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.