudia and Kenneth Sokoloff. 1982. “Women, Children, and Industrialization in the Early Republic: Evidence from the Manufacturing Censuses,” Journal of Economic History 42 (December): 741-774.

Kesselman, Jonathan R. and N. E. Savin. 1978. “Three and a Half Million Workers Were Never Lost,” Economic Inquiry 16 (April): 186-191.

Lebergott, Stanley. 1964. Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lebergott, Stanley. 1986. “Comment,” in Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, eds., Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pp. 671-673. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Margo, Robert A. 1991 “The Microeconomics of Depression Unemployment,” Journal of Economic History 51 (June): 333-341.

Margo, Robert A. and Georgia Villaflor. 1987. “The Growth of Wages in Antebellum America: New Evidence,” Journal of Economic History 47 (December): 873-895.

Romer, Christina. 1986. “Spurious Volatility in Historical Unemployment Data,” Journal of Political Economy 94 (February): 1-37.

Weiss, Thomas. 1986. “Revised Estimates of the United States Workforce, 1880-1860,” in Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, eds., Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pp.641-671. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robert A. Margo is Professor of Economics and African-American Studies, Boston University, and Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research. He is also the editor of Explorations in Economic History.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

1896: The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons and Commentary

Author(s):Edwards, Rebecca
DeFeo, Sarah
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)


Rebecca Edwards and Sarah DeFeo, “1896: The Presidential Campaign: Cartoons and Commentary.” Vassar College, 2000.

Worth Robert Miller, “Populism.” Missouri State University, 2001.

Website Review for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Oswego.

Populism and the 1896 Election

To economic historians, the Populist era is endlessly fascinating, raising as it does such issues as the Brandeisian conflict between democracy and concentrated wealth, the relative merits of the gold standard versus a bimetallic standard or fiat money, and, of course, the “puzzle of farm discontent” at a time when the average farm standard of living seems to have been rising (at least according to aggregate statistics cited by North 1966 and several other economic historians). Adding to the era’s wondrous quality are timeless documents, like the People’s Party platform of 1892 and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention of 1896, and larger-than-life characters such as Bryan; Populists Tom Watson, Mary Elizabeth Lease, and Jacob S. Coxey; and Mark Hanna, Republican campaign mastermind.

But possibly nowhere in the American economic history curriculum is the gap between instructor interest and student interest greater than it is for the Populist era. Apathy on this topic is perhaps unsurprising among students in urbanized America who have known only the relatively tranquil Age of Greenspan. For them to relate to the concerns of frontier farmers, or to appreciate how the choice of monetary regime could once have been the paramount issue in American politics, requires a great leap of imagination. Two websites, one devoted to Populism and the other to the famous “battle of the standards” that was the 1896 presidential election, go a long way toward aiding that leap, largely through the use of a device that itself came of age in the 1896 campaign: the political cartoon.

The 1896 website is the creation of Rebecca Edwards, an associate professor of history at Vassar College, and one of her students, Sarah DeFeo, with contributions from students in a Vassar history class. Edwards is the author of two books about American social and political history in the post-Civil War decades, and she is readying a biography of Populist orator Mary (“Raise less corn and more hell”) Lease. The site is attractive and user-friendly, with a distinctive logo and icons that link to its main sections: “The Cartoons,” a chronology of the 1896 election featuring over a hundred political cartoons; a list of newspapers and magazines whence those cartoons came; and pages on the Republican, Democratic, and People’s parties. The main page includes links to additional pages on political, economic, and social leaders, campaign themes, and popular amusements in the 1890s. Pages contain numerous links to other pages but are sufficiently self-contained that one need not spend much time clicking links.

The heart of the 1896 site is its cartoon chronology of that year’s presidential contest between Bryan and William McKinley. Even a century later, the dazzling full-color cartoons, such as those from the anti-Bryan Puck and Judge, convey much of the vividness of the campaign. Most of the other cartoons are cruder but accomplish the same purpose, by presenting an authentic and entertaining version of the campaign as Americans read about it at the time. Humorous put-downs of the opposition are a staple of every presidential campaign, and in 1896 those put-downs found their fullest expression in cartoon caricatures, such as those of McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna in a dollar-sign suit, devilish-looking Populists holding pitchforks, and Bryan as a hot-air balloon. An accompanying “Journals” page provides the necessary perspective on the myriad periodicals that originally ran the cartoons, including circulation and political affiliation.

The pages on the three major political parties are workmanlike and easily digested. The main thing that distinguishes them from online encyclopedia entries is the extensive use of quotations from contemporary sources, from The Atlanta Constitution to The Rocky Mountain News to The Vineland (NJ) Independent. The quotations offer helpful context, but the pages do not match the vitality of the cartoon chronology. More cartoons or campaign illustrations would have helped. More expansive are the pages on individual leaders, campaign themes, and 1890s pop culture, which are a mix of short essays (some by Vassar students), political cartoons and illustrations, and quotations. The special-features section includes a bibliography, arranged by subject and including several websites, including the Library of Congress’s extensive “American Memory” collection of images ( Also included is an inspired list of classroom ideas for discussion, writing, and research. Additional assignments might be for students to respond to some of the student essays, which are generally good but not always airtight in their arguments. Undergraduates may feel more comfortable challenging assertions made by their peers than by credentialed economists and historians.

