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Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:34 pm
by AerialWombat
As I type this, I'm sitting in a Holiday Inn Express on the day before the start of one of the multi-day tax law seminars that feeds my own entrepreneurial mini-engine, watching a fascinating History channel documentary on how the US railroad system, and the Vanderbilt empire in particular, contributed to the industrial revolution of America in the post-Civil War era.

This got me thinking... What DID contribute to making America the wealthiest country on the planet? What are the exact geographical, natural resource, economic process, etc. advantages that made this particular country a global economic powerhouse?

I've read a few treatises on what made the European continent so dominant in it's time, and the subject is fascinating to me. I guess I've always just "assumed" that the rise of American economic dominance was a direct result of European settlement, but now I'm wondering if there were other distinct moves that were made in the 1800's that set the stage for America's current position.

I know politics play a role here, but I'd prefer to avoid political-centric discourse, and focus on the machinations of investors, entrepreneurs, and crooks. I'd love to delve into some good books or documentaries on this topic, especially as they relate to the 1866-1915 timeframe. Thanks!

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:55 pm
by HawkeyePierce
“The Prize” by Daniel Yergin on the history of oil which naturally has an American bent.

“The Battle of Bretton Woods” on the construction of the post-war international financial order.

This story is also told through biographies of that era. “Titan” on the life of John D. Rockefeller and the Edmund Morris trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:59 pm
by kdsunday
I would recommend Americana by Bhu Srinivasan and Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon as introductory surveys. I would then develop a few specifics questions you would like answered and do whatever it takes to find the answers, including emailing college professors and going down rabbit holes on Google. For example, you might want to know how water rights theory developed in the west, or how different Christian denominations informed what became the early state constitutions (for example, what got you the death penalty in Virginia was a different list than what got you it in Massachusetts). The development of property rights, the processes that led to various western territories becoming states, the importance of slavery undergirding the South's economy (and its cotton trade with England), the periodic mass migrations and resettlements of people groups, what role water played in shaping borders and constitutional interplays of state and federal government, the history of rural electrification and the buildout of the grid - all of these have a role to play. What you are interested in will set your path.

At a more specific level, some of the best historical books I have read recently were Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic (about America in 1881), David Blight's biography of Frederick Douglass, and Jill Jonnes' book Empires of Light (concerning the development of electrification and the battles between Westinghouse, Edison and Tesla).

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 2:44 pm
by AHTFY
I second the recommendation of John Steele Gordon's Empire of Wealth.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 8:39 pm
by oldcomputerguy
This topic is now in the Personal Consumer Issues forum. -- moderator oldcomputerguy

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:29 pm
by TN_Boy
AerialWombat wrote:
Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:34 pm
As I type this, I'm sitting in a Holiday Inn Express on the day before the start of one of the multi-day tax law seminars that feeds my own entrepreneurial mini-engine, watching a fascinating History channel documentary on how the US railroad system, and the Vanderbilt empire in particular, contributed to the industrial revolution of America in the post-Civil War era.

This got me thinking... What DID contribute to making America the wealthiest country on the planet? What are the exact geographical, natural resource, economic process, etc. advantages that made this particular country a global economic powerhouse?

I've read a few treatises on what made the European continent so dominant in it's time, and the subject is fascinating to me. I guess I've always just "assumed" that the rise of American economic dominance was a direct result of European settlement, but now I'm wondering if there were other distinct moves that were made in the 1800's that set the stage for America's current position.

I know politics play a role here, but I'd prefer to avoid political-centric discourse, and focus on the machinations of investors, entrepreneurs, and crooks. I'd love to delve into some good books or documentaries on this topic, especially as they relate to the 1866-1915 timeframe. Thanks!
Interested in this thread, looking forward to more good book recommendations.

I will say that I believe politics were quite important -- government and legal structures that allowed capitalism to flourish (in a sometimes ruthless manner ....) certainly made a difference in America, allowing those investors and entrepreneurs to succeed.

Being isolated from European wars and having lots of natural resources helped a lot. I think of America's biggest move economically as being 1900s on. Europe was devastated by two World Wars. We were not.

William Bernstein's The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created might be of interest, though it is not about America.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:46 pm
by LadyGeek
As a reminder, please do not use a book review as a pretense to discuss political or economic policy (off-topic).

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:54 pm
by AlohaJoe
TN_Boy wrote:
Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:29 pm
I think of America's biggest move economically as being 1900s on.
This isn't really true, though.

By 1900 the US had, by far, the biggest GDP in the world. It wasn't even close. The game was already won at that point. By 1900 per capita income in the US was 2x that of Germany or France and 1.5x that of the UK. (We have actually lost ground since then, since we clearly aren't 2x as rich as Germans any more.)

