Long (Depressing) Read: “The Blip”

NYMag‘s Benjamin Wallace-Wells asks economist Robert Gordon, “What if everything we’ve come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?

Picture this, arranged along a time line.

For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered. This isn’t to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve…. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.

Then two things happened that did matter, and they were so grand that they dwarfed everything that had come before and encompassed most everything that has come since: the first industrial revolution, beginning in 1750 or so in the north of England, and the second industrial revolution, beginning around 1870 and created mostly in this country. That the second industrial revolution happened just as the first had begun to dissipate was an incredible stroke of good luck. It meant that during the whole modern era from 1750 onward—which contains, not coincidentally, the full life span of the United States—human well-being accelerated at a rate that could barely have been contemplated before. Instead of permanent stagnation, growth became so rapid and so seemingly automatic that by the fifties and sixties the average American would roughly double his or her parents’ standard of living. In the space of a single generation, for most everybody, life was getting twice as good.

At some point in the late sixties or early seventies, this great acceleration began to taper off. The shift was modest at first, and it was concealed in the hectic up-and-down of yearly data. But if you examine the growth data since the early seventies, and if you are mathematically astute enough to fit a curve to it, you can see a clear trend: The rate at which life is improving here, on the frontier of human well-being, has slowed….

There are many ways in which you can interpret this economic model, but the most lasting—the reason, perhaps, for the public notoriety it has brought its author—has little to do with economics at all. It is the suggestion that we have not understood how lucky we have been. The whole of American cultural memory, the period since World War II, has taken place within the greatest expansion of opportunity in the history of human civilization. Perhaps it isn’t that our success is a product of the way we structured our society. The shape of our society may be far more conditional, a consequence of our success. Embedded in Gordon’s data is an inquiry into entitlement: How much do we owe, culturally and politically, to this singular experience of economic growth, and what will happen if it goes away?…

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125 replies
  1. 1
    Schlemizel says:

    This is ignoring two relevant facts. The economic miracle that created America as we know it has not ended, it moved. It exists in China and India and is showing the same sort of flowering of a healthy middle class it did here. It wold be moreso if the industrial masters did not have their foot on the throats of workers as heavily as they do there.

    The second, and probably final (as in end of mankind) difference is that we have used up many of the fundamental elements needed for industrial growth while poisoning the air, the land and the water. Destroying even the things we eat and setting us on the path to extinction.

  2. 2
    Calming Influence says:

    I’m currently re-reading Howard Zinn’s The Twentieth Century, and it gives me the same depressing feeling: all the progress we’ve made in labor, equality, environmental protection, market and business regulation, etc. are depressingly recent and are currently under attack by a lunatic fringe and massive corporate interests.

    And if you really want to get depressed, read ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ by Sinclair Lewis. His 1935 looks an awful lot like our 2013.

  3. 3
    pat says:

    The whole of American cultural memory, the period since World War II, has taken place within the greatest expansion of opportunity in the history of human civilization.

    Absolutely. KIds could go to college without ending up in debt for the rest of their lives, blue-collar jobs allowed families to live in decent homes, even on one income…. I could go on.

    I think the decline began in the 80’s when globalization began to take hold and the unions began to lose their clout. Oh, and let’s not forget the social upheaval that was spurred by opposition to the Viet Nam war.

  4. 4
    Mjaum says:

    I find it amusing that an american would believe that americans, as a whole, are on the frontier of human well-being.

  5. 5
    pat says:

    And let us not lose sight of the catastrophe which is just around the corner, and is a pretty direct result of all that progress.

    I speak, of course, of Global Climate Change, which we should have begun to tackle back in the 70’s during the oil crisis. It’s probably too late now. The polar ice cap and the glaciers are not coming back.

    Oh, and when the Pill was discovered it should have been provided to every third world country…

  6. 6
    NickT says:

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.

    I’d love to see the really detailed evidence to support this claim. I’d also be intrigued to know whether the printing press and the compass, to name only 2 items, didn’t qualify as fairly substantial technological improvements.

  7. 7
    raven says:

    @pat: “the social upheaval that was spurred by opposition to the Viet Nam war.” Yea, had nothing to do with civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights. . .”

  8. 8
    Violet says:

    @pat:

    I think the decline began in the 80′s when globalization began to take hold and the unions began to lose their clout.

    That actually began in the 70’s as the article says but didn’t become as obvious until the 80’s. Things like the oil crisis in the 70’s hit Detroit because suddenly their gas guzzlers weren’t as desirable. Meanwhile, Japan started exporting their small, fuel-efficient cars (globalization!) and that was a double whammy.

  9. 9
    pat says:

    @raven:

    My point was that a generation of young people began to question their government and society in a way that had probably not happened before.

    I’m a couple of years older than you and lived a fairly sheltered life, politically, in those days. My enlightenment came years later…. I still think my comment was valid, even if I left out a couple of issues.

  10. 10
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    I will most definitely read this, probably later this evening. It would seem to fit in week with a book I mentioned here a few days ago, George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. IIRC, I suggested (before I had even read much of it) that it might be an excellent choice for a future Balloon Juice Book Club, if we still have such a thing. Now that I am about 75% of the way through, I haven’t changed my opinion. Packer writes like a dream, and has a fine sense of where the telling narrative nuggets are buried. He tells the stories of a few people you’ve heard of (Oprah, Andrew Breitbart), a lot of people you haven’t (a factory worker turned community organizer from Youngstown, Ohio, a disillusioned political staffer), and a city which serves as a poster child for many of the economic-social-political disasters of the past 30 or so years (Tampa, Florida). I’m finding it fascinating. Has anyone else read it? Think it might be a good choice for a book discussion at some point?

  11. 11
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    I find it amazing that there’s no mention of energy resources in the quotes. Britain was the first nation to go on the coal economy: 1st industrial revolution. The US was the first to go on the oil economy> 2nd industrial revolution.

    The decline of the US economy matches the decline of easily accessible oil. Instead of pulling out 100 barrels for 1 barrel of effort (Texas, 1930s), we’re drilling miles deep in the Gulf, with around 5 – 10 barrels recovered per barrel of effort.

    This is the critical measure. Growing and distilling ethanol from corn takes about 10 gallons of fuel to yield 1 gallon of ethanol. It’s unsustainable.

    Physics and entropy trump economics, every time.

  12. 12
    pat says:

    @Violet:

    I mention the 80’s because I lived in Spam Town USA and was there as the meatpackers went on strike.

  13. 13
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    “fit in WITH,” not “fit in week.” Stupid FYWP or autocorrect or fat fingers or my own lame brain or something.

  14. 14
    raven says:

    @pat: fair enough

  15. 15
    Chris says:

    @Calming Influence:

    I always used to think it was odd and misplaced as hell that Lewis apparently based his American Hitler on Huey Long. Thinking it over, though, there really wasn’t a credible American Hitler anywhere at the time, and Lewis’ basic point was that an American fascist movement wouldn’t be comfortably dressed up in foreign regalia and mannerisms.

  16. 16
    Calming Influence says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Haven’t read it, but plan to, and would enjoy a future book discussion of it.

