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In only a few decades, the most populous country on Earth has moved from relative isolation to center stage. Thirty of the world’s leading China experts—all affiliates of the renowned Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University—answer key questions about where this new superpower is headed and what makes its people and their leaders tick. They distill a lifetime of cutting-edge scholarship into short, accessible essays about Chinese identity, culture, environment, society, history, or policy.
Can China’s economic growth continue apace? Can China embrace the sacrifices required for a clean environment? Will Taiwan reunite with the mainland? How do the Chinese people understand their position in today’s global marketplace? How do historical setbacks and traditional values inform China’s domestic and foreign policy? Some of the essays address issues of importance to China internally, revolving around the Communist Party’s legitimacy, the end of the one-child policy, and ethnic tensions. Others focus on China’s relationship with other nations, particularly the United States. If America pulls back from its Asian commitments, how will China assert its growing strength in the Pacific region?
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The Economic History of Mexico
Richard Salvucci, Trinity University
This article is a brief interpretive survey of some of the major features of the economic history of Mexico from pre-conquest to the present. I begin with the pre-capitalist economy of Mesoamerica. The colonial period is divided into the Habsburg and Bourbon regimes, although the focus is not really political: the emphasis is instead on the consequences of demographic and fiscal changes that colonialism brought. Next I analyze the economic impact of independence and its accompanying conflict. A tentative effort to reconstruct secular patterns of growth in the nineteenth century follows, as well as an account of the effects of foreign intervention, war, and the so-called “dictatorship” of Porfirio Diaz. I then examine the economic consequences of the Mexican Revolution down through the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, before considering the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. This is followed by an examination of the so-called Mexican Miracle, the period of import-substitution industrialization after World War II. The end of the “miracle” and the rise of economic instability in the 1970s and 1980s are discussed in some detail. I conclude with structural reforms in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and slow growth in Mexico since then. It is impossible to be comprehensive and the references appearing in the citations are highly selective and biased (where possible) in favor of English-language works, although Spanish is a must for getting beyond the basics. This is especially true in economic history, where some of the most innovative and revisionist work is being done, as it should be, by historians and economists in Mexico.
Where (and What) is Mexico?
For most of its long history, Mexico’s boundaries have been shifting, albeit broadly stable. Colonial Mexico basically stretched from Guatemala, across what is now California and the Southwestern United States, and vaguely into the Pacific Northwest. There matters stood for more than three centuries. The big shock came at the end of the War of 1847 (“the Mexican-American War” in U.S. history). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) ended the war, but in so doing, ceded half of Mexico’s former territory to the United States—recall Texas had been lost in 1836. The northern boundary now ran on a line beginning with the Rio Grande to El Paso, and thence more or less west to the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego. With one major adjustment in 1853 (the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of the Mesilla) and minor ones thereafter, because of the shifting of the Rio Grande, there it has remained.
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Mexico was a congeries of ethnic and city states whose own boundaries were unstable. Prior to the emergence of the most powerful of these states in the fifteenth century, the so-called Triple Alliance (popularly “Aztec Empire”), Mesoamerica consisted of cultural regions determined by political elites and spheres of influence that were dominated by large ceremonial centers such as La Venta, Teotihuacan, and Tula.
While such regions may have been dominant at different times, they were never “economically” independent of one another. At Teotihuacan, there were living quarters given over to Olmec residents from the Veracruz region, presumably merchants. Mesoamerica was connected, if not unified, by an ongoing trade in luxury goods and valuable stones such as jade, turquoise and precious feathers. This was not, however, trade driven primarily by factor endowments and relative costs. Climate and resource endowments did differ significantly over the widely diverse regions and microclimates of Mesoamerica. Yet trade was also political and ritualized in religious belief. For example, calling the shipment of turquoise from the (U.S.) Southwest to Central Mexico the outcome of market activity is an anachronism. In the very long run, such prehistorical exchange facilitated the later emergence of trade routes, roads, and more technologically advanced forms of transport. But arbitrage does not appear to have figured importantly in it.
In sum, what we call “Mexico” in a modern sense is not of much use to the economic historian with an interest in the country before 1870, which is to say, the great bulk of its history. In these years, specificity of time and place, sometimes reaching to the village level, is an indispensable prerequisite for meaningful discussion. At the very least, it is usually advisable to be aware of substantial regional differences which reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country both before and after the arrival of the Europeans. There are fully ten language families in Mexico, and two of them, Nahuatl and Quiché, number over a million speakers each.
Trade and Tribute before the Europeans
In the codices or deerskin folded paintings the Europeans examined (or actually commissioned), they soon became aware of a prominent form of Mesoamerican economic activity: tribute, or taxation in kind, or even labor services. In the absence of anything that served as money, tribute was forced exchange. Tribute has been interpreted as a means of redistribution in a nonmonetary economy. Social and political units formed a basis for assessment, and the goods collected included maize, beans, chile and cotton cloth. It was through the tribute the indigenous “empires” mobilized labor and resources. There is little or no evidence for the existence of labor or land markets to do so, for these were a European import, although marketplaces for goods existed in profusion.
To an extent, the preconquest reliance on barter economies and the absence of money largely accounts for the ubiquity of tribute. The absence of money is much more difficult to explain and was surely an obstacle to the growth of productivity in the indigenous economies.
