On the Controversies behind the Origins of the Federal Economic Statistics
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.
This paper was prepared for the Journal of Economic Perspectives. I thank my colleagues Michael Bordo and Eugene White, Julie Day of the Wirtz Labor Library, and the referees and editor for many helpful suggestions. The remaining errors are mine. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“On the Controversies behind the Origins of the Federal Economic Statistics,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, volume 33, Number 1, winter 2019, 147-164. citation courtesy of