THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH-AN IMPORTANT READ FOR TODAY

I have not read a more thorough analysis of the American economy and its resulting social implications. THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH takes a microscopic look at the U.S. standard of living since the Civil War. From beginning to end, this 666 page work of extraordinary research sets forth a clear understanding of expectations for the economic future of American capitalism.

Robert J. Gordon has the unique ability to treat a complicated subject in a manner that is readable, compelling and enjoyable.   Time and again in reading THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH I said, ” I get that.” Not a common response when reading about  GDP, and TFP and the exponential impact of forever life changing one time inventions. Gordon takes complicated subject matter and brings it home to the reader in a straightforward fashion. Even the layout of many dozens of trend graphs are easy to read and understandable.

So much for form.  The importance of the subject matter relates to anyone trying to figure out exactly where the U.S. economy is headed. What is the prognosis for the dwindling middle class, income inequality, immigration, wages  innovation and most important the human condition?  THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH places the period of 1870 to 1970 under a  microscope dramatically raising one’s understanding of the impact of the first and second industrial revolutions on the economic well-being of America and in particular the evolution of the middle class following World War II.   Gordon calls 1870-1940 ,” The period of the great inventions, that will likely never be duplicated.” Gordon’s  research carries through to today with a stark comparison of exactly why economic growth has stalled even with the rapid expansion of technology since 1970.

The headwinds against replicating the growth of the American economy that were experienced in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century are formidable.  Gordon sites income in-equality, a broken educational system, stagnant wages and a misplaced understanding of the importance of immigration to bolster the productivity of an aging labor force as key elements that will create further stagnation.

This is an important book for our time and place in America.

Other interesting books on this subject include Thomas Piketty’s  Capital in the 21st Century and Tom Friedman’s most recent book Thank You For Being Late. 

 

BERNIE SANDER’S “OUR REVOLUTION” ALIVE AND WELL!

” Let’s be clear!”  This familiar quote from Bernie Sanders is the perfect introduction to his recently published book detailing his campaign for the presidency. Perhaps more  important it is a detailed description of his progressive platform

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 Bernie Sanders, Our Revolution is divided into two sections. Part one reviews the origins and the execution of his campaign for the presidency.  It is an insightful glimpse of how the improbable became reality. For Bernie supporters the read is a pleasant and reinforcing journey.

The second part of the book is an excellent and detailed a count on the Sander’s progressive platform. The narrative extends far beyond the sound bites that are dictated by media coverage of campaigns. Fact based examinations of policies and programs lend substance to his ideas regarding income in-equality, climate change, corporate concentration, greed, education and health care. The reader comes away with a far greater understanding  of the depth and the rational for his ideas.  His explanations pattern his familiar straightforward and blunt style.

Having  just read Tom Friedman’s   Thank You For Being Late ( see gordonsgoodreads.com) it is interesting to discover the similarity of ideas and policy shared by Sanders and Friedman. Of particular interest is their common ground on education, climate change and income inequality.

Do not look for a lament on a lost cause because you will not find that narrative in these pages.  Bernie’s  Our Revolution, appears alive and well. I thought it appropriate to quote this battle cry from the final chapter.

” We will not be able to accomplish those goals if we look at democracy as a spectator sport, assuming others will do it for us. They won’t. The  future is in your hands. Let’s go to work.”

Let’s be clear!

 

 

 

 

 

PIKETTY- CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY- THE NEWS IS NOT GOOD!

