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Jul 30, 2019
16 Min read time
The postwar generation understood why a prosperous working class is crucial to the economy. Can economics be accessible again to ordinary Americans?
Can economics be explained in everyday language? After the Depression and World War II, Chester Bowles, a former advertising executive, was inspired to write his 1946 pamphlet Tomorrow Without Fear, in which he translates John Maynard Keynes’s theories into jargon-free prose. With Bowles’s help, a generation was convinced of the importance of having a prosperous working class who can afford to buy goods.
In celebration of the book’s return, we interview Bowles’s son, Samuel Bowles, an economist who has undertaken his own project of interpreting economics for the general reader: his Curriculum Open-Access Resources in Economics (CORE) Project it not only freely available online, but also radically reimagines what the content should be, taking contemporary issues such as climate change as its focus.
Samuel Bowles is a distinguished economist and longtime Boston Review contributor. In this discussion with Boston Review editor-in-chief Joshua Cohen, Bowles reflects on his father’s work, the connections with his own efforts, and the need for new ways to communicate economics today.
Joshua Cohen: I want to talk with you today about economics—both the discipline and efforts to communicate and educate about the discipline. And I want to start with your father, Chester Bowles. He was born in 1901, graduated from Yale in 1924, and started the advertising firm of Benton and Bowles, which was incredibly successful even during the Great Depression. Then during World War II, he ran the Office of Price Administration, working on price and rent controls. After the war, he was governor of Connecticut, ambassador to India (on two different occasions), and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1958. But of his many accomplishments, the one I want to talk about today is a book he wrote in 1946 called Tomorrow Without Fear. The book is an amazing effort to communicate economic principles to the public.
‘Tomorrow Without Fear is an amazing effort to communicate economic principles to the public.’
By way of introduction, I want to share a quote from economist John Kenneth Galbraith. In the New York Times in 1971, Galbraith wrote that your father, who was his friend, possessed “an almost unlimited faith in the possibilities of public persuasion. No one, in his view, is so benighted that he is beyond reach of a convincing memorandum or a good long, persuasive talk Few men in public life have had greater ability to get a problem into comprehensible form.” That’s an extraordinary statement, and it is absolutely true that Tomorrow Without Fear is an effort at public communication that reads like a good, persuasive talk. The book is now available online due to the good work of issue contributor Robert Manduca. But as an economist yourself, I want to get your view of Tomorrow Without Fear.
Samuel bowles: Well, I first read the book more than a half century ago, and I reread it recently now that it’s available online. And there are many things about the work that I find really remarkable on a second reading.
One thing that is striking is how the book reflects what he learned as a former ad man, even though he hated advertising and was very happy to get out of it. He never had a good word to say about it when I was growing up, but he learned two important things during that time in the 1930s. The first is that you can’t sell vacuum cleaners to households that don’t have any money—no amount of advertising is going to solve that problem. He spoke poignantly about going door to door to figure out what was wrong with their advertising campaign and being told over and over again, “I’d be very happy to buy your machine if my husband had a job.” So, he understood the problem of aggregate demand in the economy, although he never would have used that term.
The second thing he learned from the advertising industry is, of course, the absolute importance of communication.
So at the end of World War II, when the United States was facing a problem of inadequate spending and might again return to depression, he sat down to write Tomorrow Without Fear. There’s the sense in those pages of the urgency and danger of the time. As he put it, “I want to see, if possible, what economic lessons there are for us in the greatest of all depressions and the greatest of all wars.” That’s how he approached this key idea that if ordinary people didn’t have enough money, the economy couldn’t prosper.
JC: I find it striking that the book is a popular exposition of Keynesian ideas but never actually mentions John Maynard Keynes.
‘If ordinary people didn’t have enough money, the economy couldn’t prosper.’
SB: The fact that Keynes is not there is not surprising to me. My father never argued from authority. He never quoted this source or that source. For facts he would, but he always wanted to give you the commonsense explanation of why something worked. He was perhaps a bit anti-academic. I heard lots of epithets and unpleasant words for intellectuals around the dinner table, starting with “egghead” but getting much worse. So, when I ended up becoming an academic, my dad asked me more than once to please go back to his friend (and my former teacher) Galbraith and see what advice I could get on how to advance public understanding about economics.
But there’s something else in the book that is not from Keynesian economics: the importance of government and collective action. Based on his wartime experience heading the OPA and seeing the coming together of the entire nation, he was convinced that, if we could only work together during peacetime as well as we had during the war, then we could really succeed on a grand scale. So the book was propelled by the war and depression, which clearly established the problems (full employment and shared prosperity)—combined with an immense confidence in collective action through trade unions, business associations, and, importantly, the federal government.
