Alexander J. Field
Professor Field’s academic work spans almost half a century. His doctoral dissertation at UC Berkeley, which won the Economic History Association’s 1975 Nevins prize, explored the interactions between industrialization and educational reform in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts. In his thesis and subsequent papers Field focused both on the details of nineteenth century industrialization and linkages to the expansion and reform of public education, distinguishing between the effects of the changing derived demand for cognitive skills and the political appeal of the broader economic benefits of school-based socialization. Notable articles include ”Economic and Demographic Determinants of Educational Commitment, Massachusetts, 1855," Journal of Economic History (1979), Occupational Structure, Dissent and Educational Commitment, Lancashire, 1841," Research in Economic History (1979), "Sectoral Shift in Antebellum Massachusetts: A Reconsideration," Explorations in Economic History (1978), and “Industrialization and Skill Intensity: The Case of Massachusetts," Journal of Human Resources (1980).
Field’s concern with the influence of variation in institutions and norms on outcomes, evident in the emphasis on socialization in his thesis, led to a variety of publications, including his second most frequently cited article, “The Problem with Neoclassical Institutional Economics: A Critique with Special Reference to the North-Thomas Model of pre-1500 Europe," Explorations in Economic History (1982), as well as "Microeconomics, Norms, and Rationality," Economic Development and Cultural Change (1984), and “Do Legal Systems Matter?" Explorations in Economic History 28 (1991). This in turn developed into a broader interest in behavioral and experimental economics, including evolutionary and biological influences on behavior, reflected in his 2001 book, Altruistically Inclined? The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity (Michigan) which won the 2003 Alpha Sigma Nu National Book Award in the Social Sciences. Subsequent contributions in this vein include "Group Selection and Behavioral Economics," in Handbook of Contemporary Behavioral Economics: Foundations and Developments (2006), "Beyond Foraging" (2007), in Journal of Institutional Economics, and "Why Multilevel Selection Matters", in Journal of Bioeconomics (December 2008). His paper "Prosociality and the Military" appeared in the Journal of Bioeconomics (2014), and "Schelling, von Neumann, and the Event that didn't Occur" in Games (2014)
In the 1980s and 1990s his interest in economic development led to articles exploring the role of communications technology in facilitating capital-saving technical change. These include "Modern Business Enterprise as a Capital-Saving Innovation," Journal of Economic History (1987), "The Magnetic Telegraph, Price and Quantity Data, and the New Management of Capital" Journal of Economic History (1992), "French Optical Telegraphy, 1793-1855: Hardware, Software, Administration," Technology and Culture (1994), and “The Telegraphic Transmission of Financial Asset Prices and Orders to Trade: Implications for Economic Growth, Trading Volume, and Securities Market Regulation” in Research in Economic History (1998).
Approaching the new millennium, Field’s research trended increasingly towards twentieth century topics and those with a more explicitly macroeconomic flavor, beginning with work on the interwar period and the causes and consequences of the Great Depression in the United States. This is reflected in "Asset Exchanges and the Transactions Demand for Money, 1919-1929," American Economic Review (1984), "A New Interpretation of the Onset of the Great Depression," Journal of Economic History (1984), and “Uncontrolled Land Development and the Duration of the Depression in the United States," Journal of Economic History (1992).
His interest in the macroeconomics of the supply side continued, his work blending growth accounting with narrative history, as evident in his most frequently cited article, “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Twentieth Century,” American Economic Review (2003), which highlighted strong total factor productivity growth across the 1929-1941 period. Other articles reflecting this approach include “Technological Change and U.S. Economic Growth in the Interwar Years,” Journal of Economic History (March 2006), “Technical Change and U.S. Economic Growth: The Interwar Period and the 1990s” in The Global Economy in the 1990s: A Long Run Perspective (2006), “The Origins of U.S. Total Factor Productivity Growth in the Golden Age,” Cliometrica (2007), “The Impact of the Second World War on U.S. Productivity Growth” Economic History Review (2008), “U.S. Economic Growth in the Gilded Age,” Journal of Macroeconomics (2009), and “The Procyclical Behavior of Total Factor Productivity in the United States, 1890-2004,” Journal of Economic History (2010). His book, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and US Economic Growth, published by Yale University Press in 2011, consolidated this and other work, and was selected as a 2011 Choice Outstanding Academic Title in the Economics category. In 2012 it received the Alice Hanson Jones Biennial Book Award from the Economic History Association as well as the 2012 Alpha Sigma Nu National Book Award in Social Sciences.
Field has long been struck by economists’ tendency to treat machinery as the canonical capital good, whereas in value terms it is overshadowed by structures, including housing. Pre-financial crisis papers reflecting this concern include “On the Unimportance of Machinery,” Explorations in Economic History (1985) and “The Equipment Hypothesis and U.S. Economic Growth,” Explorations in Economic History (2007). The 2007-10 crisis and resulting recession stimulated two papers offering an historically informed perspective on the role of housing in those events: “The Interwar Housing Cycle in the Light of 2001-2011: A Comparative Historical Approach” in Housing and Mortgage Markets in Historical Perspective (2014) and "The Savings and Loan Insolvencies and the Cost of Financial Crisis, Research in Economic History (2017).
Much of Field’s effort since 2016 has been devoted to researching and writing The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War, published by Yale University Press in October 2022. This book builds on the earlier work on the interwar period, and offers an equally counterintuitive message. The common understanding of the economic effect of the war in the U.S. has focused on aggregate demand effects as well as alleged long run benefits of learning-by-doing in producing war goods. The new book instead emphasizes the negative effects of the sudden, radical, and ultimately temporary changes in the product mix, as well as other supply-side disruptions. "The Decline of U.S. Manufacturing Productivity between 1941 and 1948", published in the Economic History Review in January 2023, develops the central empirical finding of the book. His latest working paper, also developing themes in the book, addresses the U.S. rubber famine during World War II. In December 2021 Field delivered the Abramovitz lecture at Stanford University, offering an overview of this research agenda.
Other recent publications include a review essay on Thomas Piketty's best seller, Capital in the Twenty First Century in the Journal of Economic History (2014), "Ideology, Economic Policy and Economic History: Cohen and DeLong's Concrete Economics,” Journal of Economic Literature (2017), “Manufacturing Productivity and U.S. Economic Growth,” in the Oxford Handbook of American Economic History (2018) and “Historical Measures of Economic Output,” (2019) in the Handbook of Cliometrics.
Professor Field served for over twenty years as Associate Editor of the Journal of Economic Literature, and edited Research in Economic History for ten years. He has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Economic History and Explorations in Economic History, as Executive Director of the Economic History Association between 2004 and 2012, and on the National Science Foundation's Economics Panel in 2005 and 2006. During the academic year 2013-14, he participated in the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars Program.
At Santa Clara he has served as acting Academic Vice President (1986-87), on the University's Board of Trustees (1988-91), as Associate and Acting Dean of the Leavey School of Business between 1993 and 1997, and as chair of the Economics Department between 1988 and 1993, and again in 2013-14. Prior to Santa Clara, Professor Field taught at Stanford University.