Consider the remarkable origins of the U.S. Progressive movement: a conservative-roots pushback against the ward-heeler urban politics and government-corporate crony capitalism of the post-Civil War period, led at first by fighting Bob LaFollette, Republican Wisconsin governor in the late 1800s.
It's not surprising that contemporary Progressives delight in reciting some of those statistics from the 1865-1900 period to prove their superiority. Here’s the latest example: a guest editorial by Progressive professor Francois Furstenburg appearing in a recent issue of Addison County's oldest newspaper.
The opinion piece was titled, “Lessons from the 19th century may still apply”. It recites some of the fairly well known '65-to-'00 stats describing the three decades of deflation as Washington systematically reduced the money supply by calling in and redeeming the non-gold backed paper money bills (that monetary policy got one short sentence in his full-page-length commentary).
All the other stats got more attention: labor unrest, economic shrinkage, corporate bankruptcies, rich-v-poor wealth disparity. But the writer chose not to mention the declines in farmgate commodity prices or freight rates or the growth in urban wages and incomes.
Not a word about the advances in such then luxuries (now essentials) as electrical usage, indoor plumbing, consumer goods-availability—think Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck—and, of course, public and private transportation.
Here are some of the stats ignored by the writer taken from “The Americans, an Economic Record” by Progressive professor Stanley Lebergott.
He takes the U.S. Census wage data and adjust them for inflation or deflation into 1914 dollars, 1914 being the year when farm and non-farm earnings were supposedly at parity. In 1865 the wage was $338.
By 1900 it was $573.
That's an unrecognized-by-Furstenburg gain of 70 percent.
Today, of course, Progressive economists complain about income stagnation, but when it was a dominant economic fact that inconveniently disputes their ideological template, the pen skips. And cost-of-living wasn’t rising with urban earnings, either. Consider food costs.
The earliest stats in the U.S. Historical Statistics are a bit uneven, but it is possible to compare family income in Massachusetts of 1875 ($763) with family income in all states 1901 ($651) for a 15 percent deflation; but food expenditures dropped from $427 to $266, a 38 percent deflation. At the beginning of the post-Civil War decades, consumers were spending 56 percent of their income for food; at the end, it was down to 40 percent.
During the same three and a half decades, Willard Cochrane, in “The Development of American Agriculture”, reported that wheat went from $2 to $.50 by 1895, and freight rates on the New York Central went from over $2/ton-mile to under $.50. This explains why (and why Furstenburg doesn’t) the railroads wanted a new Interstate Commerce Commission to save them by setting rates.
Yes, the Vanderbilts and Carnegies were compiling fortunes but previously destitute urban wage-earners were getting into the middle class. Meanwhile, midwestern farmers were struggling.
The most succinct source for this kind of data is the National Council of Economic Education; on its website you can find an eight-page summary of the post-war decades.
Here's one sentence from the summary: “From 1870 to 1900, the prices American consumers paid for goods and services generally declined.”
Professor Furstenburg disagrees with the NCEE; he describes the post-war decades as a time of “economic decline” with “…continued economic misery for the many, juxtaposed against fabulous wealth for the few…” and bemoaning "”…the inability of government policies to mitigate the crisis…” and so on.
I guess there’s not enough government, for the professor. And there’s probably not enough government for him now. He argues that what he sees as the lesson of the 19th century—being insufficient government command of the economy and regulation of the citizenry—needs to be applied now, with more of both. Ugh! What an authoritarian notion.
As befits an opinion column, here’s this humble scribe’s opinion—
The Middlebury professor is perhaps entitled to present his ideological views to students who don't know better. He’s even entitled to downgrade the scores of those few who challenge him. But the professor is not entitled to let his pen skip over facts and history thereby twisting the truth.
The facts and numbers of major gains for most of the U.S. population during the post-war decades don’t need to be searched out in obscure government publications; they can be found on good ol’ Wikipedia.
Here's a sample:
“...This period of rapid economic growth and soaring prosperity in North and West (but not the South) saw the U.S. become the world’s dominant economic power. The average annual income (after inflation) grew by 75 percent from 1865 to 1900 grew another 33 percent by 1918.”
A distinguished member of the academic professoriat—invited by a local newspaper to write a guest editorial—should aim to be at least as accurate as Wikipedia.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.