Globalization and Its Nuances

The PBS TV program History Detectives had an episode entitled “Atocha Spanish Silver” where the wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha was described like this:

“In 1985, one of the greatest treasure discoveries was made off the Florida Keys, when the wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha was found. On board were some forty tons of silver and gold, which in 1622 had been heading from the New World to the Spanish treasury as the means to fund the Thirty Years’ War.”

Is this an obvious case of globalization? What about Marco Polo? RomeHan dynasty China trade in silks? Silk Road and Samarkand? Colombus? Magellan? Vasco da Gama?

All of these cases constitute a kind of harmless kind of “pop globalization” based on exotic voyages and travels.

Consider another such example, perhaps more academic:

“About the middle of the sixteenth century Antwerp reached its apogee. For the first time in history there existed both a European and a world market; the economies of different parts of Europe had become interdependent and were linked through the Antwerp market, not only with each other but also with the economies of large parts of the rest of the world. Perhaps no other city has ever again played such a dominant role as did Antwerp in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.”

(Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Koenigsberger and Mosse, Holt Rinehart Publishers, 1968, page 50)

Debt repudiations in several places in the 1550s are described like this:

“This caused the first big international bank crash, for the Antwerp bankers now could not meet their own obligations.”

(Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Koenigsberger and Mosse, Holt Rinehart Publishers, 1968, page 51)

This sounds like some kind of identifiably global period.

Actually, modern historians define globalization as “price convergence” (i.e., wheat has now a unified “world price,” implying a world market). This rigorous definition is confirmed by and also shows up in the data in the 1820s and may or may not be prefigured by all the Marco Polo and Atocha silver stories, mentioned above.

These episodes in history are not there yet.

One sees wheat prices and other commodity prices converging in the 1820s and thereafter based on railroads, steamships and telegrams.

The classic in this kind of analysis is:

Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy, by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson.

Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of In Globalization and History, Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of trade, migration, and international capital flows in the Atlantic economy in the century prior to 1914—the first great globalization boom, which anticipated the experience of the last fifty years. The authors estimate the extent of globalization and its impact on the participating countries, and discuss the political reactions that it provoked. The book’s originality lies in its application of the tools of open-economy economics to this critical historical period—differentiating it from most previous work, which has been based on closed-economy or single-sector models. The authors also keep a close eye on globalization debates of the 1990s, using history to inform the present and vice versa. The book brings together research conducted by the authors over the past decade—work that has profoundly influenced how economic history is now written and that has found audiences in economics and history, as well as in the popular press.

(book summary)

In everyday language, we associate the word globalization with some ever-increasing Marco Polo phenomena. While that’s not entirely wrong, globalization in the more technical sense begins to show up in the data only from the 1820s. At this point, we begin to see the convergence of worldwide wheat prices, for example. This makes the world, for the first time, a global “store” with unified prices. Here is the technical beginning of globalization. The years 1870-1914 are subsequently the first real era of modern globalization and represent a kind of “take-off” from the first stirrings of the 1820s. World Wars I & II might be seen as globalization backlash.

At this moment in world history, whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will constitute a new wave of deglobalization remains to be seen.

Wired Magazine and Charles Dickens

We think of the leading tech periodical Wired and we think of the internet and smartphone phase of technology innovation.

As always, there’s a wide-angle deeper view that helps you to avoid being “stranded in the present” (to use Professor Peter Fritzsche’s useful phrase and book title as a warning about the flaws of a no-overview sense of reality).

Think back to the famous Charles Dickens classic novel, Hard Times from 1854.

Chapter 11 of this novel talks about “electric wires.” Thus today’s copper wires and fiberoptics have a nineteenth century anticipation.

The end-notes on Hard Times inform us:

“…the wires of the telegraph which were becoming common as an adjunct to the railways from 1846-1847. During the French Wars the old wire-and-lever telegraphs had been set up between Whitehall and the main naval bases. The ‘galvanic’ telegraph had been invented by 1840, the idea of stretching the wires between tall posts by 1843, and by mid-1848 half the railways were so equipped.”

(Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Penguin Books, 1969, page 328)

The following added point will further elaborate on this chapter of the world’s wiring adding a larger comparative perspective:

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers is a book by Tom Standage. First published in September 1998 through Walker & Company, the book discusses the development and uses of the electric telegraph during the second half of the 19th century and some of the similarities the telegraph shared with the Internet of the late 20th century.

The book’s central idea posits that of these two technologies, it was the telegraph that was the more significant, since the ability to communicate globally at all in real-time was a qualitative shift, while the change brought on by the modern Internet was merely a quantitative shift according to Standage, though, by the same token, global communication was just a quantitative shift from long-distance communication.

