The Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics

Thomas Stapleford, Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics

Thomas Stapleford, Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics

Since the late nineteenth century, the “cost of living” has been a prominent part of debates about American political economy. By the early twentieth century, that prominence had taken a quantitative turn, as businessmen, unions, economists, and politicians all turned to cost-of-living statistics in their struggle to control and reshape the American economy. Today, the continuing power of these statistics is exemplified by the U.S Consumer Price Index, whose fluctuations have enormous consequences for economic policy and the federal budget (including the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars annually through cost-of-living escalator clauses in programs such as Social Security). In this book, Stapleford interweaves economic theory with political history to create a novel account of the quantitative knowledge that underpins much of American political economy. Demonstrating that statistical calculations inevitably require political judgments, he reveals what choices were made in constructing and using cost-of-living statistics and why those choices matter both for our understanding of American history and for contemporary political and economic life.

“What could be more objective than collecting cost-of-living statistics? Stapleford masterfully shows that the process of determining what it cost to live in America was actually deeply political and contested over the course of the twentieth century. Who was doing the counting, with what measures, and to what ends made all the difference.” — Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University

“Henceforth, no student of the economy, of labor, or of the welfare state can think intelligently about their subject without making use of this insightful and learned analysis.” — Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

“The Cost of Living in America is about an index number, which is to say, about the compression and homogenization of a plethora of diverse goods and activities into a single figure. Stapleford uses history brilliantly to disassemble that index into its historical constituents, demonstrating how economic measurement has reconfigured labor and business, war and poverty – indeed, the modern American state.” — Ted Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

“Highly recommended.” — Choice

“[The book] is intellectual and political history of the first rate. Well researched, carefully argued, it does a good job of describing the technical difficulties in price indices without losing focus on the historical narrative.”  –, Trevon Logan, Ohio State University

“Thomas A. Stapleford’s careful, nuanced, and sophisticated study draws on the histories of economics, science, and public policy to tell how [the Consumer Price Index] came into being, and how cost‐of‐living statistics acquired meaning and influence in twentieth‐century America.” — Jessica Wang, American Historical Review

“A sophisticated, deeply researched, and learned work of history.” — Jennifer Klein, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 

“Extremely informative, very well written,…clearly a ‘must-have’ resource for students of anything from labor to statistics and/or the federal administration.” — Emmanuel Didier, Journal of the History of Economic Thought

“A substantial, finely constructed, handy book.” — David L. Seim, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

“This splendid book on the history of price indices by Thomas Stapleford is not only the definitive history of its subject; it is also a fascinating illustration of the interplay between theoretical, administrative, and political knowledge.” — H. Spencer Banzhaf, History of Political Economy

“Very fascinating and extremely useful for everybody who is interested in price indices, inflation measurement, social policy and the general political problems of official statistics or, as Stapleford puts it, in ‘the deep and complicated entanglement of rationalized governance, cost of living statistics, and economic reforms.'” — Peter Michael von der Lippe, Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik

Purchase from Cambridge University Press