Jesse Tarbert


There is a peculiar disconnect between the way specialists view the 1920s and the way the decade is understood by non-specialists and the general public. Casual observers tend to view the 1920s as a conservative or reactionary interlude between the watershed reform periods of the Progressive Era and New Deal. Although many scholars have abandoned the traditional view of the 1920s, their work has not yet penetrated the generalizations of non-specialists. Even readers familiar with specialist accounts portraying the New Era as the age of “corporate liberalism” or the “Associative State” tend to view these concepts as just another way that business influence forestalled the development of a social-democratic state in this period, providing an example of the way that corporate elites favored only those innovations that were viewed as good for business. However, several scholars have recently begun to move beyond these older interpretations and view developments in the 1920s on their own terms by exploring topics such as the development of administrative law, the local political activism of business leaders, and the collaboration between federal administrators, business leaders, and academic researchers. This Article builds on that interpretive shift by examining the actions of some of the leading corporate lawyers and financiers during the years after the Great War, specifically focusing on the origins and activities of the National Budget Committee (NBC). The NBC was formed in 1919 to lead the effort to enact a national budget system in the United States. The composition of the NBC, and its success in securing passage of the Budget and Accounting Act in 1921, illustrates the central role played by corporate elites in debates about administrative reform in these years. Although Berle himself was not directly involved in these debates, examining the NBC’s rise and fall helps to illuminate the world in which his early work was developed.