It is somewhat astonishing that Thomas Piketty’s  CAPITAL in the 21st Century remains at the very top of the New York Times Best Seller List! Not intending to be condescending, this is not an easy read even for the most ardent observers of the national and world economy.  The first 250 pages, filled with exhaustive research over a 250 year period, complete with charts and graphs, is a test of anyone’s concentration.  You may need to read many pages more than once! The good news is that once through this sophisticated and advanced course in economics, the reader will come to an understanding of the inexorable march of an economic matrix that appears to be leading to a dysfunctional environment for the capitalistic system as  we have known in America for over 300 years.  Ironically, there is  currently a billboard on the south bound FDR Drive  in New York City that reads,” The French Aristocracy Didn’t See It Coming Either! ”  images Piketty does not set out to be an alarmist but rather to lay out what he believes is the most definitive research ever completed on the subject of inequality and the distribution of wealth in America and Europe, dating back to the seventeenth century.  Admittedly, Piketty qualifies some of the early collection of data as anecdotal but at the same time has sought out all-available recorded records to track the distribution of wealth over three centuries. What is most troubling in the Piketty thesis is his substantiation of a mathematical paradigm that left unchecked , places  the concentration of wealth worldwide and particularly in the United States on an unstoppable course of disastrous inequality.  Not an exciting prospect. Piketty: ” If the growing concentration of income from labor that has been observed in the United States over the last few decades were to continue, the bottom 50% could earn just half as much in total compensation as the top 10% by 2030.”  In the United States, the most recent survey by the Federal Reserve, indicates that the top decile own 72 percent of America’s wealth,  of which the bottom half claim just 2% .  These figures clearly delineate the plight of the dwindling  middle class.  If the top ten percent  and the bottom 2 percent control 74 percent of all wealth in America, that leaves only 26% for everyone else! Fundamental to Piketty’s  thesis is that a predicted economic annual growth rate in America of 1.5 percent or less will force a greater concentration of wealth among the top decile because based upon a rate of return there will be no incentive to invest risk capital back into the economy.  The top ten percent can comfortably continue to invest capital at 4-5% ( with some hedge funds at 10-30%) and in essence keep these capital resources off the table in the hands of the super wealthy, further shrinking the middle class and decimating the lower class.  He also predicts that as future generations  of the wealthy mature, inherited wealth will be exclusively bequeathed, removing it from the general capitalistic economy, in the same manner as did the old European aristocracies.  Thus, a new American Aristocracy fueled by inherited wealth? Piketty: ” In my view, there is absolutely no doubt that the increase of inequality in the United States  prior to 2007 contributed to the nation’s financial instability. The reason is simple:  One consequence of increasing inequality was virtual stagnation of the purchasing power of the lower and middle classes in the United States , which inevitably  made it more likely that modest households would take on debt, especially since unscrupulous banks  and financial intermediaries, freed from regulation and eager to earn good yields on the enormous savings injected into the system by the well-to-do, offered  credit on increasingly generous terms.” ” If we consider the total growth of the U.S. economy in the thirty years prior to the crisis, we find that the richest appropriated three-quarters of the growth.The richest 1-percent absorbed 60 percent of the total increase of U.S. national income in this period.  It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.” Capital In The Twenty First Century has raised considerably debate and the outright questioning of Piketty’s research and formulas ( r>g ). However, if you take him for his word, the forecast is not comforting and for sure,  don’t look for many rave reviews from the financial establishment! Unfortunately, if you have sensed something wrong with the economy, Piketty offers great insight but little comfort! Capital in The 21st Century  is well worth a major investment of time.

HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES- KEEP PRINT JOURNALISM ALIVE AND WELL!

Jacob Riis’s book How The Other Half Lives, written in 1890, remains an outstanding example of the importance of investigative journalism and the continued vitality of the Fourth Estate.

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Jacob Riis was among the earliest of what Theodore Roosevelt later termed ” muckraker”, “taking the rake to uncover the most unpleasant conditions in American society.”  In Riis’s case, the issue was the plight of thousands of immigrants living and working in horrid conditions in the New York City tenements of the late 19th century. How The Other Half Lives is not a historical novel but rather a work of non-fiction, well researched reporting, personally witnessed by the journalist.

