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Funding American State, 1941-1995: The Rise and Fall of the Era of Easy Finance

Author(s):Brownlee, W. Elliot
Reviewer(s):Vedder, Richard K.

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (December 1997)

W. Elliot Brownlee, Editor. Funding the Modern American State, 1941-1995: The Rise and Fall of the Era of Easy Finance. Cambridge: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Cambridge University Press, 1996. ix + 467 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0521552400.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard Vedder, Department of Economics, Ohio University.

The good news is that seven scholars from a variety of disciplines (economics, history, political science, law) have given us an engaging narrative on various aspects of the contemporary history of American federal taxation in a volume that should be oft-cited. The bad news is, as is typically the case in edited volumes, the quality of the analysis is uneven and in a few places even historically inaccurate.

The book was probably largely written in 1994 or at the beginning of 1995. I was a little turned off by the very first sentence of text in the book, in a promotional blurb preceding the title page: “The fiscal crisis faced by the American federal government represents the end of a fiscal regime that began with the financing of World War II.” My reaction was: what fiscal crisis? At the time I read the book, President Clinton had just announced that the 1997 fiscal year budget deficit was about $22 billion, the smallest deficit in relation to total output in a generation. Moreover, the tax changes implemented in the 1997 budget deal merely extended the fiscal regime arising out of World War II.

Yet the claim is probably not so wrong after all. Americans are extremely unhappy with the administration of the tax system, and with its complexity. The public mood is ripe for reform, perhaps radical change that involves the replacement or profound modification of the progressive marginal rate income tax. The booming economy has given some temporary respite in dealing with the entitlement problem, but in the long run the existing fiscal equilibrium is clearly untenable given what C. Eugene Steuerle appropriately calls (p. 428) “the yoke of prior commitments.” It looks increasingly likely that major fiscal changes will occur at some time in the next decade.

Two of the essays (totaling more than one hundred pages) are by Elliot Brownlee. One summarizes the volume and the second provides a historical overview of the tax system since the beginning of the Republic. Brownlee correctly notes that new tax regimes implemented during four national emergencies (Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II) facilitated the enormous growth of the federal government. High wartime taxes were only modestly lowered after those conflicts, which, combined with reduced defense spending, allowed for expanded social programs without incurring large political costs.

Brownlee emphasizes the tensions between the Republican emphasis on consumption and tariff taxation and the Democratic yearning for progressive income taxation in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, one can argue that the entire fiscal history of the country since 1860 is one of the changing political importance of two impulses: the progressive impulse to use the tax system to bring about income redistribution, and the conservative impulse to reduce the inefficiencies, resource distortions, and growth drag associated with high rates, particularly with regards to income.

A point that gets occasional mention but little emphasis in the book (possibly excepting Steuerle) is that progressive taxation gave political incentives to encourage price inflation, as bracket creep provided a politically clever way to raise taxes in a stealth fashion to finance social programs. I do not think it is entirely an accident that inflation in the United States was low or non-existent in the era before sharply progressive taxation, was high in the era of high progressive rates, and has moderated since tax indexation reduced (although not eliminated) the bracket creep dimensions of the progressive income tax. Did fiscal policy drive monetary policy?

Brownlee makes its abundantly clear that progressives in both the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations used war emergencies as an opportunity to impose their redistributionist ideas. As he hints, a case can be made that the notion of progressive income taxation was saved, by all people, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who in the 1920s defused Republican efforts to replace the progressive income tax with a national sales tax, an effort that has had a renaissance of sorts today.

Brownlee’s account of tax history emphasizes the progressive impulses at redistribution, and pays little attention to the efficiency difficulties that extremely high marginal rates pose. Few economists today would claim that sharply raising marginal tax rates in 1932 was an intelligent move from either a demand or supply side perspective, yet Brownlee does not discuss whether this viewpoint was articulated at the time. Had equity concerns completely silenced the traditional efficiency arguments that arise in tax debates? The emphasis throughout the Brownlee article is on tax changes that provided fiscal support for an increased state: he gives very little attention to the important Kennedy and Reagan tax cuts, and completely ignores several moderately important changes in the tax system, such as in 1954, 1990, and 1993.

