Irrelevant Genius: Professional Economists and Policymaking in the United States, 1880-1929
Franklin, Jonathan Stevenson
Sicilia, David B
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The rapid establishment and expansion of economics departments in colleges across the United State in the late nineteenth century indicates a significant shift in the way Americans understood economic science and its importance to federal economic policy. This dissertation addresses that phenomenon by explaining how American economists professionalized; and how that process influenced economic policymaking in the U.S. from the formation of the American Economic Association in 1885 to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Chapters alternate between analyzing the dilemmas economists faced while crafting a distinct academic discipline and investing early professional economists' role in the federal economic policymaking process. Three emerging themes help explain the consistent failure of early U.S. economists to translate modern economic theory to economic policy in a timely fashion. First, public skepticism and the persistence of folk economics proved to be a powerful deterrent to professionally-trained economists' authority in debates over policy matters. The combination of democratic idealism, populist politics, and skepticism regarding the motivations of professionally-trained economists undercut much of the social prestige professional economists garnered as educated elites. Second, disagreement among professional economists, often brought on by young economists' efforts to overturn a century's worth of received wisdom in classical economic theory, fostered considerable dissent within the field. Dissent, in turn, undermined the authority of professional economists and often led to doubt regarding economists' abilities among the public and policy compromises that failed to solve economic problems. Third, networking was central in the policymaking process. Personal relationships often were crucial in determining which prerogatives won out, a fact that indicates how haphazardly economic theory was applied to the nation's most pressing economic problems.