Birth of the Wolves


Earlier this week, the blockage of the Suez Canal by the giant Ever Given container ship prompted renewed discussions on the weakness of our supply chain infrastructure, the future of globalization, and the region’s colonial past.

In her 2013 book, VALESKA HUBER explores how the canal selectively shaped the movement of people and goods from its construction in 1869 until the First World War.

From the introduction:

“Mobility and acceleration are conventionally seen as central processes in shaping the history of globalisation. The Suez Canal appears in the literature on global history and the history of globalisation as soon as the ‘timespace compression’ starting in the second half of the nineteenth century is mentioned. In works on imperial expansion, the Suez Canal is equally present. Yet the increasingly rapid mobility which the Suez Canal came to symbolise had two sides: on the one hand a modernising force in the eyes of western observers, on the other a force that was difficult to control and which was connected with problems such as the worldwide propagation of disease or the movement of unruly individuals or groups. The period around 1900 was neither an era of unhampered acceleration, nor one of hardening borders and increasing controls. Rather it was characterised by the differentiation, regulation and bureaucratisation of different kinds of movement.

The maritime shortcut of the Suez Canal has become a symbol of the ‘shortening’ of distances around 1900 and of the triumphant version of acceleration that stressed the transformation of a desert by means of modern technology. Yet it also highlighted the dangers and anxieties connected with this same acceleration. At this very location colonial traffic and troop transportation crossed the circuits of tourists, the journeys of pilgrims to Mecca, the trajectories of nomads and caravans, the work-related movements of seamen and coal heavers and the illicit passages of stowaways, smugglers and microbes. This kaleidoscope of movement shows how, in the context of the technological innovations of the second half of the nineteenth century, mobility became a marker of Western modernity. But it also makes clear how certain forms of mobility were increasingly regulated and stigmatised. While acceleration is often taken for granted, multiple processes of exclusion and deceleration were in fact in play.”

Link to the text.

  • “The control of river systems and the practice of flood-control brought about an unprecedented ecological rupture in Eastern India, transforming the delta from a flood-dependent agrarian regime into a flood-vulnerable landscape.” In a 2006 book, Rohan D’Souza analyzes India’s environmental history through the politics of flood control. Link.
  • “Traditional theories proposed by Soviet scholars assume that a strong, long-term association exists between the management of irrigation systems and centralized political power. Focusing on the archaeological evidence pertaining to the construction of the Dargom, the primary canal of Samarkand, we suggest that it is not the result of a fixed master plan.” Sebastian Stride, Bernardo Rondelli and Simone Mantellini on “Political Power in the Oasis of Samarkand.” Link.
  • From 1948, an article by Carter Goodrich examines the construction of canals, turnpikes, and railroads to challenge conventional narratives on the noninterventionist American government. Link. And in a recent article, Valeska Huber argues that “social planning discourses and attempts to put them into practice are deeply intertwined with twentieth-century ideologies of the state.” Link.


Measuring Intangible Capital

PhD candidate in Economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona SAMPREET GORAYA studies capital misallocation. A 2020 paper co-authored with Andrea Chiavari looks to define the role of intangible capital—investments in research and development, intellectual property, etc.—in production.

From the paper:

“In the last decades, firms’ investments in research and development, intellectual property product, and computerized information – commonly known as intangible capital – have risen significantly as measured by their share in total capital. However, because of its intangible nature, it is inherently difficult to evaluate how intangible capital interacts with other inputs of production, and how its emergence has changed the nature of production technologies. We estimate a standard production function augmented with intangible capital and show that its input share has tripled since the 1980s and this increase has come at the expense of labor in production. Further, we provide empirical evidence consistent with intangible capital being significantly more sunk, meaning that it entails higher investment adjustment costs than traditional capital. Finally, due to the presence of high adjustment costs, we show that intangible capital tends to be misallocated (i.e., the average product of intangible capital is more dispersed than the average product of traditional capital).”

Link to the paper, link to Goraya’s website.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations: .

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  • “The Berlin-Baghdad railroad is Germany’s Belt and Road at the turn of the twentieth century.” Ho-fung Hung relaunches Phenomenal Works, our recommended readings series on the site, with thoughts on how the early twentieth century provides insights for US-China relations. Link.
  • “Making development investible requires a two‐pronged strategy: enlist the state into risk‐proofing development assets and accelerate the structural transformation of local financial systems towards market‐based finance that better accommodates portfolio investors.” Daniela Gabor on the ‘Wall Street Consensus.’ Link.
  • In Foreign Policy, Adam Tooze on Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi. Link. (Revisit Tooze and Gabor in conversation in two of our events from last year: “Geoeconomics and the Balance of Payments,” and “Global Power in the North-Atlantic Financial System.” Link, link.)
  • Rebecca Neaera Abers, Federico Rossi, and Marisa von Bülow compare social movement strategies during the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil and Argentina. Link. ht Paul
  • “In Brazil, oil production became an opportunity for a process of ecological transformation that promised to rid the country of colonial landscapes of exploitation.” Antoine Acker on Brazilian oil production between 1930 and 1975. Link.
  • “We find that droughts in pastoral areas lead to conflict in neighboring agricultural areas.” Eoin McGuirk and Nathan Nunn examine how effects of climate change can lead to conflict in Africa. Link.
  • Matteo Leombroni, Monika Piazzesi, Martin Schneider, and Ciaran Rogers investigate the structural changes behind the 1970s wealth dip in the US assets market. Link.
  • “Suffolk County imposing a presumption of nonprosecution for a set of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses had beneficial effects: the likelihood of future criminal justice involvement fell, with no increase in local crime rates.” By Amanda Agan, Jennifer Doleac, and Anna Harvey. Link.
  • “This article offers new evidence from an important early eighteenth-century construction site—St Paul’s Cathedral—which was the biggest and most important site in the City of London or Westminster in the decades after the Great Fire. It uses the working records of a prominent mason contractor of the actual number of days men in his team worked throughout the busy decade 1700–9 as the west front and dome were completed. On average men might only have worked 5.2 days per week in the long run, and if they did not have a regular employment relationship they could have worked less than 13 weeks in the year for any one employer. Employment was more irregular and seasonal than current estimates infer, which sheds light on debates about ‘industriousness’ and economic growth.” By Judy Stephenson. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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