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  • Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
  • Lisa Jacobson (bio)
Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. By Meg Jacobs . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. xii+349. $35.

Meg Jacobs's brilliant book presents a major reinterpretation of twentieth-century liberalism. Jacobs argues that "pocketbook politics"—the quest to broaden purchasing power through policies that encouraged low prices and high wages—was a central strand of liberalism from the early years of the century through the early 1970s. Rejecting traditional political narratives that divide the twentieth century into distinct eras of reform, Jacobs shows how the "purchasing power question" became a focal point of grassroots activism and policy making that predated the New Deal and persisted well into the postwar years. Jacobs is hardly the first to demonstrate the centrality of mass consumption to American political economy, but few have so insightfully identified continuities in the liberal purchasing-power agenda and so effectively shown how grassroots consumer activists, housewives, unions, retailers, liberal policy makers, and an activist liberal state together made the means to consume a hallmark of economic citizenship.

Pocketbook politics originated in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when inflation more than doubled the cost of living and the proliferation of mass retailers selling lower-priced goods made consumers more price conscious than ever. As inflation eroded living standards and frustrated rising expectations, working- and middle-class Americans joined forces to protest rising prices. Housewives organized rent strikes and boycotted butchers when the price of meat skyrocketed, white-collar workers supported striking workers' demands for lower prices, and labor organizers and middle-class consumer activists exhorted middle-class women to patronize stores that treated employees well and sold only union-made goods. Such cross-class alliances in defense of low prices, Jacobs argues, not only threatened business prerogatives to set prices, but became more radicalizing [End Page 424] when an activist state in the two world wars and the Great Depression enlisted consumers as enforcers of fair prices.

Grassroots activism and state action proved a potent combination during World War I, when the government stepped in to curb runaway prices and promote conservation. Women's clubs and suffragists joined Herbert Hoover's Food Administration in encouraging housewives to conserve food and plant war gardens. The state also demanded sacrifices from business, though it relied more on public pressure and moral denunciations of profiteering than direct price controls to check inflation.

Although the purchasing-power agenda lost political momentum during the 1920s, those years bore intellectual fruit as liberal thinkers honed an economic theory of underconsumption that linked mass purchasing power (achieved through higher wages, low prices, and unionization) to national prosperity. Jacobs recounts how various New Deal programs—some more successfully than others—institutionalized a redistributive purchasing-power agenda, but her most fascinating material comes in her analysis of the grassroots consumer movement that buttressed the New Deal state. Challenging corporate pricing practices, Jacobs shows, proved the least divisive and most broadly supported aspect of New Deal reform. Women's clubs, trade unions, home economists, and consumer activists mobilized housewives to use their collective consuming power to press for fair labor standards and better-quality goods. The growing popularity of chain stores, credit unions, and cooperatives in the 1930s all reflected consumers' determination to get their money's worth. The high point of pocketbook politics, however, came during World War II, when the Office of Price Administration (OPA) instituted price controls and rationing to conserve scarce resources, curb inflation, and preserve national unity by democratizing sacrifice. Building on earlier precedents, the OPA's Consumer Division published biweekly price bulletins and recruited housewives to monitor prices and report price violators. This massive mobilization of middle- and working-class "price wardens" helped to legitimize a radical expansion of state power.

Jacobs attributes waning support for the purchasing-power agenda during the postwar years to a variety of factors. In 1946, consumers overwhelmingly favored the retention of some price controls, but when meat- packers deliberately created an artificial shortage, the public blamed price controls for disrupting the free flow of goods and withdrew its support for the OPA. Postwar inflation also weakened...