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Featured Image: Hartford, Conn. – Underwood Typewriter Plant – owned by Olivetti, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.39665

 

Money Matters

Our focus on the new edited volume, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century continues as University of Maryland historian David M.P. Freund explores economic policy notably the government’s role as “monetary sovereign.” Freund recently discussed his research and the value of applying heterodox economic analysis to the study of American history in a podcast for “Money on the Left” which is mentioned below as well. You can see The Metropole’s overview of Shaped by the State here along with our interview with Andrew Kahrl and his exploration of the property assessments and Black taxpayers here

By David M.P. Freund 

At a social function several years ago I was introduced to a colleague, who is a rather prominent historian of the United States, and he asked me about my research. When I answered that I was writing a book about money, banking, and financial policy he replied—without missing a beat—that the topic “makes my eyes glaze over” and then, a minute or so later, turned away to talk with someone else. No, it wasn’t polite, but I’ve always appreciated his unfiltered response, which was sort of a caricature of the reaction that I get from a lot of people, including academics, when I raise the subject. And so while I recognize that these topics might not seem scintillating at first glance, they demand our attention and some questioning of economic orthodoxies. Testing the conventional wisdom about finance and its history has the potential to really shake things up.

My chapter in Shaped by the State argues that if we are to reckon fully with public policy’s impacts on the American economy and the built environment, we need to scrutinize common assumptions about money. In simplest terms, I explore how federal power shapes people’s access to financial resources. Who gets to borrow funds for the purpose of producing or consuming and how do state institutions help determine those outcomes? What is the federal government’s relationship to the markets for money and debt?

To be clear, this is not a study of the federal budget and government spending priorities; this is not about “fiscal policy,” traditionally conceived (although it has important implications for that subject). Instead, it concerns the state’s role, as a monetary sovereign,[1] in both the creation and distribution of money and debt, a different but no less important source of unequal development and persistent inequality in modern America.

417URUZrQ9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI began exploring the government’s hand in the making of inequality in a book about race and federal housing policy called Colored Property (Chicago, 2007) and so this new project has distinctly metropolitan origins. In Colored Property, I argue that the federal government created a new kind of discriminatory market for housing in the 1930s, one that financed construction and sales in new ways by reinventing and subsidizing mortgage lending. Of equal importance, the new federal presence popularized the mythical narrative that suburban growth and the meteoric rise of white homeownership rates were strictly “free market” outcomes. The federal state helped to create wealth in housing and structure racially the market that distributed that wealth, while simultaneously concealing its foundational contributions to both of these processes.

While writing that book I was puzzled by scholars’ characterizations of money and debt, because they seemed to be at odds with the documentary record of the state’s growing influence. And I soon learned that these characterizations are faithful to conventional, textbook treatments of finance. Standard economic theory portrays money as a commodity-like token that, by representing value, facilitates extensive barter-like networks of exchange (it has other functions as well). Debt, by contrast, is portrayed as a contractual arrangement to “borrow” someone else’s money now, in exchange for a promise to “repay” that money later, plus an accompanying charge for the privilege (i.e., interest). In other words, money enables you to buy stuff whereas debt helps you make special arrangements for using other people’s money to buy stuff. According to this logic, you cannot “make a purchase” directly with a debt instrument. And money is not debt.

Of equal importance—and again curious to me, in light of the documentary trail—standard theory treats money and debt as “exogenous” to economic growth. By this economists mean that financial instruments are useful to facilitate exchange but not, in the final analysis, essential to the growth process, because exchange would theoretically continue without them (and would naturally lead the economy towards full employment). They argue that “money is only a mechanism”—to cite a forerunner of modern macroeconomic theory—“by which [a] gigantic system of barter is carried out.”[2] In this telling, economic growth is a “real sector” phenomenon, rooted in the use of “factors of production” and driven by individual choices about exchange, while the financial sector helps people arrange their wealth and make strategic decisions about spending. Finance helps people exchange efficiently.

Two things about this conventional wisdom should concern us. Again, it does not line up comfortably with the historical record. Consider the mortgage revolution. Beginning in the 1930s and for decades thereafter, federal insurance programs created valuable financial assets (home mortgages), which in turn created new wealth in housing. The exercise of state power built new homes and enabled people to gain equity in private property by sanctioning, insuring, and facilitating the circulation of debt. And this creation of new financial instruments produced wealth that the “real” sector, on its own, would not have otherwise produced. Indeed, federal officials struggled to convince lenders and borrowers alike to experiment with a new and untested long-term mortgage. The state literally created a market.

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Sign of Federal Housing Administration housing. San Diego, California, photograph by Lee Russell, May 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Second, and crucial to understanding debates about the sources of inequality, the conventional narrative about finance and free markets performed—and continues to perform—important political work. In the case of mortgage lending, it enabled contemporaries (public officials, bankers, homebuyers) and subsequent observers (economists and historians) to radically misrepresent the federal government’s stamp on the post-war housing market and its racial geography. If one agrees with the orthodox premise that the financial sector cannot be a motor of wealth creation—that it, instead, merely “unleashes” generative powers already latent in the “real” economy—then one can earnestly believe that the government’s creation of debt instruments is not economically “productive” or wealth-producing. By this logic, federal mortgage programs did not create and distribute wealth in housing or, for that matter, a host of related sectors. Rather, the story goes, new state capacity merely “freed up” the private sector so that it could perform this important work.

It was this apparent distortion of the state’s record that sent me down a rabbit hole of examining financial policy in light of monetary theory. The result is a series of essays and a book-in-progress called State Money: Economic Growth and Market Mythologies in Modern America, in which I take a deep dive into the mechanics of finance and debates over the nature of money. Both of these subjects are sampled in my “State Building” chapter in Shaped By the State.

The big take-aways are pretty straight-forward. First—and this is regularly met by blank stares—the orthodox economic models informing most historical scholarship on banking, debt, and financial policy are grounded in a story about finance that does not appear to have happened. We cannot document the “origins story” about money and credit that undergirds basic textbook economics—the claim that money first emerged in ancient societies to replace barter (which was inconvenient and limited people’s options) and that credit forms developed later, to further facilitate this barter-like exchange. Nor can we document that money forms, to this day, necessarily operate differently from credit. A vast heterodox scholarship in economics, sociology, history, and anthropology has shown instead that our conventional monetary instruments have their origin in debt instruments: basically in IOUs, or “promises to pay.” It demonstrates that monetary creation, which is performed both by banks and monetary sovereigns, represents the issuing of debt. And it demonstrates that the issuing of debt is essential to productive processes, to economic growth. Orthodox economists have consistently refused to address this critique, however, and that should trouble us. Historians should be skeptical of an economic conceptual universe that is grounded in a fictional account of money’s history.

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Federal Reserve Building. Front of whole Federal Reserve Building from center, photography by Theodore Horydczak, between 1920 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The second takeaway relates to a more familiar topic—the quarter century of financial reform initiated with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 and culminating with the Emergency Banking Act of 1935—and illustrates the stakes in what might otherwise seem an arcane debate among monetary theorists. By accepting economic orthodoxy about money and debt, histories of financial policy regularly mask the federal state’s assumption of important new powers over the American economy. For example, these early 20th century reforms consolidated and vastly enhanced the U.S. government’s authority to issue a sovereign currency, to ensure the value of bank-issued deposits, and to support materially new markets for debt spending (through a host of “selective credit programs”). I have not encountered a scholar—in person or in print—who disagrees about these fundamental changes in state capacity. But the consensus view is that these reforms had no impact on the dynamics of the growth process—that is, on the market mechanisms which drive the economy’s production of real wealth (in things). These reforms helped to unleash real sector productive capacities, the story goes, but were neither essential to nor constitutive of the growth process.

Now step back and consider this familiar history of reform in light of the heterodox work on money and debt. If creating monetary instruments and issuing debt are economically productive—and I agree with generations of writers who argue this point—then the U.S. government gained unprecedented authority in the early 20th century to drive economic growth and dictate the allocation of its benefits. The federal government’s new stake in the currency and in the mechanics of American finance—I discuss specifics in the chapter—gave the state unprecedented power to shape the marketplace.[3]

Note that the heterodox view of money also challenges profoundly conventional accounts of fiscal policy: namely, the claim that the U.S. Treasury collects private revenues (by taxing, charging fees, and borrowing) and then recirculates them when it spends. Money’s well-documented history demonstrates, in sharp contrast, that spending by a monetary sovereign is different in kind from spending by the private sector. And it shows that money creation by a monetary sovereign (which is what the U.S. Treasury does, with help from the Fed, when it spends) is different in kind from money creation by the banking system (which is what banks do when they create checking deposits). When the U.S. government spends, it adds net financial assets to the economy. Neither private investment nor private (bank) money creation have such power.

8d66eb17bb7d02ca4856ab443a78f2148cafbb129f58a3c81282007c6fe24ff2I elaborate on this point a bit in the “Money on the Left” podcast linked here and above. But the best introductions are the writings of L. Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton, and other scholars associated with Modern Monetary Theory. Kelton’s contributions have been especially visible of late (in Bloomberg and The New York Times, for example) in part because of her work with Congress and with Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.

In short, money matters in ways that conventional renderings of finance too often ignore. Money is a form of debt and debt obligations both enable and structure economic development. For these reasons, public policy’s history of shaping creditor-debtor relationships deserves prominent place in our study of the American past and present.

Featured image (at top): FHA posters, Ewing and Harris, 1937-1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

David M.P. Freund, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, is the author of  Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban American (University of Chicago Press, 2007) which among other awards received the Kenneth Jackson Book Award from the Urban History Association in 2007. He is currently completing State Money: Economic Growth and Market Mythologies in Modern America, a history of financial policy and free market ideology in the modern United States. 

[1] A government that monopolizes currency issue, denominated in the money of account, in this case the U.S. dollar.

[2] Alfred Marshall, Official Papers of Alfred Marshall, ed. by J.M. Keynes (Macmillan, 1926), 115. In a standard textbook account published in 1973, Paul Samuelson explained that “if we strip exchange down to its barest essentials and peel off the obscuring layer of money, we find that trade between individuals or nations largely boils down to barter.” Paul A. Samuelson, Economics (McGraw Hill, 9th edition, 1973), 55. As later editions explained, “societies that traded extensively simply could not overcome the overwhelming handicaps of barter.” Samuelson and William D. Norhous, Economics (McGraw-Hill, 18th edition, 2005), 511. Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald agreed in 2003 that money is “hardly essential,” but rather “a convenient way of keeping score” and “of ascertaining who has claims on resources, . . . [T]hat is all. . ..” Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald, Towards a New Paradigm in Monetary Economics (Cambridge, 2003), 293-4. For introductions to the evolution—and distortion—of Keynesian assumptions regarding money and risk, see J. Barkley Rosser, Jr., “Uncertainty and expectations,” and L. Randall Wray, “Money and inflation,” in Richard P.F. Holt and Steven Pressman, A New Guide to Post Keynesian Economics (Routledge, 2001) 52-64, 79-91.

[3] On earlier periods of reform by monetary sovereigns, essential reading includes L. Randall Wray, Money and Credit in Capitalist Economies (Edward Elgar, 1990), chp. 2; Geoffrey Ingham, The Nature of Money (Polity, 2004), chps. 5-6; Christine Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford, 2014); and Desan, “Money as a Constitutional Medium,” Law and Political Economy (May 14, 2019) https://lpeblog.org/2019/05/14/all-debts-public-and-private/?fbclid=IwAR1DAijmSL6PeZSKhEcSqkSUpDEuKfPtivp8FGN293O5UtP5zLl86JYEt-8

Fiscal Fright in NYC: A Review of Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Kim Phillips-Fein. Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017. 417pp. $9.98. (Paperback) 
Review by Michael R. Glass

By 1965, a $255 million gap had opened in the New York City budget. To cover the city’s operating expenses, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. decided to “borrow now, repay later.” After all, he reasoned, “a good loan is better than a bad tax.” His successors, John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, made the same choice. Each mayor turned to short-term loans with the hope that additional tax revenues or federal aid would materialize. They did not. In the spring of 1975, the banks refused to purchase the next round of bond issuances, citing concerns that the city had exceeded its constitutional debt limit. The country’s largest metropolis teetered on the edge of default. Kim Phillips-Fein recounts these events and the social conflicts that followed in Fear City. The result is a magisterial account of the New York City fiscal crisis.

 

Although critics would attribute the city’s fiscal woes to profligate spending, Phillips-Fein argues that the budget gap was the product of several interlocking structural processes. Deindustrialization steadily undercut the city’s economic foundation, as manufacturers shifted their operations to southern states and then abroad. Federal housing and highway policies siphoned middle-class white residents to the suburbs, depriving the city of their tax receipts. And while the federal government briefly injected additional resources during the War on Poverty, the Nixon and Ford administrations shrank the funding for those programs. City officials were left the stewards of a robust public sector that included tuition-free universities, municipal hospitals, and inexpensive subways, but it all rested upon a dwindling tax base. They plugged the gaps with loans upon loans until the day of reckoning eventually arrived.

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Three boys with tough expressions smoking cigarettes, photograph by Bill Cunningham, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sophisticated in its methodology, Fear City tells the story of the ensuing crisis from multiple vantage points. The middle chapters focus on the negotiations over bond sales and the terms of a possible aid package from Washington. These meetings triggered a process of elite class formation that brought together investment bankers, corporate executives, and real estate magnates; the crisis “made these upper echelons look to each other.”   As officials begged for their investment, these elites demanded layoffs, service cuts, and tax abatements in return. The last section shifts attention to the communities and institutions hardest hit by austerity and the activists who rallied in their defense. Weaving together multiple archives and toggling between scales, Fear City narrates the crisis from both above and below.

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Albert Shanker, Pres of U.F.T. holds report issued by mediators to Mayor Robert Wagner that helped to stop strike threat of teacher, photo by Walter Albertin, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What emerges from these divergent perspectives is a crisis that unfolded along competing time horizons. For the members of the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), the agency created to market long-term bonds on behalf of the city, the crisis was a week-to-week scramble to locate investors for the next bond sale. With a deadline looming, for instance, power brokers convinced Albert Shanker, head of the city teachers’ union, to purchase MAC bonds with the teachers’ pension funds after an all-night conversation in his apartment. The union bailout rescued the city hours before it would have declared bankruptcy. For Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor Hugh Carey, who shuttled between meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill in search of aid from tightfisted officials, the fiscal crisis was a succession of deadlines, meetings, and fraught negotiations.

 

Ordinary residents, meanwhile, experienced service reductions in both moments of intense drama and protracted struggles. During the first round of budget cuts, garbage piled up in the streets, class sizes swelled in the schools, and hundreds of laid-off police officers blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. At Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, students barricaded themselves inside the building for several weeks to prevent its closure. Residents of Williamsburg kept their local firehouse open by occupying it for sixteen months straight, dubbing it the “People’s Firehouse.” Although the city nominally ended the crisis when it re-entered the bond market on its own accord in 1979, many services that had been eliminated were never restored, and rates of poverty, drug addiction, and crime all spiked over the next decade.

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African American parishioners arriving at Harlem – Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, photograph by Marilyn Nance, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ultimately, the fiscal crisis fundamentally transformed the city. The budget cuts shrank the scope of the public sector, diminishing not only the level of city services but also citizen expectations of government. The years-long specter of default created what Phillips-Fein calls “the politics of inevitability,” which made alternatives to austerity seem nonexistent. To be sure, New York still maintains a comparatively expansive array of public goods: its subway system, while perennially underfunded and marred by constant delays, remains public and viable; its city university system, while no longer tuition-free, remains fairly affordable. At the same time, officials preserve these services by catering to the corporate executives, white-collar professionals, and tourists that now drive the city’s economy, and they court capital investment through public-private partnerships and tax subsidies. Fiscal discipline, efficiency, and private initiative have become the guiding principles of urban governance.

9780805095258_p0_v4_s600x595.jpgWhile Fear City reads as an origin tale for our current age of inequality, historians would do well to project the fiscal crisis backwards as well as forwards. A question that the book raises, but never fully answers, is how a small number of bankers could bring the entire city to its knees by simply refusing a loan. Phillips-Fein claims that city leaders repeatedly “turned to debt” to evade divisive political debates. Mayors certainly used loans to kick the can down the road, but cities had also depended on other debt instruments in the twentieth century. The literal foundation of the modern metropolis—its roads, bridges, and sewers—had been financed, chiefly, with municipal bonds. With each transaction that financiers brokered, they accrued additional power, and when cities ran up deficits, they proved willing to offer additional loans. By the 1970s, American cities (and suburbs and towns) had become dependent on the support of private financiers to deliver public services—both for the long-term bonds that financed the infrastructure and for the short-term loans that plugged the gaps. In other words, the fiscal crisis did not create the dependence on financiers; rather, it revealed the dependence that had been growing for decades.

Phillips-Fein’s comprehensive account opens new avenues of inquiry for other scholars. By framing the fiscal crisis as a monumental turning point, Fear City asks urban historians to chart the fate of cities under the austerity regimes that arose in the late twentieth century, as well as how decades of “borrow now, repay later” had led cities up to the fiscal cliff.

Featured image (at top): New York City Skyline, Charles and Ray Eames, circa 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Mike Glass is a Ph.D. Candidate in US History at Princeton University. His dissertation explores the history of school finance in suburban Long Island during the postwar era. 

Rethinking “Old Shanghai”: A Review of Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City

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By Taoyu Yang

Isabella Jackson. Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 274 pp. $99.99 (cloth).

No Chinese city has attracted as much attention from academics and the public as Shanghai. The most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, Shanghai for generations has been central both to China’s development and now the global economy. A megacity of 23 million, it is the world’s busiest container port.

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A portion of “Plan of Shanghai” (Sheet 1), original scale 1:15,840. “Heliographed at O.S. from drawings of the 1933 Municipal plan [of Shanghai]”, U.S. Army Map Service, 1945 courtesy of WikiCommons
What long distinguished Shanghai from most other Chinese cities was that it was not controlled by Beijing or a single colonial power, but by local governing bodies beholden to their directors and the almighty dollar, the franc and the pound sterling. These local governments functioned almost as city-states. From the 1840s to the 1940s, what is now called “Old Shanghai” was governed by three distinct administrations each having control over different parts of the city. The largest part of the city remained under Chinese control. A second sector, the French Concession, was famed for its cultural and architectural elegance. Finally, the International Settlement was run jointly by British and Americans, including members from various European nations and later Japan and China. But the British in the International Settlement remained dominant until it was overrun by Japan in the Second World War.

Isabella Jackson’s Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City focuses on The International Settlement and especially its governance by the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC). The focus is appropriate. While the International Settlement constituted only a portion of the city, this sector dominated the larger city politically, financially and culturally.

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Old Shanghai,” March 3, 1920 courtesy of WikiCommons

Jackson argues that the history of the SMC brings into sharp focus what she calls “transnational colonialism,” a type of authority exercised not by big powers but by residents—Westerners and prosperous Chinese and Japanese. This distinctive form of localized colonialism broadly shaped the lives of Shanghai residents and the development of their city. Shanghai was not the only Chinese city governed in this way. Notably, Tianjin, another prominent treaty port in northern China was also shaped by the complexities of transnational colonialism.

Throughout the book, Jackson does a wonderful job of elaborating the diverse functions of the SMC and its idiosyncratic legal status. First and foremost, the SMC served as a conventional city council managing police, fire, and sanitary functions, though, exceptionally, it could also support its own quasi-military force. At times SMC also operated like a company board of directors, with its leaders elected not by shareholders but by a limited number of local tax payers. SMC operations were under-written by tax receipts and revenues sufficient to make governance self-supporting. Thus, the SMC did not have to look to Whitehall or Washington for financial assistance. Jackson notes that transnational dynamics, connections to global capital and the multi-national composition of its membership allowed the SMC to shape the growth and development not just of the International Settlement but also Shanghai itself. Though fundamentally undemocratic—it openly discriminated against the majority of poor Chinese and the many impoverished Russians living in Shanghai—the SMC could also be seen as a benevolent oligarchy, which introduced modern medical and sanitary practices to the city.

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Tennis club, Shanghai, Kiangsu province, China, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The most provocative claim that Jackson makes concerns the nature of colonialism in China. In seeking to define colonialism in China, scholars have utilized terms such as “informal empire” and “semi-colonialism” that seek to capture the qualitative differences between colonialism in Shanghai and in other settings such as British-run India. Jackson contends that these terms tend to downplay the influence of colonialism on Shanghai by characterizing what the city experienced as “lighter-touch” imperial control. Jackson argues that the SMC’s touch was not especially light. The SMC dominated Shanghai as much as any as any imperial power might dominate a colonial city. But the nature of SMC’s domination and repression was complex, and that is the story that Jackson tells so well.   And in giving us insights into the “transnational nature of colonialism” we begin to see what made Shanghai distinctive. We are indebted to Jackson for opening up a way to understand a special form of colonialism.

Despite what may seem a narrow focus on a single part of a single city, Jackson’s study should interest a broad range of readers. Thematically, it addresses numerous topics critical to our understanding of urban history and municipal governance, including global financial connections, policing, public health, and social reform. Methodologically, it offers insights into how transnational elements shape local institutions. It is no exaggeration to say that scholars of urban history, Shanghai studies, modern Chinese history, colonial studies, and transnational history will all find Jackson’s monograph necessary reading.

Featured image (at top): Old Shanghai Teahouse, Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai, China, photograph by Indy Randhawa, January 16, 2013

Taoyu Yang is a PhD student of modern Chinese history at University of California, Irvine. His research interests concern colonial history, urban history, history of modern China, and critical historiography. His dissertation project examines the role of multi-imperial interaction in the production of urban space in Tianjin and Shanghai, two of the largest treaty port cities in China from 1840s to 1940s.

All Stick No Carrot: Racism, Property Tax Assessments, and Neoliberalism Post 1945 Chicago

Our focus on the new edited volume, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century continues as we discuss race and property tax assessments with University of Virginia historian, Andrew Kahrl who contributed the essay, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks: Property Assessments and Black Taxpayer Disadvantage in Urban America.” You can see The Metropole’s overview of Shaped by the State here

In 2017, housing expert Richard Rothstein published The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Whatever one thinks of the title – historians haven’t “forgotten” that the government segregated America, they’ve spent the last four decades revealing it – Rothstein deftly synthesizes decades of scholarship on housing, economic development, and school segregation, demonstrating the ways the government pulled multiple levers to ensure that black homeowners and communities remained secondary to their white counterparts.

This government project united American political leaders across ideological lines. “Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy,” Rothstein writes. “It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders.” It took a constellation of laws, policies, and regulations to establish and maintain: the apotheosis of deliberateness across ideology.[1] This is a position with which the editors and contributors to the edited volume Shaped by the State would largely agree. “Jim Crow was liberalism,” writes Nathan D.B. Connolly in his essay for the collection. “We would do well to consider fundamental elements in liberalism, writ long and writ large: the primacy of private clubs, property ownership, extralegal violence, and state sponsored segregation.” Call it classical liberalism, growth liberalism, civil rights liberalism, or neoliberalism, but they are all supported by the same unequal structure.[2]

As evidenced by Rothstein’s bibliography, he drew upon a wealth of scholarship in his research. Yet, even as historians, sociologists, and others have devoted millions of hours and pages to the issue of segregation, at least one area remains understudied: the history of property tax assessments. “African Americans could save less from their wages because in some (perhaps many) cities, discriminatory property assessments left them with less disposable income than white’s with similar earnings,” notes Rothstein. Excessive property tax assessments carry with them harsh compounding effects: an inability to reinvest in homes for renovation or upkeep, greater vulnerability to tax delinquency and liens, and a general muzzle on black wealth. Despite such pervasive consequences, “no contemporary studies of assessed-to-market value ratios by community and race [exist],” observes Rothstein, “so we cannot say whether discriminatory tax assessments persist to the present time, and if so, in which communities.” [3]

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Enter University of Virginia historian Andrew Kahrl, whose contribution to Shaped by the State explores the issue of property tax assessments mostly in Black Chicago, but also their impact in Gary (Indiana), Atlanta, New York, and Detroit—and in doing so begins to address the very blind spot that Rothstein laments. Undoubtedly, in the post World War II U.S., federal, state, and municipal housing and school policies institutionalized segregation on the American landscape, and the assessment process no less so: “biased assessments played an instrumental role in the uneven development of American cities from the 1950s through the 1970s … [and] helped build and populate” suburbia, notes Kahrl.[4]

Part of a larger project on the effects of property tax assessments in Chicago, in his article for Shaped by the State Kahrl draws upon several of the municipal reports cited by Rothstein, as well as scholarship by historians and sociologists—particularly Isaac Martin and his 2008 work The Permanent Tax Revolt: How Property Tax Transformed American Politics—and several Chicago archives including Special Collections at the University of Illinois Chicago, the Chicago History Museum Research Center, the Center for Economic and Policy Analysis, and Harold Washington Archives and Collections.

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Harold Washington Library, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Kahrl’s first book The Land was Ours explored the history of African American landownership and leisure industry in the coastal Southeast. While conducting research for the book, he discovered a peculiar consistency: assessments persistently increased on black businesses and homes when they competed or interfered with the economic interests of white investors and entrepreneurs. What appeared on its face to be an impartial instrument of measurement, a “supposed tool of observation,” morphed into an state implement “prone to manipulation [and] weaponized … against African American homeowners [and] black owned and operated enterprises,” Kahrl told The Metropole in a recent phone interview.[5]  

Kahrl discovered clues in the black press, where anecdotal evidence abounded—particularly in how often such publications “made references to discriminatory” taxes. Following breadcrumbs dropped by black journalists led him to legal records and tax rolls, where he found a veritable “hidden archive in plain sight” that clearly documented structural bias in property taxes. Moreover, discriminatory assessments not only served as a means to observe the impact and consequences of segregation, they drove it; excessive property taxes deprived black homeowners and communities of resources and wealth thereby putting black property owners at greater risk of tax delinquency, foreclosure, and loss.[6]

How do property taxes and assessments work? First, county tax assessors, often acting as elected officials, appraise the value of a home and then multiply that value by a tax rate set by various municipal government agencies, such as the fire department, police department, schools, and so forth. The total tax rate results from the sum of these rates.[7] While these taxes affect homeowners most directly, tenants often pay higher rents when landlords raise them to make up for property tax increases.

Assessments were as much political decisions as economic ones; assessors used them to curry political favor. “When it comes to property taxes, who you are has often been just as important as what you own in determining what you pay,” Kahrl pointed out, which meant black communities marginalized from the political process carried a heavier tax burden than their white counterparts. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, Bridgeport, the home of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the “nucleus of the local Democratic Party Machine,” had one of the lowest assessment rates in the city, while comparable black communities often paid three times as much in property taxes. Even a heavily biased municipal report on the subject from the 1980s, produced in the interest of the municipal government, acknowledged that more than 40 percent of black communities endured “assessment regressivity.”[8]

 

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Jimmy Carter and Mayor Richard J. Daley at the Illinois State Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, September 9, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ironically, black homeowners have been an oft ignored actor in metropolitan history despite playing a central role, yet Kahrl reveals one of Shaped by the State’s larger points by focusing on their battles: the larger system of American governance rests on inequalities, often racial, and that when neoliberal policies took hold over this structure, it reified them. In the face of deindustrialization, cities handed out reduced assessments to corporations and industries, which in turn encouraged competition between metropolitan regions to hand out the best underassessment. A race to the bottom ensued. “Many of the features of urban governance that critics today describe as neoliberal are rooted in the administrative practices and prerogatives of the Jim Crow state,” writes Kahrl, which “then bloomed during the apex of postwar liberalism – a period and a politics often framed as the counterpoint to our neoliberal present – serving as instruments of racial segregation, white middle class homeowner advantage, and corporate capital accumulation.”[9]

During the 1960s and 1970s, the white homeowner identity (which at least rhetorically embodied the great Silent Majority) wielded its political power deftly uniting across ideological lines and lobbying to maintain a system based on racial inequality in colorblind language of property rights, free markets and individualism. African American property holders did not receive the same hearing from government officials or the broader public.

During the 1970s, Illinois State Senator and future mayor Harold Washington organized black homeowners in protest over the disproportionate tax burden shouldered by African American communities. Chicago officials greeted them with indifference. Municipal leaders labeled the “black tax” a myth; the newly elected County Assessor Thomas Hynes responded to the protest with a “a message tailored to appeal to white suburban voters,” Kahrl writes, “many of whom viewed urban minorities strictly as tax recipients (not taxpayers), scoffed at claims of institutional racism (especially those issued by outspoken black politicians), and equated progressive tax reform with tax hikes and increased aid for the ‘undeserving poor.’”[10]

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Assessment Map, Cook County, IL courtesy of Andrew Kahrl

Part of what made the assessment issue so controversial was that it coincided with deindustrialization, white backlash to school integration, and distrust in government (notably due to the Watergate scandal). Municipalities struggled to keep white homeowners, businesses, and industries within city limits, thus gearing much of their public and taxation policies toward these entities. To compete, cities adopted neoliberal politics “characterized by tax breaks, concessions, and non-enforcement for corporations and developers as well as a benefits-received principle, in which levels of services correspond with individuals’ tax contributions for everyone else.” In order to make up for declining city coffers, municipalities adopted new “revenue collection schemes” to make up for loss while ignoring rampant “corporate tax avoidance.” In particular, many of these new revenue schemes targeted middle- and working-class communities of color.[11]

The opaque nature of assessments masks their pernicious effects. Often, the assessed value of a home used by officials falls well short of market value, giving a homeowner the idea that he or she is “getting a deal.” Arcane rules and a complicated bureaucracy make appealing assessments a complex process beyond the means of many low-income residents, Kahrl asserted in his interview. Along with the selective nature of the actual assessments and with the use of fractional assessments, the system is “designed to shield the Assessor’s Office from public scrutiny,” he noted. A recent 2018 report by the Illinois Policy Institute came to a similar, simple conclusion: “a needlessly complex appraisal system often resulting in unfair or inaccurate property assessments.”

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African-American family living in crowded quarters, photograph by Russell Lee, Chicago, Illinois, April 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For black families, be they renters or homeowners, this assessment process—in conjunction with housing segregation—highlighted the limits placed on their economic and social mobility. Lending discrimination and a panoply of exclusionary practices meant black homeowners lacked the mobility of their white counterparts, Kahrl pointed out, making them targeted, captive communities who are more vulnerable to these sorts of tax regimes. The ability of middle-class whites to decamp for rival cities or surrounding suburbs meant that government policies would be aimed at retaining them, since their African American counterparts lacked similar options. Tax expert Diane Paul summarized the system simply and darkly: “If [the] goal [of the assessor] is to maximize revenue, then discrimination against blacks … is rational.”[12]

Due to these complexities, tax reform, though necessary, came at the expense of white homeowners who benefitted from the larger racially biased infrastructure of housing markets. Federal and state policies naturalized the benefits white owners accrued at the expense of their minority counterparts, which meant property tax reforms would impact middle- and working-class white homeowners.

In Illinois, following post-1967 reforms, homes in largely white “appreciating markets” received property tax bills two to three times larger than the previous year.[13] Future-Mayor Harold Washington, who led Chicago’s black homeowners in protest – even uniting the historically divided political leadership of the city’s black communities on the south and west side – directly acknowledged this reality. “All you’re saying is that you’ve been unjustly enriched with our money, and you don’t want to put it back … In plain simple English[,] if your taxes are lower, because mine are higher, then you [have been] unjustly enriched. I don’t expect you to give it up willingly, no I expect you to go kicking, screaming and yelling, into the twentieth century, but you’re going there one way or another.”[14]

Some critics might suggest that grounding a study of government malfeasance and exploitation in a city renowned for segregation, graft, and political corruption serves to highlight the exception rather than the rule. Kahrl disagrees. Chicago boasts a “thriving industry of predatory tax buyers … a whole class of investors who buy tax liens on property, and not coincidentally often in overtaxed neighborhoods that end up over-represented on tax rolls.” Illinois law allows for third-party sales of tax liens, creating a large market for the sale of debt; all aspects of the American economy that one sees replicated at the national level. Frequently, homes sold at tax sales were homes victimized by over-assessments, Kahrl contends.

If anything, the city’s history of corruption encourages awareness and activism. Chicago citizens might be cynical but they are very “observant to these discrepancies,” placing offices like the Cook County Assessor’s under greater scrutiny then elsewhere. “In many ways, Chicago might just be a more visible manifestation of the issue that ails” so many black, brown, and gradually, but increasingly, some white communities.[15]

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Street scene African American neighborhood, Chicago, IL, photograph by Russell Lee, April 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The value of Kahrl’s study, and really the larger Shaped by the State volume, lies in its ability to use the various examples marshaled by Kahrl and others to demonstrate the “lived experience of the neoliberal present.” Agreeing with fellow contributor Nathan D.B. Connolly, Kahrl emphasizes that, under segregation, black Americans have long lived the austere neoliberal reality.[16] For Kahrl, African American history, particularly in regard to cities, operates as “the canary in the coal mine”; “conditions in black America alert us to the structural problems” that will eventually afflict all of us. The exploitation of property taxes illustrate the long-term effects of tax cuts at the top that fail to trickle down, leaving the most vulnerable populations to be ravaged by exploitative practices. As a result, governments have to cut services to their communities—casting aside the public to chase capital. Starved of revenue due to decades of tax cuts and subsidies for the wealthy, politically connected, and industry, cities increasingly depended on the over taxation of minority communities and regressive forms of taxation. Ferguson Missouri’s police department, as evidenced by a 2015 Department of Justice report, extracted revenue from its black population through tickets and fees levied at will. Such taxation policies are regrettably common.

“We need to look beyond politics and focus on the policies of the administrative state,” Kahrl asserts.[17] Indeed, one way or another, we all pay property taxes, and the reality is that we are all being taken. Understanding this commonality and focusing on the overarching structures that exploit us, rather than the less pervasive “politics” that divide us, will yield a more promising understanding of the past and the present. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill once opined, but maybe not quite the way he meant it.

Featured image (at top): Harold Washington on the campaign trail during the 1983 Chicago Mayoral Election. 

[1] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, (NY: Liveright Publishing, 2017), xii.

[2] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 64-65.

[3] Rothstein, The Color of Law, 169-172.

[4] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short End of Both Sticks: Property Assessments and Black Taxpayer Disadvantage in Urban America,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 191-192.

[5] Andrew Kahrl, interview with author, May 6, 2019.

[6] Andrew Kahrl, interview with author, May 6, 2019

[7] Rothstein, The Color of Law, 169.

[8] Kahrl, “The Short End of Both Sticks,” 208, 201; Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

[9] Kahrl, “The Short End of Both Sticks,” 192.

[10] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 204.

[11] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 206-207; Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

[12] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 197.

[13] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 206.

[14] Andrew Kahrl, “The Short Ends of Both Sticks,” 205.

[15] Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

[16] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 62-95.

[17] Andrew Kahrl, interview with the author, May 6, 2019.

 

Member of the Week: Hong Zhang

Hong PictureHong Zhang

Associate Professor of History

University of Central Florida

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research focuses largely on the history of Tianjin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Located about 120 kilometers southeast of Beijing, Tianjin is one of the four centrally administered province-level municipalities in China and the second largest city in north China. The city rose to political and economic prominence mainly during the late nineteenth century. The Convention of Peking of 1860, which concluded the Second Opium War between China and Anglo-French powers, sealed the fate of Tianjin and turned it into a treaty port and opened it up to foreign consulates and entrepreneurs. Concomitant with the designation of Tianjin as a treaty port in 1860 was the launching of the national reform movement by the Qing government, which soon appointed prominent proponents of the movement as governor generals of Zhili (now Hebei) province headquartered in Tianjin, who turned the city into a political and economic stage in north China to implement the modernization projects. Tianjin thus became a center for extensive military and economic reforms in north China. The co-existence of foreign commercial and cultural activities and Chinese endeavors as well as the interaction between the two moved Tianjin out of the shadow of Beijing and turned it into a pole of modernity and into a city that was more modern in its facilities and infrastructures than Beijing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am especially interested in the transformation of Tianjin as a result of the interaction, negotiation, and competition for influence and power between foreigners and Chinese.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am teaching History of Chinese Civilization and Modern China this semester. My Modern China class relates well to my research. Standard history textbooks on modern Chinese history tend to focus heavily on wars and political upheavals, very often with only a brief allusion to the dynamic urban culture of the Republican era. However, political turmoil, warfare, and urban ills failed to represent the whole picture. A closer look at Tianjin of the Republican period reveals a cosmopolitan, multi-colored, and dynamic city. My teaching balances political events with cultural and social happenings and incorporates copious visual materials which constitutes a significant part of my research on Tianjin. For example, Beiyang Huabao, a pictorial published in Tianjin between 1926 and 1937, provides vivid images and rich materials on Tianjin in particular and on Republican urban China at large. Its colorful pages demonstrate the juxtaposition between things indigenous and things Western. My students  very much enjoy a look into Republican urban China through the visual lens.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

My article titled “Yuan Shikai and the Significance of His Troop Training at Xiaozhan, Tianjin, 1895-1899” was published in the Chinese Historical Review last month. I became interested in the topic while doing research on Tianjin. This article explores Yuan Shikai’s troop training at Xiaozhan and its impact upon Yuan’s military and political careers and activities. China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 shocked a number of high-ranking government officials into seeking ways to establish a truly modernized army in the Western fashion. Yuan Shikai, a much maligned political figure in modern Chinese history due especially to his ill-fated move to turn the Republic of China into a new imperial dynasty, was appointed commander in charge of troop training at Xiaozhan, Tianjin. Yuan’s military endeavors at Xiaozhan created a powerful army, earned him the loyalty of capable generals, and paved the way for his eventual rise to not only military but also political power. Recently, the Tianjin municipal government has rebuilt Yuan’s troop training site and named it the Xiaozhan Troop Training Park. The park has been open to the public since 2008. The local government has also made the site part of its “Viewing Tianjin Through the Lens of Modern China” Project. Like other recently rebuilt historical sites in Tianjin, the Xiaozhan Troop Training Park attempts to underscore the city’s political and military prominence in modern Chinese history.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I believe I can learn a lot from young scholars in urban studies. Since urban history can be approached from many different angles/perspectives, it is important to keep an open mind, read extensively, and follow the latest theories and arguments in related fields.

