Those of us with physical addresses never think twice about it: of course, the mail carrier or the UPS driver will find us, of course, anyone visiting can just plug in the address into Google Maps, of course the property we live on is recorded in some official record. But The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power reminds us that most of the world does not enjoy such luxuries (and it’s not just in the developing world, some rural folks in the US have no street addresses). It also shows how government developed addresses mostly to track its citizens, and tax them, and how naming streets is an essentially political act.
The book is full of interesting insights about the power of something as apparently simple as a street address.
The author of The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History from Reconstruction to Today, a historian, attempts to answer the very difficult question of whether affirmative action was successful, is still successful, and what kinds of affirmative actions are both effective and accepted by the citizenry. It’s interesting to trace the history of affirmative action from the pretty bland language of the Civil Rights Act to today, and the ups and down of public support for affirmative action in general and quotas in particular. Stir in some sexism and the brew becomes ever more interesting.
If you are looking for a happy story, Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises is not for you. Not that there are not a few happy, inspiring stories in it, but the general mood is more than gloomy. After losing its manufacturing base, Detroit shed many of its residents, and with them its tax base–and of course it’s often the more affluent people who have the means to leave in the first place. The author chooses to follow a few who stayed, and through their experience we see how poor record keeping surprised homeowners with sky-high tax bills, years after the purchase, how those bills included water bills that previous owners never paid (why?), and how other mistakes meant arrests and even prison for some. Of course, there’s the whole saga of the bankruptcy that left streets unlit, crime unpunished, and, perhaps saddest of all, children un-taught. It’s not pretty.
Perhaps the Silicon Valley thinkers who are emoting about the consequences of AI and robots could take a look at what government can do when business models change instead of engaging in their ritual displays of hand-wringing? This book is the story of what not to do.
Starting during WWI, the US government, under the Orwellian name of “The American Plan” started to stalk and forcibly detain women to subject them to often brutal medical exams and equally brutal and ineffective medical treatment for STI. The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women takes as its starting point one of these women and follows the lawsuit she brought against the government (she lost!), and meanders its way, slowly and methodically, thought WWII. While that treatment of women is shocking and well worth publicizing, I would have preferred a Cliff version of the events. (Yes, trial transcripts are incredibly boring.)
P.S. There’s hope. Tomorrow’s book is one I liked very much. Bad series this week!
Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life makes an uplifting case: that providing shared spaces such as libraries and parks, we can create connections and improve everyone’s life. While I agree with the thesis, and love the special treatment the author gives to libraries (my local branch provides 95% of the books reviewed here!), I have to say that the book is overly ambitious, not that well organized, and makes sometimes preposterous claims. As an example of the last point, the author explains that the American Society of Civil Engineers issues regular reports on the state of the infrastructure in the US — but should also rate the health and food infrastructures. Goodness gracious! Let the engineers stick to what they are good at.
At other points in the book, he praises Carnegie to the heavens (for creating libraries) while sharply accusing various Silicon Valley CEOs of not investing properly in charitable organizations. It might be worth noting that Andrew Carnegie was not a particularly decent boss or competitor… With that, the book has some inspiring stories of libraries and reclaimed parks, but don’t read it expecting a rational discussion of benefits.
The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good describes U.S. government policies immediately after WWII, at a time when government was expanding rapidly to provide more social benefits and access to higher education in the wake of the war and the Depression that preceded it. It’s very interesting to read this account in a time when government is usually perceived to be too big, and the historian-author is also a gifted story-teller, which makes for an enjoyable experience.
The life story told in Called to Rise: A Life in Faithful Service to the Community That Made Me is fascinating, as we follow David Brown from a childhood with a single (and fierce!) mother all the way to the head of the Dallas police department. The personal story, complete with the tragic, drug-related deaths of a brother and his son , is haunting and inspiring at the same time.
The book is also interesting when it discusses policing approaches in large cities, although the language swarms with clichés and expressions that sound like they are coming straight from a (not so enlightened) soft skills training session. And overall the writing could use a good editing assist.
Written by a transportation engineer, The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure is constructed surprisingly loosely as a series of chapters that focus on various subjects, from the construction of the US interstates to specific projects such as replacing our beloved Bay Bridge (I even learned its official name, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, something no local would ever dare say!)
If you are interested in the construction of the US highway system, I recommend reading The Big Roads instead, which has more details, especially about the design of the signage of said roads. Some chapters in this book describe the political machinations of specific large infrastructure projects, and the machinations are both tedious and alarming. And the author occasionally veers into the mind-numbing. Would any reader really enjoy a list of the various methods to patch roads? Still, I liked how he described his everyday encounters with roads, telephone poles, and retaining walls, enthusiastically noting fading lines, tilted poles, and handsome retaining walls (he even has a picture of one). We should all have the same level of interest in the infrastructure elements we use every day.
Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead talks about the aging and neglected infrastructure in the US, from roads to railways, cities and airports. I found it supremely soporific, with many disaster stories but few real solutions — and occasional bloopers, such as stating that San Jose, CA, does a great job of lifting children from poverty to high incomes (yay!) because of, get this, its wonderful public transit system. Surely the author jests. Has she experienced the transit system in San Jose versus, say, her beloved Boston? And can she honestly link public transit and education? There is no evidence of that in the book.
It’s too bad that more people don’t think about improving infrastructure but this book will not inspire the masses to push for more public investment.
How to Run a Government: So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy is a surprisingly entertaining book with many examples from around the world on how to run public services. The 57 rules provided by the author are sometimes staggeringly simple (sample: “have an agenda”, duh) but somehow the text manages to add details and subtlety to deliver an absorbing message. The idea I liked best was to stop designing public services in a “trust and altruism” mode, where civil servants are presumed to always do the right thing, but to instead use appropriate competition, rewards, nudges, and transparent metrics to ensure that less “knightly” civil servants are encouraged to work a little harder.
Overall, this is a very optimistic book with lots of encouraging stories of how institutions can make great progress to better serve citizens.