There is not a ton of work on the history of national income statistics (NIS). On this page, I try to list all of the best works I have come across in diverse disciplines, from economics to history to political science and my own discipline of sociology. If there’s a good piece missing, please leave a comment and let me know! I offer a few annotations, but mostly I let the list stand for itself. In this list, I do not include primary sources in spite of their immense value. For these purposes, a primary source is one written by a national income statistician that either offers an estimate or a theoretical claim about how such estimates should be done (including textbooks), as opposed to a historical account of the practice of national income statistics/accounting. The line is fine – Carol Carson worked for years as director of the BEA after writing her dissertation on the history of the US NIPA, for example. But you have to draw the line somewhere!
Classics (listed chronologically, not alphabetically):
Studenski, Paul. 1958. The Income of Nations; Theory, Measurement, and Analysis: Past and Present; a Study in Applied Economics and Statistics. New York: New York University Press. [The authoritative early work on the subject. Really encyclopedic and superb, albeit incomplete.]
Kendrick, J. W. 1970. “The Historical Development of National-Income Accounts.” History of Political Economy 2:284.
Carson, Carol. 1971. “The History of the United States Income and Product Accounts: The Development of an Analytical Tool.” Doctoral Thesis, George Washington University. [Carson was Kendrick’s student. The dissertation was never published as a book, but see below.]
Carson, Carol. 1975. “The History of the United States National Income and Product Accounts: The Development of an Analytical Tool..” Review of Income & Wealth 21:153-81. [Short article version of the dissertation.]
Duncan, Joseph W, and William C. Shelton. 1978. Revolution in United States Government Statistics, 1926-1976. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards. [An excellent survey of the developments in US government statistics in general, with a good chapter devoted to national income.]
More Recent Texts (listed by author):
Christophers, Brett. 2013. Banking Across Boundaries: Placing Finance in Capitalism. Wiley-Blackwell.
Christophers, Brett. 2011. “Making finance productive.” Economy and Society 40(1):112-140. [Christophers traces debates over the inclusion of financial intermediation as a productive activity in the National Accounts, and argues that the consensus among statisticians that financial intermediation is productive and ought to be included is relatively recent.]
Edelstein, Michael. 2001. “The size of the US armed forces during World War II: Feasibility and war planning.” Research in Economic History 20:47–98. [On the connection between NIS and the US war effort.]
Herrera, Yoshiko M. 2010. Mirrors of the Economy. Cornell University Press. [On Russia’s transition from the Material Production System to the UN System of National Accounts.]
Jerven, Morten. 2013. Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It. Cornell University Press. [See this Q&A with Professor Jerven for more details.]
Jerven, Morten. 2011. “Controversy, Facts and Assumptions: Lessons from Estimating Long Term Growth in Nigeria, 1900–2007.” Simons Papers in Security and Development.
Jerven, Morten. 2010a. “Random Growth in Africa? Lessons from an Evaluation of the Growth Evidence on Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, 1965–1995.” Journal of Development Studies 46(2):274.
Jerven, Morten. 2010b. “The quest for the African dummy: explaining African post-colonial economic performance revisited.” Journal of International Development.
Jerven, Morten. 2009. “The relativity of poverty and income: How reliable are African economic statistics?” African Affairs. [Morten Jerven’s work is available at his website here. He has done both historical and qualitative fieldwork on African national income statistics, along with quantitative evaluations of African growth. His work is fantastic, showing just how spotty our knowledge of African economies remains to this day, and how the statistics on African national income incorporate some of the very assumptions that academics attempt to test about productivity and population growth (among others). Highly recommended!]
Korzeniewicz, Roberto Patricio, Angela Stach, Vrushali Patil, and Timothy Patrick Moran. 2004. “Measuring National Income: A Critical Assessment.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 46(03):535–586. [An excellent overview of post-WWII developments, with a focus on the history of purchasing power parity (PPP) measures of national income, and how they differ from exchange rate-based measures.]
Lacey, Jim. 2011. Keep from All Thoughtful Men: How U.S. Economists Won World War II. Naval Institute Press. [Lacey delves deep into the so-called “feasibility dispute”, where two US economists convinced top army brass to scale back their plans for military mobilization (to create a “feasible” plan) in order to mobilize more efficiently.]
McDowall, Duncan. 2008. The Sum of the Satisfactions: Canada in the Age of National Accounting. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Mitra-Kahn, Benjamin. 2010. “Redefining and Measuring the Economy Since the Year 1600.” Doctoral Thesis, London, England: City University London. [Another excellent work that makes similar arguments to my own, though Ben and I disagree here and there. Ben has various paper versions available here.]
Morgan, Mary. 2011. “Seeking Parts, Looking for Wholes.” in Histories of scientific observation, edited by Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck. University Of Chicago Press. [Morgan looks at the encounter between national income accounting definitions and African economies, with a focus on Phyllis Deane’s pioneering work in Africa and the difficulties she encountered in separating out “households” in a primarily non-market economy.]
O’Bryan, Scott. 2009. The Growth Idea: Purpose and Prosperity in Postwar Japan. 1st ed. University of Hawaii Press. [Connects the Japanese growth miracle narrative to the introduction of national income accounting in post-WWII Japan.]
Perlman, Mark. 1987. “Political Purpose and the National Accounts.” Pp. 133-151 in The Politics of numbers, edited by William Alonso and Paul Starr. Russell Sage Foundation.
Speich, Daniel. 2008. “Travelling with the GDP through Early Development Economics’ History.” Working papers on the nature of evidence: how well do ‘facts’ travel?, 33/08. Department of Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/22501/
Speich, Daniel. 2011. “The Use of Global Abstractions: National Income Accounting in the Period of Imperial Decline.” Journal of Global History 6(01):7–28. [Speich looks at how the global proliferation of national income accounting reshaped our understanding of global poverty and inequality, with a focus on how the economic understanding of national income was compatible with postcolonial understandings of inequality as being a matter of history (and thus remediable), not inherent difference.]
Stiglitz, Joseph E., Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. 2010. Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up. The New Press. [A quite prominent report, commissioned by French President Sarkozy, on problems with GDP. Somewhere between a primary and a secondary treatment.]
Suzuki, Tomo. 2003. “The epistemology of macroeconomic reality: The Keynesian Revolution from an accounting point of view.” Accounting, Organizations and Society 28:471-517. [Seriously, Accounting, Organizations and Society publishes the most interesting stuff. Suzuki comes closest to making the argument I advance in my dissertation about the relationship between the economy and NIS.]
Tily, Geoff. 2009. “John Maynard Keynes and the Development of National Accounts in Britain, 1895-1941.” Review of Income and Wealth 55:331-359. [Keynes’ role in the development of NIS is interesting and somewhat controversial. Tily’s take is one of the most recent and thorough.]
Vanoli, André. 2005. A History of National Accounting. Ios Pr Inc.
Waring, Marilyn. 1999. Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth. 2nd ed. University of Toronto Press.
Yarrow, Andrew L. 2010. Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late Twentieth Century. Univ. of Massachusetts Press. [Yarrow’s book argues that economic growth, defined in terms of GNP growth, came to define American greatness in the mid-20th century.]
[Last updated 4/13.]