History of Economics

I’ve written extensively on the history of economics and American political economy in the twentieth century, where my primary interests lie in the creation of empirical economic knowledge (notably statistics) and the use of that knowledge in political and economic life. To date, much of my work has focused on cost-of-living statistics, though I have also explored the relationship between economic expertise and democratic politics more generally. I am working on a long-term project about the history of family economics and on a history of econometrics during the interwar years.

Some select publications in these areas are described below.

Empirical Economics & Economic Statistics

The Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics, 1880 – 2000. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
My first book started with a basic question: If economic statistics are ambiguous (they can be defined in multiple ways), what would it mean to write a political history that takes that ambiguity seriously? My book pursues that question by exploring various efforts to measure the “cost of living,” notably price indexes and standard budgets.

“Business and the Making of American Econometrics, 1910 – 1940,” forthcoming in History of Political Economy.
Examines how the practices of business and economics mutually informed and supported one another during the emergence of American econometrics.

“Econometrics.” In Modernism and the Social Sciences in the U.S. and Britain, Mark Bevir, ed. (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).
Considers the relationship between early econometrics and epistemic modernism (with its reliance on statistical data and formal methods). I argue that epistemic modernism did not take a single path and that its differing forms in the US and Britain were closely linked to economic and political structure.

“Aftershocks from a Revolution: Ordinal Utility and Cost-of-Living Indexes.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 33, no. 2 (June 2011): 187-222.
In this history of neoclassical price index theory, I argue that the neoclassical concept of a cost-of-living index underwent two critical shifts as economists moved from cardinal measures of consumer utility to ordinal measures. Because the consequences of the shifts in index number theory not been widely understood, economists routinely misinterpret the significance of neoclassical cost-of-living indexes and hence their proper applications. I presented a revised version of this paper at the 2013 meeting of the Ottawa Group, the International Working Group on Price Indices.

“Re-conceiving Quality: Political Economy and the Rise of Hedonic Price Indexes. In Histories on Econometrics, Boumans, DuPont, & Qin, eds. Annual supplement to History of Political Economy, vol. 43 (Duke University Press, 2011): 309-328.
What do we mean by “quality”? For consumer goods, we might define quality by expert judgment, such as the testing results in Consumer Reports. Alternatively, we might define quality by consumer preferences and behavior: in a free market, consumers will presumably pay more for goods that they deem to be of higher quality. In this essay, I explain how and why the price indexes of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began with the first version of “quality” and later shifted to the second.

“Market Visions: Expenditure Surveys, Market Research, and Economic Planning in the New Deal.” Journal of American History 94, no. 2 (September 2007): 418-444.
This essay explores the background, creation, and use of the Study of Consumer Purchases, a massive survey of family incomes and expenditures undertaken during the New Deal. I show that although the survey’s creators hoped it would bolster left-wing efforts toward economic planning and income redistribution, the project ended up being far more useful for market research and advertising. That paradox reveals the surprising commonalities between economic planning and corporate capitalism that exist on the level of knowledge (if not policy), and it demonstrates one of the central themes of my work: the need to examine the knowledge infrastructure that underlies government policy.

“Defining a ‘Living Wage’ in America: Transformations in Union Wage Theories, 1870-1930.” Labor History 49, no. 1 (February 2008): 1-22. Winner, “Best Article on a U.S. Topic in Labor History,” 2008.
In this article, I describe the shifting definition of a “living wage” by labor activists and union leaders from the late nineteenth century until the New Deal. The living wage began as an ideal, not a specific number, that would typify the wage level appropriate for a skilled, white, male union member. However, unions were forced to quantify the concept when pressed into arbitration during the First World War, which led to them to employ economists and other experts who would define an “adequate” standard of living for a working-class family. For a brief period during and after the war, unions sought to define a high living wage characteristic of their own members, but when those efforts failed, the “living wage” became tied to the “minimum wage” for low-skilled workers, a connection it has retained ever since.

Economists and Democratic Politics

Robert Van Horn, Philip Mirowski, and Thomas Stapleford, eds., Building Chicago Economics: New Perspectives on the History of America’s Most Powerful Economics Program (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Economists from the University of Chicago were extraordinarily successful in the second half of the twentieth century, both at winning Nobel prizes and influencing government policy. In this co-edited volume, our contributors explore the roots of that success by looking at the early history of the Chicago School.

“Positive Economics for Democratic Policy: Friedman, Institutionalism, and the Science of History.” In Building Chicago Economics.
Although many recent members of the Chicago School have been sharply critical of interwar, American institutional economics, I show that Milton Friedman took his basic orientation from the institutionalist Wesley Mitchell and the early National Bureau of Economic Research. Both Mitchell and Friedman sought to reshape economics into an empirical field that would provide neutral, objective guidance for public policy, thereby reconciling economic expertise with democratic governance.

Family Economics

“Family Economics” emerged from the intersection of economics and home economics in the early twentieth century. Comprised primarily of women, most of whom had graduate training in economics and sociology, family economics used economic and social theory to study household life, considering the home as both a site of production and consumption. My first publication, “Housewife vs. Economist,” examined some of that literature, and several family economists appeared in subsequent work, such as “Market Visions” and “Re-conceiving Quality” (above). I’m working on a longer term project, tentatively titled “Home & Market”, that explores the rise and fall of this field in more detail.

“‘Housewife vs. Economist’: Gender, Class, and Domestic Economic Knowledge in Twentieth-Century America.” Labor: Studies in Working Class History in the Americas 1, no. 2 (2004): 89-112.
The title of this article came from a radio play written during the Second World War in which the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics explained to his wife why her impressions about rising prices did not match the figures in the official U.S. cost-of-living index. The essay describes the ambiguous depiction of housewives, portrayed as both wise possessors of bottom-up economic knowledge and confused, irrational consumers. I argue that these conflicting images arose from class divisions that were submerged under the universal rubric of “housewife.”