Worth Robert Miller’s “Populism” site also provides an impressive cartoon-based presentation but otherwise overlaps only a little with the 1896 site. Miller, a professor of history at Missouri State University, has written extensively and sympathetically on Populist politics, including a book on Oklahoma Populism. He is currently at work on a book on Populist cartoons, of which he has assembled over one thousand. The website presentation contains 40 cartoons (an alternate “short presentation” has 32), all from Populist newspapers. The presentations amount to cartoon histories of Populism, as depicted by the Populists themselves and annotated by Miller, who has provided simple explanatory captions. The presentations, though web-based, are as easy to use as slide shows, as one can advance from one cartoon to the next with just one click. One could easily and entertainingly devote a class period to either of these online presentations (or a selection thereof), perhaps following it up the next class with a discussion of Populism’s and free silver’s critics, illustrated with cartoons from the 1896 site.

Miller’s cartoons mostly predate the 1896 election. This is no accident, as Miller, like many historians of Populism, rejects the conventional view of Bryan’s 1896 campaign as the climax of Populism; instead he sees it as a debacle, and not just because Bryan lost. By endorsing Bryan, the People’s Party subordinated its original vision to the narrower concerns of the free-silver Democrats, “becoming an annex to Bryan Democracy” (Miller, “A Centennial Historiography of American Populism,” on the website. See Clanton 1991, 2004 for similar accounts).

The Populism site also contains some of Miller’s own writings, namely an annotated bibliography of Populism, an interpretive overview of the Populists (originally a book chapter), and three journal articles, two on Populist politics in Texas and the other a solid historiography of Populism. The annotated biography, which Miller revised in 1989 and again in 2001 from a 1973 book of Populist history sources by Henry Clay Dethloff contains entries on Populist activities in over thirty states and with about twenty categories. Finally, the site links to standard primary documents like the People’s Party platforms of 1892 and 1896 and Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

Neither Edwards nor Miller appears to be a card-carrying economic historian, and, not surprisingly, neither of these sites contains much discussion of the cliometric literature on monetary populism and agrarian discontent. This is regrettable, all the more so because it seems symptomatic of a more general communication breakdown between traditional historians and economic historians (as described in Coclanis and Carlton 2001). The New Economic History spawned a generation of skeptics about the true economic plight of the farmers and a plethora of research on the “puzzle of farm discontent,” but that research is generally absent from both of these sites. Both sites, and Miller’s otherwise comprehensive bibliography in particular, would do well to acknowledge the modern economic history literature, from early revisionist pieces like North’s (1966) book chapter, subsequent responses (e.g., Mayhew 1972, McGuire 1981), and more recent pieces that suggest the Populist preoccupation with price deflation and reflation was rational (e.g., Rockoff 1990, Frieden 1997). Miller does reference two cliometric works on railroads and Populism (Higgs 1970, Aldrich 1980), but that’s about all.

On the other hand, economic history instructors are probably already assigning works like those, or textbook chapters that incorporate their insights. And neither site claims to be a self-contained lesson on the economics of Populism. Despite their omissions, these sites can be highly valuable to economic historians, especially those seeking to spice up their classroom coverage of the Populist movement and the “battle of the standards.”


Aldrich, Mark. 1980. “A Note on Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 54 (3): 424-432.

Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Clanton, O. Gene. A Common Humanity: Kansas Populism and the Battle for Justice and Equality, 1854-1903. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 2004.

Coclanis, Peter, and David Carlton. 2001. “The Crisis in Economic History.” Challenge 44 (November-December): 93-103.

Frieden, Jeffry A. 1997. “Monetary Populism in Nineteenth-Century America: An Open-Economy Interpretation.” Journal of Economic History 57 (June): 367-395.

Higgs, Robert. 1970. “Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 44 (3): 291-297.

Mayhew, Anne. 1972. “A Reappraisal of the Causes of Farm Protest in the U.S., 1870-1900.” Journal of Economic History 32 (June): 464-475.

McGuire, Robert A. 1981. “Economic Causes of Late-Nineteenth Century Agrarian Unrest: New Evidence.” Journal of Economic History 41 (December): 835-852.

North, Douglass C. 1966. Growth and Welfare in the American Past, chapter 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rockoff, Hugh. 1990. “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” Journal of Political Economy 98 (August): 739-760.

Ranjit S. Dighe is Associate Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002). His recent research concerns business support for Prohibition and its repeal.


Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000

Author(s):McCann, James C.
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)

James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xiii + 289 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-01718-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Department of History, University of Wisconsin.

A historian and African Studies specialist, James C. McCann has studied in Africa, conducted research there for international philanthropic agencies and written histories of Ethiopia and the African environment. In this book he describes “maize’s historical encounter with the landscapes of Africa” from introduction to its current status as Africa’s dominant food crop. Of concern also is the “implicit question” of whether the New World’s gift of this crop has bestowed a blessing (grace) upon Africa.

More important as a food source in Africa than in comparable entities maize is expected to double production by 2020. It is the world and Africa’s most adapted food crop, thriving in many environmental conditions and farming systems. Some African nations devote more than seventy percent of their cereal acreage to maize. Old African farmers were artisans adapting crop mixes to local ecology, soils, elevation, and moisture. Initially corn was a garden plant valued for early maturity and easy food preparation. In contrast, writes McCann, North America and Europe developed an industrial model pointing to monocropping and use of chemicals to overcome differences in soil capability. As a cereal in Africa, maize displaced wheat and sorghums, less often rice. A great variety of colors, field characteristics, and disease resistance developed in a process of folk selection of seed. Women gardened it; men tended it in field. It had political implications because it could feed armies or support social objectives. Early Africanization produced heterogeneity — now replaced by standardization of cultivation methods, reflecting, says McCann, the political ecology changing from local initiative, through colonialism to globalism. Some unique features remain including the fact that in Africa maize is primarily used as human food. Industrial phase maize is preferred in today’s global system, explains McCann, because it can be controlled by the state and corporate agriculture, features economies of scale, and is comparable across geography and cultures.

In his first chapter McCann introduces the maize plant, explains its American origins, its need for human care in propagation, its five major families — sweet, pop, floury, flint, and dent — and their many colors and characteristics. Africa’s maize crop increased area most strikingly in the twentieth century, particularly since 1950. In some African states it provides more than fifty percent of the food calories. “For better or worse,” writes McCann, “modern genetic alchemy has transformed maize from an obligingly adaptive vegetable crop to a hegemonic leviathan that dominates regional diets and international grain markets” (p. 21).

Documentary evidence of maize’s arrival in Africa as a “stranger” cultivar is fragmentary. Those types introduced reflected the New World contacts of the European nations whose traders worked the African coastlines. A trail of flint types also led from Seville to Venice and thence to Egypt and the Nile valley. The types and varieties later present and regional names for maize left tracks of the introduction process. The speed of acceptance varied; in some of West Africa maize became a basic part of the intercropping, rotation, and burning of pioneer forest agriculture and a slave trade staple. Here floury maize supplanted flints. But in some areas maize long remained a vegetable. With the adoption of African experiment station initials and numbers in naming new varieties it was “no longer the stranger” (p. 38}.

Having covered such introductory matters, McCann describes major features of the crop’s adoption and development in key areas of Africa beginning with the Asante in Ghana where maize fueled that tribe’s “hegemonic growth” (p. 43). Here maize produced two crops a year, fitting into the forest fallow system along with cassava. The Asante’s maize-fed army expanded tribal reach into neighboring savannahs, adapting floury maize to the drier climate. Currently quality protein maize from the Ghana Crop Research Institute is allowing a shift toward monocropping. Despite some differences with Ghana, Nigerian farmers also found that maize produced the greatest returns. But McCann cautions that diversion from “a biodiverse forest ecology to virtual monocropping may be an increasingly fragile” trend (p. 57).

Next McCann provides a discussion of maize in two peasant empires, that occupying the northeastern Ethiopian highlands and the Venetian Republic, the latter enhancing the book’s comparative dimensions. Dominant in the Mediterranean trades, the Venetian elites suffered with the opening of transatlantic connections and diverted investments into the agricultural hinterland. Here, the landlords wished their tenants to produce wheat. But due to peasant resistance and initiative, maize became the primary crop, supporting grain and livestock production and providing the peasant’s major food, a dependence that later produced the scourge of pellagra. In Ethiopia maize remained a garden plant for centuries. Despite some overlord presence, Ethiopian farmers controlled the crop selection on their plots, developing a conservative agrarian culture, its members satisfied with their mix of cereals. Maize emerged as a field crop in the twentieth century along the southern edge of the highlands where commercial production began in the 1930s and a coffee-maize economy developed after World War II. Government controls on coffee during the socialist era, 1974-1991, persuaded many to expand their maize crop, as did demographic crisis and other government policies. By 1991 half of Ethiopia’s cereal production was maize. Italy by the 1990s was the world’s thirteenth leading maize producer, its dent hybrids supporting dairy and meat agroindustries. But in Ethiopia the late turn to maize accompanied “a decline into precarious subsistence” and efforts on the part of the state and international agencies to “break traditional cropping patterns.” If a blessing in Italy, maize was not so in Ethiopia (p. 93).

Southern Africa developed two patterns of maize culture — one of small farms, often operated by women, following a subsistence strategy but also selling surplus grain in competition with large commercial farms in a national market supervised by marketing boards. Maize had arrived in southern Africa by the mid 1600s, Brazilian flints, floury types and North American dents following in sequence by 1900. Dutch settlers brought mechanized agriculture which also revolutionized hinterland native agriculture, maize replacing sorghums. Diamonds, gold, and railroads industrialized the economy and created a national grain market. After World War I, white farmers used open pollinated white dents as a cash crop that provided the “agrarian economic base of the rapid expansion of settlers’ rule in southern Africa.” By 1930 maize had superseded wheat as a cereal in northern South Africa and the families of industrial workers left behind “on impoverished farms in the black homelands” of an apartheid society lived on the local crop (p. 110). Meanwhile white settler farms grew, assisted by price controls, government credit, extension, and marketing activities that encouraged monocropping. So marked was the influence of southern Africa in maize research and administration that white dent became dominant in Africa.

