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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).

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

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

Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States

Author(s):Vinsel, Lee
Reviewer(s):Cain, Louis

Published by EH.Net (September 2019)

Lee Vinsel, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. vii + 432 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2965-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Louis Cain, Department of Economics, Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago.

Moving Violations is a superb history of automobile regulation in the United States from 1893 to the present, a case study of the relationship between regulation and technological change. The emphasis is on safety, pollution, and fuel consumption. Lee Vinsel, a professor in Virginia Tech’s department of Science, Technology, and Society, notes the successes of auto regulation — which slowed after the Ford administration. In spite of this general inaction, it has been estimated that, over the past several decades, automobile regulations have saved in excess of 600,000 lives, reduced emissions by 99 percent since the late 1960s, and led to a current average fuel economy of just under 25 miles per gallon.

To Vinsel, the extremes of beliefs concerning the relationship between government and technology range from “Chicago School” advocates recommending government “get out of the way” to those who believe government is an “essential source of technological change.” Vinsel hypothesizes what he considers a middle ground: government regulation promotes technological change. Regulation is “any effort to reduce a public problem” (p. 2). Technological change is “not only changes in technologies themselves … but also transformations in how technologies are used and the systems that surround them” (p. 2). One reason innovation is a result is that “regulations are most effective when they motivate experts to focus on specific problems” (p. 301). To take an early, simple example, the demand for speedometers resulted from speed limit laws.

Vinsel’s hypothesis is argued within a select chronology of automobile regulation presented in four parts plus an introduction and conclusion. As forceful a case as Vinsel makes for his hypothesis, it is important to remember that his support is a case study of a single industry.

The first part, entitled “Standards,” deals with the period up to World War II. The initial automobiles were “playthings of the rich.” Mass production broadened the market, and the larger number of autos brought a demand for improved safety to quell the growing number of injuries and deaths. A national safety movement arose with the Model T that believed “standardization is the answer.” This gave rise to such things as headlights, traffic signals, traffic laws, and drivers’ licenses.

The second and third parts cover the period from World War II into the 1970s — the second with respect to safety regulation and the third with respect to pollution. There were significant advances in knowledge with respect to crash safety and air pollution beginning in the 1950s, while the 1960s brought a new attitude toward the use of regulation. As Vinsel shows, there are significant differences in the way regulation developed along these two dimensions. The second part focuses on the development of the science of impact biomechanics and the idea of crashworthiness, how that led to agencies such as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and how the auto industry was able to weaken the standards the NHTSA proposed. The third focuses on how the link between automobile exhaust and smog was detected, how that led to a wider understanding of the automobile as polluter, and how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was successful in developing strict regulations with regard to auto emissions. The juxtaposition of these two parts is especially effective.

The final part, beginning with the Carter administration, is entitled “Bureaucracy,” and uses the “struggles” over fuel economy, the CAFE standards, to highlight the EPA’s struggles to maintain its credibility with the coming of deregulation and of a political dynamic whereby, when administrations’ change, people from the newly-elected party undo what their predecessors did. For the most part, regulation has become “reactive, mandating the use of already-available, widely-deployed technologies, rather than proactively setting the agenda” (p. 270). Does the link between regulation and innovation hold when the former is “reactive”? Vinsel notes that, increasingly, federal R&D spending has been used to stimulate innovation.

The Vinsel hypothesis needs further testing. Not only are case studies of more industries necessary, but I would like to see more about automobile regulation. Steps taken with respect to the history of automobile regulation can then be applied to the history of regulation in other industries. As he argues, “we must change the way we think about regulation. We must examine it in finer detail, with more historical fidelity” (p. 318).

A sentence in the Introduction refers to “unintended consequences” and one in the Conclusion refers to “ironies and tradeoffs.” I would like to see those ideas integrated more into the history. For example, in The Environmental Forum of March/April 2012, David Haddock notes that an unintended consequence of the CAFE standards was that “CAFE induced domestically produced cars to burn less fuel, but perversely induced the average foreign import sold in the United States to burn more.” Domestic cars became smaller as the average import became larger. This type of consequence is not discussed, and the alternative policy, a fuel tax, is given relatively short shrift. Vinsel does address some counterfactuals, but he does not address the potential effects of alternative policies.

The adopted regulations may have bred innovation, but was it the “ideal” innovation? What is the probability regulation will lead to adopting the optimal technology? Will regulation lead to an informed choice between technologies, for example, Betamax versus VHS? Will it be flexible and adaptable when a new technology (DVDs) arrives? History can tell us how well we performed. Since Vinsel concludes that regulations “unleash creativity and channel the human capacity for problem solving toward our greatest objects of concern” (p. 318), a logical next step is to ask, what could have been done to make the outcome even more desirable?

