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The Pricing of Progress

The Pricing of Progress

Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life

Eli Cook

ISBN 9780674976283

Publication date: 09/25/2017

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How did Americans come to quantify their society’s progress and well-being in units of money? In today’s GDP-run world, prices are the standard measure of not only our goods and commodities but our environment, our communities, our nation, even our self-worth. The Pricing of Progress traces the long history of how and why we moderns adopted the monetizing values and valuations of capitalism as an indicator of human prosperity while losing sight of earlier social and moral metrics that did not put a price on everyday life.

Eli Cook roots the rise of economic indicators in the emergence of modern capitalism and the contested history of English enclosure, Caribbean slavery, American industrialization, economic thought, and corporate power. He explores how the maximization of market production became the chief objective of American economic and social policy. We see how distinctly capitalist quantification techniques used to manage or invest in railroad corporations, textile factories, real estate holdings, or cotton plantations escaped the confines of the business world and seeped into every nook and cranny of society. As economic elites quantified the nation as a for-profit, capitalized investment, the progress of its inhabitants, free or enslaved, came to be valued according to their moneymaking abilities.

Today as in the nineteenth century, political struggles rage over who gets to determine the statistical yardsticks used to gauge the “health” of our economy and nation. The Pricing of Progress helps us grasp the limits and dangers of entrusting economic indicators to measure social welfare and moral goals.


  • This boldly original and compelling book demonstrates the centrality to capitalist development of the fiercely contested process of capitalization. Cook richly reveals how land and labor, colonies and cities, farms and factories were transformed into financial assets valued according to their capacity to generate monetary profits. In its political urgency and relevance for the current era of financialization, The Pricing of Progress is a work deeply provocative and inspiring.

    —Jeffrey Sklansky, author of Sovereign of the Market: The Money Question in Early America


  • 2018, Winner of the S-USIH Annual Book Award
  • 2018, Winner of the Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize


  • Eli Cook is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Haifa.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press