The Economist Who Knows the Miracle Is Over

An era of remarkable prosperity has ended.

A sketch of a hand that is writing in a very large book with a very large quill pen
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

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.”

Along with his academic work, DeLong served in the Clinton administration. He married the legal scholar Ann Marie Marciarille, an expert on health-care regulation; they had two kids, now adults. And he started blogging—the thing for which he is perhaps best known. Since 1999, he has written in his “semi-daily journal,” which is funny, erudite, and weird. (Over the years, he has flambéed no fewer than 11 people as the “stupidest man alive,” among them former World Bank President Bob Zoellick.)

DeLong’s book project preceded the blog. In 1994, he read the socialist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes, on the “short 20th century” between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, in 1914, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. “It makes a grand narrative arc, with communism as the tragic hero of the 20th century, hopelessly marred by the circumstances of its birth,” DeLong told me. He loved it, and decided to cast his own long arc, with capitalism as the tragic hero.

The heroic part is heroic: For the first time in history, DeLong notes, the world managed to create enough after 1870. Enough to end subsistence agriculture in much of the world. Enough to reduce the global child-mortality rate from nearly 50 percent to less than 5 percent. Enough that many of the very poorest people on Earth have access to cellphones and electricity today. But the tragic part is tragic: This modern era also brought with it machine guns and atom bombs and the atrocities of the Holocaust, among other genocides. And even as so many economies succeeded, so many governments failed—to end racial injustice, to protect the most vulnerable, to ensure that everybody shared in the world’s prosperity, to conserve our common environment.

In his basement, his attic, and his office, DeLong kept assembling his book. He used the free-marketeer Friedrich Hayek and the social-protectionist Karl Polanyi as central figures and then braided in details about a huge cast of characters: Marx; Henry Ford; Keynes; Hitler; Gandhi; his own great-great-uncle, an economic historian named Abbott Payson Usher.

His editors kept checking in. His friends inquired about the drafts they had read years before. The project ballooned in its complexity. “I have had editors who were saying [they were] going to drop me if I couldn’t get it down to 150,000 words,” DeLong told me. (The book ended up at 180,000, plus online notes and appendices.) But he kept learning new things. “I can start reading a book, and then from it I can spin up in my brain a sub-Turing instantiation of the author’s mind, which I then run on my wetware,” he told me. “I can ask it questions, and it answers.” Describing his own thought process, he added: “‘A rich inner life’ is one way to put it. Or perhaps a slight absence of grip on what is the real world and what is not.”

In 1999, he thought the book could end by discussing what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history”—the idea, popularized in a book of the same name, that the fall of communism heralded the final triumph of democracy and free-market neoliberal economics. “There were these huge ideological struggles, but now we’ve kind of got it,” DeLong said, describing his mindset at the turn of the millennium. “There’s going to be some future alternation between right neoliberalism, left neoliberalism, and social democracy.” But then came 9/11 and the global War on Terror. “People seemed to be about to start killing each other in large numbers about religion,” DeLong said. Moreover, he added, “most of what we Clintonites had actually managed to do in terms of whacking economic policy into what we saw as a good state was to enable another round of tax cuts for the rich and another round of plutocracy.” And then came President Barack Obama and the “enormous failure to actually implement what I had thought was the standard playbook we’d learned in the Great Depression,” DeLong said.

In time, DeLong concluded that neoliberalism and social democracy would not be gently taking turns. In political terms, the future instead would be about the “return of something that Madeleine Albright called fascism, and who am I to tell her not to,” he said. And in economic terms, it would be about high inequality, low productivity, and slow growth. “We may have solved the problem of production,” DeLong told me. “We certainly have not solved the problem of distribution, or of utilizing our extraordinary, immense wealth to make us happy and good people.”

The story the book tells is compelling, though occasionally overpowering in its detail and telescoped in its argument. The global South—where the majority of humanity lives—gets cursory treatment. DeLong argues that fitting much of its economic history into his book would have been too complicated. And while gesturing to the evidence that colonial empires leeched prosperity from conquered land, he asserts that the North “causally led” the “advances” of the South. Yet the book is justice-minded and tenderhearted too. “There’s someone in Bangladesh who would almost surely be a better economics professor than I am and is now behind a water buffalo,” he told me. “The market economy gives me and my preferences 200 times the voice and weight of his. If that isn’t the biggest market failure of all, I don’t know what your definition of market failure could possibly be.”

For all its problems, the long 20th century granted enormous prosperity to billions of people: cellphones, white-collar jobs, the birth-control pill, penicillin, space exploration, home appliances, electric grids, the internet. If, as DeLong claims, a remarkable period of prosperity has ended, then governments face the enormous task of strengthening representative democracy, reallocating the world’s immense resources more equitably, and reigniting productivity growth. As for DeLong, he has a more immediate challenge: figuring out what to do with the hundreds of thousands of words he trimmed out of Slouching Towards Utopia. He thinks he might write a history of the economy, full stop. That story might start in 6,000 B.C.