Natural disaster, experienced virtually

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishAs North Carolina towns like Goldsboro, Kinston, and Lumberton experience intense flooding long after Hurricane Matthew veered away from the coast, we are reminded again how disasters can take their own sluggish time. In the current case, it has taken days for intense rain water to move from inland streams to larger rivers, raising them to record heights.  “This is going to be a prolonged event,” announced North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, after having signed an expedited Major Disaster Declaration for his beleaguered state.

My book, which is just about to be released with Princeton University Press, considers a different “prolonged event,” a “superflood” which took not three or four days to arrive, but rather months. The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History is about the year-long disaster known colloquially as “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” In a magnified version of the 2016 disaster, intense rains and snow fell for months throughout the upper branches of the river system, creating upstream flooding. Then these swollen tributaries all disgorged into the Lower Mississippi River simultaneously, evincing what one commentator at the time called a “sinister rhythm.”

If you have been following Hurricane Matthew and its path through Haiti, Florida and North Carolina, you understand that in the modern era, we experience most disasters virtually. I started thinking about this issue of virtual disaster consumption in the days surrounding, and months following, the New Orleans levee disaster of 2005 (“Katrina”). I began to wonder: how and why do disasters become publicly meaningful? Why do certain environmental catastrophes receive scant attention while others seem to place our national character on public trial? Is attention an unqualified good? How should we communicate with ourselves about disasters, especially now, in a time when human activity largely determines their makeup?

After much research, I came to realize that the first U.S. disaster to occur in a media landscape as well as in an industrialized, stress-bearing environment much like our own was the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The ways in which this flood went public, and then lost unified public meaning and indeed national attention, represent a fascinating case in modern disaster communication and consumption.

The 1927 flood was a humanly caused event. Deforestation, wetlands drainage, and monoculture farming throughout the Mississippi watershed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seriously reduced the storage capacity of its soil.  Moreover, designers of the flood protection system elected not to mimic an alluvial basin’s own mechanisms for holding and dispersing water in times of overflow. Engineers decided instead to impound the river within a towering levee system. Months of very intense rain and snowfall turned this precarious situation into catastrophe in the Lower Mississippi Valley as levees, and more levees, burst—one was even intentionally detonated to save the wealthy banking center and port of New Orleans. Over 600,000 people—mostly African American—were made homeless, land in seven states was inundated, thirteen major crevasses occurred, as many as 1,000 people died, and a year’s worth of cotton and sugar crops were ruined. The Red Cross was established, and the National Guard patrolled 154 “concentration camps” to house the evacuees but also to keep the Delta’s labor force in place.

Media technologies which produced this flood for a virtual audience were distinctly modern.  Wired telegraphy, aerial photography, recorded music, documentary film, a rapid and extensive AP service, and a brand new nationwide radio system were all put into use to transport this flood into homes in the US and around the world.  In the wake of World War I, moreover, governmental organizations knew how to use narrative and representational techniques to weld its citizenry into a unified mass. As communications theorist Harold Laswell put it in 1926, speaking of machine-age propaganda, “more can be won by illusion than by coercion.”

The flood of 1927 did seem to configure, at the flip of an all-powerful speaker switch, a coherent public audience.  FEMA did not yet exist and Congress refused to appropriate special funds, so the Red Cross had to commandeer the communications infrastructure of the nation to involve the public in the work and cost of relief. Newspapers, movie houses, vaudeville stages, and radio stations became vital pathways in a top-down, diffusive program of national coherence. It was not just any story though which made the “huge relief machine” hum, but a particular story about historical redemption. Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. When Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary in charge of rescue and relief operations, first spoke to a national radio audience, he thus summoned memories of the Civil War. He imagined a new battle being waged between an invading “water enemy” and the people of “our South,” a “great army of unfortunate people.” Northern whites cast themselves this time around, in the words of The New York Times, as “an army of rescuers.” The Red Cross and its news outlets positioned this flood as a redemptive reenactment of the War between the States. This “illusion,” to use Laswell’s word, summoned national investment for about one month, and then public feeling split along regional and racial lines.

Sociologists at this time believed that disasters acted like helpful galvanic events to reset and repair a given society’s structural problems. The North’s disaster narrative, while it did symbolically bring accord, did nothing to actually address southern, and particularly, black southern, economic and political grievances.  White southerners came to express with great trenchancy their dissenting view that this calamity was neither natural nor redemptive, but was due to mainly northern environmental practices and the Federal government’s misguided levees-only policy. When they looked at the water destroying their crops, they saw Yankee water.

Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood.  As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie, and that northern institutions were abetting its reestablishment. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White and others publicly decried this situation in The Crisis, The Chicago Defender, and The Nation.

Whites outside the South began to lose enthusiasm too for Hoover’s “reconstruction machine.” Valiant scenarios of rescuing southern brethren gave way to a regretful feeling that the South was forever an intractable “problem.” H.L. Mencken acerbically wondered why anyone would care about such a backward place of “tinpot revivals” and anti-intellectualism. And others just felt the story had grown dull. An editorial in The Nation averred that “people can stand only so much calamity. After a while it begins to pall, and finally it has no meaning whatever.” Another complained that the flood, lacking the dramatic unities of place and time, was aesthetically unsatisfying. And another observed that it is very hard to care for “a mud-besmattered mass of human beings” because only individual peril really moves an audience.

Once the flood slipped from the national headlines, it continued for some time to resonate in the black press and in the southern press. Eventually the event took up lodging in the imaginations, and the work of two of our major authors, who both happen to hail from Mississippi. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were young men living in or near the flood zone in 1927; each read Memphis’ paper, The Commercial Appeal, and its refutation of the dominant northern flood narrative. Wright was an avid reader of the black press coverage as well. For the next thirteen years, floods would seep into their fiction. While we tend to associate the Great War with modern narrative experimentation, for these two American authors, it was the 1927 flood which brought home the realization that the world was run on chance and risk, and, even more, that humans had made their physical and social worlds still more violently unpredictable.

In the 1920s, the Gulf South represented a leading edge of environmental peril. The region made manifest early what has since become more globally shared. Wright, Faulkner, and other attentive southern authors and performers of that day help us even now think about which stories, and which ways of bending language, comport most searchingly with the world of diffuse, chronic environmental risk in which we now live.

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. Her book, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History, will be published this January.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Coney Island

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Coney Island.

From classic roller-coasters to a nice boardwalk along the beach, Coney Island is one of Brooklyn’s most historic and well-known neighborhoods. It was the site of three famous theme parks that were all affected by fires (many are now used for other purposes, such as housing.) Some old rides remain with the addition of new ones, but the history of Coney Island lingers in the air:

Beautiful artwork by sculptor Deborah Masters is a must-see while walking around Brooklyn, and Coney Island has a piece that shouldn’t be missed. A terra-cotta relief of patrons enjoying Coney Island graces the surface of a supporting viaduct under the tracks of the Ocean Parkway, embodying the fun spirit of the peninsula.

I came face to face with a large, unglazed, brownish-red, terra-cotta-colored relief made of cast concrete, dubbed “Brooklyn…” It consists of a group of people, some standing, others seated in a roller-coaster. Most are wearing bathing suits. To the left on a separate pane is a bare-breasted mermaid.

Of course, Coney Island is famous for its amusement park rides, and Helmreich reflected on his time as a young boy visiting the park with his family. Though some of the park has changed, there remains a sense of the past:

For me, everything about going there, and we went there numerous times, was memorable. Some of the rides, especially the bumper cars, where you could crash into other cars with gusto but with no consequences except for a dirty look or minor retaliation in kind, are indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. The same for the boardwalk, where we delighted in staring at the waves as they crashed ashore, and consumed all manner of delectable treats—potato knishes, hot dogs, and ice cream in crisp, dark sugar cones.

Some of the old rides are still operating, but they exist in a setting that’s a cross between venerating the old and embracing the new.

Coney Island is home to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. If you find yourself craving delicious franks and salty crinkle-cut fries with a dash of history, be sure to stop by this famous eatery.

Nathan’s, which turned one hundred in 2016, is still there, the signage recognizable as well as the menu, offering many of old standbys—the crinkle-cut fries and hot dogs, frog legs, ears of buttered corn, and Chow Mein on a bun, but not the real glasses in which orange drinks were once served.

At the end of Coney Island is one of New York City’s oldest gated communities, (one of only four in the city.) Sea Gate is the destination for those seeking a quiet area with private beaches.

Sea Gate, which begins on W. 37th Street, is part of Coney Island, but, as the name implies, it’s a gated community, one of four in the city. The others are Silver Beach Gardens and Edgewater Park, in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx; and Breezy Point in the Rockaways portion of Queens. Sea Gate is the oldest, established in 1898, and the most integrated of the four. It has the feel, if any case, of not being a part of greater Coney Island. It’s quiet, has its own beaches and a visitor needs permission from a guard to gain entry. People who live here have an opportunity to feel they live in an exclusive community…

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Williamsburg

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Williamsburg:

What was once a largely industrial site in the nineteenth century, a diversified neighborhood in the early twentieth century and a considerably dangerous area in the ’90s, Williamsburg has become a highly sought after and trendy neighborhood.

Once considered a dangerous part of Brooklyn, the neighborhood has gone through a “rebirth” in the northern and eastern sections, with apartment prices “skyrocketing.” It is perhaps the largest rejuvenated neighborhood in New York and one with easy access to Manhattan.


Porkpie Hatters epitomizes Williamsburg’s “hipster culture.

Many neighborhoods have murals that decorate the buildings along the streets. While walking, Helmreich found stunning murals at the intersection of Meserole and Waterbury Streets:

Those in the know come from all over the world with cameras to view and photograph the murals, many created by well-known graffiti artists like Shepard Fairey, Dasic Fernandez, Werc, Icy and Sot, and Giant Robot. The murals change quite frequently, but they are almost always interesting.

Williamsburg is home to one of the best-known motorcycle shops in the country, Indian Larry Motorcyles, located on Union Street. The shops owner Indian Larry, born Lawrence DeSmedt, was famous for his chopper creations.

His nickname came from a chopper brand that he rode… his creations were featured on the Discovery Channel and in Easy Rider Magazine, and he won all sorts of awards and was therefore widely known to cycle enthusiasts. Inside are beautiful bikes, including two very expensive choppers with stupendous, intricate designs that sell for $350K and $750K. The second one, featured in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, is known as his “Wild Child”.

Williamsburg 2

St. Vincent De Paul Church was built 145 years ago and now houses condos.

Famous for being an industrial site, Williamsburg has preserved the history of its once industrial neighborhood:

Williamsburg’s industrial area is a perfect place to discover what the city looked like in the early twentieth century, when heavy industry and manufacturing dominated — streets like Waterbury, Stagg, Morgan, Ten Eyck, Gardiner, Scholes, and Meadows, among others.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

An interview with Nancy Malkiel on the struggle for coeducation

MalkielAt the end of the 1960s, a change swept elite institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom: In a remarkably brief span of time, a large number of traditional, conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities began admitting women. In her new book, Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel examines the historic shift, revealing that contrary to popular belief, the decision was less a moral response to female activists than a strategic one made largely by powerful men. Recently, Malkiel took the time to answer questions about her new book.

What led you to write a book about coeducation?

NM: It’s partly autobiographical. I had been a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-/late 1960s, when the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe was beginning to be addressed. I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 as one of the first three women in the professorial ranks; 1969 also happened to be the year when the first women undergraduates arrived. I served as dean of the college, with responsibility for undergraduate education at Princeton, for 24 years. At the same time, I graduated from and served as a trustee of Smith, a women’s college that decided not to go coed. I was very interested in how coeducation came to be embraced at Princeton and so many other elite men’s schools, in why Smith decided against coeducation, and in how women’s education worked in the institutions I knew best.

I was also very interested in processes of institutional change. How did very old, very traditional, very elite institutions decide to go coed? What factors influenced their decision-making? Who provided leadership? Who supported change? Who resisted change? How were competing interests adjudicated?

What made coeducation such a struggle?

NM: There was intense opposition to coeducation, mainly on the part of alumni who treasured their undergraduate experience and thought that admitting women would ruin the camaraderie, the special ambiance that had made all-male institutions so successful. The title of this book comes from a letter from one Ivy League alumnus who wrote, in opposing coeducation, “For God’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Very often, coeducation was instituted over the very strong objections of these alumni. Many of these men later came to change their views when their daughters and granddaughters sought admission to their now-coeducational alma maters.

Your book focuses on decisions for coeducation in a very brief period of time – essentially, 1969-74. Why?

NM: There was a flood of decisions for coeducation in these years, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That’s when coeducation came to be instantiated at most of the very traditional, very conservative, very elite single-sex institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The decade of the 1960s bore on the timing: with the civil rights movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, it was no wonder that colleges and universities began reconsidering many aspects of the educational arrangements that had served them for centuries.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

NM: Coeducation was not the product of organized efforts by women activists. Decisions for coeducation were made by powerful men (Mary Ingraham Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, is the sole exception here). And they were acting not on some moral imperative, not on a high-minded commitment to the education of women, but on straightforward self-interest: Coeducation was embraced as a means of shoring up applicant pools that were declining because many students no longer wanted to go to single-sex institutions.

How did you decide which colleges and universities to write about?

NM: In the United States, I focused on the men’s schools that were generally regarded as the influencers, the agenda-setters, the institutions that others looked to, modeled themselves on, and emulated – in other words, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As for women’s colleges, Vassar was clearly the most prestigious women’s college that chose to admit men; I included Smith and Wellesley for comparative purposes because both of them had high-level reports in this same period that recommended coeducation, and both of them backed away from admitting men. In the United Kingdom, I wrote about the first three men’s colleges at Cambridge to admit women (in 1972) – Churchill, Clare, and King’s – and the first five at Oxford (in 1974) – Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St. Catherine’s, and Wadham.

It’s important to note that lots of other American institutions went coed in this period – men’s schools as well as women’s schools, colleges as well as universities. But the others were less influential, less precedent-making, than the elite institutions I focused on.

What were the biggest differences between coeducation in men’s colleges and coeducation in women’s colleges?

NM: When a men’s college coeducated, there was no question that it would attract a large number of highly qualified women applicants. When a women’s college coeducated, it was much less clear that there would be a sufficient pool of highly qualified male applicants.

Why did you want to compare American and British universities and colleges?

NM: A very similar phenomenon – the advent of coeducation at very old, very traditional, very elite institutions – was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The movements of the 1960s affected colleges and universities in both countries. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were fully aware of what was happening in the United States, and there were some explicit connections between some of them and institutions like Princeton and Yale. There were also similarities in alumni resistance to coeducation. Heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge sought to assuage the concerns of their alumni by reminding them of the decision taken many decades earlier to remove the requirement of celibacy for fellows (faculty members) of the colleges – suggesting that coeducation, like married fellows, would soon come to be seen as perfectly normal.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history at Princeton University. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College, overseeing the University’s undergraduate academic program, making her the longest serving dean. Malkiel’s current research centers on the decisions for coeducation at elite colleges and universities in the Unites States, as well as the United Kingdom, from 1969 to the mid 1970s. She is the author of  Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton). Her most recent book is “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation.

Robert Gordon is one of Bloomberg’s 50 most influential people

Yesterday Bloomberg released its 50 Most Influential 2016 list.

Congratulations are in order for our own Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, who makes an appearance at #36. According to the piece, a Bloomberg reporter once counted up the references in the footnotes of Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s speeches and found Gordon cited more than any other economist outside the central bank. Gordon finds himself in great company this year—other recognized economists include Larry Summers at #49, Raj Chetty at #44, and Joe Stiglitz at #29.

Congratulations, Robert Gordon!


The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Greenpoint

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will be running features on some surprising facts about each of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Don’t miss Bill Helmreich at the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, September 18! If you visit our booth and tell him your street, he’ll tell you something you didn’t know about it. Our booth is #406 and Bill will be there 11-12:30 (There may even be ice cream.)

Helmreich begins with a look at the neighborhood known as Greenpoint, which sits at the northern-most part of Brooklyn:

Greenpoint was once heavily populated by Polish immigrants, and some of the streets of the neighborhood are lined with Polish stores and restaurants. Although the Polish influence has grown less concentrated, one can still get a sense of the Polish cultural influences.

The area was already home during the (the nineteenth century) for Polish establishments. The Polish-owned establishments are dwindling, slowly receding into the history of the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Yet one still sees Polish men, likely immigrants, trudging home in their work boots, wearing faded shirts and trousers, at the end of the day, and carrying their knapsacks, usually filled with the tools of their trade. Their weather-beaten faces are creased with the lines of hard work and perhaps the assorted worries and even disappointment that have marked their tansition from the old world, an ocean away.

If some parts of Greenpoint look familiar, that may be because parts of the neighborhood have been used in TV shows and movies. While Helmreich was walking, he saw where The Good Wife was currently being filmed.

