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The Oxford Handbook of American Economic History

Editor(s):Cain, Louis P.
Fishback, Price V.
Rhode, Paul W.
Reviewer(s):Rosenbloom, Joshua L.

Published by EH.Net (December 2018)

Louis P. Cain, Price V. Fishback and Paul W. Rhode, editors, The Oxford Handbook of American Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xiii + 961 pp. $300 (hardcover, 2 volumes), ISBN: 978-0-19-994797-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joshua L. Rosenbloom, Department of Economics, Iowa State University.

 
Over the past several decades economic historians have substantially broadened and deepened our understanding of the development of the American economy. Students or scholars seeking an overview of the state of the field have, however, had few options when looking for a convenient and comprehensive overview. Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell’s New Economic View of American History (second edition) is now more than two decades old, and more up-to-date textbooks are pitched at too low a level to be of much help. The Oxford Handbook of American Economic History thus fills an important gap, providing a one-stop reference that distills and summarizes much of the recent scholarship.

The editors, Louis Cain (Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern University), Price Fishback (University of Arizona) and Paul Rhode (University of Michigan) have all made important contributions to our understanding of American economic history; and they have assembled an all-star cast of contributors. After an introductory chapter, the two volumes contain 37 chapters divided into five topical sections covering population and health; production and structural change; factors of production; technology and urbanization; and government and economic policy. Each of the first four sections contains six chapters, while the final section includes a total of thirteen. The chapters in this final section make something of an odd mix, and it might have been helpful to split this section between the chapters exploring longer-run trends and themes and those focused on specific episodes such as the New Deal or the Civil War.

With the exception of a few of the chapters in the final section, which address chronologically specific events — such as the Constitution, the New Deal, the Civil War and the two World Wars — the great majority of chapters focus on particular topic across the full-span of U.S. economic history. The content is consistently detailed and each chapter includes extensive references. As such, these accounts will be extremely useful for readers seeking to dip into this work to get a quick sense of the state of scholarship on a particular topic. I suspect, however, that few readers will want to make their way through these two volumes cover to cover.

Readers wanting to get an understanding of a particular period or those seeking to understanding the larger narrative of U.S. economic development will find the Oxford Handbook less helpful. Someone seeking to understand the Great Depression, for example, would need to integrate information from chapters on the New Deal, welfare policy, banking and monetary policy and the record of economic growth and business cycles among others.

Despite the breadth and depth of coverage, some topics appear to have fallen between the cracks. Among these the most glaring for this reader was the limited attention devoted to the economics and politics of slavery and race. In a similar vein, while there is a chapter devoted to the topic of executive compensation contributed by Carola Frydman, recent work on the broader topic of income and wealth inequality receives little attention. Finally, while the chronological scope of the essays in this collection varies, the nearly two centuries of American economic history preceding American independence is hardly discussed.

These caveats aside, there is a great deal of useful information to be found in these volumes. The essays collected here are consistently engaging, well-written and provide extensive references for readers wishing to dig deeper. It would be impossible within the scope of this review to touch on each chapter, and by singling out a small number of chapters for specific mention I risk offending authors of the remaining chapters. Yet several of the essays do stand out for going beyond a review of the state of the literature and suggesting fresh perspectives or reframing a topic. Price Fishback’s chapter on the New Deal is one. Fishback has been at the center of efforts to digitize and make available geographically disaggregated data on New Deal policies and economic outcomes, and has authored or co-authored an overwhelming volume of scholarship related to this topic. His chapter offers a concise and accessible summation of the results of this research program. It also provides a clear and accessible illustration of the econometric challenges of identifying causal effects from such data that would be useful in many other contexts beyond economic history courses. Paul Rhode’s chapter on the role of capital is another stand-out, focusing attention on the tensions between macro-growth theorists’ stylized facts and the historical record of growth and capital accumulation.

There has been something of a proliferation of handbooks and edited volumes of economic history in the last few years, but this collection of essays stands out for the quality and depth of its chapters as well as the breadth of its coverage. The individual chapters will be a useful reference for many readers seeking to catch up on scholarship on a particular topic.

 
Joshua L. Rosenbloom is Chairperson of the Department of Economics at Iowa State University and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is the author (with Brandon S. Dupont) of “The Economic Origins of the Postwar Southern Elite,” Explorations in Economic History (April 2018).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Business History
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Education and Human Resource Development
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Historical Demography, including Migration
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Servitude and Slavery
Military and War
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Labor and Employment History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII