Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

33612876440_84da454bc6_oIf you’ve lived through a period of unfettered market forces like Thatcher’s Britain then you’ll know all about the bankruptcy of that ideology and the social misery it unleashed.

Here in the American oligarchy of 2017 the same failed economic dogma holds sway: get government out of the way and let businesses get on with the business of making money. All boats rise on a tide of wealth creation, right?

Except, of course, they don’t. We’ve seen wealth flow into fewer and fewer hands, the ‘trickle down’ theory exposed for what it is and economic polarity widen to unprecedented levels.

The American Dream, exalting a meritocracy in which anyone can make it if they work hard enough, has become a nightmare; just ask any one of the 43m citizens living in poverty, or those living in “food Insecure” households (feedingamerica.org).

The amnesia of the book’s title references political memory loss about the period and the conditions that created America’s greatest prosperity, 1945 through to the 1970s.

During that time the mixed economy delivered the steepest increases in income, wealth, education, health, longevity, opportunity and security the country has ever seen.

Hacker and Pierson demolish the idea that small government is good government and show with sober, statistical analysis that it is an essential partner in capitalist enterprises.

Their examination of the country’s recent history shows the foundations for prosperity came from public investment in education, science, technology and transport.

Government, done right, serves societal needs, not just shareholder value. It intrudes on rampant capitalism with regulations in areas such as pollution, safety and health.

That these kinds of argument need to be restated given the boom and bust scandals of recent times is profoundly depressing.

Anti-government economic fundamentalists are more of a threat to America’s future than any of the inflated menaces of Moslem terrorism, illegal immigration and democratic socialism.

wallaceAmerican Dreamer: A Life of Henry A Wallace –  John C Culver, John Hyde

It’s fascinating to wonder what the world might have been like had Henry Wallace become president of the United States.

No Cold War perhaps, no arms race with the Russians, no domino theories to defend against global Communism, no Korean War nor Bay of Pigs debacles, no need to engage in the disastrous Vietnam War. No segregation. There’d certainly be no need for a wall between the US and Mexico.

Wallace was undone in a shameful night of chicanery at the 1944 Democratic Convention which opened the door for Harry Truman to get the VP ticket and, ultimately, the keys to the White House.

Until then, Wallace’s progressive ideas had saved US agriculture from the boom-and-bust of unfettered market forces and his wider philosophies helped shape FDR’s New Deal.

Fully two years before WW2 was won, while serving as Roosevelt’s vice-president, Wallace was thinking deeply about the peace.

How would the US switch from a military economy while maintaining full employment, how would it raise standards of education and improve health care, what kind of world would be built in the aftermath and what role should America play?

In 1941, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce envisioned a post-war “American century” in which the US could “exert…the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Wallace responded with his “century of the common man” speech in which colonialism would end and there would be neither military nor economic imperialism.

By 1944 he was prophetically warning against the dangers of American Fascism, writing in the New York Times:

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity… They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Widening an existing rift in the Democratic Party, the pejoratively dubbed ‘Dreamer’ was becoming a problem and the conservative, pro-business wing wanted him out.

They persuaded FDR, unwell and still consumed by the war, to ignore progressive advisers and to allow Truman to go up against Wallace as the VP candidate. And even though Wallace won the first ballot he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination.

From there, the party machinery went to work, deals were done, Wallace was crushed and when FDR died in April, 1945, the little-known, little-regarded senator from Missouri took the helm.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

image1Matthew Desmond deep dives into the lives of some of the most wretched people in America and produces findings that are an affront to any civilized society, let alone the world’s richest

Tracking eight families through Milwaukee’s dumpiest neighborhoods we get a first-hand account of the misery and the grinding poverty of their existence.

The reasons why they are there and why they can’t break out are mired in complexity but their prospects are unremittingly grim. Nationwide, according to Desmond, there are millions more like them.

Lack of affordable housing with subsequent evictions, exploitation and ghettoization is the core problem and one Desmond believes should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda.

He makes a good case: Not having a roof over your head clearly perpetuates the cycle of suffering and hopelessness.

Had the book given more detailed attention to possible solutions I’d have given it five stars. As it is, there are a scant few pages in the epilogue vaguely outlining a universal housing voucher system and the need for greater legal help for tenants taken to court by landlords.

For anything to really change however, a massive shift in societal attitudes (to this largely black underclass)  is required and that’s a tall order. Still, it’s a start.


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Oregon trail

You can go a long way with enthusiasm: Two thousand miles in the case of journalist, historian and adventurer Rinker Buck.

His covered wagon epic following in the wheel ruts of America’s 19th Century pioneers is an absorbing mix of trail tales, mule-wrangling and brotherly clashes.

Where Rink is measured and cautious, his younger sibling Nick is gung-ho and excitable. Where Rink is mannered and polite, Nick is brash and vulgar. It’s the bickering between them that provides much of the color.

There’s plenty of humor, too, in the characters of the mules where only one is reliably steady. The second beast exhibits the airs of a prom queen and the third a skittishness bordering on crazy.

They’re a handful for sure and potential dangers are ever present. Items as innocuous expansion joints on a bridge, or a plastic bag snagged on wire and snapping in the breeze, risk spooking the animals with risky consequences for the four-ton rig.

The history of the trail is richly fascinating and it’s here where the book is at its best.

Far from the migration being a deliberate movement, Rink paints details of the varied reasons for joining the exodus: a country riven with clashes between ethnic populations for jobs and space, bitter religious denominational spats and an economy lurching from boom to bust.

Flooding the West with pioneers also suited the purpose of Congress in overwhelming Britain’s lucrative but thinly-staffed fur-trading empire managed by the Hudson Bay Company. And, of course, there was gold fever.

There are some great anecdotes about how the early pioneers were scammed by merchants into oversupplying their wagons. Heavyweight items dumped within the first few miles were recovered by traders and sold again to the next gullible group.

Animals abandoned in the morning by one wagon train were shot and eaten in the evening by members of the one that followed, using utensils that had also been left behind.

Pollution, disease and death were constant companions of the 400,000 or so who made the journey. The Hollywood version would have you believe most were killed by marauding Indians, but filthy water, questionable hygiene and dysentery took the highest toll. And native people, lacking immunity to diseases brought in by the settlers, were cut down as well.

Rink isn’t shy about confronting myths of old, or those being created now, reserving especial odium for the Mormons’ renaming of Devil’s Gate to Martin’s Cove as part of the church’s “parable of noble suffering”.

There are instances where the book descends into mawkish, Waltonesque territory that I could have done without. This is where Rink sheds wagonloads of Catholic guilt about not being at his dying father’s bedside, of always being a disappointment to him and of his own general feelings of inadequacy.

However, movie executives will, I’m sure, be champing at the bit for a family friendly version of this modern-day glimpse into How The West Was Really Won.