Category Archives: Economic History

Iberoamérica en la 75a. Reunión Anual de la Economic History Association

Un reportaje sobre la presencia iberoamericana en la 75a. Reunión Anual de la Economic History Association para el Boletín de la Asociación Mexicana de Historia Económica (Nashville, 11-13 de septiembre de 2015).


My first time at an annual meeting of the Economic History Association

I am happy to inform you my paper presentation in the 2015 Economic History Association annual meeting at Nashville went great. The paper used the same database I first showed in the 2014 Business History Conference annual meeting at Frankfurt, which became my master’s essay. I was truly nervous before presenting as I wasn’t aware it is exceptional for students who are not in the job market to have their papers included in the Economic History Association program. I felt the expectations were really high. I worked on the PowerPoint with David Weiman (Barnard College/Columbia University), my advisor, for three weeks. The one issue I had was to rearticulate the master’s essay as an economic history paper, with a question that “sold” the work to an audience where economists were the majority. That’s why I decided to go with the plurality of currencies question as developed by Akinobu Kuroda.
Alexander Field (Santa Clara University) chaired the panel, aptly called Off Wall Street: Finance and Banking in the 19th Century US. First went Christopher Cotter (Vanderbilt University) an economics doctoral student who is in the job market and talked about railroads and the panic of 1873. Discussion ensued, after which I had 16 minutes to present. I managed to stay calm, in spite of some hesitation and a lot of fear, and got the entire presentation covered. Then, Matthew Jaremski (Colgate University) discussed my paper. His comments went on the direction that I anticipated. He pointed out the value of the database itself and the directions where I could take it. He also said that the concluding remarks were great (but [econometrically] untested) ideas. Questions and comments were really good, no one asked anything to devalue the merit of the work. Ted Fertik, a grad student of Yale pointed out precisely the direction where this project is going to be sold to historians (the political economy of money in antebellum America). Richard Sylla, Naomi Lamoreaux, and Larry Neal (former advisor of Alan Dye) were present, as well as some members of the Columbia University Economic History Seminar, such as Eric Hilt, Simone Wegge, and Mary Tone Rodgers. After my paper was done came John C. Bluedorn (International Monetary Fund) who presented about the regional effects of the panic of 1884 in Pennsylvania.
Curiously enough, when I was walking to see the books being exhibited, several doctoral students, both in economics and history got to talk to me and say they had really liked my presentation and had learned stuff they didn’t know anything about. The economics doctoral students were particularly impressed with the dataset, and the history doctoral students liked the implications in terms of what it means for monetary powers to be fragmented and what money can say about the integration of the South to the world.
Thereafter, I managed to talk to Dick Sylla and Naomi Lamoreaux who said they would be available for discussing my prospectus in late October. I shared room with Sebastián Fleitas (University of Arizona) who introduced me to many people, including Price Fishback (University of Arizona) and Ken Snowden (University of North Carolina at Greensboro). I also hang out with Natacha Postel-Vinay (London School of Economics, now Warwick University), Eric Gómez-i-Aznar (University of Barcelona), Brian D. Varian (London School of Economics) and briefly met Casey Lurtz (The University of Chicago, now Harvard University). I met on my own three scholars I admire the most, Phil Hoffman (Caltech), Gavin Wright (Stanford University, and former advisor of David Weiman) and Robert Margo (Boston University). I also finally met Jari Eloranta. All and all, going to Nashville has been reinvigorating for my career and I feel lucky to have had such a nice time at the EHA.

Some resources on the history of commodities (with a Latin American bias)

  • Jonathan Curry-Machado (ed.). Global Histories, Imperial Commodities, Local Interactions.
  • Curry-Machado is the coordinator of a very interesting British project, Commodity Histories.
  • Commodities in World History, 1450-1950, a website from UC Santa Cruz put together under the supervision of Edmund Burke III.
  • Commodities and Anticommodities Project.
  • Global Commodities / Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange, and
  • For the twentieth century economic history of Latin American commodities, see José Antonio Ocampo and María Angela Parra. Returning to an Eternal Debate: The Terms of Trade for Commodities in the Twentieth Century.
  • For a cultural approach, see Arjun Appadurai. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.
  • And the best for the last. From Latin American economic history in the long-run, with a great introduction framing the theoretical issues at hand: Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, Zephyr Frank. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Best book in the market on the issue from a regional perspective.

Book Presentation: The Economic Development of Latin America Since Independence (New York, January 31st, 2013)

Photography by Manuel A. Bautista Gonzalez.

