Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Scott Reynolds Nelson reviews Jefferson Cowie

Related to yesterday's post, Scott Reynolds Nelson reviews Jefferson Cowie's latest book.

"Cowie shows a mastery of the fierce debates in labor history, political history, women’s history, and political theory. He’s weaker, however, in his discussions of the South, economic issues, and the Gilded Age."

Nelson explains that Cowie

"briefly examines, then dismisses, the international economy by saying that Gilded Age America sat behind a tariff wall. In fact, American tariffs in the 1880s were tiny compared with those of Germany, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire.
Cowie’s Gilded Age pits workers against robber barons, who used the labor efficiencies of steam engines and huge factories to play one ethnic group against the other. That’s true enough but also a cliché. The biggest Gilded Age productivity gains were in smaller Northern industries where skilled German immigrants supervised Eastern European semi-skilled, literate, and numerate machine operators. The standard of living in the South, which had neither, fell behind for half a century.
This is not to romanticize the Gilded Age, which saw atrocious death rates in industrial accidents and brutal attacks on strikers. But workers’ standard of living was, by international standards, rising compared with its low point in the 1850s.
Cowie further suggests that a pivotal national election in 1896 allowed workers to be "incorporated" into the Republican Party, thus destroying the Populist coalition. But the critical election was actually 1894, and it followed an international financial crisis for which workers blamed Democrats.
If understanding the American Gilded Age requires seeing the international scene, so does understanding the New Deal. As Eric Hobsbawm, Alfred Chandler, and Thomas Sugrue have separately argued, the New Deal high-wage system succeeded only between 1945 to 1973 when the United States had few international competitors. By 1973, Japanese and German firms had retooled to challenge American monopoly power in world markets, forcing U.S. plant closings, loss of union jobs, and an international redistribution of labor.
Cowie likewise dismisses the international oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 as only contributing to the inflation of the 1970s; America’s war in Vietnam was the primary culprit, he asserts. But the oil shocks and the retooling of Germany and Japan together contributed to the failure of the American steel, auto, chemical, and appliance industries."
It is possible that Jefferson Cowie might not be the best person to turn to for advice about understanding the economy, past or present.

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