Geneva FRESH Meeting on Economic History and Political Economy

The Frontier Research in Economic and Social History (FRESH) meeting took place at the University of Geneva from June 23-24, 2016. One keynote lecture and 11 presentations focused on the workshop theme “Economic History and Political Economy.”

Keynote lecture by Pedro Lains

The meeting began with a welcome address by Mary O’Sullivan (head of the Department of History, Economics and Society), who gave an overview of the late development of economic history and its links with political economy. She also gave an overview of the institutional evolution of the teaching and research in economic history at the University of Geneva over the past 110 years. Today, the research Institute is named after Paul Bairoch, an economic historian and a trained economist who embodied the symbiotic relationship between the discipline and political economy.

Damian Clavel (Graduate Institute, Geneva) opened the conference with a paper on the Poyais loan, floated on the London Stock Exchange between 1820-1824. He argued that the creation of a fictitious country, Poyais, by Gregor MacGregor came about from the need to obtain capital for exploiting natural resources along the present-day Honduras coastline rather and was not originally thought up as a fraudulent scheme aimed at swindling naïve British investors. Moving from individual actors to institutional actors, Anna Solé del Barrio (Pompeu Fabra University) presented a paper that examined how Germany managed to impose its preferences during the creation of the European Monetary System.

Questions relating to living standards and intergenerational mobility in pre-twentieth century Europe were addressed in the second panel. Carlos Santiago-Caballero (Carlos III University of Madrid) started off the discussion with a paper entitled “Inequality and labour mobility in Spain during the first industrialisation, 1840­-1870”, in which he has shown that the establishment and extension of the railroad eased long-distance migrations and affected inequality and social mobility in regions sending and receiving migrants. In particular, cities like Barcelona—in the midst of a frenetic process of industrialisation and economic growth—presented more opportunities and therefore allowed higher social mobility than more static cities like Seville. In contrast to these results, Giacomin Favre (University of Zurich) suggested that the level of social mobility in Zurich decreased to some extent over the course of the nineteenth century. More specifically, he demonstrated that geographic mobility did not facilitate social advancement while family structures were not as important as one might assume. Instead, networks had a positive effect on the probability of experiencing social advancement. Finally, Jean-Pascal Bassino (ENS de Lyon) ended the discussion with a paper on the link between political institutions, violence, economic specialisation in commercial military services, and living standards in early modern Corsica.

After a short break, Pedro Lains (Instituto de Ciências Sociais of the University of Lisbon) gave an inspiring keynote speech relating to changes in the field of economic history during the past fifty years and during which the necessity to go beyond traditional national economic history was stressed. In particular, Pedro Lains emphasised the importance of a unified European economic history using a thematic approach, highlighting key similarities between countries rather than local idiosyncrasies.

On Friday morning, Michiel de Haas (Wageningen University) presented his research on the cotton industry in colonial sub-Saharan Africa. Based on case study of the Teso Region in Uganda, he argued that the institutional framework there was of particular importance for the successful development of the cotton industry and the reduction of the negative effects of economic and environmental settings. In a follow-up paper, Niccolò Serri (University of Cambridge) studied state intervention in postwar Italy. Emphasising the use of the Earnings Integration Fund (EIG), a scheme against joblessness relying on short-term work, he demonstrated that such a policy allowed the state to intervene when only the most disruptive crises arose and thereby avoiding the introduction of a general unemployment insurance scheme which would have put its already strained finances under even greater stress.

The next panel evolved around the action of central banks within the international monetary system. Pilar Nogues-Marco (University of Geneva) looked at the role of the Spanish central government and the central bank during the Gold Standard Era. Using a new set of indicators capturing the bargaining power of each actor, she showed that a powerful government facilitated gold adherence, whereas an independent central bank would hinder it. Then, Alain Naef (University of Cambridge) gave a presentation retracing how the Bank of England window-dressed its reserve positions between 1958 and 1972, a practice that was only made possible thanks to the cooperation of other central banks, and to the fact that only the asset side of reserve positions had to be published.

Jacop Timini (Carlos III University of Madrid) investigated the impact of incomplete currency unions on trade. Using the case of the Latin Monetary Union, he was able to show that the newly created currency union generated intra-union asymmetric trade effects that strengthened the core-periphery relationship. In a paper entitled “A new empirical test of infant-industry argument: the case of Switzerland protectionism during the 19th century”, Léo Charles (University of Bordeaux) assembled new data about Swiss trade at the turn of the twentieth century to test the infant-industry argument. His results suggest that the implementation of selective protectionism contributed allowed Swiss industries to be competitive on international markets, thereby contributing to the ‘Swiss miracle.’

Conference dinner

The conference dinner took place at the Restaurant du Parc des Bastions at the foot of the Geneva old city wall, and allowed for some relaxation after the substantial afternoon program.

Rowena Gray represented the FRESH board members. The local organisers were Edoardo Altamura, Cédric Chambru, and Pilar Nogues-Marco.

This blog post was written by Cédric Chambru, doctoral student at the Paul Bairoch Institute of Economic History at the University of Geneva.