Wesley Clair Mitchell

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Wesley Clair Mitchell.

Wesley Clair Mitchell (August 5, 1874 – October 29, 1948) was an American economist known for his empirical work on business cycles and for guiding the National Bureau of Economic Research in its first decades.


  • I began studying philosophy and economics about the same time. The similarity of the two disciplines struck me at once. I found no difficulty in grasping the differences between the great philosophical systems as they were presented by our textbooks and our teachers. Economic theory was easier still. Indeed, I thought the successive systems of economics were rather crude affairs compared with the subtleties of the metaphysicians. Having run the gamut from Plato to T. H. Green (as undergraduates do) I felt the gamut from Quesnay to Marshall was a minor theme. The technical part of the theory was easy. Give me premises and I could spin speculations by the yard. Also I knew that my 'deductions' were futile...
Meanwhile I was finding something really interesting in philosophy and in economics. John Dewey was giving courses under all sorts of titles and every one of them dealt with the same problem — how we think... And, if one wanted to try his own hand at constructive theorizing, Dewey's notion pointed the way. It is a misconception to suppose that consumers guide their course by ratiocination—they don't think except under stress. There is no way of deducing from certain principles what they will do, just because their behavior is not itself rational. One has to find out what they do. That is a matter of observation, which the economic theorists had taken all too lightly. Economic theory became a fascinating subject—the orthodox types particularly — when one began to take the mental operations of the theorists as the problem...
Of course Veblen fitted perfectly into this set of notions. What drew me to him was his artistic side... There was a man who really could play with ideas! If one wanted to indulge in the game of spinning theories who could match his skill and humor? But if anything were needed to convince me that the standard procedure of orthodox economics could meet no scientific tests, it was that Veblen got nothing more certain by his dazzling performances with another set of premises...
William Hill set me a course paper on 'Wool Growing and the Tariff.' I read a lot of the tariff speeches and got a new sidelight on the uses to which economic theory is adapted, and the ease with which it is brushed aside on occasion. Also I wanted to find out what really had happened to wool growers as a result of protection. The obvious thing to do was to collect and analyze the statistical data... That was my first 'investigation'.
  • Wesley Clair Mitchell in letter to John Maurice Clark, August 9, 1928. Originally printed in Methods in Social Science, ed. Stuart Rice; Cited in: Arthur F. Burns (1965, 65-66)

"Statistics and Government," 1919[edit]

Wesley Clair Mitchell (1919), "Statistics and Government," in his The Backward Art of Spending Money and Other Essays (McGraw-Hill, 1937), pp. 45, 47, 48-51. Originally appeared in Quarterly Publications of the American Statistical Association, March 1919.

  • In physical science and in industrial technique... we have emancipated ourselves... from the savage dependence upon catastrophes for progress... In science and in industry we are radicals—radicals relying on a tested method. But in matters of social organization we retain a large part of the conservatism characteristic of the savage mind...
The 'social reformer' we have always with us, it is true. Or rather most of us are 'social reformers' of some kind... Yet the story of the past in matters of social organization is not a story that we should like to have continued for a thousand and one years. Reform by agitation or class struggle is a jerky way of moving forward, uncomfortable and wasteful of energy. Are we not intelligent enough to devise a steadier and a more certain method of progress? Most certainly, we could not keep social organization what it is even if we wanted to. We are not emerging from the hazards of war into a safe world. On the contrary, the world is a very dangerous place for a society framed as ours is, and I for one am glad of it.
Taking us all together as one people in a group of mighty peoples, our first and foremost concern is to develop some way of carrying on the infinitely complicated processes of modern industry and interchange day by day, despite all tedium and fatigue, and yet to keep ourselves interested in our work and contented with the division of the product...
What is lacking to achieve that end... is not so much good will as it is knowledge—above all, knowledge of human behavior. Our best hope for the future lies in the extension to social organization of the methods that we already employ in our most progressive fields of effort. In science and in industry... we do not wait for catastrophes to force new ways upon us... We rely, and with success, upon quantitative analysis to point the way; and we advance because we are constantly improving and applying such analysis. While I think that the development of social science offers more hope for solving our social problems than any other line of endeavor, I do not claim that these sciences in their present state are very serviceable.
They are immature, speculative, filled with controversies. Nor have we any certain assurance that they will ever grow into robust manhood, no matter what care we lavish upon them.... Those of us who are concerned with the social sciences... are engaged in an uncertain enterprise; perhaps we shall win no great treasures for mankind. But certainly it is our task to work out this lead with all the intelligence and the energy we possess until its richness or sterility be demonstrated.
  • pp. 45, 47, 48-51; as cited in: Arthur F. Burns. "New Facts on Business Cycles," in: Arthur F. Burns (ed). The Frontiers of Economic Knowledge. Princeton University Press. 1954. p. 61 - 106; p. 63

Business Cycles, 1913[edit]

Wesley Clair Mitchell, Business Cycles, 1913

  • This book offers an analytic description of the complicated processes by which seasons of business prosperity, crisis, depression, and revival come about in the modern world. The materials used consist chiefly of market reports and statistics concerning the business cycles which have run their course since 1890 in the United States, England, Germany and France.
    • Preface
  • One seeking to understand the recurrent ebb and flow of economic activity characteristic of the present day finds these numerous explanations both suggestive and perplexing. All are plausible, but which is valid? None necessarily excludes all the others, but which is the most important? Each may account for certain phenomena ; does any one account for all the phenomena ? Or can these rival explanations be combined in such a fashion as to make a consistent theory which is wholly adequate?
There is slight hope of getting answers to these questions by a logical process of proving and criticizing the theories. For whatever merits of ingenuity and consistency they may possess, these theories have slight value except as they give keener insight into the phenomena of business cycles. It is by study of the facts which they purport to interpret that the theories must be tested. But the perspective of the investigation would be distorted if we set out to test each theory in turn by collecting evidence to confirm or to refute it. For the point of interest is not the validity of any writer's views, but clear comprehension of the facts. To observe, analyze, and systematize the phenomena of prosperity, crisis, and depression is the chief task. And there is better prospect of rendering service if we attack this task directly, than if we take the round about way of considering the phenomena with reference to the theories.
This plan of attacking the facts directly by no means precludes free use of the results achieved by others. On the contrary, their conclusions suggest certain facts to be looked for, certain analyses to be made, certain arrangements to be tried. Indeed, the whole investigation would be crude and superficial if we did not seek help from all quarters. But the help wanted is help in making a fresh examination into the facts.
  • p. 19-20; as cited in: Mary S. Morgan. The History of Econometric Ideas. p. 46

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