Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt Info

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Measured at the staggering amount of $5.1 trillion (and
growing every day) the national debt is unfathomable to most Americans.
What we may not realize is that the United States was born out of debt.
After the Revolution, the brilliant Alexander Hamilton was less
interested in paying down the Revolutionary war debt than in using it to
create a vibrant national economy. "If it is not excessive," he
declared, "a national debt will be to us a national blessing." In a
fascinating narrative brimming with colorful characters, historical
accidents, and American ingenuity, business historian John Steele Gordon
leads us on a tour of an American institution whose largely unknown
story has been integrally entwined with our country's destiny. At key
points in U.S. history, Gordon shows how the national debt has been a
potent instrument of fiscal policy in keeping the world safe for
democracy. But how much debt is too much? At a time when we despair of
balancing even a single year's budget, Hamilton's Blessing provides much
needed perspective - and hope. * Author writes the "Business of
America" column in American Heritage magazine and is heard often on
public radio's "Marketplace."


Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt:

2

Jul 02, 2011

A historian writing about economic theory. The historical perspective of the national debt is certainly interesting. His proposed solutions to the current debate seem problematic. Lost credibility with me when he claims Congress went wild when it became dominated by "ordinary" citizens instead of the aristocracy of old. It became too easy to spend someone else's money. This ignores the fact that in 2011 there are 261 millionaires in Congress and they are paid $174,000 per year. Hardly "ordinary" A historian writing about economic theory. The historical perspective of the national debt is certainly interesting. His proposed solutions to the current debate seem problematic. Lost credibility with me when he claims Congress went wild when it became dominated by "ordinary" citizens instead of the aristocracy of old. It became too easy to spend someone else's money. This ignores the fact that in 2011 there are 261 millionaires in Congress and they are paid $174,000 per year. Hardly "ordinary" to me. ...more
3

Aug 27, 2011

A strong book overall though the wheels fell off towards the end and potentially some political bias insinuated itself into the text. The premise is pretty amazing and yet totally logical: debt is good. Debt is instant liquidity and liquidity to people/institutions/nations who then have a vested interest in the success of the US. Selling debt is instant capital. And stop comparing 'how you run a household' to how the government runs. That's infuriatingly oversimplifying. Can your household A strong book overall though the wheels fell off towards the end and potentially some political bias insinuated itself into the text. The premise is pretty amazing and yet totally logical: debt is good. Debt is instant liquidity and liquidity to people/institutions/nations who then have a vested interest in the success of the US. Selling debt is instant capital. And stop comparing 'how you run a household' to how the government runs. That's infuriatingly oversimplifying. Can your household borrow money at 0%? Mine can't. In fact, the US government at various points in time has been able to borrow money at negative interest and, literally, profited from borrowing. Also, keeping the household thing running, the US can borrow from itself in a way that a household cannot with any sustainability. That's worth emphasizing.

There are some great points here regarding incentives and the tax code. You'd be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of progressive tax rates than me but Gordon makes a solid case that lowering taxes on the wealthy does demonstrably make the very rich stop taking advantage of loopholes and every time the higher tax rates are lowered, tax revenue increases as the rich stop bothering with the tax loopholes of occasionally dubious legality. Also, the 1990 tax on luxury boats and airplanes was predicted to bring in $16 million but brought in $58k as people just simply stopped buying them. Predicting peoples' reactions to incentives isn't an easy feat. I like that he points out the fallibility of these predictions if only anecdotally.

I had a few issues with him, some significant. One semantic issue was him describing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as "entitlements." A writer on this topic should know that programs that are means-tested (Medicaid) are not, by definition, "entitlements." Sloppy work there.

Also, he gets really haphazard towards the end and dismisses Clinton's surplus as, "An artifact of phony accounting," and he does previously describe some weaknesses with how these things are calculated but it's sloppy for Gordon not to go into his specific objections here. Again, a few pages later discussing the Recovery Act he mentions "fundamentally dishonest federal accounting rules," without bothering to go any further. Also, he cherry-picks the one scoring of health care reform that didn't take into account revenues (from the CBO) and showed it added to the deficit/debt, despite every subsequent (and the final scoring) showing otherwise. That's actually pretty unforgivable cherry-picking.

