Americans love to keep score. Be it in baseball or bank accounts, statistics stake a prominent position in a society that yearns for ways to quantify success.
Andrew Yarrow examines this phenomenon as it related to the economy and American culture following World War II in his new book, Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late Twentieth Century.
A senior policy analyst for Independent Sector and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, Yarrow has taught in the School of Communication and now teaches history in the College of Arts and Sciences. American Today spoke with him about his research.
Q: The book “examines the rise of economic thinking in the United States after World War II.” What do you mean by economic thinking?
Yarrow: An array of things, from the growth of the economics profession and how economic ideas came to political and popular consciousness to various economic concepts and indicators which previously had been nonexistent or poorly constructed.
Before World War II, there were no concepts of gross national product, so there were no real ways of measuring how the economy was doing. As these statistics were developed and came into widespread use, they were adopted by political leaders, the media, educators, and others. The public became familiar with them and increasingly fascinated.
Q: What about the environment after World War II allowed these new economic indicators to be formulated?
Yarrow: During World War II, with the need to plan for wartime spending and procurements, it became important for the government to have good measurement and statistics to determine how the economy was performing. There was a push to develop these measures.
In part it’s the familiar story of postwar American prosperity. The American economy had stagnated between 1929 and 1941, and many economists and others predicted America’s economy would never grow again. With World War II the economy boomed. After the war, when people thought the economy would fall back into recession, it was salient to Americans that people were getting more prosperous, the country was getting richer. Consequently, these benchmarks became the way to keep score.
Q: How have Americans’ values been shaped by economic statistics over the past 70 years, and do you think Americans use numbers and statistics to tout the greatness of the country?
Yarrow: Much of the ideological battle for hearts and minds during the Cold War was not so much over who had the greater economic or nuclear power but over who could provide the most prosperous society.
A lot of economic statistics were brought out by both sides, but much more successfully by the United States. This seeped into a popular consciousness, visible not only to foreigners but also to Americans. In the popular press, prosperity became a huge story that really instilled pride in Americans. The data gave this story credence.
Q: Why is GDP one of, if not the, most important statistic used to tout American dominance?
Yarrow: I refer to GDP as the “Queen of Economic Statistics” because it became the “it” number, the macro gauge of how the overall economy was doing. The point I make in the book is that the notions of the economy and American society became conflated after World War II. We saw ourselves as an economy at least as much as a political nation. GDP was the statistic that tried to sweep up all economic activity.
Q: Why is it important for us today to understand how stats and indicators work to change the way people view our country?
Yarrow: Today different economic indicators are released almost daily—from employment statistics to productivity statistics to trade to personal income. The consumer confidence index was developed at the University of Michigan in the late 1940s, and how confident consumers are has a huge impact on how we think about the economy.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
Yarrow: I thought this story had not been told. The story of postwar prosperity has been told quite a bit, but what were the cultural meanings that went along with the prosperity, and how and why did America think about their growing wealth? What did it make them think about their nation, about themselves? This was an attempt to look at how economics became a cultural definer in American life.
On the one hand, our economy in the last few years has not performed very well. If economic statistics are the measure of whether we see our country as a success or a failure, what does it mean when the statistics are not on a forever upward sloping curve? Does it mean that American greatness is behind us?