THE DEVELOPMENT OF ECONOMIC STATISTICS AS AN INFLUENCE ON THEORY AND POLICY*
Colin Clark’s most important contribution has undoubtedly been to economic statistics. He showed us, so to speak, how to play with statistics: how to mix statistics that were firm with statistics that were far from firm by means of a little speculative arithmetic and arrive at conclusions of major importance in resolving issues of economic policy. He opened up a world of the past in which one could still think in magnitudes when the quantitative data were fragmentary and uncertain, building the bricks of economic history out of straws in the wind. At the same time he helped to revolutionize governmental use of statistics for current policy by encouraging the estimation of economic aggregates, recognizing that the pitfalls of such estimations were much the same as those involved in piecing together the statistical fragments of past centuries.
It is this elevation of economic statistics into a tool of economic management that is the subject of this short paper. I shall not attempt to assess Colin Clark’s contribution to the process except to suggest that it is his part in it that is above all worth commemorating. I want rather to take a long view of the emergence of a quantitative approach to economic problems and couple it with a question that has long puzzled me. Why is there no adequate history of economic statistics? Why has one of the most important changes in human affairs passed almost without comment and analysis? It is a question natural enough nine hundred years after Domesday Book and three hundred years after William Petty and Gregory King, those isolated examples of early political arithmetic.
When I took my first degree in economics at Glasgow University in 1928-32 it was rare to encounter any figures at all in the lectures to which I listened or the textbooks I was invited to read. Marshall may have been at pains to inform himself as to economic magnitudes; but in his ‘Principles’ it was the logic of the subject that filled his pages and broad observations that were usually unsupported by any appeal to statistical evidence. Economic
* From National Income and Economic Progress, Essays in Honour of Colin Clark, eds J.O.N. Perkins and D. Ironmonger, Macmillan Press, 1988.