McCann’s last regional story describes the successes of hybrid varieties in Rhodesia and its successor states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Learning of American hybrid corn research in the 1930s, plant breeders at the Salisbury Agricultural Research Station in southern Rhodesia began to develop inbred dent lines. Working solely to sustain European-style agriculture they produced a promising parent line in the 1940s, suited to the soils of the white commercial farmers, and continued work when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland emerged. They released the phenomenally successful hybrid, SR52 in 1960. Only after creation of the Rhodesian heir states, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi did black farmers benefit from improvements in hybrid maize, although the resulting monoculture increased vulnerability to drought. Maize had somewhat different histories in the three states but all (as also Kenya) are now marked by hybrid monocropping, production for a national market, and the major presence of agricultural science.

Interspersed amid the historical accounts of maize in various settings, McCann discusses two crises in African cereal culture. In Sierra Leone in 1949 a devastating attack of American Rust on the maize crop occurred, spreading rapidly over the next several years along the West African Coast and finally reaching Southern Rhodesia, Kenya, and Tanganyika. The villain was P. polysora an American resident but left behind in the Atlantic crossing. Local plant scientists and “multilateral international agencies” rushed development of rust resistant maize and by 1953 promising strains were ready when the infection disappeared. P. polysora is now an African resident. The reaction to the outbreak, writes McCann, was that of a “mature imperial world” transitioning to one dominated by “the modern development industry and invasive multilateral organizations” (p. 121). He also describes the severe malaria epidemic that swept Ethiopia’s northwest high lands in 1998. Here the government with assistance from a Japanese philanthropic program, Sasakawa Global 2000, and the Carter Center had continued its “infatuation with improved types of maize” by encouraging the use of new hybrids, increasing production substantially (p. 186). BH 660, the major variety, tasseled late. McCann shared in research that found expansion of maize areas, using this variety, when linked with late rains, fortified the mosquito breeding catch basins with corn pollen. This supported the development of a large proportion of mosquito larvae thus reinforcing the vector of infection.

Africa’s agricultural production is increasing at two percent per year while population grows at a three percent rate. This book is an invaluable source of information on a basic element in the situation, essential reading for anyone interested in Africa’s history or current problems. In the conclusion McCann suggests that the current emphasis on maize in Africa may have a Jurassic Park effect given the narrowing of genetic flexibility entailed in monocropping hybrid maize, the possibility of plant disease outbreaks, a growing danger from mycotoxins, drought and climate change, human epidemics enhanced by population mobility, and the volatility of international markets. “It is a gloomy prospect,” he writes, “a cautionary alarm is justified” (p. 210). Threaded through the narrative is a policy critique. African plant breeders long served the needs of only white commercial farmers and by ignoring the old varicolored maizes of the black farmers they restricted future options. McCann’s ideal is biodiversity and local initiative. International philanthropic organizations are “invasive” servants of globalism. In beginning his book McCann in effect promises a benefit/cost analysis of maize’s contribution to African history and this he delivers if somewhat impressionistically. We should be grateful. But there is still an opportunity for economic historians to provide a more rigorous analysis. At a less notable level this reviewer was impressed, as will be others, by the author’s success in moving a pun-laden title past the Harvard University Press editors.

Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His publications include articles and books in American agricultural history, the most recent being The Farm on the North Talbot Road (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Competition Solution: The Bipartisan Secret behind American Prosperity

Author(s):London, Paul A.
Reviewer(s):Vedder, Richard K.

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)

Paul A. London, The Competition Solution: The Bipartisan Secret behind American Prosperity. Washington: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2005. vii + 227 pp. $25 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8447-4204-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard K. Vedder, Department of Economics, Ohio University.

Paul London, a Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration and later a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues in The Competition Solution that rising competition and the end to stultifying monopolistic practices was the key factor in the rise in American prosperity between the 1970s and 1990s. His account is highly readable and sometimes incisive. Unfortunately, it suffers from two major flaws that detract somewhat from it becoming a major, enduring work.

London argues that the 1970s was a generally unsuccessful decade economically in America, suffering from high unemployment, high inflation, and sluggish economic growth. By contrast, the 1990s were a period of moderate inflation, falling unemployment, and higher economic growth. What caused the change? Rejecting the notion that monetary or fiscal policy was the leading determinant, London concludes that the commanding heights of the American economy became invigorated, largely because of a bipartisan political effort to end competitive restraints. The true heroes in London’s account are politicians of all political stripes, ranging from Ronald Reagan to Ted Kennedy.

