The Road Taken; The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure by Henry Petroski. Bloomsbury, 2017 paper.

Henry Petroski, civil engineer and historian, reports on our aging transportation infrastructure: roads, bridges, curbs and gutters and, when provided, sidewalks and bike lanes. He also talks about what he calls the “software” component of that infrastructure, the conventions and rules of the road. We abide by these conventions such as driving on the right side. The signs that remind us of the rules of the road.

Road signs have been standardized. Those that command us to stop are now hexagonal and red. The green light and red light are well-understood if not obeyed. Yellow is cautionary, but not always able to command caution. No parking and speed-limit signs are rectangular and white. The interstate system has its own common signs.

Petroski is most concerned in this book about the transportation system, and he is critical of our governments – national, state, and local – for neglecting other infrastructures and their states of repair. He includes a chart of their periodic evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers on a scale of A to F. Bridges get relatively high grades Cs – thank heavens. Roads are mostly Ds. Drinking Water D and D-. Solid waste got Cs mostly, but recently B. Good! Levees have been graded D in recent years!  So lots of bad grades; the American Society of Civil Engineers has high standards. Good again!

Security concerns are getting much attention at our airports but are not yet part of the ranking system. It would be interesting to learn how other infrastructures vary according to their degree of security from acts of nature or saboteurs.  All those pylons strung through the countryside, carrying our electricity; the grade of F?

Back in July 1919 Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower was part of a military convey that traveled across the country to examine first-hand the state of the country’s roads and bridges. That sobering 3,250-mile auto journey may explain the Eisenhower Administration’s creating the Highway Trust Fund in 1956.

In the 1910s and 1920s promoters created various cross-country routes and gave them numbers in an effort to give some order to the hodge-podge of roads. If of continental in length, they were named, or “branded” in today’s terminology. The “Lincoln Highway” (Highway 30) from New York to California crossed through Iowa, just fifteen miles south of my home. The “Old Spanish Trail” ran from St. Augustine to San Diego. The “Woodpecker Trail” passed through Gainesville, Florida on the way south and north. The branding attracted mom-and-pop motels and filling stations. Petroski describes the new roadside ‘color’ along these routes, though they are now mostly abandoned and dismal.

Road terminology has never been settled. Some of us talk about the expressway. Others interstate or freeway. Mostly free, but some are tollways.  In some regions where appropriately landscaped they are parkways. There are Avenues, Streets, Lanes, Places, Terraces, Drives, and more. Petroski comments that “Avenue” suggests something grand, even Parisian rather than the two-block road on which he lives.

Bridges. These days bridges are generally given a projected life span. This is partly because bridges face heavier and heavier vehicles and traffic loads. Access roads to the bridges have often wandered through city streets, subject to their own obsolesce.  Also bridge builders face an ever-evolving technology of design and construction, making existing bridges obsolete. But then there’s the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. This year is its 142nd anniversary.

Henry Petroski lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood and relies heavily on public transportation to get about. Hence he is much affected by the decision, made in the late nineteenth century, to go underground rather than expand the elevated railroads or “els.” The decision was also made that the subway lines would be constructed by the private sector, though planned and permitted by the city. Undergrounding involved tunnels that mostly followed the surface street layout. Hence the maze-like character of the NYC subway system.  Chicago still has its els, and they are rickety.

There has been much discussion at our various levels of government about how our road system should be financed. Should it be by a user tax? Then possibly tolls are best. Petroski prefers a more sophisticated user fee based on how much the vehicle is driven, perhaps using a GPS system. But the tracking necessary might become a privacy issue.

Most funds used in constructing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure have come from a tax on gasoline, a set cents-per-gallon. But because the revenue generated does not change as consumption rises, it has not been keeping up with infrastructure needs. A sales tax on fuel purchases might be better because it would rise with the amount of gas purchased. Electric cars do not pay the gasoline tax, though they use the roads constructed by the tax. Also in general there has been an increase in fuel efficiency. Good, but not good for the Highway Trust Fund.

Clearly we have not resolved the growing problem of how to finance infrastructure maintenance, let alone the improvements necessary for a growing economy.

Five Came Back; A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. Penguin, 2015, paper.

 Many professional actors and film makers working in the Hollywood industry volunteered or were drafted to serve in World War II. They were recruited into units that made documentary films for the War Department. Mark Harris tells the stories of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. They were all film directors with a reputation, all in their late 30s or 40s.

Most of the films that Hollywood produced during the War were training films. Some, like the “Why We Fight” series, were, however, efforts to explain the War to recruits and draftees. Eventually Hollywood also produced films intended for an American theater audience. They were part history and part propaganda but always intended to gain support for all-out warfare and final victory.

