The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World - Ehsan Masood (2016)

Prologue. Lost History

This is your heritage. Original documents are now in your hands. If they are damaged or lost, they cannot be replaced and a piece of history will be lost.

—Notice in the research room, 
National Archives and Records 
Administration, Washington, DC

It is late spring 2014 in Washington, DC, a couple of days before the National Cherry Blossom Festival and I’m standing on a windy Pennsylvania Avenue outside the offices of the US National Archives. This giant of a building, a colossus of concrete and Corinthian columns, holds America’s founding documents. Visitors from all over the world come here to catch a glimpse of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.

In the course of writing and researching this book, manuscript tourism has become something of a passion of mine, too. But I was here to look for a much less famous, indeed forgotten, piece of American history. I say “forgotten” because when I inquired from London some months earlier, the archivists weren’t certain that they had the document I was looking for.

The paper in question is the first comprehensive listing of America’s national income. It is called National Income, 1929–32; published at the end of January 1934, it was commissioned by a committee of the US Senate a year earlier. The task was handed to a talented young economist who had emigrated from Russia. For Simon Kuznets, National Income would be the job that would define the rest of his career. But it would also eventually estrange him from later US administrations. He would become an outsider to a process he helped create, in spite of later securing the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, commonly known as the economics Nobel prize.

There are copies of Kuznets’s document circulating online, but I wanted to view the original.

A solitary policeman greeted me at the front of the building. “Hello, I’m visiting from London, and I’ve come to view the first edition of the US national income,” I explained, a little tentatively. He took a quick look at my bag and waved me through to the reception area, a cavernous space devoid of much natural light where I waited by a desk occupied by two of his colleagues.

I repeated my request, and after several phone calls to staff in different parts of the building, I was sent to a fourth officer. At this point I was beginning to wonder if they would let me through, when the police officer loudly said, “Belt.” Nervously, I started to remove my belt. The officer broke into a smile and pointed to a small conveyor belt where I was to place my jacket and laptop. I had been cleared by security and was allowed to proceed.

With the security ritual over, I passed through a set of giant metal double doors, into an elevator that took me to the fifth-floor Research Room. There in a box file I hoped to find Kuznets’s original document.

There was a six-page summary typed in the familiar Courier font of the time, double-spaced on paper only slightly yellow with age. The box also contained memos from the office of Senator Robert M. La Follette, who had commissioned the report, as well as letters from organizations asking the report’s publishers for copies.

But the original document was missing. To this day no one knows where it has gone.