↳ Quantification

June 17th, 2019

↳ Quantification

Insulators (Magritte machine)

MOBILE COGNITION

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.
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