Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Dark Money," "Hillbilly Elegy," and a Response to a "Hillbilly Elegy" Dissent

                Here are my takes on a couple of the books I’ve read lately as well as my response to an editorial about one of them. Enjoy.

                Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is a study of conservative billionaires who have taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling to attempt to direct the course our country takes by throwing massive amounts of money at conservative candidates who will advocate for their interests. Chief among her targets are the Koch brothers. The book is revealing—especially about the family history of these allegedly self-made billionaires. Although these folks are good about claiming they got where they are by working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, almost without exception every one of them was born into families with money and inherited their positions and money, bringing to mind Ann Richard’s comment about George H. W. Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” The Koch family history is especially interesting. It seems Charles Koch didn’t feel he was inheriting enough, so he went after his brothers in an expensive, multi-year legal battle to increase his share of his father’s estate. One of his brothers may or may not be gay, and Charles was happy to break into his New York apartment, rummage through his stuff and threaten to reveal his guilty secret (or imply he had a guilty secret) to get him to give Charles control over his part of the company. All of this gives us an idea of the lengths to which the Kochs are willing to go to have their way. This includes trying their best to dig up or invent dirt on Ms. Mayer after she had written the article for the New Yorker which was the basis for this book. (She had previously written an article about liberal billionaire George Soros, who was not happy with the article but took no similar action.) And the Kochs aren’t the only ones skewered in this book. You won’t find me “saving big money at Menards.” Or buying Amway products—not that I would have, anyway.
                J. D. Vance has emerged of late as a spokesman for the conservative white working class largely as a result of his successful book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. This book is the story of Mr. Vance’s surviving his childhood largely through the efforts of his grandmother, a foul-mouthed and unrepentant hillbilly woman who loved him. His mother was at times a drunk, an opioid abuser, a heroin addict, and had serial boyfriends and a unique way of perceiving the world. (It’s always about her.) When his grandfather died, his mother objected to his and his sister’s mourning. (“He was MY father, not yours.”) The same happened when his grandmother died, although who was more of a mother in every way except biologically could be debated. When his grandmother died, she had virtually nothing because of all the money she’d spent on her daughter’s serial rehab stays. Mr. Vance said his uncle never spoke to his sister again.
                Mr. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents had moved from rural Kentucky for good jobs with Armco Steel. So many people from Kentucky moved to Middletown for those jobs the city became known as “Middletucky.” (Most Ohio cities have similar areas—in Columbus, Grove City is “Grovetucky.”) By J.D.’s generation, though, Armco had merged with Kawasaki, and most good jobs there were history. Thanks to his grandmother, J.D.’s grades were good enough to get him admitted to The Ohio State University, but he didn’t feel ready either for the debt he’d incur or for college, so he went into the Marines and was shipped to Iraq, where he was a communications director. After Iraq, he took advantage of the Veterans Administration’s tuition program and went to Ohio State. He eventually held down three jobs to pay his way through. He did well enough to go on to Yale Law School, where he met his future wife. At the end of this book he’s practicing law in Cincinnati.
                He compares his life to his former peers in Middletown, and notes he’s done much better, thanks to his grandmother, the Marines, and all the people who have mentored him. He worries about those left behind who didn’t have the advantages he had. He talks about those who are mired in a sense of victimhood, among them his grandmother’s able-bodied (white) neighbor who never worked and lived in Section 8 housing and on food stamps and who was always complaining about (black) welfare cheats. He gives examples of people who “can’t find jobs” while there are jobs all around them. It turns out they can’t keep jobs because, once they get jobs, they don’t show up for them and don’t do the jobs when they do show up. He says people can’t accept that the fault for their situation is theirs. Most of the people he discusses have the same background as Mr. Vance—Kentucky roots living in Ohio.
                Coincidentally, just as I finished this book, an Ohio man with Kentucky roots plowed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia.
                One thing I really admired about Mr. Vance is he does not claim to be a self-made up-by-the-bootstraps man as do those born to wealth in Ms. Mayer’s book. Even though he held three jobs while going to school, he gives much of the credit for his success to those who helped him along the way. I wouldn’t be surprised to see J. D. Vance’s name on a ballot someday—perhaps in the next Ohio governor’s race.

                Just as I was about to publish this review the local rag published an editorial written by Betsy Rader for The Washington Post taking umbrage with Mr. Vance’s book. Ms. Rader, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Northeast Ohio, says she was born in Appalachia in the 1960s. It appears Ms. Rader was born in Coshocton, Ohio in or around 1962 and grew up in Newark, Ohio, not too many miles northeast of Columbus (and known for its iconic Longaberger building). She says her parents divorced when she was nine, which would put that divorce in or around 1971. Her mother was the single mother of four children, and they lived on $6,000 a year. At this point Ms. Rader seems to forget (or hopes her readers will forget) that she’s writing about the early 1970s. In the early 1970s, as one person who responded to Ms. Rader pointed out, $6,000 was the equivalent of $37,000 today. Admittedly not a lot of money, but a great deal more than the $6,000 Ms. Rader emphasizes. Repeatedly. I presume Ms. Rader’s mother was not, like Mr. Vance’s, a drunk, an opioid abuser, a heroin addict, etc.
                Ms. Rader takes exception to Mr. Vance’s criticism of his own family and peers (“We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to the high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy… . Thrift is inimical to our being”) pointing out that her family certainly did not do that on (here we go again) $6,000 a year. Need I point out the dearth of giant TVs, iPads, credit cards, and payday lenders in 1971? Also, houses were much cheaper in 1971. A decent house in Columbus at that time could have been had for $20,000; in Newark, housing would have been even cheaper.
                Ms. Rader has some valid points, but she loses credibility when she counts on her readers’ amnesia about the differing circumstances between now and nearly fifty years ago. To me the most annoying statement in her entire diatribe is “I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance.” I wonder if Ms. Rader even bothered to read the book. Mr. Vance explicitly says he did not pull himself up by his bootstraps.
                Hillbilly Elegy may well be due some criticism, but Ms. Rader, who we know will be on next year’s ballot, has written a response that brings just one word to mind, and that word is disingenuous.  

© 2017 Larry Roth

Thursday, September 7, 2017

More on "The Color of Law" and Related Topics

                I recently reviewed The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. Our government’s involvement in making and keeping America segregated was news to me, so I decided to explore the topic further.

Mr. Rothstein cited Robert C. Weaver’s The Negro Ghetto, which was published in 1948. Thanks to the library’s Inter Library Loan program, I was able to get a copy of the book. The copy I read was reissued with a new preface in 1967 but was not rewritten or amended, so, with the exception of the new preface, the book is as it was written nearly 70 years ago. Mr. Weaver would become the first black cabinet member and the first secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966, but that was all in the future when his book was published. Mr. Weaver was closer to the events of World War II than Mr. Rothstein, and he, unlike Mr. Rothstein, tells of several successful integrated housing developments that were built for wartime workers. These were exceptions, of course, but they were built. Mr. Weaver goes into the history of enforced segregation in the north, and settles on racial covenants (which the Supreme Court ruled were unenforceable in 1948, but continued on as a requirement for FHA or VA financing) as a major culprit. One thing I really admired about this book is Mr. Weaver came up with some practical suggestions for successful integration. One is occupancy standards that bar excessive roomers, require owners and occupants to observe and assist in the enforcement of all ordinances and codes, pledge observance of neighborhood standards of maintenance, discourage departures from established architectural design, and provide for participation in neighborhood associations for the preservation of community standards. These, he says, will allow integration while maintaining existing standards. He admits this will make it difficult for some with lower incomes, but he recommends not buying or renting property beyond our means, which is good advice for people of all races.
                Mr. Weaver also proposed mass production methods of construction as a means both to build more units in a shorter period of time and bring down costs. Mr. Weaver was writing during a massive housing shortage (the country had been at war nearly four years—from 1941 to 1945, and there was a shortage of everything; my parents said they had plenty of money but nothing to spend it on—cars were in such short supply that dealers expected bribes to let go of one at full price). Evidently many conventional builders were resisting mass production.
                But as Mr. Weaver was writing this book, Levittown was popping up in what had been a potato farm in Nassau county on Long Island. It was meant to be the answer to what the returning veteran needed. As it would turn out, VA would only issue loans if racial covenants were part of deal, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, so Mr. Weaver turned out to be half right. Mass production did speed up production (Levittown houses were produced at the rate of twelve per day) and lower the cost of housing (to just under $7,000), but mass production and occupancy standards did not end segregation.
                On a personal note, I looked at a Levittown house in the 1970s. It was the basic “Cape” model that had been built with an expansion attic that had not been expanded. The 750 square-foot house was four rooms and a bath on a concrete slab with a one-car carport. The rooms were a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. It was not much larger than the apartment I was renting. (In fact, it would almost qualify as a tiny house today). There were no sewers—each home had a cesspool under the front yard (though I’ve read that sewer lines were installed in the 1970s). In short, it may have been a step up from rental housing for a returning vet, but it was not a giant step. (For a decidedly unromantic look at the postwar housing building boom, see John Keats’ 1956 book, The Crack in the Picture Window.) 

                Picking up chronologically from where Robert C. Weaver left off is Edward Humes’ Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, a generally positive view of the G.I. Bill, which improved the lives of many returning veterans. The book discusses how colleges were a tad standoffish about accepting the hoi polloi returning from the war but wound being generally impressed with how goal-oriented most returning veterans were. The book addresses the problems blacks and women had making use of their benefits. It’s amazing how patronizing benefits counselors were toward the “little ladies” who’d been sewing up soldiers, flying as test pilots, etc., and unfortunately, many benefits counselors did their best to talk black veterans out of college. One black soldier, who grew up middle class (his father passed as white for many years) was flat told his counselor would “recommend against” his attending college (he’d already been admitted). This man knew his rights and got by his counselor, but we have to wonder how many didn’t.
                The main reason the G.I. Bill was at times less beneficial to black veterans was one of its most powerful sponsors, Representative John Elliot Rankin, of Tupelo, Mississippi demanded and got local control of the administration of the program. Mr. Humes describes Rankin as a racist and a thug, but a thug with power. (He successfully fought the passage of an anti-lynching law in 1948.) As a result, local administrators in the south simply refused to allow the VA to insure loans to black veterans. Of 3,000 VA loans issued to veterans in Mississippi, two went to black veterans.
                Black veterans may have fought for freedom overseas, but that didn’t mean they were going to enjoy those freedoms when they returned to their homes in the south.    
                Mr. Humes mentions Levittown had racial covenants but does not confirm Mr. Rothstein’s assertion that Levittown’s covenants were required by the Veterans Administration.
                The book is a good read and many of the stories Mr. Humes includes are told by those whose lives were changed by the G.I. Bill.

                I came across A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960, by Sherry Lamb Schirmer at an estate sale. The book was published by the University of Missouri Press and is heavily footnoted. The book covers racial issues in Kansas City during the first sixty years of the last century. Much of the book is old history to those of us who’ve lived here for a while, but I found the last chapter, which covers 1950 to 1958, especially interesting.
                It seems whenever eating establishments or department stores justified segregation, it was never the store owners or management who objected to black customers, it was always there were “bigoted customers” who would object to integration. Finally, blacks decided to take action and boycotted downtown department stores during the holidays in 1958. Many white customers stayed away, and the department stores felt the impact. The bottom line is the only color that really matters in the end is green.
                And on the green front, Ms. Schirmer tells a story I’d never heard about how some white people profited from the white flight prompted by integration. Fred Curls, a black Realtor, went into white neighborhoods telling homeowners there that he had just sold a home in the neighborhood to a black man, and if he could help them by selling their homes, please give him a call because he had plenty of black customers who would love to buy their homes. Eventually, they’d call, he’d sell their house (he really did have a list of black buyers), and to get it financed (remember, FHA and VA generally would not guarantee loans to black people), he’d call a group of white investors who would finance the loans at 25% interest. For reference, the loan on my parents’ home, which they built in 1958, was 5%. Everybody made out like a bandit except the white sellers.

                I picked up Lucy Moore’s Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties at Half Price Books. The book is a sometimes entertaining look at the 1920’s. There is a chapter on the Ku Klux Klan’s emergence during the decade which sounds a lot like the far right’s resurgence today. As an aside, I don’t have a position on the removal of Confederate statues and other Civil War memorabilia, but it’s important to remember many of the statues being protested today were erected at the time of the Klan’s resurgence as a reminder to blacks, Jews, immigrants and (especially) Catholics to toe the line—or else.
                Unfortunately, this book is more of a first draft of what could have been a very good book. If a person’s going to write about an era, you’d expect that person would have more familiarity with that era, or at least their publisher would have a fact checker with that familiarity. A few annoying examples: “Middletown” is often referenced but never explained as the subject of a book by Robert and Helen Lynd. Franklin Roosevelt’s term began in 1933, not 1932. Frederick Lewis Allen, who wrote the definitive social histories Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday about the 1920s and 1930s, respectively, loses his middle name. Both J. Edgar Hoover and A. Mitchell Palmer lose their first initials. H. L. Mencken becomes Henry. Both the “Know-Nothings” and the great Mississippi flood of 1927 are attributed to the “Southwest.” (Ms. Moore was educated in both the U.S. and Great Britain, where she now resides; perhaps her education skipped over geography.) O.K., all the preceding might be minor, but a major clunker is encountered when Ms. Moore states (on page 157) that Florida was “made newly habitable by air conditioning and refrigeration.” Personally, I question whether Florida has ever been habitable, but the people who moved there in the 1920s certainly did not have air conditioning available to them in their homes. And Ms. Moore and her publishers should have known better.

                That said, the book is an OK read, but if you’re in school and writing a paper on the 1920’s, by all means check a second source before using this one as a reference.

© 2017 Larry Roth