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"Perhaps I'm a Don Quixote but I'm Trying to Be a Paul Revere": Irving Fisher as a Public Intellectual

Listed author(s):
  • Robert W. Dimand

The American economist Irving Fisher (1867-1947) combined his work as a scientific economist, addressed to his fellow economists, with sustained and vigorous participation in public discourse, trying to change public policy and to reform attitudes and behavior by teaching policymakers and the public what Fisher regarded as the lessons of economic science. Fisher’s dissertation, on general equilibrium analysis, was removed from political debate, but early works such as “The Mechanics of Bimetallism” (1894) and Appreciation and Interest (1896) responded to contemporary agitation. Fisher’s struggle with tuberculosis (from 1898 to 1904) led him to dedicate himself to using the light of academic research to improve life beyond the ivory tower. He campaigned for better health, advocating a national Department of Health, writing a government report on national vitality and a best seller, How to Live (twenty-one editions from 1915 to 1945, and 12 to 15 million copies of an abridgement distributed by Metropolitan Life), as well as three books opposing repeal of Prohibition. Fisher’s 1890 paper “A League for Peace,” reprinted in the New York Times in August 1914 and then as a pamphlet by the Church Peace Union, was followed by two books and many articles by Fisher urging US entry into the League of Nations. Fisher’s efforts to educate the public about “money illusion” led him for several years to write a weekly newspaper column to accompany the announcement of the weekly price index calculated by his Index Number Institute. Fisher’s simultaneous pursuit of several reform and scientific projects sometimes got in the way of each other, as in 1912 when his campaigns for an international conference on the cost of living and an international society for the promotion of mathematics and statistics in economics coincided with his promotion of his “compensated dollar” plan to stabilize price levels by varying the gold price of currencies, provoking suspicion that his proposed intergovernmental conference and scholarly society were intended to promote his monetary plan. In addition to his speaking tours and his writings in the popular press, Fisher also provided much advice (much of it unsolicited, and not all of it welcome) to US and foreign governments on monetary reform, stabilization, public health, and world peace, and dabbled in politics. He also proposed a world map projection, a new calendar, and eugenic arguments for restricted immigration. Described in a chapter title in R. L. Allen’s biography of Fisher as “Theorist, Reformer, Loser,” Fisher became much better known as a public figure than other leading US academic economists of his time, making and then losing a public reputation as well as a private fortune in the booms of the 1920s and subsequent crash. Fisher’s high-profile use of his authority as a recognized academic expert to intervene in public discourse, both on subjects within his professional competence (e.g., price-level stabilization) and on unrelated subjects (e.g., dietary reform), provoked heated contemporary debate, especially after his disastrous 1929 prediction of stock prices.

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Article provided by Duke University Press in its journal History of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 45 (2013)
Issue (Month): 5 (Supplement)
Pages: 20-37

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Handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:45:y:2013:i:5:p:20-37
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