These directors wanted their productions to be interesting, adding plot, characters, and humor where possible. One element missing was romance, for which Hollywood films were famous. Shouldn’t remind soldiers of what they were missing.

The five biggest studios in the decade of the 1930s and into the 1940s: Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, RKO, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and Paramount. Along with three smaller companies: Columbia, Universal, and United Artists, they dominated the industry. They had the major directors and actors under contract, plus production facilities and thousands of employees. They also controlled theater distribution. So they brought considerable organization to the task of producing movies for an America at war. The film industry was willing to do their share in supporting the war effort. Yet little planning, Harris contends, went into how the War Department would partner with the film industry.

This wartime partnership began with an adversarial relationship between the film industry and American political elites – Hollywood and Washington. While the Japanese were planning their attack on Hawaii, a House committee was holding hearings to discover levels of corruption in the industry, but moving on to the undue influence of foreigners, and particularly European Jews. Hollywood was leftist, even “proto-communist.” Un-American, the House committee thought.

Rivalry? In 1940 sixty million people, more than half the adult population, went to a movie at least once a week. Nowhere in the American political system could you find such enthusiasm.

The theater experience began with Fox Movietone News or a competing newsreel, followed by a cartoon for the kids, then a series of “shorts” from five to twenty minutes long, followed by the “main feature.” Much of the industry’s wartime production was aimed at creating these newsreels and shorts.

One dilemma discussed throughout Harris’s book was the use of actual combat footage shot by a Field Photo Unit, versus reenactments. Frowned on by all film directors, reenactments were often necessary to convey the full story. On the other hand, live coverage of the battlefield had to be carefully planned to have the right filming equipment and personnel in the right place at the right time. Not easily accomplished on a battlefield. Of course, the narrative voice and the sound tracks were always added in the studio.

Many of the films in production in December 1941 seemed trivial at best and at worst a betrayal of our fighting men and the American public, now turning their backs and minds to war production. But we still needed Hollywood to entertain us. One solution was to place Hollywood preoccupations – romance, adventure, family – in a war setting. “Mrs. Miniver” (MGM 1942) involved a Britain struggling to deal with the erosion of traditional class barriers set in the first months of World War II.  

The Roosevelt Administration had created an “ABC” of regulatory agencies to deal with the Great Depression. It regulated the flow of war information by the creation of yet another agency. The Bureau of Motion Pictures had to approve a film before it was released for theater distribution. According to Harris the Bureau was more cautious than Hollywood thought it ought to be.

John Ford enlisted in early 1942 and was put in charge of film production for the Office of Strategic Services, our intelligence agency during the war. Harris notes the rightward drift of Ford’s politics, and that made a difference in how Hollywood covered the war, particularly Russia’s role. George Stevens was part of the U.S. Army film unit that photographed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, later used as evidence against Nazi bigwigs at the Nuremberg trials.

Perhaps the three best wartime films were released as the war ended. “Best Years of Our Lives” (Warner Brothers 1946) directed by William Wyler, was about the problems of returning veterans. It followed three soldiers and their ordeals of adjusting to civilian life while suffering from battle fatigue (PTSD). Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” was also about the difficulties faced by a returning navy pilot (Liberty Films 1946). “They Were Expendable” by John Ford (MGM late 1945) was about a torpedo boat squadron defending the Philippines against the Japanese invasion in 1941-1942. The Battle of the Philippines was a major military defeat for the Allied forces stationed there. Their commander, Douglas MacArthur, decamped to Australia.

John Huston’s “Battle of San Pietro” (1945), critical of American intelligence during the Italian campaign, was thought too revealing for a wartime audience, and only premiered at the end of the war. Much of the documentary footage produced during the war by Huston and his colleagues only became available after the war. A ten-year-old boy growing up in Garwin, Iowa, going to movie, and watching early television saw lots of it.

Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine by Thomas Graham. University of Florida Press, 2014.

In the early 1900s Henry Flagler eased himself out of Standard Oil and his partnership with John D. Rockefeller to pursue a career in railroads and resort hotels. He was among the richest men in America in an era of enormous private wealth accumulation, but also wealth inequalities. Florida benefited from that new interest and the money behind it.

Flagler and his first wife had come to St. Augustine for her health. He found the accommodations in “America’s Oldest City” inadequate and began to think about the construction of a hotel that met his standards. He was inspired by, or perhaps he inspired a local physician, Dr. Andrew Anderson, to begin thinking big as well. Anderson owned an orange grove adjoining the town center and a good hotel location. The hard freeze of 1894 had pushed the orange groves farther south and left the town needing new enterprises.

Henry Flagler was a “mover and shaker.” He knew a lot of the East Coast social elites that had made money during the prosperous years of the late nineteenth century, and what they might want in the way of a resort hotel. So they found much to like in Flagler’s Ponce de Leon. Flagler soon acquired two more existing hotels, the Cordova and the Alcazar. These early resort hotels were not year-round hotels. Rather, the hotel’s season began after the New Year, remained open into the hot months of Florida’s long summers, and then closed for the season June.

Graham follows the annual seasons at the Ponce de Leon as described by Mrs. Anna Marcotte in her gossipy local publication, the Tattler. The elaborate parties attended by the rich and famous that both Graham and Marcotte describe are like the destination weddings and other celebrations common amongst the well off in this century.

The hotel guests liked sports, though mostly as spectators. The Chicago Colts (later Cubs) trained in St. Augustine in the spring. There were tennis and golf tournaments, various equestrian events, and prize fights. Later auto racing, though it eventually relocated farther down the coast at Daytona.

Late nineteenth-century American cultural life was brought to its audiences by itinerant lecturers and musicians. But the town also had its own concert band that performed at formal dances to benefit the local hospital or fire station. Tin Pan Alley’s ragtime was the rage in the two decades before the First World War. “Negro melodies” sung by the hotel’s black staff were also popular with the guests. Gambling was about the only known vice.

Hotel patrons got around the town in horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and cycle rickshaws. They rented cars for short drives down the coast, but most guests continued to arrive by rail at Jacksonville with connections to St. Augustine.

Graham follows Flagler’s railway construction as it makes its way to Miami and then the Keys. At the same time Flagler’s sometime business partner – sometime rival, Henry Plant, was building a railroad down Florida’s Gulf Coast and the magnificent Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant’s hotel would rival the Ponce de Leon in size and splendor and draw off wealthy vacationers from Flagler’s hotels. That rivalry has often been portrayed as contentious; Thomas Graham does not think it so.

Both the Atlantic and Gulf Coast tourism were vulnerable to the frequent recessions. Certainly the great age for the Ponce de Leon was prior to the Great War. Graham reports that it never made a profit after the 1924 season. It now houses Flagler College. The Tampa Bay Hotel was a flop from the beginning. It now houses the University of Tampa.

Florida was, during the careers of Flagler and Plant, part of the Jim Crow South. That meant that the huge staffs of the hotels could not be of mixed race but rather either white or black. Flagler made the choice of employing an all-black staff. Most of the staff were recruited in the North and brought by special trains to St. Augustine for the season.

In December 1964, I was married in Gainesville and had arranged to spend a brief honeymoon at the Ponce De Leon. It was still a grand hotel. Both of us were graduate students, so I had reserved the cheapest room available. We arrived in the early evening and were shown to our room. It was dazzling and I decided that either I or the reservation desk had made a big mistake.

I went down to the desk and explained the mistake. The clerk with pleasure said that the hotel was not busy and they had decided to give us their “honeymoon suite” at the price I had paid for the cheaper room. I suspect that Henry Flagler would have approved of their magnanimous gesture.

Encounters at the Heart of the World; A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn. Hill & Wang, 2015 paper. Pulitzer Prize.

The Mandan were a tribe settled on buttes overlooking the Heart and Knife Rivers, tributaries of the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn won a Pulitzer Prize in history last year for her Encounters at the Heart of the World.

They lived in agricultural communities, growing corn (maize), squash, beans, and tobacco in their fields.  Their earthen lodges surrounded a central plaza and were made from timbers of willow trees growing along the rivers, prairie grasses, and sod. They hunted buffalo and from them obtained meat, robes, and many other products, including glue made from boiling their hooves. Eventually the settlements were fortified to protect them from raiders on horseback.

The Mandans were great traders, and their villages were trading centers for other tribes of plains Indians. They also welcomed white traders from three different directions: from the French trading posts on the Upper Great Lakes until France lost Canada; from Britain’s York Factory on Hudson’s Bay; and from the Spanish and later Americans paddling up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from St. Louis.

The Mandans demonstrated considerable market-place savvy, Fenn claims, taking advantage of competition amongst these trading partners. They adopted what we would today call a free trade policy, welcoming all traders. Eventually, however, Europeans began to usurp the ‘carrying trade’ between various grading communities which for centuries had been Mandan.

In exchange for corn and other produce of the land they received manufactured goods made of iron and steel – hoes, hatchets, kettles, and ‘buttons and bows’ which they used for decorating their clothing. Historians have called attention to the ‘buttons and bows’ they received for valuable goods such as corn or animal skins and hides. But the Mandans were well satisfied with the exchange.

The Spaniards held back on selling Mandans and other tribes guns, but the British, French, and Americans were happy to do so.

