The “special century” between 1870 and 1970 was not an economic transformation to repeat. It was an anomalous period of exceptional change super-powered by the remarkable inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution not to be repeated.
So argues Robert Gordon in his influential, academic and deeply researched 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. It is one of the better respected contributions to the conversation how quickly will quality of life continue to advance. Technological advances tend to not reverse, so his point is not that we’ll regress but that we’re due for a long period of languishing growth and advancement.
For millennia until the 1750s, there was very modest rates of economic growth. Then the First Industrial Revolution ushered in slightly faster growth, which setup the second, which we most commonly call the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century. That spurred the fastest advancement in quality of life in human history. By the 1970s, progress slowed. The third, technological revolution only resulted in a short-lived return to high grow in the decade 1994-2004. That was the lone answer to economist Robert Solow’s famous 1984 quip: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”
In his book, Gordon argues we’re unlikely to repeat the rate of gains of that special century. It’s an interesting addition to the familiar techno-optimist versus techno-pessimist argument. Below I share some of notes from the book. It is dense and thorough, so it’s hardly light reading, but I devoured it. It’s an important addition to the economic literature. I recommend reading it.
Nothing more needs to be said on influential journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s first breakout book Tipping Point, which published 15 years ago. Like a lot of popular books, it has been aggressively criticized and dismissed.
Even if his theme is challenged, there are small points that are interesting. Though I read this several years ago, I just reread it and took down a few notes for my own future perusal. I’m sharing them here
Data can point to commonalities of companies that go from being just good to being really great.
Published in 2001 as the middle in a trio of business books written by Stanford University’s Jim Collins, Good to Great is a classic of the genre. Though I’ve heard it cited many times, I only just read it earlier this year. The concept is a likeable one: Collins and a team of graduate students sorted through lots of data to find very similar peer companies, some of which accelerated into greatness and others which only treaded water. Then they sorted through to find what’s similar. Lots of stuff like this happens today — like this popular Medium post.
Twenty years later, the book still has value, even if many of the companies have faded from their greatness and it’s always easy to tease a business book. At its most simple, Collins introduces a simple framework that I’ve played with for my own company (his “hedgehog concept” is a way to communicate: What is that your company can do better than anyone else in the world that can drive financial success?)
In recent years, it became commonplace to compare legendary and controversial former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo with Donald Trump. Perhaps that was why I finally read Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, the influential biography published in 1993 by Sal Paolantonio. It is a familiar part of the foundation of the Philadelphia canon so it’s long been on my list.
The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.
As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.
Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.
That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.
In large scale projects, preparing to do the work is often more important than doing the work. That was likely the biggest lesson I drew from the book, which chronicled a failed attempt by a consortium of French government and business leaders to build a sea-level canal and then a painful but ultimately successful American attempt that used locks and came at the heels of advancements in understanding how to deal with yellow fever.
I also drastically underestimated the magnitude the Panama Canal represented as an engineering and public health campaign. My previous ignorance to this period of human history is embarrassing.
As I often do when I read a book of relevance to leadership and history, I share my notes here.
Prideful, working class white ethnic neighborhoods in cities have been ignored and poorly represented for at least a half century, goes a major theme of Peter Binzen’s 1968 Whitetown USA dissection. [Google Books here.]
Written by a former Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper reporter with whom I was thrilled to have lunch last month, the book attacks the principle that whites are a monolithic group of privilege. Binzen, a former education reported, focuses heavily on the school system in the book to tell a tale of why working class and even upwardly mobile middle class whites were opposed to affirmative action and other social welfare programs perceived to help blacks.
The first third of the book features the similarities of Whitetowns from cities across the country: white neighborhoods often with many recent immigrants that are working class, prideful of place, protective, provincial, conservative and often seen as bigoted. The rest dives deepest into Kensington, a decaying industrial corridor then and a decayed shell today, and its adjacent Fishtown, a smaller, more residential neighborhood where I now live.
The Golden Ratio, the 2003 historical analysis of the irrational number phi (~1.62) by Mario Livio, reads more like a top level review of a few thousand years of mathematical history. And so, while I enjoyed the pursuit of phi in art throughout time, I was much more taken by the top-level review of the development of math. The development, or, well, the discovery of math.
Indeed, of the various historical storylines, one theme from the book that stuck out for me more than others, I was most taken bythe ongoing debate about whether math was invented or discovered, the former of which is my persuasion to date: