Eh.net Book Review: All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870

22 08 2017

James W. Cortada, All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xix + 636 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-046067-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Michael Haupert, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

 

“Big data” is all the rage these days. How to capture it, store it, analyze it, visualize it, and exploit it. But from whence do all these data originate, who compiles it, and how did it all begin? James Cortada takes on the Herculean task of writing not just about data, big or small, but the history of information in the United States. Information is a big topic, and big data is just one small part of it, garnering nine mentions in 600+ pages. Cortada rises to that challenge, covering just about everything you could conceive of regarding as information, and much you probably never thought of.

The central theme around which he builds his story is that information is a commodity, and its exchange is a function of literacy and education. Individual chapters deal with the various producers and consumers of information. The theme and organization make sense, and the approach works. But because the topic is so vast, there is no way that the breadth can be matched by the depth of the coverage. And Cortada does not disappoint when it comes to breadth. It’s all here. Sometimes a single sentence (the NBER, more on that later), sometimes a whole chapter (the internet). But no attempt is made to formulate an overall theory, or even address a specific one. Instead, he has chosen to touch on everything in an almost dizzying array of topics. By just scratching the surface, Cortada has uncovered a whole lot of what could prove to be fertile ground for future researchers. For example, where do we draw the boundary between efficiency and privacy? Is information a public or private good? And what about “alternative facts?” How do we differentiate between correct and incorrect information? Positive and normative information? Facts and beliefs? How has technology altered the balance between these, and at what cost? The general conclusion Cortada comes to is that information was and is “ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral in American life” (p 460). The specifics remain for future researchers to explore.

One could nitpick about the lack of coverage of one topic or another. For example, there is but a single sentence mentioning the creation of the NBER (p. 113) and no mention of the role of Edwin Gay, Wesley Mitchell, or Simon Kuznets, all of whom are widely recognized for their contributions to what economic historians would consider a very important source of information. But there is really so much included that it wouldn’t be fair to complain about what little is not.

Ultimately, this is the story of the growing importance of facts and their influence on the growth and development of the United Sates. The book consists of eleven chapters and an introduction laid out chronologically by topic. Chapters 1 and 3-5 cover the period from 1870 until World War II. Chapters 6-9 cover the remainder of the twentieth century. Each of these chapters covers a topic related to the role of business, government, and academia in the provision and consumption of data, and the impact of the ever-increasing amount of information on consumers. Chapter 2 covers the roots of early uses of information in America going back to the seventeenth century. The introduction is a general overview covering the definition of information (“a collection of facts in sufficient amounts to describe a situation, thing, place, person, or event” (p. 2)), how it relates to knowledge and skills, how information is used, by whom, and from whence it came. Chapter 10 addresses the internet and modern uses of information, and chapter 11, titled “How Americans Used Information to Shape Their Society,” serves as a conclusion. There are interesting sidebars throughout, including “What Farmers Had to Know by 1870” (p. 68), “Cooking Information the Betty Crocker Way” (p. 381), and “Roadside Signs along Route 66” (p. 408).

There are 92 pages of footnotes, but no bibliography. Instead, there is a bibliographic essay covering 35 pages. What it provides in thoroughness it lacks in usefulness. In this format it is difficult to track authors or topics, and even a single reference may require much page turning to find the complete citation. This is a disappointment because it makes it more difficult to use references to guide further research. The author himself would likely classify this as an information “restrainer” (p. 17).

Typical of the flow of the book is chapter five, “How Citizens Became Dependent on Information, 1870-1945,” in which Cortada argues that “one can see the influx and use of information in private lives by observing happenings in the kitchen, in childrearing, and in keeping home safe and socially appealing” (p. 192). He convincingly demonstrates how households were deluged with massive quantities of information, much of which involved cooking, cleaning, childrearing, and health. But one example he offers up — the tale of the National Association of Ice Industries (NAII) — raises a troubling issue at the same time. The NAII established the Household Refrigeration Bureau, whose mission it was to distribute “practical and accurate information on the application of refrigeration principles and appliances in the home” (p. 195). Through more than a dozen mass-distributed pamphlets published in the 1920s and 1930s, housewives were told that refrigeration was essential to preserve children’s health by protecting against food spoilage. But the NAII was hardly the only self-interested source of household information. On a variety of topics “experts” confused parents as they “debated different points of view in publications to which mothers and fathers had access. There were waves of advice” (p. 392). Or was it propaganda? And how well have we been able to differentiate between the two? Cortada gives Americans high marks in their ability to filter information, reasoning that “since so much information survived and people built upon it in the second half of the twentieth century, we can conclude Americans had learned to use it” (p. 413). If only we could be so sure.

