Exploring Economic History

with Palgrave Macmillan

Palgrave Studies in American Economic History

The series Palgrave Studies in American Economic History covers subjects as diverse as the evolution of labor policy ideas and ideals, to the financing and control of major art institutions, to how policy shapes private lives. Series editor Barbara Alexander intends to keep up that freewheeling approach, driven by a view that economic history “has happened” in lots of places, and a wide range of current scholars are best positioned to see the historical roots of issues of pressing contemporary concern.

Twenty-first century progressives and others are understandably focused on how human beings might adapt – or struggle to adapt – to disruptive technology changes and simultaneous emergence of competition from newly opening and modernizing parts of the world. Proposals for Universal Basic Income, the rise of “gig” labor markets, protectionism versus legitimate concerns for worker protections and the environment, and the roles and responsibilities of government in helping people adjust to the new economic landscape all play a role in the discussion. All of the first three books in the series lay a foundation for readers concerned with these issues, and trace the path taken by evolving ideas from concerns of earlier eras to the burning questions that have emerged today.

Donald R. Stabile kicked off the series with his 2016 volume The Political Economy of a Living Wage. The book traces attitudes about the intersection of core economic concepts such as marginalism through New Deal policy concerns ranging from unemployment levels, purchasing power, and social justice. Stabile covers thought leaders’ statements and actions on the related topics of unions, social security, and rules addressing the treatment of workers in the Fair Labor Standards Act. While major figures such as Alfred Marshall, Franklin Roosevelt, and Frances Perkins are thoroughly integrated into Stabile’s analysis, the reader also becomes acquainted with thought leaders of the era who are less well-known today, such as Father John Ryan, an influential Progressive who shaped thinking on the topic of his book A Living Wage: its ethical and economic aspects (1906, Macmillan).

At the same time that Artificial Intelligence increasingly displaces even the most comfortable of professionals from their erstwhile job and income security, new technology holds the promise of a world in which the robots do all the nasty dirty dangerous jobs, leaving humans to enjoy the highest planes of existence. But, as the Luddites might have known to ask: “Who will own or control art institutions, schools, and media of all kinds, and will displaced workers have possession of a living wage that allows them to pay to access the pleasure these services bring?”

Jeffrey Abt’s 2017 contribution to the series, Valuing Detroit’s Art Museum, is a startlingly gripping history of the Art Institute of Detroit, culminating in its narrow escape from having its collection gutted in service of Detroit’s debts. Abt’s book informs thinking on topics ranging from the seemingly mundane - “Q: How to select a board of trustees? A: Make sure they are willing to open their wallets to subsidize day-to-day operations – not just new buildings” - to the more esoteric “incomplete contracting” questions - especially, the pitfalls of taking someone’s (government’s) money without spelling out details of control if that someone gets into trouble.

Megan McDonald Way’s 2018 monograph Family Economics and Public Policy, 1800s–Present: How Laws, Incentives, and Social Programs Drive Family Decision-Making and the U.S. Economy pulls back and provides both a broad overview and detailed close-ups of American social policies since colonial times, ranging from laws and attitudes about marriage and children, work and retirement, slavery and exploitation, care for each other in sickness and in health, and what they all mean for the past, present, and possible future of the US economy and society. Way traces evolution and conflict around attitudes and laws relating to human rights, gender, sexuality, individualism, obligation, traditional values, and new ideals. A great strength of the book for teaching is its smoothly sustained linkage of evolving policies and preferences to economic concepts. Students and other readers learn in non-technical descriptions how the core economic analytical tool of constrained optimization has played out and may emerge in the future, manifest in marriage rates, labor force participation, educational choices and arrangements for (and crises of) retirement.

Future volumes in the series address how various regions in the US fit into the broader world economy and how early and long-gone industries in small regions of the US affected the communities there today. The series will continue to explore the past from the halls of power to the hearths of the powerless, connected by a theme of history that helps the reader to discern what may emerge as we rush toward the dimly-seen future.

Barbara Alexander is on the economics faculty at Babson College, USA, and is the series editor of Palgrave Studies in American Economic History.