Category Archives: History

Launching / Lanzamiento of “Histories of / Historias de USA-MEX”

Fingers crossed!

Launching / Lanzamiento of “Histories of / Historias de USA-MEX”.

Piketty and Marx: Or, why no one needs to read anything

Article: After 148 Years, Mississippi Finally Ratifies 13th Amendment, Which Banned Slavery

OMG… #pathdependence

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?

An Interview on Why to Apply to Grad School in History…

So I got an e-mail from London-based Mansoor Inbal (QS TopGradSchool) for an e-mail interview on my decision to apply to graduate school in US history in New York City. Maybe someone in the cyberspace might find this interesting, or not. I’m looking forward to see how this looks like in the printed version of their annual report. Until then, here are my answers to Mansoor’s questions.

1.       What made you decide that you wanted to study in the US? Why Columbia in particular?

Ever since NAFTA was signed in 1993 I became interested in the economic relationships of the United States and Mexico. While in college to earn a B. A. in economics, I always wondered about the differences in economic development between the two countries. I thought that only a historically informed inquiry could help me solve the question. That is why I decided to apply to a graduate program in the United States, both to study and to live in a society that has always fascinated me.

Columbia turned out to be my ideal option since the researchers I want to take courses with and develop my dissertation are here. The faculty here have a strong committment towards interdisciplinary work and transnational and global history.

2.       Why did you choose to study history at graduate level? What was it about the professional world that you didn’t enjoy?

Since I graduated, I kept on thinking whether I wanted to pursue doctoral studies in either Economics or History. I chose History because I already have a background in Economics and wanted to train myself in methods of inquiry and read scholarship that is not exclusively economic. History provides a better way to tackle the changing and complex reality of human societies.

I cannot say I disliked the professional world. I worked in media as a creative planner and host of economic history segments for “Expedición 1808”, a series that was broadcasted in Latin America and Spain. I also worked in commercial banking as an analyst at the time of the 2008 financial meltdown in Wall Streets. Both positions were crucial for me to determine my research interests and they definitely helped me choose academia as a professional venue to develop them.

3.       What are the challenges of studying in a foreign country? Is the US/NYC a good place to work and live?

The first challenge is the language, if you are not a native speaker. You might think you have a full command of English but it is a bit difficult to write an academic paper in another language. But that’s what graduate school is for. Training. Professionalization.

The US is a great place to work. NYC was the best city for me to study, since it combines the best archives in financial history with a cluster of universities with researchers with whom I can discuss my research interests. I do not forget the fact that NYC is my favorite city in the world, full with things to do and new places to discover. The city is very welcoming for people who do not come from here: in a way, it is truly the capital of the world.

4.       What are the challenges of studying at graduate level as compared to undergraduate level?

Whereas undergraduate level might be a more intensive experience in terms of learning and memorizing, graduate level education is about developing critical inquiry abilities that will prove useful when you are doing research on your own.

5.       What would you advise someone unsure whether or not they should study history at graduate level to take into consideration?

Do not rush in! Consider the fact that it takes 6 to 8 years from the start of the PhD to the defense of the dissertation. You will read as you never had idea you would. You will find yourself doing much of your work alone and you might resent that if you are accustomed to working in teams. The job market perspectives should also be factored in your decision to apply to grad school: tenure-track positions are declining everywhere in the United States and academic positions in Europe are scarce. This might make you think of considering to relocate elsewhere in the world where there is a job, or else developing skills that might prove useful should you not decide to pursue an academic job.

6.       What will you do after completing your thesis?

My idea is to work in either academia, finance, consulting or public history. Academia would be an ideal setting, however I am specializing in financial history and this might prove useful for a firm in the industry. Consulting has always attracted me. And as my previous work experience in TV taught me, public history is fascinating! A combination of the four activities would be ideal… But we’ll see.

On the Science and History of Prozac and the Treatment of Depression

An interesting piece in The New York Times Magazine:

In 1988, a year after the Food and Drug Administration approved Prozac, 2,469,000 prescriptions for it were dispensed in America. By 2002, that number had risen to 33,320,000. By 2008, antidepressants were the third-most-common prescription drug taken in America.

