Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Quick Take on Bankers and Empire

I just finished reading Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean  

Here is John Clegg interviewing Hudson for the Brooklyn Rail.

Here is a New Dawn podcast of Hudson talking to Michael Dawson about the book.

Hudson describes the activities of America’s most important financial firms in the Caribbean during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have been looking forward to reading the book because he studies many of the same firms that I have studied in my work on trust companies. (Institutions, Entrepreneurs and American Economic History: How the Farmers Loan and Trust company Shaped the Laws  of Business: 1822-1929; “A Failure of Regulation?: Reinterpreting the Panic of 1907,” Business History Review October 2014; and “Trust Company Failures and Institutional Change in New York, 1875-1925,” Enterprise and Society forthcoming). He is also looking at roughly the same period that I do, but he asks very different questions.

Hudson wants to understand how the actions of these firms in the Caribbean were shaped by the combination of racism and the profit motive.  He writes about racial capitalism, but do not confuse this book book with Baptist and Beckert style New History of Capitalism. They make grand claims and portray their work as the result of intense archival research, but their overblown claims are constructed from a secondary literature that is either misrepresented or concealed, and the archival references are ornamental. Hudson, in contrast, tells a story that is built from the ground up using primary sources. It is a messy story, because that is the story that emerges from the wide array of primary sources that he uses. I thought this quote from the interview with Clegg provided a nice description of my impression of the book:

I think it has helped me to understand that the project of “U.S. imperialism” was contingent, marked by an incomplete hegemony, often notable for its confusion, experimentation, and failure, defined through competing interests, and rarely triumphalist. This is not to say that it didn’t exist—or that its effects in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, were not palpable, bloody, or real. But there was always pushback and, while the U.S. state often served as the intermediary for U.S. capital in the Caribbean, oftentimes government officials tried to be a brake on the activities of banks if they felt they were not in the strategic and economic interests of the state. Before I began this project I don’t think I was aware of the role of law and regulation in mediating the relation between banking and imperialism. More often than not, banking expansion was an attempt to evade, erode, or re-write the federal regulations governing banking activity. 

The bankers in the book both compete and cooperate. They see the potential for profit, but ignorance and prejudice often leave them stumbling around trying to get hold of it. There are profits, but there are also failures. They try to use both U.S. and foreign governments to their advantage, but not always successfully. They see themselves as constrained by the law, while also trying to change the law and take advantage of operating under multiple legal regimes. The book reminded me of the end of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters, where he describes sitting in his office, surrounded by piles of papers, trying to figure out what it all meant, because the story he had found did not fit into existing narratives about the role of law.

I’ll admit that the economist in me sometimes wanted a little more about the quantitative significance of the firms’ actions. In addition, although the references to the secondary literature, including business history, are extensive, Hudson does not address more social science oriented history. There has been a lot of recent work on institutions and financial development in history, including Latin America and the Caribbean (especially work by Haber and his students), and I’ll have to give more thought to how Hudson’s story relates to this work.

Those issues aside, however, the book tells an interesting story, and I love Hudson’s commitment to building a stories from the primary sources. Moreover, as someone who has written about the same characters, the stories rang true to me. I have tried to tell very different stories about these firms, but his descriptions of them and the people who ran them sounded like the firms and the people that I found in the sources. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Loan Sharks

The Exchange, the blog of the Business History Conference, posted a list of new books of interest, and I noticed Loan Sharks: The Birth of Predatory Lending by Charles Geisst, published by the Brookings Institution. I hadn’t heard about the book before, but I was curious since there has been a lot of interesting work on loan sharks in the last decade or so. I was particularly interested to see if he cited my work with Mary Eschelbach Hansen ("The evolution of garnishment and wage assignment law in Illinois." Essays in Economic & Business History 32 (2014): 19-46). I looked Geisst’s book up on Google books and did a quick search. Our paper did not show up in the search.

I assumed he must cite Anne Fleming ("The borrower's tale: a history of poor debtors in Lochner Era New York City." Law and History Review 30, no. 04 (2012): 1053-1098 or "City of Debtors: Law, Loan Sharks, and the Shadow Economy of Urban Poverty, 1900–1970." Enterprise & Society 17, no. 4 (2016): 734-740.)  But she did not show up in the search either.

Michael Easterly ("Your Job is Your Credit: Creating a Market for Loans to Salaried Employees in New York City, 1885-1920." The Journal of Economic History 70, no. 2 (2010): 463-468).

Bruce Carruthers, Timothy Guinnane and Yoonseuk Lee ("Bringing “honest capital” to poor borrowers: The passage of the US Uniform Small Loan Law, 1907–1930." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 42, no. 3 (2012): 393-418).

I couldn’t find any mention of any of them.

I was beginning to think that the search function must not be working, then I searched for Geisst and there were numerous hits.

Perhaps the search in Google books is flawed. I hope that is the case. Maybe it only finds the name of the author. If the search is not flawed, I am puzzled how someone can write a book that does not cite any of the recent research on the topic. I assume from the low price that the book is aimed at something wider than a purely academic audience, but I’m not asking for a detailed historiography, just some references to relevant work.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Two Awards and Two Conferences

Between end of the semester grading and trying to work on the book on the history of bankruptcy that Mary Eschelbach Hansen and I are writing I haven't found much time to blog lately, but here are a few economic history things worth noting. 

Two Awards

Dave Donaldson won the John Bates Clark Medal. Although the prize committee’s statement does not refer to him as an economic historian, it emphasizes important work that he has done on historical topics. Most of his papers are available here at his website. Here is a Q &A with the Wall Street Journal

Naomi Lamoreaux was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business History Conference.

Two Conferences

The program for the annual meeting of the Economic and Business History Society.

The program the NBER Summer Institute 2017 Development of the American Economy. Be sure to check back later because only two papers are linked right now,

Now back to the history of bankruptcy.