Abstract: Bringing Economics Back In: Business History, Political History, and the Natural Gas Industry

William R. Childs


Since the mid-1980s, some business historians have utilized ideas, culture, and politics to analyze business-related topics, but have ignored (ironically) the role of economics. Here, I resurrect and extend an approach developed by the late Thomas K. McCraw, who in a seminal article and a Pulitzer Prize-winning book offered this insight: More than any other factor the economic structure of an industry shapes the context in which regulatory policy is discussed and implemented. Focusing on the history of natural gas in the United States, I retell a politicized story from 1949, contrast it to the electric power story of the 1930s, and outline the disastrous natural gas policies from the 1950s to the 1970s. Only in the 1970s did policy makers begin to make more effective choices for natural gas, in large measure because the deregulation and environmental movements forced them to understand the economic structure of that industry, how it related to other energy industries, and how all of them fit into the broader economy. In the conclusion, I suggest how my approach might be applied to other business-government topics. Business historians need to put the ''economy'' back into ''political economy.''