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A Perilous Progress:
Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America
Michael A. Bernstein

Paperback | 2004 | $39.95 | £32.95 | ISBN: 9780691119670
376 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 15 halftones.
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The economics profession in twentieth-century America began as a humble quest to understand the "wealth of nations." It grew into a profession of immense public prestige--and now suffers a strangely withered public purpose. Michael Bernstein portrays a profession that has ended up repudiating the state that nurtured it, ignoring distributive justice, and disproportionately privileging private desires in the study of economic life. Intellectual introversion has robbed it, he contends, of the very public influence it coveted and cultivated for so long. With wit and irony he examines how a community of experts now identified with uncritical celebration of ''free market'' virtues was itself shaped, dramatically so, by government and collective action.

In arresting and provocative detail Bernstein describes economists' fitful efforts to sway a state apparatus where values and goals could seldom remain separate from means and technique, and how their vocation was ultimately humbled by government itself. Replete with novel research findings, his work also analyzes the historical peculiarities that led the profession to a key role in the contemporary backlash against federal initiatives dating from the 1930s to reform the nation's economic and social life.

Interestingly enough, scholars have largely overlooked the history that has shaped this profession. An economist by training, Bernstein brings a historian's sensibilities to his narrative, utilizing extensive archival research to reveal unspoken presumptions that, through the agency of economists themselves, have come to mold and define, and sometimes actually deform, public discourse.

This book offers important, even troubling insights to readers interested in the modern economic and political history of the United States and perplexed by recent trends in public policy debate. It also complements a growing literature on the history of the social sciences. Sure to have a lasting impact on its field, A Perilous Progress represents an extraordinary contribution of gritty empirical research and conceptual boldness, of grand narrative breadth and profound analytical depth.


"Michael A. Bernstein has produced a first-rate analysis of the professionalization of social science. His book is not only a well-informed history of the American economics profession but also an insightful analysis of its relationship with government and a philippic against what Bernstein sees as the profession's recent self-prostitution."--Thomas K. McCraw, Journal of American History

"Bernstein details a largely unknown and even unsuspected history of how our professional associations and journals strove from the beginning to engage the important questions, and of how they in the end lost the ability to do so."--James K. Galbraith, The Washington Monthly

"This book is an impressive achievement."--William J. Barber, EH.Net


"Michael Bernstein reveals the ironic development of modern economics. On the one hand, he explains how American economists have depended on the growth of democratic government coping with the instability of the twentieth century. On the other hand, he shows how they have denied the social setting of economic problems, and of the origins of their profession. In the process, Bernstein gives us the best history we have of the economics profession in the United States."--W. Elliot Brownlee, University of California, Santa Barbara

"A Perilous Progress explains the curious trajectory of the discipline in economics: as it gained a commanding place in American public and political life, its growing power led to its intellectual constriction and, in the end, to declining prospects for its power and influence. By examining the discipline most critical to the modern American political economy, Michael Bernstein freshly recasts the history of modern America itself."--Michael Sherry, Northwestern University, author of In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s

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Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations ix
A Note on the Notes xi
Prologue. Being Ignored 1
Introduction. Professional Expertise as a Historical Problem 7
1. Shaping an Authoritative Community 15
2. Prospects, Puzzles, and Predicaments 40
3. The Mobilization of Resources and Vice Versa 73
4. On Behalf of the National Security State 91
5. Statecraft and Its Retainers 115
6. Statecraft and Its Discontents 148
Epilogue. Being Ignored (Reprise) 185
Notes 195
Bibliography and Reference Abbreviations 291
Acknowledgments 343
Index 347

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