Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”

by on October 3, 2006 · 12 comments

So I recently sat down and quickly read through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. This has gotten some good reviews and I generally like this type of history–history of the downtrodden, economic history more than wars and such.


But I didn’t find this one especially compelling. It is quite a litany of woes, but although the woes are real enough, the analysis and context is either lacking or unconvincing. Zinn is trying to make the case that capitalism and democracy have consistently been and still are being corrupted by powerful interests. There is certainly such a case to be made. But while things have gone and continue to go wrong, not everything has gone wrong. In fact, some things have gone quite spectacularly right–general increases in life expectancy and the standard of living, for example–particularly as compared with much of the rest of the world or the United States of centuries or decades ago. Informed only by Zinn’s book, one would think that there had been no improvements at all. Knowing that there are, the book’s concerns come across as hysterical rather than compelling. I don’t mind a certain amount of ideology mixed with my history, but not when it moves the author to omit important threads of analysis.

  • eric

    One thing I wonder about is the inequality in income gains. This is, we are told, in “The Height of Inequality” in the September Atlantic Monthly, a largely a US and British phenomenon. The financial benefits of productivity gains seem to be skewed increasingly toward upper incomes. “Over thirty-five years, the rise in wages and salaries in the wide middle of the income distribution was 11 percent. The rise in wages and salaries at the top of the income distribution was 617 percent.” The rising tide is not lifting all boats, and as Ross Perot said, trickle down never trickled down.

    Perhaps powerful interests are not corrupting the system, but of all the interests who could corrupt the system, who would be the most likely suspects? If this is some sort of natural and normal economic phenomenon, why is it not happening in other countries to the degree it happens here?

    Is it something we ought to worry about? I think yes, though I do not know the remedy. It gives the appearance of a deviation, and the problem with deviations is that sometimes they correct violently, like stock market bubbles.

    Certainly there have been advances. I wonder if some of them haven’t been in spite of the system as it now operates.

  • eric

    One thing I wonder about is the inequality in income gains. This is, we are told, in “The Height of Inequality” in the September Atlantic Monthly, a largely a US and British phenomenon. The financial benefits of productivity gains seem to be skewed increasingly toward upper incomes. “Over thirty-five years, the rise in wages and salaries in the wide middle of the income distribution was 11 percent. The rise in wages and salaries at the top of the income distribution was 617 percent.” The rising tide is not lifting all boats, and as Ross Perot said, trickle down never trickled down.

    Perhaps powerful interests are not corrupting the system, but of all the interests who could corrupt the system, who would be the most likely suspects? If this is some sort of natural and normal economic phenomenon, why is it not happening in other countries to the degree it happens here?

    Is it something we ought to worry about? I think yes, though I do not know the remedy. It gives the appearance of a deviation, and the problem with deviations is that sometimes they correct violently, like stock market bubbles.

    Certainly there have been advances. I wonder if some of them haven’t been in spite of the system as it now operates.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    The Economist has made similar observations about the U.S. and the benefits of globalization, which should raise all boats but is not doing so.

    Also the U.S. is, while better than most countries for life expectancy, not at the top, despite spending the most money. I recommend the site Gapminder.org for some very nice animated visual depictions of global data. I’ve got a short summary and links here.

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    The Economist has made similar observations about the U.S. and the benefits of globalization, which should raise all boats but is not doing so.

    Also the U.S. is, while better than most countries for life expectancy, not at the top, despite spending the most money. I recommend the site Gapminder.org for some very nice animated visual depictions of global data. I’ve got a short summary and links here.

  • Brian Moore

    “It is quite a litany of woes, but although the woes are real enough, the analysis and context is either lacking or unconvincing.”

    ^^^ Exactly. Zinn is excellent when it comes to showing some of the bad, very bad, under-reported things that have happened in history. Where he fails is assigning blame. Good at finding the bodies, bad at finding the murderers.

  • Brian Moore

    “It is quite a litany of woes, but although the woes are real enough, the analysis and context is either lacking or unconvincing.”

    ^^^ Exactly. Zinn is excellent when it comes to showing some of the bad, very bad, under-reported things that have happened in history. Where he fails is assigning blame. Good at finding the bodies, bad at finding the murderers.

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