  17. 17
    pat says:

    @raven:
    Whew. Thanks

    (not meant to sound sarcastic)

  18. 18
    the Conster says:

    The easy access to credit and the dominance of the FIRE sector in the economy starting in the 70s and 80s kept us on the wrong path. The quarter to quarter demand for growth at all costs – ALL costs – has dis-incentivized the political and merchant class to do the right thing. We need to disrupt the hypercapitalist death spriral we’re in and develop a sustainable economy that works for people (and the planet) but I don’t see how that happens.

  19. 19
  20. 20
    raven says:

    @pat: Not at all.

  21. 21
    RSA says:

    @NickT:

    I’d also be intrigued to know whether the printing press and the compass, to name only 2 items, didn’t qualify as fairly substantial technological improvements.

    I was thinking of the printing press, too. And Rennaissance architecture. And the invention of the alphabet, which Jared Diamond observes probably happened just once, and then was copied. The opening bit about “nothing happened that mattered” since the dawn of human history seems to take a narrow view of what matters.

    And that makes me think, “How is human well-being measured?” For another example, I’d say that the end of the Cold War was pretty significant in terms of reduced risk, and that didn’t happen in the late ’60s or early ’70s. Not to discount what other commenters have said, but simple models often paint an overly simple picture of what’s going on.

  22. 22
    Jack Canuck says:

    @NickT: I think you could certainly list the printing press and the compass as substantial technological improvements (though the compass originally came from China, I believe). But how much impact did either of those have on ” the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual” in the mid-18th century? Unless you were in a very narrow slice of society, neither of those did a damn thing for your life, I reckon.

  23. 23
    NickT says:

    @Chris:

    I thought it was interesting that Philip Roth, like Eric Norden before him, chose Charles Lindbergh for the role.

  24. 24
    Pogonip says:

    @Schlemizel: Well, that will at least render the pit bull issue moot.

  25. 25
    Antonius says:

    How about we more evenly distribute the American wealth created in the last thirty years and then decide whether the greatest elevation of the human condition in human history is petering out? I don’t think it’s precisely economic coincidence that’s at work here, it’s a cultural barrier to awarding people a higher percentage of their labor’s value. By which barrier I mean “capitalism”.

  26. 26
    Calming Influence says:

    @Chris: I agree with the Huey Long point, but if Charles Lindbergh had had the kind of king-makers we have today that can make Santorum, Perry, Bachmann,and Cain serious candidates on the national stage he could have easily been elected. And he sure loved him some Nazis!

    I think what I was going for was how the slide toward fascism by the public in Sinclair’s novel seems so similar to the rhetoric of the Tea Party today.

  27. 27
    NickT says:

    @Jack Canuck:

    Robert Gordon doesn’t seem to be connecting the two areas, unless I am misreading his prose. I think he’s clearly wrong in his claims about technology. This matters, because these improvements made a huge difference to the global changes he’s referring to. I would also add Newtonian physics and the calculus to the list of technologies, if you are prepared to understand the term more broadly.

  28. 28
    gene108 says:

    the coming generational trauma of the retiring baby boomers

    Just because birth rates are way way down in parts of Europe, Japan and China (by government decree), does not mean there is going to be a lack of people on this planet.

    Between India and Africa, there is enough population growth to make up for the population decline in other countries, if those countries would embrace open borders. How long can Sweden or wherever hope to keep up their ethnic identity, if their population will keep declining? At some point they are just asking to be overrun by folks from other countries.

    Anyway, I’m leaving the U.S. off this list because despite baby boomers retiring in this country, out immigration policy has allowed us to not have to deal with an actual decline in population anytime soon that other industrialized countries are actually looking at.

  29. 29
    Chris says:

    @Antonius:

    I agree. That was Krugman’s main point in Conscience of a Liberal – that the freeze in prosperity and skyrocketing inequality in the last few decades aren’t the result of impersonal market forces but deliberate policy choices, namely, the Thatcher/Reagan revolution.

  30. 30
    gene108 says:

    @gene108:

    Just want to add one more quibble to economists, who reference the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the U.S. as some sort of baseline to measure the modern era, because from what I’ve read after WW2 the U.S. accounted for 80% of the world’s manufacturing capacity.

    It’s like a biologist looking at an island species, with no natural predators and thinking that is, “why can’t every other species be that relaxed in its natural habitat. Why are rabbits and deer in my woods so jumpy?”.

    The post-WW2 economy was a confluence of the technological revolution Gordon talks about converging with the U.S. economy having no real competition from anywhere else in the world. Countries that had the industrial ability to compete with the U.S., like Germany and Japan, were bombed out, while the rest of the world had very little industrial capacity.

    Post-WW2 USA was a very unique set of c9ircumstances that are not likely to occur again and shouldn’t be the standard, by which we compare subsequent generations.

  31. 31
    CarolDuhart2 says:

    The printing press broke the intellectual monopoly of the priesthood (s). So innovators had a chance to publish their ideas widely-and books could be about more than just theology and perhaps some cultured literature. With the widespread growth and dissemination of regular knowledge and techniques, improving this world became possible.

  32. 32
    RSA says:

    @Jack Canuck:

    I think you could certainly list the printing press and the compass as substantial technological improvements (though the compass originally came from China, I believe). But how much impact did either of those have on ” the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual” in the mid-18th century?

    I’m not Nick, but I looked up the history of literacy on Wikipedia and found a nice line plot for illiteracy in France: in 1720, 65% of the generation was illiterate, but by 1850 it dropped to about 15%. I think literacy should somehow count into the quality of life.

  33. 33
    BlueSkies says:

    @Antonius: Exactly. The argument of Wallace-Wells strikes me as just another way to say “It’s structural! There’s nothing we can do about it!”

    Bullshit.

    It’s structural to the extent that a small minority have been very successful in consolidating power across the poli-socio-economic spectrum in the 21st century. Our “blip” of prosperity always seems to restart when we change THAT structure.

    As to W-W’s thesis – ask the French when they started receiving the fruits of THEIR “industrial revolution.” They arguably led the Enlightenment, yet the citizens only received its benefits after they ‘restructured’ the status quo.

  34. 34
    Calming Influence says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason: I agree about corn -> ethanol, but as stand-in for all renewables it’s a bad one. Its production is driven by big ag, pure and simple. There are other examples (soy, hemp) with much higher yields/ lower costs of biofuels/acre that can provide additional products as well (fiber). Tech advances in battery power storage and solar voltaic efficiencies continue to make alternatives more viable.

    Building designs and technologies around since the 70s are being exploited in other parts of the world (e.g. Scandinavia) to provide super-energy efficient housing and industrial/commercial space; these ideas just need to be accepted and exploited here in the U.S.

    I’m way more confident that technology and conservation can provide solutions to our energy needs; I’m much less confident that we have the political will to make that happen, especially when big oil/big ag/big business hold so much power in our political environment.

  35. 35
    dollared says:

    @Antonius: This. This book falls in the category of “Upper Class Pundits Telling Us Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”

    There is no slowing of the growth in material prosperity. In the last 35 years there has been a radical shift in the distribution of that prosperity. And that is purely the result of power and policy. And yes, it may yet kill the goose that laid the golden egg, because highly stratified societies are much less innovative and productive.