In the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, Sen. Edmund Muskie inserted emission standards into the law when “both legislators and regulators knew that the automakers currently lacked available technology necessary to meet these standards” (p. 179). Vinsel cites this as an example of “technology forcing,” legislation that induced technological change. The law did indeed put responsibility for developing a viable technology onto the companies. When the act was written, research was underway that led to the adoption of the catalytic converter, but what if it hadn’t worked? How many examples are there, across industries, where firms failed to meet standards in a timely fashion due to a lack of “available technology”?

Vinsel assumes regulation will identify the requisite expertise, but the regulatory process is a political process, and there are no guarantees when regulation becomes tied to political ideology. He notes, “strong laws are not enough; regulatory agencies also require leadership and insightful organizational strategies to meet their goals” (p. 173). Are successful innovations more likely to result from specific approaches to and types of regulation? Are they more likely to emerge in specific types of industries?

Moving Violations will benefit all those with an interest in transportation history, regulatory history, technological history, innovation, and public policy and many others who will find something to savor in the details, perhaps an anecdote or two that will enliven a lecture or form the basis of a term paper. I look forward to Lee Vinsel’s future work as he further tests his hypothesis.
Louis Cain is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Northwestern University where he is a member of the Center for Economic History. He also is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Loyola University Chicago. He co-edited the Oxford Handbook of American Economic History (2018) and co-authored with Brooks Kaiser, “A Century of Environmental Legislation,” in Research in Economic History (2016).

Copyright (c) 2019 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (September 2019). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860

Author(s):Baics, Gergely
Reviewer(s):Cain, Louis P.

Published by EH.Net (February 2017)

Gergely Baics, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.  xv + 347 pp.  $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16879-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Louis P. Cain, Department of Economics, Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago.

In Feeding Gotham, Gergely Baics, assistant professor of history and urban studies at Barnard College, describes in fascinating detail how food (meat, in particular) was supplied to antebellum New Yorkers and examines the economic and geographic consequences of New York City’s transition from public to private food markets.  Baics sets the public sector’s lessening involvement with the food supply in apposition to its increasing involvement with the Croton River water supply.  Until 1843, meat sales, the business that anchored New York’s markets, were restricted to licensed butchers.  As Baics argues, the decision to deregulate the butchers’ trade reflected a “growing distrust of monopolistic privileges and greater embrace of open entry” (p. 5) for all food sales.  Baics notes the irony that the era’s social and health reformers were actively seeking the regulation of housing, but not of food.

Under the common law, local governments were responsible for maintaining well-ordered markets, what was termed “market overt.”  All transactions had to be witnessed, and public markets were the answer to the question of when property rights in commodities were legally transferred.  Over time, the notion that only chattels exchanged in such markets were of guaranteed legality proved unrealistic.  By the late eighteenth century, market overt and its protective regulations had become an impediment to most trade.  Yet, as public markets disappeared, government’s “police powers” remained, and quality-control ordinances were common.  As Baics notes, the enforcement of such ordinances proved almost impossible in a world of many individual points of sale.  Caveat emptor also remained and allowed aggrieved buyers to sue sellers.  This was a system that worked well for non-perishable items and the rich, but less so for perishable items and the poor.  The desire of all concerned to have some assurance of safety helps explain why public food markets persisted long after such markets disappeared for other commodities.

Feeding Gotham is divided into three parts.  Chapter 1 provides a general overview that emphasizes three major topics.  One is what Baics characterizes as the political economy of public markets and how that reflects the interests of buyers, sellers, and regulators.  Two is a discussion of the deregulation of buyers’ access to food as rapid population growth led to an expansion of sellers operating outside public markets.  Third is how the fiscal demands of major public works, such as the Croton waterworks, competed with the city’s ability to make the necessary construction and maintenance investments in public market infrastructure.

Early markets were neighborhood institutions, financed by the buyers and sellers, but by 1810 financial responsibility was shifting to the city.  For the next three decades, public food markets grew with population, but the market system began to shrink with the Panic of 1837.  Baics notes the city’s revenues from stall rents, fees assessed on meat sales, and premiums for prime market space were greater than direct costs, but less than cost defined to include the opportunity cost of the capital invested in these markets.  For many buyers, that revenue stream was viewed as a tax which increased food prices, and, by the mid-1830s, the growing quantity of food sold outside public markets made that clear.  Even before the Panic, the city’s revenue from these markets was a declining share of the total.  By the late 1830s, the balance of public opinion had shifted from food access viewed as a public good toward free markets.  That licensed butchers sought to restrict sales to those with a license was viewed as simple rent-seeking.