On nearby Diamond Street, I pass by Blue Bloods Productions. There’s a trailer that’s been driven here all the way from Universal Studios, California. Right now they’re filming The Good Wife. But in a week or a month it could be another series or film. Greenpoint has, in fact, become a popular location for film/TV studios, and there are quite a few scattered throughout the area.

Helmreich takes note of a garden that is full of a variety of flora. What makes this an interesting garden is its location near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). The juxtaposition of the garden’s scenic environment against the expressway contributes a unique feel to the atmosphere of the park.

(Lentol Garden is) named after former assemblyman and state senator Edward Lentol. The garden, surrounded by an eight-foot-high black steel fence, features juniper and holly trees, a Chinese dogwood, roses, tulips, black-eyed Susans, and other flora and fauna. Inviting looking, wooden benches line a landscape path where you pass by a birdfeeder and a birdbath. I notice that one side of the park border is literally attached to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway… It’s an oasis in a metropolis where every inch of green space counts, even if it’s hard against a major expressway.

Along Hausmann Street, Helmreich noticed that every house, exactly 73 of them, had American flags flying in front of them. A woman he met while admiring the homes explains the reason why:

“The flags have been here since after 9/11, honoring those who fell there, especially Catherine Fagan, who lived here. We keep them up until they get dirty and then we replace them. Most of the owners have lived here for many years and they just decided to do it.”

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

An 816 mile walk in Brooklyn, an interview with William Helmreich

HelmreichIn The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, William B. Helmreich draws on the hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey through all 816 miles of Brooklyn. From gentrified neighborhoods to neighborhoods lost in time, the book is filled with fascinating facts and stories, creating an unforgettable chronicle of one of New York’s hottest boroughs. Helmreich recently took some time to answer questions about the various neighborhoods, how they’ve changed, and what he found interesting on his journey.

You’ve walked so many miles, 6,000 for the first book and now another 800 for the Brooklyn volume. How did this idea come about? 

WH: When I was a kid growing up in New York, my father invented a game called “Last Stop.” to keep me occupied. Every weekend we’d take a subway to the last stop. And then we’d walk around whatever neighborhood it was in. When we went to Canarsie, I looked at what was then just marshland and remember how my teacher told me he’d send me to Canarsie if I didn’t behave. And when I saw how desolate the area was in those days I became a more obedient student. In Throgs Neck I saw people pulling fish out of the water. So that’s where they came from. I said to myself. I had assumed they just came from the tank in the fish store. I was a city kid. I went on these trips from the age of 7 until 12. And that’s how I came to love NYC.

Brooklyn has so many varied neighborhoods. DUMBO and Boerum Hill are gentrified and they’re nothing like Gravesend or Flatlands. What unites them? 

WH: One thing that unites them is change. Boerum Hill is gentrifying, with many young people moving in. Flatlands is becoming home to larger numbers of Orthodox Jews and Gravesend has a growing Russian populations. DUMBO has more professionals moving in as opposed to the earlier generation of artists. 
Were you afraid when you walked in unsafe areas like East New York or Brownsville?
WH: Not really. First of all, even areas thought of as dangerous are relatively safe by day. We have 300 murders a year as opposed to the 90s when over 2,000 people were being killed. Also, 80 percent of these murders are at the hands of people who knew each other. Another important reason was my approach. Most people think they have to put on a tough-guy face when they’re in these areas. That’s wrong. You’re not going to scare people. They can see through you. When ever I saw bad-looking types and in general, with anybody, as soon as I made eye contact, I smiled and greeted them with a big hello. “How ya doin?” I’d say. And this was such a counter-intuitive approach that they melted. 
How has Brooklyn changed demographically over time?
WH: In the old days Italians, Jews, and Irish were the major groups. Today, the main groups taking over Brooklyn are Asians, mostly Chinese; Blacks, especially West Indians and Africans; Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim; Hispanics, most notably Puerto Ricans and Mexicans; and, finally, gentrifiers. 
What were some of the most interesting things you saw in Brooklyn? 
WH: There were so many things. The man in Bergen Beach who put 1,140 stuffed animals on his tree; the Greenpoint park devoted to plants and trees that produced materials used in industry; the man in Gowanus who kept the grocery store sign in large gold letters in the first floor window of his brownstone out of respect for his Italian grandfather’s struggle to earn a living in America. 
Is gentrification good for Brooklyn? 
WH: That depends how you look at it and who you are. Let’s say, you’re a black homeowner and you want to make a killing. A white gentrifier offers you 15 times what you paid for it. Suddenly you’re rich and you can buy that farm in North Carolina and retire. But what if you’re a black homeowner living in Bed-Stuy and you want the neighborhood to preserve its history as a center for black history and culture? Then you might feel uncomfortable selling to a white buyer. Gentrification often prices working class-people and the poor out of a neighborhood. But it also results in improved services with respect to sanitation, police patrols, etc. because the gentrifiers have clout. What if new developments have affordable housing units? Is that bad or good and for who? One thing we know nothing about is where those displaced by gentrification went? Did they go to other parts of the same neighborhood? Did they go South or West? Are they in Long Island? We need to know these outcomes if we’re to understand what’s happening here.   