Riis was himself an  immigrant, born in Denmark among a family of fifteen children. He apprenticed as a carpenter in Copenhagen but discouraged by job availability he immigrated to the United States in 1870 at age  21.  Having caught a brief glimpse of the squalid living conditions among immigrants in New York’s tenement district, he left for western Pennsylvania and found work there as a carpenter. Perceived as being taken advantage of by his employers, he returned to New York as a salesman of flat irons whereupon he saw an advertisement for a Long Island newspaper looking for an editor. Thus, with no experience as a writer, he began his career in journalism.  He later accepted a position as a reporter for The New York News Association where he began writing with assignments covering both the rich and the impoverished. Riss was aware of conditions among the extremely poor in New York from his previous brief stay in and around the notorious Five Points. However, his job at the NYNA, the New York Sun and later in a big step up to the New York Tribune , he found a pulpit from which to begin informing the public on How The Other Half Lives .  Riis turned his print platform into a personal crusade, attempting  to alleviate the bad living and working conditions of the poor by exposing their horrid circumstances to the people who could make a difference, the middle and upper class of the city and its political establishment. Riis was perfectly willing to hold both the upper class and politicians accountable for the exploitation of men, women and children in both employment and housing. The pages of his early articles for Scribner’s Magazine and later in the complete volume How The Other Half Lives  are so vivid that uninformed critics, in disbelief, termed the details of his reporting an exaggeration and sensationalism.

Surely this work is an early reformist look at income inequality but  Riis referred to this large percentage of the New York City population as a class  unto itself, literally without identity or voice, enslaved by landlords who exploited their fears. The same people were recruited as the machinery of piecework in the early garment and cigar making industry at wages below any standards of decency.  The tenement  districts in New York exploded with thousands of men, women and children crowded into one or two rooms often without ventilation, sanitation or running water. Riss estimated that at one fifth of the city’s population lived under these conditions.

There is a major difference between Riis’s reporting and sensationalism. Riis spent months in the tenements, which were factories by day and barely livable sleeping quarters by night.  His research was impeccable and he was among the very first reporters to incorporate photo journalism into his stories, utilizing the newly invented flash to photograph his subjects in their darkened rooms. His work was the beginning of photo journalism, adding documentation to the written word.  The photos and editorial content had dramatic impact with his readers  and ultimately gained the attention of New York’s newly elected Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.  Riis became an advisor to Roosevelt, escorting him on nighttime  tours for the commissioner to see for himself how the poor were forced to live.  Many credit this educational relationship with Roosevelt as the beginning of the Progressive Movement, a hallmark of TR’s future  presidency.

After Roosevelt’s election he wrote this tribute to Riis. ” Recently a man, well  qualified to pass judgement, alluded to Mr. Jacob Riis as  ‘ the most useful citizen of New York.’  The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the  crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent  ever encountered by them in New York  City.”

How The Other Half Lives was first published as an article in Scribner’s  Magazine in 1889, but  while working for the New York Sun, Riis expanded the work into the book, complete with his photographs and published it a year later.  A much less famous work by Riis, Children of the Poor was published as a sequel in 1892. In it Riis wrote of children he had encountered while researching How The Other Half Lives.

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Riis was not alone among a new breed of investigative {muckraker) journalists.  In 1872 Julius Chambers wrote an expose of institutional horrors in Bloomingdale Asylum  and in 1887 Nellie Bly wrote Ten Days in a Madhouse a story of patient abuse in Bellevue Hospital.   By the turn of the 20th century McClure’s Magazine had assembled a group of new muckrakers including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker, exposing the Standard Oil Trusts and labor unrest in the coal mines and steel mills.

One wonders  how slowly  reform among the immigrants of New York’s tenements may have come without the reporting of Jacob Riis.  How The Other Half Lives  punctuates the importance of  investigative journalism in the fabric of a democracy. In the 20th Century we saw the results of the journalistic work of the Washington Post’s  Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their reporting of Watergate.  Currently we are witnessing excellent journalism in the New York Time’s recent series Invisible Child, the brilliant work of reporter Andrea Elliott and the ongoing reporting of Times business journalist Gretchen Morgenson,  together with her book Reckless Endangerment.  

In this readers view, Television, the 24-hour cable news cycle and the endless world of blogs have a long distance to travel before coming close to the credibility and impact  of the work of Jacob Riis and those following in his footsteps.  If you are a  student of New York, treat yourself to a journey back to the nineteenth century and read How The Other Half Lives.  It will make you want to keep buying a newspaper, print or digital!