These settled trade patterns were disturbed by the arrival of two new animals, the horse, spreading out of the southwestern plains, and the Norwegian rat that probably arrived with traders and riverboats from St. Louis. The rats consumed the corn stored underground in cache pits. The horses, Fenn points out, allowed the Mandan to range farther afield in their hunting and trading. She concludes that the horse resulted in the Mandan “reinventing themselves on horseback.” But it also facilitated Sioux raids on their villages.

The greater mobility of Western Indian tribes and the coming of steam boats up the Missouri River meant that pathogens also traveled more widely. The Mandan villages were decimated by a small pox epidemic in 1781. They also suffered from whooping cough and cholera. Travelers through Mandan territory probably exaggerated Indian populations in the 18th century. Nevertheless it is clear that populations plunged precipitously. By the mid-nineteenth century Mandan populations were in the hundreds. Pathogens not only killed thousands, it also disrupted their traditions and their understanding of the worldly order. It shattered clans and fractured families.

The paddle-wheels, steam driven, were powered by wood. There were few trees on the Dakota plains, and they were soon consumed by the boats, robbing the Mandan of their major source of fuel.

The Mandans were known for their hospitality. They invited many traders and explorers into their lodges to accept their food and shelter and the frequent smoking of the calumet or ceremonial tobacco pipe confirmed that hospitality. This openness resulted in numerous accounts of their cultural life, from which Fenn and other historians have drawn. They were fond of games, and ceremonial dances, which she calls “plays.” They were essentially reenactments of past glories. Mandans liked sports: running, archery, and horse races. They were enthusiastic gamblers.

Perhaps their most celebrated guests were the members of the Corp of Discovery, in 1804-1805, better known as the [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark Expedition. It was guided west by Sakakawea, a young slave woman bought by a Mandan. I would have preferred the company of Maximilian of Wied, a tourist-adventurer, who visited the Mandan villages in 1833. He was accompanied by an artist, Karl Bodmer, whose aquatint prints of the Mandans are reproduced in Fenn’s Encounters. She has also included reproductions of George Catlin’s portraits of Mandans that capture their dignity and nobility.

Elizabeth Fenn makes the point that European observers generally found what they were looking for. They designated preferred leaders among the native people, making “first chiefs.” That disrupted traditional hierarchies, but also created individuals with whom U.S. authorities could negotiate. It created opportunities for negotiations amongst feuding tribes as well.

The Half Has Never Been Told; Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Basic Books, 2014.

Edward Baptist interesting book is a systematic refutation of the idea that American slavery was a pre-modern, pre-industrial network of institutions, political and economic. That it was destined to fail because of its dissimilarity with the impressive industrial economy in the Northern states in the eight decades after independence, 1780 to 1860. Aux-contraire, Baptist argues that the expansion of slavery drove American economic expansion.

This was largely due to the expanding cotton economy of the “Southwest” – Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and western Tennessee. Eventually east Texas and Louisiana.  These vast, new cotton-growing areas were opened up with the removal of their Indian populations under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Its labor force was unfree, drawn from the exhausted tobacco-growing lands of Chesapeake and coastal Virginia.

While some slaves were transported to the Southwest by ships and later railroads, most were driven across the Appalachian mountain roads in coffles by men on horseback with bull-whips. The male slaves were chained to each other – women and older children, by rope – in closely packed columns. Baptist does not spare the reader the brutality of these coffles. The bull-whip would continue to be a familiar form of terrorizing the slaves once they were sold at auctions and transported to labor camps.

The tourist industry in the present-day South likes to associate the slave economy with graceful, pillared homes and benevolent, thoughtful plantation mistresses. Forget it. Talk, rather, about female “enslavers.” White southern women forced their husbands to sell slave women they had sexually exploited and, if any, his children by those liaisons. Baptist argues that sexual predation stoked both the male and female involvement in the cotton economy.

The movement of slaves to this new cotton kingdom involved an extensive network of short- and long-term credit, most commonly coming from the North and even from Britain and Europe, and a new interstate banking system. Baptist makes bold claims about this slave-driven economy being a significant factor in the remarkable growth of the North American capitalist economy.

In the early nineteenth century raw cotton was the most valuable commodity that entered world trade. Baptist’s description of this economy includes a role for New York, Liverpool, and London as well as the new cotton-producing areas. Connecting to the world of international trade, however, had its disadvantages. It opened the region to the vagaries of the world economy and to a dependence upon financial decisions made in far off places.

Most owners of slaves were in debt to these new financial institutions occasionally, when cotton prices dropped or there was a bad crop. Some were chronically in debt to the banks.  A creditor would then foreclose on the planter’s assets – his land but also his slaves. This was a common reason for the sale of slaves and when slaves were sold in small batches to pay off debts, it inevitably meant the breakup of slave families.

