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Ours Was the Shining Future summary

David Leonhardt

The Story of the American Dream

3.9 (155 ratings)
18 mins
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    Ours Was the Shining Future
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    A dream on the rise

    It’s difficult to know for certain, but the phrase, “the American Dream,” seems to have first appeared around the time of the Great Depression – the economic crisis of the 1930s that forced the US to reconsider just about everything.

    Up to that point, there were two forces of power when it came to the economy. There was the Progressive movement and the big business interests, and they were completely at odds with each other. On the one hand, Progressives were hard at work trying to establish things like a minimum wage and safer working conditions. On the other, big business interests were essentially proponents of what the author refers to as rough-and-tumble capitalism. This is the version of capitalism that is accompanied by low taxes and few regulations. A laissez-faire government allows corporations to behave largely as they want, and for market forces to dominate.

    The Progressive movement had made some headway at the turn of the century when it came to economic equality. But the kind of worker’s rights that cut into profits were the subject of a fierce backlash in the 1910s. So, while the 1920s were an economic boom time, it was also a time of severe economic imbalance – and the decade ended with a crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

    During the 30s, the opposing powers faced off in a battle over the rising power of worker’s unions. The Depression created a dire situation for so many people that a large political force was able to band together under a common cause. The workers were demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more rights.

    The Minneapolis coal drivers strike of 1934 became a turning point. Led by union branch Local 574, the strike resulted in substantial concessions from employers, setting a precedent for union victories across various industries. The strike put the new president, Franklin Roosevelt, in a tough situation in having to decide between the interests of influential big business or the downtrodden workers. But ultimately he came down on the side of the unions. 

    His administration, bolstered by the Secretary of Labor, Fannie Perkins, further solidified workers' rights with the Wagner Act in 1935. This protected the right to collective bargaining, and it played a pivotal role in shaping policies that included public works, a minimum wage, and workplace safety.

    Labor unions have gotten their fair share of criticism over the years, but they have historically played a crucial role in securing workers' rights and improving living standards. The early worries were that unions would harm the economy, but the evidence suggests that when unions thrive, wealth is better redistributed. The CEOs may receive less money, but the economy is unharmed.

    An important takeaway here is that the success of the labor movement in the 1930s depended on political support. Their efforts would have likely been crushed without supportive leaders like Roosevelt and Perkins. The story of Minneapolis in the 1930s illustrates how collective action and political backing can lead to significant social and economic change, shaping a more just and equitable society.

    President Roosevelt's evolving policies and the strengthening of worker’s unions around the country helped turn the tide and put the US on the path of recovery. The nation began to veer away from self-interested practices. It dawned on business leaders that corporate culture could in fact prioritize national interests and good wages – that overall prosperity was possible. This what’s-good-for-everyone-is-good-for-us approach is at the heart of democratic capitalism.

    This line of thinking continued into the WWII era and beyond as the government took a more cooperative approach with labor unions and regulators. The Committee for Economic Development or CED played a pivotal role, promoting the idea that cost control isn't the sole route to profitability. This ideological shift resulted in a more moderate form of capitalism, where wages rose, and the economy experienced a level of equality not seen since the mid-19th century. Dwight Eisenhower's presidency reflected this cultural shift, emphasizing economic moderation and compromise between businesses and workers. 

    Eisenhower was also able to see a bigger picture. In making wise investments in infrastructure, he sacrificed short-term gains in favor of long-term economic growth and prosperity. In many ways, Eisenhower’s policies and investments defied the expectations of a Republican leader. They generally preferred a small government. But Eisenhower’s time in office left an enduring impact that led to transformative changes like the interstate highway system and technological advancements that made post-war America an innovative world power.

    Now, there are some contradictions to the rise of the so-called American dream. It can be hard to imagine that the wage disparity between white and Black workers actually shrank during the postwar era. The 1940s and 50s were a time of severe inequality and government-sanctioned racial discrimination. But at the same time, unions became more inclusive in allowing more non-white workers to join. The broad, common good-oriented policies of the postwar era were such that Black families were able to climb the economic ladder in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

    However, by the time of the larger civil rights victories in the 1960s, the country was already beginning to shift. Labor unions grew more complacent and corrupt, and the government was going to once again reconsider the benefits of a laissez-faire approach.

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    What is Ours Was the Shining Future about?

    Ours Was the Shining Future (2023) reflects on the rise and fall of democratic capitalism and the American Dream. It highlights the growing disparity between political representation and the economic interests of the working class in the United States.

    Ours Was the Shining Future Review

    Ours Was the Shining Future (2021) by David Leonhardt is a thought-provoking exploration of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for our society. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With its sharp analysis and insightful observations, it offers a fresh perspective on our shared future and what it might hold.
    • The book delves into complex issues such as technological advancements, climate change, and inequality, providing readers with a deeper understanding of these pressing concerns.
    • Through its compelling narratives and well-researched arguments, the book manages to engage and captivate readers, ensuring it is far from boring.

    Who should read Ours Was the Shining Future?

    • History buffs and political junkies
    • Anyone interested in American economics
    • People wondering how US politics got to where it is today

    About the Author

    David Leonhardt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer. He is a senior writer for The New York Times and specializes in providing readers with a nuanced understanding of the economic forces shaping the American experience. 

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    Ours Was the Shining Future FAQs 

    What is the main message of Ours Was the Shining Future?

    The main message of Ours Was the Shining Future is a powerful reflection on the American Dream and the consequences of unchecked capitalism.

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    The reading time for Ours Was the Shining Future varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Ours Was the Shining Future a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Ours Was the Shining Future is a thought-provoking read that sheds light on important socio-economic issues. It's definitely worth your time.

    Who is the author of Ours Was the Shining Future?

    David Leonhardt is the author of Ours Was the Shining Future.