Real World Economics: America’s natural bounty became its destiny

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Edward Lotterman

Before his disastrous invasion of Russia, Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Geography is destiny!”

And even today, this assertion prompts useful thinking about how geography influences development of economies over time and why apparently similar countries can have quite different outcomes.

Such effects can be very broad, as on settlement or cropping patterns, but also on very micro levels such as the evolution of the modern agricultural tractor.

Start with introductory geopolitics. The U.S. has prospered politically in geographic “splendid isolation.” Thousands of miles of ocean separate us from Europe or Asia. Attacking across these distances, over history, has been virtually impossible. Our neighbor to the north has the same language and similar culture, politics and values. That to the south is also friendly despite having been mostly sinned against rather than sinning, with tensions lingering to this day

Not so for nations on the great northern European plain, stretching from the English channel across the Low Countries, northern France and Germany, Poland and Ukraine to southwestern Russia. There are no large natural barriers to military forces, and sundry armies have crossed and recrossed the continent from virtually every direction for 2,000 years. Switzerland in its mountains and the Scandinavian countries on their archipelagoes are somewhat luckier.

Zoom in a bit to look at topography. The United States, Brazil and Russia all have vast forests and plains, mineral deposits and many rivers. But at the time Europeans began to wrest what is now our country from indigenous peoples, we had a lot in our favor compared to the other two. At the outset, we took a relatively broad coastal plain with several good natural harbors plus many rivers running to the sea. The Hudson, tidal to well north of Albany, was a doorway for ocean shipping as was Chesapeake Bay. From Albany west, one was soon in the Mohawk River Valley. That led west toward Lake Erie, above the barrier of Niagara Falls.

Once on the Great Lakes of Erie and Huron, we had water transport routes for products from the “Old Northwest” of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and points west. Further down the Atlantic coast, the Delaware Water Gap and Cumberland Gap gave access across the Appalachians to the vast Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri river watersheds. From the start, prior to steamboats, those gave easy transport downriver to New Orleans. With steam power, commerce up and down stream and on smaller tributaries soon was common. The Erie Canal and the first Soo locks afforded increasingly cheap transport for farm, forestry and mining output. All the while, abundant water power from Atlantic-flowing rivers fostered textile and other industrialization from Maine to the Carolinas.

Brazil faced less favorable conditions. It had some good harbors. But a sharp coastal escarpment rose quickly from the coast. Rivers down from this were tiny. There were few easy gaps. On top, the uplands slope away to the west. The city of Sao Paulo is only 30 miles from the Atlantic, but rain falling there flows away west and south and only reaches the Atlantic via the River Plate between Argentina and Uruguay. The rivers were small and too interrupted by rapids and falls for easy steamboat navigation to any port.

Other parts of the central high plains flow toward the Amazon. That is a vast flat waterway leading in. One can take a freighter 2,500 river miles from the Atlantic to Porto Velho, only 125 miles from Bolivia, and be only 270 feet above sea level. The problem is that to get from this enormous river to the central plains one again must climb sharp escarpments. Rivers flow down rapids and waterfalls of the kind that nearly killed Theodore Roosevelt in 1913. These are too extreme to ever be bypassed economically by canals and locks.

So while natural resource-based sectors thrived across the central United States in the 1800s, they stagnated in Brazil. It faced a chicken-egg dilemma. No use to mine ore or grow grain because of no way to get products to market. And there was no incentive to build railroads or roads into the interior with apparently nothing of value to transport out.

Russia had similar problems, rich resources and many rivers, both in historic Russia itself and in Siberia. There were mountains, but no immediate barriers as for Brazil. However, many of the important rivers flowed north into the Arctic Ocean and hence were useless for transport. Some did flow to the Black Sea. Odesa, now in Ukraine, long was one of the world’s most important wheat ports. Yet there was no easy east-west transport to bring minerals or logs to industries in historic European Russia.

Nature seemed to add insult to injury. North America has an enormous wheat-growing area stretching from Texas into Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Russia’s is similarly enormous, but stretches east-west while narrow from south to north..

Crops ripen south to north in this hemisphere. North American work crews and machines could start in Texas in early June and still be at it north of Winnipeg in October. Russia’s wheat had to be reaped in less than half that time. So labor and machine use has always been less efficient and transport more overwhelmed.

Argentina also had vast wheat fields. In the southern hemisphere, it would bring in impoverished rural youths from southern Italy to harvest wheat during their winter. Dubbed “golondrinas” or swallows for their annual peregrination, temporary migrant workers were economically efficient. But Argentina ended up with a very different pattern of landholdings, rural society and political culture than the United States, Canada or Australia, nations otherwise similar in many ways.

Now focus in even closer. In labor-scarce and capital-rich United States, steam tractors began to take over heavy tillage in the late 1800s, a process described very ably by Concordia-Moorhead historian Hiram Drache. But the machines were huge, too large for Midwest family farms. As internal combustion power became more practical, a family farm tractor became a holy grail.

One goal was that beside tillage, cutting and binding small grains and powering stationary threshing machines, these would handle the repeated mechanical “cultivating” needed to keep weeds out of cornfields. These had to continue until the corn was tall enough to shade 40-inch paths between rows. So tractors needed a narrow front end to go between rows and a high rear axle to allow the machine to pass over corn without damage. The seat had to be well back so that operators could reach levers and ropes controlling implements being pulled.

The result was a machine that tipped over easily and that required the operator to mount and dismount right over the dangerous turning shaft that powered binders, balers, choppers and combines. Deaths and injuries, often including amputations, regularly resulted in addition to crushing in rollovers.

A Scottish engineer, Harry Ferguson, allied for a while with Henry Ford, had a better idea. It was a lower machine with front wheels set as far apart as the rear ones and a step up for the driver between the front and back wheels, safely away from power shafts.

Again geography comes into play: If corn had been important in Britain, Ferguson might not have made this design. But he was familiar with hilly fields in Scotland and various “dales” areas of England where a tractor pulling a separate plow uphill and hitting a rock might suddenly flip back over killing the driver. The “top link” in his 3-point system prevented that. U.S. Farmall, John Deere, Case and Minneapolis-Moline tractors developed to meet U.S. conditions while Ferguson’s was optimal for Britain. As overall tractor size and height grew and with chemical herbicides ending mechanical cultivation, Ferguson’s basic design became the rule.

Only a few examples, but consider how the interplay between physical and biological environments influence the economies and politics — and history — that has developed.

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St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at

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