*How U.S. Economists Won World War II*

by on June 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the subtitle, the title is Keep from All Thoughtful Men and the author is Jim Lacey.  Excerpt:

Just fifty years before World War II there had been only one individual in the government with the title of economist, and that person was listed as an “economic ornithologist.”  World War I saw a few trained economists brought to Washington in policy positions, but their influence remained constrained to providing advice on price administration and shipping.  They had little impact on mobilization planning.  It was the Great Depression that brought economists into Washington policy circles, first by the hundreds and then by the thousands.  By the time World War II began, the federal government employed an estimated five thousand economists.

David Warsh reviews the book here.  I found some parts boring, some parts very valuable, overall worthwhile.  Contra Higgs, Lacey argues that wartime mobilization proceeded with a surprisingly low sacrifice from U.S. consumers, with most of the impact coming on postponed purchases of durables.

Here is an essay (pdf) on early pioneers of economic ornithology.  I’ve never heard of a field exam in that area.

1 Right Wing-nut June 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm

5000 economists, and they STILL could end the Great Depression. I wonder why. 😉

2 Rahul June 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm

It’s amusing that so many diverse American groups think that they won WW-II

3 Bill Harshaw June 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I’d quibble with the timing of economists coming to DC.Two paragraphs from the Economic Research Service’s history of itself:

1905—USDA establishes the Office of Farm Management, which is renamed the Office of Farm Management and Farm Economics in 1919. Research areas are established for farm organization, cost of production, farm labor, farm finance, land economics, agricultural history, and rural life studies. President Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission recommended that USDA expand its agricultural economic research on the problems of farm families.

1922—Government leaders conclude that economic research and analysis could help farmers solve their price and income problems, and they establish the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) with Henry C. Taylor as chief.

4 Veridical Driver June 20, 2011 at 11:35 pm

“How U.S. ‘_insert_my_occupation_here_’ won WWII”

5 DK June 20, 2011 at 11:49 pm

The whole “USA won the WWII” is completely insane. US won the War in Pacific and intervened in the last minute to prevent commies from taking over the entire Europe. That’s about it. WWII in Europe was won by millions of dead citizens of the USSR. Soviets lost more people in numerous single battles than total casualties suffered by USA in Europe.

6 mulp June 21, 2011 at 12:23 am

Stalin wouldn’t have been able to send nine to ten million soldiers to die without the US production of trucks, locomotives, and rail cars to carry them.

7 Lou June 21, 2011 at 11:43 am

I guess Italy doesn’t count as Europe. Or you have a very broad definition of “last minute”.

8 Veridical Driver June 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Actually, the Soviets would have lost, had U.S. strategic bombing not destroyed the factories and refineries to produce war materials, and the railroads and bridges used to transport them.

9 Remi Voulon June 21, 2011 at 2:40 am

US economists were fighting on Omaha? US economists were fighting in the Hurtgen Forest? Nah, I didnt think so. The title is an insult to all the American fighting men and women who sacrificed their lives in the ETO and the Pacific.

10 J Thomas June 21, 2011 at 7:37 am

The title is an insult to all the American fighting men and women who sacrificed their lives in the ETO and the Pacific.

No, it isn’t.

11 Steve C. June 21, 2011 at 9:03 am

If you are looking to identify an academic discipline that made a major contribution to US victory in WWII, it would be operations research. At the sharp end, ORSA was used to refine techniques for combating U boats and strategic bombing. In the US, ORSA was used to define the entire supply chain pipeline from production of spark plugs to the number of gallons of gasoline an armored division in the attack would require to move supplies from the assembly area to the objective. McNamara and the other “whiz kids” earned their stripes solving complex production and supply problems for the Army Air Force.
If you are interested in this sort of history, the US Army in WWII series has more than a few volumes related to the back story of how academics and business managers helped to organize the sinews of our war effort. For example, in the 1930s, a small group of planners at the War Department, analyzing the lessons learned from WWI mobilization, realized that raising a large army was a fairly simple task in contrast to how you produced enough materiel to equip, deploy and sustain them.

12 Lou June 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

One of those 5,000 economists was Milton Friedman, and he and his colleagues developed the sequential sampling statistical technique for industrial quality control. It had an important impact on the war effort and on manufacturing generally.

13 russell1200 June 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm

It will be interesting to do a cross comparison with Adam Tooze’s exceptional “Wages of Destruction” about the Nazi Germany economy.

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