We learned about the invention of the cotton gin in grade-school history. And certainly it removed a major roadblock to the expansion of cotton production. But Baptist maintains that it was the growing productivity of the cotton-picking slave that is most responsible. He has included tables to prove his point.

Part of this growing productivity was the result of what he calls “the whipping machine.” There were several work regimes within the cotton economy. The “task” system assigned various tasks to the individual slaves depending upon their skill set. When the tasks were properly finished so was the day’s work for the slave’s master. But throughout this new region, most slave owners adopted the “pushing” system which was, as it suggests, simply getting the most of a long-days labor out of a slave. Short of that maximum effort, the overseer would administer “measured lashes.” One can see how this regime could get out of hand and result in unwarranted brutality even sadism.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the book is the way that Baptist ties together the career of Southern slavery with such things as the admission of the republic of Texas to the American union as a slave state, California as a free state, the Mexican War, Southern interest in annexing Cuba, the dramatic re-alignment of political parties as the old Democratic party splintered over the issue of slavery’s expansion, and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860.

Both the Northern economy’s industrial sector and the cotton-economy in the Southwest were built on the scared backs of enslaved people. Baptist has written an “angry” economic history of the cotton economy.

Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan. W.W. Norton, 2014.

The men in blue who fought in the Civil War continued to fight that war for years and even decades after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865. It had been a long a deadly war, mostly fought by conscripts. Those soldiers had accomplished the Union’s objectives, ending both the rebellion and slavery. In May 23 and 24, 1865 elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the Capital, receiving the enthusiastic accolades of the crowds and politicians, though Abraham Lincoln’s recent assassination by a Confederate sympathizer had cast a pall over the Grand Review.

Had the Rebels been defeated? The men in blue were hearing unsettling stories of race riots and lynching of blacks in Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere.

Returning Union soldiers sensed that the civilian population in the North wished to bury the sectional rivalries that had caused the war, and move beyond flag-waving parades.  What, then, would be their hometown reception? This is where the author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan begins his story of their – and the reader’s – journey back to post-Civil War America.

In the century since 1865 we have come to understand the psychological injury of warfare on its participants. It has been called by different names in different wars, “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” in more recently “post-traumatic stress disorder.” It had yet to be given a name in 1865.

Almost immediately the former men in blue organized. The Grand Army of the Republic began pressing for pensions for those who had served in the war and the creation of a national holiday (Memorial Day) to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Their demands were mixed with their impatience, even anger. The demobilization process had left many veterans sitting around, waiting, and without the adrenalin rush of battle. They had time to worry about their reintegration into their families. Would they be able to find work? Moreover, on the edges of these postwar encampments, there were shysters around to offer them bogus services.  And others offering a plentiful supply of whiskey. Many veterans had taken up the War Department’s offer and bought their weapons. They were impatient, angry, and armed. This ominous mix produced an “epidemic of misdeeds.” Civilians, Jordon suggests, were puzzled by this anger, and frightened.

The wounded had received better medical attention in the newly organized base hospitals during the Civil War than was true of other wars of that era. The most common treatment for the many shattered arms and legs was, however, still amputation. Jordon relates the story of a left-handed penmanship competition for amputees who had lost their right arm. The essays, usually about their war experiences, were not judged, only the penmanship. A common theme: their wounds (empty sleeves) were ‘living monuments’ to the sacrifices which they had made for the Union. And they were unsure about how much those empty sleeves were unappreciated.

Jordan devotes a chapter to veterans who spent time in Confederate Prisoner of War camps. (A journey to the Andersonville Prison near Americus, Georgia gives the visitor some idea of the horrors of imprisonment in the last years of the war.) POWs returning to civilian life had all of the same anxieties of other veterans, but they were also in terrible physical shape. Plus they had to face the stigma of having surrendered.

The federal government established a network of ‘asylums’ (subsequently called ‘homes’) for those veterans who couldn’t make it in the civilian life to which they had returned. As the numbers of aging veterans with health and mental problems grew, the states began establishing homes as well. The Iowa Veterans Home was in Marshalltown, seventeen miles from my home town of Garwin. It opened in 1887.

Residents in these homes were subject to Army rules and regulations and military discipline for infractions. Those admitted were required to wear uniforms, march in formation, and stand at attention for inspection. They rose and retired to the bugle call. Residents needed passes to get by the sentry at the gate. Despite much political grumbling about the “extravagant” government expenditure involved, Civil War soldiers were eventually awarded $8.00 a month. (Roughly $180.00 in current dollars.) They had to sign their pension over to any facility they entered.

