The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

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9781400095711: The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

From the author of Day of Reckoning, the acclaimed critique of Ronald Reagan’s economic policy (“Every citizen should read it,” said The New York Times): a persuasive, wide-ranging argument that economic growth provides far more than material benefits.

In clear-cut prose, Benjamin M. Friedman examines the political and social histories of the large Western democracies–particularly of the United States since the Civil War–to demonstrate the fact that incomes on the rise lead to more open and democratic societies. He explains that growth, rather than simply a high standard of living, is key to effecting political and social liberalization in the third world, and shows that even the wealthiest of nations puts its democratic values at risk when income levels stand still. Merely being rich is no protection against a turn toward rigidity and intolerance when a country’s citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.

With concrete policy suggestions for pursuing growth at home and promoting worldwide economic expansion, this volume is a major contribution to the ongoing debate about the effects of economic growth and globalization.

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Review:

Ever feel like you just can't get ahead with the bills? You're not alone. More than half of Americans believe the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve. And two-thirds think this goal will be even harder for the next generation. (One reason for the gloominess--average full-time income has fallen 15 percent since 1975.) All this has Benjamin Friedman worried. In his hefty, 549-page tome, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, the acclaimed Harvard economist and advisor to the Federal Reserve Board says economic stagnation is bad for the moral health of a nation. Friedman, a former chair of Harvard's economics department, argues that economic growth is vital to social and political progress. Witness Hitler's Germany. Without growth, people look for answers in intolerance and fear. And that, Friedman warns, is where the U.S. is headed if the economic stagnation of the past three decades doesn't soon reverse. It's not enough for gross domestic product to rise, he says. Growth also has to be more evenly distributed. The rich shouldn't be the only ones getting richer.

Friedman's arguments are provocative but at times lack rigor. In his comparisons of various countries, he offers no objective data to measure their levels of social progress, relying instead on his own--sometimes selective--interpretation of historical events. He glosses over the fact that China, where the economy has grown sevenfold since 1978, has seen little political change in that time. He also acknowledges that the Great Depression--which brought Americans together to achieve great social and political progress--tends to disprove his theory. Friedman makes a good case that the economy sometimes influences social movements, but the jury is still out on exactly when and how that happens. --Alex Roslin

About the Author:

Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy and former chairman of the department of economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1972. The author of several scholarly works; his first trade book, Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After, was awarded the George S. Eccles Prize, awarded annually by Columbia University for excellence in writing about economics. A former investment banker, he has consulted for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and individual Federal Reserve banks. He has worked with the National Bureau of Economic Research, the National Science Foundation Subcommittee on Economics, and the Congressional Budget Office. Professor Friedman has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Review of Books.

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