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Measuring America

Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late Twentieth Century

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Measuring America
    Book Description:

    The United States has always fancied itself a nation apart—“exceptional” in its values, traditions, and way of life. For most of the country’s history, ideas about what made America distinctive generally were framed in terms of a liberal idealism rooted in the thought of John Locke and articulated by Jefferson, Madison, and other Founders. While some commentators also observed that the United States was a land of plenty, it wasn’t until the midtwentieth century that material abundance emerged as the principal standard of American “greatness,” as measured by a host of new economic indicators. Beginning in earnest in the wake of World War II, opinionshapers in politics, business, academia, the media, the schools, and public diplomacy gloried in the nation’s booming economy. Where “plenty” had once been a largely abstract concept, it was now quantifiable, thanks to new national income accounting and other economic data collection and analysis techniques. One could tally up production and consumption of an everexpanding cornucopia of goods and services that made up the gross national product (GNP), the king of postwar statistics. American preeminence and American identity were increasingly linked with this measurable prosperity, presented in the language of a newly influential economics profession. In Measuring America, Andrew L. Yarrow explores this history, telling two parallel, interlocking stories—of how economic ideas came to have vastly greater influence on American culture after World War II, and how those ideas dovetailed with a growing belief that the meaning and value of the United States resided in its material output. How and why this new way of “measuring America” developed, how it was expressed, and what it has meant and means for Americans today are the subject of this wellresearched and insightful book.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-054-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: A New Measure of America?
    (pp. 1-24)

    On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, social scientist Lee Coleman wrote a short essay (“What Is American?”) in which he analyzed “alleged American traits” and ideals most often mentioned in books, articles, and speeches throughout the country’s history. Coleman listed America’s democratic tradition, republican form of government, pioneer and frontier spirit, individualism, and belief in liberty, equality, and mobility. Secondarily, in a darker vein, he noted Americans’ conformism and materialism.¹

    The United States has always fancied itself as a nation apart—an “exceptional” nation, and, with more than a touch of hubris, the world’s greatest nation....

  5. 1 The Economics Profession and the Changing Discourse
    (pp. 25-42)

    A tiny profession with little public influence in the 1920s, economics became a celebrated key player in Washington by the 1950s. Its ideas and language were enthusiastically embraced by national leaders and policymakers, opinion shapers, and the public in post–World War II America. And many economists were happy to bask in the limelight.

    The intellectual fodder was provided by the parallel developments of Keynesian economics, which became orthodoxy among economists and politicians, and national income accounting, with its sophisticated techniques of measuring the nation’s income, productivity, and growth. Economists, entering the public sphere en masse for the first time,...

  6. 2 Economists Come to Washington
    (pp. 43-71)

    Despite Galbraith’s popularity among liberal intellectuals and Friedman’s devoted following among neoclassical free-marketeers, it was the “scientific-technological elite,” or the “new class” described by Eisenhower and Galbraith, who carried the day. Just as Tom Wolfe called 1980s investment bankers “masters of the universe,” economists during the postwar decades became America’s masters of abundance. As Samuelson noted, the once “dismal profession” had acquired a decidedly “cheery face,” thanks to its promise to deliver ever more prosperity, and “economists relished their newfound prominence and basked in the glory of public adulation.” To policymakers and the public alike, economists were wizards who could...

  7. 3 Business’s New Paradigm, “People’s Capitalism”
    (pp. 72-101)

    After spending the Depression in the doghouse, American business roared back into public esteem in the 1940s thanks to its dazzling record of World War II production. Business sought to consolidate its good graces after the war, but it took the confluence of several developments for the business community to find a cluster of messages that resonated with the American people.

    From the late New Deal into the 1960s, business associations and major corporations sought to convey much more than that business was a beneficial presence in the community and country. Instead, business leaders worked hard to spin out elaborate...

  8. 4 The Big Postwar Story
    (pp. 102-128)

    Journalists recognized that one of the biggest stories of the postwar decades was America’s dramatic economic growth and mass prosperity, and the changes that these were bringing about in American society, politics, and culture. LongtimeFortuneeditor Hedley Donovan recalled in his 1989 memoir: “It is hard to remember, now that we have had so much of it for decades, what a big story prosperity was. . . . We analyzed and celebrated the American boom—in prose, photography, paintings even, and of course in tables and diagrams and charts.”¹

    The postwar era was a watershed in U.S. financial journalism....

  9. 5 Defining the New America for the World
    (pp. 129-142)

    Indeed, the nation’s leaders, with their economic and cold war advisers, recognized by the 1950s that the set of ideas about “what distinguishes us from the rest of the world” could be used to project this new image of America around the globe. While the U.S. government felt compelled to explain its policies and what it stood for to foreign audiences during both world wars, it was only during the Truman and Eisenhower years that the United States developed a large-scale, permanent capacity for “public diplomacy,” or propaganda. The new programs were to curb the spread of communism and win...

  10. 6 Beyond Civics and the 3 R’s
    (pp. 143-163)

    In the quarter century after World War II, American children increasingly were taught to understand their nation, its history and greatness in economic, rather than political, philosophical, social, or moral terms. School children learned that the U.S. economy was an unprecedented marvel of productivity and a facet of Americanness of which to be proud. During this period, economics became a much more prominent part of social studies, history, and other classes, and an economic education movement emerged to develop and promote the understanding of America as an “economy.” By the late 1950s and 1960s, a broad consensus developed that learning...

  11. 7 A Flawed Measure: Critics and Realities
    (pp. 164-191)

    Economic metrics may have become a dominant way to gauge America’s success as a nation and culture and its people’s worth in the decades after World War II, but not everyone bought this message. And by the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the U.S. economy itself no longer churned out such unambiguously positive data suggesting that America—a nation measured in economic terms—was an across-the-board success.

    Some intellectuals, politicians, and economists had chipped away at various aspects of this equation of America with its economy since the mid-twentieth century. Critics of consumerism and the idea that material riches...

  12. 8 Measuring America in the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 192-204)

    A decade into the twenty-first century it is difficult to see the appeal of framing U.S. identity in economic terms. At this juncture in our nation’s history, why would Americans embrace such a framework for thinking about their country, its success and greatness, and their personal success? The economic failures that began in 2008, extreme and seemingly surprising, came in the wake of a U.S. economy that has performed unevenly at best for several decades. As we have seen, the moderate economic growth of the quarter century beginning in the early 1980s has masked widening inequality, a growing middle-class “squeeze,”...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 205-232)
  14. Index
    (pp. 233-240)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-242)