On Technology and Cyborg Civilizations (Edwards)

A fascinating account that links “the sociology and history of science and technology, […] post-structuralist critical theorists, […] philosophical studies of artificial intelligence, [… and] the interpretive sociology of computer communities” (Edwards, p. xviii), The Close World demonstrates how computers and technological change served as a means to achieve military objectives during the Cold War Era, and in so doing they had larger, unsuspected performative effects on scientific development, political discourses, subjectivity formation and popular culture in America and the capitalist bloc.
The Close World is a superb case study of how to study rationalization and subjectification in a field with a “fundamental experience” (Foucault p. 779), that being cognition and the “human-machine integration” problem (Edwards, p. 1). The book offers a most pertinent example of how interdisciplinarity helps tackle both material and cultural aspects in historical works. By understanding computers as machines and metaphors, and by advancing the closed-world concept as a “closed system, rationally ordered to produce carefully defined outputs […] not only military but rhetorical” (Edwards p. 6), the author offers a compelling case of how rigid disciplinary divisions cannot guide the craft of history. A specialized approach would have disembedded the economic, cultural, military, technological and political aspects that Edwards manages to bring together superbly, illuminating our understanding of the Cold War era by demonstrating the need to study capitalism as a complex, globalizing system that was at the time threatened by the emergence and relative success of socialism. The Closed World embeds technology and its symbolism as fundamental parts of “the social process” (Edwards, p. 40)
The Closed World becomes an enclosing, encompassing analytical framework to study in depth the logic and dynamics of containment and anticommunism policies. The United States might be the geographic area studied by Edwards, however, the forcefulness of his argument, the representativity of the phenomenon he observes, and the richness of the book’s theoretical foundations, could make this book to be included in several fields, those of American, international and transnational history, intellectual history as well as the history of technology and science. I found Edward’s book to offer elements to explain of the theoretical impact of structures, large(r)-scale approaches, social science insights and quantitative methods in different historiographical traditions, namely social and economic history during the 1960s and 1970s.
This is among the best readings we have had in the course so far, and I cannot help but thank Edwards for providing a way to approach and historicize pop culture and science fiction, notwithstanding the fact that his book proves to be relevant to understand the lack of “integrity and authenticity” (Edwards, p. 364) in our present time. Published in 1996, The Closed World turned out to be prescient of the problems riddling our generation. We are in front of an enduring, firmly grounded and captivating narrative, history as it should be.

On the longue-durée (Braudel, Horden & Purcell)

Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean is a masterly classical work that set the example for the fruitful interaction of the social sciences with the historical craft in the years after its publication. Braudel’s division of historical time into geographical time, social time and individual time (Braudel p. 21) proved to be a useful tool in historical narratives post-Annales. In so doing, the French author tried to account for both the history of the permanent, the recurrent and that which changes only marginally (the geographical time), the history of human groups and social structures which change slowly but with rhythms, and the history of individual events and rapid conjunctures, that often follows an erratic path and is subject to the passions (we might say emotions) of historical actors (the individual time).
It might be interesting to discuss in class the varying degrees of human agency each of us reads in Braudel. For The Mediterranean stands as a work that reasserts, rather than diminishes agency, as it portraits how human action has shaped Braudel’s own spatial object of study: “The Mediterranean (and the accompanying Greater Mediterranean) is as man has made it” (Braudel pp. 168-170), and “the human Mediterranean only exists in so far as human ingenuity, work and effort continually re-create it” (Braudel p. 276).  According to Horden and Purcell, descriptions of a region in terms of “risk regime, logic of production, topographical fragmentation, and internal connectivity” (Horden & Purcell p. 733) might situate us historians nearer to human ecology than to “history” after the cultural and linguistic turns, yet the effort to study geographic units through time demands comparability and abstraction if one is to come up with a better global history.
Another aspect that I would like to rescue is the frequent, almost rhetorical device of using maps and graphics in Braudel’s work. The “spatial turn in history”, as Richard White accounts for the rise of spatial history (White might be relatively new in the historical profession in the United States but is consistent in other historiographical traditions (namely the French and Latin American) since the Annales school.

On Performative Authorities (Symes and Thompson)

Carol Symes’s A Common Stage is a masterly reconstruction of theater and performed activity in medieval Arras. The author argues that theater in this age was but another manifestation of a public sphere, as “groups and individuals conveyed information, asserted opinion, negotiated conflicts, and exercised agency during a period when theater was open to all” (Symes p. 3).

I was particularly surprised by the exercises in historical imagination Symes displays in her work. As Sean O’Neill points out and George Aumoithe is concerned about, these exercises raise questions on the pertinence of the recreation of experience for the readership of any historical work. My own opinion is that as long as these exercises in imagination are guided by a critical approach to sources, they are but another rhetorical strategy the historian displays in the craft of her work, and thus are not to be criticized in ways different to those we use to study other non-performative parts of any historical work.

Symes and Thompson show the limits of presentism and rigid disciplinary approaches to both medieval theater and eighteenth century crowd actions, for both historical phenomena and the sources they can be described with are embedded within their particular contexts. We would do wrong if we read them otherwise, as Chien Wen Kung rightly points out in his comment.