Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States

Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States

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by Michael Lind

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From one of America’s leading intellectuals comes a sweeping and original work of economic history, recounting the epic story of America’s rise to become the world’s dominant economy.

In Land of Promise, bestselling author Michael Lind provides a groundbreaking account of how a weak collection of former British colonies became an

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From one of America’s leading intellectuals comes a sweeping and original work of economic history, recounting the epic story of America’s rise to become the world’s dominant economy.

In Land of Promise, bestselling author Michael Lind provides a groundbreaking account of how a weak collection of former British colonies became an industrial, financial, and military colossus. From the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, the American economy has been transformed by wave after wave of emerging technology: the steam engine, electricity, the internal combustion engine, computer technology. Yet technology-driven change leads to growing misalignment between an innovative economy and anachronistic legal and political structures until the gap is closed by the modernization of America's institutions—often amid upheavals such as the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Great Depression and World War II.

Against the dramatic backdrop of shattering tides of change, Land of Promise portrays the struggles and achievements of inventors like Thomas Edison and Samuel Morse; entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs; financiers like J. P. Morgan; visionary political leaders like Henry Clay and Franklin Roosevelt; and dynamic policy makers like Alexander Hamilton and Vannevar Bush. Larger-than-life figures such as these share the stage with the ordinary Americans who built a superpower, from midwestern farmers, southern slaves, and the immigrants who created canals and railroads to the sisters of Rosie the Riveter, whose labor in factories during World War II helped to end Hitler's dream of world domination.

When the U.S. economy has flourished, Lind argues, government and business, labor and universities, have worked together as partners in a never-ending project of economic nation building. As the United States struggles to emerge from the Great Recession, Land of Promise demonstrates that Americans, since the earliest days of the republic, have reinvented the American economy—and have the power to do so again.

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Editorial Reviews

David Leonhardt
…an ambitious economic history of the United States. The book is rich with details, more than a few of them surprising, and its subject is central to what is arguably the single most important question facing the country today: How can our economy grow more quickly, more sustainably and more equitably than it has been growing, both to maintain the United States' position as the world's pre-eminent power and to improve the lives of its citizens?
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Lind (Vietnam: The Necessary War) delivers a conventional story of America’s technological transformation in parallel with an imaginative account of the 200-year tug-of-war between Alexander Hamilton’s and Thomas Jefferson’s economic philosophies. Lind, cofounder of the New America Foundation, prefers Hamilton’s vision of an activist central government that, he argues, produces economic growth. But that theory enjoyed only spotty success after 1800 and none after Andrew Jackson rejected it. It revived with Lincoln’s support of railroads, national banking, and a tariff-based import system. Jeffersonian laissez-faire returned, but, the author points out, even the Jeffersonians supported government intervention in favor of small businesses. Lind hails the New Deal era from FDR through Nixon as a Hamiltonian triumph during which the economy mushroomed, middle-class mass consumerism appeared, and poverty plummeted. Carter and Reagan began the Jeffersonian reaction: antigovernment rhetoric accompanied by deregulation. Instead of a flourishing free market, says Lind, the result has been not productive industry but wage stagnation, crumbling infrastructure, and a sluggish economy driven by boom-and-bust speculation and rising debt. The coda offers a prescription for how the next Hamiltonian cycle should fix matters, but asserts that Jeffersonianism rules today. Lind paints a vivid if dismal picture. (Apr.)
New York Times Book Review
The book is rich with details…among the joys of Lind’s book are small, little-known stories like the one about the Wright brothers that have clear relevance today.
David Brooks
“[An] illuminating new book…”
Library Journal
Lind (policy director, economic growth program, New America Fdn.; columnist, argues that an ideological battle between the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton has shaped the country's evolving relationship between state and economy. It would be difficult to find a book with more fascinating biographical details, statistical vignettes, and obscure but truly engaging, eye-opening details of U.S. economic history. However, while Lind is an excellent historian, his venture into economics is tainted throughout by his political philosophy and the strained interpretations it demands. His work is weakened by his frequent ill-formed and unjustified explanations of economic outcomes and realities. Its most enlightening chapters, on the politics of railroad development or the economics of U.S. war efforts, are overshadowed by the author's mercantilist worldview that privileges relative national advancement over absolute economic growth. VERDICT Despite its shortcomings, the book's value is in revealing, behind every generalized economic data point, stories of real people with real names and real skills who contributed to U.S. economic success and made the country a true "land of promise." [See Prepub Alert, 8/21/11.]—Jekabs Bikis, Dallas
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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David Brooks

“[An] illuminating new book…”

Meet the Author

Michael Lind is cofounder of the New America Foundation and policy director of its Economic Growth Program. His first three books of political journalism and history—The Next American Nation, Up from Conservatism, and Vietnam: The Necessary War—were all New York Times Notable Books. He writes frequently for the New York Times, Financial Times, and Salon.

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