William B. Helmreich  is professor of sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. He has written numerous books and is an award winning author. He is the author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, which won the the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

William B. Helmreich on The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

HelmreichThis September, Princeton University Press is thrilled to release The Brooklyn Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich. You may remember that Helmreich, a professor of sociology, walked every block of New York City to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he’s back, and has re-walked Brooklyn—all 816 miles—to write this one-of-a-kind walking guide to the borough that’s hot with hipsters and rich in history. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with the residents of this diverse, booming, ever-evolving borough, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows captures the heart and soul of the unique city blocks that define cool around the world. In the coming weeks, PUP will be featuring blog posts that highlight a number of the neighborhoods in the book. Don’t miss Helmreich at the upcoming Brooklyn Book Festival, where you can tell him your street, and he’ll tell you something you didn’t know. But first, an introduction to our Brooklyn blog series from William Helmreich himself:

Brooklyn is one of the world’s greatest outdoor museums with something to interest everyone. I took an 800 mile walk through the city’s hottest borough and found that even though neighborhoods differed from each other there were certain things they had in common.

The first is self-image, a belief that Brooklyn is a place on the move, one that has become a world destination. This idea has captured the imagination of Brooklynites wherever they live—not only in the trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg, DUMBO, or Cobble Hill—but the quieter and less well-known communities like Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay, and Gravesend.

Second, Brooklyn is a borough that is constantly changing. Puerto Ricans experience it in South Williamsburg and in Bushwick, when they see gentrifiers moving in. Poles in Greenpoint feel the same when they see gentrifiers arriving on their block. Hasidim and Chinese immigrants get a taste of it as they compete fiercely for homes on the Sunset Park-Borough Park border. Long time residents living in modest ranch homes look on in wonderment as wealthy Russians build McMansions in Mill Basin.

 Third, these changes have resulted in a need for engagement. Groups living near each other are exposed to other peoples’ cultures. Whites become part of the West Indian Parade; Hispanics and whites line up in front of trucks in Red Hook to eat pupusas and quesadillas. Blacks in Crown Heights look on with curiosity as Lubavitcher Hasidim celebrate the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah by dancing in the streets. An African American pokes his head into a Cambodian temple in Flatbush, while an Albanian immigrant in Bensonhurst tries her best to decipher a front lawn filled with statues of American icons—Batman, Al Capone, Iwo Jima, Betty Boop, Elvis Presley, and a photo of Ebbets Field. Of equal importance, Brooklynites meet in the elevators of their buildings, in block associations, churches, in parks, and on beaches. In a crowded city, no man can be an island.

This engagement leads to a fourth aspect of Brooklyn—the incredible diversity of its people. Those who live here come from more than one hundred nations, speaking many different languages. They represent the most of the world’s religions. New Yorkers don’t really have to travel to other countries to experience what’s happening there. Want to know about Russians? Come to Brighton Beach, or as it’s also known, Odessa by the Sea. Want to experience how devout Haitians express themselves religiously? Step into an East Flatbush Church. And if visiting a seaside community is your thing, walk through Gerritsen Beach.

The book I wrote is intended to be a guidebook for those who want to experience Brooklyn in real time. It’s different from other guidebooks in a very important way. It doesn’t focus on the well-known aspects of the borough—famous restaurants or nightclubs, festivals, hotels, bridges, and the like. Rather, its goal is to find the hidden things that people don’t know about.

For example, there’s a man in Bergen Beach who has a tree outside his home from which hang 1,140 stuffed toy animals. In Lefferts Gardens, a man from the Caribbean quietly creates boats, birds, bracelets, and other items from animal horns. He’s a hornsmith, possibly the only one in the country and if you want he’ll tell you about his craft and why it’s special. Stand atop Sunset Park and you’ll see an amazing sunset.

