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Publisher's Summary

The New York Times best-selling author of The Forgotten Man and Coolidge offers a stunning revision of our last great period of idealism, the 1960s, with burning relevance for our contemporary challenges.

"Great Society is accurate history that reads like a novel, covering the high hopes and catastrophic missteps of our well-meaning leaders." (Alan Greenspan)

Today, a battle rages in our country. Many Americans are attracted to socialism and economic redistribution, while opponents of those ideas argue for purer capitalism. In the 1960s, Americans sought the same goals many seek now: an end to poverty, higher standards of living for the middle class, a better environment, and more access to health care and education. Then, too, we debated socialism and capitalism, public sector reform versus private sector advancement. Time and again, whether under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, the country chose the public sector. Yet, the targets of our idealism proved elusive. What’s more, Johnson’s and Nixon’s programs shackled millions of families in permanent government dependence. Ironically, Shlaes argues, the costs of entitlement commitments made a half century ago preclude the very reforms that Americans will need in coming decades.

In Great Society, Shlaes offers a powerful companion to her legendary history of the 1930s, The Forgotten Man, and shows that in fact there was scant difference between two presidents we consider opposites: Johnson and Nixon. Just as technocratic military planning by "the Best and the Brightest" made failure in Vietnam inevitable, so planning by a team of the domestic best and brightest guaranteed fiasco at home. At once history and biography, Great Society sketches moving portraits of the characters in this transformative period, from US Presidents to the visionary UAW leader Walter Reuther, the founders of Intel, and Federal Reserve chairmen William McChesney Martin and Arthur Burns. Great Society casts new light on other figures, too, from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, to the socialist Michael Harrington and the protest movement leader Tom Hayden. Drawing on her classic economic expertise and deep historical knowledge, Shlaes upends the traditional narrative of the era, providing a damning indictment of the consequences of thoughtless idealism with striking relevance for today. Great Society captures a dramatic contest with lessons both dark and bright for our own time.

Supplemental enhancement PDF accompanies the audiobook.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2019 Amity Shlaes (P)2019 HarperAudio

What listeners say about Great Society

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How have we forgotten how bad these ideas were?

It was incredible to read this book while at the same time following the 2020 Democratic primaries. All of these Bernie Bros and Warren Backers should be forced to read Amity Shlaes meticulously laid out indictment of the government interventions these bearded hipsters and bubble headed freshman legislators demand. The policies they espouse, though admittedly coming from the best of intentions, have for decades damned the very people that they were intended to save. Ms. Shlaes lays out a powerful case that the devastation experienced in particular by African American communities, up through the present day, in cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore is the unintended and perverse fruit of The Great Society, a tragic combination of arrogance married to a willful ignorance of human nature. Noone at the time seemed capable of recognizing the obvious: the unprecedented prosperity of the 1960's, so rapaciously exploited by politicians and Big Labor, was an ephemeral "bonanza" which only existed because the US essentially had an industrial monopoly for the 20 years after WWII. Instead of leaning into the competition of a resurgent Europe and Asia, our leaders instead told us that we could have it all, forever and ever. This mindset, and the deficits these lies are based on, are eventually going to crush this country.

12 people found this helpful

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Very well researched and logically presented.

Having come of age during many of the events covered, I had rather skeptical expectations of this book. I was very pleasantly surprised that the book is well researched, logically and objectively presented with sophisticated coverage of individuals and events during a very interesting time in our culture’s recent history. To anyone who enjoys a thoughtful and thorough exposé, I would highly recommend this book.

6 people found this helpful

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Another outstanding book by Amity Shlaes!

Amity Shlaes has written another splendid book. I have read other books of hers, including COOLIDGE and THE FORGOTTEN MAN, which were both superb. This one covers the period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. She brilliantly chronicles how The Great Society, as promulgated by LBJ, achieved exceedingly few of its goals. The Democrats were happy to pass the legislation that started the US down the path towards socialism. The billions of dollars wasted on programs which were nothing but boondoggles was staggering. In effect, President Lyndon B. Johnson was trying to outshine his hero FDR! Alas, we are still feeling the fiscal effects of this "master" politician.

It is so refreshing to encounter a book which has the ring of truth to it. I hardily commend all three books to anyone who wants a factual history of the 1930s-1970s. I am already anticipating her next book! Amity Shlaes is a brilliant researcher and wonderful writer.

The reader is excellent.

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great recap of that events and errors of that era.

Author provides an insight behind the curtain for what happened. Similar to today's political events. We can consider it a look to the future, if we continue to disregard the lessons even recent history offers us

2 people found this helpful

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Well worth reading

Compliments the Forgotten Man. Helps explains the failure of the Great Society. Describes the context and origins of the Great Society.

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Excellent!

I lived through those years and though I thought I knew it, I learned a lot. I remember being perplexed when Nixon levied price controls. I was in high school and college during the LBJ years and did not know all the shenanigans going on then. Great book. I recommend it.

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A Great Walk Through History of Big Gov't Programs

I really enjoyed listening to this book. I like how big corporate bailouts, and protectionism of large US corporations is included in the overall narrative. So many of the building programs for low income people were a "one-size fit all" "go big or go home" approach. I guess a question that will always be explored is "where is the optimal place for lower wage earners to live?" To what extent should housing, food and Healthcare be subsidized or not? The book does a great job de-sugarcoating some aspects of Great Society programs. The author provides some great stories of past failures, but don't look for any answers for solving current problems. Overall a great listen for those who may not be overly familiar with the subject matter of the book.

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An accurate history of Johnson's "Great Society"!

Amity writes a thorough history of the political scene that resulted in the "Great Society" policies, many of which are significant even to this day!

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Social engineering doesn’t work

Shlaes does a masterful job of putting the details together in showing the well intentioned ambitions of people to form committees and bureaucracies that fail in completing the goal. Not only failing but making circumstances worse, usually much worse and selling with talk for convincing the disparaged that they are really being helped. In the meantime the expenditure of funds provides a flood of money that is just wasted.
Conclusion, reduce federal government authority in domestic matters and hold projects to their budget, eliminating those that don’t live up to it (or down to the allotment).

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Mildly contrarian history of failed 1960s spending

A mildly contrarian history of failed 1960s social spending that lacks the rigor of previous works.

Amity Shlaes' "The Great Society: A New History" purports to be a critical look at LBJ's Great Society on par with her previous work "The Forgotten Man" which did the same for FDR's New Deal. The premise for both is that despite all the "best and brightest" minds approaching the problem of The Great Depression or post-war poverty, they either exacerbated/extended the problems or outright failed.

While The Forgotten Man was a thorough examination of the alphabet soup of New Deal policies and did an outstanding job of highlighting their consequences (intended and otherwise), The Great Society feels less coherent. It's more a general history the 1960s through Nixon's first term and there's a less obvious conclusion that the Great Society failed to do what it set out to do.

That the massive social spending and attempts at price/wage controls didn't end or reduce poverty and all that central planning made things worse on both an economic scale and in creating perverse social incentives isn't as controversial a position than Shlaes' earlier "The New Deal failed" position from The Forgotten Man. So in that respect, The Great Society is less revelatory and less satisfying than The Forgotten Man -- Shlaes needed to do a more comprehensive and deeper dive into the real impacts of the various programs rather than just a 10,000 foot level history of them.

Overall, a good 10-year history that, like the Great Society, doesn't do what it set out to do.