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By the Numbers: Confidence, Consultants, and the Construction of Mass Leisure, 1953-1975

  • Author(s): Skee, James Dalgoff
  • Advisor(s): Carson, Cathryn
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation describes how, in the decades after World War II, a new cohort of outside experts helped build confidence among their clients in particular visions of American democratic capitalism. This moment in American history is, as the historian Daniel Horowitz has called it, an era of the “cold war consensus” among social scientists, industry leaders, and policy makers, in the idea that mass affluence would bring social well-being to the many, especially vis-à-vis communism. I add, however, that especially among members of America’s business and financial establishments, there was a lack of confidence in how this particular future could be achieved. Thus, there was an ongoing need to build confidence to move America in new directions that to contemporaries seemed foreign and new, and with no certainty of their ultimate success. As discussed in the historiography section later in this introduction, although historians and other scholars have looked at how modernity, and American democratic capitalism specifically, came to be, including its social, cultural, economic, and political configurations, there has been little exploration into the role of for-profit professional services firms in this story. This dissertation also complicates our narratives of the Cold War military-industrial complex by adding new actors to a familiar casts of characters. This dissertation also describes the expansion of quantification and rationality in American social life, especially in the contexts of business, banking, and government. It is about the role and meaning of “economics” outside the halls of academia and government. Lastly, this provides insight into the meaning of objectivity over the 1950s through 1970s, and how that played out in the formation of new professional identities.

To explore these concerns, I look at several instances of constructing mass leisure in the United States. These include: the location and feasibility studies for Disneyland completed by Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 1953 and 1954, discussed in Chapter 1; construction and operations planning completed by SRI and ERA for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, also known as the Century 21 Exposition, in Chapter 2; the use of outside advisors by the non-profit New York World's Fair 1964-65 Corporation in Chapter 3; ERA’s role in the development of Audio-Animatronics and other Disney attractions at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in Chapter 4; and finally Miami’s never-built Inter-American Cultural and Trade Center (Interama), discussed in Chapter 5. Taken together, these instances cover the time period from the early 1950s until just before the 1970s energy crisis and Watergate began to corrode the nation’s confidence in the idea that mass affluence was sustainable.

The actors in this dissertation are both familiar and unfamiliar. Few have not heard of Walt Disney, but the role of Harrison Price and his firm ERA in the story of Disney’s theme parks are rarely found outside of histories documenting particular aspects of the Disney enterprise. Both ERA and PRC were founded by alumni from non-profit research and development firms and other think tanks. But their main line of work straddled to a far greater extent the public/private division than that of their peers at RAND or the federal departments of the executive branch. Arthur D. Little, Inc., of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a key actor in the story of industrial research & development in the United States and the history of operations research, but the firm’s work on projects of mass leisure (including the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair and Miami’s Interama) is little known. The significance of this work in mass leisure is not simply that it is outside of the area explored by scholars. Besides Price, many of these men went on to become key figures in domestic and international development. Some of the very first projects they worked on were in mass leisure, and in very real ways this early work shaped their later careers. Disneyland, Century 21, and New York’s “Olympics of Progress” (as Robert Moses called the 1964-1965 New York World Fair) were the crucibles in which these consultants learned how to apply their trades.

This dissertation takes the perspective that what mattered the most to their clients was in the ability of these outside advisors to act as prognosticators of the future. While their successes in these efforts did matter (or at the very least, how they presented and explained their past successes and failures), it was their abilities to perform as virtuosos in quantitative methods and to mediate between the worlds of banking, government, industry, and the design professions which mattered the most. They performed as objective counsel, and used a range of methods from statistics to operations research and systems analysis. Some called themselves industrial engineers. Others identified as industrial economists, land economists, or recreational economists. There was never one fixed professional identity among them. They were on the whole, however, not academic economists concerned with theory. The trade of these men was entirely in applied research. Methods they used ran the gamut from statistical analysis to linear programming to computer simulations. What drove demand for their services among their clients in mass leisure was the need to build confidence in the postwar’s highly capitalized, financially risky, and otherwise unproven ventures among a diverse set of interests, both public and private. The value of consultants such as Price to clients lay chiefly in their role as depoliticized actors, and it was their public performances of objectivity which made them appear neutral. Indeed, objectivity was one of the chief products they sold, packaged as a service.

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