More specifically, London singles out the automobile, steel, transportation, communications, financial services and retail trade industries for attention. In London’s view, in 1970 the American steel and auto industries were relatively inefficient oligopolies that were slow to innovate, to reduce costs, and meet customer wants. Given their importance in the economy, this dragged down growth and job creation, also aggravating inflation. Similarly, AT & T had an inefficient regulated telephone monopoly, while airlines and railroads were stifled from competing by government regulations imposed by agencies like the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission. Limits on branch banking, interest rates, and entry into new fields stifled financial services. Various laws, often imposed by the states, restrained price competition in retail trade.

I suspect most scholars agree that the deregulation of these industries positively impacted on the economy, probably materially. The assertion, however, that this is the dominant explanation of rising prosperity is more dubious. The author provides little hard evidence about the positive effects of increased competition in these industries, nor does he critically analyze in any detailed way alternative explanations for improved economic performance, such as more moderate inflation and increased monetary stability, a lowering in marginal tax rates, or even New Growth theory notions about increasing returns to scale, the cumulative effects of technological changes, etc.

First, to the evidence: We can use the misery index (inflation rate plus unemployment rate) as an indicator, and augment it by subtracting the annual rate of real GDP growth. Doing that for the 1970s yields a misery index of 13.62, and an augmented index of 10.39. The figures for the 1990s are 8.68 and 5.58, clearly much lower, supporting London’s point.

Yet the observed improvement is entirely due to a Phillips Curve shift to the left, which many economists believe reflects a dampening in inflationary expectations, which suggests that monetary and fiscal policies probably played an important role. Moreover, the oligopolies that London castigates (Big Steel, AT&T, New York banks, etc.), existed in the 1960s as well, when the misery index was lower than in the 1990s (7.33), and the augmented misery index was an extraordinarily low 2.90. In the bad old days of oligopoly in the mainline industries, we sometimes had economic performance comparing well with today. Thus a fuller look at modern macroeconomic history makes one somewhat skeptical that the enhanced competition in a handful of sectors alone explains most of the macroeconomic success of the 1990s.

Indeed, the rise in the growth in the money stock (M2) from a 7.05 percent average annual rate in the 1960s to a 9.67 percent rate in the 1970s is usually considered to be at least a significant factor in rising inflation in that decade, a period when, if anything, the monopoly power in the regulated industries actually declined slightly. Similarly, a fall in monetary creation in the 1980s (to 7.84 percent) and again in the 1990s (3.85 percent) most certainly largely explains falling inflation rates, and with that dampening inflationary expectations, and a better Phillips curve and misery index.

Another explanation for a robust 1990s could well be the reverse crowding out of private sector spending during the Clinton Administration. In 1992, the federal government spent (on a national income accounts basis) the equivalent of 22.79 percent of GDP; eight years later, that had fallen to 18.99 percent. The 3.8 percentage point shift in resources from a relatively less efficient public sector to a more efficient, market disciplined private sector could well be a major key to explaining the success of the 1990s.

The point I am making is that that there are multiple explanations of the improving economy over time, and London goes overboard in asserting that increased competition in some regulated industries was of paramount importance. He does not seriously evaluate alternative explanations. To be sure, London is no doubt correct in asserting that greater competition in these industries was important, and by emphasizing that and providing some details of the move to greater competition his book does provide a service.

Errors of omission are compounded by errors of commission, namely a number of factual misstatements. Three examples will suffice. Speaking of the 1990s, London says “unemployment fell to record lows, and no inflation appeared.” (p. 36). Actually, unemployment rates averaged higher than in several other decades (e.g., 1920s, 1940s, 1950’s, 1960s). The same in true with inflation — consumer prices increased every single year; it may have been low, but it did exist. Or, “Inflation did not becoming a significant problem during the Eisenhower years, but it was in the Kennedy-Johnson era” (p. 21). In fact, the annual rate of inflation during the three Kennedy years as president never reached two percent, and was lower on average than in the second Eisenhower term. Referring to Alan Greenspan, he said “In 1988 and 1989 … he tightened the money supply and raised interest rates from around 6 percent to over 9 percent” (p. 167). Interest rates on long term government bonds had not been as low as six percent in two decades, and the average rate in 1989 was only 14 basis points higher than in 1987 (and below 9 percent). Moreover, money supply growth actually rose in 1988. If he had said “there was a tightening of the money supply in 1989,” he would have been factually correct.

In the last chapter, London looks to the future, suggesting that competition could be extended further to promote growth, particularly in the fields of education and health care. While I happen to agree with him, I think as long as third party (governmental) payments are a dominant factor, it will be hard to fashion a competitive environment with true market discipline. Nonetheless, London correctly points out that 20 percent or so of the American economy operates in an inefficient, less than perfectly competitive environment.

London makes a valuable contribution in pinpointing the increased efficiency arising from increased domestic and international competition in a variety of important industries. He overstates his case, sometimes asserting things rather than marshaling evidence. Nonetheless, his book is a positive contribution to our understanding of contemporary American economic history.

Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University. His most recent book is Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (Washington, AEI Press, 2004).

