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Dr. Carlos Santiago-Caballero (Associate Professor of University Carlos III Madrid) visited the Institute of Economic Research for 6 months, from April 28 to October 27, 2022, as a CEI visiting faculty. Dr. Santiago-Caballero is an economic historian who uses primary sources extensively. His research interests are wide, encompassing inequality, economic integration, migration, height, ... and even football. We interviewed him about how he became an economic historian, how he finds ideas for his research, and about thoughts he would like to pass on to young researchers.

 Road to becoming an economic historian

Q: How did you decide to become an economist?

To be honest, I did not have any good reasons. My passion since I was a child was history, but I knew that if I studied history at university, I would have a very hard time finding a good job. So, I went for a more pragmatic choice studying economics which was much more demanded in the labour market. Then, while I was studying economics in my first year as an undergraduate, I had a compulsory course on economic history, which I did not know it existed, that actually mixed both my passions and my pragmatic choice. So I got a master and a PhD in economic history. In the end, I managed to end up doing what I really wanted.

Q: Was there any person who influenced you to work in that field?

At Carlos III, the university where I studied my undergraduate degree, I got in touch with a group of economic historians, and one of the leading figures was Leandro Prados de la Escosura. He had a strong influence on me, showing me how he understood economic history. He told me that in order to get back to Spain to work as an academic, I wold have to study abroad, so I went to the London School of Economics, and when I finished my PhD there I was offered a tenure track position at Carlos III. I think that professor Prados de la Escosura was the person who most influenced me in academic terms.

Q: Is it normal to go abroad first?

I do not think it was as normal at that time as it is today, but in the case of my department it was a policy to avoid endogamy, meaning that you need to spend time abroad doing your PhD or a postdoc to prove yourself worthy. This is to avoid nepotism, and I think that it is a very healthy practice.

Q: Is Professor Leandro Prados de la Escosura working in the same field of studies as you?

He has worked in many different fields, but we are actually co-authors. We wrote three papers and a book chapter that we published in the last few years. So yes, I went from being one of his students to become one of his co-authors. That is quite an interesting change, and I am excited and honoured for being able to do so.

 Various themes: from the reconstruction of the Spanish GDP to...football!

Q: What has been the most interesting research you have done so far?

In terms of academic relevance, I think that the reconstruction of Spain's economic macro-magnitudes from the early 14th century until 1850 that I wrote together with my colleagues Leandro Prados de la Escosura and Carlos Álvarez-Nogal. For over five hundred years we reconstructed Spanish GDP, population, and inequality. One of the new things that we found is that before the imperial expansion, Spain was already one of the richest countries in the world. It was after the creation of the empire that the cost of maintaining it ruined the Spanish economy, and Spain became a middle-income country. Basically, this idea that people have about the Spaniards taking advantage of the empire to get rich is plain wrong. Spain was already an affluent economy, and creating and maintaining the empire were what destroyed the rich economy and made Spain one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Q: That is interesting.

Yes, it is. If we talk about which one of my works obtained more attention in the media, however, you would be surprised to know that it was something related to football.

Q: Football?

Yes, so it has nothing to do with economic history! After a discussion with a friend about which European football league was more unequal without reaching an agreement, I told "Let's write a paper." So, we wrote a paper on football's inequality, and the results were very interesting. I was invited to a conference with the president of La Liga which is the association of Spanish professional football, and from there I was interviewed by several media. I got calls from some friends from the LSE saying, "I listened to your interview about football and I loved it!" So I was surprised to see how far this reached. In Spain, football is an important issue but still, it was interesting to see that the work that I am not most proud of in scientific terms was the one that got more attention in the media.

Q:  But it was an academic paper...

It was a proper academic paper also with surprising results.

Q: What kind of discoveries?

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Basically, that for a long time the Spanish league had been more equal than the English Premier League. It was only in very recent times that this changed, and even so, the English Premier League was still as unequal if not more than the Spanish La Liga. People have a different perception about the English league being more equal compared to the Spanish.

Q: What do you mean by "equal"?

Well, one of the things where I specialised in economic history is the measurement of inequality. So, I took one of my papers measuring income inequality and changed income by the number of points that each team got in the competition, and from there you estimate how unequal the league was and also the dynamics behind it. What is the difference between the points that the winner gets compared to the rest and also other things. How many times the same teams win the competition in each league...

Q: So Real Madrid and other teams...

Exactly. What are the chances that a poorer team will have of winning, what are the chances that a recently promoted team will have to go down again to the lower league that same year, these sort of things. We do not find significant differences with England which means that this idea of the Premier League being more equal than the rest is not exactly real, that is not at least what we see in our data.

Q: What was the result?

Our results show that if you are a weak team, your chances of surviving are much higher in Spain than in Germany, Italy or England. So, if you are just promoted and join the top competition, the probability of suffering relegation that same season is not statistically significant in the case of Spain, but it is in all the other leagues. Basically, if you are a small team recently promoted you do not have more chances to be relegated than other smaller teams in Spain, but you do in the other leagues.

Q: So, what is your favourite team in Spain?

I am from Madrid where we have two big teams, Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid, but I am actually from Getafe, a small town in the south of Madrid. Therefore, Getafe is my team. Getafe is an interesting team for Japanese fans, too, because it was the place where Takefusa Kubo played. I actually saw Kubo playing live in Getafe on the stadium!

 Getting ideas for research

Q: We see that you do a variety of research. In the CEI seminar, your analysis was about the heights of migrants, which to us was something very surprising.

I am an economic historian who works mostly with primary sources, such as original manuscripts. Sometimes when I visit an archive, I find a source I was not looking for and then get new ideas for new papers. This means that I end up working on many papers on many different topics. That is why if you see my publications you can find anything from inequality, economic integration, migrations, political refugees, heights, to football. But the truth is that I really like going to a new place, discovering a new source, and getting ideas about what I can do with it.

In the case of heights, we use them to measure living standards. It is very difficult to measure how well people lived three hundred years ago. But we know that if they were growing taller in the sample place, their living conditions were probably improving. That is because how tall you grow when we consider a homogenous genetic population in the same place depends on how well you eat and how much energy you consume. If your family is very poor, you do not have much to eat, and as a child you have to work in the fields spending a lot of energy, you will grow shorter. If your life is very good, you do not work as a child and you have a good nutrition with milk and meat, you will grow taller. That is why we use heights as a proxy for living standards.

Q: Where can you find these historical records?

In this specific case, we use migration records. In the 1920s, the Mexican authorities started recording every migrant who was in Mexico, and they issued a card recording a lot of information including their occupation, height, and even if they had or not a moustache, the colour of their eyes or if they had freckles. It was a very detailed record. And from that time onwards they issued the same record for every migrant who entered Mexico. In fact, I think that they do it until today. It seems that these records that started in the 1920s are still going on a hundred years later.

Q: So, it is a great record that Mexico kept.

Yes. I focus on Spanish migrants, but because they have this for all the countries, you can do the same for any other place. Therefore, if you want to analyse the living standards of the Japanese migrants in Mexico, there was a small number that went into the country in the early 20th century, and you can go to the records and find the same cards for the Japanese migrants as well.

Because they also have the occupation of the migrants you can see that people with better occupations like university professors, lawyers or economists tended to be taller than people with lower socioeconomic status. Height depends on nutrition, which depends on income which depends on your socioeconomic position.

Q: Can you get access to that kind of data if you are an academic?

Yes, in the case of Spain I was lucky because the Spanish government reached an agreement with Mexico to digitalise all the cards of Spanish migrants. I was able to check all the cards, but I had to transcribe every single one of them, and that was around 30,000 cards that I had to individually download and transcribe to get all the information. The archive in Mexico City contains all the cards, and it is open, as far as I know to any researcher, so you can just go there and see the cards.

Other works that have studied heights for longer periods of time in other countries normally use military records.

Q: Military records?

Yes. They do not go back more than a couple hundred years, but in many armies, there was a time when they started measuring the heights of the recruits. Where those records survived, people have been using them to estimate long-term changes in heights.

Q: Where do you go to search for any records that might interest you?

When I started researching I just got advice from people who were older and wiser about where to go to find the kind of information that I needed. In other cases you simply look for the information in the most important historical archives that in Spain are very abundant. For instance, I had a research project in Spain to measure inequality and social mobility in the mid-19th century and visited around 50 or 60 archives in Spain. I took my car and travelled all over Spain to look at very specific archives, and it was a very nice academic experience. It was also a very nice way to know your country!

Q: You are looking for the data from Spain, but you are in Japan now. Is there any catch in coming here?

The main reason for coming here is related to my research with Leandro Prados de la Escosura. We wanted to see the effects of the revolution in Spain, liberal reforms that took place in Spain in the 19th century. We published a chapter in a book this year showing that the effects were positive, but we want to study more in-depth. We know that when Spain was having these reforms, Japan was experiencing the Meiji Restoration which was a very similar process. So, you have two countries in the economic periphery that introduced liberal reforms that were successful, something that is not very common.

Therefore, the main reason for coming here was to get in touch with Japanese scholars who work on the Meiji Restoration and the effects of those institutional changes and see if we could do a comparative study with Spain. I obviously came to know Professor Chiaki Moriguchi who has published work on the Meiji Restoration and Professor Kyoji Fukao, who also studied GDP and other macro-magnitudes at the time. That was the reason why I wanted to explore the possibility of a comparative study of Spain and Japan.

 Working at Hitotsubashi

Q: How was coming to Kunitachi in general?

In personal terms, I came to know Kunitachi quite well. I visited Japan in the past as a tourist for several weeks travelling all over the place, and I fell in love with the country. But that was the experience as a tourist going to Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, the usual places that you must visit. But visiting a place as a tourist is not the same as living, going every day to the supermarket, waking up, working, and commuting. I wanted to know if the perception I got as a tourist would be the same when I live here, and yes, I had the same feeling. This is a wonderful place, and I really liked it. Kunitachi is also a very special place because it really welcomes foreigners. As an example of that, I was able to attend Japanese classes in Kominkan (a civic hall) given by a group of volunteers who did it in exchange for nothing, helping foreigners learn Japanese so they could integrate better. That was something that helped me a lot, not only to improve my Japanese but also to know better the community where I was living.

Q: Your hearing really improved!

Yes! I had learnt some Japanese before coming here, but even so, when I put the television on, I could hardly understand anything. Now I of course do not understand everything, but I am able to catch much more and understand what they are talking about. This is a very nice feeling.

Q: You mentioned you are watching Mito Kōmon!

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Great show that I strongly recommend to any visitors!

Q: Do you have anything like that in Spain?

We do. Not exactly like Mito Kōmon but I told my friends that the show called Abarenbo Shogun was very similar to a TV drama we had in Spain. It was very funny to see that there was something so similar and I really like the message they send to the audience: "reward good, punish evil."

Q: Not many Spaniards visit Hitotsubashi, so we would like to know from the Spanish point of view what are the differences that you found coming here, and any advice that would also help the Japanese who might want to go to your country.

In terms of Spaniards coming to Hitotsubashi or Japanese going to visit my university, I do not think that there are big differences. Both places are very good universities. You find that all the faculty and administrative staff are fluent in English, so in that sense, the integration is going to be easy in both cases. Even the dynamics are very similar because we also have weekly seminars where we meet, and then there is a lunch to socially interact with everybody else. In that sense, they are very similar, and I did not struggle to integrate here at all.

Now in terms of living, the countries are very different. Some of my best friends in London were Japanese, so I came to know quite well about Japan and its way of life from them, but at first, the exchange could be a bit shocking in terms of social interaction. For a Japanese visiting Spain, Spaniards tend to be extremely outgoing, noisy, and passionate about anything. Things like personal distance are there much shorter than in Japan, and that could be sometimes shocking.

The thing that I found difficult to adapt at first here was completely exogenous and that is although the day length in Japan and Spain is the same, in Japan the sun rises and sets much earlier than in Spain. In my case, I used to work in Spain until very late at night and then went to sleep to wake up late in the morning, still having a very long day because, in summer, the sun sets at 10:00 pm. But in Japan, you could not do that, because then you waste most of your daylight when most of the social and economic activity takes place. So, I would recommend Spaniards who come here and have the same sort of habit of working until late to change their schedule to fit the natural environment in Japan as it will help a lot. In the case of a Japanese going to Spain, I would just say be patient, because as I said Spaniards tend to be very outgoing and passionate, and although that can be overwhelming sometimes, it can also be something good.

Q: You need time to understand.

Exactly. In both cases my advice would be to know your community, know your neighbourhood, and know the place where you are. About this, I am grateful to both the faculty and the administrative staff at IER who shared useful information, from something as simple as knowing where the best patisseries are, to things like where to go swimming if you want to exercise. That is the knowledge that is local and that people around you will be willing to give you. This will make your stay much more productive, not just professionally but especially in personal terms.

 Message for the young researchers

Q: Could you give a message to young researchers in the same field?

Sending a message to younger generations implies that you have something wise to tell them and I do not think I am wise enough to offer this kind of advice. But what I can do is to transfer the advice that older and wiser men and women gave me in the past and that I try to follow every day. To young researchers, I would tell them to be honest and good academics.

Be honest because when you just finished your PhD you may have the temptation to engage in behaviours that are not the most ethically or morally correct because they may help you to speed up your publication records, and that is important to secure a position. Young scholar have a strong pressure to publish, and sometimes the quickest way to publish is not the most honest way to do it. This could be good in the short term, but in the long term what matters is not only what you publish but how you achieved it, and in the long term you will pay a price for that.

About being good, it is for a very similar reason. When you are young, you do not think much about your legacy because you only think about securing a good job, and I totally understand this. However, as you get older, you start thinking more about what is going to be your legacy, and that is not only visible things like your papers or becoming famous, but also invisible things that can last for generations. Academia is like a family where younger generations reproduce the behaviour of their seniors, and that means that when you are a junior, you will have many role models around you, and you will have to pick one. How will you behave with the people around you, not only with your colleagues but with everybody else from the president of your university to the person who comes to clean your office every day? This is important because whom you choose as your role model will define your own actions, and you will one day become the role model of somebody else who will reproduce your behaviour.  That is what I mean by a long-lasting effect. So, my second piece of advice would be to be careful with the role model that you choose because this will have an effect not only on you but also on the younger generations that will come after you.

I think that a summary of this idea can be found in Nikkō, where I had the chance to go during a weekend to visit the Tōshō-gū shrine. In the main entrance to the shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried, there is a famous carving with three monkeys that summarises this second piece of advice: "See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil". I think that there are no better words that I could use.

Q: Your message is not just for researchers but for everybody.


Q: Did you clap your hands when you saw the monkeys?

No! But I will surely do it if I go there next time!


Thank you, Dr. Carlos Santiago-Caballero, for taking the time with us for this interview. We came to understand the value of data that has been recorded and preserved for a very long time. The message you have given us at the end of the interview made us stop and think about how we should always be, and such awareness can affect not only the people around us but also future generations. It was truly our pleasure to have you here for the 6 months and we wish you all the best in your continuing research!


Interviewer: Michie Kano and Eriko Yoshida, CEI (recorded 21 September 2022).