Image

If we look at GDP in the century before 1900 that was clearly when America's biggest move happened.

Image

In 1820, the US was a tiny slice. By 1870, it was a huge slice, already bigger than every economy but China & India. And it makes sense that that is when America's "great leap forward" happened. The backwards plantation system of the South was dismantled and Northern industrialists took over the economy. Coal was discovered in Appalachia. Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. Iron was discovered in Lake Superior. Railroad mileage tripled. The transcontinental railroad was completed. American steel production surpassed Britain, Germany, and France combined. The "land grant" colleges were established, dramatically increasing the quantity & quality of education.

In Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth, in among its tedious amounts of detail, he makes the graphic point that if you go back in time to 1870, "daily life" was unrecognizable to a modern person. No radio, electricity, indoor plumbing, etc. But go back in time to, say, 1920? And a modern person would be able to fit right in (once they got over their cell phone addiction, I suppose) because the story of great growth in America was largely done by that point.

(Unfortunately Gordon's book isn't really what the OP is looking for, so I can't recommend it for that.)

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Mon Aug 12, 2019 10:23 pm
by TN_Boy
AlohaJoe wrote:
Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:54 pm
TN_Boy wrote:
Mon Aug 12, 2019 9:29 pm
I think of America's biggest move economically as being 1900s on.
This isn't really true, though.

By 1900 the US had, by far, the biggest GDP in the world. It wasn't even close. The game was already won at that point. By 1900 per capita income in the US was 2x that of Germany or France and 1.5x that of the UK. (We have actually lost ground since then, since we clearly aren't 2x as rich as Germans any more.)

Image

If we look at GDP in the century before 1900 that was clearly when America's biggest move happened.

Image

In 1820, the US was a tiny slice. By 1870, it was a huge slice, already bigger than every economy but China & India. And it makes sense that that is when America's "great leap forward" happened. The backwards plantation system of the South was dismantled and Northern industrialists took over the economy. Coal was discovered in Appalachia. Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. Iron was discovered in Lake Superior. Railroad mileage tripled. The transcontinental railroad was completed. American steel production surpassed Britain, Germany, and France combined. The "land grant" colleges were established, dramatically increasing the quantity & quality of education.

In Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth, in among its tedious amounts of detail, he makes the graphic point that if you go back in time to 1870, "daily life" was unrecognizable to a modern person. No radio, electricity, indoor plumbing, etc. But go back in time to, say, 1920? And a modern person would be able to fit right in (once they got over their cell phone addiction, I suppose) because the story of great growth in America was largely done by that point.

(Unfortunately Gordon's book isn't really what the OP is looking for, so I can't recommend it for that.)
Interesting and thanks for the correction.

Though it doesn't seem like our influence in the world matched that economic power until the 1900s -- or would you say it did?

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Tue Aug 13, 2019 4:42 am
by oldcomputerguy
I removed an off-topic political commentary. Please keep responses confined to the OP's question, suggestions for books or treatises on the growth of economic (not political) dominance of the United States. -- mod oldcomputerguy

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Tue Aug 13, 2019 9:01 am
by AerialWombat
Thanks for all the suggestions! I look forward to delving into these.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Tue Aug 13, 2019 6:52 pm
by muddlehead
Aware you mentioned 1866-1915 timeframe in the first post. My thoughts have always been the industrial world as we all know it was more or less tied until WW1. We of course leapt way ahead as our land and factories etc... were, of course, unharmed by the conflict. They, Europe etc … , were starting to catch up and, wham, WW2 happened. We've had an insurmountable lead / advantage ever since.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Wed Aug 14, 2019 9:22 am
by Valuethinker
muddlehead wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 6:52 pm
Aware you mentioned 1866-1915 timeframe in the first post. My thoughts have always been the industrial world as we all know it was more or less tied until WW1. We of course leapt way ahead as our land and factories etc... were, of course, unharmed by the conflict. They, Europe etc … , were starting to catch up and, wham, WW2 happened. We've had an insurmountable lead / advantage ever since.
"catch up" is a relative term.

Europe is not one country. Great Britain industrialised first in a process which began in 1750 ish.

Belgium, France & Germany followed in the 2nd half of the 19th century (not coincidentally, they all had a lot of coal). So did the USA - which was actually the originator of some of the key innovations.

Eastern and Southern Europe were later, and in some ways incomplete. Italy you almost have to saw it in half - above Rome it's a typical advanced European country, a sort of Italian speaking France, below Rome it's just very underdeveloped.

