Our Kind of Empire

One nice thing about having a site that gets a lot of traffic is that publishers send us copies of books to review. Sometimes authors send us copies too; several times we’ve gotten as many as three copies of the same book. Which only multiplies my guilt when I can’t find time to read it. Because the bad thing about getting lots of review copies is that you can’t possibly read them all.
Still, I’m working on my stack. I finished John Steele Gordon’s economic history of the Untited States, An Empire of Wealth, and I’m happy to say it’s good. An Empire of Wealth is directed to the general reader, not the specialist, and Gordon is obviously aware that many otherwise well-informed citizens have only the dimmest knowledge of economic history.
Gordon is good on the early years; his discussion of the “incomplete” colonial economy, the endless headaches regarding coinage, and early government finance are all interesting. He is appropriately hard on Andrew Jackson.
In my opinion, Gordon is best on the middle years–the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Topics like the development of Wall Street and the rise of the accounting profession; the ascendancy of the newspaper and the department store; the origin of the concept of the “sale;” and the development of electricity, hot water and other modern conveniences, are treated with the sense of excitement that they deserve. The central role of the automobile in the early 20th century economy is brilliantly elucidated.
For me, the modern era was a little less satisfying. Gordon’s view of the New Deal is more positive, I think, than that of most contemporary economists. Once he gets to the postwar era, especially the 70s and beyond, the pace becomes breathless, and for me, anyway, there was a sense of touching bases–the oil embargo, the revival of the American economy during the Reagan administration, the downfall of socialism, September 11–in a rush to the finish line.
On the whole, though, it’s an excellent book. If, like many people, you have a pretty good knowledge of American history, but your education sadly under-emphasized the economic component, you’ll find An Empire of Wealth a delightful introduction to the subject. At all times, Gordon gives proper credit to America’s free enterprise economy and the creative energies of its people. The story he tells is an inspiring one.
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