The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert Gordon
A Big Picture Rumination on American "Growth"
America as a new world is maybe our original sensibility as a people acquired by each and every immigrant as they reach our shores or cross our borders. The idea that you can begin anew is the catalyst for a nation that utterly monopolizes the modern world's innovation, for a nation that is the world's locomotive for change. This rate of change, this constant reshaping of our lives began with the earliest settlements as they clung to alien shores each a seedling of change in their own unique way. Much of what we experience today in this unnerving digital revolution and its reshaping of our Main Streets, jobs and our very habits themselves is simply an extension of our 300 years -- it has all happened before in different shapes and sizes. It is part of our collective DNA. It excited us then as we experimented with self-governance, dug canals, built railroads, expelled slavery, electrified homes and businesses, built suburbs and dams, admitted all races and creeds and triggered one social and economic revolution after another -- almost always sending ripples of change and intimidation around the world as we did so. Like it did for much of the older world, it frightened us then and continues to do so now as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering tap on the door of our future.
The American new world is a world of change: new people, new communities, new homes, new habits, new toys and tools, new skills, new horizons and new dreams. With all this newly minted change comes an unanticipated and often unacknowledged loss. Just as the heady, profound world of parenting provides one with a changing landscape of human life, it will also lay the seeds for loss as children move on and the home empties. Change makes way for the new but all the while triggering residual anxieties that are as much a part of our national psyche as the idylls of progress and growth. Robert Gordon's opus is a voyage of extraordinary achievement that implicitly triggers the poignancy of loss as he illuminates the tectonic changes in America since 1870 in a mesmerizing blend of statistical and written lyricism. This rumination is not an effort to keep up with Mr. Gordon or summarize or condense his voluminous research; rather, it is an effort to identify the shadows cast on the American soul as it spins in the whirlwind of a world so perfectly framed in the charts, graphs and prose of this transformative book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, like so many other novelists in the American literary canon, tries to capture the costs of our affluence, our ambition and our restlessness. In the end, Gatsby was killed by his dream, by his illusion that if he reached high enough, bought the big house, the fancy car, the perfect shirts, he could lie in the "mind of God", in the lap of his beloved Daisy. This is a dreamscape filled with the energy of money, the revolutionary fizz of the Jazz Age, the speed and magic of the automobile, the manic pulse of people's dreams that ends with fear, anxiety and loneliness. Recasting Mr. Gordon's book through this poignant and bittersweet take on our American experience is both revealing and comforting. The reader will sense that what we are experiencing now, its unnerving pace and indifferent capacity to disrupt and destroy, has always been there as the unsettling residue of continuous change. We realize that cast within all the elements of change is a chronic battle between our public and private selves and priorities, often leaving us lonelier in an even more connected world. We realize that the headiness that comes with speed and mobility brings with it dislocation and a loss of wonder for both our daily lives and for what we can only imagine. We realize that living longer is an irresistible virtue of modern life disguising, nonetheless, corrosively high expectations, delusions of immortality and the often-terrible burdens of age. We realize that with each great change in our world there is a loss -- often freely given amidst all the enthusiasm for what took its place. Loss hides behind each door we walk through in this great change machine that is the United States. We do not see it as we walk through, but it lurks, revealing itself in the shadow after we have closed the door to our new room. Finally, we realize that the lubricant for all this change, dislocation and fuss and bother is our desire to live in a dream -- to be Dorothy falling into technicolor drenched, wondrous Oz, leaving behind prosaic black and white Kansas. Who would not want that? Certainly none of those millions of immigrants that we are all a part of. Certainly not James Gatz as he rowed toward Cody's yacht, transforming himself for all the ages into Jay Gatsby. Certainly none of those millions today signing into their digital world each day. No, that dreamscape is as irresistible as it darker repercussions are inevitable.
