The Creative Society – and the Price Americans Paid for It

Guest Author:  Louis Galambos

If you want to know what has shaped American society in the last century or so, if you are teaching history and want your students to see how they can put themselves and their families into history, or if you are just a history buff who wants to keep up with the new ways to see and understand your nation, you will want to read The Creative Society – and the Price Americans Paid for It (Cambridge,2012). The focus is on professionals, the experts who created new ideas that helped the nation cope with the major problems it faced in the twentieth century – and still faces today. Many of those professionals didn’t produce entirely new ideas but instead negotiated the compromises that enabled the society to move on to the next big problem. That too is a creative process, but we usually only notice it when it doesn’t work. Then the media grinds out heroes and villains. We worry. But we usually don’t do anything because we leave most of those problems in the hands of the experts, the professionals.

Not all of the nation’s major problems were solved with equal skill, and this book also looks into failure: institutional failure, personal failure, and intellectual failure.  That’s why the subtitle guides you to “the price Americans paid” for their brand of creativity. Even great success comes with a price tag. Some paid more dearly than others, especially those who paid with their lives. Our economic turmoil today is a perfect example of how Americans handle and sometimes mishandle these painful situations. As the book will help you understand, our creative society has been challenged before. This history may even prepare you to deal with our future challenges at home and abroad.  We’ll surely have them.

The central subject of the book is how Americans tried to deal with four of those problems and how a new class of experts – the professionals – came to play a central role in all of the country’s crises. One of the problems America had to face was learning how to cope with urban life. A second involved finding new ways to keep the U.S. economy innovative, changing to cope with new situations at home and overseas, adapting to new patterns of competition, and adopting new technologies and new types of organizations while finding and serving new markets.  In their rush to take advantage of the great opportunities U.S. resources offered, Americans gave little thought to the growing need for economic security in a more equitable society. Most were preoccupied with the creative side of creative destruction, but the need for security and equity became a serious problem as the society became increasingly urban and industrial. The fourth problem was complex and dangerous for the entire nation. Near the end of the nineteenth century, America became the world’s leading industrial power. It was the largest and most populous of the developed nations. As we exercised that power, the nation gradually began to piece together an empire, a distinctly U.S. style of empire that is still with us and still causing problems today. 

Along the way from the 1890s to January 2009, you will meet some real people (including the author’s family) in the book. Many readers will see a place for their own families in this history. All were caught up in a narrative of rapid change as a new professional class came to dominate the sources of power and wealth in America. At times this new class threatened to undercut our democracy, substituting the knowledge of the experts for the voices of the people. This is a struggle that continues today in every activity controlled by our 45 million professionals.

Still, we need their expertise and we benefit, as well, from the paths professionalism opens up for all those who can take advantage of America’s enormous educational system.  The book ends on a positive note:  “In the midst of great uncertainty, there are plenty of signs that this is still a creative society – one that learns from the past and continues to be flexible, a society with tremendous resources and a determination to use them to solve problems of the sort we’ve been discussing.”

Mr. Louis Galambos, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and an editor of “The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower“, is the author of “The Creative Society—and the Price Americans Paid for It (Cambridge, 2012)“. He’s also the Co-Director of The Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise, Johns Hopkins University.

He has taught at Rice University, Rutgers University, and Yale University, and have served as President of the Business History Conference and the Economic History Association. A former editor of The Journal of Economic History, he has written extensively on U.S. business history, on business-government relations, on the economic aspects of modern institutional development in America, and on the rise of the bureaucratic state.

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