Another big issue at the end is the utter lack of discussion regarding China. Everyone wants to know what it means that they buy so much of our debt and how the interplay of the Yuan illegally tied to the dollar affects these arguments and China comes up not at all.

All that said, still very informative. Just feels very rushed and political at the end. ...more
4

Feb 14, 2011

Most of us only know Alexander Hamilton as the man whose face graces our ten dollar bills. Or, perhaps we know him as the unfortunate answer to the Jeopardy question: “Who was on the wrong end of a duel with Aaron Burr?” That is too bad because, as this fascinating book makes clear, he really should be most famous for being the architect of the United States’ first set of economic policies in his role as the country’s Secretary of the Treasury. In particular, it was Hamilton who crafted a system Most of us only know Alexander Hamilton as the man whose face graces our ten dollar bills. Or, perhaps we know him as the unfortunate answer to the Jeopardy question: “Who was on the wrong end of a duel with Aaron Burr?” That is too bad because, as this fascinating book makes clear, he really should be most famous for being the architect of the United States’ first set of economic policies in his role as the country’s Secretary of the Treasury. In particular, it was Hamilton who crafted a system of issuing debt at a federal level to replace the less efficient method of relying on the states to serve that role.

“Hamilton’s Blessing” is not really the story of any one man though; rather, it is the history of how America’s national debt developed and has changed over the past two centuries. If that sounds like a dull, painful reading experience, rest assured that it is not. In the hands of a talented historian like Gordon, this is a lively tale replete with myriad accounts of visionary economic insights as well as catastrophic political blunders. A key focus of the narrative is how the collective attitude in the United States regarding the act of borrowing money to pay our bills, which has been both the blessing that Hamilton promised and the curse that many others predicted, has evolved over time.

Today, things like income and inheritance taxes, the existence of a central bank, and a federal government that borrows more than it can ever hope (or intend) to repay are taken as given. However, these are relatively recent developments; a tax on personal income in the United States was introduced to help pay for the Civil War and only became a permanent fixture shortly before World War I. Also, for the country’s first 150 years, lawmakers followed Adam Smith’s prescription of paying back in good times what we needed to borrow strategically in the bad (e.g., wars, economic depressions). Starting in the 1940s, however, that attitude changed dramatically as John Maynard Keynes’ theory of managing the economy with active deficits began to take hold. That path, justified by the belief that the old pay-as-you-go mentality is irrelevant because “we are just borrowing from ourselves,” is the one we are still on today.

It has been said that there is no such thing as a pure economy—only political economies exist. The author emphasizes this point by noting that, removed from the discipline of having to balance the national budget, the last several generations of politicians have lacked the resolve to fix our convoluted tax system or cut federal spending at appropriate times. As a consequence, the national debt has now reached levels that would be incomprehensible to someone living just 50 years ago. While it is occasionally number-heavy and a little dated, this book provides the reader with both a superb historical context and sobering vision of our economic future. ...more
5

May 07, 2012

What a fascinating read-- it's basically a financial history of the United States, condensed into a one-sit read. (Don't let the page total deceive you-- the pages are small, but the typeset is not.)

Gordon is clearly an economist who is trying to be fair by dumping equally on both parties. I won't speak for the Left, but sometimes he's unfair to the Right; but the larger truth-- that both parties have plenty of share in the blame-- is quite clear by the end.

Gordon's discussion of what we today What a fascinating read-- it's basically a financial history of the United States, condensed into a one-sit read. (Don't let the page total deceive you-- the pages are small, but the typeset is not.)

Gordon is clearly an economist who is trying to be fair by dumping equally on both parties. I won't speak for the Left, but sometimes he's unfair to the Right; but the larger truth-- that both parties have plenty of share in the blame-- is quite clear by the end.

Gordon's discussion of what we today call the Laffer Curve, grounded in the 1920s, is superb, and also his discussion of why the budget and deficit discipline collapsed so spectacularly following WWII. This ought to be required reading for high schoolers, or at the very least college freshmen.

Gordon's hope for Newt Gingrich's budget reforms seems quaint today, given how voraciously the Republicans mangled the budget under Bush43; there simply aren't words for what The Teleprompter and his commie cabal have done since. I wonder what Gordon has to say about the present predicament, which makes the late-1990s seem to manageable...

Gordon confines his policy recommendations to a weighty "conclusion" chapter, and makes a stellar case for a flat tax (that replaces both corporate and individual income taxes) and an independent accounting agency for the federal government that uses GAAP standards, as far as possible. On both points, hear, hear! ...more
4

Jan 19, 2016

This is one of the clearest and most useful discussion of our national debt that I've seen or heard of. Gordon is first and foremost an economic historian, so his best work is in enlightening how we got from "there" (the means of building and defending a nation) to "here" ( a debt approaching run away proportions, with most money inefficiently spent to keep constituents happy).

One insight I gained was his positioning of what has changed in our society that this great tool became a great curse. This is one of the clearest and most useful discussion of our national debt that I've seen or heard of. Gordon is first and foremost an economic historian, so his best work is in enlightening how we got from "there" (the means of building and defending a nation) to "here" ( a debt approaching run away proportions, with most money inefficiently spent to keep constituents happy).

One insight I gained was his positioning of what has changed in our society that this great tool became a great curse. The picture I got looks like this: Back "then" (spending originates with congress as you need to keep the executive in check so he doesn't spend too much - no worry about congress overspending because as wealthy elites, they'll be spending their own money) versus now (executive needs a line item veto because congress is spending somebody elses's money and is indeed, hansomely rewarded by re-election to do so!). The discussion of the crooked bookkeeping is discouraging and certainly explains why a balanced budget amendment will do nothing to help.

Recommend you read this book in proximity to "The Predictioneer's Game". Both explain a lot from the perspective of raw self-interest and both feature discussions of Dan Rostenkowski. (If you are a fan of Dan, you won't like Gordon's discussion much!). ...more
3

Oct 07, 2014

This book is a study-in part-of the national debt from Alexander Hamilton to after the Great Recession. While the book is strong when talking about Hamilton, the further it goes the weaker it gets and I must echo other reviews on Goodreads that say that his argument falls apart by the end. This is why political historians may not want to do too much work in economics. I read this for my American public policy class.
5

Jul 10, 2017

This is a great, politically agnostic book that explains how we created the National Debt and why it is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. It ends almost 20 years ago, but the history lesson is really helpful and it's VERY easy to read. So, pick this one up if you want to understand the political football that is our debt.
3

Aug 05, 2008

I always knew that Alexander Hamilton saw debt as a valuable leverage to unify the colonies, but this book outlines the greater role debt has played (for better and worse) in the history of the USA.
4

Dec 02, 2010

Why deficits are necessary, from the central founder of such matters in America.
4

Apr 04, 2013

As a politically motivated individual who has little or no interest in economics, this book was a very enlightening take on the history of the U.S. national debt.
5

Dec 31, 2012

Who knew a book about the history of the public debt could be so fascinating? Scholarly but accessible and enjoyable for the general reader, this brief book gives historical perspective to the problem of budget balancing.
4

Oct 14, 2012

Interesting information about the history of the US national debt. Very readable style. Unfortunately, the end is obviously dated now (though it makes one wonder where we might be as a nation now if some of the author's suggestions had been applied in the mid-90s). I liked it.
3

Jan 07, 2014

Fascinating history of how and why we ended up being the largest debtor nation. 3.5 stars as it gets a bit slow toward the end with more recent history and the author's views on such, but ends with some interesting prescriptions for how to fix our bloated condition.
4

Mar 07, 2007

Hamilton is the most important Founder--at least to most economists. This is a good summary of how and why the first central bank was created, and why the public debt was (and is) so important to economic policy.
4

May 21, 2009

This is a "must read" for anyone who really believes that the Obama Administration's program of increasing the deficit as well as the debt is a good thing. For all those who know that it isn't, you should read this as well. My recommendation - read it and pay attention!
4

Jan 04, 2017

I read this book a number of years ago. Apparently a newer edition was released in 2010. I found it to be a great read - enlightening to understand more about both Hamilton (newly popular these days) and the history of the national debt.
It's been long enough since I've read it that I don't actually remember a great deal, but I do remember that I really liked it - it was enjoyable to read as well as informative.
4

Dec 28, 2011

I read this a while ago but it is worth revisiting. I offer this to anyone who is confused about how and why we have a large national debt. It is a bit dated (having been published roughly 15 years ago) but the history is still solid. Would be interesting if Gordon would update it with more recent information.