I’ve recently been reading a contemporary textbook, Paul Samuelson’s Economics: An Introductory Analysis. It was the first really big introduction to economics and was published two years after my dad’s little pamphlet. It expressed the same mixture of danger and confidence. The very first question for students to discuss in Samuelson’s textbook was: “How do you expect to fare in the next depression?” That was the sense of the times, and I think we often forget today what a dangerous time it was.
And the confidence was not entirely misplaced. The radical break with the old economics by Samuelson—who made Keynesian economics an essential part of what all economists and many citizens would know—and the efforts of people such as my dad communicating related ideas to a broader public, changed how we talked about the economy. Along with a new vernacular came a set of policies that for about thirty years following World War II, brought us what is now called the Golden Age of Capitalism. During this period, things turned out more or less as my dad had hoped. Not quite, of course, but wages rose a little faster even than productivity, Samuelson’s “next great depression” did not materialize, and the global capitalist economy grew at unprecedented rates. Having contributed to this was a fantastic accomplishment of this generation of public servants and intellectuals.
JC: And it was very different from the public sensibility now. Tomorrow Without Fear emphasizes the importance of demand, so that the heroes of the book are consumers, not the vaunted job creators we hear about today. And if you’re going to get a lot of demand in the economy, you have to be concerned with the distribution of income, so there’s a lot of discussion about ideal income distribution. In fact, he describes what the distribution of income in the 1960s might look like if things go well: the bottom third of the population should earn 17 percent of national income. Well, right now, the bottom 50 percent get 12.5 percent, so we’re far today from where your father wanted us to be.
I’d like to come back to what you said about how your father wanted to address the concerns that people had about their lives. There’s a paragraph on the first page where he’s describing his experience during the war at the Office of Price Administration and the millions of phone calls and letters his office would get each week from people all over the country. He says, “almost always these people, in addition to their specific problems, have raised general questions that open the door on tomorrow.”
‘There’s something in the book that is not from Keynesian economics: the importance of government and collective action.’
So, the book, in a very literal way, is responding to the questions people had about future prosperity. This is not some imaginary dialogue. And if you reflect on the fact that this was a world before the Internet and email, the sheer volume of communication he was receiving is extraordinary. It’s an interesting view both of democracy and of him as a public servant.
SB: Yes, he was very moved by those conversations, and when I was a young boy, they were repeated to me long after they had taken place. Of course, these people were worried about their own situation, but they were always presented as if the person was also seeking solutions to larger problems. Implicit was a kind of civic-mindedness that he took for granted in most people.
As an empirical matter, that was probably true of some and not true of others, but the key idea my dad had was that it doesn’t have to be warfare that promotes public service and civic-mindedness. And I think he saw a number of other situations as his life progressed—the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement—that confirmed for him that nations could be moved to action on grounds other than narrow national or individual interest.
One of the things that I found particularly striking early in the book was that he had a very inclusive idea of “we.” “Economic security,” he wrote, “based on abundant production, fairly shared, is our goal whether we live on the Rue Saint Jacques or on Main Street, U.S.A., whether we farm in a giant collective in the Ukraine or till the black soil of Iowa.” I was shocked when I read that he was including the people of the Soviet Union in his discussion about what it is that “we” all want! This is 1946, before the Cold War was in high gear, but the inclusiveness of all of these different possible approaches was striking to me—the internationalism of it and the breadth of it.
JC: I want to jump forward to work you are doing now. One of the things I was immediately struck by when I read Tomorrow Without Fear was how its role in public communicating about economics connects to CORE, which you initiated along with Wendy Carlin and others. CORE is all about reimagining and reconfiguring economics education for undergraduates. How did you come to that work?
SB: CORE is a response to the economic and financial crisis of 2008 and to the growing concerns about economic injustice and climate change. About a dozen or so of us who were involved in getting the project off the ground had a sense that these problems had to be addressed. We had a sense similar to the danger and foreboding that my father and Samuelson had felt after World War II. But also a sense of the possibilities. We were also convinced, as they were, that economics had recently changed in such a way that it could address some of these problems more adequately than it had in the past. Our mission and our confidence grew from a combination of a new set of problems that we saw looming and the changes in economics that had been accumulating over the past thirty years.
‘People today think that economics should be addressing inequality, climate change, and the future of work. But none of these issues are taught to introductory economics students.’
