New book: Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late Twentieth Century, by Andrew L. Yarrow *81 (University of Massachusetts Press)
The author: A public policy professional, journalist, and adjunct professor of modern U.S. history at American University in Washington, D.C., Yarrow has worked for Public Agenda, the Brookings Institution, and the World Bank, among other institutions and organizations. A former New York Times reporter and speechwriter for the Clinton Administration, he is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun and a senior policy analyst for Independent Sector.
The book: Today, and in the years since about World War II, Americans have judged the nation’s success and greatness primarily by looking at economic indicators like the GDP — the king of postwar statistics. But that wasn’t always the case, argues Yarrow, in his study of the rise of economic thinking in the United States after World War II. For most of the country’s history, he writes, ideas about what made the U.S. distinctive were generally framed in terms of liberal idealism rooted in the thought of John Locke and articulated by the founders. The focus on economics, he says, “has made us think about our nation as ‘an economy’ more than as a society, a polity, or a people.” Yarrow analyzes how and why economic ideas increasingly have influenced American identity and culture and “how those ideas dovetailed with a growing belief that the meaning and success of the United States and its people resided in its output/income.”
Opening lines: “On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, social scientist Lee Coleman wrote a short essay (“What is American?”) in which he analyzed ‘alleged American traits’ and ideals most often mentioned in books, articles, and speeches throughout the country’s history. Coleman listed America’s democratic tradition, republican form of government, pioneer and frontier spirit, individualism, and belief in liberty, equality, and mobility. Secondly, in a darker vein, he noted Americans’ conformism and materialism.”
Review: Online book reviewer Alan Caruba called Measuring America “well-researched and insightful.” Yarrow, he wrote, “examines how Americans’ values have been shaped by economic statistics and concepts during the last seventy years.”