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Echoes Dispatches From Economic History

Philip Scranton

When the U.S. Considered a 30-Hour Work Week

almost 3 years ago

As Franklin D. Roosevelt's first month in office drew to a close, and the banks reopened after a successful shutdown, the president turned his attention to his next major challenge: mass unemployment.

Roosevelt proposed direct state grants for relief-work programs, public works to create jobs, and a civilian conservation corps to be used for forestry, prevention of soil erosion, flood control and other projects.


Kirsten Salyer

Economic History Roundup

almost 3 years ago
Weekly Links, April 5, 2013

Read more Echoes online.

"South Sea Scheme"

The bubble of 1720 precipitated England’s first stock-market crash. In August of that year, shares in the South Sea Company reached a peak of 1,000 pounds and dropped to 150 pounds by the end of September.

The crisis devastated thousands of investors, including Sir Isaac Newton, who reputedly said after losing 20,000 pounds, “I can calculate the movement of heavenly bodies but not the madness of men.” The crash also permanently changed the structure of the constitutional monarchy, allowing a prime minister to become head of the government as the monarch gradually assumed the more ceremonial role of head of state.


Heather Cox Richardson

How Republicans Once Championed the Federal Income Tax

almost 3 years ago
Federal Income Tax

The government has the right to “demand” 99 percent of a man’s property when the nation needs it.

That was the argument made by a Republican congressman in 1862 to introduce a novel idea: the federal income tax.


Any day now, Tesco (TSCO) Plc, the U.K. grocery giant, may announce the closure of the 200 or so Fresh & Easy food stores it has opened in California, Arizona and Nevada since 2007.

When it does, Tesco will join a long list of international grocers that have met their match in the U.S. In every case, these companies wrongly assumed that strategies honed abroad would succeed in America, and they underestimated the resources and management attention required to make headway in a vast and fast-changing market.

Ty Cobb

A hundred years ago this month, baseball’s first antitrust crisis began with the holdout of Ty Cobb.

Cobb, the Detroit Tigers’ star center fielder, was paid a salary of $10,000 in 1912, when he hit .409 and won his sixth consecutive batting title. Before the 1913 season, Cobb demanded a raise to $15,000. When the team’s owner, Frank Navin, refused, Cobb announced that he was quitting baseball and heading home to Georgia.


Kristin Aguilera

How Traders’ Pranks Were Once Routine on U.S. Exchanges

almost 3 years ago
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Divisi

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries floor traders at U.S. stock exchanges engaged in elaborate and often bizarre pranks. The most common were the cutting off the ties of newcomers, and the classic -- if long forgotten -- April Fool’s ritual of attaching a paper cup to a trader’s jacket and surreptitiously filling it with water.

Perhaps the biggest spur to trading-floor mischief was boredom on low volume days. An 1898 New York Times article titled “Stock Market Erratic” noted that “the market slump began at 1 p.m., and the market, which from the opening had been free from violent demonstrations of excitement, became almost dull and listless, and the gallery spectators were treated to an exhibition of floor pranks for an hour.”


Philip Scranton

A Dark April Fools' Day for Jewish Businesses

almost 3 years ago

Following the National Socialists' rise to power in Germany in January 1933, the Nazis suppressed leftist newspapers, passed an "enabling act" permitting Chancellor Adolf Hitler to govern by decree and began viciously attacking Jews.

Home invasions, street assaults and physical expulsions of Jewish workers multiplied. In late March, storm troopers assembled outside a restaurant on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz public square, then seized and clubbed Jewish businessmen having their lunches there.


Jane Gleeson-White

Earliest Calculations of GDP Had Some Unexpected Results

almost 3 years ago
William Petty

Early this morning, Commerce Department officials released the latest figures for U.S. gross domestic product, which showed that fourth-quarter growth was somewhat faster than previously estimated.

Such announcements tend to be eagerly awaited. GDP aims to compress an entire economy into a single number, putting a price on the total amount of goods and services a nation produces. Governments, markets, pundits and investors all count on this singular, miraculous figure to offer some indication of whether things are getting better or worse.


Bernardo Batiz-Lazo

How the ATM Revolutionized the Banking Business

almost 3 years ago
ATM History

Most adults living in urban areas around the world have come in contact with an automated teller machine. For many, it represents their “bank” far more than rows of tellers standing behind tall counters.

