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Thursday, February 23, 2023

Review: Slouching towards Utopia

 Slouching Towards Utopia is Brad DeLong's economic history of the world from 1870 to the present day. Brad DeLong not only worked as an economic advisor during the Clinton administration, he's also a professor at UC Berkeley and an avid read of science fiction, giving him a perspective that most other academics do not have.

What makes this period different for DeLong is that this is the period where technology and material improvement from human ingenuity finally outpaced the increase in population:

Before 1870, over and over again, technology lost its race with human fecundity, with the speed at which we reproduce. Greater numbers, coupled with resource scarcity and a slow pace of technological innovation, produced a situation in which most people, most of the time, could not be confident that in a year they and their family members would have enough to eat and a roof over their heads.13 Before 1870, those able to attain such comforts had to do so by taking from others, rather than by finding ways to make more for everyone (especially because those specializing in producing, rather than taking, thereby become very soft and attractive targets to the specializers in taking). (kindle loc 162)

All the grand characters in the sweep of this period are covered, from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt to the Keynes, Adam Smith, Marx, Hayek, Von Mises, and one I didn't know about before, Karl Polanyi. DeLong loves wrestling with ideas, and does a great job representing each of their ideas well with repeated quotes, themes, and he accurately portrays the clash of ideas that affect our lives to this day.

There are many places where DeLong speculate (as only a science fiction reader could) about how things could have different outcomes in history:

When I first started writing this book, I felt, as many others did, that 1929–1933 was a uniquely vulnerable time, and planned to devote considerable space to explaining why. But in 2008, we skated to the edge of another Great Depression (which we’ll explore in more detail in Chapter 17), which made it painfully clear that the years 1929–1933 were not so uniquely vulnerable after all. Rather, we had been remarkably lucky before 1929, and we had been remarkably lucky after 1929...Why did the Great Depression not push the United States to the right, into reaction, or protofascism, or fascism, as it did in so many other countries, but instead to the left? My guess is that it was sheer luck—Herbert Hoover and the Republicans were in power when the Great Depression started, and they were thrown out of office in 1932. That Franklin Roosevelt was center-left rather than center-right, that the length of the Great Depression meant that institutions were shaped by it in a durable sense, and that the United States was the world’s rising superpower, and the only major power not crippled to some degree by World War II—all these factors made a huge difference. After World War II, the United States had the power and the will to shape the world outside the Iron Curtain. It did so. And that meant much of the world was to be reshaped in a New Deal rather than a reactionary or fascist mode. (kindle loc 3062-3300)

 He points out (very rightly) how the libertarian right is so fond of fascism:

At the start of the 1980s, libertarian darling Friedrich von Hayek wrote a letter to Margaret Thatcher suggesting that the British hew more closely to the methods of fascistic Augusto Pinochet, whose 1973 Cold War coup overthrowing and murdering President Salvador Allende Hayek had greatly applauded as rescuing Chile from the road to serfdom. We catch his urged sympathies in her politely worded reply. Thatcher wrote, “Some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable.… We shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time.”17 All of these—save Thatcher—at least flirted with a temporary and tactical alliance with and allegiance to fascism, and some of them did much, much more: believing that representative democracy could not summon the strength to resist really-existing socialism, and believing that that disastrous threat to civilization called for desperate measures and alliances in response. (kindle loc 3996)

 The entire book is great reading, with a lot of history, and he's as critical of Obama as he is of Hoover for his handling of the Great Recession, making multiple good points and quoting Obama's words to demonstrate it.

My biggest criticism of the book is that the kindle edition shows signs of bad editing, with places where you get repeated paragraphs, or even chapters where very similar words were used.

I think the books about Keynes and Roosevelt I linked to above are much better reading for context and understanding, but DeLong's book is still worth your time. Recommended.

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