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Look Inside The Cost of Living in America

The Cost of Living in America
A Political History of Economic Statistics, 1880–2000

$41.99 (P)

  • Date Published: August 2009
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521719247

$ 41.99 (P)

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About the Authors
  • Since the late nineteenth century, the “cost of living” has been a prominent part of debates about American political economy. By the early twentieth century, that prominence had taken a quantitative turn, as businessmen, unions, economists, and politicians all turned to cost-of-living statistics in their struggle to control and reshape the American economy. Today, the continuing power of these statistics is exemplified by the U.S Consumer Price Index, whose fluctuations have enormous consequences for economic policy and the federal budget (including the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars annually through cost-of-living escalator clauses in programs such as Social Security). In this book, Stapleford interweaves economic theory with political history to create a novel account of the quantitative knowledge that underpins much of American political economy. Demonstrating that statistical calculations inevitably require political judgments, he reveals what choices were made in constructing and using cost-of-living statistics and why those choices matter both for our understanding of American history and for contemporary political and economic life.

    • Introduces non-economists to conceptual debates behind a major economic statistic in an accessible manner
    • First monograph to show how a critical history of an economic statistic can improve understanding of major aspects of American political history
    • Shows that political judgement is an essential part of producing economic statistics
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    Reviews & endorsements

    “What could be more objective than collecting cost-of-living statistics? Stapleford masterfully shows that the process of determining what it cost to live in America was actually deeply political and contested over the course of the twentieth century. Who was doing the counting, with what measures, and to what ends made all the difference. More broadly, this is a fascinating and important case study of the political uses of social science research.” – Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

    “This exceptionally fine book gives the all-important Consumer Price Index the nuanced, contextualized, probing, century-long history that it deserves. Starting with the first official price, wage, and family budget series, Stapleford details the tensions between theoretical and practical knowledge, between professional and bureaucratic standing, and between those asserting ‘objective’ as against normative purposes for measuring and comparing across income classes real changes in buying power and in the definition of ‘living.’ The measurement of poverty – or the failure to measure it fairly and seek its causes – is rightly a big part of this compelling narrative. This book is a vital addition to the growing literature of the making of policy knowledge.” – Mary O. Furner, University of California, Santa Barbara

    “Thomas Stapleford has done a magnificent job taking us inside the Bureau of Labor Statistics to demonstrate the political and ideological structures, in the government and out, that have so decisively framed the single most important index generated by the American state. Henceforth, no student of the economy, of labor, or of the welfare state can think intelligently about their subject without making use of this insightful and learned analysis.” – Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

    “The Cost of Living in America is about an index number, which is to say, about the compression and homogenization of a plethora of diverse goods and activities into a single figure. Stapleford uses history brilliantly to disassemble that index into its historical constituents, demonstrating how economic measurement has reconfigured labor and business, war and poverty – indeed, the modern American state.” – Ted Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

    "Highly recommended." - Choice

    "[The book] is intellectual and political history of the first rate. Well researched, carefully argued, it does a good job of describing the technical difficulties in price indices without losing focus on the historical narrative.", Trevon Logan, Ohio State University

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    Product details

    • Date Published: August 2009
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521719247
    • length: 440 pages
    • dimensions: 228 x 154 x 25 mm
    • weight: 0.58kg
    • contains: 7 b/w illus. 7 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Note on terminology and technical theory
    Part I. Statistics and Labor Reform,1880–1930:
    1. Before there were indexes: the 'labor question' and labor statistics, 1884–1910
    2. The cost-of-living statistics and industrial relations in the 1920s
    Part II. Rationalizing the Democratic Political Order, 1930–1960:
    4. The nature of a revolution: the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the bottom-up: union research on the cost of living
    7. Bounded conflict: collective bargaining and the consumer price index in the Cold War
    Part III. The Consumer Price Index and the Federal Government, 1960–2000:
    8. Accounting for growth: macroeconomics analysis and the transformation of price index theory
    9. From workers to the welfare state: the consumer price index and the rise of indexation
    Epilogue: governance and economic statistics
    Technical index: a brief primer on cost-of-living indexes.

  • Instructors have used or reviewed this title for the following courses

    • Economics and Society
    • Issues in Economics
    • Sociology of Poverty
    • The Modern American Economy
  • Author

    Thomas A. Stapleford, University of Notre Dame, Indiana
    Thomas Stapleford received his Ph.D. from the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University in 2003, where he studied the history of the social sciences. His dissertation, the basis for this book, won the Joseph Dorfman Best Dissertation Award from the History of Economics Society in 2004. Stapleford is currently an assistant professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame and was a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2008–2009. He has published related work in the Journal of American History, Labor History, and Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas. Research for this book was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Notre Dame Faculty Research Program, and the Harvard Center for American Political Studies.

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