• January 13, 2010

On December 7, 1999, the U.S. Department of Commerce honored Robert R. Nathan for his role in developing the most important economic measures of this century the National Income and Product Accounts and their key component, the Gross Domestic Product.

Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley presented Nathan a certificate in recognition of his work at the department’s 51st Annual Gold and Silver Awards program. Proclaiming GDP the achievement of the century, Secretary Daley noted that “the GDP was developed by Simon Kuznets, who won a Nobel Prize [in economics] for his work. Dr. Kuznets had a young economist who worked with him, Robert Nathan.”

Bob Nathan was a student of Dr. Kuznets at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s. In the spring of 1933, having been offered a job in the Commerce Department’s Division of Economic Research, Nathan headed to Washington.

When he arrived at Commerce, Nathan was startled to find his favorite professor, Simon Kuznets, already in the Division of Economic Research, working away on the nation’s official national income estimates. Much to his delight Nathan was assigned to Kuznets’ staff. He worked with Kuznets for nearly two years, assembling bases for reasonable estimates from surveys, scattered studies, and reports. Discussing his work years later, Nathan wrote in the Journal of Evolutionary Economics:

“We did not have the sophisticated sampling techniques of today or what passes today as the simplest of computers.” The results of their work were published in a government report, National Income of the United States, 1929-1932. The later report, National Income of the United States, 1929-1935, detailed the sources and the methodology underlying the estimates. Kuznets returned to the University of Pennsylvania after this report was completed, and Nathan continued to work in the division while attending Georgetown law school at night.

Later, Nathan served as Chief of the ational Income Section, a division of Economic Research. During the war he used the National Income Product Accounts and GDP to dramatic effect as chief of the Planning Committee of the War Mobilization Board.

At a press conference with Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Secretary Daley named National Income and Product Accounts and GDP the Commerce Department’s achievements of the century because they “armed the United States with the systematic, comprehensive, and accurate information it needed to help plan and win World War II. Since then, they have helped monitor and influence the course of our economy. They dramatically improved the lives of millions of Americans and continue to help make us the envy of the world.”

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