Joe Martin Interviewed on BNN

28 10 2009

Joe Martin was recently interviewed on BNN about his new book on Canadian business history, Relentless Change. You can watch the interview here.

A National Securities Regulator for Canada

16 10 2009
There was a story in the news today that reminded me of the need to update Canada’s antiquated, steam-engine age constitution. The story concerned the regulation of securities.
Toronto Stock Exchange in 1856. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Toronto Stock Exchange in 1856. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Toronto's Financial District Today

Toronto's Financial District Today

Canada has always been something of an anomaly in the sense that it is the only industrialized country without a national securities regulator. In Canada, securities and securities markets are regulated by the provinces, which is widely regarded as an arrangement that makes the country less competitive internationally.

For years, the possibility of creating a national securities regulator has been discussed, but without anything being done: Ottawa was scared that such a move would be denounced in Alberta and, of course, Quebec, as an unconstitutional assault on provincial autonomy. The federal government is now taking steps to regulate securities. It announced today that it will ask the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of creating a national securities regulator. (See here, here, here, and here).

I strongly support the idea of a national securities regulator and commend the Harper government for moving on this issue. (For the record, I tend to think that unitary states are more efficient than federations. There would probably be many benefits if the provincial governments were abolished).  However, I’m a bit disturbed by the fact some commentators appear to think that the creation of a national securities regulator is a done deal. There is already lots of talk about the transition team.

Supreme Court of Canada

Supreme Court of Canada

We don’t know yet how the Supreme Court will rule on this issue or how the current SCC justices feel about the issue of centralization vs. provincial rights. If the courts say yes, Canada may have a national securities regulator within a few years, but the whole thing may be derailed by an election. Moreover, even if the courts give the green light and Ottawa passes the required legislation, Quebec, which is now recognized as a nation within Canada, will probably retain its own regulator.

Predicting how power will be distributed between the federal and provincial governments is a

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

tricky business. Some of our greatest statesmen have had a poor track when it came to making predictions in this field. In December 1864, when Canadians were debated whether to proceed with Confederation, John A. Macdonald that the federal constitution outlined by the Quebec Conference would soon become a unitary state.  In a letter to a conservative politician in Toronto who wanted to create a unitary state right away, Macdonald said that proposed provincial governments would not last for long. He wrote:

“If the Confederation goes on, you, if spared the ordinary age of man, will see both Local Parliaments & Governments absorbed in the General power. This is as plain to me as if I saw it accomplished but of course it does not do to adopt that point of view in discussing the subject in Lower Canada.”

Sir John A. Macdonald Papers, vol. 510 Macdonald to M.C. Cameron, 19 December 1864.

For better or worse, Macdonald’s prediction did not come to pass. Instead, the provincials governments grew so powerful that some of them began to act as if they were sovereign states. Lower Canada Quebec maintains quasi-diplomatic offices abroad, seeks representation in international bodies such as Unesco, and considers itself to be a nation, not just a province.

Why Was The Industrial Revolution British?

15 10 2009

In a new book, The Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Robert C. Allen tackles one of the big questions in history, namely, “why did the industrial revolution take place in 18th century Britain and not somewhere in Continental Europe or East Asia?”  Allen’s answer to this important question should concern those of us who study the history of North America, since the Industrial Revolution helps to explain, inter alia, why English became the dominant language on this continent. His book will interest economic historians, historians of science and technology, and many others.

Coalbrookdale at Night, 1801

Coalbrookdale at Night, 1801

You can watch Allen talk about this book here. The video incorporates a powerpoint presentation with some really good images.

Dr Allen is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, btw.

My Teaching This Week

8 10 2009

I teach a Canadian history survey course that is designed for first-year students. The course is designed to teach them about both Canada’s past before 1867 and about the study of history at the university level. Normally, there are two lectures per week. This week, however, I held tutorials during one of the normal lecture slots.

On Monday, I delivered a lecture on the impact of the American Revolution on British North America.United Empire Loyalists, Final Resting Place Our tutorial on Wednesday looked at the history of slavery in Canada. We discussed slaveholding by First Nations, the enslavement of First Nations individuals by whites, and the smaller number of Black slaves brought into New France and the British colonies. The student will be completing an assignment about a Portuguese-born Black slave named Angélique who was executed for arson in Montreal in 1734.

