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One of the leading economic historians of the American south, Stanford’s Gavin Wright, observes in a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article that both 19th-century defenders of slavery and 21st-century critics of slavery credit it for the rise of modern industrial capitalism. Southern “King Cotton” was, goes the argument, the cheap ingredient that grew the critically important northern textile factories that propelled industrialization.

The 19th-century group claiming slavery’s necessity was trying to preserve the South’s “peculiar institution.” The 21st-century group, composed of “New Historians of Capitalism” and many writers on the Black experience (such as contributors to the New York Times1619 Project”), is trying to show that American affluence today was built on the backs of slaves and, by extension, to show how much Americans today owe the descendants of those slaves.

Wright, while never underestimating the moral abomination of slavery and, later, serfdom, their long-lasting harms, and the complicity of Americans beyond the slave-owners themselves, objects: The proposition that slavery powered industrialization “has been rejected by virtually every economic historian who has examined the issue.” In the end, “slavery enriched slave-owners, but impoverished the southern region and did little to boost the US economy as a whole.” (Another historian of the South has a harsher rejection here.) Wright tip-toes around the connected reparations issue. But on this Juneteenth, the connection warrants more attention.

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The first thing to note about Opening Day, 2022, is that it is late by a week, pushed back to April 8 by the owners’ long lockout of players. That and the owners’ halfhearted bargaining infuriated fans. Unlike earlier strikes and lockouts, there is little doubt that those of us who care–fans who follow and journalists who cover the sport–overwhelmingly sympathized with the players. In recent years, the owners have been getting grossly richer and players’ salaries have stagnated. It has been a bitter start to 2022.

The second thing to note is that, while agreement on money issues was achieved in a new, five-year contract, critical issues concerning the game itself were largely postponed. Some tinkering has reduced incentives for owners to pocket their club income and forego trying to win (known as “tanking.”) But serious changes have yet to be made to correct the core problem of baseball as a sport, entertainment, and business: longer and longer games with less and less action on the field. (The action is increasingly between the pitchers mound and the umpire: strikeouts and walks, spiced with occasional and boring home runs. What are the seven guys standing behind the pitcher out there for?) I reviewed this problem in detail in last year’s Opening Day post and won’t repeat it here.

Some experiments are to be tried in the minor leagues this year. As described by Theo Epstein–the savior of doomed franchises (Boston, Chicago [NL]) and now “special consultant” to the MLB–these innovations, such as a short pitch clock, constraints on infield shifts, electronic catchers’ signals, and a reshaped strike zone, could do what he wants to do: generate more balls in play, more action, and shorter games. We will see. This year in the majors still promises to be slow.

The third thing to note is that my Giants will have to survive without newly-retired Buster Posey. Experts are already projecting them to be out of the running in 2022. But that’s what the experts projected for 2021 and the Giants won 107 games, more than any other team. Maybe there’s a 2022 surprise brewing at the ballpark on the shore of San Francisco Bay. GO, GIANTS!

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No Peace, No Justice

The cry of “No Justice, No Peace!” was, by best estimates, not heard on American streets until the 1980s. Its first mention in The New York Times was in 1987 following the acquittal of a police officer for the shooting of a Black man. The phrase appeared often in the Times in the 1990s, then less frequently for a while, and then roared back since the mid-2010s.[1]

What kind of statement is “No Justice, No Peace”? (And its complement, “Know Justice, Know Peace.”) It cannot be an historical claim that absent justice, peace is absent, too. Tell that to the vanquished (and often decimated) subject peoples of empires across human history. Arguably, the longest stretches of domestic peace have followed not justice triumphant but the brutal consolidations of empires.

In fact, history suggests that the reverse is more commonly true, that peace brings some justice (and mercy) by fostering economic, political, and physical security. Slavery, unjust and merciless, was an accepted commonplace across the globe for millennia. Challenges to it emerged as the middle class grew in the era of Pax Britannica. Similar humanitarian movements such as temperance and child protection emerged, too (see, for example, here). People–masses and elites–who are occupied with their own survival rarely step up for others; that usually follows gains in security.

