lördag 24 mars 2012

Books I've read lately!

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I'm still a few months behind in writing about the books I have read "lately" and I read the book below around Christmas.

This is the first blog post where I write about books that do not relate (only) to social media, virtual communities, internet culture etc., but also to my previously-"private" (nonwork-related), but now increasingly work-related interests about sustainability, ecology, resource issues (peak oil), economy etc. The reason why I have read the particular books below might therefore need some explanation. As followers of this blog probably have noticed, I'm interested in (also) thinking about (for example) the use of computers in a future that will not be more affluent, but perhaps instead more materially poor than the present. So, how would bad times and "poverty" (or, decreased wealth) affect our society? In that context, the best example of the effects of, and the strains that harsh economic times pose for a society might be the (American) depression in the 1930's. In trying to understand the (effects) of the depression, I have thus read the five books (one is strictly speaking not about the depression, but treats with working poor in today's America). These are my summaries and take-home lessons of these books:

I very seldom re-read academic books, but, I did read John Kenneth Galbraith's "The great crash 1929" almost 15 years ago and decided to re-read it. It was much more interesting this time around - there were hardly any underlining in the book from the first reading, but much after the second reading. The book was written 25 years after the crash itself, in 1954, but more than 50 years have passed since. The emphasis is on the run-up, the crash itself and the aftermath of it. The depression is part of the aftermath, but the book isn't about the depression properly, but mostly rather about the mixture of economics and psychology and speed-blindedness leading up to the (stock-market) crash. These are naturally characteristics of not only that particular crash, but of every crash, including the build-up to the latest crash (2007-2008).

The parts about how individual stocks, or the Dow Jones index fared on this or that day (or week or month) is naturally off less interest to me. What is more interesting are John's descriptions of human actions, utterances and beliefs before, during and after the crash. The endless optimism - or exuberance - and the view of reality as if systematically edited and seen through rose-tinted shades is something we recognize all to well in our day and age too. The rallying cry then as now was "this time it's different!". John's dry wit and his powers of formulation can be a joy to read and so I offer you a few quotes from (mostly) the introduction to give you a feel for his dense and elegant writing style. And you can compare the content of the quotes to recent (and future?) events:

"it was plain that an increasing number of persons were coming to the conclusion - the conclusion that is the common denominator of all speculative episodes - that they were predestined by luck, an unbeatable system, divine favor, access to inside information, or exceptional financial acumen to become rich without work."

"Speculation on a large scale requires a pervasive sense of confidence and optimism and conviction that ordinary people were meant to be rich. [...] When people are cautious, questioning, misanthropic, suspicions, or mean, they are immune to speculative enthusiasms."

"speculative episodes have occurred at intervals throughout history, and the length of the interval is perhaps roughly related to the time that it takes for men to forget what happened before."

"Even in such a time of madness as the late twenties, a great many men in Wall Street remained quite sane. But they also remained very quite. [...] So someday, no one can tell when, there will be another speculative climax and crash. There is no chance that, as the market moves to the brink, those involved will see the nature of their illusion and so protect themselves and the system. The mad can communicate their madness; they cannot perceive it and resolve to be sane."

I spend quite some time surfing the web and reading reviews on Amazon.com in order to find a great book about the great depression. I ended up with Robert McElvaine's "The great depression: America 1929-1941". The books was originally published in 1984, but I read the 25th anniversary edition (2009). I was primarily on the look-out for the effects of "hard times" on individuals and on society. While the book was ok, I would still say the focus unfortunately was a little too much on politics in general and the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal" in particular. While it is true that he was The President during the depression (replacing the massively discredited Hoover who got to bear all the blame), I'm not so interested in all the different agencies and the motivation for, and the outcome of individual programs that were created, i.e. the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), The Civil Works Administration (CWA) etc.

We primarily think of the depression as "bleak" but Robert notes that this might be an effect of the washed-out colors on the photos that have survived. The depression was also the only time during the 20th century when the trends of egoism and the ideals of money-making were broken:

"the sharp swing away from self-centered concerns and toward social values was evident in the popular culture of the decade. Many of the gangster films that were such a staple of the early thirties, for example, were thinly veiled attacks on the success-drien businessman of the twenties. [...] Nothing better demonstrates the shift in values after the economic collapse than the reversal of cultural attitudes toward rural and small-town life. [...] Similarly, the twenties' embrace of things "new" and its modern severance from the past were replace in the Depression decade by a renewed affection for traditional ways."

The book is "only" 350 pages long, but it is very "compact". There are lots of facts and information that will encourage you think about parallels between then and times we live in. Roosevelt's New Deal was originally seen as extreme, and people were only prepared to accept it after more moderate programs (under the auspices of presidents Coolidge and Hoover) had been shown to be inadequate. This is both reassuring and worrying as "extreme" could mean many different things (as in "extremism"). Robert's analysis of popular culture and (especially) movies from the 1930's is thorough and very interesting.

A book that I liked very much was Robert and Helen Lynd's book "Middletown in transition: A study of cultural conflicts" (1937). I read the predecessor, "Middletown: A study in modern American culture" (1929) ten years ago. While the original book was published just before the stock marke crash and the depression, the follow-up study describes the depression as seen during the depression - a view that is very different from the present luxury of seeing it all in the rear mirror. While the depression rages, you don't know if previous dip was the worst there was and you've (finally) have left the bad times behind you, or, if the worst is yet to come. Both of these books are very ambitions attempts to describe (all) aspects of life in a small American tsown (<50 000 inhabitants). The town itself was anonymized, but was in fact Muncie, Indiana.

