Contesting the Statistical Measure of Productivity: Ewan Clague, Labor Relations, and the Marshall Plan

Corinna Schlombs, Rochester Institute of Technology

This paper examines how productivity, a seemingly objective statistical measure, became charged with political assumptions about economic and labor relations, and how these assumptions served at shaping European economic orders in the emerging Cold War competition. In the 1920s, the young economist Ewan Clague was among a group of officers at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) who developed productivity measurements of output per worker to assess the impact of new technologies on industrial production. Moving away from narrative accounts, Clague devised productivity indexes that measured increases in productivity. While the indexes presented a seeming objectivity, Clague argued that there was no “immediate and direct” connection between productivity and the wages paid in an industry. Two decades later, however, officers for the Marshall Plan’s Productivity Program demanded that gains from productivity be shared equally between industrialists, workers and consumers. In 1946, Clague had been appointed BLS commissioner, and in this function, he brought productivity measures to the Marshall Plan’s Productivity Program and Technical Assistance Program. A programmatic core of the Marshall Plan, it carried the concept of a dynamically growing economy to European countries. Promising higher standards of living through higher productivity, it also sought to lure European workers away from Communist promises. BLS officers conducted productivity surveys of European economies that provided seemingly objective—although, at least from the Europeans viewpoint, highly contestable—assessments of European productivity. Based on BLS and Marshall Plan records at the US National Archives, this paper calls into question the seeming quantitative objectivity of productivity measurements (Stapleford, Porter). It argues that BLS officers sought to divest their productivity measures from political goals, but Marshall Plan officers co-opted them for their goal of reshaping European economies and societies after the US model.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 23. Labor and Foreign Policy