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On the Controversies behind the Origins of the Federal Economic Statistics

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  • Hugh Rockoff

Abstract

Although attempts to measure trends in prices, output, and employment can be traced back for centuries, in the main the origins of the U.S. federal statistics are to be found in bitter debates over economic policy, ultimately debates over the distribution of income, at the end of the nineteenth century and during the world wars and Great Depression. Participants in those debates hoped that statistics that were widely accepted as nonpolitical and accurate would prove that their grievances were just and provide support for the policies they advocated. Economists – including luminaries such as Irving Fisher, Wesley C. Mitchell, and Simon Kuznets – responded by developing the methodology for computing index numbers and estimates of national income. Initially, individuals and private organizations provided these statistics, but by the end of WWII the federal government had taken over the role. Here I briefly describe the cases of prices, GDP, and unemployment.

Suggested Citation

  • Hugh Rockoff, 2019. "On the Controversies behind the Origins of the Federal Economic Statistics," NBER Working Papers 25431, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:25431
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Darby, Michael R, 1976. "Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 84(1), pages 1-16, February.
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    5. Clarence D. Long, 1960. "Introduction to "Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890"," NBER Chapters, in: Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890, pages 1-12, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Robert William Fogel & Enid M. Fogel & Mark Guglielmo & Nathaniel Grotte, 2013. "Political Arithmetic: Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number foge12-1, Juni.
    7. Clarence D. Long, 1960. "Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number long60-1, Juni.
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    10. Simon Kuznets & Lillian Epstein & Elizabeth Jenks, 1946. "National Income and Its Composition, 1919-1938, Volume II," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number kuzn41-3, May.
    11. David Card, 2011. "Origins of the Unemployment Rate: The Lasting Legacy of Measurement without Theory," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(3), pages 552-557, May.
    12. Robert A. Margo, 1993. "Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 7(2), pages 41-59, Spring.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jeremy Atack & Robert A. Margo & Paul W. Rhode, 2019. ""Automation" of Manufacturing in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Hand and Machine Labor Study," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 33(2), pages 51-70, Spring.
    2. Hugh Rockoff, 2020. "Off to a Good Start: The NBER and the Measurement of National Income," NBER Working Papers 26895, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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    • A30 - General Economics and Teaching - - Multisubject Collective Works - - - General

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