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS-A SHOCKING LOOK AT INCOME INEQUALITY IN INDIA

Katherine Boo’s best seller Behind The Beautiful Forevers, Life, Death and Hope In a Mumbai Undercity is a shocking examination of how income inequality can condemn hundreds of thousands of humans, men, women and children,  as slum dwellers with no possible exit from their condition.  After completing Behind The Beautiful Forevers I wondered why the author placed the word HOPE in the title, as I came away with none.

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Boo illuminates the contrast in India’s caste system by establishing her story line in a Mumbai slum, Annawadi, beneath the shadow of India’s “other world”, the gleaming high-rise hotels that surround the international airport.  In Annawadi,  young and old, mothers, fathers and children live at the edge of a sewage lake in cardboard and tin shacks with no walls, doors or plumbing. Boo takes the reader through their daily lives of survival, picking through the garbage and waste of the upper classes and ironically paying bribes to the political bureaucracy for the privilege!

Hope?  Farmers borrow money to remain on their farms to avoid  conditions in the cities like Mumbai. Then, crop failure, a huge loan for seed with no way to pay. ” He was slow-minded, short on his lights and worked the fields, then took additional loans for his daughter’s wedding and felt trapped. Then he went and drank the poison ( insecticide).”

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Hope?  ” When a new school opened in the pink temple by the sewage lake, many of them gravitated to it, but it closed as soon as the leader of the nonprofit had taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds.”

Hope ? Boo details a society in which the poorest of the poor must pay bribes for the  most basic essentials in life, including food, water, the privilege to work, and inadequate medical care.

The very same week I completed Boo’s book, the March 30th addition of The Economist arrived at my desk with the headline CAN INDIA BECOME A GREAT POWER?  Behind The Beautiful Forevers makes a commanding case for a resounding NO!

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Katherine Boo is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter for the Washington Post. She has received a Pulitzer prize for her journalism.  This work of non-fiction is also worthy of high honors.  It has already been granted a National Book Award. Author Adrian Nicole Leblanc said it best in her praise for  Boo, ” There are books that change the way you feel and see; this is one of them.”

A FALSE DAWN FOR FREE MARKETS- LAISSEZ-FAIRE?

John Gray is among Britain’s  ” former ” conservative  thinkers who had major influence on Margaret Thatcher during her tenure as British Prime Minister.

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Gray, a long-standing  unfettered free enterprise advocate , had an epiphany regarding his economic views and in 1998 published False Dawn, a highly academic discussion and prediction as to why a laissez-faire global economic system was unworkable and forecast the economic calamity that fell upon the U.S. and the world in 2008. Gray’s thesis in  False Dawn is that  the American-style unregulated free market system was the major contributor leading up to the world economic implosion of 2008!

False Dawn is a heavy reading assignment!  However, the perspective Gray brings to the discussion of  government’s role in the free enterprise system is both provocative and startling.  Of particular note is his reasoned analysis of why he now conversely believes that only government involvement in the framework of free-enterprise can prevent the income disparity that exists in both the U.S. and  international economic system.  Gray makes the case that income disparity, now seen in largely un-regulated world-wide free-enterprise economies, has led to economic perdition.  He  warns of the danger of the IMF for trying to impose the US economic model on the world.

So what is the take-away?  Has Gray gone from a Thatcher conservative to socialist?  I think not, but he is a strong advocate for the necessity of some government role in fostering growth and regulating free enterprise. The growth side of the Gray proposition comes from his advocacy of government  investment in infrastructure, scientific research and new technologies, all of which is  part of the contemporary economic and political dialogue!

Ironically, as I was finishing False Dawn  the January 12, 2012 issue of The Economist arrived with a cover story The Great Innovation Debate. While the article does not focus upon income disparity, it makes a strong case for government spending on infrastructure and basic research. As might be expected, the government investment advocacy does not come without The Economist warning of too much regulation “getting in the way of the 21st century’s innovative juices.” Many sides to a complex issue.

False Dawn is a great companion read to those fans of Tom Friedman, in particular Hot-Flat and Crowded and Robert Wright’s Non Zero. In all three cases you may wish to take notes!