On HumansMarch 12, 202301:19:0672.43 MB

18 | Human Condition in the Long 20th Century; Or How Economics Changed Everything ~ Brad DeLong

Most histories of the 20th century focus on world wars and ideological conflicts. Others focus on the fall of European empires. Yet others focus on the slow but inevitable progress of social justice movements.

Important themes.

But according to Brad DeLong, the real story of “the long 20th century” (1870-2010) is an economic story. It is the story of how humanity, for the first time in its existence, was able to generate prosperity for the masses–so much so that it became technically possible to eradicate poverty altogether.

DeLong is an economic historian and the author of the magisterial “Slouching Towards Utopia”. In the book, he argues that the so-called “2nd Industrial Revolution” of 1870 changed the human condition in unprecedented ways. During the course of the long 20th century, fewer and fewer humans had to stay on the farm. More and more humans could enjoy a comfortable life. And the speedy development of new technologies meant that most humans saw their professions undergo a revolution in every generation–something that caused great material prosperity, but also social dislocation and a search for ideologies to confront the changing social realities.

In many ways, DeLong tells a happy story of unprecedented victories for humanity at large. Yet humanity did not reach utopia. And alas, DeLong argues that the material boom ended in 2010. (The episode doesn’t discuss this latter claim. But if you are curious: DeLong’s argues that 2010 was marked by a sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, a looming climate catastrophe, and a populist turn against the ideologies that had energised the economic growth of the long 20th century.)

In this discussion, Prof DeLong and Ilari discuss questions such as:

  • Why 1870 was a landmark moment for the humanity
  • How poor was the average person before 1870?
  • What allowed the economic revolution of 1870 - and how Nikola Tesla symbolises the era.
  • Did the world become less exploitative after 1870?
  • The difficulties in judging the merits of “capitalism”
  • What did Marx and Engels get right? And what not?
  • Was imperialism a fuel or a drag on the economic boom in Europe and US?
  • Why global inequalities became so large throughout the 20th Century?
  • Why local inequalities (within rich countries) became smaller throughout the 20th Century - until 1970s.
  • How economics explains the rise of ideologies from socialism to fascism and from civil rights to feminism


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Get in touch: ilari@onhumans.org


Names mentioned

Eric Hobsbaum / Francis Fukuyama / Jason Hickel / Dylan Sullivan Marshall Sahlsin / John Maynard Keynes / Oded Galor / Nate Rosenberg / Nikola Tesla, inventor / George Westinghouse / Eli Whitney, inventor / Friedrich Engels / Karl Marx / Friedrich von Hayek / Milton Friedman / Gary Gerstle / Ronald Reagan / Margaret Thatcher

Papers mentioned

Capitalism and Extreme Poverty (Sullivan & Hick 2023)

Technical terms

Malthusianism / Demographic transition / Creative destruction (after the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter) / The Kuznets curve / Elastic and inelastic supply and demand