The author was on a number of talk shows during the debt crisis this past summer (2011.) I heard him at least twice on NPR.

It is a fast read and should be required reading for anyone who I read this a while ago but it is worth revisiting. I offer this to anyone who is confused about how and why we have a large national debt. It is a bit dated (having been published roughly 15 years ago) but the history is still solid. Would be interesting if Gordon would update it with more recent information.

The author was on a number of talk shows during the debt crisis this past summer (2011.) I heard him at least twice on NPR.

It is a fast read and should be required reading for anyone who wants to talk intelligently about the debt problems that we face in this country. ...more
5

Mar 15, 2011

If you ever wanted to know about the history of the National Debt, here is your source. Gordon does a wonderful job bringing us through Hamilton's Sinking Fund, Biddle's Bank, the Jacksonian era, the Civil War, Jay Gould and the cornering of the gold market, through two World Wars up to our present day. He gives us a picture of the people who made the decisions which led to our massive debt and gives us satisfactory answers to their decisionmaking process. This is a must read for every budding If you ever wanted to know about the history of the National Debt, here is your source. Gordon does a wonderful job bringing us through Hamilton's Sinking Fund, Biddle's Bank, the Jacksonian era, the Civil War, Jay Gould and the cornering of the gold market, through two World Wars up to our present day. He gives us a picture of the people who made the decisions which led to our massive debt and gives us satisfactory answers to their decisionmaking process. This is a must read for every budding economist - amateur and professional - who wants to understand why the debt is so important to our lives. Kudos to Gordon for another job well done. ...more
3

Apr 16, 2012

Gordon's story of the national debt (and budgeting, and deficits, and more) is rather out of date (published 1997) and appears pathetically optimistic at its conclusion. The lead-up is strong as the Hamilton plans of the 1790s are explained and as each successive erosion of Hamiltonian logic comes along the timeline. But in time the dreariness of an out-of-control federal deficit takes over and becomes repetitious. And, while Gordon aspires to fair evaluations of largely congressional addiction Gordon's story of the national debt (and budgeting, and deficits, and more) is rather out of date (published 1997) and appears pathetically optimistic at its conclusion. The lead-up is strong as the Hamilton plans of the 1790s are explained and as each successive erosion of Hamiltonian logic comes along the timeline. But in time the dreariness of an out-of-control federal deficit takes over and becomes repetitious. And, while Gordon aspires to fair evaluations of largely congressional addiction to a growing federal spending spree, that's the very thing that makes a solution seemingly impossible. Overall: this one's illustrative, but depressing. ...more
4

Mar 27, 2009

With budget deficits and the national debt in the news all the time, I thought I'd do a little reading to get caught up. The book starts at the beginning of the country and follow the national debt through the years, explaining its ups and downs and offering mini bios along the way. It helped put the debt into perspective for me. It also made me a little depressed. This book was published in 1997, and the author ends the book on an optimistic note, but many of the things he warns about are With budget deficits and the national debt in the news all the time, I thought I'd do a little reading to get caught up. The book starts at the beginning of the country and follow the national debt through the years, explaining its ups and downs and offering mini bios along the way. It helped put the debt into perspective for me. It also made me a little depressed. This book was published in 1997, and the author ends the book on an optimistic note, but many of the things he warns about are happening right now, this month, this week, and it's worrisome, to say the least. After reading this, I'm more concerned about the budget deficit than the national debt because the problems are more immediate. I wonder if we'll ever elect a politician gutsy enough to tackle these problems head on. I kind of don't think so. Nevertheless, it's a readable book, and I think I'll look into some of his other more recent books. ...more
2

