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Utopia or Bust

The grand narrative of the long century between 1870 and 2010 was about technological triumph, coupled with social-organizational failure. Now, the politics of economic governance has gotten even messier, opening up the possibility that we will end up with the worst of all possible worlds.

BERKELEY – My book on the economic history of the twentieth century, published last fall, did not include a chapter on the question of the future or “what we should do next,” because my frequent co-author, Stephen S. Cohen, convinced me that whatever I wrote would come to look outdated and silly within six months. He was right: such arguments are better left to commentaries like this one. So, if I had written a final chapter looking to the future, what should I have said?

Prior to the phantom text, I argue that for most of history, humanity was too poor for political governance to be anything but elites ruling through force and fraud to amass wealth and resources for themselves. But in 1870, the rocket of modern economic growth blasted off, doubling humanity’s technological competence every generation thereafter. Suddenly, we seemed to have acquired the means to bake an economic pie large enough for everyone to have enough. If we could solve the second-order problems of how to distribute and consume the pie so that everyone felt safe, healthy, and happy, a kind of utopia would be within reach.

Yet something went wrong. Between 1870 and 2010, humanity did not gallop, run, canter, trot, or even walk toward utopia. At best, we slouched – and not even always in the right direction. By the first decade of this century, the engine of economic growth had clearly begun to misfire. Not only could we no longer count on rapid growth, but we also had to account for new civilization-shaking threats like climate change.

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