San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
Technocracy was a political-economic movement headed by Howard Scott and based upon some ideas of the economist Thorstein Veblen. It created a sensation over a six month period in 1932-33. Apparently Howard Scott attended a series of lectures by Thorstein Veblen given in the mid to late 1920's before Veblen died in 1929. A group of science-and-engineering-oriented people in New York City decided to undertake a survey of energy use in the United States and document the relation of energy use and economic growth. This survey was undertaken in 1931 and 1932 and Howard Scott joined the group and soon became its spokesman.
The Energy Survey of North America was carried out using facilities at Columbia University. Being engineers the people looked at physical measures of production and productivity and were distrustful of quantities involving prices. Howard Scott reported on some of the Survey's "findings" to the American Statistical Association in June of 1932 and that presentation was reported on by The New York Times. One "finding" reported was that industrial employment had reached a maximum in 1919 but such employment was declining all the while industrial production was continuing to grow. This raised the specter of technological progress creating increased productivities such that less labor was needed to produce more output and that the economic system of the time could not cope with this productivity growth. Thorstein Veblen in his book, The Engineers and the Price System advocated taking the management of the economy out of the hands of business people and putting it into the hands of engineers. Veblen's proposal looked remarkably like what people thought was taking place in the Soviet Union.
After the New York newspapers reported on the Energy Survey and the movement that followed from it the wire services spread the story around the country. The American psyche was desperate for a cogent explanation of why the country had gone from unpresidented prosperity to hard times. This movement, which adopted the name Technocracy, seemed to have a scientific answer. Time Magazine ran an article on Technocracy; other magazines picked upon the theme.
Technocracy stressed, as indicated above, the tremendous increase in productivities that had occurred in recent years in some industries and traced the economic downturn of the early 1930's to this increase in productivity that resulted in layoffs of workers. A notable case of increased productivity was in the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs. At one time each bulb had tobe blown by hand. The light bulb manufacturers in the later 1920's introduced a machine that created the light bulbs automatically. This machine with a small crew replaced many, many glass blowers.
Technocracy had some other features that were intriguing to the general public. Technocracy asserted that the unit of currency should be energy. Technocracy advocated the consolidation of the nations of North America into one big nation state.
During its heyday Technocracy held parades. The logo or symbol for Technocracy was the oriental yin-yang symbol.
But after a six month run Technocracy faded as the general public shifted its attention to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal administration. The core of Technocracy however lasted for decades. When the energy crisis occurred in the 1970's there was still a Technocracy organization to give press releases on its perspective concerning the situation.
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