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The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  1,493 ratings  ·  217 reviews
How America's high standard of living came to be and why future growth is under threat

In the century after the Civil War, an economic revolution improved the American standard of living in ways previously unimaginable. Electric lighting, indoor plumbing, motor vehicles, air travel, and television transformed households and workplaces. But has that era of unprecedented grow
Hardcover, 784 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Princeton University Press
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Jun 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I was a bit worried in starting this that it might prove boring given this book is the size of a fat brick and has a title that hints at content so potentially boring that it could put a person hopped up on boatload of amphetamines running around the house worried about the murderer at their doorstep to sleep.

But nope. I thought this was totally excellent. A great and informative read, well-crafted, beautifully argued. The exploration of history, documentation of technological and economic evol
The most remarkable thing about this look at economic development in the United States since 1870 are two things: the size of the book, and the fact that it is readable. While size and subject are intimidating, the writing style is friendly and accessible, even to non-economists, and one comes to see the advantages of having all this information in one book rather than in several. Published in 2016 by Princeton University Press, this work must be a source of pride among those who worked on it. I ...more
Jan 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book is an economic history of the "American Standard of Living" from 1870 to 2010. It is hard to concisely list the hesitations that came to mind in tackling a substantial book that had this agenda on offer. First, what is meant by "economic history"? How does it balance economics and history? How do data issues fit in? What kind of analysis is provided? Lots of data analysis and modeling? Is there a grand narrative? Second, what is meant by the "American Standard of Living"? I can look up ...more
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
I will equate this to a Monty Python movie. I can quote most/many of the funniest lines from several movies, I find the quotes frequently relevant although probably not to the people I am attempting to amuse. The problem with Monty Python is that I never really want to watch the movie from start to finish. The quotes and sketches are great but the general "story" is mostly kind of dull. Possibly you have guessed what I am now about to say about The Rise and Fall....

The information this book cont
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
The author had me at indoor toilets. Our standard and quality of life have gotten better since 1870. Any improvement to the quality of today's toilets dwarfs in comparison to the initial move from the privy to today's homes with running water and our other standard utilities. As the author quoted someone saying, "the best thing is to have God in your heart, the next best thing is to have electricity in your home".

I don't think there was one trend or quality of life improvement that the author sp
Charles Haywood
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book is just not very good. I was excited to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth; it was extensively and positively reviewed and it promised to illuminate an important topic by giving extended, specific analysis. In particular, I wanted to learn about changes in productivity over time. Instead, I first got an interminable, plodding exposition, which repeated commonly known facts ad nauseum for its first 600 pages. But I soldiered on, knowing that the last 100 pages were analysis of cu ...more
Laurent Franckx
Dec 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
One of the few debates between economists that has reached a non-specialist audience over the last five years is that between the so-called “techno optimists” and “techno pessimists”. Techno optimists such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee claim that technologies such as machine learning have the potential to become “general purpose technologies” that will be as transformative as the steam engine and electricity once were.
Robert Gordon is probably the most famous of the techno pessimists, w
Sep 12, 2016 marked it as to-read
this is a big ass book.....
Jonathan Finegold
Apr 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: us-history, economics
In almost every way, this is a 5-star book.

Why did I give it 4 stars?

Let's start with why this book is a must-read. Gordon challenged many of my priors, but he presents extremely persuasive evidence and arguments for the idea that the century between 1870 and 1970 was one-of-a-kind and probably not reproducible any time soon.

The argument is incredibly important because it ought to shape our expectations for what the world will look like in 20 to 50 years. And that is a world that won't be very m
Nick Klagge
Jun 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics
This is an excellent book, and I fell into the trap of waiting a long time to write my GR review because I wanted to write a really good one, and now the book has receded in my memory a bit (and I didn't take good notes). However! It was a good enough book that I still have a pretty strong picture of the arguments in it.

Although Gordon doesn't phrase it as such, the main thing I think he is fighting against in this book is the assumption that the economy is an ergodic system. Roughly speaking, t
Scottsdale Public Library
Robert Gordon details the revolutionary changes, inventions and discoveries, which greatly improved the American standards of living, the benefits of which, we still enjoy today. It tells the fascinating and in depth story of how people’s lives have transformed tremendously after the Civil War through the Industrial Revolution. Did you know that the streets used to be filled with literally tons of horse manure (and dead horses!) before the advent of the automobile? Or that when the refrigerated ...more
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Das Kapital for home appliances.

A very important book that shows why the computer revolution cannot repeat the level of economic growth seen in the period from 1870-1970. Gordon’s key insight is that the rise or productivity during this period was driven by technical change that can only happen once — like the replacement of horses with motorized vehicles or lamps with electric light. Gordon shows how these changes affected almost every facet of daily life - in sharp contrast to the limited eff
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Behemoth of a book. Literally put dents in my chest, which wasn't cool. First take away is that it's extremely well researched and thorough.

Part I
The focus in Part I are products that once invented, create a storm of other inventions required to work around the first major advancement, in turn drastically improving the standard of living. His main direction revolve around this last point, that certain inventions drastically improved the lives of ordinary people. Inventions that improve people's
Masatoshi Nishimura
Dec 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, economics
This is an excellent book. You'll get most out of, if you've read a handful of more optimistic technologist's book, as he lays out many of his points as counter-arguments to their points. Optimists claim that we are not seeing the IT technology reflected in GDP just because it is flourishing our information lives. Then Gordon goes onto how that's been always the case and that phenomenon has nothing new in IT. He extensively discusses about the topics on how milk was often contaminated before the ...more
Dec 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a very extensively researched book. Gordon had combed through data stretching from the American Civil War period to the present age, to look at the rate of American economic growth. His conclusion, the best period is over, because the biggest transformation of modern life, such as electricity, clean water and sewage, railroads, automobiles, education and health care, had already happened and they can only happen once.

From his calculation, growth for the next few decades will be very slo
Jan 16, 2016 rated it liked it
The premise for this book is GREAT. Following history through growth of progress and innovation is a wonderful idea but the story begins to drag through the repetitive phrases to describe the innovations.
Aug 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Thorough and fascinating. Basically, Picketty's Capital with examples. I think I don't fully agree that it is knowable whether we have game changing discoveries yet to come. Though I am convinced that it is unlikely. ...more
Jul 02, 2016 rated it it was ok
This author never seems to have met a piece of information he didn't want to include in his gargantuan book. The advancement of the humble calculator? You got four pages of it! AIDS? Yup! Jello? Uh-huh! How about tables, graphs and figures explained to its minutest point -- as if there wasn't, you know, an actual table, graph or figure there. Like a 'random facts friend', it's best to just treat it like an encyclopedia -- one in which you look for specific information -- rather than try to absor ...more
Brian Lutz
Jul 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing

I have to help you understand:

This is 47 years worth of a man's life.

It is, conclusively, a summarization of what Robert Gordon has accomplished academically over the course of his life.

In that respect, it is monumental.
Ailith Twinning
Sep 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017, 2019
TL;DR -- You see how much I thought just reading this thing? Doesn't matter how good or bad it is in the end, if it makes you think that much, it's worth reading. Plato's Republic is a terrible idea, but reading it can teach you a lot about yourself and your country. Totally recommend this.


It's at least twice as long as it has any excuse to be. Especially due to frequent repetition, where most of the book just drives home how big a deal electricity/water/gas, roads, and most of all,
Aug 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
A good book, providing an in-depth economic analysis of America’s overall productivity and the resultant rise in standard of living from the late 19th century to the present. The author, Robert J. Gordon, a noted economist, details a trove of data comparing economic growth in the US across a range of time periods. He presents a thesis arguing that the period 1940 to 1970 was the apex of American productivity due to the successful development of durable manufacturing practices in the 80 preceding ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Like many other dense economic works, The Rise and Fall of American Growth was at times a slog to get through and utilizes plenty of graphs and discussions of methodology which might put off the layman. This is a shame because it's underlying thesis, and the evidence it presents for it is important to the future of the United States, and given the US' relative power and importance in a global context, to the World.

In short, Gordon's thesis is this; The period of Rapid American growth, starting i
Haaris Mateen
Jan 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
A thoroughly exacting read, Robert Gordon does a remarkable job in chronicling the economic history of the American economy from 1870 onwards. In an age marked by the optimism of a Yuval Noah Harari, Gordon belongs to the other side - his unnerving conclusion after exhaustive (often very dry) analysis is that the growth and increase in prosperity that the US saw between 1870-1970 is most likely not to be repeated, at least for decades to come. Why? Simply put, the argument is that the changes br ...more
Nov 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A must read for all scholars, teachers, and students of American economic history. In fact, the concrete detail and elementary statistical reasoning used throughout makes it appropriate for those who don't normally read books like these. It offers astonishing data, analysis, and comparison of how the standard of living has changed, because it is formed by the quality of jobs, consumer goods, scientific knowledge, and level of capitalist economic development. Those unfamiliar with how the U.S. ec ...more
Thomas DeLair
Picked up this tome to gain a firm understanding of economic change and productivity over the past several American generations. The main focus of the book decries the daffy promises of the techno-optimists: The United States, hindered by bleak economic headwinds and used up many of their one time productivity surges are over.

Most of the book is devoted to explaining where the big productivity gains came during America's "special century" of 1870 - 1970, this is the change from an agricultural t
John  Mihelic
Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'm of two minds about Robert Gordon's thesis that growth is decelerating because we grabbed all the low-having technological fruit. I want him to be right because I'm afraid if growth accelerates, we don't have the political will to make policy choices that benefit the whole of the population. Any growth will be captured by the owners of capital and the masses will be in the same boat they've always been in. I suppose this is true even with low growth - it is a political question. I want him to ...more
Nadia Rayhanna
Apr 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
The book shows some evidences and explanation on productivity rise and decline in the USA since 1870s. It takes into account some historical milestones in the US history, such as the Civil War, the World War 2, and the Great Depression, to show how these important events had changed the way people interacted with technology and their way of living (hence the way the economy worked). It mentions all kinds of technological inventions which have had some contribution in rising productivity. In the ...more


April 13, 2020: Added to TBR after it was mentioned in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Jul 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This work would be incredible just as an eye-opening dive into American history and glimpse into past eras, but goes far beyond historical context with the persuasive economic analysis and critical arguments on the limits of techno optimistic thinking. This is a book I will return to often; there is so much information that it deserves multiple reads.
This book is about the historical standard of living in the US. Required reading for EH. But the topic is far from where my interests lay.
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