In addition to your research, you have taken on two translation projects. How did that come about, and do you have any advice or wisdom for scholars who might be interested in translating scholarly work?

I translated two scholarly articles, “Mothers and Sons in Warring States and Han China, 453BCE – 220 CE” by Miranda Brown and “Shifting Identities: Courtesans and Literati in Song China” by Beverly Bossler, into Chinese, which were included in Women’s Studies: A Collection of Contemporary Western Studies on Chinese History published by Shanghai Guji Chubanshe in 2012. Because of my research interest in gender studies, the editor approached me with the translation project. The translation, however, entailed much more work than I expected. The two English articles examine mother-son relations of the Warring States and Han periods and courtesans of the Song Dynasty while my work on women in China focus more on the contemporary period. Consequently, the translation work also meant conducting a lot of research on the history of ancient Chinese women. It was fun and enlightening but also time-consuming. So, one probably ought to think twice before taking on a translation job, especially if it does not relate directly to one’s own research area.

Beyond the Political History Paradigm: The new edited volume Shaped the State and Urban History

“Political history — a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics — was once a dominant, if not the dominant, pursuit of American historians,” professors Frederick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood noted in a controversial 2016 New York Times editorial. “But somewhere along the way, such work fell out of favor with history departments … As a result, the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” The two historians lamented what they perceived as the fragmentation of the sub-field into a cacophony of voices that made it difficult to separate “the signal from the noise,” to paraphrase Nate Silver. Responses came quickly on social media and the NYT printed nearly half a dozen letters to the editors both in support of and opposition to Logevall and Osgood’s argument.

About a year earlier the Miller Center at the University of Virginia held a conference, “Seeing beyond the Partisan Divide,” that brought together a host of scholars to “construct alternative frameworks for studying twentieth century political history.” Their efforts resulted in the recently published edited volume of essays, Shaped by the State (University of Chicago Press).

The conference preceded Logevall and Osgood’s editorial by almost a year and the edited volume followed it by nearly three. During this four-year interval, historians critically engaged the issue—and the contributors to Shaped by the State were no exception. Rather than push forward the traditional left-right/blue-red/liberal-conservative paradigm which Logevall and Osgood’s framing of the argument implicitly promoted, Shaped by the State reveals the structures that have created our political reality and shines a bright light on the continuities that become apparent when we refuse to place “politics” in a binary framing.

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Neoliberalism word cloud courtesy of https://philebersole.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/the-assumptions-and-logic-of-neoliberalism/

What sorts of continuities do the authors discuss? Primarily, neoliberalism. In recent years observers have deployed the term to describe the current political and economic structure of the nation. As Kim Phillips-Fein notes in her historiographical contribution to the volume, neoliberalism as a concept now includes “the broadest dynamics of contemporary politics, and the emergence of a political sensibility that spans both political parties.”[1] The term, she argues, did not really come into broad usage until the 1990s, yet in many ways it is not new. Nor is neoliberalism tied to a particular ideology at least in regard to the left-right/blue-red/liberal-conservative paradigm; liberals and conservatives alike have harnessed their policies to this austere political vehicle. If historians only view political history under the left-right paradigm they surrender to “a hegemonic framework that reinforces artificial boundaries and locates policy formation and political conflict within boundaries and locates policy formation and political conflict within binaries rather than along spectrums,” writes Matthew Lassiter in the volume’s concluding chapter.[2]

Yet how can anything “neo” not be new, or at the very least an update of a historical concept or categorization? “Market forces” in American life, in political and economic rhetoric and policy are long established structurally; the language of ‘free markets”, particularly the idea that they represent a natural, unfettered requirement of democracy dominates American political discourse from its earliest days. For much of this history, these allegedly impartial forces of the market have nonetheless excluded large swaths of the population, notably non-whites and especially African Americans. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the discriminatory edifice constructed by the government during the 1930s; when the civil rights and Black Power movements forced change, Americans recast racism as a personal rather than structural problem, thereby obscuring the ways in which the larger system continued to marginalize groups. “Letting the ‘market’ decide became the meeting place of segregationist, liberal, and libertarian defense of white power,” Nathan D.B. Connolly writes in his essay.[3]

When viewed from this vantage point, the neoliberalism that many hail as a new development and also decry for hollowing out employment, diminishing government intervention, and privileging the wealthy and big businesses over the collective population resembles what Blacks have endured for centuries. “Indeed, to live as a ‘Negro’ under Jim Crow was to live in a so-called neoliberal age before the term had become fashionable. What we are experiencing today may simply be the black side of liberalism writ large, the blackening of the American polity as a whole. Whatever it is, there is nothing ‘neo’ about it,” asserts Connolly.[4] We are not in the middle of a new age, but rather an extension of the old one. Admittedly some aspects of our modern political and economic structures are new, but not the incentives that drive them, the parameters that bound them, and the foundations that uphold them.