Cortada concludes that “information has contributed to the overall success of the American economy since at least the 1870s” (p. 480). He makes no effort to measure or even verify that statement, which is typical of the broad view with which he has approached his subject. It is very much a big picture strategy: observe and comment. He thoroughly covers the topic of information, yet barely touches it at the same time. It is just too big to handle. He raises many interesting issues, but does not deal with any of them in detail. His book serves as a fascinating, exhaustive, and wide-ranging introduction to the concept of information. He made me think, and he has laid bare some fertile soil for future researchers to exploit.
Mike Haupert is co-editor (with Claude Diebolt) of the Handbook of Cliometrics (Springer, 2016), which will be will be available in an expanded second edition in 2019.





Bank Underground Post on the extraordinary story of Britain’s early efforts to finance the First World War

22 08 2017

Bank Underground, the research blog of the Bank of England, has published a great piece on the patriotic fictions engineered by the Bank of England in 1914 to create the impression the first war loan was popular with investors.

 

 

 

 

Source: Your country needs funds: The extraordinary story of Britain’s early efforts to finance the First World War





Koyama on Counterfactual History

19 08 2017

Mark Koyama, an economic historian at George Mason University, has published an excellent piece on counterfactual history. He begins by pointing out that many history-department historians dislike counterfactual history and that this sentiment is particularly pronounced among historians who subscribe to Marxism or other teleological worldviews. Koyama points out that counterfactual thinking is an integral part of causal analysis in academic research, and indeed ordinary life.  He draws on David Hume’s observation that a counterfactual is implicit whenever we use the word “cause” or one of its synonyms. He points out that many historians who are against extended counterfactual analysis nevertheless engage in implicit counterfactual analysis of varying levels of quality. To provide an example of amateurish counterfactual analysis, Koyama mention Ed Baptist’s controversial book The Half Has Never Been Told, which argues that almost 50% of US GDP in 1836 was due to slavery. (For more about this book, see here).  Koyama notes that this statement is itself a counterfactual argument:

 

He is arguing that, in the absence of slavery, the American economy would have been roughly half the size that it was. This claim is certainly false based as it is on double-counting. But the problem with Baptist’s argument is not that he had made a counterfactual claim, but that he conducted the analysis ineptly. 

Koyama suggests  that within history departments, the best users of the counterfactual analysis are military and diplomatic historians and that their approach typically depends on reversing a single decision or event holding everything else constant.   The result is

that counterfactuals in diplomatic and military history shed light on the short term consequences of particular events. But the ceteris paribus assumption becomes harder to maintain as we consider events further removed from the initial counterfactual intervention. Thus, we have a reasonable idea of what Nazi rule of Britain in 1940 might have looked like — with the SS hunting down Jews, liberals, and intellectuals and restoring Edward VIII to the throne. But once we consider the outcomes of a Nazi ruled Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, we have much less guidance. Lacking any documentary evidence of the intentions of Britain’s Nazi rulers in the post-war era leaves us in the realm of historical fiction like Robert Harris’ Fatherland ... [a novel set in Nazi Berlin in the 1960s] Counterfactuals become problematic once we run out of facts to discipline our analysis.

 

Koyama concludes his excellent piece by stressing the complementary, inter-disciplinary nature of  History and Economics. He writes:

Historians need economic history (and this means economic theory and econometrics). And economists need historians. They need historians to make sense of the complexity of the world and because of their expertise and skill in handling evidence.

Amen to that! I hope that Mark turns this piece into a peer-reviewed paper I can cite!





Banking on identity: Constructing a Canadian banking identity one branch at a time

18 08 2017

The Journal of Historical Sociology (impact factor: 0.553) has published a paper that should interest all Canadian business historians and all historians of financial institutions. The author is Simarjit S. Bal, a PhD student in Political Science, University of Alberta. I hope to meet Simarjit, perhaps at a future event organized by the Canadian Business History Association.

 

Abstract:

This paper seeks to explore the role that the Canadian branch banking structure has played in producing a national Canadian economic space as well as nationally oriented conservative Canadian banking subjects. Explosive growth in the scope of Canadian bank branch networks between 1880 and 1930, both in terms of number of branches and their geographic range, forced banks to re-evaluate their management practices. To manage an increasingly unwieldy structure, banks worked to centralize control and homogenize operations and the bankers themselves. Through centralization, bank head offices developed more robust branch reporting tools, which allowed them collect and repurpose disparate data into new national level information and knowledge. Working as centres of calculation, bank head offices used this new information to integrate a nationalist outlook throughout the network, deploying disciplinary technologies and techniques, in an effort to detach bankers from a local or regional orientation. This paper shows that, rather than merely a tool for efficient allocation of capital, the branching structure is a productive socio-technical structure, which helped to construct the very nature of the national space it sought to manage.





Career Development Fellow – Global History of Capitalism

8 08 2017

University of Oxford – Faculty of History
Salary: £31,076 Grade 7 p.a.
Hours: Full Time
Contract Type: Fixed-Term/Contract
Placed on: 1st August 2017
Closes: 13th September 2017
Job Ref: 130104

The Global History of Capitalism project is seeking a dedicated Career Development Fellow to join their team to conduct rigorous academic research and to inform debates on the history of capitalism.

The successful applicant will have an active research interest in the global history of capitalism and be able to work individually and collaboratively with researchers across disciplines. You will conduct relevant archival research as well as field-based research where relevant. You will manage your own academic research and administrative duties, contribute ideas for new projects and collaborate in the presentation of publications. You will also provide teaching relief to one of the Co-Directors  (Chris McKenna) and co-design a new undergraduate course in business history. The postholder will contribute to an edited volume on the global history of capitalism in consultation
with, and under the supervision of the Co-Directors.

You will hold a relevant doctorate (or show evidence that a doctorate is imminent) and have an excellent knowledge of the languages relating to your specialism. You will be able to demonstrate a strong research record and excellent communication skills along with the ability to teach. An ability to work independently as well as collaboratively within a team is essential.

The post is full-time and fixed term for 3 years; the start date is negotiable but must be no later than January 2018.

Applicants are required to submit a research proposal as part of their application.

Applications must be made online. To apply for this role and for further details, including the job description and selection criteria, please click on the link below.

The deadline for applications is 12.00 noon on 13 September 2017.

Applications are particularly welcome from women and black and minority ethnic candidates who are under-represented in research posts in Oxford.

Selection Criteria

Essential
 A doctorate in a relevant field, or evidence that a doctorate is imminently expected;
 Excellent knowledge of relevant research languages;
 Ability and willingness to develop a knowledge of the wider historical context of own research
area, and the project;
 Ability to manage own academic research and associated activities;
 Ability and ambition to produce single-authored publications that reflect both the subject and
methodologies of the project;
 Ability to contribute ideas for new research projects and research income generation;
 Ability and willingness to work as part of a team, share insights and findings, and engage in
collaborative, collective and experimental forms of research and publication;
 Excellent communication skills, including the ability to write for publication, present research
proposals and results, and represent the research group at meetings.
Desirable

 Knowledge of one or more relevant fields (e.g. Business History, Global History);
 Geographic knowledge of one or more related regions within Global History, understood as the
history of the non-Western world;
 Experience of independently managing a discrete area of a research project;
 Experience of actively collaborating in the development of research articles for publication.





My Papers at the Academy of Management 2017

4 08 2017

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I have two papers on the program of the 2017 Academy of Management conference in Atlanta. The first paper is “Berle and Means’ The Modern Corporation and Private Property: an Elitist Stakeholder Model of Corporate Governance” and was co-authored with Kevin Tennent (University of York Management School) and Jason Russell (Empire State College). The second paper, “Resisting Colonialism: Indigenous Social Activists Challenge the Rhetorical History Strategy of a Canadian Conglomerate”, was co-authored with Daniel Simeone, a rising star of a PhD student at McGill.