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Industrializing the Rockies: Growth, Competition, and Turmoil in the Coalfields of Colorado and Wyoming, 1868-1914

Author(s):Wolff, David A.
Reviewer(s):Ronning, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

David A. Wolff, Industrializing the Rockies: Growth, Competition, and Turmoil in the Coalfields of Colorado and Wyoming, 1868-1914. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2003. xiv + 270 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87081-747-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Ronning, Department of History, Albright College.

Scores of historians have considered the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre and the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, two of the most notorious outbreaks of labor violence in the history of coal mining in the American West. Typically, however, scholars have treated these incidents as substantively different; in Rock Springs organized Anglo-American miners went on a rampage and attacked Chinese replacement workers, while at Ludlow a combination of National Guardsmen and hired mine guards both in service to powerful corporate interests attacked a multiethnic camp of striking miners as part of a coordinated effort to eliminate the influence of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from the region. David Wolf bookends his study with these two events, however, arguing that a straight line can be drawn from Rock Springs to Ludlow that provides both geographical and chronological definition to a discrete era in the history of American industrialization. He suggests that, as different as they may seem, these two episodes of labor violence suggest historical continuities that resulted from regional labor patterns generated during the industrialization of the Mountain West. In connecting these two events, Wolff offers an ambitiously comprehensive study of coal mining in the Rocky Mountain region through the early twentieth century.

Wolff’s thesis is relatively modest — he contends that a true understanding of the industrial and labor history of the Mountain West and its uneven and violent history of class conflict must take into account the intentions of capital, the evolving requirements of labor, and the changes in the business environment (p. x). “The way [these] three variables came together,” Wolff concludes, “determined labor relations” (pp. 245-246). In a rather fine distinction, Wolff further argues that three additional factors determined the historical course of the contest between capital and labor: “depression, corporate action, and workers’ responses” (p. 39). In his analysis, labor violence was the predictable outcome of companies’ search for profit and their defense of market share and the miners’ attempts to defend their positions or maximize rewards during periods of economic contraction or expansion.

Wolff has organized his narrative chronologically, devoting a chapter each to the rises and falls of the business cycle beginning in the 1870s and extending to 1914, an approach that he argues more effectively sheds light on the West’s recurrent labor struggles by revealing common underlying patterns associated with the rise and fall of the economy. The author claims that the general pattern of labor conflict established itself in the first decades of the industry’s history when Anglo-American miners who had been steeped in a “work tradition” and “mine culture” that emphasized skill and autonomy were able to exercise significant influence over the terms of labor (pp. 18-19). While skilled miners were necessary to develop the industry, owners resented the leverage that this rather skilled, homogenous, and cohesive workforce exercised upon their bottom lines. From the 1870s to the early twentieth century, then, the battle between miners and mine owners turned upon the issue of control over the workplace. Depression in 1873 offered mine owners the opportunity to undermine the strength of their laborers, and in a cycle that would repeat itself for the next several decades mine owners attempted take advantage of the slack economy to break down and undermine the shared work culture of the miners. The owners tried various means and measures ranging from what Wolff calls “diversification and replacement” policies — importing nonwhite or immigrant workers to replace organized miners and importing unskilled workers of different races or ethnicities — to the creation of company towns and the implementation of corporate welfare programs (pp. 22-23). In each case Wolff argues that the miners adapted, and in especially hotly contested strikes they conceived of worker solidarity in ever broader terms in order to defuse the tactics of managers and owners.

In demonstrating these historical processes Wolff has chosen to cover a large expanse of the West including parts of Montana, southern Wyoming, Colorado, and parts of New Mexico, while focusing on three sub-regions — Southern Wyoming, the Denver Basin, and the central and southern Colorado coal fields. In turn, each of these smaller regions furnishes Wolff with examples of the different results that emerged from the interaction between the needs and goals of mine owners and miners. Where markets were competitive, as in the Denver Basin for instance, the author argues that companies were eager to come to terms with miners lest they lose valuable market share. Where coal production represented an ancillary or support industry for a larger investment, as in the case of railroads, workers benefited from management’s emphasis on expediency over profit. In cases where coal was the primary concern of management and competition had been limited by merger and monopoly, however, conditions favored capital and violent confrontation between miners and managers often resulted.

Given the broad scope of his subject — over forty years of industrial history that involved a dizzying number of unions, councils, alliances, and associations, labor and capital took part in literally scores of strikes and lockouts — the human element involved in the history is often submerged by the tangled course of events. While his early suggestions of “mine cultures” and “work traditions” suggest the richness of E.P. Thompson’s investigations into working class moral economies or Herbert Gutman’s multilayered studies of working class culture, the task of ordering the many strikes and walkouts that occurred over a vast region into a single coherent narrative flattens out the experiences of workers. Casting the racial and ethnic segmentation of their work forces as “diversification” policies, moreover, seems to force complex and dynamic relationships into a rather generic mold. Nevertheless, David Wolff has performed an invaluable service for any student or scholar of coalmining in the American West by bringing the many labor conflicts of the region and era into one continuous and meticulously detailed chronological narrative.

