Yet More Seminars to Go to This Semester
Paul Krugman Says: Recessions Are Evil!

August 27, 2007: American Economic History: UC Berkeley: Lecture Notes


Good afternoon. This is economics 113--American Economic History. I am Brad DeLong. The section leaders--GSIs--are Vikram , Marc Gersen, and Adam Jack Gomolin.

We are going to try to save trees this year. So instead of handing out a 30-sheet packet, we are handing out one sheet with web addresses: Course Website Logistics Syllabus: Readings and Assignments

Throw everything up on the web for reference. But I am not a great fan of Powerpoints. Dim lights--people fall asleep. People don't take notes. We really don't understand that much about education. Best chance is when you are engaged in processing the information.

We are also administratively inept this semester. At the start of August, we in the economics department belatedly recognized that while we had scheduled this class and you had signed up for it, we had not assigned anyone to teach it. Hence a search for somebody qualified to teach this, pliable, and free to teach 4-5:30 MW. Hence me. But the interaction of this process with August vacations means that we are behind in our organization of this course.

Sections: M 9-10A, 71 EVANS; Tu 4-5P, 85 EVANS; W 8-9A, 310 HEARST MIN; Th 4-5P, 85 EVANS; F 2-3P, 5 EVANS; F 3-4P, 5 EVANS.

Economics 113 is an upper-division economics course in the study of the history of the U.S. economy that satisfies the political economy historical context requirement. We will survey over three hundred years of history, but inevitably focus more intensely on those incidents that the instructor finds particularly interesting. This is an economics course: we will spend most of our time looking at events, factors, and explanations, using economics to understand history and history to understand economics. Economics 113 must be taken for a grade if it is to be used toward the requirements for the political economy or the economics major.

My assignments are three: to talk, and to tell you what to read, and to try to get you to think. Your assignments are six: to come to lectures and listen, to contribute to section discussions, to take the exams, to do the problem sets, to write the papers, and to do the web assignments.


A word on the last: the web assignments. It is an experiment. It may be a total flop. You are guinea pigs and since you are guinea pigs I owe you a brief sketch of what I am thinking.

Let us back up for a second to the origins of the university in medieval Italy. The German Emperor Federico II has a problem, as you may suspect given that he is a German emperor and his friends call him Federico. 1000 miles as the crow walks from Hamburg to Palermo...

Needs judges, clerks, administrators...

When eight centuries ago years ago the emperor Federico II establishes the University of Naples and names Roffredo of Benevento as its Rector, he wants one thing: a steady supply of literate bureaucrats to work for him who had been taught that holy scripture and secular prudence both advise that emperors boss popes and not popes emperors. To that end Federico offers low-interest student loans and lavish promises of cushy government jobs to students who come to Naples. (And threatens to confiscate the property and imprison the parents of those who go to school out of state.)

Why? Books... Hand copying... printing... University stays, and lecture stays. But not enough active, not enough interaction...

Hence we are going to dip our toes into the water and experiment a little bit...




Now let's get going:

  • Why care about American economic history?

    • Because we are here; it is important and interesting to know how and why "here" came to be.
    • Because America is special:
      • Special relative to other countries
        • At current exchange rates, six times as well-off as the world average, and thirty-six times as well-off as the bottom quarter.
        • At purchasing power parities, three times as well-off as the world average, and roughly seven times as well off as the bottom quarter.
          • Digression on differences between CER and PPP calculations
      • Special relative to the past
        • We have medicine.
        • We're not as hungry and malnourished.
        • We have many times the number of things: ten times? more?
      • The story of American economic history is a remarkable story: the most successful economic story ever. It's worth studying.
    • And you will learn how to apply some of the economic theory you are learning, and what it is good for.
    • And historical context is important: as baseline, as yardstick, as set of comparisons
      • Marx was wrong when he said that the more advanced presents to the less advanced an image of its own future
      • But the more advanced does present to the less advanced an image of what its present might have been
  • Initial settlement

    • About 15000 years ago the ancestors of today's Amerindians found their way across the Bering Strait and into the Americas...
    • About 1492 Columbus showed up...
    • Catastrophe
    • Walton and Rockoff provide a background narrative to Amerindian civilizations, cultures, and the conquest of the Americas.
    • I want to talk about bigger patterns: what it all means--and to use four articles as springboards...
      • Jared Diamond (2000), "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?" ; (2002), "How to Get Rich" Charles Mann (2002), "1491," Atlantic Monthly Timothy Yeager (1995), “Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown's Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America.” Journal of Economic History 55 (December 1995): 842-59
  • 30-100 million people in the Americas in 1490. Compare to 100-150 million each in Europe, China, India. Tenochtitlan at 100,000+ larger than Paris at 70,000.

  • Corn miraculous: 40-to-1 yield ratio, compared to 5-to-1 for contemporary wheat or rye... but corn not nutritionally complete. People get short. Farmers all get short. And farming carries you across a mammoth organizational shift. Thugs with spears. Thugs with incense. Maya, Toltec, Mound Builders, Chimu, Inca, Aztecs

  • Yet: Pizarro: 168 men. Cortez: 500 men.

  • The Indians in Peru, Dobyns concluded, had faced plagues from the day the conquistadors showed up--in fact, before then: smallpox arrived around 1525, seven years ahead of the Spanish. Brought to Mexico apparently by a single sick Spaniard, it swept south and eliminated more than half the population of the Incan empire. Smallpox claimed the Incan dictator Huayna Capac and much of his family, setting off a calamitous war of succession. So complete was the chaos that Francisco Pizarro was able to seize an empire the size of Spain and Italy combined with a force of 168 men. Inca Empire: Smallpox: 1525. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618. We're down to 5 million or so in 1600.

  • Animals and diseases that cross the species barrier...

  • Technological and organizational gradient: corn, potatoes, squash, beans, stone tools, no wheels, no big animals that are domesticable besides the llama...

  • Why this big technological gradient? Two heads are better than one. And writing is really important. As I understood Diamond's agricultural argument, Eurasia's agricultural advantage had multiple causes. The multiple causes were indeed that Eurasia had "better" flora (for our long-run purposes: grains with larger seeds), but more importantly that Eurasia was bigger, and that because Eurasia runs East-West rather than North-South knowledge about effective agricultural techniques diffuses much more rapidly and successfully. Add all these reasons together and you can see why Eurasia is (still) the most densely populated region of the world, and why the world's diet is based on wheat, rye, rice, and their cousins.

  • I thought that one of Diamond's points was that American Indians had done rather well--with corn and potatoes--even though the original flora was not that appetizing (have you ever seen a wild corn plant?). But two heads are better than one. Add Eurasia's large size coupled with easy diffusion along the East-West axis and "better" wild grains and it would have been extraordinary if New World agriculture had been more developed than Old World. Had the American Indians been given enough time, then even with low population densities they might have selectively bred and domesticated sumpweed. But their independent history was cut short in 1500...

5:20: Geography Quiz

  • Boston
  • New York City
  • Philadelphia
  • Washington, DC
  • Charleston
  • Pittsburgh
  • Chicago
  • St Louis
  • New Orleans
  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • Erie Canal
  • Ohio River
  • Mississippi River
  • Missouri River
  • Lake Michigan
  • Rocky Mountains
  • Appalachian Mountains
  • Rocky Mountains
  • California gold fields