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In the years since The Atlantic’s founding, the national and global economies have changed dramatically. A predominantly agrarian society has given way to an industrial society, which in turn has given way to a globally networked information society. Through all these dramatic transformations, written commentary in magazines like The Atlantic has provided context, insight, and occasional pointed criticism, to help ordinary people make sense of the shifting economic climates affecting them.
In some instances—as in the case of Henry Demarest Lloyd’s compelling written attack on the infamous Standard Oil monopoly—the urgent eloquence of a critical essay has mobilized citizens to amend the rules governing the prevailing economic system. In other cases, economic thinkers have availed themselves of the essay form to buoy readers during times of financial crisis, or to provoke them to demand more from capitalism than mere fulfillment of their material needs. Still others have sought to alert readers to major social and economic changes being wrought by new technological advances, or to celebrate the heady (and lucrative) possibilities available to the savvy entrepreneur in a free market.
Taken together, the five articles excerpted here exemplify the ways in which large-minded thinkers can illuminate the complexities of the sometimes mysterious-seeming economic world—dispelling harmful myths, opening readers’ eyes to insidious abuses or unrecognized potentials, and equipping ordinary citizens with tools not merely for weathering the prevailing economic system but for engaging with it in a positive and strategic manner.
As recently as four years ago, America again went into recession, and globalization has caused increasing anxiety among workers about competition from cheap labor abroad. The system has delivered enormous benefits for those at the top, but incomes at the bottom have stagnated, or even declined. Given such realities, it is more important than ever for people to be armed with economic knowledge.
Though economic science has advanced and the language we use to discuss it has changed, the issues raised in the following pages are as salient today as they were when the articles were written. They articulate the struggle to create an economy that not only functions well and efficiently but is in service to the highest human ideals.
Monopoly on the March (March 1881)
by Henry Demarest Lloyd
This was one of the earliest pieces of progressive muckraking to be published in a national, well-respected magazine—and the first exposé of the Standard Oil Trust to be taken seriously. The issue in which the article appeared sold out seven printings, and it helped bring antitrust legislation to the forefront of national debate, auguring the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
The Resilience of Capitalism (May 1932)
by John Maynard Keynes
In the midst of the Great Depression, British economist John Maynard Keynes considered the prospects for capitalism’s survival.
Liberty, Happiness... and the Economy (June 1967)
by John Kenneth Galbraith
At a time when Cold War tensions had rendered Americans suspicious of anything that smacked even vaguely of socialism, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith made a case for the value of a certain degree of centralized market oversight: “It is through the state that the society must assert the superior claims of aesthetic over economic goals and particularly of environment over cost.”
The Age of Social Transformation (November 1994)
by Peter F. Drucker
As the twentieth century drew to a close, management expert Peter F. Drucker hailed the advent of the knowledge worker.
Building Wealth (June 1999)
by Lester C. Thurow
In 1999, MIT economist Lester C. Thurow explained how great fortunes are made.