The Wages Question: A Treatise on Wages and the Wages Class

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Francis A. Walker’s The Wages Question is generally credited as having demolished the prior, antiquated “wages fund” theory of wages [see Book I, Chapters VIII and IX]. In the process, Walker simultaneously laid the groundwork for John Bates Clark’s definitive descriptions of the marginal products of labor and capital. His interest in the nature of the firm contributed to Frank H. Knight’s work by clearly describing the factors of production and how to categorize their rewards into wages, rent, and profits.

Walker’s work and influence served as models not only because he discussed production, labor, and wages with unusual clarity for his time, but also because his interest in monetary issues (influenced by his father, also an economist) enabled him to describe the difference between nominal and real values. His clarifications of monetary issues coincided with concurrent national interests in the gold/silver/bimetallism parity controversies of the late 1800s, and the meaning of money for an economy. Walker later wrote a textbook that was used in classrooms till the publication of Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics.

Walker became the first President of the American Economic Association. His professorships at Yale and MIT changed the courses of their economics programs. His leadership abilities were evident in every realm of his life, including his stint as a General during the Civil War. His devotion to economics as a profession paved the way for many generations of U.S. economists.

For all his contributions, Walker’s popularity may also have been one of the main sources of the promulgatation of many current misunderstandings. His views of Thomas Robert Malthus’s writings may have been the source of the popular subsequent mis-association of Carlyle’s 1849 term, the “dismal science,” with Malthus. (Walker’s interest in labor and wages naturally led him to consider population, but may also have caused him to emphasize pressures inherent in rapid population growth, race, and class distinctions over Malthus’s original interest in the economic incentives that deter overpopulation.) Walker’s general views and influence may have led to other underlying divisions behind different strains in macro- and micro-economic research that persist to this day. [Description written by Lauren Landsburg, Econlib].

The Wages Question: A Treatise on Wages and the Wages Class (London: Macmillan, 1888).

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