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The first paper provides a critical reinterpretation of a seminal work. The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means (1932) remains of the most cited works in management. Berle and Means, who were important members of the FDR Brains Trust, espoused a stakeholder theory of corporate governance that challenged the,  then-hegemonic idea that the sole purpose of a corporation is to create value for the shareholders. In recent years, a variety of progressive academics have advocated a return to the stakeholder approach to corporate governance advocated by Berle and Means. While we share the concerns of these authors about shareholder value ideology, we wish to point out some of the problems with the particular variant of stakeholder theory advocated by Berle and Means was a decidedly paternalistic one in which upper-echelon managers would rule firms in the interests of workers, shareholders, and other stakeholders but without such stakeholders have a direct voice in the management of the company. The Berle-Means variant of stakeholder theory was thus different from the rival proposals for industrial democracy, whereby the interests of workers and other non-shareholder stakeholders would be safeguarded through institutional mechanisms such as elected representatives on corporate boards.  In the 1920s, there were many such proposals in the United States and Americans seriously considered introducing workplace democracy up until the New Deal, which saw the passage of legislation that effectively outlawed such experiments. The paper will be part of a panel on Historic Management Thinkers & Theorists, Monday, 7 August 2017 9:45AM – 11:15AM, Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Inman room.

 

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The second paper is designed to speak to ongoing debates over rhetorical history and the corporate use of the past. In particular, we discuss the issue of corporate responsibility for historical misdeeds, an issue of global relevance that has been the subject of an excellent recent paper in the AMR. Our paper uses the experience of a single firm, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), to refine our understanding of how managers modify corporate historical narratives are in response to pressure from social activists and to shifts in the wider culture. Founded in 1670, the HBC is one of the oldest firms in the Western world. Since the start of the twentieth century, the organization has referred frequently to its history in its communication with consumers, workers, and other stakeholders. Since the 1960s, the HBC’s rhetorical history strategy has been adapted in response to profound changes in how Canadians remember their national past, with increasing attention being paid to the experiences of women, workers, racialized minorities and the nation’s Indigenous peoples, including the native groups that had traded with the HBC for centuries. By showing how one corporation’s use of rhetorical history has evolved, this paper will deepen our understanding of how cultural and political context influence how corporations use of the past. The paper documents how the HBC responded to social activists who contested the firm’s version of history by creating their own counter-narratives. You can hear me present the paper on Tuesday, 8 August 8 2017 11:30AM – 1:00PM at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Embassy Hall A. The paper will be part of a panel on Social Concerns and Management History.





Raymond Blake on Canada 150 Chairs

28 07 2017

I respect the scholarly work of Raymond Blake, but his piece in today’s Montreal Gazette about the Canada 150 Chairs program is misleading. Canadian citizens, dual and otherwise, are most welcome to apply for these chairs– the key requirement is that the academic be both employed and resident outside of Canada. Repatriation of good researchers is the primary aim of this program. What I’ve heard suggests that a secondary aim is to attract British and US academics who have become disillusioned with their countries because of Brexit and Trump, respectively.  (For more on how Canadian universities can exploit the misfortunes that Brexit is creating for their UK counterparts, see here). This program is taking advantage of a rare window of opportunity. For various reasons, I know that Canadian citizens who were educated exclusively in Canadian universities are indeed eligible for the Canada150 chairs, or at least the more junior of these chairs (the $300k pa one as the associate professor level, not the $1m pa one). The key problem with this program is that the budget has not provided for spousal hires, which make it a non-starter for many people in the age of Assortative Mating.

If the Canadian government were truly serious about increasing passport diversity within the Canadian professoriate, they would repeal the requirement that the following xenophobic words appear in all Canadian academic job adverts: “All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be given priority.” You can hug as many Syrian refugees as you want for the TV cameras, but until you get rid of that language in job ads, you will not signal openness and meritocracy to the world’s best academic researchers.