Step into World Class Aquarium on Flatbush Avenue in Marine park and listen as the owner tells you why he loves what he does even if it’s a hard way to earn a living.Travel to East New York and enjoy the delectable cakes and cookies that have been prepared there since 1927.  The place is Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery and they claim the famous recipe for Junior’s cheesecake was stolen from them. Maybe, maybe not, but their version is pretty good. Watch some of the best handball games in the country on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

These are only a few of the many discoveries awaiting those wishing to explore Brooklyn from the ground up. The coming blog posts highlighting neighborhoods featured in The Brooklyn Nobody Knows will give you a real taste of what’s out there.

—William B. Helmreich

A historical alliance: Victor Cha on the US-Asian relationship

ChaHow was the critical American alliance system originally established in Asia, and is it currently threatened? In his most recent book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in AsiaVictor Cha draws from theories about alliances, unipolarity, and regime complexity to examine the fascinating evolution of the U.S. alliance system. Exploring the motivations and aspirations of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, Cha explains the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Asia and how it contributes to the resiliency of global alliances  today. Recently Cha took some time to discuss his book and what he learned while writing it.

Why did you write this book?

VC: I was motivated to write a history of how the United States created this incredibly unique and important alliance system in Asia.  Long after the Cold War, these alliance still exist and indeed are critical to US policy today.  So how and why were these alliances formed?  Powerplay is one of those studies that a scholar can work on for years.  It deals largely with archival work and in that regard, it is timeless!  In my case, I had started the project some 12 years ago and had written about 100 pages.  Then, I left Georgetown to take public service leave when I worked on the National Security Council as a director for Asian affairs.  I did this for nearly three years between 2004 and 2007 and when I returned to the academy, I took on two additional book projects which took me away from Powerplay for four years.  I was so happy to get back to it, however, and spent the last two years going back into the archives and recreating the history of how Kennan, Dulles, Eisenhower and Truman thought about Asia at the end of World War II.  I was also able to weave into the last chapter my thoughts about the future of the US alliance system based on my experiences in government.  I am so happy with the result and look forward to sharing this with readers.

What did you learn in the course of writing the book?

VC: Perhaps the most interesting lesson for me was how the American experiences as a great power in Asia were truly unique.  Even as a colonial power in the 19th century, the United States did not behave like European powers or like prewar Japan.  It was a hegemon in Asia, but was more inclusive in its thinking and genuinely interested in more than simply imperial designs.  Just as an example, the United States in the 19th century actively encouraged its missionaries to go to Asia to teach about worship, values, and faith.  This was unlike the British who banned their missionaries from educating Asia and the Japanese which later imposed state worship on their colonial subjects.  The American interest was cultural and economic before it was strategic.  It was only with the Cold War that the United States was compelled to create strategic relationships, but then used these relationships to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

VC: Like all authors, I enjoyed the conclusion, because it meant the book was done!  Aside from that, I enjoyed very much writing the case study chapters on Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as the stories for each case are different and special in each of their own ways.  There are some wonderful quotes by Asian leaders like Syngman Rhee of Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan that were fun to discover in the archives.  I also enjoyed writing the section in Chapter 7 about the region’s efforts to form a multilateral security organization in 1949.  These efforts are not really covered in other histories.

What is the story behind the cover art?

VC: So, the editors at Princeton and I discussed for a while an appropriate cover for the book.  There were some fantastic pictures in the Dulles papers at Princeton that I had come across, and the one we chose is that of John Foster Dulles at the front in Korea one week before the North Korean invasion of 1950.  The other photo we considered was Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signing a document at the San Francisco conference with Dulles and Dean Acheson standing behind him.  Both photos conveyed the inordinate strength that the United States wielded at the time over these countries, but also an appreciation of the strategic importance of these new allies.   The book is about “control” and these photos seemed to convey the “hands-on” nature of the U.S. commitment.

Victor Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and formerly served as director of Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council. Cha is an award-winning author, receiving awards for his books The Impossible State and Alignment Despite Antagonism. His most recent book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.

James Campbell: Just how polarized are our politics?

campbellThe United States of today is a divided nation, with two sides resting on opposite ends of a political spectrum.  James Campbell’s new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America provides a new and historically grounded perspective on the polarization of America, systematically documenting exactly how and why the current divide came to be. James Campbell recently answered some questions about his book, what exactly has lead to such bitter disputes in the American system, and what this has meant throughout political history.

