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Echoes Dispatches From Economic History

Peter Andreas

When Chinese Immigrants Came From Mexico

almost 3 years ago

The U.S.-Mexico border has long been a conduit for undocumented workers. Less appreciated is that the first migrants weren’t Mexican; they were Chinese.

Starting in the 1850s, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers (many of whom left in violation of their country’s emigration laws) were initially sought after in the American West as a source of cheap labor, especially to build the transcontinental railroad. They were never welcomed, however, and couldn’t become citizens. When the demand for labor dried up, an anti-Chinese backlash quickly followed.

Mail-Order Business

In her 1996 autobiography “An Eye for Winners,” the catalog pioneer Lillian Vernon credited Benjamin Franklin with introducing the “American institution” of mail-order retailing.

Undeniably, Franklin is responsible for many innovations (the first successful circulating library, bifocals and the lightning rod, to name a few). But mail order?

The East India House, 1817.

For an institution that has been defunct for almost 150 years, the East India Company still evokes powerful reactions across the world.

Last year, when the Indian government debated allowing foreign companies to open supermarkets there, protesters shouted: “This is the return of the East India Company!” In the U.K., the East India Company’s extraordinary rise and fall have uncanny parallels with the stock-market bubbles and government bailouts that have shaken the economy over the past decade.


Philip Scranton

A Financial Shutdown and Fast-Track Legislation

almost 3 years ago
Emergency Banking Act

On Sunday, March 5, one day after his inauguration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation closing all U.S. banks from March 6 to March 9. He was trying to prevent an escalating financial panic. The conditions for the proclamation included:

"Whereas there have been heavy and unwarranted withdrawals of gold and currency from our banking institutions for the purpose of hoarding; and Whereas continuous and increasingly extensive speculative activity abroad in foreign exchange has resulted in severe drains on the Nation's stocks of gold; and Whereas those conditions have created a national emergency."

Ornate language barely concealed an economic earthquake. Depositors had mobbed banks in many states and fears of mass bankruptcies were spreading. The president’s maneuver gave Congress and federal officials several precious days to draft legislation.


Stephen Bell & Hui Feng

PBOC’s Rise to Top a Story of Deft Politics Amid Turmoil

almost 3 years ago

As of November 2012, the People’s Bank of China had total assets of $4.8 trillion, more than the European Central Bank or the Federal Reserve. The PBOC now supplies more than half the world’s total liquidity and manages foreign reserves worth almost $3.3 trillion.

Increasingly, the PBOC has become an international lender of last resort, particularly as European politicians try to persuade the Chinese to buy their bonds. No wonder that Zhou Xiaochuan, the bank’s governor, has been dubbed “the world’s central banker,” a man whose statements can move global markets.

Dollar Shortage

“The British Empire seems to be running off almost as fast as the American loan,” Winston Churchill thundered before the House of Commons on Dec. 20, 1946. “The haste is appalling.”

As if secretly synchronized, the pillars of empire and the international acceptability of the pound sterling were crumbling in tandem.


Mark S. Mizruchi

When the Corporate Elite Supported Raising Taxes

almost 3 years ago
It's the American Way

Throughout the recent debates in Washington over whether taxes should be increased, one group has consistently maintained its opposition: the leaders of American businesses.

Large U.S. corporations haven’t always been opposed to tax increases, however. In fact, as recently as 1989, and for decades before, big companies routinely called for tax increases, even on themselves, to balance the budget.


Philip Scranton

Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 'Fear Itself' Inauguration

almost 3 years ago
Roosevelt's Inauguration

Not since Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration had an incoming U.S. president faced so comprehensive a crisis as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in early 1933. The U.S. banking system was crumbling, millions of Americans were unemployed, international relations were strained, and efforts to reverse the Great Depression’s effects had floundered.

In mid-February, the president-elect survived an assassination attempt in Miami. Five people where hit, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died three weeks later. Two weeks after the shooting, Roosevelt's nominee for attorney general, Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana, died suddenly aboard a train. Not good omens for the new administration.

Benjamin Graham

Benjamin Graham is remembered primarily as the father of value investing, and as the former professor, employer, friend and investing mentor of Warren Buffett. Yet Graham did a lot more than dispense sound investment advice.

For one thing, he developed a subtle and clever idea for stabilizing currencies -- and economies -- that might bear closer examination today. He called it the commodity reserve currency.


This month, hundreds of thousands of voters in 180 countries elected a new “Monopoly” token that will be added to the game later this year. The cat token won the race and will replace the iron, which was introduced in the 1930s.