A good example of the unanticipated complexity of progress can be found in Gordon's brilliant description of turn of the century America as a quilt of isolated farms and small towns surrounding fast growing pockets of chaotic, dirty cities. In 1900, even after the introduction of electricity, the telephone and hundreds of thousands of mile of rail, over 60 percent of Americans lived in relative rural isolation often unchanged in so many ways from life a hundred years earlier while city dwellers navigated streets still dominated by horses, filth and bad water. Beginning with the cities, Gordon describes a world increasingly "networked" by communication, illumination, and transportation as the telephone, electricity and the automobile introduced the common American to the modern world. The farmer would soon tractor vast tracts of land having sold his wheat weeks earlier in markets he can keep abreast of on a daily basis, his life now connected in ways well beyond the Sunday drive in the family car. The city dweller can commute from his single family home on a train or in a car to place phone calls all around the world from his twentieth story office, leaving his wife at home in a fully connected house equipped with the wonders of light, fresh water, flush toilets and an increasing array of electric appliances doing the work that used to be the daily burden of existence.
By any measurement, the standard of living so precisely tracked by Gordon was incomparably greater as even life expectancy surged as its scourge, infant mortality, plummeted. Expediency and mobility became markers of the business and personal worlds of the modern American. For the vast majority of Americans, the primal nature of a physically isolated life and its very real hardships and fears had been replaced by a secure single family home, music at night on the radio, vacations or simply "spins" in the family car and clothes purchased more for the "look" of them than ones made at home for the utilitarian purpose of being worn each and every day. 18 percent of all children being born no longer died at birth. The water was no longer transmitting infectious diseases and going to bed was no longer a matter of it simply getting dark at night. All of this, and it is on an almost unimaginable scale, is an undeniable triumph for the lot of man.
The shadow lurking behind this well-lit, comfortable and engaging room, however, is real. The house and the car are as much hideouts and escapes as they are comforts. As described by Gordon, the suburban lawn soon begins to act as a "moat" -- both keeping the occupants securely within and the world securely without. The radio that brought the world into everyone's living rooms would be a precursor to a digital world where one no longer has to go outside one's house to watch a movie, listen to music, catch a game or even dance. This "networking" that is so perfectly laid out in the tables of information and the illuminating prose of Mr. Gordon also acts as the agent for the gradual cocooning of American life with its beguiling threads of comfort, expediency and distraction. Though the modern world begins with the pure exhilaration of personal freedom at all levels, it will evolve into a more complex place framed by personal loneliness, an alienation so perfectly captured by the omnipresent sight of today's citizens staring into their phones at a reality of their own design that has little to do with the world rushing around them.
Thinking about Robert Gordon's empirical tome on the rise in our meteoric standard of living does not in the least detract from the grandeur or beauty of what happened. Rather, I suggest that if one accepts that literally everything in life involves some sort of trade off, then, as citizens in an always changing landscape, it would behoove us to learn to approach each change, no matter how beguiling or good, with the notion that something will be lost. Getting back to the lonely figure of Jay Gatsby and his empty house and pathetic funeral, the American story of progress has always had within it its dark cousin, loss. When Jay finally brings Daisy into his house and shows her his "hulking cabinet" of beautiful shirts, Daisy sobs. We are not told why. It may be that, like Fitzgerald himself, Daisy knew all too well what can come with that life Jay so desperately wanted to create for her. She knew that all the wealth of Tom Buchanon and its full panoply of the riches of the modern world only amplified, rather than assuaged, the loneliness that existed in her heart -- as it does in all of us. In a sense, it is Daisy who knows the truth that lies within that more sublime Biblical definition of a trade off when Christ warns us that that "the Lord both giveth and taketh away."
Progress and growth are noble goals in man's effort to live better and, despite his worries about our future and its very real set of lower expectations, Gordon's book is not the "decline and fall" of America. Instead, it is a testament to one of man's epochal eras of achievement and enlightenment. However, as Pope Francis and the Sage Manager of "Our Town" struggle to remind us, this is not the terrain of the human soul.