What is political polarization?

JC: Polarization concerns the level and organization of political conflict in society generally or between groups such as the political parties. Political differences can vary in severity and their relation to one another: cross-cutting or reinforcing. A high level of polarization is one in which there are substantial differences in political perspectives on a wide range of issues organized along an ideological spectrum. Polarization intensifies rather than diffuses conflict. It establishes an “us versus them” politics and it is always the same “us” at odds with the same “them.” High levels of polarization are the basis for bitter disputes, making political compromises more difficult to achieve.

What are Americans polarized about?

JC: The short answer is government. The extent and use of governmental powers is the underlying and organizing subject that causes two sides to be set up for most issues in American politics. It is the great divider setting up quite consistently “us versus them” sides in disputes about public policy. Those with liberal political inclinations tend to be more inclined to see problems as public in nature and best solved by the use of government powers and programs. Conservatives tend to take a more restrained or “last resort” view of the use of government. Views about government and individual responsibilities unify liberals and conservatives against each other.

Why is polarization even an issue? Don’t we know that Americans are polarized?

JC: Most political observers believe that the public and the parties are polarized, but many social scientists doubt that the public is highly polarized. Reviews of survey data of public opinion indicate that extreme views on issue questions are no more likely today than they were 40 years ago. This leads some to believe that polarization of the public is a myth. They suspect that activists and the political parties are polarized, but that the general public is predominantly moderate and not ideological. My research, however, presents evidence that the public is highly polarized, has been so for some time, and has become more so in recent decades. The political parties used to do a poor job representing these polarized views. The realigned parties of the last couple of decades, for better or worse, now represent and accentuate those polarized views.

How can Americans be ideologically polarized when research indicates that they are not very politically sophisticated or informed?

JC: There is no doubt that most Americans are not highly informed about politics or very sophisticated in their political thinking. This does not mean, however, that they cannot be ideological in the sense that they have some fundamental perspectives or values they apply to politics. Pretty much everybody has a sense about what they think is politically right or wrong and that is, at its core, what ideology is about. Unfortunately early studies of political thinking labeled the highest level of political conceptualization as ideological. But ideologies can be based on vastly different levels of political thought, from philosophies to gut instincts. If nothing else, knee-jerk liberals and wing-nut conservatives are both ideological.

How do you know that Americans are highly polarized?

JC: Good question. I examined the extent and change of polarization in the public using three types of evidence. The first was the direct evidence of how people identify their ideological perspectives–liberal, moderate, conservative, or they don’t know. The second type of evidence was the reported attitudes of the public on various public policy issues. In a sense, this is indirect evidence, since attitudes on the issues may reflect an underlying sense of political values and perspectives. The third type of evidence was circumstantial evidence. It is widely accepted that the political parties in government have become more polarized in recent decades. Assuming that this is the case, a largely moderate public would be expected to react to this change in the parties differently than a highly polarized public. A polarized public would likely respond better to more polarized parties than would a largely moderate public. The analysis of all three types of evidence supported the same set of conclusions: the American public was fairly well polarized in the 1970s and has become more so since then.

Did polarized politics develop from the top-down or from the bottom-up? Did political leaders and activists cause the public to become more polarized or did the public lead the way?

JC: The conventional view has been that the increase in polarization was a top-down process. The idea is that leaders are more sophisticated and attentive to political issues and, therefore, ahead of the curve when it comes to political change. At least in this instance, I found the opposite to be the case. The increased polarization of our political system was instigated by the increased polarization of the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The polarization of leaders lagged that if the public. Leaders are more attentive to political change, but elected leaders also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and the tools (incumbency advantages) to help them do so. The lack of a viable Republican Party in the South also impeded a good deal of leadership change until the early 1990s. The public was not so encumbered. The increase in polarization, at least initially, was a bottom-up process.

James Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of such works as The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote and The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. His most recent book is Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

Aeon Magazine logo

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

Peter Lindert & Jeffrey Williamson: Will the rise in inequality ever stop?


By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson

Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?

How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.

$100 bills lying on the sidewalk

Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.

Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.

Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.

We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.

Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.

Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.

Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.

Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.

History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.

Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes

Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.

It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.

Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.

* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

unequal gains lindert jacketPeter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.