Brad DeLong was certain the story began in 1870.
The polymath economist wrote a book about economic modernity – about how people went from existing on our small planet to building some kind of utopia – and he saw a turning point in manufacturing at scale centuries after the rise of capitalism and decades after. “The industrial revolution is good. The Industrial Revolution is huge,” he told me recently while sitting on the back porch of his wood-paneled Colonial Revival in Berkeley, California. But “things haven’t really changed for most people since 1870.” However, soon after—after the development of the vertically integrated corporation, the industrial research laboratory, modern communication devices, and modular shipping technologies—“everything changes in a generation and then and again again and again and again. ” Global growth quadruples. The world is breaking out of near-universal agricultural poverty. Modernity is coming.
DeLong began working on this story in 1994. He had written hundreds of thousands of words, then hundreds of thousands more, updating the text as the academic economy and the world itself changed. He wrote for years, decades, so long that he ended up writing about 5 percent of the time that capitalism itself existed. The problem wasn’t figuring out how the story began. The problem was knowing when it ended.
He timely decided that the era that began in 1870 ended in 2010, shortly after productivity growth and GDP growth collapsed, as inequality stifled economic dynamism around the world and revanchist political populism was on the rise. With a bit more writing he finished Departure towards utopia, one of this year’s most anticipated business books, to be released on Tuesday. His lengthy exploration of what he calls the “long 20th century” is comprehensive and detailed, erudite and accessible, familiar and alien – a definitive look at how we arrived at such material splendor and how it didn’t deliver everything what they promise seemed to offer. His decision to end the story in 2010, thereby completing his book, carries a message for all of us: Despite all the troubles and injustices, the economic era Americans were living through was a miracle. And now it’s over.
As for DeLong’s story himself, he’s an economic historian and macroeconomist at UC Berkeley, a staunch supporter of liberal politics, and one of the original Econ bloggers who still posts his thoughts almost daily, as he always has to blog was invented in 1999. His story probably begins in Washington, DC, where he grew up as a science fiction obsessed, mathematically gifted son of a lawyer and a clinical psychologist. (His mother still sees patients.) He went to Harvard for a bachelor’s degree and then a Ph.D. in economics, wrote papers and formed close friendships with a teenage Soviet refugee named Andre Shleifer (now the second most cited economist in the world) and Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President). “Brad is the person you want to write to when you’re looking for a collaborator who’s doing something bold, potentially important, possibly wrong, and unlikely to please fussy academic reviewers,” Summers told me. “I’m a huge fan of the guy.”
In addition to his academic work, DeLong served in the Clinton administration. He married the legal scholar Ann Marie Marciarille, an expert on health regulations; They had two children, now adults. And he started blogging — which is perhaps what he’s best known for. Since 1999 he has been writing in his “half-daily diary”, which is funny, scholarly and quirky. (Over the years he’s flambéed no fewer than 11 people as the “world’s dumbest man,” including former World Bank President Bob Zoellick.)
DeLong’s book project preceded the blog. In 1994 he read the books of the socialist historian Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Extremes, about the “brief 20th century” between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “It’s a great narrative arc, with communism as the tragic hero of the 20th century, hopelessly clouding the circumstances of his birth,” DeLong told me . He loved it and decided to create his own bow, with capitalism as the tragic hero.
The heroic part is heroic: For the first time in history, DeLong notes, the world managed to create something enough after 1870. Enough to end subsistence farming in much of the world. Enough to reduce the global infant mortality rate from almost 50 percent to less than 5 percent. Enough that many of the poorest people on earth today have access to cell phones and electricity. But the tragic part is tragic: this modern era brought machine guns and atomic bombs and the atrocities of the Holocaust, among other genocides. And while so many economies have thrived, so many governments have failed to end racial injustice, to protect the most vulnerable, to ensure that all share in the world’s prosperity, to preserve our common environment.
In his basement, attic, and office, DeLong assembled his book. Using free market trader Friedrich Hayek and social protectionist Karl Polanyi as central characters, he then weaves details across a huge cast of characters: Marx; Henry Ford; Keynes; Hitler; gandhi; his own great-great-uncle, an economic historian named Abbott Payson Usher.
His editors kept coming back. His friends asked about the drafts they had read years ago. The project ballooned in its complexity. “I had editors who said [they were] I’ll drop if I don’t get it down to 150,000 words,” DeLong told me. (The book landed at 180,000, plus online notes and appendices.) But he kept learning new things. “I can start reading a book, and then I can spin a Sub-Turing instantiation of the author’s thoughts in my brain that I can then run on my wetware,” he told me. “I can ask him questions, and he answersDescribing his own thought process, he added, “‘A rich inner life’ is one way of putting it. Or maybe a slight lack of grasp of what the real world is and isn’t.”
In 1999, he thought the book might end with a discussion of what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history” — the idea popularized in a book of the same name that the fall of communism marked the ultimate triumph of democracy and neoliberalism free market heralded economy. “There were these huge ideological fights, but now we kind of have I have it‘ DeLong said, describing his mindset at the turn of the millennium. “There will be an alternation between right-wing neoliberalism, left-wing neoliberalism and social democracy in the future.” But then came 9/11 and the global war on terror. “People seemed to be about to kill each other in large numbers over religion,” DeLong said. Furthermore, he added: “Most of what we Clintonites had actually done to get economic policy into what we thought was a good state was to allow for another round of tax cuts for the rich and another round of plutocracy. And then came President Barack Obama and the “tremendous failure to actually implement what I thought was the standard manual that we learned in the Great Depression,” DeLong said.
Over time, DeLong came to the conclusion that neoliberalism and social democracy would not smoothly alternate. Politically, the future would instead be about the “return of something Madeleine Albright called it fascism, and who am I not to tell her that,” he said. And in economic terms, it would be about high inequality, low productivity and slow growth. “Maybe we solved the production problem,” DeLong told me. “We certainly have not solved the problem of distributing or using our extraordinary, immense wealth to make us happy and good people.”
The story the book tells is compelling, if at times overwhelming in its detail and intertwined in its argument. The Global South – where the majority of humanity lives – is treated superficially. DeLong argues that including much of his economic history in his book would have been too complicated. And while pointing to evidence that colonial empires siphoned off wealth from conquered lands, he claims that the North “causally led” the South’s “encroachments.” But the book is also fair and soft-hearted. “There’s someone in Bangladesh who would almost certainly be a better economics professor than me and is now behind a water buffalo,” he told me. “The market economy gives me and my preferences 200 times more voice and weight than its. If that isn’t the biggest market failure of all, I don’t know how you could define market failure.”
Despite all the problems, the long 20th century brought enormous wealth to billions of people: cell phones, office jobs, birth control pills, penicillin, space exploration, household appliances, power grids, the Internet. When, as DeLong claims, a remarkable period of prosperity has come to an end, governments face the daunting task of strengthening representative democracy, redistributing the world’s immense resources more equitably, and restarting productivity growth. As for DeLong, he faces a more immediate challenge: figuring out what to do with the hundreds of thousands of words he’s excised Departure towards utopia. He thinks he could write economic history, period. This story could date back to 6,000 BC. begin