This paper examines the socio-political process by which an ensemble of such calculative practices and techniques as accounting came to be developed, adopted, and justified within turn-of-the-century public administration. We are particularly concerned with examining the influence of John R. Commons and other early institutional economists during this Progressive era. Using primary and secondary archival materials, our purpose is to make three main contributions to the literature. First, the paper explores Commons' contribution to the debates over “value” which seems to be somewhat unique in that he explicitly recognized that there exists no unproblematic, intrinsic measure of value, but rather that it must be socially constituted as “reasonable” with reference to common law. To illustrate this point, this paper explores Commons' role in the historical development and implementation of rate of return regulation for utilities. Second, the paper describes the contradictory role accounting played during this period in ostensibly fostering administrative objectivity while accommodating a more pragmatic rhetoric of “realpolitik” in its development and deployment. The third contribution is to establish a linkage between current work in economics and accounting concerned with utility regulation and the debates of ninety years ago, noting that Commons' contribution has not been fully explored or recognized within the accounting literature.

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