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The Information Economy  

Jamie L. Pietruska

The term “information economy” first came into widespread usage during the 1960s and 1970s to identify a major transformation in the postwar American economy in which manufacturing had been eclipsed by the production and management of information. However, the information economy first identified in the mid-20th century was one of many information economies that have been central to American industrialization, business, and capitalism for over two centuries. The emergence of information economies can be understood in two ways: as a continuous process in which information itself became a commodity, as well as an uneven and contested—not inevitable—process in which economic life became dependent on various forms of information. The production, circulation, and commodification of information has historically been essential to the growth of American capitalism and to creating and perpetuating—and at times resisting—structural racial, gender, and class inequities in American economy and society. Yet information economies, while uneven and contested, also became more bureaucratized, quantified, and commodified from the 18th century to the 21st century. The history of information economies in the United States is also characterized by the importance of systems, networks, and infrastructures that link people, information, capital, commodities, markets, bureaucracies, technologies, ideas, expertise, laws, and ideologies. The materiality of information economies is historically inextricable from production of knowledge about the economy, and the concepts of “information” and “economy” are themselves historical constructs that change over time. The history of information economies is not a teleological story of progress in which increasing bureaucratic rationality, efficiency, predictability, and profit inevitably led to the 21st-century age of Big Data. Nor is it a singular story of a single, coherent, uniform information economy. The creation of multiple information economies—at different scales in different regions—was a contingent, contested, often inequitable process that did not automatically democratize access to objective information.

Article

Economic Thought and Practice in America  

Christopher W. Calvo

The conspicuous timing of the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and America’s Declaration of Independence, separated by only a few months in 1776, has attracted a great deal of historical attention. America’s revolution was in large part motivated by the desire to break free from British mercantilism and engage the principles, both material and ideological, found in Smith’s work. From 1776 to the present day, the preponderance of capitalism in American economic history and the influence of The Wealth of Nations in American intellectual culture have contributed to the conventional wisdom that America and Smith enjoy a special relationship. After all, no nation has consistently pursued the tenets of Smithian-inspired capitalism, mainly free and competitive markets, a commitment to private property, and the pursuit of self-interests and profits, more than the United States. The shadow of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations looms large over America. But a closer look at American economic thought and practice demonstrates that Smith’s authority was not as dominant as the popular history assumes. Although most Americans accepted Smith’s work as the foundational text in political economy and extracted from it the cardinal principles of intellectual capitalism, its core values were twisted, turned, and fused together in contorted, sometimes contradictory fashions. American economic thought also reflects the widespread belief that the nation would trace an exceptional course, distinct from the Old World, and therefore necessitating a political economy suited to American traditions and expectations. Hybrid capitalist ideologies, although rooted in Smithian-inspired liberalism, developed within a dynamic domestic discourse that embraced ideological diversity and competing paradigms, exactly the kind expected from a new nation trying to understand its economic past, establish its present, and project its future. Likewise, American policymakers crafted legislation that brought the national economy both closer to and further from the Smithian ideal. Hybrid intellectual capitalism—a compounded ideological approach that antebellum American economic thinkers deployed to help rationalize the nation’s economic development—imitated the nation’s emergent hybrid material capitalism. Labor, commodity, and capital markets assumed amalgamated forms, combining, for instance, slave and free labor, private and public enterprises, and open and protected markets. Americans constructed different types of capitalism, reflecting a preference for mixtures of practical thought and policy that rarely conformed to strict ideological models. Historians of American economic thought and practice study capitalism as an evolutionary, dynamic institution with manifestations in traditional, expected corners, but historians also find capitalism demonstrated in unorthodox ways and practiced in obscure corners of market society that blended capitalist with non-capitalist experiences. In the 21st century, the benefits of incorporating conventional economic analysis with political, social, and cultural narratives are widely recognized. This has helped broaden scholars’ understanding of what exactly constitutes capitalism. And in doing so, the malleability of American economic thought and practice is put on full display, improving scholars’ appreciation for what remains the most significant material development in world history.

Article

Banking and Finance from the Revolution to the Civil War  

Sharon Ann Murphy

In creating a new nation, the United States also had to create a financial system from scratch. During the period from the Revolution to the Civil War, the country experimented with numerous options. Although the Constitution deliberately banned the issuance of paper money by either Congress or the states, states indirectly reclaimed this power by incorporating state-chartered banks with the ability to print banknotes. These provided Americans with a medium of exchange to facilitate trade and an expansionary money supply to meet the economic needs of a growing nation. The federal government likewise entered into the world of money and finance with the incorporation of the First and Second Banks of the United States. Not only did critics challenge the constitutionality of these banks, but contemporaries likewise debated whether any banking institutions promoted the economic welfare of the nation or if they instead introduced unnecessary instability into the economy. These debates became particularly heated during moments of crisis. Periods of war, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, highlighted the necessity of a robust financial system to support the military effort, while periods of economic panic such as the Panic of 1819, the Panics of 1837 and 1839, and the Panic of 1857 drew attention to the weaknesses inherent in this decentralized, largely unregulated system. Whereas Andrew Jackson succeeded in destroying the Second Bank of the United States during the Bank War, state-chartered commercial banks, savings banks, and investment banks still multiplied rapidly throughout the period. Numerous states introduced regulations intended to control the worst excesses of these banks, but the most comprehensive legislation occurred with the federal government’s Civil War-era Banking Acts, which created the first uniform currency for the nation.

Article

Fur Trades  

Carolyn Podruchny and Stacy Nation-Knapper

From the 15th century to the present, the trade in animal fur has been an economic venture with far-reaching consequences for both North Americans and Europeans (in which North Americans of European descent are included). One of the earliest forms of exchange between Europeans and North Americans, the trade in fur was about the garment business, global and local politics, social and cultural interaction, hunting, ecology, colonialism, gendered labor, kinship networks, and religion. European fashion, specifically the desire for hats that marked male status, was a primary driver for the global fur-trade economy until the late 19th century, while European desires for marten, fox, and other luxury furs to make and trim clothing comprised a secondary part of the trade. Other animal hides including deer and bison provided sturdy leather from which belts for the machines of the early Industrial Era were cut. European cloth, especially cotton and wool, became central to the trade for Indigenous peoples who sought materials that were lighter and dried faster than skin clothing. The multiple perspectives on the fur trade included the European men and indigenous men and women actually conducting the trade; the indigenous male and female trappers; European trappers; the European men and women producing trade goods; indigenous “middlemen” (men and women) who were conducting their own fur trade to benefit from European trade companies; laborers hauling the furs and trade goods; all those who built, managed, and sustained trading posts located along waterways and trails across North America; and those Europeans who manufactured and purchased the products made of fur and the trade goods desired by Indigenous peoples. As early as the 17th century, European empires used fur-trade monopolies to establish colonies in North America and later fur trading companies brought imperial trading systems inland, while Indigenous peoples drew Europeans into their own patterns of trade and power. By the 19th century, the fur trade had covered most of the continent and the networks of business, alliances, and families, and the founding of new communities led to new peoples, including the Métis, who were descended from the mixing of European and Indigenous peoples. Trading territories, monopolies, and alliances with Indigenous peoples shaped how European concepts of statehood played out in the making of European-descended nation-states, and the development of treaties with Indigenous peoples. The fur trade flourished in northern climes until well into the 20th century, after which time economic development, resource exploitation, changes in fashion, and politics in North America and Europe limited its scope and scale. Many Indigenous people continue today to hunt and trap animals and have fought in courts for Indigenous rights to resources, land, and sovereignty.