The director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program charts the technological innovations and the political response to those changes that have marked our economic history.
Many of us mistakenly think politics will change the world when, in fact, it’s the steamship plowing against the current, the railroad stretching across the nation, the electricity lighting our homes or the personal computer connecting us to the world that end up most intimately altering our daily lives. It’s been the job of our politics to catch up and wrestle with those changes. Lind (The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life, 2006, etc.) divides American economic history into three epochs, beginning with the First Republic “founded on water and undermined by steam.” Even as Hamilton and Jefferson’s competing visions struggled to shape character of the new nation, the Industrial Revolution was already underway. Absorbing grand innovations, writes Lind, leads to periods of misalignment, when “the institutions of the economy and the polity drift further and further apart.” Great crises follow, and the U.S. had to pass through the Civil War to found a Second Republic, itself threatened by the coming widespread adaptation of electricity and the internal combustion engine. The nation had to endure a Great Depression and World War II before today’s Third Republic emerged, an Information Age whose technological roots can be traced to those tumultuous decades. The cycle continues as we await another Republic born in the aftermath of today’s Great Recession. With dozens of short entries on the businessmen, financiers, inventors and industrialists who helped transform the country and the political leaders and public servants responsible for handling the social consequences—highest marks go to those in the Hamiltonian tradition like Henry Clay, Lincoln and FDR—Lind memorably vivifies this constant churn of economic activity and political reconstruction.
Timely, big-picture analysis that supplies vital context to our current economic and political moment.