More than 1 billion people have played “Monopoly” since its creation, by some estimates, with more than 275 million copies sold in 111 countries and 43 languages. But while the game’s success is indisputable, its origins are not.


Ajay K. Mehrotra

How the Income Tax Created the Modern Fiscal State

almost 3 years ago
16th Amendment

One hundred years ago this week, U.S. Secretary of State Philander C. Knox presided over an important step in the creation of the modern federal income tax.

By applying the Great Seal of the United States to the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, Knox certified that the requisite number of states had provided Congress with the “power to lay and collect taxes on incomes from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

Echoes, two-dollar bill

One hundred fifty years ago, the U.S. was two years into a brutal Civil War. The financial cost left the federal government under enormous stress, leading to a result no one had imagined: the first modern system of bank regulation.

Before Congress passed An Act to Provide a National Currency on Feb. 25, 1863, government oversight of banking had been quite crude. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered by Congress in 1816 and 20 percent owned by the federal government, functioned in some ways like a central bank. At the time, there was no national currency, and most banks issued notes that were accepted as money.


Philip Scranton

The Beginning of the End of Prohibition

almost 3 years ago
Prohibition Repeal

After 13 years of Prohibition, the U.S. beer, wine and liquor industries had high hopes for an economic revival in early 1933.

On Jan. 9, days after a resolution to repeal the 18th Amendment reached a U.S. Senate committee, a Canadian syndicate acquired a shuttered brewery in Hartford, Connecticut. Confident that Prohibition was nearing its end, Czechoslovakia’s Pilsner Urquell Importing Corp. opened a U.S. beer-distribution subsidiary not long afterward. 


Kirsten Salyer

Economic History Roundup

almost 3 years ago
Economic History Roundup

The Winthrop Group on the history of the U.S. Postal Service
Marketing Week on iconic Heinz ads over the years
History Today on Asia's role in the global order of the 19th century
Naked Capitalism on what China learned from Alexander Hamilton
Munich Personal RePEc Archive on the monthly industrial output in China since 1983
Vanderbilt University Department of Economics on the effects of free banking on U.S. economic growth
Project Syndicate on living with less in a post-growth world
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York on how securitization led to riskier corporate lending
Hagley Museum and Library on the history of nylon 

Read more from Echoes online.


Daniel Levinson Wilk

Negro League Baseball Economics Depended on One Industry

almost 3 years ago
Negro Leagues

In an era when baseball contracts can run into the tens of millions of dollars, it’s worth revisiting the early years of the Negro Leagues, when some players could only make ends meet by moonlighting at service jobs, many as hotel waiters.

Because therein lies a curious story about black entrepreneurship in the age of Jim Crow.


Julie Berebitsky

The Strange History of Corporate Sex Scandals

almost 3 years ago
Executive Sleaze

Americans are on familiar terms with the sex scandal. Liaisons in business and politics are regularly reported in sordid detail, and typically explained as the boneheaded decisions of smart and successful men under the influence of power and libido.

In the 1950s, such scandals briefly provided an opportunity for a larger national conversation, one that questioned the ethics of corporate America’s focus on the bottom line and generated the first systematic advice regarding how to keep sex from hurting profits. As Max Lerner, a columnist for the New York Post, summed it up, the “reach of the business spirit into sex or perhaps the reach of the sex drive into business enterprise” was a new social and commercial reality.


In 1936, with war clouds gathering over Europe, some in the U.S. Army couldn’t stop thinking about food.

Fast food, in particular -- which is to say victuals for soldiers such as paratroopers, who were required to be highly mobile. “The primary focus,” reflected three Army investigators some years after the war, was on “nutritional adequacy, storage stability, and military functionality.”


Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

Salt: Mineral of Tyrants, Explorers and Revolutionaries

almost 3 years ago
Dandi Salt March of 1930

Scientifically, salt is an innocuous substance created when a sodium atom bonds with a chloride atom: NaCl. This simple definition belies the influence of a mineral that has substantially affected global economics, exploration and politics for centuries.

Salt’s early use as a food preservative enabled the establishment of humanity’s earliest trade routes, some of which stretched across entire continents. As a result, salt quickly became both a form of money and the basis of taxation. The ancient Greeks used salt to buy slaves (and originated the phrase “not worth his salt” to describe underperforming chattel). The Romans used salt to pay soldiers their “salarium,” resulting in our word “salary.”


About Echoes

Echoes is Bloomberg View's economic history blog. It is edited by Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author, with Nouriel Roubini, of "Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance," and of "A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States."

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