Insulators (Magritte machine)


The political history of economic statistics

Debates over the relevance of indicators like GDP for assessing the health of domestic economies are persistent and growing. Critics of such measures point to the failures of such measures to holistically capture societal wellbeing, and argue in favor of alternative metrics and the disaggregation of GDP data. These debates reflect the politics behind the economic knowledge that shapes popular understanding and policy debates alike.

In his 2001 book Statistics and the German State, historian Adam Tooze examined the history of statistical knowledge production in Germany, covering the period from the turn-of-the-century to the end of the Nazi regime, “driven by the desire to understand how this peculiar structure of economic knowledge came into existence… and the relationship between efforts to govern the economy and efforts to make the economy intelligible through systematic quantification.”

From the book’s conclusion:

“We need to broaden our analysis of the forces bearing on the development of modern economic knowledge. This book has sought to portray the construction of a modern system of economic statistics as a complex and contested process of social engineering. This certainly involved the mobilization of economists and policy-makers, but it also required the creation of a substantial technical infrastructure. The processing of data depended on the concerted mobilization of thousands of staff. In this sense the history of modern economic knowledge should be seen as an integral part of the history of the modern state apparatus and more generally of modern bureaucratic organizations… The development of new forms of economic knowledge can therefore be understood as part of the emergence of modern economic government and as a sensitive indicator of the relationship between state and civil society.”

Link to the book preview, link to the book page on Tooze’s website.

  • For a more generalized account of the political history of statistical knowledge (inclusive of economic statistics), see the The Politics of Large Numbers by Alain Desrosières. Link. Another excellent item in the history of statistical knowledge: A History of the Modern Fact, on the advent and impact of double-entry bookkeeping. Link.
  • In the Winter 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Hugh Rockoff examines the political history of American economic statistics, and tracks the emergence and institutionalization of measures of “prices, national income and product, and unemployment.” Link.
  • Previously shared here, research by Aaron Benanev examines the institutional history linking the concept of “informality” and unemployment metrics developed by the International Labor Organization. Link to his paper.
  • A recent paper by Andrea Mennicken and Wendy Nelson Espeland surveys the quantification literature. Link. And a (previously shared) panel discussion on the historiography of quantification. Link.

New Researchers: SOCIAL CALCULUS

The historical integration of mathematics and economics in the United States

RACHEL KNECHT’s PhD Dissertation is a history of the mathematization of the field of economics. Unlike existing literature, which questions how mathematics influenced economic theory in the 1930s and 1940s, Knecht’s research looks back to the early 19th century to ask why mathematics was thought to be relevant to economics in the first place. In her work, the development of mathematics as a field, and its applications to understandings of economic life, act as a lens into the cultural values, political dynamics, and social innovations of the time.

From the introduction:

“When one studies the history of mathematics in the nineteenth-century United States—the debates over what it was, how it could be made useful, how it should be taught, and who should do it—one quickly realizes that the economy did not follow a clear linear trajectory to its modern mathematical form. Instead, one sees that in a range of areas, Americans argued over what mathematics could do for their political project. They made choices about what mathematics were best for participating in and understanding economic life—concrete arithmetic, spatial geometry, abstract analytics, and eventually, dynamic, time-oriented calculus. In those contests, one finds a tension between democratic accountability and expert mystification, both based in claims to mathematical reasoning.”

Link to the full dissertation.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:


  • New on the Phenomenal World: renowned political economist Adam Przeworski discusses electoral politics, the making of the postwar consensus, and the neoliberal shift. Link.
  • “It’s arguable that some people are already taking over the world with artificial intelligence. AI is absolutely everywhere. But if you think of AI as machines that are almost exactly like humans, then you’re never going to see it.” Short but excellent interview with AI researcher Joanna Bryson. Link.
  • A new report by Chuck Marr and Yixuan Huang demonstrates how the existing EITC structure taxes single childless workers into poverty. Link.
  • A look at the challenges faced by China’s migrant workers. Link.
  • In a recent article, Aart-Jan Riekhoff, Oxana Krutova, and Jouko Nätti examine how wage bargaining structure shapes differences in labor market dynamics between low-skilled “outsiders” and high-skilled “insiders” across 30 European countries. They find that countries with active collective bargaining institutions exhibit far lower rates of dualization. Link.
  • “Social scientists commonly point to two modes of global-level institutional change: formal and fundamental transformations, like renegotiated treaties, or informal and incremental changes of a modest nature. The case of the IMF fits neither of these molds.” Alexander E. Kentikelenis and Sarah Babb examine how the IMF became the world’s foremost exporter of free markets. Link.
  • “Death by Derivatives: The opening of a canal in 1848 led to the birth of modern financial derivatives, and the early demise of some of the men who traded them.” by Michael Durbin. Link.
  • Florence Kondylis and John Loeser regress GDP according to 100,000 randomly drawn equators in order to reveal the spacial correlations which have the potential to bias cross-country regressions. Link.
  • “The argument that robots were the main culprit in the decline of U.S. manufacturing employment is not substantiated by what was actually happening in U.S. robotics, nor is it consistent with the experience of other countries.” Rian Whitton argues that deindustrialization, and not automation, is responsible for America’s employment woes. Link.
  • In the forthcoming Annual Review of Economics, Adrien Bouguen, Yue Huang, Michael Kremer, and Edward Miguel stress the feasibility and importance of evaluating the long-term effects of cash transfer and child health RCTs on living standards in poor countries. Link.
  • “We measure technological progress in oceanic shipping by using a large database of daily log entries from ships of the British and Dutch navies and East India Companies to estimate daily sailing speed in different wind conditions from 1750 to 1850. Against the consensus that the technology of sailing ships was static during this period, we find that average sailing speed in a moderate breeze (the usual summer conditions in the North Atlantic) rose by one third between 1780 and 1830; with greater increases at lower wind speeds. About one third of this improvement occurs when hulls are first copper plated in the 1780s, but the rest appears to be the result of incremental improvements in sails, rigging, and hull profiles.” Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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