  36. 36
    Yatsuno says:

    Ugh. My brilliant comment eaten because FYWP is still broken.

  37. 37
    Violet says:

    @Yatsuno: I’m tired of this stupid blog forgetting what’s in the Name and E-mail boxes every time the thread gets reloaded. The number of times I’ve written a comment, clicked “Submit Comment” and had it vanish is ridiculous. And it used to be that if I pressed Back, I could at least recover the comment, add my name and email to the boxes and submit it again. Easy. But no, of course now the comment is gone. So I have to start over.

    Realize this is not a Real Problem, but still, it’s kind of basic blogging stuff. Do not understand why the blog can’t get this simple thing fixed.

  38. 38
    NickT says:

    I’ll throw in one more neglected technology to the list: the modern state. I think it’s no coincidence that , as the concept of government has come under unremitting attack, innovation in the United States (and in Europe) has also declined. I’d recommend this free (somewhat lengthy) study as a place to start thinking about this issue:

    http://www.demos.co.uk/files/E....._-_web.pdf

  39. 39
    pika says:

    I gave up on this article when it didn’t mention “slavery” or “antiblackness” once, as those things are the engines (or, as Saidiya Hartman notes, the factories) that made the industrial revolutions possible. Unable to deal with the past, he is in no position to lament its pastness.

  40. 40
    NickT says:

    @BlueSkies:

    In fact, historically, the French never did achieve the same levels of success in terms of industrial revolution as the British – even after the revolution and despite Napoleon’s intermittent efforts.

  41. 41
    I am not a kook says:

    There’s a line in one of Neil Stephenson’s novels about a near-future society where he describes in passing how the world’s average standard of living had equalized roughly to that of a tradesman in Karachi (I think he said plumber). This is kind of the end game of the current globalization trends. I actually remember how Americans used to lecture Europeans and other riff raff about the wonders of globalization and capitalism and how they should be happy to buy the cheaper products. Only when those cheaper products started to be manufactured outside of the US, the tone changed.

    There are interesting things happening in the world, also in the Late Imperial Period United States, that are still finding their form. One is of course the expansion of information technology into every nook and cranny of the production systems. And to all people. Think about it, today you can reach most people in the world with one phone call. If somebody doesn’t have a personal phone, somebody in their social circle does. Basically all humans know about the wider world and other humans, which hasn’t been the case for like 50 000 years. The woldwide cultural and political effects of that are just beginning to be felt. There is a distributed manufacturing economy being created by DIYers and urban homesteaders and other strange people sharing information over the internet. Yes, it’s tiny now but we’ll see.

    I just turned 49 and I refuse to take the viewpoint of an Old hating change. Shit is going to be hitting fans, and we do live in interesting times. It’s not gonna be the future our parents and their parents thought it would be, that’s for sure. But no reason to become despondend either.

  42. 42
    PsiFighter37 says:

    @Violet: Weird – it drops my name on the desktop, but remembers it on the iPhone. WordPress being picky…

  43. 43
    Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    Then two things happened that did matter, and they were so grand that they dwarfed everything that had come before and encompassed most everything that has come since: the first industrial revolution, beginning in 1750 or so in the north of England,

    i.e. A florescence built on exploiting the stockpile of non-renewable fuel known as ‘coal’.

    and the second industrial revolution, beginning around 1870 and created mostly in this country.

    i.e. A florescence built on exploiting the stockpile of non-renewable fuel known as ‘oil’.

    You might be able to see the problem here…

  44. 44
    NickT says:

    @Yatsuno:

    Shoulda used the fresh basil, my son. The Noodly Appendage is longer than you might believe.

  45. 45
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    @Calming Influence:
    Agreed with all your points. Especially the lack of political will to implement the solutions we already have, and that we’ve know about since the mid-1970s.

  46. 46
    Violet says:

    @PsiFighter37: I’m using FF on a Windows computer.

  47. 47
    Yatsuno says:

    @Violet: I’ll try this again. Sigh.

    This isn’t to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve

    I realise what bothers me about this statement: it’s amazingly Anglo/American cerntric and horribly inaccurate. Rome up until right before its fall had a burgeoning middle class that was relatively stable. China had a system of advancement based upon education that even the poorest peasant could take advantage of. By making the Industrial Revolution somehow unique in this capacity it makes any effort to do so otherwise seem impossible. Rather insidious, if you ask me.

  48. 48
    eemom says:

    @Yatsuno:

    Maybe it’s time for Yotsuna?

  49. 49
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    @Violet: Agree with both of you. I’m gonna have to get a shorter nym if I have to type it every time to keep FYWP happy.

    Didn’t have to type it this time though. WTF? Does FYWP only forget it when you’ve typed a long thoughtful comment?

  50. 50
    PsiFighter37 says:

    @Violet: Yeah same problem with me. Whatevs, I don’t sweat it or care that much; auto-drop down works quickly enough

  51. 51
    NickT says:

    @Yatsuno:

    I’d have to point out that the odds on the poorest peasant making it through the imperial Chinese examination system were very, very poor indeed. The kids of the wealthier families who could go to the clan school or hire tutors, not to mention having more leisure time, were very much at an advantage. Which sounds oddly familiar in our age of charter schools, GREs, AP tests, extracurriculars and LSATs, doesn’t it?

  52. 52
    Chris says:

    @NickT:
    @Calming Influence:

    Well, Lindbergh wasn’t an American Hitler so much as an American Petain in that book, but yeah, I agree he was a much better choice.

    I think what saved us back in the 1930s was the fact that “the king makers” of that era had been so thoroughly discredited by the Great Depression in the eyes of the public, and then either displaced or co-opted by the New Dealers, that they were in no position to mount any kind of challenge, let alone create a fascist movement in America.

    Lindbergh would’ve been a perfect choice, though. Totally in line with the Republican Party’s fondness for running celebrities that’ll look good, cash in on their popularity, and let the power brokers run everything while they enjoy the perks of the office.

  53. 53
    Yatsuno says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason: If you use FF it will have a drop down option that fills it in for you. If not for that little feature I’d be firing off e-mails to JC in all caps.

    @NickT: It was possible, though, and did actually occur often enough that there were stories of peasants being members of royal court staff.

  54. 54
    Cermet says:

    @gene108: I believe this was closely covered, and explained in the book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (by P. Kennedy.) Yes, we got real lucky after WW II and don’t forget who won WW II – it was Russia (twenty million dead!!!) that defeated Germany (with almost no help from anyone, for that matter), not that joke of a generation that makes the delusional claim. Only in amerika, land of the crazy religious racist can such total shit be sade with a straight face.

  55. 55
    Chris says:

    @gene108:

    Yes, but it wasn’t just America that was prospering – Western Europe and Japan did too, in much the same way during the same era (back in my French history textbooks, the post-WW2 era is nicknamed “Les Trente Glorieuses,” the thirty glorious years, and remembered pretty much the same way). And that’s because whether or not they were on top of the world the way America was, they, too, had created institutions to ensure widespread prosperity, and those were largely the same institutions we had in America (welfare state, unions, and government intervention).

