A Perilous Progress

A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America

Michael A. Bernstein
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 376
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Perilous Progress
    Book Description:

    The economics profession in twentieth-century America began as a humble quest to understand the "wealth of nations." It grew into a profession of immense public prestige--and now suffers a strangely withered public purpose. Michael Bernstein portrays a profession that has ended up repudiating the state that nurtured it, ignoring distributive justice, and disproportionately privileging private desires in the study of economic life. Intellectual introversion has robbed it, he contends, of the very public influence it coveted and cultivated for so long. With wit and irony he examines how a community of experts now identified with uncritical celebration of ''free market'' virtues was itself shaped, dramatically so, by government and collective action.

    In arresting and provocative detail Bernstein describes economists' fitful efforts to sway a state apparatus where values and goals could seldom remain separate from means and technique, and how their vocation was ultimately humbled by government itself. Replete with novel research findings, his work also analyzes the historical peculiarities that led the profession to a key role in the contemporary backlash against federal initiatives dating from the 1930s to reform the nation's economic and social life.

    Interestingly enough, scholars have largely overlooked the history that has shaped this profession. An economist by training, Bernstein brings a historian's sensibilities to his narrative, utilizing extensive archival research to reveal unspoken presumptions that, through the agency of economists themselves, have come to mold and define, and sometimes actually deform, public discourse.

    This book offers important, even troubling insights to readers interested in the modern economic and political history of the United States and perplexed by recent trends in public policy debate. It also complements a growing literature on the history of the social sciences. Sure to have a lasting impact on its field,A Perilous Progressrepresents an extraordinary contribution of gritty empirical research and conceptual boldness, of grand narrative breadth and profound analytical depth.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6508-6
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on the Notes
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Prologue. Being Ignored
    (pp. 1-6)

    On a muggy, partly cloudy day in May 1930, a Swarthmore College professor took up the considerable task of writing the president of the United States. From an office not far from Philadelphia’s Main Line, Clair Wilcox posted his letter along with a petition endorsed by over one thousand members of the American Economic Association (AEA); the memorial “urg[ed] that any measure which provide[d] for a general upward revision of tariff rates be denied passage by Congress, or if passed, be vetoed.” Three days later a full copy of the entreaty thus sent to the White House appeared in the...

  6. Introduction. Professional Expertise as a Historical Problem
    (pp. 7-14)

    In his remarkable farewell address to the nation in January 1961, during which he introduced the phrase “military-industrial complex” to the lexicon of American politics, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke also of his fear that, in the future, “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” By this utterance, the president wished to draw attention to the increasingly prominent role and influence of experts in the policy-making activities of government, the undemocratic and antidemocratic implications of that development, and the peculiar array of political and social forces it could and would unleash in a parliamentary democracy. Engagement in...

  7. 1 Shaping an Authoritative Community
    (pp. 15-39)

    The emergence of an American economics profession was not uncomplicated, nor was it, in its particular features, uncontroversial. The founding of the American Economic Association (AEA) itself stimulated an array of debates concerning the society’s objectives, practices, and public image.² With a cadre of original leaders like Richard T. Ely, a social activist and intellectual who had taken up his first academic appointment at Johns Hopkins, the AEA was, as its most eminent historian has argued, originally an “offspring of mixed parentage—European scholarship and Yankee social reform.” The “Young Turks” who, like Ely, saw in a new economics an...

  8. 2 Prospects, Puzzles, and Predicaments
    (pp. 40-72)

    A bit over a month after the Armistice, the American Economic Association and the American Statistical Association held a joint meeting on the benefits social scientific knowledge and practice could offer the public sector. The conference was, in particular, focused upon “[c]redentialed economic inquiry [that] a number of prominent government and business figures … believe[d] could greatly enhance a society’s capacity for planning and purposeful management.” In arousing this conviction among social scientists, the wartime experience had played an important part. In fact, the pressures and challenges of national mobilization had created an unprecedented demand for the skills of economists....

  9. 3 The Mobilization of Resources and Vice Versa
    (pp. 73-90)

    In 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, American economists had little about which to be pleased. The nation’s physical output of goods and services had, from the onset of the New York stock market collapse in the fall of 1929, contracted by almost a third. A quarter of the labor force stood idle. Capital accumulation came to a standstill. The heady optimism of the twenties, inspired by a general expansion the likes of which had been virtually unknown to earlier generations, gave way to despair and fear. Many experts wondered if capitalism itself could survive such an unprecedented...

  10. 4 On Behalf of the National Security State
    (pp. 91-114)

    While the material exigencies of war in the 1940s provided both a solution to the economic puzzles of the 1930s and an unprecedented set of opportunities for economists to deploy and legitimate their expertise, the imperatives of the immediate postwar era, in ways that both surprised and inspired contemporaries, afforded still more of the same. Even though many economists and businesspeople had worried about the possibility of a dramatic peacetime drop in the levels of prosperity and employment achieved during World War II, their apprehensions proved unwarranted. A bit over a year after the defeat of the Axis powers, aggregate...

  11. 5 Statecraft and Its Retainers
    (pp. 115-147)

    Recapturing the presidency and the Congress in the election of 1952 encouraged many Grand Old Party stalwarts in the belief that the potent Democratic influence of two decades had, at long last, come to an end. Whatever the tenuous nature of their control on Capitol Hill—one seat in the Senate, nine seats in the House of Representatives—and despite the ideological moderation of Dwight Eisenhower, whose national popularity had prompted some of his champions to indulge fantasies of a bipartisan presidential endorsement, Republicans viewed with satisfaction the imminent opportunity to dismantle the most objectionable manifestations of the New Deal...

  12. 6 Statecraft and Its Discontents
    (pp. 148-184)

    American economists in 1965 had a great deal about which to be pleased. Sustained growth over a five-year period had increased real national product by a third; unemployment, given the creation of 6.8 million new jobs, had fallen to almost 4 percent; the price level had risen at an annual rate of merely 2 percent. The innovative tax-cut strategy so aggressively pursued by President Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers “had apparently worked as advertised.” In Washington, the “New Economics had become official orthodoxy, and Walter Heller and his successors the acknowledged master architects of [national] policy.” Even conservative critics of...

  13. Epilogue. Being Ignored (Reprise)
    (pp. 185-194)

    On a brisk, partly cloudy day in October 1975, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Carl Gustav Bernhard, took up the happy task of notifying two scholars they would share the next Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. He sent one letter westward to New Haven, Connecticut; the other he posted in the opposite direction, across the Gulf of Finland, to Leningrad. “[F]or their contribution to the theory of [the] optimum allocation of resources,” Tjalling C. Koopmans of Yale University and Leonid V. Kantorovich of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences thus became the only economists ever...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 195-290)
  15. Bibliography and Reference Abbreviations
    (pp. 291-342)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 343-346)
  17. Index
    (pp. 347-358)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 359-362)