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

Notes from The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon:

* Advertising developed in part as a result of mass production; likewise, it was said that advertising made mass production possible. Firms decided that there was a limit to attracting customers through lower prices, and they tried the alternative strategy of increasing volume by brand-centric advertising. Although advertising began in the late nineteenth century with the development of the first branded products, its true explosion came in the 1920s, when it became increasingly tied to the newly invented radio.

* The 1902 Sears catalog contained 1,162 pages. The explosive growth of circulation of the Sears catalog attests to its growing influence—catalogs went to 3.6 percent of American households in 1902, 15.2 percent in 1908, and 25.7 in 1928.

* Electric lights are an example of a technology that had a great burst of innovation early, in this case 1880–1920, and then stood still afterwards. Although the fluorescent bulb had come to dominate lighting in commercial and industrial settings by 1950, virtually nothing changed in home illumination from 1920 until the development of the compact fluorescent bulb after 1990.

* The current system of airport security all over the world represents an overreaction to the September 11, 2001, hijackings. There was only one weakness in the U.S. airline security system on September 11, and this was that the cockpit doors were flimsy. Within days, they were replaced by completely secure doors that nobody could break through. Although the security issue was completely solved within a week, fourteen years later billions of dollars per year of passenger time continues to be wasted in unnecessary additional security precautions. The pre-2001 security system, based on a quick walk through an X-ray machine to check for guns and metal weapons, would be enough.

* The unrivaled autonomy of the medical profession began to erode after the 1950s. As hospitals became larger and more complex, administrative control fell increasingly into the hands of professional administrators. Patients also began to challenge the authority of the medical profession. While “for the most part, the authority of the doctor was unquestioned” in 1960, with the surgical profession even earning such high praise as being called a “religion of competence,” by the early 1970s patients were demanding greater say in how they were treated. What had always been a tradition of “doctors know best” changed in 1972 when a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., for the first time established a legal requirement for informed consent. “According to the new standard, the physician had to tell the patient whatever ‘a reasonable person’ would want to know in order to decide whether to accept the treatment.” In 1973, responding to increasing pressure from healthcare consumers, the American Hospital Association came out with a Patients’ Bill of Rights.

* One of the most important improvements in American industrial efficiency was the establishment by Herbert Hoover of the National Bureau of Standards. Its aim was to create a system of uniformly sized parts, down to screws and bolts, aimed at “simplification of practice, elimination of waste, conservation of materials, minimum training of workers, reduction and savings in supply purchasing and unwieldy inventories, defeat of confusion, and speed in production.”

* Social Security has been central to the reduction of the poverty rate among the elderly, from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent by 2003.

* The ratio of annual immigration to the U.S. population dropped from an average 1.0 percent per year during 1909–13 to 0.25 percent per year during 1925–29, and the growth rate of the population fell from 2.1 percent during 1870–1913 to 0.9 percent between 1926 and 1945.34 The anti-immigration legislation has long been cited as a cause of the Great Depression, in the sense that the overbuilding of residential and nonresidential structures in the 1920s was based on an expectation of continued rapid population growth that did not occur.


June 16, 2016
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