The story of the ATM’s rapid rise to ubiquity is also one of a revolution in retail banking.


Joe Martin

Great Depression Hit One Country Hardest of All

almost 3 years ago
On-to-Ottawa Trek

The Great Depression devastated many economies. But one country arguably suffered more than any other: Canada. By the time its economy reached bottom in 1932, Canada had suffered a staggering decline of 34.8 percent in per- capita gross domestic product. No other developed nation was as hard-hit.

Canada was, and still is, a country dependent on trade. In the 1920s, commodities -- such as wheat -- and lumber products, including newsprint, were particularly important. In 1930, U.S. President Herbert Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised duties on many imports to historically high levels. This led to retaliatory tariffs and a drastic reduction of trade around the world.


Philip Scranton

When France Tried to Tax Its Citizens to Pay Its Bills

almost 3 years ago
France 1932

France’s 1932 legislative elections brought a center-left government to power. The centrist Radical Socialists allied with the socialist French section of the Workers’ International Party to select a new prime minister and his Cabinet.

But political turmoil and the continuing economic challenges of the Great Depression made governing difficult.


Marcelo Bucheli & Luis Felipe Saenz

Colombia’s Coffee Producers Reprise Export Protectionism

almost 3 years ago
Uploaded by UUID:9202051 at 3/21/2013 4:23 PM

Over the past decade, China’s voracious demand for commodities has generated a massive export boom in Latin America. Although these policies have added to the popularity of the region’s leaders -- and brought economic benefits for their nations’ inhabitants -- the surge contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The record inflows of foreign currency and direct investment in Latin America -- generated by growing exports and the expansive monetary policies pursued by the U.S. -- have created pressures that forced most countries in the region to revalue vis-a-vis the dollar. Such a move would hurt exporters, who have responded with calls for policies to prevent it.

Gold Standard

On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president for the first time, promising an “adequate but sound” currency. The next day, a Sunday, he closed the nation’s banks. “We are now off the gold standard,” he privately declared to a group of advisers. Goldbugs in the president’s circle immediately began prophesying doom. One of his aides, Lewis Douglas, proclaimed “the end of Western civilization.”

How Roosevelt took this fateful step has been the subject of debate among historians, many of whom believe that the president flailed his way through his first weeks in office, and only gradually came to the decision to take the country off gold that April. But the evidence suggests that Roosevelt intended to do so from Day One for very specific reasons, although he delayed letting the rest of the country in on his plans.


Friedrich Hayek’s book “The Road to Serfdom” has served as a beacon for American conservatives since its publication in 1944. Today’s Republicans often cite the book in their fight to limit federal power and regulation. Hayek’s views, however, were more complicated than they often assume.

As a shy and scholarly scion of an aristocratic Austrian family, Hayek hadn’t expected to find much of an audience for his wartime tract on political economy. He was shocked when opponents of the New Deal propelled it up the U.S. best-seller lists shortly after its release, and would have been equally astonished at its rise up the sales rankings following an endorsement from the former Fox News host Glenn Beck in 2010.

Industrial Revolution

Writers and academics often show an interesting ambivalence about industrialization. Today, they regard it as a blessing, the single-most-effective way to lift people out of poverty. But in thinking about Britain’s Industrial Revolution, they have tended to reach the opposite conclusion: The rise of the factory, they argue, caused the end of more “natural” working hours, introduced more exploitative employment patterns and dehumanized the experience of labor. It robbed workers of their autonomy and dignity.

Yet if we turn to the writing of laborers themselves, we find that they didn’t share the historians’ gloomy assessment. Starting in the early 19th century, working people in Britain began to write autobiographies and memoirs in ever greater numbers. Men (and occasionally women) who worked in factories and mines, as shoemakers and carpenters, and on the land, penned their stories, and inevitably touched on the large part of their life devoted to labor. In the process, they produced a remarkable account of the Industrial Revolution from the perspective of those who felt its effects firsthand -- one that looks very different from the standard historical narrative.


Philip Scranton

When Mom and Pops Battled Five and Dimes

almost 3 years ago

Facing increasing unemployment, falling wages and terrible returns on investments, consumers of all classes sharply cut spending in the early 1930s. Retailers suffered.

Annual sales at department and specialty stores in 1932 had dropped more than 40 percent since 1929. Chain stores, by contrast, experienced much smaller declines, just more than 10 percent since 1929.


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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