The Global Migration of Economic Expertise and the Origins of International Development

AHA Session 243
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room A706 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Alden Young, Drexel University
Alden Young, Drexel University

Session Abstract

In the years immediately following the conclusion of the Second World War, political leaders, bureaucrats, and social scientists around the world began to speak in a new and standardized language of economic expertise. Innovations in macroeconomic measurement, and the establishment of new aggregate figures, like GDP, made the economic life of the entire world statistically legible and comparable for the first time. The international development of these novel forms of economic expertise empowered actors at the national level with new means of expanding political control and justifying their rule, as economists took up powerful roles in the bureaucracies of states and colonial administrations around the world. By the 1950s, the forms of economic expertise that had emerged in early twentieth-century Europe and the United States became tools for postcolonial state-building projects. Economists, until then largely marginal academic figures in most states, had become power-brokers across the globe. 

How did the world come to share in this globally-homogenized and standardized “lingua franca” of economic expertise during the early Cold War? And how and when did economists come to play such outsized roles in governments around the world? This panel investigates these questions by charting the global consolidation and standardization of economic expertise during the middle decades of the twentieth century. It begins in the interwar period, when newly-created international institutions – such as the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization – attempted to globalize new forms of economic expertise that had recently emerged in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States. These efforts, this panel argues, laid important foundations for future development schemes – both by establishing new objects of economic analysis and statistical measurement and then by exporting them globally. It was during these years, for example, that experts in Europe and America first began to systematically conceptualize the “underdeveloped” world as a separate category of economic science and political governance. After 1945, it became commonplace for international organizations – such as the World Bank, UN, and OECD – to formulate standardized plans for development based on a shared language of economic and statistical expertise. But the status of economics as a globally-standardized discipline had not yet been settled, and the proper role of economists as political advisers and state-builders remained hotly contested. This panel connects and compares transnational circuits of economic knowledge within and across several world regions – including Eastern Europe, South Asia. and Latin America – in order to investigate how the history of twentieth-century economic expertise was shaped outside of the West. Finally, by looking at how exactly economics became one of the first – and only – globally-shared idioms of social science and political governance, this panel looks to set a future research agenda for the history of economic thought, the history of international organizations, and the global intellectual history of the Cold War and era of decolonization.

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