If you take the richest belt in Europe which runs from London and the South East (at least pre Brexit ;-)) to Ile de France (Paris) then to Baden-Wurtemburg (Stuttgart) & Bavaria (Munich) (so roughly speaking BMW (Mini) in Oxford to Peugeot-Citroen to Daimler to BMW ;-) to Fiat) and down to Milan then that is probably as rich as any part of America (other than Silicon Valley). That's probably always been the case to a greater or lesser extent*.

The American "pull ahead" was partly the consequence of not having to reconstruct from WW1.

But the damage to Europe in WW2 was actually greater, and left the Continent divided by the Iron Curtain.

Yet industrial growth in the period 1948-72 in Germany, France, Italy (and later Spain to some extent) as well as Benelux actually exceeded American industrial growth - the gap narrowed dramatically - the German "work miracle" (Wirstshaftwunder?) the French "glorious 30 years" (Les trentes glorieuses) the Italian "Il Surpasso" (becoming a bigger economy than the UK). The most industrialised country, and one of the least damaged, Britain, actually lagged. It was if the devastation of allied bombing, mass death of men in combat and the mass migration of people in the ending years of WW2 actually allowed a clean start.

Since 1973 and the first oil crisis it has been all over the place. Relative to France and Germany, the UK & USA "de industrialised" much more (what happened is that manufacturing output grew, but people employed in manufacturing stayed static or fell, particularly in the USA). Italy is still surprisingly industrialised.

I think we could say that:

- the structural break in European economic development is very regionalised

- it's more clear for the impact of 1914-18 on 1919-1939 than for the impact of 1939-45 on 1945+

- 1973 is another structural break

- 1990 is another structural break. Leading initially to deindustrialisation in the East as communist industries collapsed, then its revival as western manufacturers brought modern production techniques and machinery.

* one could plausibly argue its something like 80% of USA. It gets into complicated issues like how do you value the French taking 35 days of annual leave and only working 35 hours a week? French people work roughly 1/3rd fewer hours pa than Americans. And healthcare systems - a more expensive system does not mean better outcomes, statistically. etc.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Wed Aug 14, 2019 6:01 pm
by gretah
Read these books:

The Creature from Jekyll Island

The Colder War

People's history of the United States

Eye-opening, to say the least.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 6:58 am
by Calhoon
These books aren't about America specifically, but you might find interesting:
Gun, Germs, Steel
Ascent of Money.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:16 am
by Valuethinker
muddlehead wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 6:52 pm
Aware you mentioned 1866-1915 timeframe in the first post. My thoughts have always been the industrial world as we all know it was more or less tied until WW1. We of course leapt way ahead as our land and factories etc... were, of course, unharmed by the conflict. They, Europe etc … , were starting to catch up and, wham, WW2 happened. We've had an insurmountable lead / advantage ever since.
The other thought which should have occurred to me is Lenin's point.

The capitalist economies of western Europe had a rich hinterland in their territorial empires in Africa, Asia, Latin America. That provided raw materials and labour on the cheap.

So in that sense they were not so disfavoured against USA. Post WW1 Germany lost its colonies, Spain lost most of the rest of them in 1898, France Britain and Italy kept theirs on until the 1940s/ early 1950s.

The sheer size of the USA, the raw materials of iron ore, coal, forests, the presence of navigable rivers to most of it (and later the provision of railroads), the biological richness (easy farming on the Prairie for European introduced wheat crops) -- all of those suggested that if the USA did not muck it up, it would be rich.

But you could say similar things about Brasil and Argentina and Australia. Australia has succeeded (on a much smaller scale).

Brasil part of the problem was the presence of slavery - generally co-incident with underdevelopment. Also tropical conditions - before modern air conditioning the mid day temperature was a significant barrier to development (as is the prevalence of malaria and other tropical diseases). Up until about 1950 you can nicely index the per capita GDP of American states relative to the national average against their average mid day temperature (? is that correlation true of California? I don't remember the paper, exactly).

Argentina? Uruguay? Chile? vs Canada/ Australia/ New Zealand (closet comparisons) or USA? You come down to sociological explanations around the greater success of the Anglosphere at creating non-corrupt smoothly operating modern states. I am not sure those are the answer, or at least the only answer - fits too nicely into various stereotypes & caricatures - but it may be a (big) part of the answer.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:43 am
by Valuethinker
https://www.amazon.com/History-American ... ay&sr=8-25

The relevant chapters in there look good.

http://timothytaylor.net/teaching.htm

everything I have seen from The Teaching Company has been good. Don't see a 19th century course, but there is a 20th century one.

https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Consequenc ... oks&sr=1-1

is a good perspective on economic growth looked at through the lens of American economic history (with comparisons to European nations).