It has been well over a year of the presentation of “The Economic Development of Latin America Since Independence,” held at Columbia University in the City of New York, with the participation of José Antonio Ocampo (co-author, SIPA/Columbia), Alan Dye (Barnard College) and John H. Coatsworth (Columbia University), moderated by Pablo Piccato in Columbia University in the City of New York, on January 31, 2013.

I am biased to believe the contents of the book presentation are still relevant. I post this transcript to pay a debt to my Uruguayan friend and colleague Sebastián Fleitas (University of Arizona), who aided Luis Bértola and José Antonio Ocampo as a research assistant for this book. The transcript would certainly benefit from (even) more editing. But as it happens most frequently in grad school, I lack the time to do that. Without further ado, here’s the baby whose birth took 15 months (!).

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Piece in The Economist about the economic history of the Great Depression

“Perhaps economic historians can make a better contribution by ensuring the past is not abused in debates about modern-day crises. For instance, putting all the blame on Wall Street for the Great Depression—or on bankers in the current crisis—does not stand up to historical scrutiny. The responsibility may more properly lie in a complex combination of factors, like how global financial systems are structured. But this still needs be interpreted from modern day evidence rather than in over-simplistic “lessons” from the past. As the Irish economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda once wrote, “shattering dangerous myths about the past is the historian’s social responsibility”. Such sentiments should apply to the Great Depression as much as they do any other episode in history.”

Estimados colegas,

Por este medio les hacemos llegar una copia digital de un artículo publicado en el blog "Free Exchange" de la revista The Economist sobre la historia económica de la Gran Depresión.

Saludos cordiales,

Manuel Bautista,

Vocal de la mesa directiva de la AMHE, 2013-2016


C., R. (2013), ‘Economic history. What can we learn from the Great Depression?’, Free Exchange (2013; London: The Economist). Accessed November 16 2013. <>


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“If they couldn’t guarantee the property rights of the land they gave away, how could they possibly sell it?”: Land Privatization and Property Rights in the Nineteenth Century Neo-Europes

And an earlier piece on property rights in Buenos Aires and New South Wales…

The NEP-HIS Blog

The Political Economy of Land Privatization in Argentina and Australia, 1810-1850: A Puzzle

Alan Dye (, Barnard College, Columbia University

Sumner La Croix (, University of Hawai’i-Mānoa


Abstract: This paper compares public land privatization in New South Wales and the Province of Buenos Aires,in the early nineteenth century. Both claimed frontier lands as public lands for raising revenue. New South Wales failed to enforce its claim. Property rights originated as de facto squatters’ claims, which government subsequently accommodated and enforced as de jure property rights. In Buenos Aires, by contrast, original transfers of public lands were specified de jure by government. The paper develops a model that explains these differences as a consequence of violence and the relative cost of enforcement of government claims to public land.

Review by Manuel Bautista Gonzalez

The U.S. economy has racked up an enviable record of two centuries…

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The Public and the Private in Critical Approaches to the New Deal

Portraits of an era are necessarily synthetic, but Shlaes very selective use of circumstantial evidence makes the reader think of a very biased reading of the intertwined relationship between the public and the private during the New Deal, where market-based mechanisms are a priori the most optimal form of organizing social life and supply-side economic policies are most conducive for economic growth, both in the short and the long-run.

Does Shlaes have a problem with the incorporation of large constituencies politically ignored, or with the form this incorporation adopted in the American case? The economics of public choice, a rather diluted paradigm that appears in Shlaes’s work, helps the author argue that Roosevelt was deliberately targeting certain constituencies through tailored legislation; however, this does not explain why the turn to the state was happening simultaneously in several nations during the Depression years.
Shlaes’s explanation of the Great Depression as a problem of “lack of faith in the marketplace” caused by an expanding public sector is a rather troublesome account of the worldwide economic downturn of the interwar years (Shlaes 2008, 7). I was particularly surprised to see the lack of consistency in her arguments on the economic history of the period, beginning with the problem of not distinguishing adequately between the crash of 1929, the banking crises and the economic depression of the early 1930s (Shlaes 2008, 5). Another instance occurs when against all economic logic she asserts that “deflation had hurt borrowers”, when in fact a deflationary period increases the real indebtedness of debtors, i. e., the deflated value of debt (Shlaes 2008, 158).

The author seems to be very uncomfortable with a world where the dollar was not the international unit of reserve and most accepted means of payment, a rather recent development that was further strengthened by Roosevelt’s efforts to create a new international monetary system. Shlaes’s characterization of microeconomic remedies against macroeconomic problems is unfair to the available knowledge of historical actors and the development of economics as a science at the time. Historians of economic thought would argue that no economist or policymaker had a “macroeconomic” framework with which to operate until at least the apparition of Keynes’s General Theory.

Radosh and Rothbard’s preface to A New History of Leviathan is a most interesting example of the kind of critiques that can be argued when extreme views of the political spectrum coalesce. Both authors agreed to edit the book with the purpose of determining whether liberalism was pro-business or anti-business, and to challenge “the preeminent  liberal ideology of mainstream corporate America and its academic and intellectual servants” (Radosh and Rothbard 1972, ix). Radosh’s piece places adequately the importance of business interests and the problem of regulatory capture under the Roosevelt administration (Radosh 1972, 151). If anything, the merit of the readings for this week lays in helping us problematize the changing relationship between public and private actors in the Great Depression era.

On Associational Self-Government and Regulatory Capture

The direct antecedent of the National Recovery Administration can be found in the expanding role of the government during the tenure of Herbert Hoover as commerce secretary under presidents Harding and Coolidge. Hawley (1974) explores Hoover’s role in the creation of a corporatist state prior to the New Deal years. The Hooverian philosophy contained a vision of business and government cooperating to modernize, rationalize and manage the American economy.  Hoover believed in a community of interests between capital and labor, and promoted cooperative associations as means to private sector self-government and ultimately the material and moral advancement of the US.
As secretary of commerce, Hoover engaged in an ambitious program of administrative re-engineering, whereby he sought to subsume varied aspects of economic life. Hoover attempted to transform the Department of Commerce into an agency propelling and managing economic development, relying on private “networks of cooperating committees and allied associations” (Hawley 1974, 129). For this aim, Hoover enlisted business, academia and the media, and enrolled technocrats and topical experts, in what the author calls “adhocracies” (Hawley 1974, 131). Hoover found resistance to his project and fought institutional inertia: Hawley’s evidence suggests there were several groups of interest within and outside the government which opposed thoroughly the Hooverian ideal of an associative state.
Hoover’s reaction was to decrease the pace and scale of reform. The secretary’s stance yielded a set of regulating committees and overseeing boards with representatives from the government and the private sector, in what the author calls “quasi public organs” (Hawley 1974, 125). Hoover secured government intervention in new areas such as aviation and radio by arguing about their “public nature”, and intervened decisively in areas such as construction planning, housing and children’s welfare (Hawley 1974, 127). Hawley’s article thus raises questions on administrative history and the relationship between policymakers of distinct public agencies with their peers (such as the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury and State Departments) and with the private sector.
The approval of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 gave momentum to “the associational idea of self-government” first essayed in the Hoover administration (Hawley 1995, 62). NIRA was an ambiguously written law that granted “unprecedented peacetime powers” to President Roosevelt for counteracting the effects of the economic downturn (Hawley 1995, 20). NIRA was an “enabling act, an economic charter” (Hawley 1995, 33), that placed the executive branch as an ultimate arbiter of industrial relationships. Also called the Wagner act, NIRA was a law that appealed to different ideologies and conflicting constituencies, such as “business planners […], trade unions, social workers, […policymakers,] spenders and pump-primers (Hawley 1995, 25).
Hawley’s account on the making of NIRA is an interesting instance of legislation under critical circumstances. Initially, politicians, businessmen and labor representatives stood behind the bill; opposition came from small business leaders and antitrust advocates. Hawley offers an interesting framework to approach the ideological contradictions of NIRA: the act echoed competing and conflictive visions of the American societ, as “business commonwealth […], cooperative, collectivist democracy [… and], atomistic economy” (Hawley 1995: 35-36). Big businesses sought to codify oligopolistic practices. Technocrats tried to apply modern management techniques from the private sector to public problems. The American intelligentsia divided itself between those who saw an almost natural progression towards market concentration and those who urged the government to enforce competition and restore economic flexibility.
The case of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) led by Hugh Johnson offers a cautionary tale of a regulatory agency captured by interest groups. NIRA presented a dilemma for economic policymakers: how could price policies be enacted without incurring in plain oligopolistic power? Code-making was in its core a “bargaining process” (Hawley 1995: 56), and industry representatives aimed to set minimum prices, open-price systems, terms of sales and controls of production, often with the complacency of NRA authorities. Soon, however, the collusion of big private interests affected small businesses and undermined public support for NIRA. The complexity of industrial chains often ended in overlapping and chaotic regulation. The NRA entered in conflicts with other public agencies, and industrial price fixing schemes derived in the rise of consumers as a constituency in American politics. Roosevelt could not remain deaf to these claims, and henceforth his administration had to move away from the Hooverian vision of “industrial self-government and the association idea” (Hawley 1995: 90).

Property Law in America and the Neo-Institutionalist Narrative

The readings for our first session offered me a much necessary corrective to a vision molded by the prevailing economic history narrative concerning property law in America. The neo-institutionalism consensus adopted after the works of Douglass North and Barry Weingast among others emphasizes the need of securing property rights as a precondition for optimum economic development. Economic historians and neo-institutionalist economists  often fall prey to describing property rights as a given, transhistorical reality. Afterwards, these scholars usually debate which legal tradition, common law or civil law, has been more conductive for economic growth (in the style of studies by Andrei Schleifer, Rafael La Porta and Florencio Lopez de Silanes). The works we have read and discussed demonstrated the need to properly historicize property rights, to reinstate the contingency behind their making, to study the local adaptation of metropolitan laws in colonial contexts, before we start thinking about their long-lasting, path-dependent effects on economic development.


In England, social evolution brought the need to establish the boundaries between communal and individual ownership, and the same definition of property is a product of civilization, urbanization and agricultural advance (Blackstone 1788 (1915), 716-719). Property in the form of individual, absolute dominion was a central concept in early modern “public law, political argument, political economy and moral philosophy” (Gordon 1996: 95): it is the historian’s task to unravel the ideology implicitly presented in each of these instances.


Gordon posits the conflictive nature of property rights through time: how can ideal, absolute property rights confront the reality of “relative, qualified property relations” (Gordon 1996: 96)? Is property as absolute dominion a precondition for the coming of a market society? If this is the case, how does the affirmation of inalienable, individual property rights find its way through the realities of socioeconomic life? Has the main result of the historical ascent of individual property rights a dismissal of other forms of economic organization more viable for problems meriting collective action?


The microeconomic concept of externalities might come useful to study the unintended consequences of this historical process. Thinking of the social costs imposed by the assertion of individual property rights through time helps read the evidence presented in both Gordon and Horwitz’s works. Interestingly enough, the neo-institutionalist narrative around the importance of property rights does not posit enough agency in the judiciary element interpreting (and making) the law: as Gordon’s Transformation brilliantly demonstrates, economic historians would do good in understanding that judges were key actors in determining the pace and direction of social change, and ultimately “the nature of American institutions” (Horwitz 1977: 2).


Judges were not impartial to the development of the American market economy, and the growing importance of the monied interests had an impact in their activist stance in the dawn of the 19th century. The want of adapting the common law tradition within a system of popular sovereignty derived in judges having to challenge what was “natural” in natural law and becoming in fact “architects of the legal system” (Horwitz 1977: 24). By the 1820s, the change was complete, and law was seen as a vehicle for governing society and promoting desirable courses of social change. Judges were more able then to grasp the problems arising from the transformation of an agrarian to a commercial and manufacturing economy, and as they challenged natural law they also contested notions of natural use in land. Water rights were a main example of this change in the conception of private property rights, given the increased importance of mills, dams and (later) canals.


The cases studied by Horowitz made me think of private and public goods, appropriability and access, and their relationship with land and natural resources: further work in land history could gain from qualifying these economic concepts in the light of the historical record. Banner and Horowitz were the most effective readings in challenging my own understanding of property rights from an almost “social physics” perspective to what they effectively are: historically contingent constructions, changing in space and time.

On Brinkley’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Biographies have not been a frequent historical genre in my experience as a grad student. Alan Brinkley’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a welcome exception, and the portrait of a character that led through one of the darkest eras of the US and the world. Brinkley writes a balanced synthesis of the man and his age, and in so doing his FDR becomes a model for other biographies of leaders in convulsed economic times. Roosevelt, alongside with Washington and Lincoln, has become part of the pantheon of revered statesmen who constructed the American nation. Roosevelt was key in “the reshaping of American government, the transformation of the Democratic Party, the redefinition of American liberalism, the successful leadership of the United States through the greatest war in world history, and the reconstruction of America’s relationship to the international order” (Brinkley 2009, 80). Some questions arose through my reading, and I will list them below:

