A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression describes how Americans fed themselves, and were taught to feed themselves, between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, focusing on the Great Depression but starting with heroic descriptions (and menus!) of what it took to feed large farm families in early 20th century. Let’s just say that farm women worked hard and were not afraid of fat, gluten, or animal products! As the authors move to the Great Depression, there are harrowing descriptions of food lines and malnutrition diseases amongst children, and a fascinating account of how the government stepped in with food distribution programs inspired by home economics experts who also provided recipes and tips to stretch out limited supplies. Not surprisingly, the recipes came with heavy cultural and racist baggage.
The last chapter is an incongruous, rushed description of various food technologies that took flight during this period and I could not quite understand what its purpose was, but the rest of the book is wonderful.
I somewhat hesitate to give three stars to The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War because it is a mammoth tome, with almost 700 pages of text, it ponderously tells you what it’s going to tell you, tells you, then summarizes what it told you, and it is replete with eye-blurring tables filled with numbers. In brief: it’s written by an economist, and it’s geeky.
But it’s surprisingly readable, and entirely fascinating, as it traces the changes in the way Americans live since 1870. While the author’s conclusion (hammered again and again through the book!) that most progress took place before 1940 and will never occur again is not entirely convincing, it is at least based on facts, or rather numbers. The beauty of the book is in the systematic exploration of the events behind the numbers, especially those aspects that are hard to capture.To take an easy example, our cars are much safer than the cars of the 50s, but car ownership or even car costs do not necessarily reflect that. The author seems to have delved into every aspect of our lives, informing us that horses were not only slow at 6 miles per hour, but also had a very limited range (25 miles) — and of course generated very visible and smellable byproducts, or that telephone operators were asked for the time of day or football scores throughout the day, serving as a primitive internet.
I highly recommend you give this book a try to measure the vast differences between life in the late 19th century and today’s. Having to carry, literally, tons of water (before indoor plumbing), being too cold or too hot (before effective heating and air-conditioning), being isolated from people more than a couple miles away (before cars, planes, phones, the internet) seems like a totally different world.
Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First is an ambitious, sweeping, and long (700 pages!) history of our collective hoarding for centuries, and across many countries, including many in Europe, the US, China, Japan, and the ex-British Empire. The author has looked at death inventories, the content of New York City trash cans, the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and consumption, housing, and leisure activities. The book is surprisingly easy to read considering its scope, although occasionally statistics could be anchored better. 225 gallons of water per person in Atlanta in 1884. He says that’s a lot — but what do we consume today? And cross-country data presented in line graphs would be much easier to consume if placed on a map. Still, an enjoyable synthesis of evolving lifestyles.
Inequality is not the Piketty book (The Economics of Inequality), but it is also written by an economist who, laudably, attempts to identify solutions to the growing economic inequalities in the world, although he focuses mostly on the UK, where he lives, and to a lesser extent the US.
It’s difficult to imagine a duller book written for the general public. A good third of the book focuses on defining metrics for inequality. Of course there are many ways to define income and to compare incomes, but 100 pages seems a bit much. And the graphs are just horribly formatted. Surely there are ways to present the same information in a more attractive form.
The practical recommendations are just about as unattractive as the initial analysis. Can the author possibly believe that paying a basic income, no questions asked, to every citizen would pass the most basic political test? Still, the book has the immense advantage of carefully backing up each recommendation with detailed, quantitative data. It also reminds us that inequality is neither unavoidable nor incurable — though a more politically astute set of solutions would certainly be required.
$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America talks about families with very little cash income, although they usually have other means of surviving including food stamps (SNAP) or housing subsidies. In many of these families, there are individuals who work, or want to work, but the jobs they can attain are paid poorly and are extremely unstable. The authors show that the combination of the welfare reforms of the Clinton years and the recent recession seems to have been lethal to many families on the edge. They do not offer many solutions, perhaps because the problem is truly complex, but they do suggest that making work pay more, through a combination of a higher minimum wage, better labor protection, and an enhanced form of the Earned Income Tax Credit is probably the way to go. I was struck by how many of the families they described could have done so much better if they had had just a little bit of help at the right time, rather than a faceless bureaucracy that needs time and mounds of paperwork to disgorge any assistance.
Wealth Secrets of the One Percent: A Modern Manual to Getting Marvelously, Obscenely Rich is resolutely not a self-help book, but rather a tongue-in cheek history of how great fortunes were made, starting with Marcus Crassus in ancient Rome and ending with Bill Gates. Along the way, we meet robber barons and many bankers, and, it must be said, a lot of cheaters, exploiters, and traitors to their friends and associates. As the author says, one of the important traits of people who make a lot of money is that they want to make a lot of money… They are also very good at harnessing the power of government to their benefit. A sobering tale, full of telling details (and, occasionally, overly geeky).
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics is an entertaining (really!) history of how economics switched from thinking of us a purely rational “Econs” and started embracing that we “Humans” consider many other factors when making decisions, including economic decisions. Armed with dry wit and self-deprecating humor, the author relates his own adventures, his colleagues’, and the principles of behavioral economics, in which actors possess bounded rationality, willpower, and self-interest.
I enjoyed the many personal stories, including the highly comedic selection of offices by the Economics department, which proves if any proof was needed that no one, even Economics professors, are pure “Econs”.