Brad DeLong felt confident that the story started in 1870.
The polymath economist was writing a book on economic modernity—about how humans transitioned from eking out an existence on our small planet to building a kind of utopia on it—and he saw an inflection point centuries after the emergence of capitalism and decades after the advent of manufacturing at scale. “The Industrial Revolution is good. The Industrial Revolution is huge,” he explained to me recently, sitting on the back porch of his wood-clad Colonial Revival in Berkeley, California. But “as of 1870, things have not really changed that much for most people.” Soon after that, though—after the development of the vertically integrated corporation, the industrial research lab, modern communication devices, and modular shipping technologies—“everything changes in a generation, and then changes again, and again, and again, and again.” Global growth increases fourfold. The world breaks out of near-universal agrarian poverty. Modernity takes hold.
DeLong had begun working on this story in 1994. He had produced hundreds of thousands of words, then hundreds of thousands more, updating the text as academic economics and the world itself changed. He kept writing, for years, for decades, for so long that he ended up writing for roughly 5 percent of the time capitalism itself has existed. The problem wasn’t figuring out how the story started. The problem was knowing when it ended.
In time, he decided that the era that had begun in 1870 ended in 2010, shortly after productivity growth and GDP growth had collapsed, as inequality was strangling economic vibrancy around the world and revanchist political populism was on the rise. With a bit more writing, he finished Slouching Towards Utopia, one of this year’s most anticipated economics books, to be published on Tuesday. His long-gestating examination of what he calls the “long 20th century” is sweeping and detailed, learned and accessible, familiar and strange—a definitive look at how we arrived at such material splendor and how it failed to deliver all that it seemed to promise. His decision to end the story in 2010, and thus to finish his book, holds a message for all of us: Despite its problems and iniquities, the economic era Americans just lived through was miraculous. And now it is over.
As for the story of DeLong himself: He is an economic historian and a macroeconomist at UC Berkeley, a liberal policy stalwart, and one of the original econ bloggers, still publishing his thoughts almost daily, as he has done since before the word blog was invented in 1999. His story, I suppose, really begins in Washington, D.C., where he grew up as the science-fiction-obsessed, math-whiz son of a lawyer and a clinical psychologist. (His mother still sees patients.) He went to Harvard for an undergraduate degree and then a Ph.D. in economics, writing papers and forging close friendships with a teenage Soviet refugee named Andre Shleifer (now the second-most-cited economist on Earth) and Larry Summers (the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president). “Brad is the person you want to write with if you want a collaborator doing something that’s bold, potentially important, possibly wrong, and unlikely to satisfy pedantic academic referees,” Summers told me. “I’m a huge, huge fan of the guy.”