As an example of the insensibility to Union veterans, Jordan tells the story of President Grover Cleveland’s first term of office, 1885 to 1889. (Cleveland had hired a young Polish immigrant as his substitute, allowed by the 1863 Conscription Act.)  A Democrat, he wished to bring the South back into the national Democratic Party and condemned the “wicked traffic… in sectional hatred.” He was referring to the Union veterans who opposed his ‘Southern strategy.’

In a gesture to end this sectional hatred, he proposed the return of Southern battle flags captured by Union soldiers and over the years entrusted to the government. There was much sentiment attached to these “relics” of the good fight, so returning them was an affront. Cleveland apologized and withdrew his proposal.  The incident, however, gives testimony to Brian Jordan’s “unending Civil War.”

How the Other Half Banks; Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy

How the Other Half Banks; Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy by Mehrsa Baradaran. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Mehrsa Baradaran’s book is part of the growing conversation about inequality. The American banking system, rescued in 2008 from a near collapse, has not been serving the banking needs of the less well off. And what Baradaran calls “fringe lenders” have stepped in to fill that gap, with mixed outcomes.


A relatively small number of American banking conglomerates have become private/public enterprises whose continued existence (‘too big to fail’) is guaranteed by a public entity, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. However, their responsibilities – whom they serve and how they serve them – are left to be determined by the baking sector itself. Their regulation is, for the most part, limited to protecting them from adverse economic emergencies. At the same time, the big banks have abandoned what Baradaran calls their historic “social contract with the American people”


Community banks could once be found in almost every U.S. town, receiving deposits, making small loans, and generally meeting the banking needs of that community. The financial crisis that preceded the Great Depression in 1933 resulted in runs on these banks and bank failures. Measures were taken by the Roosevelt Administrations to shore up the remaining community banks. But the crisis had made banks, state and federal governments, and bank customers cautious; the FDIC, backed by the credit of the federal government, was able to reassure the banking public.


This banking crisis fostered a conversation about the future of banking. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was one of many who argued that banks should be thought of as public utilities. Most agreed about the importance of what they called unit banks, a bank operating in a single region only. This precluded the conglomerate banks of today’s banking world with their many branches.


After WWII these bank branches followed their customers and the housing construction industry out to the suburbs, leaving older neighborhoods without banking services. Into this void came what Baradaran calls “banks with souls,” banks committed to providing the services that traditional banks were no longer doing.


Credit unions grew out of the cooperative movement. They pooled community deposits and lent them out to that same community. Often they were sponsored by large employers; the U.S. Postal Service, for example, created a credit union for its employees in 1923. They financed automobile and other large purchases. Their purpose was to encourage the saver and help finance the consumer.


Savings and loan associations were more specifically for helping with mortgages. They prospered with the post-war building boom and home ownership. However, their long-term mortgage loans were at fixed interest rates but those loans were funded by more volatile interest rates on shorter-term deposits. Trouble came when the interest rates paid to the latter began to exceed the interest they charged. Thus the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.


Most recently internet lenders have cropped up. They will likely be considered “fringe lenders” by Baradaran and other critics.  They join an array of credit institutions that supply short-term loans: pay-day lenders, title loans for car buyers, pawn-shop loans, and tax refund anticipation loans. Much maligned these days, she points out that these fringe lenders are the only options for the seventy million individuals (estimate) who do not have access to other sources of short-term credit. Because these loans are frequently rolled over they are expensive. (The interest rates may be as high as 300%: Annual Percentage Rate). Prepaid cards are the newest form of credit and may be the most expensive with substantial fees for activation and ATM use built into the purchase price of the card.


But o.k., Baradaran points out that the $35.00 draft overcharge that most banks levy add up to even higher credit costs. Banks can and do arrange the order of the returned checks so as to maximize the overdraft charges. To amend Baradaran’s phrase, we might call them ‘banks with no souls.’


Banking in the absence of traditional banking services can be expensive. She estimates that this conversion of money from paycheck, to cash, to electronic currency, and often back to cash again may absorb as much as 10% of an individual’s annual income.


Baradaran contends that a good solution would be the return to postal banking, revising an older institution established in the early twentieth century. (One can still purchase postal money orders at our thousands of post offices. Branch banking?) Since 1968 Congress has repeatedly determined that the postal service should be profitable and, despite its long history of service to the American public, no longer dependent on revenue from the federal government. Postal banking might be the opportunity to solve its deficit problem.


There would be opposition to the reestablishment of postal banking, especially from payday loan operations, now also organized into big conglomerates. And we have recently had the experience with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government sponsored enterprises that failed at public expense. Nor would postal banking be the community banking that Mehrsa Baradaran praised earlier in her useful book.


The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin. Picador, 2015, paper.

In 1817 Amasa Delano, a New Englander involved in the seal skin trade, published an account of his years at sea, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. His ship, a schooner, was called the Perseverance; New Englanders named their ships after virtues. The Perseverance sailed up and down the “sealing archipelago” that stretched along the Pacific side of Spanish America. Most of the catch supplied the Chinese market, in such quantities that the ups and downs of the Chinese market could affect both demand and price.


The author of this interesting book, Greg Grandin, has used Narrative of Voyages and Travels as his primary source, but he includes other travel narratives and the rich administrative archive of the Spanish New World. Mostly the book is about the seal trade, but Delano was also involved in the “middle passage,” the transport of West Africans to New World slavery.


Perhaps as many as ten million West Africans were brought to the New World on slave ships between 1514 and 1866. The reader sails on those slave ships and examines a particular phenomenon, slave uprisings. Between the early 1500s and 1860s there were, Grandin claims, 493 slave revolts. Most of them failed; the slaves were killed in the shipboard fight, or tossed overboard, or committed suicide by jumping into the sea.


It happened that the Perseverance came upon a slave ship, the Tryal, which appeared to be in distress. Maritime law required an assist to a ship in distress, though the decision to do so was rarely humanitarian only. Delano sent a boarding party, but they decided that there was nothing amiss and left the ship. Only to have the captain of the Tryal, Benito Cerraňo, leapt into their dinghy. He explained that the slaves on his ship had seized control and orchestrated a subterfuge in which the crew had agreed to participate in return for their lives. Cerraňo was the real world inspiration for the character of a similar name in Herman Melville’s short novel “The Bell-Tower.”


The author describes the squalor of the slave quarters below deck. The weeks at sea resulted in high death rates caused by disease: scurvy, consumption, dropsy, malaria, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and gonorrhea. Rarely do historians of the Atlantic slave trade mention that these illnesses were also aggravated by displacement, melancholia, and mourning.



It is estimated that 10% of Africans from the Niger River Valley were Moslem. They were often not allowed to face east to prey. Islam justified resistance against oppressive owners; Christianity never did.  Did this make Moslems from West Africa more likely to revolt?


In addition to African slavery, we meet up with other shades of servitude. The liberty of the sailors on Delano’s Perseverance and the Tryal that he commandeered was limited by their agreements with the ship owner and its captain. Sailors on these ships of sail experienced one of the last vestiges of the Old Regime’s unmitigated tyranny. Many of these forms of servitude were the result of desperate poverty.


There is also some interesting time-traveling in The Empire of Necessity. We visit Buenos Aires and Montevideo, boomtowns on the Río de la Plate. We accompany shackled slaves as they are marched across the Argentine Pampas and then over the rugged Andes. The city of Mendoza, which was on this land route to the Pacific via Santiago. On to Lima which Grandin describes as the great imperial capital of Spanish America. We catch glimpses of the islands on which the seal rockeries were located. They were also home to castaways with whom ship captains replaced depleted crews and to escaped slaves.


Grandin makes a strong case for the argument that the slave trade is important to the origins of industrial capitalism. We know the story of industrial development in Liverpool and Manchester based on slave-produced cotton in the American South. Factories in Montevideo and Buenos Aires were also centers of this emerging industrial economy, producing leather goods analogous to the cotton textile trade in England. Here is another arena in which capitalism evolved out of the practice of purchasing stock in a trading or slaving venture. The author even claims that slavery was the engine of Spanish America’s capitalist development.


Greg Grandin has woven together an array of stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth- century Atlantic world when it was the center of a trade in commodities as well as the West African slaves.




Flags of Our Fathers

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Bantam Books, 2006, paper.


Flags of Our Fathers is a son’s commemoration of a veteran of the Pacific War. Published in 2000, it was the basis for a film released in 2006. The elder Bradley had died a few years previous to the book’s publication. In clearing out a closet, his family discovered boxes of letters and photographs that told the story of Bradley’s war experiences.


During World War II, John Bradley served in the Navy Medical Corps attached to a Marine company. He was part of the first wave of an amphibious force of 80,000 men that landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. This year was its 70th anniversary.


Capturing the island was important to our strategy of defeating Japan. Japanese planes, based on Iwo, were menacing our bombers on their way of Japanese cities. The island had 22,000 fanatic Japanese defenders who would fight to their death. Mostly young recruits, they had constructed a network of pillboxes and underground bunkers that made them almost impossible to see, and kill.


On the fourth day of the battle, a company commander sent a platoon to secure the top of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. A flag was taken to the top and unfurled so that the Americans fighting below could have some assurance that victory was theirs, even though they had a month of deadly combat still ahead.


The company commander, thinking that the flag should become a battle souvenir, sent up a replacement flag with four marines who were laying a telephone line to an observation post at the top of Suribachi. They were joined by two more marines in hoisting the replacement flag, one of them the author’s father.