The tribute was a near-universal attribute of Mesoamerican ceremonial centers and political empires. The city of Teotihuacan (ca. 600 CE, with a population of 125,000 or more) in central Mexico depended on tribute to support an upper stratum of priests and nobles while the tributary population itself lived at subsistence. Tlatelolco (ca 1520, with a population ranging from 50 to 100 thousand) drew maize, cotton, cacao, beans and precious feathers from a wide swath of territory that broadly extended from the Pacific to Gulf coasts that supported an upper stratum of priests, warriors, nobles, and merchants. It was this urban complex that sat atop the lagoons that filled the Valley of Mexico that so awed the arriving conquerors.
While the characterization of tribute as both a corvée and a tax in kind to support nonproductive populations is surely correct, its persistence in altered (i.e., monetized) form under colonial rule does suggest an important question. The tributary area of the Mexica (“Aztec” is a political term, not an ethnic one) broadly comprised a Pacific slope, a central valley, and a Gulf slope. These embrace a wide range of geographic features ranging from rugged volcanic highlands (and even higher snow-capped volcanoes) to marshy, humid coastal plains. Even today, travel through these regions is challenging. Lacking both the wheel and draught animals, the indigenous peoples relied on human transport, or, where possible, waterborne exchange. However we measure the costs of transportation, they were high. In the colonial period, they typically circumscribed the subsistence radius of markets to 25 to 35 miles. Under the circumstances, it is not easy to imagine that voluntary exchange, particularly between the coastal lowlands and the temperate to cold highlands and mountains, would be profitable for all but the most highly valued goods. In some parts of Mexico–as in the Andean region—linkages of family and kinship bound different regions together in a cult of reciprocal economic obligations. Yet absent such connections, it is not hard to imagine, for example, transporting woven cottons from the coastal lowlands to the population centers of the highlands could become a political obligation rather than a matter of profitable, voluntary exchange. The relatively ambiguous role of markets in both labor and goods that persisted into the nineteenth century may perhaps derive from just this combination of climatic and geographical characteristics. It is what made voluntary exchange under capitalistic markets such a puzzlingly problematic answer to the ordinary demands of economic activity.
[See the relief map below for the principal physical features of Mexico.]
[See the political map below for Mexican states and state capitals.]
Used by permission of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
“New Spain” or Colonial Mexico: The First Phase
Mexico was established by military conquest and civil war. In the process, a civilization with its own institutions and complex culture was profoundly modified and altered, if not precisely destroyed, by the European invaders. The catastrophic elements of conquest, including the sharp decline of the existing indigenous population, from perhaps 25 million to fewer than a million within a century due to warfare, disease, social disorganization and the imposition of demands for labor and resources should nevertheless not preclude some assessment, however tentative, of its economic level in 1519, when the Europeans arrived.
Recent thinking suggests that Spain was far from poor when it began its overseas expansion. If this were so, the implications of the Europeans’ reactions to what they found on the mainland of Mexico (not, significantly in the Caribbean, and, especially, in Cuba, where they were first established) is important. We have several accounts of the conquest of Mexico by the European participants, of which Bernal Díaz del Castillo is the best known, but not the only one. The reaction of the Europeans was almost uniformly astonishment by the apparent material wealth of Tenochtitlan. The public buildings, spacious residences of the temple precinct, the causeways linking the island to the shore, and the fantastic array of goods available in the marketplace evoked comparisons to Venice, Constantinople, and other wealthy centers of European civilization. While it is true that this was a view of the indigenous elite, the beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated from numerous tributaries, it hardly suggests anything other than a kind of storied opulence. Of course, the peasant commoners lived at subsistence and enjoyed no such privileges, but then so did the peasants of the society from which Bernal Díaz, Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado and the other conquerors were drawn. It is hard to imagine that the average standard of living in Mexico was any lower than that of the Iberian Peninsula. The conquerors remarked on the physical size and apparent robust health of the people whom they met, and from this, scholars such as Woodrow Borah and Sherburne Cook concluded that the physical size of the Europeans and the Mexicans was about the same. Borah and Cook surmised that caloric intake per individual in Central Mexico was around 1,900 calories per day, which certainly seems comparable to European levels.
Certainly, the technological differences with Europe hampered commercial exchange, such as the absence of the wheel for transportation, metallurgy that did not include iron, and the exclusive reliance on pictographic writing systems. Yet by the same token, Mesoamerican agricultural technology was richly diverse and especially oriented toward labor-intensive techniques, well suited to pre-conquest Mexico’s factor endowments. As Gene Wilken points out, Bernardo de Sahagún explained in his General History of the Things of New Spain that the Nahua farmer recognized two dozen soil types related to origin, source, color, texture, smell, consistency and organic content. They were expert at soil management. So it is possible not only to misspecify, but to mistake the technological “backwardness” of Mesoamerica relative to Europe, and historians routinely have.
The essentially political and clan-based nature of economic activity made the distribution of output somewhat different from standard neoclassical models. Although no one seriously maintains that indigenous civilization did not include private property and, in fact, property rights in humans, the distribution of product tended to emphasize average rather than marginal product. If responsibility for tribute was collective, it is logical to suppose that there was some element of redistribution and collective claim on output by the basic social groups of indigenous society, the clans or calpulli. Whatever the case, it seems clear that viewing indigenous society and economy as strained by population growth to the point of collapse, as the so-called “Berkeley school” did in the 1950s, is no longer tenable. It is more likely that the tensions exploited by the Europeans to divide and conquer their native hosts and so erect a colonial state on pre-existing native entities were mainly political rather than socioeconomic. It was through the assistance of native allies such as the Tlaxcalans, as well as with the help of previously unknown diseases such as smallpox that ravaged the indigenous peoples, that the Europeans were able to place a weakened Tenochtitlan under siege and finally defeat it.
