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Read before leaping
The arguments and observations in Alexander J. Field’s extraordinary work of economic history, A Great Leap Forward, are more akin to a glowing solar system than to a streaking comet. At its center is the book’s dazzling claim that “potential output grew dramatically across the Depression years.” (Hence the subtitle: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth.) This is an assertion that overturns the standard narrative that World War II “both brought us out of the Depression and laid the foundation for postwar prosperity.” Orbiting around this central claim are a host of implications and questions. These range from a fairly technical rumination about the utility of “general purpose technology,” a concept that is currently popular among economic history scholars, to a question of much urgency for policy makers and the general public: Do economic downturns have silver linings?
Field devotes the first and longest section of his book to making a convincing case for viewing the history of economic growth through a new lens, one that takes into account “a very substantial increase in potential output between 1929 and 1941.” To do so refocuses not only how we understand U.S. economic growth in the present and recent past (New Yorker writer James Surowiecki drew from its lessons earlier this year in a piece on how “innovative consumption” fuels economic growth) but also from the post–Civil War era into the 1920s. And it certainly alters our view of the underlying economic history of the Great Depression itself, a period Field, the Michael and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics as well as executive director of the Economic History Association, has been studying for nearly three decades.
But how can we measure growth potentiality in and of itself much less across epochs? Or, as Field asks emphatically: “How can we know these things?” The answer lies in a set of inferences Field draws from quantitative data, using an efficient tool kit of analytical methods. Chief among these methods is a careful examination of “total factor productivity,” which he describes as “the ratio of output to a combined measure reflecting inputs of both capital and labor.” Deploying it helps calculate “a rough measure in the growth in capacity due to technological and organization advance.”
“Potential output grew dramatically across the Depression years.”
If this sounds technical or obscure, well, it can be; Field is a preeminent scholar and arguments sometimes address specific issues in his field. At the same time, he discusses not just the trees of interest to the specialists but the forests that will beckon the lay reader. For example, he illustrates a discussion of the causes of shifting growth rates in the years between the two world wars with a fascinating look at the impact on factory design for the shift from steam and water power to electricity. He performs similar narrative-analytical magic later in a subsection called “Rails and Roads.”
Field often writes with wit and verve. At one point he quips, “For the purposes of my argument it would have been helpful had the Japanese delayed by eight or twelve months their attack on Pearl Harbor so that the U.S. economy could have returned to full employment.” His title itself invites an edgy contrast of Depression-era private industrialization with the Chinese Communists’ Great Leap Forward—a disastrous forced-industrialization program of the 1950s.
Of particular interest to lay readers will be the final section of Field’s book. He applies lessons from re-envisioning the Great Depression to recent economic events and to the questions of whether regulation is bad (it’s not, since it moderates the business cycle), war stimulates the economy (not for the better in the long term), or there are economic benefits to downturns (“We cannot comfort unemployed workers with the thought that their sacrifices paved the way for a better tomorrow.”) “Overall,” Field writes, “welfare and economic growth benefit from moderation of the business cycle. Recessions impose an irrecoverable burden of lost output, income, and expenditure.”
Great scholarship requires a curious mix of assertiveness and humility. The argument in A Great Leap Forward is a boldly assertive one, but one that is backed by an in-depth look at economic data. Its author by contrast has an appealing humility. He notes that his argument “will strike some readers as implausible.” He invites and awaits the judgment of his scholarly peers and lay readers—who will surely see in A Great Leap Forward a lasting contribution to U.S. economic history. Alden Mudge
Keep the faith
What’s it mean to be a Catholic in America today? Or even just in the San Francisco Bay Area? Jerome P. Baggett, professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology, conducted 300 intensive interviews with members of six East Bay parishes to explore how American Catholics integrate the ancient devotional practices of Catholicism with the modern world. In Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith (Oxford University Press, 2009), Baggett looks beyond national surveys, political punditry, and the stereotypical image of the “cafeteria Catholic.” By exploring the viewpoints of rank-and-file Catholics rather than pronouncements from Church leaders, Baggett offers a ground-level view of American Catholicism. His findings paint a complex portrait. For instance, Catholics are not as passive as they might seem when they’re sitting in the pews; they’re actually very reflective about their religious selves and their Church as a whole. Generally, Baggett argues, they take responsibility for their connections to the sacred and strive to actively live out Christ’s message by engaging in some form of service to others. Sense of the Faithful is Baggett’s second book, the first being Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion (Temple University Press, 2001). Emily Elrod-Cardenas ’05
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Hear Alexander Field read from A Great Leap Forward