Turning from the general to the specific, Carolyn C. Jones competently explores how the government used public relations techniques to convince Americans to comply with high income taxation in the 1940s, when most Americans first became payers of the tax. Edward D. Berkowitz nicely summarizes the history of social security taxation, showing how liberals associated with the administration of the program (such as Wilbur Cohen) played an influential role in crafting Social Security expansion. They convinced legislators that large increases in benefits were possible with only moderate tax increases. In time, of course, political leaders learned this lesson too well, increasing benefits in the 1970s in an actuarially untenable fashion. The modern troubles of Social Security are less extensively explored than the program expansion, although Berkowitz perceptively notes that “Americans have historically tolerated taxes reflecting shared social purpose but that even these taxes can reach a threshold that threatens to undermine the enterprise the tax supports” (p. 183).

In a long and important essay, Herbert Stein updates his Fiscal Revolution in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969). The era before the 1960s was dominated by tensions between three alternative budget philosophies (old-fashioned Keynesian “functional finance”, a more conservative or “domesticated” Keynesianism advocated by Stein, and a traditional Republican balanced budget rule). By contrast, Stein correctly tells us that fiscal policy in the post-1964 era was not governed by any specific budget philosophy. The problem was “the unwillingness of policy-makers to subordinate their desires for specific tax and expenditure programs to any aggregate goal” ( p. 200).

Stein then goes into a long discussion of the specifics of fiscal policy, emphasizing the era when he was a player, namely the Nixon Administration. The fact is that, for all the policy angst and debate, federal taxation absorbed about 20 percent of the national output throughout the period. Whenever taxes started to rise above that amount from bracket creep, a tax revolt would ensue, culminating in what Stein (p. 266) terms the “Big Budget Bang” of 1981. Whenever taxes fell much lower than one-fifth of the nation’s output, tax increases ensued (1982, 1990 and 1993 come especially to mind). The increasing contempt for aggregate fiscal rules of any kind reflected growing tensions posed by the growth of entitlement programs and, on occasion, other spending needs. The marginal political benefits to politicians of spending money exceeded the marginal political costs. The “automatic” nature of entitlement spending increases was aggravated by new programs in the 1960s and 1970s. Deficits were a politically less painful way to finance government constrained by a tax threshold imposed by popular sentiment. Like inflation- induced tax increases, deficits are a stealth form of taxation. As Stein concludes, in the early 1960s it was true that “economic science had provided commands that politics would and should obey. That belief has now disappeared.” (p. 286)

Julian E. Zelizer’s account of Wilbur Mill’s role in the fiscal policy changes is well crafted. Mills shrewdly used experts to help him make important changes in the fiscal system, and to stand up to Administration and congressional pressures. At the same time, he was a creature of Congress and knew how to win votes and maintain power. In a less successful essay, Cathie Jo Martin looks at the role that business played in the tax changes of the postwar era. The paper is marred with significant factual errors. Speaking of the Reagan era, we learn (p. 382) that “neoclassical economists concentrated in the CEA under Murray Weidenbaum and then Alan Greenspan.” Alan Greenspan did serve as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers – but in the Ford administration several years earlier. I read (p. 394) that administration official Richard Darman was a “supply-side economist.” First of all, Darman was (and is) not an economist (his most recent Who’s Who in America bio refers to him as a “former investment banker” and “former educator” and earlier biographies as “business consultant.”). Secondly, most of the prominent supply siders I know from that era viewed Darman as their enemy, the very antithesis of a “supply side economist.” The essay makes several assertions based on interviews with anonymous committee staffers. As a congressional staffer myself in this era, I would suggest that staff interpretations of major congressional events varied widely, and too many assertions are made that at the very least should be qualified.

The book ends on a more solid scholarly note. Steuerle nicely uses fact and logic to suggest that the era of “easy finance” ended in 1981. Up to that date, economic growth, defense cuts, social security tax increases and the impact of inflation in raising taxes and lowering the real burden of the debt made it possible to expand social programs without dire budgetary consequences. After 1981, “the yoke of prior commitments”, the productivity growth slowdown, tax indexation and other factors brought about “the fiscal straitjacket era.” On the spending side, the growth in entitlements set the stage for a future fiscal crisis that will force some change in the nation’s fiscal (and probably tax) regime.

Taken as a whole, this volume advances our understanding of the historical trends in tax policy in important ways. While not pretending to be a balanced or comprehensive survey of history of modern taxation, it is a nonetheless a welcomed addition to the literature that scholars will utilize for years to come.

Richard Vedder Department of Economics Ohio University

Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University, where he does research on labor and fiscal policy issues. His latest book, with Lowell Gallaway, is Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America, updated edition (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Historical Statistics of U.S.

Author(s):Press, 1997 Cambridge University
Reviewer(s):Hutchinson, William

EH.NET ELECTRONIC REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (December 1997)

Historical Statistics of the United States: Bicentennial Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. $195 (CD-ROM). ISBN 0-521-58541-4 (CD-ROM). ISBN 0-521-59710-2 (User’s Guide).

Reviewed for EH.NET by William Hutchinson, Department of Economics, Miami University of Ohio.

Availability of these data on CD-ROM is a great asset to those who use data from the printed version of Historical Statistics of the United States from Colonial Times to 1970. Electronic access makes it easier to use these data than when one must transfer data by hand from the book to a computer before performing statistical analyses.

Previous users of the printed version of Historical Statistics will soon realize that a few changes have been made, mostly to enhance the ease with which the data can be accessed in an electronic text. For example, all data have been placed in column form for easier access for spreadsheet users. Footnotes are numbered sequentially for an entire table, no matter how many pages the table may occupy. When new columns or rows have been added to accommodate situations where data appeared in combinations of columns or rows, footnotes were added in square brackets, [ ], to indicate the specific change. Errors noted on the Errata sheet dated February 1977 for the printed text have been corrected in the electronic version. However, the few errors that were subsequently discovered in the printed version have not been corrected. A few tables and series do not appear in the electronic version because these were in copyright and permission could not be obtained to include them.

The DynaText program that allows one to read the text and data from the CD-ROM is easy to install and use, once you have read the manual to familiarize yourself with the workings of the program. As someone who uses a PC (desktop or laptop computer) primarily for word processing, I found the instructions easy to follow and clearly written in terms that someone who is not a “techy” would understand.

Having loaded the DynaText program into my laptop, I began searching data series by first examining the Notes subcategory for Prices and then the series subcategories. Text of the notes to the series was easy to access and to read on screen. The data series that one can view on the screen at one time are limited to five columns on a twelve inch laptop screen or a fourteen inch screen. Using the View option to reduce the font size and expand the range of columns observed makes the data illegible. This is not really a major problem since most users will most likely not wish to see a larger number of columns of data at one time. That is, I would expect that most users will know the data series they wish to access and will not need to see each series before downloading the data to a file.

One is able to easily use the Table of Contents with the mouse and the scroll bar. Using the Table of Contents along with the Notes button provides all the information that one would want regarding the data. Once one has decided which series to look for it is easy to access the data series by clicking on the desired series. If one chooses, one can access the general series category and then use the Find bar at the bottom of the text screen to find the series you wish by typing in the name of the series or some part of the name. For example, typing in Wholesale Prices would move you to the next part of the text where the phrase Wholesale Prices appears. It would also list the number of times the words ‘wholesale prices’ appeared in each of the Chapters and Notes sections. By accessing the Book pull-down menu one can search either text or tables for particular words or phrases.

Annotations and Bookmarks can be inserted at desired points for future reference. One can use hyperlinks to connect various series or a series and the notes that apply to the particular series. These hypertext links can be set as either one way or two way which makes it an easy matter to navigate from one point to another that is frequently accessed in conjunction with the first.

Downloading data to your hard drive, a floppy disk or elsewhere is relatively easy because it is all menu driven. One need only use the hypertext links at the top of each table, ‘Lotus 123′ or ‘Text file’. (By going to the root level of the CD-ROM one can either access Lotus 1-2-3 files or tab-delimited text files from the LOTUS123 or TEXT directories, respectively, without first opening the electronic book.) The Lotus 1-2-3 files can be accessed directly from nearly any type of spreadsheet program. If one has a spreadsheet program that will not download the Lotus 1-2-3 files, then it will most likely download data from the tab-delimited text files. These files can be renamed and saved onto the hard drive or a floppy disk. If one is using DynaText on a network, then data can be saved to another location as desired.

When viewing a data series, the Scrollable Table option is very handy because it allows one to see additional columns and move down the columns faster than when one is scrolling down a series in the standard screen. One can also use the Find bar while in the Scrollable Table mode which enables the user to move to a new series with ease.

