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As economics pushes on beyond “statics,” it becomes less like science, and more like history.
– Sir John R. Hicks , xi
Conventional wisdom would place early institutional economics and the postwar Chicago School on opposite ends of any methodological spectrum. Prominent faculty and graduates from postwar Chicago have derided institutional economics not merely as incorrect but as actually devoid of content. Thomas Sowell characterized it as “half economics, half sociology, and all mush” (Sowell , 788); Ronald Coase claimed it “had nothing to pass on except a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory, or a fire” (Coase , 230); and George Stigler found it vacuous beyond “a stance of hostility to the standard theoretical tradition” (Kitch , 170).
Nonetheless, recent scholarship has softened this superficially sharp contrast. In the first place, institutionalism encompassed a diverse range of approaches (Rutherford ), and postwar Chicago economists have been noticeably less critical of at least one prominent strand: the quantitative analysis associated with Wesley C. Mitchell, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER, cofounded by Mitchell), and some aspects of the Robert Brookings Graduate School (forerunner of the Brookings Institution). Stigler expressed grudging respect for Mitchell, and Milton Friedman likewise concluded that Mitchell was “not as empty of content as most of the [institutionalists]” (Kitch , 170, 171). In fact, Friedman spoke quite positively about Mitchell in a lengthy posthumous assessment in 1950 in which he argued for viewing Mitchell as an “economic theorist” (Friedman ), a significant label because the most common objection to institutional economics from postwar Chicago was its alleged neglect of theory (e.g., Kitch , 169–171).
Over the past forty years, economists associated with the University of Chicago have won more than one-third of the Nobel prizes awarded in their discipline and have been major influences on American public policy. Building Chicago Economics presents the first collective attempt by social science historians to chart the rise and development of the Chicago School during the decades that followed the Second World War. Drawing on new research in published and archival sources, contributors examine the people, institutions and ideas that established the foundations for the success of Chicago economics and thereby positioned it as a powerful and controversial force in American political and intellectual life.
This essay argues that beneath the superficial linearity of the history of neoclassical price index theory lie important conceptual ruptures that are linked to the ordinal revolution, including a radical transformation in the core objective for cost-of-living indexes. Revealing these ruptures produces a more accurate history of both the development of neoclassical price index theory and its reception. Furthermore, we can recognize how transformations in this theory have made cost-of-living indexes more coherent with existing traditions of empirical macroeconomics even as they may have reduced the indexes’ suitability for other functions, notably adjusting income payments.
Created in 1884, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been the major federal source for data in the United States on labor-related topics such as prices, unemployment, compensation, productivity, and family expenditures. This essay traces the development and transformation of formal and informal consulting relationships between the BLS and external groups (including academic social scientists, unions, businesses, and other government entities) over the twentieth century. Though such a history cannot, of course, provide a comprehensive analysis of how political values have shaped the construction of labor statistics during this period, I argue that it can nevertheless provide important insights into the political context for the construction of knowledge about American workers and their living and working conditions.
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