Gerald Ronning is an assistant professor of history at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania specializing in working class and cultural history. He is currently revising his dissertation, “‘I Belong in This World’: Native Americanisms and the Western Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917” (2002), for publication.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Order against Progress: Government, Foreign Investment, and Railroads in Brazil, 1854-1913

Author(s):Summerhill, William
Reviewer(s):Fishlow, Albert

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

William Summerhill, Order against Progress: Government, Foreign Investment, and Railroads in Brazil, 1854-1913. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. xv + 297 pp. $60 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-3224-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Albert Fishlow, Institute for Latin American Studies, Columbia University.

William Summerhill’s Order against Progress provides a clear message. The railroad, whatever the occasional disputed findings geographically elsewhere, was the single element most responsible for the emergence of rapid Brazilian economic growth in the twentieth century. Or to put it the other way round, “poor transport conditions posed the most formidable barrier to Brazilian economic growth before 1900” (p. 1).

He makes his case utilizing a technology now well familiar: calculation of the savings in transportation costs as a result of the new technology, as opposed to the alternatives of road and water transportation. Brazil, unlike the United States or Europe, did not have a prior canal revolution, and its rivers were largely irrelevant to the coffee growth that triggered economic expansion after 1850 Thus the conclusion, that social saving in freight transport amounted to some 19 percent of Brazilian income in 1913 and passenger saving an additional 1 percent — much larger than comparable results found in the industrialized world. Equally relevant, his calculation of marginal social rates of return comes out with numbers that indicate that Brazil had not over invested in the sector. He goes on to repeat the exercise for the six largest railway networks in the country, finding no correlation between foreign ownership and social return. Forty-one tables and seven figures give a good indication of the substantial research, historical as well as numeric, underlying the volume.

Summerhill has performed these elaborate calculations with a degree of care and precision that can only be admired. Moreover, he makes clear his assumptions and the sensitivity to variation in them. Thus, he shows that depending upon the price indices used to project 1864 non-rail transport cost, one gets very different estimates for 1913 freight savings: the consumer price index for Rio de Janeiro yields social savings of 38 percent of GDP, while the wholesale price index approximates 19 percent. Then, again, if one presumes an elasticity of demand other than zero, say 0.6, as his own statistical experiment suggests, the savings falls to between 8 and 14 percent of GDP. On the other hand, there is the question of the potential increasing cost of non-rail services over the long interval from 1864 to 1913. When he opts for 19 percent as the value he prefers, for a period sixty years after the introduction of rail transport, I worry somewhat that the casual reader will take the value too seriously.

Not only are the price indices substantially suspect, yielding results only for Rio de Janeiro for a small number of items, but equally, the national income numbers earlier than 1900 are not at all to be relied upon. That may not affect the 1913 assessment, but it certainly does affect the earlier calculations going back to 1869 in Table 4.16. They rely on nominal trade and monetary stock series, and are converted to real terms, using the same inadequate deflators described above. While Furtado’s estimate of 1.5 percent per capita income growth in the second half of the nineteenth century has been rightly criticized – because it yields too low a level in 1850 when extrapolated back – the Contador and Haddad results of a decline in real income per capita of almost 40 percent between 1880 and 1900 are difficult to believe. The same can be said about the Goldsmith estimates used by Angus Maddison. Summerhill steps into the middle of this controversy, but without apparent recognition. If railways were bringing about great positive consequences for Brazil exactly in this period, as he argues, why were per capita incomes falling?

I therefore wish that he had been somewhat more adventurous in going beyond rail social savings to the actual process of changed Brazilian economic performance in this pre-World War I period. To be sure there is a chapter exploring the absence of backward linkages – no locomotives or iron and steel produced domestically – and the presence of forward linkages – but not to the extent of fomenting export-led growth.

But this brief exercise does not really give one the feel of late-comer development in Brazil: The Encilhamento in the 1890s, with its high rate of inflation and industrial growth after the establishment of the Republic, is not even indicated in the index. And there is precious little about the debates that must have occurred about the level of freight rates being charged – especially during periods when coffee prices were falling. Summerhill is always eager to dismiss the views of the dependistas and to assert the fact that British profits were modest: “the magnitude … was small in comparison to conservative measures of social benefits …. [The subsidy] indicates a modest prediction error made by the officials that devised the guarantees” (p. 185). He should have been equally eager to confront the fact that by 1880, less than 15 percent of pre-World War I rail mileage had been constructed, although the first line dates to 1854. Why this long lag in adapting to the new technology? Who, and what, were responsible? And thereafter, how did the subsequent great advance occur, with the obvious regional pressures growing more intense?

Although he speaks about the state and regulation, it is done indirectly, without either being a real presence. About two-thirds of the book is dedicated to the direct calculation of aggregate social savings, and a large part of the residual is focused on the individual lines and their results. Summerhill has obviously engaged in long and serious research to produce this volume. It will repay careful reading. Still, I eagerly await his next project, now that he has achieved tenure at UCLA, and the broader insights it may bring to Brazilian and Latin American economic history.