Use of the Journal option is very helpful if you need to repeatedly access a number of series or texts and series. Recording in a Journal sets up a group of locations to which one can move with ease by using the commands on the Journal bar. I did encounter difficulty when I attempted to use the Snapshot option for adding lines to the Journal. An “Error in Program” message kept appearing on the screen, making it necessary to reboot the computer in order to continue work. I am not sure if this is a problem with the particular CD or a problem with the program in general. It would definitely make work easier if the snapshot option in the Journal menu worked as described in the manual.

DynaText can be customized to fit the individual user’s preferences by accessing the Preferences command under the File menu. One can alter the settings for the various operations that DynaText performs while accessing Historical Statistics.

One can also access the coding used to construct the electronic form of the book, if highly sophisticated searches are necessary. The average user would not need to take advantage of this possibility.

Those who have contributed to producing this CD ROM version of Historical Statistics of the United States from Colonial Times to 1970 have provided a great service to the economic history and history professions alike. We can only wish them luck with the Millennium edition of Historical Statistics.

DynaText software for accessing Historical Statistics runs on either a PC: 386 or later with Windows 3.1+; 8 MB of RAM and a double speed CD-ROM drive. For a Macintosh, it must be a System 7 or later and have 4 MB of RAM along with a CD-ROM drive.

William K. Hutchinson Department of Economics Miami University

William Hutchinson has authored an annotated bibliography on American Economic History as well as articles on monetary policy and interregional and international trade and growth.

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Subject(s):Development of the Economic History Discipline: Historiography; Sources and Methods
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Evolution of International Business: An Introduction

Author(s):Jones, Geoffrey
Reviewer(s):Taylor, Graham D.

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Business@cs.muohio.edu (July 1996)

Geoffrey Jones, The Evolution of International Business: An Introduction . London and New York: Routledge, 1996. xii + 360 pp. Bibliographical references and index. Cloth, ISBN 0-415-10775-X; paper, ISBN 0-415-09371-6.

Reviewed for H-Business by Graham D. Taylor, Professor of History/Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

During the 1960s multinational enterprises emerged as a focus of interest (and much controversy) both for economists and for the general public. Much of the literature of that era (leaving aside the important pioneering works of Raymond Vernon, Charles Kindleberger, and John Dunning) provided a very time-bound perspective on this phenomenon. Economists tended to treat multinationals as byproducts of post-World War II international financial integration and improvements in communications and transport technologies. To the broader public, in the United States and elsewhere, they were associated with U.S. economic expansion and indeed were perceived as reflecting a particularly “American” form of business organization.

Since that era, the international economy has changed dramatically: multinational enterprises became truly “multinational” as East Asian and European firms expanded (or, perhaps more properly in many instances, reappeared) in global markets and new cross-national “strategic partnerships” of firms emerged. During the same period, the historiography of multinational enterprise was vastly enriched by scholars such as Mira Wilkins, D. K. Fieldhouse, Peter Hertner, Shin’ichiYonekawa, and many others, who not only probed well into the pre-twentieth-century origins of multinational activities, but also linked their work with broader reinterpretations of the dynamics of business evolution and organization.

Geoffrey Jones has been very much a part of that international community of scholarship on multinationals, and in this book he has undertaken to synthesize that literature. Jones far too modestly designates the study as a “text book” or “introductory survey.” It is in fact a substantial contribution to our understanding of the historical significance of multinational business, broadly defined to encompass more than the conventional category of “foreign direct investment” (FDI). His book provides a needed overview of the global dimensions of this phenomenon and a coherent framework for analysis of major historical trends and central issues emerging from the literature.

Jones’s study opens with a review of the major interpretive approaches to analyzing multinationals, including concepts of ownership advantage, internalization/transaction cost, and Dunning’s “eclectic model,” all of which are well integrated into the historical chapters that follow. He also links the study of multinational evolution to the themes of organizational development associated with Alfred Chandler and the literature on the firm and national competitiveness.

This section is followed by a general overview of the major trends in multinational operations since the mid-nineteenth century, highlighting the distinctiveness of different periods in that evolution (1880-1914; the interwar period; the 1940s to 1960s; and the period since 1971). This periodization indicates both the continuities of growth of international business and the volatility of that history, reflecting shifts in external factors (“the business environment,” encompassing the impact of wars, shifts in global trade and monetary arrangements, nationalizations and other governmental regulatory measures) and consequent changes in the strategies of firms.