Mar 11, 2014

I'm always excited to read historical accounts on financial matters, mostly because it is so often ignored - both within the field of history and the field of finance. The first few chapters of the book did not make me disappointed - a colorful description of the debt got started and developed. From loans to bonds, and related issues such as the 3 historic central banks and what has constituted the government's spending and income.
After that, the author seems to forget that he's an historian and I'm always excited to read historical accounts on financial matters, mostly because it is so often ignored - both within the field of history and the field of finance. The first few chapters of the book did not make me disappointed - a colorful description of the debt got started and developed. From loans to bonds, and related issues such as the 3 historic central banks and what has constituted the government's spending and income.
After that, the author seems to forget that he's an historian and starts talking at great length - half the book - about specific details in the tax code, entitlement programs etc. And very much not from a historic point of view, rather getting in to modern political debates. And he starts getting very opinionated, which should not be the purpose of the book.
The first few chapters are good, but you can skip the rest. I hope to find better books on this issue. ...more
4

Sep 15, 2007

I’m not sure what’s up with me and the economics books (e.g., Freakonomics), but I really liked this one too. First, I have, for reasons I cannot fully explain, great affection for Alexander Hamilton, and Gordon does nothing to diminish that. Second, this is really a history book and, well, I’m a sucker for a smart look at the past. This book is full of interesting facts about the evolution of the national debt and the great and stupid decisions various presidential administrations have made in I’m not sure what’s up with me and the economics books (e.g., Freakonomics), but I really liked this one too. First, I have, for reasons I cannot fully explain, great affection for Alexander Hamilton, and Gordon does nothing to diminish that. Second, this is really a history book and, well, I’m a sucker for a smart look at the past. This book is full of interesting facts about the evolution of the national debt and the great and stupid decisions various presidential administrations have made in relation to said debt. Did you know the national debt had already reached a billion dollars by 1863? Yes, that was during the Civil War and it went down, but after 1894 it was never below a billion dollars again. I don’t know why I never thought it was that high that long ago. But, as Hamilton noted, government debt’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the book does a great job of showing how and when debt helped and how it can get out of control and not serve any useful purpose. One downside, since the book was written in 1997, so it didn’t touch on the last ten years or so and I would have been fascinated to read how this most recent era fit in too. ...more
5

Feb 24, 2019

Great writing in English and with evidence to back up. I don't agree with the conclusion but it gave me a lot of good information.
4

Dec 10, 2019

I read the 2010 revision of this book that my wife found at a library book sale and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is easy to digest and thought provoking for anyone willing to drop their political preconceptions. I am no fan of government (either party) and it seems to me the author tries to be objective in his view of historical events - which I have learned is almost impossible. Of course I don’t agree with everything, but there is a lot of great information here that will have lasting I read the 2010 revision of this book that my wife found at a library book sale and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is easy to digest and thought provoking for anyone willing to drop their political preconceptions. I am no fan of government (either party) and it seems to me the author tries to be objective in his view of historical events - which I have learned is almost impossible. Of course I don’t agree with everything, but there is a lot of great information here that will have lasting value. Don’t worry about the published date - it seems a great summary of US debt through the end of the “Great Recession” ...more
2

Feb 25, 2018

I don't know if there was actually enough here for a book. Gordon's arguments are interesting, his style is engaging, it's a very breezy read, and I mostly agreed with it... but I think that was part of why I didn't like it. Over and over, Gordon would offer a throwaway piece of conservative wisdom ("Everything has unintended consequences," etc.) and just continue with his argument. Which I probably would have liked about 10 years ago, but now it all feels like an appeal to authority: either I don't know if there was actually enough here for a book. Gordon's arguments are interesting, his style is engaging, it's a very breezy read, and I mostly agreed with it... but I think that was part of why I didn't like it. Over and over, Gordon would offer a throwaway piece of conservative wisdom ("Everything has unintended consequences," etc.) and just continue with his argument. Which I probably would have liked about 10 years ago, but now it all feels like an appeal to authority: either make the case as to how those things work (which is probably beyond the scope of the book), or just write more neutrally. It was grating by the end.

His final chapter was less history and more prognostication. At 20 years old, it feels dated ("The Far Left will have to abandon its interest in raising marginal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans"), but his prescriptions seem worthwhile. But I don't think they fit into this book.

Gordon's a good writer, and I've been reading him for a while. But I'd skip this one. ...more

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