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February 6, 2004

4:15-5:15pm
Little Theater, Quad 346-SJU

Louis Johnston, Economics

More light on a statistical dark age: Output and employment in the US, 1790-1928

The United States Department of Commerce regularly publishes official estimates of United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, these data begin in 1929. I have constructed new annual estimates of real and nominal GDP for the US from 1790 to 1928. These data, when combined with new estimates of the US population and labor force for this period, yield new estimates of output per capita and labor productivity as well.

In my presentation, I will pay particular attention to the period before 1840; Paul A. David in 1967 famously called this “a statistical dark age.” I have taken advantage of new work on agricultural productivity, industrial productivity, and service-sector productivity for this time frame to build new estimates for the census years 1800 to 1840. I will discuss how these new estimates were constructed and compare them to alternative series that are available. I will then use the new estimates to illustrate trends in economic growth and productivity. The data indicate that economic growth accelerated much more gradually from 1800 to 1860 than is usually reported. They also point to higher standards of living before 1800 and a larger role for service-sector output and employment than standard accounts of the period provide.