The next chapters review the role of multinationals in specific industrial sectors: natural resources, manufacturing and services. There is a certain degree of repetition in these sections, as Jones works through each period for the different sectors. But it is also clear that very different patterns can be discerned in the forms and motivations underlying international direct investment in each sector, as well as in the internal dynamics of firm organization, relations among firms, and between multinationals and governments.

The final chapters focus on particular issues that have emerged in the literature. These include: the variations among nations and cultures in the propensity of their business enterprises to engage in foreign investment; the relationship between foreign direct investment and economic development, in terms of both home economies (of the multinationals) and host economies; and the relationships of multinationals and governments.

Despite its relative brevity, this is a dense book that covers a wide range of topics relating to the history and theory of multinational business, each in a balanced but succinct manner. Consequently, it would be an oversimplification to suggest that it embraces a particular set of themes or line of argument. But there are certain general characteristics of the history that emerge from the study.

From the late nineteenth to well into the twentieth century, most foreign direct investment was focused on the development of natural resources, with some spinoff growth of ancillary services. Latin America and Asia were particularly notable recipients of this investment. FDI in manufacturing expanded slowly through the early twentieth century and more dramatically in the period after World War II, and the geographic center for such investment shifted to Western Europe. This trend in turn was overtaken by developments in the service sector (particularly in finance) in the past two decades, with East Asia and Western Europe, along with the United States, as major areas of investment activity.

Although there have been periods of single-country dominance in outward investment (the United Kingdom between the 1880s and 1914, and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s), perhaps more significant has been the consistent growth of multinational operations over the past century. As noted earlier, Jones’s approach embraces a range of international business activities. During the pre-World War I era, investment flows were tied to some extent to the “imperial” territories of various European nations (with regions such as Latin America becoming a battleground for European and American investors), and occurred through a peculiar (and primarily British) form called “free-standing companies” (local enterprises owned by foreign syndicates) as well as the more familiar home-and-branch operations.

In the interwar period, as national governments imposed a variety of constraints on international trade and capital flows, international cartels flourished, in part as a means of circumventing them. In the period since the 1970s, a new form of “strategic partnership” among firms of different nationalities has emerged, reflecting both the diverse origins of enterprises in global markets and the effects of financial integration coupled with the growth of regional trade blocs. In each era multinational businesses have altered their forms of operation to suit contemporary conditions, while sustaining a general trend toward growth and integration.

The strength of the book lies in its coherence, its ability to provide a clear framework for a complex process of development over a fairly long time-span. Some of this coherence might have been lost had Jones extended his analysis even further back in time, but it might have been a useful exercise to provide a broader historical perspective on the evolution of international business (as opposed to the evolution of multinational enterprise). Jones does devote a section of his chapter on “Multinationals and Services” to a discussion of the large international trading companies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but generally he focuses on the period after 1880, with an emphasis on improvements in technology (enhancing the internal management of firms in international markets) and financial integration, accompanied by nationalistic trade policies, in shaping a business environment congenial to multinationals.

But, as studies by Larry Neal (on international capital markets), James Tracy and Jonathan Israel (on the Dutch and British “merchant empires”), and Ann Carlos and Steve Nicholas (on the internal organization of trade companies) indicate, by the eighteenth century the international economy had developed strong financial and logistical links, and businesses such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India companies were developing mechanisms for internal communication and management.

Jones’s chapter on multinationals and natural resources understandably gives pride of place to the “nonrenewable” resource sector (mining and petroleum) and does not ignore the “renewable” area. But a review of multinationals in the forest products industry could reinforce some of the points he makes in other contexts. As a capital-intensive industry, forest products (especially pulp and paper) has been a field with a number of multinational actors, such as the British firm Bowater, the Swedish Stora, the U.S. Weyerhaeuser, and Canada’s MacMillian-Bloedel. The intricate links between publishing companies and paper manufacturers in international markets provide another interesting feature of this industry, ranging from direct-investment ventures (such as the Chicago Tribune‘s Canadian pulpmills) to Bowater’s “strategic partnerships” in the 1920s-1940s (not without endless friction) with the British newspaper barons, Rothermere and Beaverbrook, to exploit the forestry resources of North America.

These are minor caveats, however, and do not detract from the general quality and significance of Jones’s study. As noted earlier, the book represents a well-organized synthesis of the state of the historiography of international business today, which at the same time can provide a basis for future research in the field, by identifying major lines of argument and the areas of uncertainty and controversy that still must be addressed.

Graham D. Taylor Dalhousie University

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII