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AN EMPIRE OF WEALTH by John Steele Gordon


The Epic History of American Economic Power

by John Steele Gordon

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-009362-5
Publisher: HarperCollins

Forget about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: American history is all about the Benjamins.

America’s present poised-for-empire stance is the logical consequence of American supremacy in the marketplace, writes financial historian Gordon (A Thread Across the Ocean, 2002, etc.). It’s not only that the present economy is so vast and so varied, but also that “virtually every major development in technology in the 20th century—which was far and away the most important century in the history of technology—originated in the US or was principally industrialized and turned into consumer products here.” It has not always been so, Gordon goes on to report. But he makes it clear that the European presence on the North American continent, in a variety of successive regimes, has always involved finance somewhere in the equation; as Gordon notes, Columbus’s expedition included an accountant, the Jamestown settlement was a corporate venture, the founding of the Carolinas was a result of an overcrowded sugarcane industry in the Caribbean, and so forth. Some of what Gordon writes about is not news, but he brings considerable nuance to bear on his interpretations of our history: Massachusetts was able to take the world lead in shipbuilding, he writes by way of example, because, although its labor costs were very high, its material costs were so low that “New England could build a ship for about half the cost of building one in England,” and this helped build an American economy that would soon become self-sufficient—one more reason not to be governed from abroad. Gordon’s narrative is full of rich data on such matters as the growth of the transcontinental railroads, the origin of income and other common taxes, the abandonment of the gold standard, the rise of the consumer economy, and—most interesting of all—economic misjudgments and their reverberations throughout history.

Solid raw material with plenty of value added. Just the thing for economics wonks, then, but lively enough to make for good airplane reading.