In a sense we also started like my dad had, with a set of questions from non-economists. We asked students around the world—at twenty-five different universities—what questions they thought economists should be addressing today. These students had never studied economics before, and we asked them to just write their response down on a piece of paper in one or two words. Then we made word clouds from the responses, and the results were striking. The word “inequality” was huge. Next was “climate change” and related terms, and “instability” and “robots” were a bit further down. It didn’t matter where in the world we did this, we got the same word clouds. It also didn’t matter if we did this with students or—and I know this sounds odd, but it’s true—bankers. Carlin and I did the same thing with 120 professionals at the central bank and at New Zealand’s treasury, and we got almost the exact same thing as we got with students.
People today think that economics should be addressing inequality, climate change, instability, the future of work, and innovation. But none of these issues play any substantial role in what our introductory economics students are learning. So, we decided that the usual rule of textbook writing—which is that you can only change 15 percent of content when you write a new book—would have to be thrown to the winds. In the same way that Samuelson turned his textbook upside down—he began with macroeconomics, which was a radical change—we began our book with questions of innovation, wealth creation, inequality, and climate change.
About his book, Samuelson wrote something along the lines of, “What I’ve written here is what every economist under the age of fifty already knows and has been using in his research for the past decade.” I think that CORE could say the same. Most of what we have included is familiar to recently trained graduate students, but not included in the introductory courses. Or, if they are, they are tacked on at the end, in chapters that are never assigned.
We also felt strongly that digitized knowledge that can be made available to additional users at zero expense should not cost students hundreds of dollars. So, we put together a model to make that work, and the curriculum is now available for free online.
JC: There is a difference between CORE as I understand it and the project of Tomorrow Without Fear. Your father begins his book by commenting that he is not an academic or economist, but an American anxious to contribute solutions to his country’s problems. And then he addresses the public in his pamphlet. CORE, on the other hand, is a textbook used in universities. How do you think about those different acts of communication and is there an element of CORE that aims to reach outside the university setting?
SB: The analogy that I would offer very immodestly would be with Samuelson’s textbook and not with my father’s pamphlet. But CORE and my father’s pamphlet share something in common, which is that both are interested in providing a new way of explaining the economy to people who were not intending to go on in economics. The pamphlet might have been the only thing that a person ever read on economics, and this course might be the only one a student ever takes in economics. That part is very consistent.
‘CORE and Tomorrow Without Fear both challenge the idea that any economy can function well if people are entirely self-interested and amoral.’
But my father’s pamphlet was a hundred pages. CORE is over a thousand pages. So we’re a bit more ambitious. My father was trying to convince people that a set of public policies could be implemented—and many of them were. CORE does not advocate for particular policies. What we’re advocating for is a new way of understanding how the economy works, what people are like, how we interact in the economy, and how we interact with our biosphere. In a sense, we’re trying to provide people with a framework which will allow them to participate in debates on public policy; we’re training people’s capacities to form their own ideas. And I think that is an essential part in changing the way economics is done and changing the way economic policy is made.
There is another theme common to CORE and to Tomorrow Without Fear: they both challenge the idea that any economy can function well if people are—or are assumed to be—entirely self-interested and amoral. My dad wrote: “it has always been true that those communities in which the strong extended a helping hand to their weaker neighbors have been economically stronger and healthier for it. But only in recent generations has it become true that the smooth functioning of our economy . . . actually requires the practice of the best of our moral teachings.” True then and truer now. No combination of greed, fear, and clever contracts can make a modern economy—based on knowledge production and distribution, and caring for others—work well even in the short run, much less provide the basis for a sustainable future of our biosphere.
If you talk to people like foundation presidents, they’re constantly going on about getting the “right people” in the room so they can figure out the right solutions to this problem and that problem. They are not talking about a very large room. This is not the CORE approach. Yes, of course, we need good ideas, and thanks to groups such as Economics for Inclusive Prosperity we will have plenty. But we also need a public that is economically articulate in demanding policies that are consistent with a democratic and fair society. That’s what I think an economics program like CORE or like Samuelson’s book or like my dad’s pamphlet are all trying to do—all in their slightly different ways.
JC: It’s very hard for me to think of anything similar to Tomorrow Without Fear today. Where could someone who is not a university student turn to get that kind of extremely thoughtful, practically oriented picture of what the economic problems of the country are and what might be done about them?
SB: That is very true. There is nothing like Tomorrow Without Fear for today. I would say that the conservative position was greatly bolstered by Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) because it expressed a particular view of how the economy worked, it was beautifully written, and it was argued by a very serious intellectual who promoted interesting ideas such as the negative income tax and school
I think people are quite convinced that the way charted by Friedman will not work and, in fact, is part of the problems we now confront. But I don’t think we yet have a statement in everyday language that seriously argues for a reconstruction of political economy— both normatively and analytically. I do think it can be done because the groundwork is there. That is a book waiting to be written.
JC: We have our marching orders then.
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