– How could Franklin Delano Roosevelt be so close to the public yet so aristocratic in his upbringing and secretive in his character? The answer seems to be encrypted in the emergence of mass production, the correspondent surge of mass media and politics. Roosevelt was his best spokesman: he was a successful politician in terms of conveying the image of a strong, close leader to the American public. How did this change the perceived presence of the federal government in the lives of average Americans? (See Brinkley 2009, 31)

– To which extent “the confident voice, the smiling optimism” reveal how important political leadership is in times of crisis? (Brinkley 2009, 42) Can leaders affect effectively expectations, and thus alter business cycles? What does this tell us about the agency of politicians? How can we write bottom-up histories with due attention to the “top” actors of the age?

– The physical frailty of President Roosevelt made me think about the forgotten history of disabled people throughout national historiographies. Was disability as important in the rise of social history in the 1960s and 1970s? Is disability a useful or misleading historical category? Is it as valid as race, ethnicity, gender…?

– The role of economists as policymakers is clearly evident since Roosevelt’s first term. The economic profession would later provide hundreds of employees to the large corporations of managed capitalism. What were the consequences of the involvement of economists in public debate and policies? What was the impact of the insertion of economic discourse and practice in the private sector? What was the role of economists in advancing visions “of government, labor and capitalism” in the US and the world during the first half of the 20th century (Brinkley 2009, 39)?

– Our usual causing suspect of the Great Depression (and the recession of 1937-1938), the intellectual consensus around the advantages of the gold standard, the and the need to maintain a balanced public budget, reappears in Brinkley’s work (see Brinkley 2009, 33). The resilience of what in hindsight appears as a mistaken theoretical paradigm merits a study on its influence in federal, state and local levels.

– What is the history behind the construction of macroeconomic variables? National accounts were first computed in the 1940s and 1950s, as the emergence of macroeconomics posited a stronger emphasis in aggregate indicators of economic activity. What variables, if any, were used for shaping monetary and fiscal policies? Were the instruments of policy inherently unstable or were they simply not discovered yet?

– The New Deal would be called a rather heterodox set of economic policies. Codification exercises, price and wage-setting policies were pursued at the same time that authorities attacked (if only verbally) market imperfections (of which monopoly is just a case). Institutional effervescence manifested itself in the creation of countless public agencies. (See Brinkley 2009, 34-42, 45-48, 52-54, 71-7 ). However, private interests seem to have co-opted the pace of reform, using the agencies as instruments against fears of overproduction, vehicles for market concentration and vessels for collusion between “competitors”, in what amounts to what Edward L. Glaeser has denominated regulatory capture. Why hasn’t such a nuanced version of the New Deal become the subject of popularization amidst the American public? Why have the successes surpassed the shortcomings of the New Deals? How was reform enacted in the success stories, i. e. “labor relations and banking and finance” (Brinkley 2009, 54).

– Improvisation and experimentation in the enactment of economic policies have the potential of reintroducing contingency to what seems rather a “structural” account, largely overdetermined by economic fundamentals. This aspect merits attention on the part of economic historians as well as historians from other countries, who sometimes observe in the New Deal a rather comprehensive set of policies deliberately aimed at restarting the economy (see Brinkley 2009, 42-43).

– Was the increased presence of government in the daily lives of citizens anticipating the transformation of welfare benefits into perceived entitlements by the American public (see Brinkley 2009, 47 in a reading influenced by the works of James T. Sparrow)? What were the limits to the “broker state” emanating from the Great Depression (Brinkley 2009, 55)? What happened to the project of economic citizenship (Brinkley 2009, 75)?

– How did the Allied victory in World War II intertwine itself with the New Deal years? Did it somehow mask the failed promises of the New Deals? When does the international public sphere affect domestic matters in the US?

– Were there any claims on Roosevelt enacting a socialist experiment when the government assumed a leading role during WWII? Did people think of the public and the private division in different terms due to the conflict? What other instances, aside from the “dollar-a-year men executives” (Brinkley 2009, 74) should be considered for understanding the American public’s attitude towards business and its role in the national project?

– What is the role of friendship among political leaders of nation (see the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship in Brinkley 2009, 68-ff.)?

– Notwithstanding the negative impact of the economic downturn and war, can we write a history of migration during this period?

– Having worked on the papers of Leon Fraser, a banker in this period, I was amazed by the amount of printed sources available to US historians specializing in the 20th century. How can historians carry research for 20th century questions with current time and budgetary constraints?