Centralization, state-building, and literature

When I first started learning about differential development patterns in the Americas, I believed that former Spanish colonies lagged behind the US because of the overly bureaucratic, centralized government they had inherited from the mother country. This was the original view of Spain that Douglass North put forth in his early work.  Alejandra Irigoin and Regina Grafe describe this interpretation: “Spain was absolutist, interventionist, centralist, statist, bureaucratic and constitutionally disinclined to grant its subject much local government.” [Irigoin & Grafe, HAHR, 2008].

Later I learned that economic historians had rejected this viewpoint as having little basis in reality.  In the book I co-authored, The Long Process of Development: Building Markets and States in Pre-industrial England, Spain and their Colonies, we show that Spain was hardly a centralized, bureaucratic state:

“Until the 1580s Philip’s ‘defense department’ had only one secretary assisted by a handful of clerks, none with military experience. As he prepared to launch the Spanish Armada to try to conquer England, he doubled the number of responsible defense officials to two–one for the army and one for navy! The ships were largely rented from Genoa.”

This lack of centralization was replicated in the colonies:

“The New Spain viceroyalty contained modern Mexico, much of North America, Venezuela, the Caribbean Islands, the Philippines, and all of Central America except modern Panama. Even in the 1600s it nominally included most of the future United States except the Atlantic coastline and the French areas north of the Ohio River. The Viceroyalty of Peru contained all the rest of Spanish South America plus modern Panama.”

Here is a map of New Spain in 1810:


Here’s how we summarize governance in the colonies:

“Spain established two viceroys in ruling the New World, one essentially for North America and one essentially for South America. Neither viceroy had significant staff, and neither had a centralized bureaucracy.   Until the 1770s Madrid did not even create an orderly set of provincial governments at the level of the future American states.

With the possible exception of the Church, the administrative organs were grossly understaffed. Even in the late 1700s, David Brading notes that ‘the Spanish Crown depended on a mere handful of officials to govern its American empire.’ He reports that ‘in New Spain the entire judicial bureaucracy, for example, the salaried members of the Audiencia of Mexico and Guadalajara, numbered about 30 persons [in the late 1700s].'”

So while over centralization and bureaucratization used to be blamed for slow growth in post-colonial Latin America, we argue instead that it is the opposite:  the countries were insufficiently governed and that left a power vacuum in the chaos of independence.

I was reminded of these issues when I recently finished Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” (a beautiful book about late 19th century New Mexico).  The novel gives the reader a great sense of how long the distances were in those times and how little that area was actually governed.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

The Bishop (originally from France) arrives in New Mexico and immediately faces resistance from the locals, who dispute the idea that the territory is no longer controlled by Mexico.

The Bishop laments “I wish I knew how far this is! Does anyone know the extent of this diocese, or of this territory? The Commandant at the Fort seems as much in the dark as I. He says I can get some information from the scout, Kit Carson, who lives at Taos.”  

Because of the resistance, the bishop must travel to the Bishop of Durango to get official papers showing that he is now in charge of Catholic affairs in the area.  That was easier said than done in that period:

“Your Eminence, the Bishop of Durango is an old man; and from his seat to Santa Fé is a distance of fifteen hundred English miles. There are no wagon roads, no canals, no navigable rivers. Trade is carried on by means of pack-mules, over treacherous trails. The desert down there has a peculiar horror; I do not mean thirst, nor Indian massacres, which are frequent. The very floor of the world is cracked open into countless canyons and arroyos, fissures in the earth which are sometimes ten feet deep, sometimes a thousand. Up and down these stony chasms the traveller and his mules clamber as best they can. It is impossible to go far in any direction without crossing them.  If the Bishop of Durango should summon a disobedient priest by letter, who shall bring the Padre to him? Who can prove that he ever received the summons? The post is carried by hunters, fur trappers, gold seekers, whoever happens to be moving on the trails.”

and lastly, the vicar notes that “at Rome they did not seem to realize that it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history.”  

I might assign section of the book next time I lecture on centralization and nation-building.  There is something more “real” perhaps about reading it in a novel with characters you care about than just as a passing note in a textbook.

Russian military seeking dolphin w/ perfect teeth. seriously.

I recently came across an article entitled “Russia looks to buy five dolphins with perfect teeth and killer instinct.”  I assumed it was published by the Onion but it actually was from the Guardian (and not April Fool’s Day).

The article explains that the Russian military is “seeking two female and three male dolphins between three and five years old with perfect teeth and no physical impairments.”  Hmm, is there a match.com for militaries and marine mammals?  Do the marine mammals know that they have signed up for this matching website? I love the part about the perfect teeth.  It’s good to be specific about what you are really looking for in a combat dolphin.


Apparently both the US and the Soviets deployed dolphins during the cold war for a variety of activities, including being trained to “detect submarines, underwater mines and spot suspicious objects or individuals near harbours and ships.”  Wow, an arms race in marine mammals?  Would that be a flipper race?

And the US use of sea mammals did not end with the Cold War.  The article notes that the US deployed sea lions “to Bahrain in 2003 to support Operation Enduring Freedom after the 9/11 attacks.”

Here is a link to the website for the US Navy Marine Mammal Program and a description of which mammals they use and why:

“Dolphins are essential because their exceptional biological sonar is unmatched by hardware sonars in detecting objects in the water column and on the sea floor. Sea lions are used because they have very sensitive underwater directional hearing and exceptional vision in low light conditions.  While dogs work as effective sentries on land, dolphins and sea lions cannot be outmatched as sentries in the water.”

Thankfully, the page also notes that the animals are released “almost daily untethered into the open ocean, and since the program began, only a few animals have not returned.”  It’s a weird, weird world we live in folks.


Resistance is futile

The most recent issue of the NBER Digest has a non-technical summary of an interesting paper published in 2015.  Here’s the reference and a link to the full text of the piece:

Blau, Francine, “Immigrants and gender roles: assimilation vs. culture,” IZA Journal of Migration 4.1 (2015): 1-21.

Blau investigates the degree of assimilation in the US by focusing on the fertility and labor supply choices of female immigrants who come from countries with high fertility and low participation rates.  She finds that assimilation does happen, albeit relatively slowly.  Here’s a graph showing the rate of assimilation when it comes to female labor supply:


Interestingly, Blau also finds that assimilation rates may increase in the future.  Specifically, “immigrant source countries may become more similar to the United States, thus reducing the effect of source country gender roles on the behavior of first- and second-generation immigrant women. This has already begun to happen with respect to fertility. The fertility of immigrant women relative to natives has been falling rapidly in the most recent immigrant cohorts.”





Mexican Monday Round Up

1. U.S. and Mexico quietly building trust on their own terms ““We’re very much doing the same thing we’ve done for the past decade or so. We’re just more aware of the sensitivities and respectful of the current climate.'”

2. Mexico’s Female Vigilante Squads “The force is made up of mostly middle-aged housewives, mothers and grandmothers. Many of these women have lost loved ones to violence, or were victims of crime themselves. They have lived in fear for their family, and they decided that they’ve had enough. So roughly 100 women have now volunteered to put their lives on the line in order to protect their children and defend their community.”

3. How Tacos Explain Mexico’s Labor Market “Like meat in an over-stuffed taco, many people don’t fit into the formal sector and fall out to the sidelines.”

4. From a Tortilla, the Feeling of a Warm Embrace “People have been putting food inside tortillas and eating them for centuries, but the first tacos to be called tacos were probably eaten by 18th-century laborers working in the silver mines of Mexico, said José R. Ralat, an expert on the folklore of tacos. The miners gave the food the same name as the little sticks of dynamite they used in their work.”