Colonialism and Economic Adjustment to Population Decline
With the subjection first of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and then of other polities and peoples, a process that would ultimately stretch well into the nineteenth century and was never really completed, the Europeans turned their attention to making colonialism pay. The process had several components: the modification or introduction of institutions of rule and appropriation; the introduction of new flora and fauna that could be turned to economic use; the reorientation of a previously autarkic and precapitalist economy to the demands of trade and commercial exploitation; and the implementation of European fiscal sovereignty. These processes were complex, required much time, and were, in many cases, only partly successful. There is considerable speculation regarding how long it took before Spain (arguably a relevant term by the mid-sixteenth century) made colonialism pay. The best we can do is present a schematic view of what occurred. Regional variations were enormous: a “typical” outcome or institution of colonialism may well have been an outcome visible in central Mexico. Moreover, all generalizations are fragile, rest on limited quantitative evidence, and will no doubt be substantially modified eventually. The message is simple: proceed with caution.
The Europeans did not seek to take Mesoamerica as a tabula rasa. In some ways, they would have been happy to simply become the latest in a long line of ruling dynasties established by decapitating native elites and assuming control. The initial demand of the conquerors for access to native labor in the so-called encomienda was precisely that, with the actual task of governing be left to the surviving and collaborating elite: the principle of “indirect rule.” There were two problems with this strategy: the natives resisted and the natives died. They died in such large numbers as to make the original strategy impracticable.
The number of people who lived in Mesoamerica has long been a subject of controversy, but there is no point in spelling it out once again. The numbers are unknowable and, in an economic sense, not really important. The population of Tenochtitlan has been variously estimated between 50 and 200 thousand individuals, depending on the instruments of estimation. As previously mentioned, some estimates of the Central Mexican population range as high as 25 million on the eve of the European conquest, and virtually no serious student accepts the small population estimates based on the work of Angel Rosenblatt. The point is that labor was abundant relative to land, and that the small surpluses of a large tributary population must have supported the opulent elite that Bernal Díaz and his companions described.
By 1620, or thereabouts, the indigenous population had fallen to less than a million according to Cook and Borah. This is not just the quantitative speculation of modern historical demographers. Contemporaries such as Jerónimo de Mendieta in his Historia eclesiástica Indiana (1596) spoke of towns formerly densely populated now witness to “the palaces of those former Lords ruined or on the verge of. The homes of the commoners mostly empty, roads and streets deserted, churches empty on feast days, the few Indians who populate the towns in Spanish farms and factories.” Mendieta was an eyewitness to the catastrophic toll that European microbes and warfare took on the native population. There was a smallpox epidemic in 1519-20 when 5 to 8 million died. The epidemic of hemorrhagic fever in 1545 to 1548 was one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history, killing 5 to 15 million people. And then again in 1576 to 1578, when 2 to 2.5 million people died, we have clear evidence that land prices in the Valley of Mexico (Coyoacán, a village outside Mexico City, as the reconstructed Tenochtitlán was called) collapsed. The death toll was staggering. Lesser outbreaks were registered in 1559, 1566, 1587, 1592, 1601, 1604, 1606, 1613, 1624, and 1642. The larger point is that the intensive use of native labor, such as the encomienda, had to come to an end, whatever its legal status had become by virtue of the New Laws (1542). The encomienda or the simple exploitation of massive numbers of indigenous workers was no longer possible. There were too few “Indians” by the end of the sixteenth century.
As a result, the institutions and methods of economic appropriation were forced to change. The Europeans introduced pastoral agriculture – the herding of cattle and sheep – and the use of now abundant land and scarce labor in the form of the hacienda while the remaining natives were brought together in “villages” whose origins were not essentially pre- but post-conquest, the so-called congregaciones, at the same time that the titles to now-vacant lands were created, regularized and “composed.” (Land titles were a European innovation as well). Sheep and cattle, which the Europeans introduced, became part of the new institutional backbone of the colony. The natives would continue to rely on maize for the better part of their subsistence, but the Europeans introduced wheat, olives (oil), grapes (wine) and even chickens, which the natives rapidly adopted. On the whole, the results of these alterations were complex. Some scholars argue that the native diet improved even in the face of their diminishing numbers, a consequence of increased land per person and of greater variety of foodstuffs, and that the agricultural potential of the colony now called New Spain was enhanced. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the combined indigenous, European immigrant, and new mixed blood populations could largely survive on the basis of their own production. The introduction of sheep lead to the introduction and manufacture of woolens in what were called obrajes or manufactories in Puebla, Querétaro, and Coyoacán. The native peoples continued to produce cottons (a domestic crop) under the stimulus of European organization, lending, and marketing. Extensive pastoralism, the cultivation of cereals and even the incorporation of native labor then characterized the emergence of the great estates or haciendas, which became a characteristic rural institution through the twentieth century, when the Mexican Revolution put an end to many of them. Thus the colony of New Spain continued to feed, clothe and house itself independent of metropolitan Spain’s direction. Certainly, Mexico before the Conquest was self-sufficient. The extent to which the immigrant and American Spaniard or creole population depended on imports of wine, oil and other foodstuffs and textiles in the decades immediately following the conquest is much less clear.
At the same time, other profound changes accompanied the introduction of Europeans, their crops and their diseases into what they termed the “kingdom” (not colony, for constitutional reasons) of New Spain. Prior to the conquest, land and labor had been commoditized, but not to any significant extent, although there was a distinction recognized between possession and ownership. Scholars who have closely examined the emergence of land markets after the conquest—mainly in the Valley of Mexico—are virtually unanimous in this conclusion. To the extent that markets in labor and commodities had emerged, it took until the 1630s (and later elsewhere in New Spain) for the development to reach maturity. Even older mechanisms of allocation of labor by administrative means (repartimiento) or by outright coercion persisted. Purely economic incentives in the form of money wages and prices never seemed adequate to the job of mobilizing resources and those with access to political power were reluctant to pay a competitive wage. In New Spain, the use of some sort of political power or rent-seeking nearly always accompanied labor recruitment. It was, quite simply, an attempt to evade the implications of relative scarcity, and renders the entire notion of “capitalism” as a driving economic force in colonial Mexico quite inexact.
Why the Settlers Resisted the Implications of Scarce Labor
The reasons behind this development are complex and varied. The evidence we have for the Valley of Mexico demonstrates that the relative price of labor rose while the relative price of land fell even when nominal movements of one or the other remained fairly limited. For instance, the table constructed below demonstrates that from 1570-75 through 1591-1606, the price of unskilled labor in the Valley of Mexico nearly tripled while the price of land in the Valley (Coyoacán) fell by nearly two thirds. On the whole, the price of labor relative to land increased by nearly 800 percent. The evolution of relative prices would have inevitably worked against the demanders of labor (Europeans and increasingly, creoles or Americans of largely European ancestry) and in favor of the supplier (native labor, or people of mixed race generically termed mestizo). This was not of course what the Europeans had in mind and by capture of legal institutions (local magistrates, in particularly), frequently sought to substitute compulsion for what would have been costly “free labor.” What has been termed the “depression” of the seventeenth century may well represent one of the consequences of this evolution: an abundance of land, a scarcity of labor, and the attempt of the new rulers to adjust to changing relative prices. There were repeated royal prohibitions on the use of forced indigenous labor in both public and private works, and thus a reduction in the supply of labor. All highly speculative, no doubt, but the adjustment came during the central decades of the seventeenth century, when New Spain increasingly produced its own woolens and cottons, and largely assumed the tasks of providing itself with foodstuffs and was thus required to save and invest more. No doubt, the new rulers felt the strain of trying to do more with less.
|Years||Land Price Index||Labor Price Index||(Labor/Land) Index|
Source: Calculated from Rebecca Horn, Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519-1650 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 208 and José Ignacio Urquiola Permisan, “Salarios y precios en la industria manufacturer textile de la lana en Nueva España, 1570-1635,” in Virginia García Acosta, (ed.), Los precios de alimentos y manufacturas novohispanos (México, DF: CIESAS, 1995), p. 206.
The overall role of Mexico within the Hapsburg Empire was in flux as well. Nothing signals the change as much as the emergence of silver mining as the principal source of Mexican exportables in the second half of the sixteenth century. While Mexico would soon be eclipsed by Peru as the most productive center of silver mining—at least until the eighteenth century—the discovery of significant silver mines in Zacatecas in the 1540s transformed the economy of the Spanish empire and the character of New Spain’s as well.
While silver mining and smelting was practiced before the conquest, it was never a focal point of indigenous activity. But for the Europeans, Mexico was largely about silver mining. From the mid- sixteenth century onward, it was explicitly understood by the viceroys that they were to do all in their power to “favor the mines,” as one memorable royal instruction enjoined. Again, there has been much controversy of the precise amounts of silver that Mexico sent to the Iberian Peninsula. What we do know certainly is that Mexico (and the Spanish Empire) became the leading source of silver, monetary reserves, and thus, of high-powered money. Over the course of the colonial period, most sources agree that Mexico provided nearly 2 billion pesos (dollars) or roughly 1.6 billion troy ounces to the world economy. The graph below provides a picture of the remissions of all Mexican silver to both Spain and to the Philippines taken from the work of John TePaske.
Since the population of Mexico under Spanish rule was at most 6 million people by the end of the colonial period, the kingdom’s silver output could only be considered astronomical.
This production has to be considered in both its domestic and international dimensions. From a domestic perspective, the mines were what a later generation of economists would call “growth poles.” They were markets in which inputs were transformed into tradable outputs at a much higher rate of productivity (because of mining’s relatively advanced technology) than Mexico’s other activities. Silver thus became Mexico’s principal exportable good, and remained so well into the late nineteenth century. The residual claimants on silver production were many and varied. There were, of course the silver miners themselves in Mexico and their merchant financiers and suppliers. They ranged from some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time, such as the Count of Regla (1710-1781), who donated warships to Spain in the eighteenth century, to individual natives in Zacatecas smelting their own stocks of silver ore. While the conditions of labor in Mexico’s silver mines were almost uniformly bad, the compensation ranged from above market wages paid to free labor in the prosperous larger mines of the Bajío and the North to the use of forced village labor drafts in more marginal (and presumably less profitable) sites such as Taxco. In the Iberian Peninsula, income from American silver mines ultimately supported not only a class of merchant entrepreneurs in the large port cities, but virtually the core of the Spanish political nation, including monarchs, royal officials, churchmen, the military and more. And finally, silver flowed to those who valued it most highly throughout the world. It is generally estimated that 40 percent of Spain’s American (not just Mexican, but Peruvian as well) silver production ended up in hoards in China.
Within New Spain, mining centers such as Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas became places where economic growth took place rapidly, in which labor markets more readily evolved, and in which the standard of living became obviously higher than in neighboring regions. Mining centers tended to crowd out growth elsewhere because the rate of return for successful mines exceeded what could be gotten in commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. Because silver was the numeraire for Mexican prices—Mexico was effectively on a silver standard—variations in silver production could and did have substantial effects on real economic activity elsewhere in New Spain. There is considerable evidence that silver mining saddled Mexico with an early case of “Dutch disease” in which irreducible costs imposed by the silver standard ultimately rendered manufacturing and the production of other tradable goods in New Spain uncompetitive. For this reason, the expansion of Mexican silver production in the years after 1750 was never unambiguously accompanied by overall, as opposed to localized prosperity. Silver mining tended to absorb a disproportional quantity of resources and to keep New Spain’s price level high, even when the business cycle slowed down—a fact that was to impress visitors to Mexico well into the nineteenth century. Mexican silver accounted for well over three-quarters of exports by value into the nineteenth century as well. The estimates vary widely, for silver was by no means the only, or even the most important source of revenue to the Crown, but by the end of the colonial era, the Kingdom of New Spain probably accounted for 25 percent of the Crown’s imperial income. That is why reformist proposals circulating in governing circles in Madrid in the late eighteenth century fixed on Mexico. If there was any threat to the American Empire, royal officials thought that Mexico, and increasingly, Cuba, were worth holding on to. From a fiscal standpoint, Mexico had become just that important.
“New Spain”: The Second Phase of the Bourbon “Reforms”
In 1700, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs died and a disputed succession followed. The ensuring conflict, known as the War of Spanish Succession, came to an end in 1714. The grandson of French king Louis XIV came to the Spanish throne as King Philip V. The dynasty he represented was known as the Bourbons. For the next century of so, they were to determine the fortunes of New Spain. Traditionally, the Bourbons, especially the later ones, have been associated with an effort to “renationalize” the Spanish empire in America after it had been thoroughly penetrated by French, Dutch, and lastly, British commercial interests.
There were at least two areas in which the Bourbon dynasty, “reformist” or no, affected the Mexican economy. One of them dealt with raising revenue and the other was the international position of the imperial economy, specifically, the volume and value of trade. A series of statistics calculated by Richard Garner shows that the share of Mexican output or estimated GDP taken by taxes grew by 167 percent between 1700 and 1800. The number of taxes collected by the Royal Treasury increased from 34 to 112 between 1760 and 1810. This increase, sometimes labelled as a Bourbon “reconquest” of Mexico after a century and a half of drift under the Hapsburgs, occurred because of Spain’s need to finance increasingly frequent and costly wars of empire in the eighteenth century. An entire array of new taxes and fiscal placemen came to Mexico. They affected (and alienated) everyone, from the wealthiest merchant to the humblest villager. If they did nothing else, the Bourbons proved to be expert tax collectors.
The second and equally consequential change in imperial management lay in the revision and “deregulation” of New Spain’s international trade, or the evolution from a “fleet” system to a regime of independent sailings, and then, finally, of voyages to and from a far larger variety of metropolitan and colonial ports. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, ocean-going trade between Spain and the Americas was, in theory, at least, closely regulated and supervised. Ships in convoy (flota) sailed together annually under license from the monarchy and returned together as well. Since so much silver specie was carried, the system made sense, even if the flotas made a tempting target and the problem of contraband was immense. The point of departure was Seville and later, Cadiz. Under pressure from other outports in the late eighteenth century, the system was finally relaxed. As a consequence, the volume and value of trade to Mexico increased as the price of importables fell. Import-competing industries in Mexico, especially textiles, suffered under competition and established merchants complained that the new system of trade was too loose. But to no avail. There is no measure of the barter terms of trade for the eighteenth century, but anecdotal evidence suggests they improved for Mexico. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that these gains could have come anywhere close to offsetting the financial cost of Spain’s “reconquest” of Mexico.
On the other hand, the few accounts of per capita real income growth in the eighteenth century that exist suggest little more than stagnation, the result of population growth and a rising price level. Admittedly, looking for modern economic growth in Mexico in the eighteenth century is an anachronism, although there is at least anecdotal evidence of technological change in silver mining, especially in the use of gunpowder for blasting and excavating, and of some productivity increase in silver mining. So even though the share of international trade outside of goods such as cochineal and silver was quite small, at the margin, changes in the trade regime were important. There is also some indication that asset income rose and labor income fell, which fueled growing social tensions in New Spain. In the last analysis, the growing fiscal pressure of the Spanish empire came when the standard of living for most people in Mexico—the native and mixed blood population—was stagnating. During periodic subsistence crisis, especially those propagated by drought and epidemic disease, and mostly in the 1780s, living standards fell. Many historians think of late colonial Mexico as something of a powder keg waiting to explode. When it did, in 1810, the explosion was the result of a political crisis at home and a dynastic failure abroad. What New Spain had negotiated during the Wars of Spanish Succession—regime change– provide impossible to surmount during the Napoleonic Wars (1794-1815). This may well be the most sensitive indicator of how economic conditions changed in New Spain under the heavy, not to say clumsy hand, of the Bourbon “reforms.”
The War for Independence, the Insurgency, and Their Legacy
The abdication of the Bourbon monarchy to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 produced a series of events that ultimately resulted in the independence of New Spain. The rupture was accompanied by a violent peasant rebellion headed by the clerics Miguel Hidalgo and José Morelos that, one way or another, carried off 10 percent of the population between 1810 and 1820. Internal commerce was largely paralyzed. Silver mining essentially collapsed between 1810 and 1812 and a full recovery of mining output was delayed until the 1840s. The mines located in zones of heavy combat, such as Guanajuato and Querétaro, were abandoned by fleeing workers. Thus neglected, they quickly flooded.
At the same time, the fiscal and human costs of this period, the Insurgency, were even greater. The heavy borrowings in which the Bourbons engaged to finance their military alliances left Mexico with a considerable legacy of internal debt, estimated at £16 million at Independence. The damage to the fiscal, bureaucratic and administrative structure of New Spain in the face of the continuing threat of Spanish reinvasion (Spain did not recognize the Independence of Mexico (1821)) in the 1820s drove the independent governments into foreign borrowing on the London market to the tune of £6.4 million in order to finance continuing heavy military outlays. With a reduced fiscal capacity, in part the legacy of the Insurgency and in part the deliberate effort of Mexican elites to resist any repetition Bourbon-style taxation, Mexico defaulted on its foreign debt in 1827. For the next sixty years, through a serpentine history of moratoria, restructuring and repudiation (1867), it took until 1884 for the government to regain access to international capital markets, at what cost can only be imagined. Private sector borrowing and lending continued, although to what extent is currently unknown. What is clear is that the total (internal plus external) indebtedness of Mexico relative to late colonial GDP was somewhere in the range of 47 to 56 percent.
This was, perhaps, not an insubstantial amount for a country whose mechanisms of public finance were in what could be mildly termed chaotic condition in the 1820s and 1830s as the form, philosophy, and mechanics of government oscillated from federalist to centralist and back into the 1850s. Leaving aside simple questions of uncertainty, there is the very real matter that the national government—whatever the state of private wealth—lacked the capacity to service debt because national and regional elites denied it the means to do so. This issue would bedevil successive regimes into the late nineteenth century, and, indeed, into the twentieth.
At the same time, the demographic effects of the Insurgency exacted a cost in terms of lost output from the 1810s through the 1840s. Gaping holes in the labor force emerged, especially in the fertile agricultural plains of the Bajío that created further obstacles to the growth of output. It is simply impossible to generalize about the fortunes of the Mexican economy in this period because of the dramatic regional variations in the Republic’s economy. A rough estimate of output per head in the late colonial period was perhaps 40 pesos (dollars). After a sharp contraction in the 1810s, income remained in that neighborhood well into the 1840s, at least until the eve of the war with the United States in 1846. By the time United States troops crossed the Rio Grande, a recovery had been under way, but the war arrested it. Further political turmoil and civil war in the 1850s and 1860s represented setbacks as well. In this way, a half century or so of potential economic growth was sacrificed from the 1810s through the 1870s. This was not an uncommon experience in Latin America in the nineteenth century, and the period has even been called The Stage of the Great Delay. Whatever the exact rate of real per capita income growth was, it is hard to imagine it ever exceeded two percent, if indeed it reached much more than half that.
Agricultural Recovery and War
On the other hand, it is clear that there was a recovery in agriculture in the central regions of the country, most notably in the staple maize crop and in wheat. The famines of the late colonial era, especially of 1785-86, when massive numbers perished, were not repeated. There were years of scarcity and periodic corresponding outbreaks of epidemic disease—the cholera epidemic of 1832 affected Mexico as it did so many other places—but by and large, the dramatic human wastage of the colonial period ceased, and the death rate does appear to have begun to fall. Very good series on wheat deliveries and retail sales taxes for the city of Puebla southeast of Mexico City show a similarly strong recovery in the 1830s and early 1840s, punctuated only by the cholera epidemic whose effects were felt everywhere.
Ironically, while the Panic of 1837 appears to have at least hit the financial economy in Mexico hard with a dramatic fall in public borrowing (and private lending), especially in the capital, an incipient recovery of the real economy was ended by war with the United States. It is not possible to put numbers on the cost of the war to Mexico, which lasted intermittently from 1846 to 1848, but the loss of what had been the Southwest under Mexico is most often emphasized. This may or may not be accurate. Certainly, the loss of California, where gold was discovered in January 1848, weighs heavily on the historical imaginations of modern Mexicans. There is also the sense that the indemnity paid by the United States–$15 million—was wholly inadequate, which seems at least understandable when one considers that Andrew Jackson offered $5 million to purchase Texas alone in 1829.
It has been estimated that the agricultural output of the Mexican “cession” as it was called in 1900, was nearly $64 million, and that the value of livestock in the territory was over $100 million. The value of gold and silver produced was about $35 million. Whether it is reasonable to employ the numbers in estimating the present value of output relative to the indemnity paid is at least debatable as a counterfactual, unless one chooses to regard this as the annuitized value on a perpetuity “purchased” from Mexico at gunpoint, which seems more like robbery than exchange. In the long run, the loss may have been staggering, but in the short run, much less so. The northern territories Mexico lost had really yielded very little up until the War. In fact, the balance of costs and revenues to the Mexican government may well have been negative.
Whatever the case, the decades following the war with the United States until the beginning of the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876) are typically regarded as a step backward. The reasons are several. In 1850, the government essentially went broke. While it is true that its financial position had disintegrated since the mid-1830s, 1850 marked a turning point. The entire indemnity payment from the United States was consumed in debt service, but this made no appreciable dent in the outstanding principal, which hovered around 50 million pesos (dollars). The limits of debt sustainability had been reached: governing was turned into a wild search for resources, which proved fruitless. Mexico continued to sell of parts of its territory, such as the Treaty of the Mesilla (1853), or Gadsden Purchase, whose proceeds largely ended up in the hands of domestic financiers rather than foreign creditors’. Political divisions, if anything, terrible before the war with the United States, turned catastrophic. A series of internal revolts, uprisings and military pronouncements segued into yet another violent civil war between liberals and conservatives—now a formal party—the so-called Three Years’ War (1856-58). In 1862, frustrated by Mexico’s suspension of foreign debt service, Great Britain, Spain and France seized Veracruz. A Hapsburg prince, Maximilian, was installed as Mexico’s second “emperor.” (Agustín de Iturbide was the first). While only the French actively prosecuted the war within Mexico, and while they never controlled more than a very small part of the country, the disruption was substantial. By 1867, with Maximillian deposed and the French army withdrawn, the country required serious reconstruction. 
Juárez, Díaz and the Porfiriato: authoritarian development.
To be sure, the origins of authoritarian development in nineteenth century Mexico were not with Porfirio Díaz, as is often asserted. Their beginnings actually went back several decades earlier, to the last presidency of Santa Anna, generally known as the Dictatorship (1853-54). But Santa Anna was overthrown too quickly, and now for the last time, for much to have actually occurred. A ministry for development (Fomento) had been created, but the Liberal revolution of Ayutla swept Santa Anna and his clique away for good. Serious reform seems to have begun around 1870, when the Finance Minister was Matías Romero. Romero was intent on providing Mexico with a modern Treasury, and on ending the hand-to- mouth financing that had mostly characterized the country’s government since Independence, or at least since the mid-1830s. So it is appropriate to pick up with the story here. Where did Mexico stand in 1870?
The most revealing data that we have on the state of economic development come from various anthropometric and cost of living studies by Amilcar Challu, Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, and Moramay López Alonso. Their research overlaps in part, and gives a fascinating picture of Mexico in the long run, from 1735 to 1940. For the moment, let us look at the period leading up to 1867, when the French withdrew from Mexico. If we look at the heights of the “literate” population, Challu’s research suggests that the standard of living stagnated between 1750 and 1840. If we look at the “illiterate” population, there was a consistent decline until 1850. Since the share of the illiterate population was clearly larger, we might infer that living standards for most Mexicans declined after 1750, however we interpret other quantitative and anecdotal evidence.
López Alonso confines her work to the period after the 1840s. From 1850 through 1890, her work generally corroborates Challu’s. The period after the Mexican War was clearly a difficult one for most Mexicans, and the challenge that both Juárez and Díaz faced was a macroeconomy in frank contraction after 1850. The regimes after 1867 were faced with stagnation.
The real wage study of by Amilcar Challu and Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, when combined with the existing anthropometric work, offers a pretty clear correlation between movements in real wages (down) and height (falling). 
It would then appear growth from the 1850s through the 1870s was slow—if there was any at all—and perhaps inferior to what had come between the 1820s and the 1840s. Given the growth of import substitution during the Napoleonic Wars, roughly 1790-1810, coupled with the commercial opening brought by the Bourbons’ post-1789 extension of “free trade” to Mexico, we might well see a pattern of mixed performance (1790-1810), sharp contraction (the 1810s), rebound and recovery, with a sharp financial shocks coming in the mid-1820s and mid -1830s (1820s-1840s), and stagnation once more (1850s-1870s). Real per capita output oscillated, sometimes sharply, around an underlying growth rate of perhaps one percent; changes in the distribution of income and wealth are more or less impossible to identify consistently, because studies conflict.
Far less speculative is that the foundations for modern economic growth were laid down in Mexico during the era of Benito Juárez. Its key elements were the creation of a secular, bourgeois state and secular institutions embedded in the Constitution of 1857. The titanic ideological struggles between liberals and conservatives were ultimately resolved in favor of a liberal, but nevertheless centralizing form of government under Porfirio Diáz. This was the beginning of the end of the Ancien Regime. Under Juárez, corporate lands of the Church and native villages were privatized in favor of individual holdings and their former owners compensated in bonds. This was effectively the largest transfer of land title since the late sixteenth century (not including the war with the United States) and it cemented the idea of individual property rights. With the expulsion of the French and the outright repudiation of the French debt, the Treasury was reorganized along more modern lines. The country got additional breathing room by the suspension of debt service to Great Britain until the terms of the 1825 loans were renegotiated under the Dublán Convention (1884). Equally, if not more important, Mexico now entered the railroad age in 1876, nearly forty years after the first tracks were laid in Cuba in 1837. The educational system was expanded in an attempt to create at least a core of literate citizens who could adopt the tools of modern finance and technology. Literacy still remained in the neighborhood of 20 percent, and life expectancy at birth scarcely reached 40 years of age, if that. Yet by the end of the Restored Republic (1876), Mexico had turned a corner. There would be regressions, but the nineteenth century had finally arrived, aptly if brutally signified by Juárez’ execution of Maximilian in Querétaro in 1867.