Albert Fishlow, Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, is now working on a book on Brazil after the return to democracy in 1985.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation that Power Cycles of Growth

Author(s):Atkinson, Robert D.
Reviewer(s):Wells, Wyatt

Published by EH.NET (May 2005)

Robert D. Atkinson, The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation that Power Cycles of Growth. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004. vii + 357 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-84376-955-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Wyatt Wells, Department of History, Auburn University — Montgomery.

In The Past and Future of America’s Economy, Robert Atkinson combines scholarly study with political polemic. Surveying American economic history, he develops a theory of growth based on technological change and then lays out a program for the Democratic Party to adapt to and take advantage of changes now underway in the United States.

Atkinson lambastes conventional economists for their neglect of technological change and, drawing on the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter, argues that long waves of innovation have driven economic growth. He identifies three distinct periods during which new technologies drove growth and, in the process, reshaped the economy: 1890-1940, 1940-1990, and 1990-. He describes the first period as the “factory-based industrial era” and argues that steel technology and the large-scale production of machinery and other producer goods drove growth. In the 1920s and 1930s, this technology reached the point of diminishing returns, and growth resumed only in the 1940s with the “mass production era,” which entailed the application of mass production techniques and electro-mechanical technology. This system, in turn, reached the point of diminishing returns in the 1970s, and growth resumed only in the 1990s with the development of information technology, which promises a new era of sustained growth.

According to Atkinson, these long cycles all follow the same broad pattern. Initially new technology is disruptive because it displaces older techniques and requires companies eager to use it to reorganize. This generates resistance and, sometimes, a political crisis. But as new technologies and techniques gain acceptance, the way opens for an extended period of growth in which higher productivity allows living standards to rise substantially. Invariably, however, technology reaches a point of diminishing returns, inaugurating a period of stagnation and crisis.

Having laid out his theory, Atkinson describes how today’s Democrats can guide and take advantage of this process. They should abandon policies such as protectionism designed to halt or slow change and instead work to accelerate it, increasing government funding for research and trying to force the pace at which individuals and companies adopt new technology. Democrats should then use the wealth generated by growth and higher productivity to allow Americans greater leisure, for instance by reducing the work week.

Atkinson’s book has substantial virtues. The author dares to think big, and by putting technology at the center of economic development, he emphasizes a key subject too often overlooked in economic discussions. This book also makes clear the link between new technology and new organization, and points out that their adoption is rarely painless. Finally, the focus on productivity brings to the forefront the most important factor in determining living standards.

Unfortunately, in supporting his thesis, Atkinson often does violence to the facts. No doubt the author is correct to note that the American economy transformed itself in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his description of the process contains significant errors. Change depended far more on the railroads, which created a national market, than on steel, to which Atkinson gives emphasis. Atkinson discounts the role of consumer goods industries in this process, emphasizing instead producer goods. But Standard Oil, Proctor & Gamble, Heinz, the meatpackers, and similar producers of consumer goods were central to economic growth. According to Atkinson, the “factory-based industrial era” enjoyed its heyday between 1900 and 1914, but productivity gains during these years were weaker than in either the preceding or subsequent periods.

Similar errors appear in Atkinson’s discussion of the “mass production era.” The 1920s saw the introduction of many new techniques and products based on electro-mechanical and chemical technologies — not to mention the internal combustion engine — and rapid increases in productivity. During that decade General Motors pioneered the annual model change and segmented marketing strategy, RCA pioneered radio, and DuPont and other companies introduced rayon, the first synthetic fiber. The country was already shifting to the mass production economy when the Great Depression intervened, halting the process. Atkinson, however, blames the Depression on the final breakdown of the old “factory-based” industrial system and pushes the developments of the 1920s into the 1940s, asserting for instance, “It was not until after World War II that a truly consumer-oriented automobile industry emerged” (p. 46).

Atkinson’s partisanship also affects his judgment. For instance, he dismisses Herbert Hoover as a stand-patter who chose to ride out the Depression (p. 19), a view precious few historians would accept today. Hoover’s response to the disaster was unsuccessful and perhaps even counterproductive, but it was most definitely not passive. The Reagan administration’s extensive reforms of the tax system and government regulation merit scarcely a mention in Atkinson’s book, even though these were particularly important to telecommunications, one of today’s cutting-edge sectors. The author’s dislike of modern religious conservatives leads him to identify them as opponents of economic change, but in fact, they are generally middle class people comfortable with technological innovation — save perhaps internet pornography. Their concerns are chiefly social and spiritual, not economic.

The Past and Future of America’s Economy demonstrates once again that scholarly surveys and political polemics do not coexist easily. It is too shrill and careless for an academic study, too detailed and thorough for a partisan tract. This is unfortunate, for despite the considerable defects of his book, Atkinson is trying to get people to think seriously about big issues — and this is something that deserves encouragement.

Wyatt Wells, a professor of history at Auburn University Montgomery, is the author of Antitrust and the Formation of the Postwar World (2002) and American Capitalism, 1945-2000 (2003).

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