The second part, focused on the years up to 1820, is divided into three chapters, all of which demonstrate Baics’ command of advanced statistical and geographical techniques.  Chapter 2 presents estimates of meat consumption based on market fees and uses GIS mapping to describe the geography of food (meat) access.   Baics addresses three questions, all of which he answers in the affirmative.  Was the supply of meat sufficient to meet dietary needs?  Was it distributed evenly across neighborhoods?  Did the public market system “sustain the public good of citizens’ access to food”?

Chapter 3 discusses the seasonal, weekly, and daily patterns of food shopping in a world where fresh meat was demanded year round, but fresh produce was only available in season.  Baics’ analysis is based on two series of household accounts and two sets of public market returns.  He notes public markets typically forbade trade to go past midday to reduce putrefaction and enacted high penalties for selling what market inspectors considered “unwholesome provisions,” among other regulations.  Even so, the market was considered “through” by 10AM.  After that, the poor appeared looking for bargains.  By noon, street peddlers purchased what was left and resold it to the poor, an activity approved by market law.  Chapter 4 presents a case study of the Catharine Market.  That multiple sellers of various types of goods could be found cheek-by-jowl in the market meant buyers could compare quality as well as price — as could sellers.  One potential extension of Baics’ analysis would be to examine the relationship between Catharine Market, the adjacent ferry terminal, and the farms and farmers across the river.

The final part on the post-dissolution period consists of two chapters.  The analysis in Chapter 5 is analogous to Chapter 2.  Baics’ GIS maps now examine the city’s overall land-use and pattern of commerce in the context of neighborhood access to food.  Parenthetically, the maps in general, and the color ones in particular, are one of the book’s highlights.  Baics finds the public market infrastructure was “weighed down by insufficient investments relative to rapidly growing demand” (p. 166).  On the other hand, “the dispersal of provision shops was determined both by urban growth and changing patterns of land use,” “wealthy uptown areas excluded provision stores,” and “centrally located working-class areas were teeming with groceries, meat shops, and other food vendors” (p. 178).  The chapter also returns to the Catherine Market to find the neighborhood now anchored by the “vibrant” retail trade along Catherine Street.

Chapter 6 is a study of the impact these changes had on what Baics describes as growing income and social inequality in a time of rapid immigration.  He integrates what he finds to be growing inequality in food access with the literature on the health and housing inequalities that customarily frame discussions of antebellum New York City.  He ties a “deteriorating disease environment” and “generally worsening conditions of food access” to a discussion of the antebellum puzzle.  In particular, animal populations did not grow as fast as the city’s population, which had an average annual growth rate just under 5 percent between 1840 and 1860.  Tying this supply constraint to the finding that shops in low-income areas were “selling cheaply, in smaller quantities and at lower quality” (p. 207), Baics’ brief concluding chapter argues, “In a city with ever deeper socioeconomic disparities, the liberalization of food markets propelled a formerly more egalitarian resource to become another structural layer of inequality, much like housing and sanitation” (p. 235).

Feeding Gotham is an important study; it brings an impressive quantity of data to bear on a subject customarily argued qualitatively.  It is a testimony to Baics’ ingenuity that his work generates additional questions.  One suspects that events such as the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal and the city’s emergence as the nation’s financial center helped make the rich richer; its role as the primary hub for immigration helped make the poor poorer.  Baics data in the early period are derived from the markets; he cannot estimate the extent to which the poor patronized public markets versus street peddlers.  What he can say is that the poor who shopped at the market did so later in the shopping day and purchased lower quality goods or they relied on peddlers.  Thus, unequal access became worse after deregulation, but it would be interesting to learn by how much.  Further, there are several counterfactual questions that potentially could be explored.  For example, how much would it have cost to construct an ever-expanding system of public markets?  What effect would such a system have had on food prices and taxes?  Would New Yorkers have been better off had more of their taxes been spent on food regulation rather than, say, water supply and road construction?  One hopes Feeding Gotham motivates Baics to continue his research on this important topic; its relevance to the issue of “food justice” is evident.

Louis Cain is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Loyola University Chicago.  He is a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of American Economic History (forthcoming).

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Historical Geography
Household, Family and Consumer History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century