  56. 56
    ruviana says:

    @Yatsuno: Just a question, how many Chinese peasants COULD take advantage of rising through education? How big was the Roman middle class? Gordon may have been focusing on Europe but this sounded fairly accurate to me. Most early states did have something like a middle or merchant class but they were supported by huge peasant or farming populations whose lives were pretty basic. I note that they weren’t necessarily horrible, they just were fairly static over time. I also can see a linkage between what Gordon argues and the energy drivers that commenters noted–coal and oil. I mean, that’s sort of the point–those things allowed some of the growth to happen. Some of the other things people mentioned grew out of this too. I’m in a discipline and work from a materialist perspective that finds this both fascinating and somewhat persuasive. Gordon’s saying, in part, “we can’t keep having growth.” Anyone who’s noted the human impact on the Earth should agree with that. Solving the structural (which includes issues like growing inequality, globalization, etc) problems to create a different world that would accommodate less growth is the bigger challenge.

  57. 57
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    It is funny that in discussions of any conversation about work and wealth and fortunes and famine people always leave out the 600lb gorilla in the room that new fangled invention “retirement”. People never used to retire or have to plan for retirement, for the most part, people worked until they dropped. I do not know if it was the UK or the US that actually came up with the 65 years and you can quit working idea but it sort of caught on. Similarly when we are talking about recent jobs numbers all of the bobble heads keep saying “people have simply dropped out of the work force” yet fail to mention that they have fucking retired, having been smart enough to put a little money away to enable them to do so. The Villages in Florida are not filled with people who are working 30 hours a week at McDonalds you know.

  58. 58
    Violet says:

    @PsiFighter37: Oh, yeah, the name shows up in the box if I just type the first letter. But the comment is gone, gone, gone because I don’t think to look for the name and email being there because I’m used to the blog remembering them…as it has since forever. So I blithely just press Submit Comment and off it goes into the ether, never to be seen again. Because I can’t just press Back and recover the comment once I realize I didn’t have my name or email in the boxes because the stupid blog won’t remember them…like it always has.

    I’m getting trained to look for them now, but if I’m in a hurry or tired, I’ll forget, and then the comment is gone.

    Stupid blog.

    FYWP.

  59. 59
    Josh G. says:

    The Black Death mattered. Those commoners who were lucky enough to survive enjoyed a higher standard of living for several generations to come because the demand for labor outstripped supply. This period of time is when the old feudalist system started to collapse. Labor service became less tenable when other lords were willing to get into a bidding war for peasants, or when the peasants could run off to the towns and become free laborers.

  60. 60
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason:

    Didn’t have to type it this time though. WTF? Does FYWP only forget it when you’ve typed a long thoughtful comment?

    For me, the autofill works okay, every time, as long as I keep the window open. But the minute I close it and then re-open, I have to enter everything from the get-go. Annoying. I mentioned it mister mix, and hope he can figure out a fix. I seem to recall it happened once before, maybe around the time the site underwent its last upgrade.

  61. 61
    Cassidy says:

    Has an economist been responsible for anyone’s death? Do we need to eradicate them too? Ticking time bombs, I tell you. You just never know. Better to just euthanize all of them.

  62. 62
    Yatsuno says:

    @Cassidy: Schtick. Old. Stop. Now. Please.

  63. 63
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Cassidy:

    Just tiresome. Please go the fuck away.

    @Yatsuno:

    What you said.

  64. 64
    Tehanu says:

    @NickT:

    the odds on the poorest peasant making it through the imperial Chinese examination system were very, very poor indeed

    In medieval Europe the chances for a poor peasant to make it to bishop or even Pope weren’t bad, because the Church was always on the lookout for smarts. Of course, because of the idiotic celibacy rule, that also pulled the brightest boys out of the genetic pool, but there was a lot more social mobility in the Middle Ages than people think there was. Speaking as the graduate-school educated granddaughter of a dirt farmer (mother’s side) and a secondhand-goods peddler (dad’s), I just don’t want to see our society reverting back to that.

  65. 65
    Chris says:

    @ruviana:

    How big was the Roman middle class? Gordon may have been focusing on Europe but this sounded fairly accurate to me. Most early states did have something like a middle or merchant class but they were supported by huge peasant or farming populations whose lives were pretty basic.

    I think the real innovation of the last fifty years is the idea that “the middle class” means the same thing as “the average person.” Many societies have had middle classes of some kind, but it was usually what Orwell in 1984 called “the Outer Party” – e.g. a minority of people who are better educated and better off than the average joe, who don’t have the real power, but are still better off than the vast majority of peasants and workers.

    The remarkable thing about the twentieth century was the creation of middle class societies, where the rich and poor both were in the minority, and a stable secure place in society was something the average person took for granted.

  66. 66
    Yatsuno says:

    @ruviana: What really bothers me is the whole notion that none of this would have happened without England and/or the US. There is of course no way of knowing that, except that there have been several other places, such as 12th Century Baghdad, where cultural and societal advancement have occurred as well. It’s a little too America FUCK YEAH!!! to me, and it seems to ignore that there were some extremely high external costs that went along with that middle class expansion, such as enslaving a continent and destroying France twice.

  67. 67
    NickT says:

    @Yatsuno:

    One of the most interesting untold stories is Germany’s rise to industrial dominance in Europe from c.1900 on. Everyone focuses on the German military machine and fails to ask just how its industrial base came into being – and has continued to go strong, even after successive calamitous military defeats.

  68. 68
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Litlebritdifrnt:

    I do not know if it was the UK or the US that actually came up with the 65 years and you can quit working idea but it sort of caught on.

    Otto von Bismark in Prussia usually gets the credit. The more historically literate Freepers occasionally try to go Godwin on this.

  69. 69
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Cassidy: Stick to whining about me, because comments attacking other commentors will be deleted. Yes, I hate free speech, and America.

  70. 70
    Yatsuno says:

    @NickT: It actually started even earlier than that. Germany took off economically right around the same time England did for similar reasons. Unification of the states under a single Kaiser helped develop a single economic strategy that worked to develop the iron works and the coal fields in the Saarland. From there Germany became quite an economic powerhouse and developed this little concept calle universal health care around then as well.

    @Anne Laurie: It was a development to blunt the arguments of the Communists who were gaining popularity in Germany. 40 hour work weeks, labour unions, and UHC also came about for the same reason. Marx was definitely good for some things.

  71. 71
    NickT says:

    @Yatsuno:

    Historically, you can find Germany catching up with and passing England circa 1900, especially in terms of light industry, dyes, fabrics, machine tools and other key areas. One of the untold stories of WWI is the very hasty development of a modernized industrial base by the British – which they promptly allowed to slowly disintegrate after the war was won.

  72. 72
    Cassidy says:

    @Anne Laurie: Uh oh. Annie is on forum moderator mode! Do me favor, next time you have a thought in that shut in brain of yours, keep it to yourself. If I want to know what you fucking think, I’ll ask a house plant.

  73. 73
    Ruckus says:

    @Jack Canuck:
    This.
    Without education, which many did not get much of, the printing press wouldn’t have a large effect, although having a printing press allowed for the increased dispersion of knowledge. The compass? One needs that for travel. If you are staying in a small area trying to feed yourself/family what use is a compass?
    And that was most people’s lives up until the advent of motorized transportation. Little education, working to feed one’s self.

  74. 74
    Botsplainer says:

    @Cassidy: You are being a dick for no real purpose.

    Stop. Let him sort it out his way.

  75. 75
    Cassidy says:

    @Yatsuno: No thanks, this is the new Balloon Juice. This is the environment Little Annie, Mix, and Cole want. So fuck it. I’m happy to do my part.

    @SiubhanDuinne: No thank you. I’ll stick around.

  76. 76
    ruviana says:

    No doubt a dead thread, but I agree with a lot of the responses to me. I’ll concede a bit of anglo-america-centrism, but given my own biases I was sort of reading it as Western Europe plus the US, all of whom were integrated through trade and colonialism. It’s certainly true that most
    Americans until recently perceived themselves as “middle-class” no matter where they were economically and socially. That’s certainly something that’s begun to change.

  77. 77
    Cassidy says:

    @Botsplainer: I’m just doing my part to help build the environment that our absentee cat lady and his two sycophantic front pagers want. Nothing like a dose of honesty to freshen the air a bit.

  78. 78
    Yatsuno says:

    @NickT:

    One of the untold stories of WWI is the very hasty development of a modernized industrial base by the British – which they promptly allowed to slowly disintegrate after the war was won.

    Kinda funny, since empire is expensive. As we’re learning the hard way now.

  79. 79
    Fats Durston says:

    @Josh G.:

    The Black Death mattered. Those commoners who were lucky enough to survive enjoyed a higher standard of living for several generations to come because the demand for labor outstripped supply.

    In many places, but in some places the surviving peasants ended up less free than they had been, like in Egypt and Eastern Europe. (In Western Europe there were also a few elite wars against peasants–who’d pushed their rights too far from the nobles’ perspectives–a generation after the plague ended.) For most Chinese survivors the post-Black Death period was almost unceasing war for the rest of their lifetimes (the collapse of Mongol overrule and the rise of the armies that would found and consolidate the Ming dynasty).

    Just a question, how many Chinese peasants COULD take advantage of rising through education?

    Depends on the time period. Late in the first millennium, access to the Civil Service was pretty restrictive, but up to the Mongol period (13th century) it kept widening the franchise, so to speak. Around the twelfth century or so, fewer than half of the bureaucrats had ancestors in the Civil Service. The exams were a huge source of social mobility, and a bigger government (% of the population) than anywhere else in the world. (Of course, there were the equivalents of Kaplan to advantage the sons of gentry.)

  80. 80
    ruviana says:

    @Ruckus: True enough to a degree but people did travel to markets and did other work besides growing food. I don’t want to romanticize it but it wasn’t entire complete drudgery either.

  81. 81
    Ruckus says:

    @Yatsuno:
    @SiubhanDuinne:
    I tried for a long time to listen to him, thinking that I might hear something worthwhile. But yesterday I reached my limit. And I’m not going to sugar coat it. It’s not me, it really is him.

  82. 82
    NickT says:

    @Yatsuno:

    One story that isn’t generally told is that the British were simply not very good at exploiting the considerable raw materials resources of their empire for a modern industrial strategy. They made very little attempt to do so in terms of surveying and prospecting for those materials, much less funding exploitation of them when they knew about them. There were some exceptions – rubber from Malaysia, for example, but by and large they never came close to making substantial investments in this area.

  83. 83
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:

    @Violet:

    I know you shouldn’t have to do it, but, as long as the blog is hinky, a quick Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C (select all, copy) before Submit will preserve your valuable prose—and your sanity. A good habit, easy to pick up.

    (Obligatory FYWP.)

  84. 84
    Cassidy says:

    @Ruckus: Like I said, just doing my part to create the environment our FPers have asked for. This is what they want.

  85. 85
    NickT says:

    @Ruckus:

    And guess who’s going to be all whiny and butt-hurt when he finally gets his sad little ass banned again.

  86. 86
    Ruckus says:

    @ruviana:
    And that’s why I left out complete drudgery in my post.
    The comments here have been great but I think some are missing the point. The average person up until the middle of the 20th century worked at feeding, clothing and sheltering themselves. Someone up thread pointed out that after WWII the US started to have a middle class that was bigger than the poor or rich and was starting to be able to do things other than survive. That is different, much different than societies before that. There have almost always been poor, middle and rich classes in societies. But the relatively poor made up the bulk of the populations, no matter the opportunities of a particular society. That started to change after WWII.

  87. 87
    Jon says:

    This is all a bunch of regurgitated Malthusian crap and a bunch of really Eurocentric history. And what’s more, this person sucks at science.

    All of this coincided with a population boom that had nothing to do with the printing press or with the industrial revolution and everything to do with things like electrification and a basic germ theory of disease followed on by refrigeration and vaccination. You could build all the factories you wanted and if you didn’t have people to work in them it would all have been a blip on the historical radar.

  88. 88
    Narcissus says:

    This is only true if you assume the benefits of industrialization happen without human intervention. The only reason the economic transformations of globalism and the neoliberalism of the last generation have benefited the elite is because our economics and societies are organized so that they will.

    What I’m saying is, capitalism, especially the neoliberal variety, is not in any way the natural way of the world. Economics is not natural law. It is a human construct.

  89. 89
    Fats Durston says:

    The opening statements of the article are horrible history.

    For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered. This isn’t to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve.

    When humans invented agriculture (~10,000-3,000 years ago, depending on place), it mattered a shit-load. Otherwise humans don’t live much differently than other animals. When societies adopted agriculture, in many ways the average person’s life got worse (foraging is typically easier work than farming, diseases intensified, people exploited each other more ruthlessly), but if you measure lives like economists do, even average people had way more stuff, post farming.

    When humans figured out how to exploit the energies of animal muscle (directly and indirectly), they had a huge improvement in the ability to capture the sun’s energy (grasses that humans could not eat now powered vehicles and machines). The average person’s lives improved. When humans figured out how to capture wind, water, and fossil fuel energy (all more than 2000 years ago), the same result.

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.

    This–like mentioned above–is Eurocentric, and in many ways wrong. Romans had no sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, oranges, or dozens of other delicious/nutritious/narcotic crops, that even average people–if you’re measuring in England, had some access to in 1750. If you take the average Roman as a slave or a soldier, then the level of personal freedom for Englishmen–if that’s how you want to measure quality of life–while very limited, was still better. The author also foolishly imagines the upper class urban Roman as “average,” whereas in actuality the (urban) majority were often exploited proletarians, and the true average Roman was an agricultural worker in the countryside, whether slave or semi-free. How did those Roman urbans live so high? All the food surplus they extracted from the rural lands.

    The Eurocentrism/ignorance is also hard to bear: Urban people in Song China (~1000 years ago) had massive technological improvements over their ancestors: printing (and literacy and science), agriculture good enough that many enjoyed lives of specialized luxury, seafaring tech (including the compass) that brought delicious goods from Southeast Asia, cities with restaurants. (Of course, there were exploited peasants there, too.) A few hundred years after Rome fell, Arabic- and Persian-speaking worlds also developed a technologically rich and urban culture, where for some (peasants excluded, as nearly always) there was great luxury.

  90. 90
    Ruckus says:

    @NickT:
    I didn’t know he was once banned. I have read some decent comments and will listen to most anyone, till all I read is not worth my time. And as I’ve said before, “My time is not that valuable but it is worth more than this.”

  91. 91
    NickT says:

    @Ruckus:

    I believe he was liberated back into the wild about 3 weeks ago. And promptly went back to behaving like an obsessive crackpot. So it goes.

  92. 92
    Cassidy says:

    @NickT: Actually, last time I thought it was funny. You don’t read context very well do you?

  93. 93
    mclaren says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason:

    Physics and entropy trump economics, every time.

    If “physics and entropy” meant “easily accessible light crude oil,” your thesis would prove convincing.

    Sunlight falling on the surface of the earth, however, generates 1400 watts/meter^2. This energy comes at no cost. We don’t have to do anything for it to impact the surface of the earth. All we have to do is harvest it.

    Solar cells might or might not provide the key. One scientist has remarked that in order to generate the current electric power usage in America using solar cells, we’d need to consume the entire known world supply of indium.

    Fortunately solar cells represent only one way of harvesting solar energy. Solar-electric turbines remain simple, cheap, and require no exotic technology.

    The only remaining problem then becomes storing the electric energy. Superconducting ring batteries 20 miles across (possible with recent room-temperature superconductors) or simply using electric pumps to lift water into reservoirs and then capture the energy by letting the water out incrementing into sluices with hydroelectric generators, offer other solutions. At the far end of known technology we have magnetohydrodynamic generators.

    So I’m much less pessimistic about the future than you.

  94. 94
    NickT says:

    @Cassidy:

    Said the rage-addict who has been squealing for genocide of one sort or another on every thread he can find today.

    Credibility, you don’t have.

  95. 95
    mclaren says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    … comments attacking other commentors will be deleted.

    Isn’t it fascinating that you never applied that policy to General Crackpot Fake Name when he shrieked that various people had “butt rabies” and were “off their meds”? Or to eemom? Or to mnemosyne? Or to burnspbesq?

    Some commenters get free rein to scream as many insults they like–provided the objects of their vituperation deviate from worshipful adoration of the status quo ante in the Democratic party, while others must get banned the instant they suggest that the sainted Obama provides us with less than clairvoyant leadership…

  96. 96
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    @mclaren: But it takes fossil fuels to build those solar panels, dig the reservoirs, and build the pumps. We can’t do it with renewable electricity yet. So, yes we may be able to do all of this, but for f**k’s sake we’d better get started now while we can bootstrap it on the energy and electric grid we have now.

  97. 97
    MomSense says:

    The problem is that we need about 5 of our planets to provide the resources to fuel the kind of growth we want. This progress model is unsustainable. People are just desperately clinging to a way of life that cannot continue. Climate change is going to cause incredible chaos and destruction. 98% of our politicians are not preparing us for this. Our government isn’t functional so we can’t do any actual things to get ready for what is coming. The financial markets which are supposed to be the mechanism for getting capital to the industries and technologies we need to develop to deal with climate change are not addressing the future. Someone above said they are so focused on short term profits in the next quarter or two that there is pathetically little investment or innovation happening in the sectors we need. NYC is not going to do well with sea level rise. One would think that this would be more of a concern to Wall Street!!!

    And then we have a group of confederate/Birchers who are so overwhelmed by modernity and their shrinking relevance that they are regressing into a radicalized Christianity where they think teenage sex causes tornadoes and sea levels won’t rise because God already brought his great flood and promised he wouldn’t do that again.

    Just enough of us are getting stupider and have just enough residual power to fvck things up for the rest of us.

    I’m actually praying that the invisible hand of the market will save us-in this case the insurance companies-will get tough and just say no we won’t insure any of you idiots in FL anymore and force people to deal with this.

  98. 98
    NobodySpecial says:

    @mclaren: Who got banned for anti-Obama statements? Link, please.

  99. 99
    Fats Durston says:

    @NickT:

    One story that isn’t generally told is that the British were simply not very good at exploiting the considerable raw materials resources of their empire for a modern industrial strategy. They made very little attempt to do so in terms of surveying and prospecting for those materials, much less funding exploitation of them when they knew about them. There were some exceptions – rubber from Malaysia, for example, but by and large they never came close to making substantial investments in this area.

    This is crazy talk. Do you not include humans in exploiting raw materials (slaves and former slaves, “coolies,” sepoys–Indian soldiers who won the Opium War, shored up the Western front in WWI, captured colonies elsewhere–their own working classes, free laborers in the commonwealth)? The landscape throughout the empire that grew the cotton to feed the factories of the industrial revolution (former colony American South, Egypt, Uganda, India)? The taxes from farmland across India that supported the East India Company from 1757 on? Diamonds in South Africa, copper in Zambia, tin in Malaya. Imperial capital throughout mainland South America. Markets to sell their manufactures worldwide. Who do you think set up the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. and Iraqi Petroleum Co. and imported prospectors around the Persian Gulf (hello Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Oman, and Kuwait)? What empire produced cartographic surveys of Ireland, Scotland, Canada, India, Guyana, Australia?

  100. 100
    Anne Laurie says:

    @mclaren:

    Some commenters get free rein to scream as many insults they like–provided the objects of their vituperation deviate from worshipful adoration of the status quo ante in the Democratic party, while others must get banned the instant they suggest that the sainted Obama provides us with less than clairvoyant leadership…

    It’s a new policy, and it’s just in my threads. I got fed up with the same handful of people derailing every discussion. Hint to the wise.

    One of the commentors you complain about is dead, FFS, and at least one of the others agrees with you that I’m the Worst Blog-Moderator in the world, so you’ve got that going for you.

  101. 101
    craigie says:

    I haven’t read every comment, but if you want to understand why the invention of the printing press, or gun powder, or the paper napkin for that matter, don’t really figure into the concept of progress or prosperity, here is a very well researched, very numerical explanation:
    Why the West Rules – for Now

    And Why Nations Fail is pretty good on why it’s better to be lucky than smart.

  102. 102

    The reports of the US decline are exaggerated, China and India are in no position to replace the US right now or in the next few decades at the very least. Our biggest problems are internal not external.

  103. 103
    NickT says:

    @Fats Durston:

    Despite your rant, a coherent, fact-based case has been made by a number of historians that the British empire under-exploited its considerable reserves of raw material. I’ll also point out that the standard of British manufactures was not, generally, high, and did not improve much, partly because they had captive imperial markets to dump inferior product into. This was one reason for the 20th century collapse of British industry under external (especially American) challenges, although the British preference for small, under-capitalized rule-of-thumb family firms also had something to do with it. Compare, for one example, the vast range of small automobile firms in the UK, compared to the mass-production of an American company like Ford. Nor are cartographic surveys of “Ireland, Scotland, Canada, India, Guyana, Australia” particularly impressive in comparison to the vast expanse of the british empire.

    Note also that “under-exploited” is not the same thing as “completely failed to exploit”.

  104. 104
    tofubo says:

    look @ any chart from 1960 or earlier to 2000 or later, there’s a marked shift @ the 1981 mark, mostly for the worse

    saint ronnie and the trickle downers had nothing to do w/the change

    at all, whatsoever, in the least, also, too

  105. 105

    @tofubo: The current trajectory is the fruit of Reagan and Thatcher’s policies, inspired by Milton Friedman’s economic thinking. It is not some natural law like gravity as this Gordon person seems to imply.

  106. 106
    mclaren says:

    @Josh G.:

    The Black Death also led to the Medieval Industrial Revolution, a transformation of life which Gordon seems either unaware of, or whose profound effect he discounts.

    The Black Death made everyone richer but it also dramatically increased social mobility, because with so many people dead of the plague, vitally needed skills had to be obtained from anyone still surviving — which meant elevating people from lower castes into higher ones as a matter of basic survival. Thus peasants suddenly became blacksmiths and weavers and merchants’ kids suddenly became squires because there just weren’t enough warm bodies around to fill those positions.

    But wait: it gets better. The medieval industrial revolution kickstarted a huge explosion in investment, because with that sudden increase wealth, lots of people had more money than they knew what to do with. So you get new technologies like the waterwheel blast furnace (the water wheel pumps a bellows that fuels a fire hot enough to forge mild steel — not possible earlier). The first investment banks start to appear around this period to dilute the risk of dicey investments like financing caravans on the Silk Road.

    The first modern universities appear around this period because you need people trained in modern accounting methods with all these new investment vehicles. So the whole thing spirals.

    The cathedrals of the late 12th and 13th centuries remain one of the glories of human civilizations. In order to build these amazing feats of engineering (which used startling breakthrough architectural techniques like flying buttresses to hold up stone walls perforated with astounding amounts of stained glass), more stone was quarried in France in the 12th century than had been quarried in the entire history of the ancient Egyptian empire, to take just one amazing statistic.

    Arguably the Medieval Industrial Revolution was as great a leap forward in human history as the first and second industrial revolutions. As just one minor side effect, the Medieval Industrial Revolution gave rise to the Renaissance.

    More on the Medieval Industrial Revolution here.

  107. 107
    mclaren says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason:

    But it takes fossil fuels to build those solar panels, dig the reservoirs, and build the pumps. We can’t do it with renewable electricity yet. So, yes we may be able to do all of this, but for f**k’s sake we’d better get started now while we can bootstrap it on the energy and electric grid we have now.

    Agreed 100%. Now you understand why I lambaste our brain-dead Democratic party. We need to get these major projects underway quick-smart, yesterday, but nobody in the Democratic party seems to want to talk about ’em. They’re too busy fellating giant predatory corporations like Monsanto and Exxon and Disney.

  108. 108
    fuckwit says:

    Peak motherfucking oil.

    That’s what this is. You know that coal, which drove the first Industrial Revolution, is a fossil fuel, and oil, which has driven the second one, is a fossil fuel too?

    I’ve greatly enjoyed James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency”, and Dmitri Orlov’s writing too.

    We have built this massive overpopulation of the earth with fossil fuels and fossil fertilizers, making food available in enough plenty that we can explode the population. Population growth has been damn near vertical since the 1700s.

    We have built out this huge improvement in standard of living with fossil fuels.

    All this technology. All these advances in science and engineering. It’s all based on cheap fossil fuels. That’s over now. And we’ve also ratfucked the climate in the process of burning all this shit too.

    The big question is can we transition to renewable energy before all hell breaks loose? I’m not sure the answer. Not 100% sold on Doom, but not 100% techno-utopian either.

  109. 109
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @Anne Laurie: I just figure each FP poster has an individual tolerance policy. I’m not gonna bitch about anyone’s as I’m a guest.

    I’d be much less patient than most, I’m sure. Folks with a strong prey drive* might get on my last nerve now and again.

    *Best description of the summer.

  110. 110
    srv says:

    This is how Reagan really destroyed Amrica’s future. He got rid of our last real enemy. You do great things when you have real enemies.

    Now we just take our belts off and let some government guy look at our privates.

  111. 111
    RevRick says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason @mclaren
    Time may be exceedingly short. The Wikipedia Megaprojects (oil production) site points to a huge drop off in bringing new oil fields on line after 2015… and with an ~ 6% annual decline in worldwide production of existing fields and increasing consumption by oil-producing nations, countries such as ours, which still depend heavily on oil imports will be caught in an awful vise. And North Dakota’s increased production won’t save us either, oil industry hype notwithstanding.
    Life may indeed get quite interesting sooner then we think. Picture the freak out that’ll occur when Real Americans pull up to their gas pumps and find hand-lettered “No Gas” today signs taped up. Good bye air travel and Disney and Walmart… and Wall Street… and your 401-K too!

  112. 112
    NickT says:

    @RevRick:

    Goodbye to a good chunk of agricultural production too.

  113. 113
    Cassidy says:

    @NickT: Wow. You really are dense.

  114. 114
    RevRick says:

    @NickT I suspect that the government will step in to insure that the ag sector gets first dibs (ok, 2nd after DoD) on diesel fuel, but in the long run agriculture will have to become way more labor intensive.
    @Cassidy How so?

  115. 115
    liberal says:

    @Fats Durston:

    When humans invented agriculture (~10,000-3,000 years ago, depending on place), it mattered a shit-load.

    Agreed. The biggest change was agriculture.

  116. 116
    cmorenc says:

    @NickT:

    I’d also be intrigued to know whether the printing press and the compass, to name only 2 items, didn’t qualify as fairly substantial technological improvements.

    Inventions like this did advance the capabilities of the more elite and educated segments of society, but the original point was that the lives of the overwhelming majority of folks in society improved only very marginally, if at all over the period from the latter years of the Roman Empire through about 1750. Few among them benefited from these advances.

  117. 117

    @srv: Reagan didn’t get rid of shit, except the idea that everyone in this country deserves the same shot at a decent standard of living. While I understand your larger point, I get so incredibly tired of this ancient propaganda wheeze. Reagan presented Americans with a host of enemies to hate on, most of which consisted of other Americans (but suspiciously dark ones, to be sure.) Reagan had as much to do with the fall of the Soviet Union as I did. There are few more asinine myths in American history than the idea that this senile bigot wheezing “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was in some way a contributing factor to the militaristic/industrial implosion of the Soviet economy.

  118. 118

    @cmorenc: I’d also like to point out that the idea that now, or at any point during American (or any other) history, the “majority” of people lead, or ever led, lives of quiet prosperity and academic enlightenment is absolute bullshit. One of the most persistent delusions of western history is the insistence of academics and the privileged classes that they represent the experience of the “common man”. “Few among them” describes the affluence and education of damned near every human civilization that has organized above the tribal level. Most Americans couldn’t pass a six-grade level test on any general academic field, including science and math. Even the “generalized” prosperity of the eras in question was never more than an experience of the few. How great were the 50’s for black folks in this country? Native Americans? Ambitious women? Western privilege has always been the reserved prerogative of a narrow slice of the population.
    Still is.

  119. 119
    FairEconomist says:

    In most countries quality of life was roughly stable from the dawn of history to the Industrial Revolution, but not England. England had a high quality of life, compared to the rest of the world, back to the 1300’s, and was notably the first country to escape famine. Real famine – where adult working or even middle-class people would starve to death – used to be universal, but England had its last real famine in 1688-9. Exactly what was happening is unclear, but something was going on in England well before the Industrial Revolution. The Netherlands and Japan also had long periods of good living standards.

    Elsewhere there was indeed technological progress but it was canceled out by increased population. It’s very inaccurate to say nothing changed, because there were huge changes, but ordinary people still barely got by.

  120. 120
    Xenos says:

    @Jack Canuck:

    I think you could certainly list the printing press and the compass as substantial technological improvements (though the compass originally came from China, I believe). But how much impact did either of those have on ” the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual” in the mid-18th century? Unless you were in a very narrow slice of society, neither of those did a damn thing for your life, I reckon.

    The compass led to the potato, and until the potato came to Europe the peasants and underclass had annual periods of starvation and near-starvation. Huge improvement in quality of life for the poor.

  121. 121
    Fats Durston says:

    Something is wrong on the internet! to follow.

    Despite your rant, a coherent, fact-based case has been made by a number of historians that the British empire under-exploited its considerable reserves of raw material.

    Which historians, since there are so many? (British Empire historiography is huge.) All empires left raw materials in their colonies, because they were all shoestring operations in some senses, because they never had perfect information, because they didn’t have the capacity to do so. But the British Empire was one of the most effective ever at this exploitation stuff. How do we know? Because they were the biggest ever!

    I’ll also point out that the standard of British manufactures was not, generally, high,…

    Editing out a buncha stuff irrelevant to dispute. But this, this is a mountain of ignorance:

    Nor are cartographic surveys of “Ireland, Scotland, Canada, India, Guyana, Australia” particularly impressive in comparison to the vast expanse of the british empire.

    Canada, Australia, and India (which includes present-day Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and part of Afghanistan) were the three biggest colonies by land area in the British Empire, making up 60-70% of the empire’s territory. Pfft. Hardly impressive, eh Nick? Look at the remainder of the colonies (thanks Hitler!) and tell us which is the vast expanse. Admittedly, none of the surveys of these territories covered the entire territory, but the trigonometric survey of India was the biggest scientific–and modern–mapping project in the nineteenth century. What was all this mapping for? Modern government of the empire! What, pray tell, is modern imperial government? Efficient extraction of resources, Nick!

    To fisk the original:

    the British were simply not very good at exploiting the considerable raw materials resources of their empire for a modern industrial strategy.

    What was the raw material central to the first industrial revolution? Cotton! Where did it come from? The empire (and former colonies)! What country was the world leader in the first industrial revolution? Britain! I’d say that’s pretty good exploitation, Nick.

    What were some of the raw materials that fed the second industrial revolution? Rubber, Tin, Copper! Where did these come from? The empire! What country was probably in third place during the second industrial revolution? Britain! Still pretty good at exploiting raw materials, no?

    They made very little attempt to do so in terms of surveying and prospecting for those materials, much less funding exploitation of them when they knew about them.

    Did the British Empire prospect and survey for gold and diamonds and copper in southern Africa? Yes they did! In fact, the invention of the Rhodesias was a side-effect of this search for raw materials! Did mines get built with British capital across the world, including Australia, and Malaya, and independent South America? Why, yes they did! Was Britain among the world leaders in prospecting for oil, financing the building of wells, and profiting from petroleum, in their Middle Eastern protectorates, mandates, and quasi-colonies [hello, Fars]? Why, yes they were!

    There were some exceptions – rubber from Malaysia, for example,

    I think you mean “with notably rare exceptions,” Nick!

    And this doesn’t even include all the human “raw materials” that some people might not think of when they’re thinking of “modern industrial strategy,” but of course a global workforce is absolutely essential to the modern industrial project. And guess what, Nick? For all their flaws in execution (especially from the point of view of the coolie, eh?), the British did an effective job of exploiting that raw material, too, founding modern industrial economies that were global in scale.

  122. 122
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    Sorry, no, but this theory starts in the wrong place.

    Here’s a rough outline of how it’s worked since the late Neolithic: Start with agriculture and the population that agriculture affords. Advances in ag tech frees labor from the fields. This freed labor then goes to different sectors (breaking this down broadly): to gathering resources, to workshops, to social leadership or to the academy. The problem here is that while the people at the academy are devising more advanced ag tech that both creates a larger population and frees up even more of that labor for the other specializations, it is also discovering tech that makes that labor obsolescent. A labor glut is created. There’s too much competition in the labor sector. Social leadership should correct this, but our social leadership benefits from the glut.

    England, Scotland and Wales, in that 18th-19th Century industrial revolution ran out of English, Scots and Welsh labor and had to go off-island to recruit more. This was good for the laborers in the mines and factories. The US was forced to go off-continent to recruit later. Again, this was good for labor. But the technology in gathering resources, in manufacturing, in cartage and in communications advanced to the point where another labor glut was created. Bad for labor. Good for social leadership.

    There are two ways to correct the imbalance: Control the rate of technological advance or control the size of the population. I don’t see why we need to control the advance of technology when humans, for hundreds of thousands of years before the agricultural revolution of the late Neolithic, were capable of controlling their populations. The proof of this sort of control is in the Stone Age tribes “discovered” by modern civilization over the last 150 years or so. If we quit growing food surpluses- surpluses that do nothing but contribute to the global labor glut- the population will stop growing. If we grow just a bit less food, birth rates will fall below death rates. Eventually, when there’s a need for more labor, so we grow food to bump the birth rates. We adjust as we go.

  123. 123
    cvstoner says:

    “What if everything we’ve come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?“

    The freak coincidence was the concept of a strong middle class. It remains to be seen if that has run its course.

  124. 124
    NickT says:

    @Fats Durston:

    You are just repeating your previous, fact-free and ahistorical assertions. You don’t grasp the crucial distinction between under-exploitation and non-exploitation of resources. You can continue to repeat your assertions as often as you like. They are not supported by the historians who actually study this material. Read books, you should.

  125. 125
    Fats Durston says:

    @NickT:

    You are just repeating your previous, fact-free and ahistorical assertions. You don’t grasp the crucial distinction between under-exploitation and non-exploitation of resources.

    Complaints from someone who doesn’t understand what the word “ahistorical” means? Why, pray tell is it so crucial to distinguish “under-exploitation” from exploitation? The term sounds like something economists or maybe political scientists use, not historians, scholars who are concerned with efficiency rather than the lives of historical persons. Yes, empires (and states) never exploited every resource possible in their zone of sovereignty, but so what?

    You didn’t answer my question about this alleged historiography that argues Britain “under-exploited” its empire. One book or article will do.

    I am a historian who studies this material. I wrote a master’s thesis on map-making in the Cape Colony. I have a PhD that covers a small corner of the modern British and German empires (Tanganyika under the transition to British rule). If you like, I can go to my box of dissertation documents (collected in Tanzania and the Bodleian Library) and dig out photocopies of surveys by British officials of the resources they were tracking as they took over the colony from the Germans. I have taught a British Empire course. I have taught Modern Imperialism. I teach now Third World history. This summer I was awarded a grant to attend an NEH Institute on Early Modern Empires. The professor in the office next to mine is an out-and-out British historian (the Empire in Persia), and he has shared with me some of his primary documents written by the British officials who were prospecting in Persia. (British National Archives, Foreign Office 248/934 is one of them.)

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