The most influential idea in the recent presidential election was to make us “Great Again.” It implies we are presently at a low point and once were at the height of achievement and prosperity. [Note: Large portions of the following are quotations or paraphrases because I can’t gainsay the authors named in the footnotes.]

The most influential idea in the recent presidential election was to make us “Great Again.” It implies we are presently at a low point and once were at the height of achievement and prosperity. [Note: Large portions of the following are quotations or paraphrases because I can’t gainsay the authors named in the footnotes.]

In his study of the rise of great powers, Paul Kennedy chose the period 1885-1914 as the period of our ascendance to great power status along with Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and France. It wasn’t until 1892 that the Great Powers of Europe upgraded the status of their diplomatic missions to the U.S. from minister to ambassador---the latter the mark of a first division nation.

By the end of WWI in 1918, we were the dominant world power and European powers were bankrupt and their economies in ruins. What makes a great power? Most would think either the largest population or greatest military establishment. Kennedy wrote the answer as an equation “economic strength = military strength.” U.S. industry was undamaged in WWII leaving us dominant in global markets 1945-70. [Kennedy, 198]

“The successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial base. Industrial productivity, with science and technology, became an ever more vital component of national strength. Alterations in the international shares of manufacturing production were reflected in the changing international shares of military power and diplomatic influence. ” [Kennedy]

A powerful military is necessary but not sufficient to project power worldwide: it has to be backed by an economy that can pay for and sustain it. It is a lesson a nation twenty trillion dollars in debt should keep in mind when budgeting.

U.S. 1885-1918

In 1776, the U.S. clung to the East Coast. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 of 828,000 square miles doubled the size of the nation but left the 2,000 miles between the Appalachians and Rockies uninhabited by the white man. The telegraph, funded by Congress and the State of California, opened communication coast to coast in 1861 followed in 1869 by the 1912-mile transcontinental railroad also funded by the federal government. Settlers were drawn by land either sold at bargain basement prices or given away.

Between 1865 and 1898 American wheat production increased 256%, coal by 800%, steel rails by 523%, miles of railroad track 567%, and crude petroleum production from 3,000,000 to 55,000,000 barrels. The cost of shipping wheat from Chicago to London declined from 40 cents to 10 cents a bushel. When the famous British war ship designer Sir Wm. White made a tour of the U.S. in 1904, he was shaken to discover fourteen battleships and thirteen armored cruisers being built simultaneously in American yards! By 1917, our industrial output was greater than that of Great Britain, Germany, and France combined! [Kennedy, 201]

National Greatness

Societies remained on the brink of destitution until well into the nineteenth century. Life expectancy rose only modestly between the Neolithic Period about 10,000 B.C. to 3500 B.C. and the Victorian era, 1837 to 1901. An American born in the late nineteenth century had an average life expectancy of around 45 years. Then something remarkable happened. Economic development and improvements in educational levels and medical science shot up standards of living. Years of schooling went from single digits to double digits and the productivity of workers and their take-home pay doubled, doubled again, and then doubled again. [Hacker]

Capitalism played a role but effective governance was crucial to progress. The economy and government both grew. Public expenditures increased from 10% of the output of the wealthiest nations in 1900 to 60% in 2000 in the highest-spending rich nations. We assume small nations have large governments and rich nations have small governments, but in fact the richest countries expanded their governments the most. Modern growth occurred where, and only where, activist government emerged. [Hacker]

“Perhaps the most important thing that big states started doing was educating their citizens. Modern growth commenced when people rapidly increased their ability to do more with less. They were able to do more because they knew more and they knew more because they were taught more. Technical change, the ideas and innovations that allow people to be more productive—rest on widespread public education. Indeed, economists have concluded that roughly a third of rising productivity is tied directly to increased education .Infrastructure and fundamental scientific research are the cornerstones for technological innovation. “ [Hacker]

Mixed Economy

American business wasn’t great then shackled by the growth of government rather business grew to greatness with assistance from government forming what is called a ‘mixed economy.” The best example of a mixed economy is MAPS in OKC. MAPS receives proceeds of a one cent sales tax that generates $100 million a year part of which pays for specified capital projects such as the Bricktown ball park and canal. They financed reconstructing the river downtown which has attracted numerous private investments along the river.. Two senior health and wellness centers were built by public money and managed privately. A convention center and streetcar system are under development. [Oklahoman, March 15, 2017]

This public-private partnership, like the transcontinental railroad were subsidized by government then owned and operated privately. The U.S. comingled public and private spending, direct outlays and indirect subsidies, central direction and decentralized implementation. It was enormously active and enormously successful.

[ ] Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, ASNY: Random House, 1987, ch.5.

[ ] Hacker, Jacob W, and Paul Pierson, “Making America Great Again: The Case for the Mixed Economy, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016, 69-90.