This second flag raising was caught by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal. His image was transmitted by wire to the U.S. Two days later, the photograph, the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima, appeared on the front page of most Sunday morning newspapers. It became an instant success and then an American icon.


Three of the men who had raised the flag died before the battle was over. John Bradley was wounded and in a military hospital when those in the photograph were identified. He and the two surviving marines were flown back to the States to be the focus of a war bond drive in the spring of 1945.

Bradley found this celebrity status a mockery of both the brutality and heroism of battle. His two comrades also found the experience of a transition from battlefield to instant celebrity status shattering. They had left their comrades to finish their battle. One of his marine comrades, Ira Hayes, a Native American, never recovered. He took to the bottle and died a tragic death in 1955.


You are told enough about these six marines to understand much about their lives and families: their common experience as kids growing up in depression America; their marine training, which had transformed them collectively into efficient killing machines; the horror of what they saw and experienced; the death of many of their companions the difficult return to civilian life after the shock of battle; the nightmares and weeping. To cope with those phantoms, John Bradley found it necessary to put out of his mind the most vivid experience of his life.


James Bradley found out that his father was in the Iwo Jima photograph from a third-grade teacher. When he asked his dad about his being a hero, the elder Bradley insisted that the picture had nothing to do with heroism and that the real heroes were the men who never returned. The subject was dropped and never again raised in his presence.


Flags of Our Fathers received much praise from readers and reviewers; few books have captured the complexity and furor of war and its aftermath as well. It reminds us that the memory of the Pacific war will soon no longer be in the possession of the living. The ‘greatest generation’ will no longer be around to tell their story.


Over Here; How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

Over Here; How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream by Edward Humes.  Harcourt, 2006.


Edward Humes puts the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944) in the same class of “transformative legislative achievements” as the Morrill Land-Grant College Act (1862) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). Commonly known as the G.I. Bill, it granted benefits to sixteen million returning servicemen and women. Benefits included hospitalization, unemployment benefits, free higher education and technical training, and low interest loans on houses with no down payments. Though Humes contends that few in 1944 understood its transforming character.


The G.I. Bill began as part of a third wave of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Veteran’s organization in the country, including the American Legion supported benefits. Most Americans were wanting to show their gratitude to those who had fought the good war. Congress was looking for a means of ensuring that returning servicemen readjust to civilian life. They would become voters.


Servicemen returning from World War I had not been treated so well. After much agitation by veterans, the Coolidge Administration finally agreed to a bonus. But it was in the form of government bonds worth $7000 (2006 dollars) and not redeemable until 1944. A protest by veterans in Washington in 1932 (the Bonus Army) had been broken up by the army under orders from President Herbert Hoover and led by General Douglas Macarthur. It was a public relations disaster for the Hoover Administration. Everyone wanted to avoid a repeat of that spectacle.

Despite Roosevelt’s intentions, the G.I. Bill was not colorblind.

Representative John Rankin, Mississippi, and head of the House committee on veteran’s legislation understood that benefits given to returning black soldiers would transform the South’s racial politics. Initially hoping to block the bill, Rankin managed to get a provision which turned the awarding of benefits over to local and state officials.


In this and other ways the nation’s generosity did not extend equally to black Americans. Nor to the millions of defense workers, many of them women, who had also interrupted their lives to fight the good war.


Most universities and colleges welcomed returning veterans to their classrooms, emptied in the ’40s by the military draft. Though Humes points out that some patronizing university educators were “concerned” about how returning veterans would fare in their elitist institutions. Many would be the first of their family to enter college; some were high school dropouts.


It turns out that G.I.s were ‘over achievers.’ They were serious about wanting a college education and then getting on with their lives. In 1956, six years after most G.I.s had graduated and gone off to jobs and families, Iowa State University faculty were still commenting on what good students they had been.


The G.I. Bill also altered the landscape of urban America. The no-down­payment and low-interest mortgages created a huge demand for modest, “starter homes.” Since there had been little housing built during the Depression and the War, the Bill was welcomed by the housing industry. There was, however, little in the way of urban planning, and most of the new housing was mass-produced and built in the suburbs and largely for whites veterans.


Housing was a lead sector with a huge linkage effect to the furniture, appliance, and houseware industries. Detroit loved the new drive to the suburbs. In other words housing was vital to the American economy’s survival with the end of war production.


The G.I. bill created a class of capitalists who owned a house and hence an asset. They became part of the ‘ownership society.’ Perhaps ‘ownership’ was one reason for veterans tending to become more conservative as years passed. Humes notes that World War II veterans often opposed similar benefits for the veterans of the Vietnam War. The “greatest generation” having benefited from big-government programs, ultimately opposed big government.