The book describes to general readers how some of the uses of telegraph in commercial, military, and social communication were, in a sense, analogous to modern uses for the Internet. A few rather unusual stories are related, about couples who fell in love and even married over the wires, criminals who were caught through the telegraph, etc. The culture which developed between telegraph operators also had some rather unexpected affinities with the Internet. Both cultures made or make use of complex text coding and abbreviated language slang, both required network security experts, and both attracted criminals who used the networks to commit fraud, hack private communications, and send unwanted messages.

Essay 47: Novels as a Kind of University Demonstrating Storms of Global Finance and Technification

Edith Wharton began writing The Age of Innocence in 1917 as a way of recalling and criticizing the world of her youth, which had not yet experienced the devastation of World War I (1914–18).  Beginning in July 1920, the novel was published in serial form in New York’s monthly Pictorial Review.

The centrality of finance and technical change can be seen. We are reminded of the very first line in The Magnifcent Ambersons of Booth Tarkington, which tells the reader that the basis of the magnificence of the Ambersons was established when they somehow benefited from the 1873 financial crisis which destroyed many others. (Whether the Ambersons were shrewd or lucky or wily is not clarified.)

The Age of Innocence is set in New York in the 1870s and the financial storm and “techno-storm” become vital:

The Panic of 1873:

In The Age of Innocence, the investment bank run by Julius Beaufort collapses, bringing shame upon him and his wife and throwing New York into a tizzy. Beaufort’s business failure is a fictionalized version of the Panic of 1873, industrial capitalism’s first worldwide depression. Then, the United States backed its currency with both silver and gold, but when Germany and several other countries stopped using silver to back their currency, the price of silver fell precipitously, devaluing U.S. currency. The U.S. Treasury made matters worse by releasing large amounts of paper money into the economy. Speculators and bankers now had to immediately pay off their debts with gold.

In 1873, a prominent investment banker by the name of Jay Cooke went bankrupt, the effects rippled throughout the entire U.S. economy, and panic ensued. Trading was suspended for two weeks on the New York Stock Exchange as company after company failed, wages dropped precipitously, and unemployment spiked. The rise of the labor movement can be traced to the widespread unrest and economic instability set off by the panic. Additionally, the panic allowed a few of the wealthiest businessmen—such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Cyrus McCormick, who retained access to valuable capital—to vastly increase their wealth and snuff out competitors.

Technological Advancements

Characters in The Age of Innocence are aware their world is about to be forever changed by the culture of outsiders, brought to them in part by advancements in technology. Although inventions like the telephone were on the horizon, they seemed improbably fantastic to people living in the early 1870s world of telegrams and horse-drawn carriages. However, in the final chapter, Wharton depicts Newland Archer living in a world that has been significantly altered by these technologies, a mere quarter century later.

In 1876, for example, American inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) patented an early telephone and wowed audiences by demonstrating the world’s first telephone call by placing a call from one telegraph station to another five miles away.  The Western Union company refused to buy Bell’s telephone patent, claiming his invention would amount to no more than a novelty. However, the first telephone line was built in 1877-78, and after that, telephone usage skyrocketed.  At the start of the 1880s, there were almost 50,000 telephones in use, a number that swelled to over half a million by the turn of the century.

A similar large-scale change was the invention and development of electricity. Although the first electric light was developed in 1835, it was not until 1879 that American inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) developed and patented a light bulb with a life span of 15 hours. Edison’s work also focused on the problems of electrical generation and conductivity.

At the same time that communication was becoming easier and the day was lengthened artificially through electric lighting, the distance between continents was shortened by advances in turbine steam engines

In the 1860s, it took between eight and nine days to cross the Atlantic Ocean; by 1907, the Mauretania (the ship that Dallas and Newland Archer take to Europe in the last chapter) makes the voyage in half that time.  This was a contributing factor to the great influx of European immigrants who arrived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Chapter 29, Newland contemplates the “brotherhood of visionaries,” who predict a train tunnel under the Hudson River as well as “ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days … and other Arabian Night marvels.” In 1904, excavation for train tunnels under the Hudson began, directed by Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1910, New York’s Penn Station opened and began receiving traffic from electric trains that traveled through the tunnels.

Notice that the novel The Magnificent Ambersons is from 1918, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence from 1920. In each, the personal storms of private emotion are somewhat carried along and swept up into the storms coming from national and even global finance (1873 caused a tremendous crash in Germany and Austria called the “Grunderkrach” [founder’s crash]) as well as techno-waves that are very baffling to the people of the time.