In some ways, Shaped by the State is reminiscent of the seminal 1989 work, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (NDO) a collection of essays that announced the death of Roosevelt’s social welfare state and ushered in what has come to be referred to as the age of neoliberalism (though to be clear none of the essays in NDO specifically used the term). Its contributors dutifully considered how multiple viewpoints and movements have worked to undermine the New Deal political order that grew out of FDR’s New Deal, and, while critical of the New Right, also assailed Democratic leaders for “vacillating and half hearted efforts … to make good on the promises of equality and opportunity so essential to the legitimacy of their political order.”[5]

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This mural dedicated to the New Deal at the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, Trenton, New Jersey pictorially captures the problematic aspects of New Deal legislation i.e. the privileging of white labor and interests over those of others; photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Editors Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer credit NDO for incorporating “multiple traditions” into the contest that is American politics and for taking conservative and populist ideas seriously, which in turn led to a more nuanced and considered understanding of American political history. However, while valuable analytically and certainly a landmark work in the field, NDO’s left-right paradigm, like a fog enveloping the land, obscured a great deal as well: “it tended to subsume other crises, structures, patterns, and experiences of citizenship and historical development within the framework of these relatively few, unitary political traditions and established big narratives around the concept of crisis.”[6] NDO’s contributors and editors succeeded in acknowledging the ways in which the New Deal structure abandoned the class consciousness that had made it such a force in the 1930s and failed to deliver the same rights and benefits to communities of color as it did their white counterparts. Yet they viewed these results in strict binary formation: “If the New Deal ushered in a Reformation in American political life, then arguably the reign of Ronald Reagan constituted a Counter-Reformation.”[7]

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Vice President Rockefeller addresses congressional Black Caucus full employment forum, here Nelson is shaking hands with Representative Shirley Chisholm, Rep. Walter Fauntroy and others look on, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, May 20, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

NDO emerged just as the “transnational turn,” as it has come to be known, unfolded in the 1990s; contributors to the 1989 volume rarely considered how transnational forces shaped developments. Shaped by the State addresses this issue in several places. For example, Stuart Schrader explores the rise of the carceral state through the lens of New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller but places the notorious Rockefeller drug laws in an international context. The “aperture” of the burgeoning carceral state needs to be expanded such that historians better understand its “nascence, persistence, and effects,” Schrader insists. Long active in foreign policy circles, Rockefeller drew upon Japan as a model for his anti-drug legislation, yet it is also true that because the U.S. occupied Japan after World War II, the country’s drug laws descended from the United States’ own policies on the issue (which of course were predicated on very problematic racial logic of the time). “U.S. influence on postwar Japan baked racial inequality into [Japan’s] drug laws,” Schrader points out. Therefore the “inequality” of Rockefeller’s drug laws did not represent a “new” phenomenon “in New York in the years after the success of the civil rights movement.” Essays by Julie Wiese, Melissa May Borja, and Suleiman Osman also wade into transnational waters.

97815491483231Shaped by the State also aims to create a shared language. If the transnational turn of the 1990s sometimes downplayed the role of the state at the expense of transnational forces such as the flow of labor and capital across borders and regions, over the last twenty years scholars have reconsidered this position. Historians doing cultural and social history have incorporated the state as a central actor in their analyses, though many of these writers would not consider themselves political historians despite the state and politics occupying critical spaces in their work. As a result, no agreed upon lexicon exists to facilitate dialogue. As the editors argue, “the field lacks a set of organizing principles and theories, key questions and debates, and well established research agenda’s around which ‘traditional’ political historians and ‘unofficial’ political historians could make common cause.”[8] Shaped by the State attempts to do just this, or at least begin the discussion toward such an end while eschewing the red-blue/liberal-conservative scaffolding that often bounds it.

51ThUHwS2aL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Works like George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides, and Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority serve as models for the way forward; works that are inherently political and focused on the state and politics, but examine overarching structures rather than the ideological tribes that defined (and continue to define) our political culture. Chauncey explored the formation of gay culture in Progressive Era New York under scrutiny and later persecution by both liberal and conservative regimes. “[E]xclusive heterosexuality became a precondition for a ‘man’s identification’ as ‘normal’ in middle class culture….”[9] Shah examined how public health governance in San Francisco, again by both conservative and liberal leaders, surveilled, controlled, and discriminated against its Chinese population in the late nineteenth and twentieth century: “There is a persistent congruence between the public health logic of normal and aberrant and the racial logic of superior and inferior and their reconfiguration over time.”[10] Lassiter delved into the ways that suburban whites in the sunbelt during the 1960s and 1970s based their political identity and standing on property ownership, around which various rights and privileges were awarded even though they hinged on “structural mechanisms of exclusion that did not require individual racism by suburban beneficiaries in order to sustain white class privilege and maintain barriers of disadvantage facing urban minority communities.”[11]

51C+QhSlaJL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThese historical classics attest to how central a role urban history plays in investigations of politics. Though not every essay in the volume speaks to urban history directly, most do, and critically. Andrew Kahrl’s exploration of tax assessment policy and the ways it has penalized black homeowners is one example; David Freund’s investigation into the rise of money orthodoxy during the Great Depressions speaks directly to the fiduciary struggles of metropolitan America during the 1930s and the solutions the state designed to address them—which, as discussed above, demonstrates more continuity across traditional political divides than rupture. Sarah E. Igo, Sarah E. Milov, and Rachel Louise Moran contribute essays on the rise of the administrative state, data collection and public culture, labor law and union complicity with employers regarding safety regulations, and the role of gender and family in the political history of regulation (particularly the notorious “nanny state” we hear so much about). Though perhaps not urban on their face, each of these contributions further urbanists’ understanding of the processes driving metropolitan life.

Perhaps one way to summarize the collection’s contribution to and debate with political history can be found in relation to the 2016 New York Times editorial. Columbia historian Merlin Chowkwanyun, a participant and attendee at the 2015 conference in Charlottesville (and, full disclosure, a friendly acquaintance of the editors), responded pithily to the arguments put forth by Lovegall and Osgood by pointing out that the best historians utilize numerous analytical frames, methodological approaches, and data types when delving into historical inquiry. They do not ignore elite politics, but rather incorporate them into their analysis. Co-editor Brent Cebul agreed, noting in an email to The Metropole that the goal is to revive “a more coherent, inclusive, and capacious sense of political history.” After all, as the edited collection attests, the very state that has shaped us rests on a much broader political project than right-left/red-blue paradigms.

Editor’s note: This month we will be featuring posts, interviews, and discussions from contributors to Shaped by the State and specifically its relevance to urban historians.

[1] Kim Phillips-Fein, “The History of Neoliberalism” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 351.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Ten Propositions for the New Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 370.

[3] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 82.

[4] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 86.

[5]Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, “Introduction,” in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, Eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), viii.

[6] Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer, “Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth Century U.S. Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 4.

[7] Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, “Epilogue,” in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, Eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 294.

[8] Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer, “Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth Century U.S. Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 4.

[9] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 14.

[10] Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 6.

[11] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 4.