This review of the book The Rise & Fall Of American Growth: The U.S. Standard Of Living Since The Civil War was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in The Schoenberg Spotlight.
The Rise & Fall Of American Growth: The U.S. Standard Of Living Since The Civil War
Written by Robert J. Gordon
(Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press, 2016)
I found this to be a thoroughly engrossing book more for how technology impacted American every-day life than the nuts and bolts of how it impacted the American economy. Again and again, yesterday's luxuries for the wealthy became today's necessities for the middle class and tomorrow's abundance for the masses. Gordon explains how the quantity and quality of inventions changed American behavior and expectations. You could become rich in America by making a product or service available to the masses instead of just a few wealthy people. For example, the flush toilet was not only more hygienic and saved time and the trudge of bringing water up and getting rid of #1 and #2 through hand labor but ensured privacy.
Central heating not only made people warmer but also made the living room the center of family life. The automobile has not enhanced individual freedom of mobility but was also more affordable and easier to handle as well as being a more comfortable and reliable ride instead of relying upon the horse and removed the horse's #1 and #2 from streets improving sanitation and public health. The automobile driver no longer had to rely upon the time schedule of railroads and public transportation. The quality of the car improved with the introduction of the self-starter, windshield wipers, heating, air conditioning, and radio. The telegraph made transmission of messages in real time possible that stimulated commerce which could be done in minutes instead of weeks and month. However, this required an elaborate system of expert telegraphers and messengers that gave way to the user-friendly telephone. As the telephone became increasingly automated with area codes and automatic dialing, it became cheaper to use and people used it more often. The telephone had brought communication into the home while the cell phone brought mobile information wherever the individual went.
The U.S.A. built one of the most incredible rail systems that enabled people to travel long distances but even more people travel by air every day because it saves time and money as well as being more comfortable. The phonograph, radio, and television provided portable and low-cost or "free" professional entertainment that gave people the freedom to enjoy their leisure time at their convenience instead of travelling long distances to see a live performance or make their own home entertainment. The unhygienic hospital where you went as a last resort became a hygienic palace of healing that could really save your life as indicated from the shift in having a baby at home to having a baby at the hospital.
Robert J. Gordon argues that the development of new technologies had its greatest impact upon American economic growth between 1870 and 1940 and then began to slow down after 1940 as these industries matured because everyone had a flush toilet, a telephone, central heating, air conditioning, an automobile, and much more. I would argue the pace of American economic growth increased every year after 1870 reaching climax between 1945 and 1970. This twenty-five year period saw Americans actually become middle class instead of their simply thinking they were middle class. It was during this time that everyday American inventions really became inventions used by ordinary Americans. In 1945, one American in five owned an automobile and two Americans in five owned a telephone, and only 8,000 Americans had a television set. By 1970, virtually every American regardless of economic class had an automobile, a telephone, an air conditioner, a television set, and much more in quality and quantity of material goods that made life more comfortable. Then the economy began to slow down because most Americans already had these material goods, which meant a loss of jobs.
The book does not really discuss the impact of taxes and monetary policy on economic growth. Robert J. Gordon does mention that the penny newspaper became more common thanks to new steam-driven presses in the U.S.A. in the 1830s, unlike the United Kingdom, because they didn't pay any heavy taxes. Many economists argue that imposing high taxes during the Great Depression made it last longer and deeper than it should have. Although one could argue there was pent-up demand after World War II, taxes were also cut which I felt had something to do with stimulating growth.
Robert J. Gordon does provide insight into economic growth. However, I feel his greatest service is in discussing the impact of technology affecting us, not just materially, but socially as well.