In 13 chapters, the 500+ pages long book comprehensively covers topics such as "Getting a living", "Making a home", "Training the young", "Religion", "Spending leisure" and "Keeping healthy". Despite their age, these books are very easy reads and the language is surprisingly modern and easy to read. There are so many things (perspectives) in these books that are really interesting. I'm not only referring to the authors' own analyses - it is equally interesting to think about all the things they took for granted back then, but that seem very strange when read 75 years (!) after the book was published.

Take for example the intense localism at a time then the US was not competing with Europe, Japan or China, but when it seemed each city was a rival of, and competed with every other (nearby) city for jobs and opportunities. The US federal government is perceived to be very distant. Or take the severe differences in perspective between the rich, the middle class and the workers (who were "naturally" hardest hit by the depression) as well as the acrimony and lack of understanding between the different social classes. Looking back a few years from 1935 (when data for the book was collected), some members of the business class actually thought that a revolution was just around the corner and stocked up with canned goods "just in case". The term "social class" was not in use at the time as the Americans entertained the notion that only the ability and industriousness of a man determined his affluence and his standing in society. These "natural" ideas (as expressed by the business class in the book) came increasingly under attack when things Just Didn't Improve year after year after year.

It is also fascinating to see the lack of organization and unionizing among the workers. The business class and the captains of industry were insanely successful in atomizing and dividing the workers against each other. Workers undercut their own salaries (or, the salaries of other workers, i.e. themselves) in a crazy "race to the bottom". The lack of a social net and a harsh "a man ain't no man if a man can't support his family" ethos together with a shocking lack of a social fabric (much like in Sweden today where we don't know our neighbors) created a totally miserable situations for the working poor and the even poorer out-of-work workers. Marital problems and the robbery of youths' hope for a decent future (no marriage and family unless you have a job) were some of the consequences of a period of prolonged (5+ years when the research staff arrived in 1935) economic shrinkage. Great book.

While reading these books, I also read a depression-era work of fiction; John Steinbeck's "The grapes of wrath" (1941). It describes a totally rotten and unfair society as seen though the eyes of a poor but honest American family of smallholders, the Joads, who have to flee from the Oklahoma dustbowl and the arrival of tractors as labor-saving devices in the service of mechanization of agriculture. Their dream-turned-into-a-dog-eat-dog goal - California as seen through the alluring pages of colorful recruitment brochures - turns out to consist of seasonal work in the orchards and of desperate workers (again) undercutting other workers' almost-decent wages in order to buy overpriced, poor-quality food from the company store. It is a very bleak story of, well, economic inequality, humiliation, injustice and racism against the "Oakies" who are basically economic refugees within their own country. I also saw the two seasons of the set-in-the-dustbowl-depression-era television series "Carnivàle".

Finally, I have read Catherine Newman's, "Chutes and ladders: Navigating the low-wage labor market" (2006). Catherine explores the travails of the (working) poor and the downtrodden in America, and I have previously read her book "Falling from grace: Downward mobility in the age of affluence" (1999). Chutes (you slide down) and ladders (you climb out of poverty into the middle class) is the result of the second follow-up study (2001-2002) of people who back in Newman's original study (1993), in a very tight labor market, applied for a job at "Burger Barn" (McDonalds? Wendy's? Burger King? Taco Bell?). Catherine tracks them down and asks what happened to them and what their lives and "careers" look like in hindsight. She divides them into the fortunate few "high flyers" who managed to break up and out, and the "low riders", the larger majority who in the end got nowhere. Almost a decade later they still navigate the low-wage labor market and they still remain poor.

My view of "the housing projects" - where I'm led to believe no whites, but only blacks and latinos live - comes from television shows like The Wire. While violence, vandalism, drugs and crime for sure is a problem in such areas, most of the people who live there are neither criminal or stupid. They are just ordinary people who do what they can to get by, put food on the table, if possible improve their lot, while at the same time maintaining their dignity. We never see any American television shows about these people - they are invisible and we (I) thus know very little - hardly anything - about them. This is a book about these persons and their lives as seen primarily through the lens of their make-or-break work lives. What opportunities do they have of bettering their lot in present-day America? To what extent is the US a country where you can "make it" if you are prepared to roll up your sleeves and work hard? The short answer is "not very". The opportunities are few and far between and the hindrances and temptations many.

Many of Catherine's informants have broken-up relationships behind them and one or more children that they have to take care of and support. To "climb" you need a combination of talent, strength of will, tenaciousness and not the least a network of people who support you with "services" such as helping you through a rough spot, or taking care of your children while you work or take an evening course (in the absence of decent and affordable day-care in the US). An unemployed or welfare-dependent mother, sister or cousin can help, but she on the other hand expects a share of your income in return - not exactly a "salary" for day-care services, but a way of informally making ends meet in an informal economy where money, housing (and sometimes goodwill) is in short supply. It gets on your nerves to live on top of, and to be dependent on others, and Newman's tales contain a large number of "family dramas" too. The US might be (have been) the "greatest" (i.e. most affluent) society on Earth - but you wouldn't know it when you read this book as it chronicles the underbelly of that society and the "fate" (or the obstacles) of the under-privileged who "struggle and flounder, weighted down by family obligations, poor training, and racial discrimination".


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