We see this dynamic playing out on a smaller scale today as Americans react to an apparent upsurge in crime and disorder somehow connected to the pandemic.

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The previous post presented evidence that over the last generation or two Americans have moved leftward on a wide front of social and cultural issues from marriage and manliness to race and language. Alarmed, conservatives have sprung to arms and are vigorously prosecuting a culture war.

This follow-up post presents a specific example. It was sparked by Margaret Talbot’s recent New Yorker article on new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Talbot’s piece illustrates both the impetus for the right’s political mobilization and its likely futility.

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It’s been a depressing six months or so for the left. Aside from Covid’s persistence and the resultant chaos, the progressive agenda beyond infrastructure and re-regulation of business seems stalled; the Supreme Court is charging rightward; and anti-democratic (as well as anti-Democratic) moves are afoot in many states. Savvy political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote in December, “Democrats Are Losing the Culture Wars.”

Lee statue to be melted down (NBC News)

Yet, over the last couple of generations, the left has pulled American culture in its direction. Social conservatives, feeling cornered, have reacted ferociously to defend their world views and their way of life. They have won some of the resulting battles, but their winning the cultural war is another matter.

Sociologist Michael Hout of NYU has recently canvassed over 45 years of polling data from the General Social Survey, looking at how Americans’ views on dozens of topics have changed. The answer is clear: In the overwhelming majority of cases, Americans’ opinions have moved to the left. Moreover, when we look at Americans’ actions, not just their words, we see the same, dramatic shifts leftward. I am referring throughout to left-right on the cultural spectrum, not left-right on economic issues, which is a different topic. (Thanks to Mike for helpful comments on this post.)

Whatever the to-and-fros of the present day, the long run still seems to belong to the cultural left, based on how the young generations feel. But that is no guarantee; history can be turned.

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[This post expands on an invited talk to a conference on “Distance by Design” at the Taub Center for Social Policy, Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2021.]

A defining feature of the modern world is that people are in quick, even instantaneous, contact. Media scholar Keith Hampton put the key change this way: Our newest communication technologies create persistent contact—we never really have to lose touch—and pervasive awareness—we always know what’s going on with those who matter to us. The new tools can actually restore, he suggests, many features of village-like community.

As earlier communications technologies emerged over a century ago, many observers ventured predictions about their consequences. In 1881, Scientific American editors said that the telegraph was bringing forth the “kinship of humanity.” Starting in the 1890s, some people asserted that the telephone would “abolish loneliness.” Over centuries, many have claimed that mail, telephone, automobile, radio, and the like would finally keep youth on the farm, others that they would make all places and regions culturally the same. These failed predictions should humble anyone claiming to know what today’s novel technologies are bringing.

Caution is warranted, too, because people often use new technologies in unanticipated and even paradoxical ways. (For example, fast cars enabled many voyagers, previously train passengers, to slow down and enjoy stops along the route.) In this post, I look at how contemporary Americans deal with barriers of distance in ways that, despite all our space-transcending tools, have actually reinforced the importance of place.

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In 2015, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton grabbed public attention by reporting that overall death rates for middle-aged White Americans had risen since the 1990s, sharply breaking with prior trends; they counted hundreds of thousands of new “deaths of despair.” Much news coverage, contention, and controversy followed.[1] By 2020, there was enough confusion that some people accepted the surge of deaths as fact and some dismissed it as just another academic kerfuffle.

This is a good time to revisit the claim. Last year, Case and Deaton produced a best-selling popular treatment, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, and late this year they released two academic updates (here and here). Last March, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a draft “Consensus Study Report” on High and Rising Mortality Rates Among Working-Age Adults. Meanwhile, the tide of studies that followed the initial controversy just keeps rising. What do we know?

We know that about three generations ago, newborn girls could be expected, on average, to live to about 71, newborn boys to about 65.This graph shows what happened then.

Lifespans rose and then they didn’t. Because more Americans in their prime years were dying, life expectancies leveled off for women and turned down for men,[2] despite continuing advances in health care and medical treatments. What happened?

Here are key questions: Who has suffered the rise of premature death rates? What kinds of deaths account for this trend? What distinguishes the individuals who were most vulnerable? And what social causes might explain their vulnerability in this era?

The tl;dr version of this post is that: Yes, there has been an unusual surge in American deaths in the last two decades; it has been concentrated among working-age, working-class Whites; “deaths of despair” is too expansive a description and explanation; the surge was basically due to the opioid epidemic and rising obesity; the opioid epidemic was mostly due to increased supply; economic and social dislocations mark the communities that have been most vulnerable to the opioid epidemic and thus premature deaths.The surge is real; Big Pharma and cardio health are most responsible; “left behind” communities have been the most vulnerable.

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In 1920, for the first time, women nationwide could vote in a presidential election. In 2020, for the first time, a woman was elected on a presidential ticket.

Nothing has altered the personal lives of Americans over that century as deeply as the ascendance of women. A recent book by three sociologists provides intimate views of how great events upset patriarchal family arrangements and laid the groundwork for twenty-first century women’s empowerment.

Woman Car

1937 (Photographer: Ray Lomax)

Researchers usually identify social change by comparing snapshots at different periods, contrasting, for example, Americans’ parenting practices in the 2020s to their parenting practices in the 1920s. Rarely can we follow average people over the course of their lives to see how they encountered, handled, and were shaped by events. Such “longitudinal” studies are hard to do; a project has to survive over several decades and several changes in researchers. We have but few (though the British film documentaries in the “Up” series provide a taste of the method).

A 2021 book, Living on the Edge: An American Generation’s Journey Through the Twentieth Century, by Richard Settersten, Jr., Glen Elder, Jr., and Lisa Pearce, reports the journeys of about a hundred families living in Berkeley, California, from the early to the late part of the last century. “Berkeley?!,” you burst out. But Berkeley was not always the “People’s Republic of”; for much of the twentieth century it was a more conventional city of manufacturing as well as of a university and it housed many first- and second-generation immigrants. (U.C. researchers also started a roughly parallel study of Oakland families at around the same time. I’ll have occasion to mention findings from one of its reports, John Clausen’s American Lives, too.)

Settersten, Elder, and Pearce describe changes in several dimensions of their subjects’ lives, such as social class, job opportunities, and new styles of parenting, but none is more striking than the expansion of women’s self-sufficiency and the shrinkage of men’s.

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There is much discussion these days about the hammer of government regulation that may come down on internet companies–Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Microsoft. It’s already happening in Europe. One observer commented that 

Woman with fridge

Georgia farm woman with electric refrigerator, 1930s — http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.01761

“Around the world, governments are moving simultaneously to limit the power of tech companies with an urgency and breadth that no single industry had experienced before.”

But many new industries in the past have experienced a rush of regulation–at just about this point in their development. What starts out as a novelty begins to spread, gets cheaper, spreads more, becomes an important practical tool for many if not most people, and finally becomes a necessity of modern life, a public utility (“a firm providing essential services to the public”) calling forth government intervention.

Two kinds of intervention in particular: One is to subsidize, require, or even directly provide universal access to a technology that started out as a luxury for the few. The other is to regulate the provision of that technology so as to reduce its cost, maintain minimal standards, and avoid negative externalities–accidents, extortionist pricing, pollution, unsightly equipment, and so on.

The tech past may be the tech prologue here.

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Opening Day, 2021: Baseball’s Crises

Baseball is back! Well, sort of. The Toronto Blue Jays may still be banned from playing in Toronto. At least initially, fan attendance (outside of Arlington, Texas) will be limited to no more than one-third of ballpark capacity. Some players will end up on the can’t-play list because of exposure to Covid. And Covid concerns postponed today’s opening game in Washington.

cutouts2020

“Fans” in the stands, 2020

But, a day with some baseball is always better than a day without. This year, unlike 2020, will have a 162-game schedule. Real fans–not just cutouts (see pic)–will be there. (We have our Opening Day tix to Oracle Park.) It’s 6 months or more of fandom ecstasy and agony (usually more of the latter).

The anxiety is that major-league baseball’s future, even after Covid, is precarious.

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