Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Davis History 1870-1970 Is a Microcosm of The Most Important Century in Human History? (260)

Robert Gordon’s majestic, thousand-page treatise titled The Rise and Fall of American Growth is best known for the argument that rapid economic growth from about 1870 to 1970 was a one-time artifact of a unique conjunction of innovations that cannot and will not be repeated.  

The declining and sluggish growth since the 1970s is therefore not easily remedied or perhaps even remediable. Such a thesis is, of course, heresy to the political left and right alike.

As important as the economic growth issue may be, it is not the reason I want in this post to draw attention to Gordon’s wonderful book.*

I savored this work a bit at a time over several weeks because I was enchanted by the “unique century” claim of Gordon’s informing thesis that economic growth was essentially zero in human history before 1870, climbed greatly between 1870 and 1970, after which it has declined and will continue to be low.

Because of a flurry of physical and social innovations over 1870-1970, that century can be claimed to be the single most significant one in human history. The burden of the great bulk of this extraordinarily complex book is to, chapter after chapter, chronicle the “Great Inventions,” the networking of American homes (water, sewer, electricity, etc.), and other widely adopted technical and social innovations.

What is uncanny is that almost nothing he reports is “new” in the sense we do not already “know” about the long list of items such as those just mentioned.

But through assembling “familiar” items in terms of this “unique century” thesis, he makes them unfamiliar. The later 19th and the early and mid 20th century are made fresh again.

If asserting a mere century was pivotal to human history seems bold, consider, further, that when he gets closer into historical details he even begins to argue that all the really important things happened in a mere 70 years between about 1870 and 1940. Pretty much all the major economic growth measures were achieved in that period and important changes after it have been derivations of innovations devised by about 1940 (including television and the fundamentals of the computer).

At this point, a reader of this blog might well ask:  What does this have to do with Davis history?

Well: It is Davis history!

Even the years 1870 and 1970 themselves evoke the history frame of Davis’ founding in 1868 and its “progressive” political “revolution in 1972.  With that congruence, we are alerted to the idea that Davis is hardly running on its own track. Instead, it began running literally on railroad tracks (the first significant event in the most significant century). And, growth in Davis ideologically (as well as factually in some ways) ended in 1972 in the town’s prescient rejection of it--a wonderfully appropriate fit with larger history.

Beyond this “cute” observation on Davis’ framing years, there is the more serious fact that when we examine the details of the first century of Davis history we are looking at the most significant century in human history writ small. It is all there and it is America, not merely Davis.

Davis history also appropriately exhibits a specialized relation to that larger history.  (1) Among these is the fact that it was founded as a railroad town, the initial signal event. (2) In the early and middle 20th century, it was part of the great transformation in the form of being an outpost for government programs to apply scientific methods to agriculture and a location in which public sector higher education was expanded--both of which were major, national growth measures.  

*          *          *

The events of Davis history were, of course, forged by hard-driving civic leaders and activists who truly struggled in situations with uncertain outcomes to build a village, a town, and a city. The events composing those constructions were seemingly, at the time, unique and often on the verge of not happening. Uncertainty abounded.

This “agency” picture of Davis history is both true and a mirage. The larger contextual fact is that stories structurally identical to those in Davis were playing out in myriad places across America. At the level of fundamental construction, the history of Davis is virtually the same as the histories of literally thousands of other locales.

Gordon, page 59.

Gordon, page 60.

Gordon, page 61.

Gordo, page 285.


*  Professor Gordon continues his work on American economic growth, as in this August 8, 2016 New York Times Op-ed: