Dr Sean Vanatta
- Lecturer in US Economic and Social History (Economic & Social History)
My research and teaching interests cover American political, economic, and financial history. In 2018, I received my Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, and before that took MA and undergraduate degrees at the University of Georgia.
Before joining the University of Glasgow in September 2020, I taught financial history and the history of economic thought in the Gallatin School for Individualized Study at New York University, as well as research seminars on modern credit markets and entrepreneurship and innovation in Princeton University’s Writing Program. I have also held the National Endowment for the Humanities Hagley Postdoctoral Fellowship in Business, Culture, and Society and the John E. Rovensky Fellowship in US Business and Economic History.
I am currently working on three major projects, which collectively address the intersection of democracy, finance, and the regulatory state in modern America.
My book manuscript, Plastic Capitalism: Credit Cards and the Political Economy of Modern America (Yale University Press, forthcoming), reevaluates the rise of finance in the post-World War II United States and, with it, the rise and fall of New Deal economic liberalism. Beginning in the 1950s, the book argues, profit-seeking bankers exploited American federalism to avoid consumer regulations, using credit cards to connect far-flung consumers with volatile, global capital markets, leading to the indebted nation we know today. Articles derived from this work have been published in Business History Review (2016) and Enterprise & Society (2018), the former winning the 2016 Henrietta Larson Award for the best article in that journal.
With Peter Conti-Brown, I am also writing The Bankers Thumb: A History of Bank Supervision in the United States (Harvard University Press, forthcoming). U.S. financial history, we argue, has focused primarily on bank regulation, the rules that govern financial behavior, and neglected bank supervision, the processes through which those rules are—or are not—enforced. By examining on-the-ground practices of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, and the FDIC, the book uncovers the ways that supervisory tools—chartering, examination, and liquidation—have changed in response to institutional competition and to shifting understandings of what supervision is and what it is meant to achieve. Supervision, we argue, is fundamentally the discretionary use of authority by government officers, a process that only works when supervisory institutions command political legitimacy. A work of history, the book will also speak to present debates about bank oversight, especially those which have emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the dramatic responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Finally, as I complete these first two projects, I have begun a third focused on the history of state employee pension plans, examining how their investment activities reshaped private financial markets and public welfare in the postwar United States. I want to understand how state policymakers balanced pensions’ roles as welfare institutions, which provide retirement and health benefits to state workers, and as institutional investors, which manage immense financial portfolios to meet state pension obligations. How, the project asks, did state government officials, public sector unions, and other stakeholders develop pension plans within the changing financial landscape of the postwar era? How, in turn, did pension plans use their aggregated capital and market power to reshape postwar financial markets? How have the goals of specific interest groups conflicted with the wellbeing of the local electorate, and how have these conflicts been resolved? With Michael R. Glass, I develop some preliminary findings about New York State in an article forthcoming in Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics.
- Financial institutions and markets
- Financial regulation and supervision
- Consumer politics and activism
- Economic planning
- Pensions and retirement
- Public infrastructure
- The history of capitalism
- Economic thought