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:16 am
by Valuethinker
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/03331 ... bl_vppi_i9

Causal Factors in American economic growth in the 19th century by Peter Temin.

got it. I remember this from Undergrad.

It's old but it is short and interesting.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:19 am
by JoMoney
Valuethinker wrote:
Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:16 am
muddlehead wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 6:52 pm
Aware you mentioned 1866-1915 timeframe in the first post. My thoughts have always been the industrial world as we all know it was more or less tied until WW1. We of course leapt way ahead as our land and factories etc... were, of course, unharmed by the conflict. They, Europe etc … , were starting to catch up and, wham, WW2 happened. We've had an insurmountable lead / advantage ever since.
The other thought which should have occurred to me is Lenin's point.

The capitalist economies of western Europe had a rich hinterland in their territorial empires in Africa, Asia, Latin America. That provided raw materials and labour on the cheap.

So in that sense they were not so disfavoured against USA. Post WW1 Germany lost its colonies, Spain lost most of the rest of them in 1898, France Britain and Italy kept theirs on until the 1940s/ early 1950s. ...
Not just the "natural resources", a lot of places lost human resources during war(s). "The Brain Drain" is a big deal. It's sometimes said that the allies won WW2 because "our German scientists were better than their German scientists". The American story of being the place to come has been a great self-perpetuating story to draw talent and labor that wants to build something better.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:37 am
by Dottie57
No book suggestions. But geography/ isolation from ther countries certainly helped the U.S..

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:45 am
by alex_686
muddlehead wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 6:52 pm
Aware you mentioned 1866-1915 timeframe in the first post. My thoughts have always been the industrial world as we all know it was more or less tied until WW1. We of course leapt way ahead as our land and factories etc... were, of course, unharmed by the conflict. They, Europe etc … , were starting to catch up and, wham, WW2 happened. We've had an insurmountable lead / advantage ever since.
To comment on this and other posts, you have to realize tgat prior to this point the frontier was still open. Land was cheap and labor expensive. It did not make much sense to spend capital industrializing and factories when money was better spent on farming and infrastructure (canals, locks, railroads, etc.)

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:48 am
by desiderium
The current 1619 project series in the NYT includes a fascinating look at the underpinnings of american economic power. Today's article by Matthew Desmond in particular might address your interest, exploring the origins of the particularly american qualities of capitalism

In order to understand the brutality of american capitalism, you have to start on the plantation
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/201 ... alism.html

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Fri Aug 16, 2019 10:06 pm
by AlohaJoe
AerialWombat wrote:
Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:34 pm
This got me thinking... What DID contribute to making America the wealthiest country on the planet?
Another book on this topic you might consider is Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism which won a ton of awards in 2014 when it came out.

https://www.amazon.com/Half-Has-Never-B ... 0465049664

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Sat Aug 17, 2019 12:56 pm
by Jeff Albertson
somewhat related, on BBC Radio 4, 'World War 2: The Economic Battle' (available next week)
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007q ... odes/guide

Five episodes:
France - War and the French Economy from 1920 – 1940.
The Soviet Union - War and the Soviet economy from 1920 – 1940
China and Japan - China and Japan's war economies from 1920-1940.
Germany - War and the German Economy from 1920 – 1940.
Britain - Britain and its 'Fourth Arm of Defence' from 1920 - 1940.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Sat Aug 17, 2019 1:05 pm
by Godot
Jackson Lears' Something for Nothing. It's an alternative history of America, focusing on the role of risk-taking, gambling, and luck, and how they have helped (and continue to help) shape the American ethos in general and the American economy in particular.

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Sat Aug 17, 2019 1:16 pm
by SuzBanyan
AlohaJoe wrote:
Fri Aug 16, 2019 10:06 pm
AerialWombat wrote:
Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:34 pm
This got me thinking... What DID contribute to making America the wealthiest country on the planet?
Another book on this topic you might consider is Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism which won a ton of awards in 2014 when it came out.

https://www.amazon.com/Half-Has-Never-B ... 0465049664
There was a nice interview with the author of this book yesterday: https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/8/1 ... rd-baptist

Re: Book or documentary recommendations on American economic dominance

Posted: Sat Aug 17, 2019 9:17 pm
by Lookingforanswers
I would *strongly* recommend the 1619 series in the New York Times, mentioned above by another poster, about the history of slavery in America. A couple of key articles are about the importance of slavery in building cotton and sugar into two of the world's greatest industries in the 19th Century.

This article on sugar is a must-read:
[https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/201 ... y.html/url]

Also, I would like to re-endorse the recommendation above on "The Half that has Never Been Told," by Edward Baptist. I will never look at the history of our economy the same way again; I have read it twice now:
[https://www.amazon.com/Half-Has-Never-Been-Told//url]