Yet when Díaz came to power, Mexico was, in many ways, much as it had been a century earlier. It was a rural, agrarian nation whose primary agricultural output per person was maize, followed by wheat and beans. These were produced on haciendas and ranchos in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Mexico, Puebla as well as Oaxaca, Veracruz, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua and Sonora. Cotton, which with great difficulty had begun to supply a mechanized factory regime (first in spinning, then weaving) was produced in Oaxaca, Yucatán, Guerrero and Chiapas as well as in parts of Durango and Coahuila. Domestic production of raw cotton rarely sufficed to supply factories in Michoacán, Querétaro, Puebla and Veracruz, so imports from the Southern United States were common. For the most part, the indigenous population lived on maize, beans, and chile, producing its own subsistence on small, scattered plots known as milpas. Perhaps 75 percent of the population was rural, with the remainder to be found in cities like Mexico, Guadalajara, San Luis Potosí, and later, Monterrey. Population growth in the Southern and Eastern parts of the country had been relatively slow in the nineteenth century. The North and the center North grew more rapidly. The Center of the country, less so. Immigration from abroad had been of no consequence.
It is a commonplace to see the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) as a critical juncture in Mexican history, and this would be no less true of economic or commercial history as well. By 1910, when the Díaz government fell and Mexico descended into two decades of revolution, the first one extremely violent, the face of the country had been changed for good. The nature and effect of these changes remain not only controversial, but essential for understanding the subsequent evolution of the country, so we should pause here to consider some of their essential features.
While mining and especially, silver mining, had long held a privileged place in the economy, the nineteenth century had witnessed a number of significant changes. Until about 1889, the coinage of gold, silver, and copper—a very rough proxy for production given how much silver had been illegally exported—continued on a steadily upward track. In 1822, coinage was about 10 million pesos. By 1846, it had reached roughly 15 million pesos. There was something of a structural break after the war with the United States (its origins are unclear), and coinage continued upward to about 25 million pesos in 1888. Then, the falling international price of silver, brought on by large increases in supply elsewhere, drove the trend after 1889 sharply downward. By 1909-10, coinage had collapsed to levels previously unrecorded since the 1820s, although in 1904 and 1905, it had skyrocketed to nearly 45 million pesos.
It comes as no surprise that these variations in production corresponded to sharp changes in international relative prices. For example, the market price of silver declined sharply relative to lead, which in turn encountered a large increase in Mexican production and a diversification into other metals including zinc, antinomy, and copper. Mexico left the silver standard (for international transactions, but continued to use silver domestically) in 1905, which contributed to the eclipse of this one crucial industry, which would never again have the status it had when Díaz became president in 1876, when precious metals represented 75 percent of Mexican exports by value. By the time he had decamped in exile to Paris, precious metals accounted for less than half of all exports.
The reason for this relative decline was the diversification of agricultural exports that had been slowly occurring since the 1870s. Coffee, cotton, sugar, sisal and vanilla were the principal crops, and some regions of the country such as Yucatán (henequen) and Durango and Tamaulipas (cotton) supplied new export crops.
Railroads and Infrastructure
None of be of this would have occurred without the massive changes in land tenure that had begun in the 1850s, but most of all, without the construction of railroads financed by the migration of foreign capital to Mexico under Díaz. At one level, it is a well-known story of social savings, which were substantial in Mexico because the terrain was difficult and the alternative modes of carriage few. One way or another, transportation has always been viewed as an “obstacle” to Mexican economic development. That must be true at some level, although recent studies (especially by Sandra Kuntz) have raised important qualifications. Railroads may not have been gateways to foreign dependency, as historians once argued, but there were limits to their ability to effect economic change, even internally. They tended to enlarge the internal market for some commodities more than others. The peculiarities of rate-making produced other distortions, while markets for some commodities were inevitably concentrated in major cities or transshipment points which afforded some monopoly power to distributors even as a national market in basic commodities became more of a reality. Yet, in general, the changes were far reaching.
Conventional figures confirm conventional wisdom. When Díaz assumed the presidency, there were 660 km (410 miles) of track. In 1910, there were 19,280 km (about 12,000 miles). Seven major lines linked the cities of Mexico, Veracruz, Acapulco, Juárez, Laredo, Puebla, Oaxaca. Monterrey and Tampico in 1892. The lines were built by foreign capital (e.g., the Central Mexicano was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe), which is why resolving the long-standing questions of foreign debt service were critical. Large government subsidies on the order of 3,500 to 8,000 pesos per km were granted, and financing the subsidies amounted to over 30 million pesos by 1890. While the railroads were successful in creating more of a national market, especially in the North, their finances were badly affected by the depreciation of the silver peso, given that foreign liabilities had to be liquidated in gold.