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Progress through Regression
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Book description

The Cobb-Douglas regression, a statistical technique developed to estimate what economists called a 'production function', was introduced in the late 1920s. For several years, only economist Paul Douglas and a few collaborators used the technique, while vigorously defending it against numerous critics. By the 1950s, however, several economists beyond Douglas's circle were using the technique, and by the 1970s, Douglas's regression, and more sophisticated procedures inspired by it, had become standard parts of the empirical economist's toolkit. This volume is the story of the Cobb-Douglas regression from its introduction to its acceptance as general-purpose research tool. The story intersects with the histories of several important empirical research programs in twentieth century economics, and vividly portrays the challenges of empirical economic research during that era. Fundamentally, this work represents a case study of how a controversial, innovative research tool comes to be widely accepted by a community of scholars.


'The Cobb-Douglas production function is the workhorse of modern economic theory. Debates regarding models that are built upon it go on all the time, yet seldom focus on Cobb-Douglas itself. Yet there were early debates about it, some of which could have lead in interesting directions. But the diffusion of the Cobb-Douglass function, especially in practical applications where it allowed attention to focus on what both theorists and applied scholars considered important, helped it to slide by any difficulties. Biddle's protagonist is a worthy subject of study, opening our eyes to how modern economics actually works.'

Ross B. Emmett - Arizona State University

'The history of economics has typically been a tale of ideas, ideologies, or economists. But tools have lives of their own. In a highly valuable contribution to understanding the practices of empirical economics, Jeff Biddle told the life story of one of the most productive tools in the economist's workshop – the Cobb-Douglas production function. This book should interest not only the historian of economics, but every empirical economist as well.'

Kevin Hoover - Duke University

'If the history of twentieth century economics is better characterized, not as a history of economic ideas, but as a history of tools and techniques – which I believe it should be – then Biddle's history of the Cobb-Douglas production function is a highly relevant contribution. By taking on one of the most central tools of twentieth century economics, this book helps us gain a better understanding of how economics became an engineering science. Biddle's focus on a broadly used tool gives a much more realistic history of modern economics.'

Marcel Boumans - Utrecht University

'The history of applied economics and applied econometrics has not received as much attention as it deserves. This new book, which focuses on the history of an extremely widely used function, is a welcome addition to the literature, introducing us to episodes that deserve to be better known. The notion that economists welcomed the function, despite its flaws, because they wanted to believe it is fascinating.'

Roger Backhouse - Birmingham Business School

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