In my fourth-year seminar, our theme this week was economic change in the 1840s and 1850s. We began the seminar by discussing Adam Shortt, “General Economic History, 1841-67” in vol. 5 of Canada and Its Provinces. This reading gave the students a sense of the overall developments of the period. We then moved on to some more modern interpretations of the period.   Lawrence H. Officer and Lawrence B. Smith, “The Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty of 1855 to 1866The Journal of Economic History 28 (1968): 598-623 and Peter Baskerville, “Americans in Britain’s Backyard: The Railway Era in Upper Canada, 1850-1880Business History Review 55  (1981): 314-336. We then took our customary coffee break, after which we listened to excellent student presentations on the lives and times of two important individuals, Isaac Buchanan, a Canadian merchant, and Sir Samuel Cunard, the founder of the great steamship line.

Montreal Wharf

Montreal Wharf, 1874. Note railway boxcars near ship in foreground. Image Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and touched on important themes in the history of technology, international trade (hence the picture of a Montreal wharf), and Canadian-American relations. We also talked about how the rich get rich. Do they do it entirely through hard work and their own unassisted efforts? Or do they sometimes use subsidies and other help from the government to grow their firms? Next week’s seminar is entitled “Ideology”.  We shall look at how people in an age dominated by classical liberalism justified an increasing number of interventions by government in the economy.

Benjamin’s Review of Leeson’s _Invisible Hook_

5 10 2009

E.H. Net has published Daniel Benjamin’s review of Peter T. Leeson, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). For those interested in the golden age of piracy that followed the War of the Spanish Succession, this book is a must read. Moreover, the book is also topical because of the issue of Somali piracy. (see here).

My favourite sentence in the review is: “so perceptive were they on matters of governance that pirates might well be thought of as intellectual predecessors of the American Founding Fathers.”

You can watch the trailer for Leeson’s book here. The trailer is a bit corny, although it is perhaps unfair to expect academic presses to produce trailers as good as those for Hollywood films.

“Globalization and the Making of Canada” Workshop

29 09 2009

I have updated the program of the “Globalization and the Making of Canada” workshop.

What Would Keynes Do ?

25 09 2009

What would Keynes do if he were confronted with the current economic situation? Have the ideas of Keynes been twisted by modern politicians to suit their own ends? This was discussed by British historian Peter Clark on the BBC`s Today Programme. The most interesting part of this interview was hearing Norman Lamont, one of the great freemarketeers of the 1980s, describe Hayek as a largely forgotten economist. In the 1980s, Hayek`s ideas were in the ascendant and Keynes was being dismissed. (click here to listen)

CNEH Conference

21 09 2009

I won’t be attending the forthcoming conference of the Canadian Network in Economic History due to the issue of timing. (The conference is taking place in Halifax in early October). There are some really interesting papers on the program, so I really wish I could go.   The keynote address will be given by Joel Mokyr (Northwestern University) and is on “Culture, Growth, and Cliometrics”. From the sounds of it, Mokyr will be asking what role culture plays in promoting economic growth, which is  topic historians have been debating since Max Weber published his famous thesis regarding the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

I feel very ambivalent about the culturalist approach to studying why some countries do better economically than others. Clearly culture matters somewhat (as Mokyr’s research on the economic impact of the Enlightenment shows), but so do other factors, including institutions and, to be frank, exploitative extraction of wealth. The economic historian Greg Clark had this to say about cultural approaches to understanding the origins of economic growth:  “my reaction… is one of intellectual schizophrenia. I simultaneously want to endorse his promotion of culture, and to run screaming from his lethal embrace. As an economic historian who studies economic growth in the long run, I agree completely that the banishment of culture from much of the consideration of wealth and poverty by modern economists has left us with untenable theories of growth… yet attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability.” (For the original context of this quote, see here).

Clark’s feelings on this issue are similar to my own.

Historian Peter Cain on European Attitudes to China

18 09 2009

Historian Peter J. Cain has an excellent new paper on the History and Policy website.  The paper is called “China, globalisation and the west: A British debate, 1890 – 1914”.

Other papers on economic-historical themes at History and Policy include:  “The ‘credit crunch’ and the importance of trust” by Geoffrey Hosking; “Equality and incentive: fiscal politics from Gladstone to Brown” by Martin Daunton; and “The real lesson for developing countries from the history of the developed world: ‘freedom to choose'” by Ha-Joon Chang. (I like how Chang’s paper title makes an allusion to this man).

The website, by the way, is designed to bring relevant historical research to the attention of policy-makers. John Tosh outlines the mission of the History and Policy here. The History and Policy website has inspired a group of Canadian scholars to establish a similar project called ActiveHistory. The Canadian project is evidently in its early stages but looks very promising.

New Business History Blog

18 09 2009

Kevin Tennent, a British business historian, has established a blog. The topics covered by his blog included economic history, present-day economic policy, and transport policy. He recently had a fine post on Lehman Brothers and the history of financial regulation in twentieth-century America.