Energy and Progressivism

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2011

I’m going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it’s a really effective introduction to the issues, and it’s a good thing that Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote it! She makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about.

That said, I think she leans too heavily on the Progressive idea that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism, from a hundred years ago (not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today). It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they’ve taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.

The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between “what the activists thought the public believed” and what actually inspired people to change (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it’s a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding
actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they’re alarmed about global warming? Should we?

“Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more),” Koerth-Baker says. “Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn’t done much to solve our energy problems” (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn’t spread too evenly across the population. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it’s probably important to think about.

One of Koerth-Baker’s big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time on, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it’s difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. It seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources remove demand from the grid, they’re self-balancing.

Rural America didn’t get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: “it’s not the planet that needs saving. It’s our way of life. More important, I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share” (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we “won’t get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis” (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn’t exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.

Energy isn’t obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it’s hard to see in spite of being all around us. “People don’t make a choice between ‘undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company’ and ‘go without a DVR,’” she says. “They simply decide how they’d prefer to watch TV and don’t have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to” (DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: “Conservation says, ‘Don’t do it.’ Efficiency says, ‘Do it better.’ That’s a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we—human beings, that is—have been, where we’re going, and what we’re afraid of,” she says (pp. 143-144). We can’t seem to get to the point of admitting that things can’t go on as they have – can’t acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So we’re left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“You have to give people insights, not data,” she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, “There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family—free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security—I don’t know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he’d have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well” (p. 144). Okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had are the ones she has in mind. This is anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big
systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the externalities and effects of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.

At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says “A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy—like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone” (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn’t another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Wouldn’t that be the best way to do efficiency
and conservation?

Progressive politics

Peri E. Arnold
Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, 1901-1916

Arnold examines the three presidents of the Progressive Era, arguing that “to examine only a president’s personal characteristics masks the opportunities and constraints within which he or she works. But, to examine only the president’s role and its political context is to miss
how an individual functions within a given role and context.” (2) The unique contributions of Roosevelt and Wilson (and failure of Taft), then, are based on a lucky combination of character and the historical moment they found themselves in. This seems a reasonable enough argument, echoing the old saying that achievement happens when opportunity meets preparation, on a grand scale.

Arnold points out that in the five presidential elections between 1876 and 1892, the winner averaged 47.72 percent of the popular vote. (3) That means, on the average, nearly 53% of Americans voted against the (mostly) Republicans who presided over the Gilded Age. He also notes that “Democrats controlled the House for nine of the eleven sessions from 1874 through the 1894 election.” This is interesting, especially given the decidedly “populist” look and feel of many of Roosevelt’s initiatives. Were they welcomed by a Congress that was sent to Washington to make just those types of reforms? The Dems lost the House in the 1894 mid-term elections, because Grover Cleveland was blamed for the financial crisis of 1893 (actually caused by the McKinley tariff). They regained a lot of ground in 1896, in spite of Bryan’s defeat, but remained the minority party. (
wiki has a really good set of pages on this, complete with maps)

Arnold describes what others might call Theodore Roosevelt’s opportunism as a political /philosophical journey. He points out that Roosevelt’s politics were never determined by party platforms (as McKinley’s were, he says -- but didn’t McKinley write the party platform, at least as far as the tariff was concerned?), and he sees this change as a watershed. Roosevelt was independent enough from Republican dogma to say in 1907 that:

The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign--that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole--some effective power of supervision over their corporate use. In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct. (7th Annual Message)

“Whatever McKinley ‘saw’ was through the lens of being a Republican of the Civil War generation, his organizational experience as a party man and governor in Ohio, and his role as a Republican leader in Congress.” (14-5) But in addition to being a generational issue (all Civil War Republicans weren’t McKinleys, after all), Arnold also notes that McKinley’s main experience was in politics, while Roosevelt’s was in appointed, administrative government. So naturally they’d have different perspectives on what an executive should
do, what government was for, and on the purpose of public rhetoric. (17, 18)

In contrast to Roosevelt, Arnold portrays Taft as a president who was initially committed to continuing progressive reform, but who was temperamentally unable to embrace the new format of presidential leadership. Taft did not have the “tools,” and he mistakenly tried to retreat to an older model of leadership that, if it was not dead as Arnold says, was at least impossible to step back into immediately following Roosevelt. Wilson, on the other hand, “was invested in the possibility of a prime ministerial stance within the American constitutional framework.” (200) But of course, prime ministers stand and fall with their party’s dominance of the legislature. “Had Wilson not entered the presidency accompanied by a Democratic Congress,” Arnold says, “it is hard to imagine how he would have constructed his leadership.” So in this sense, Roosevelt was the progressive president, Taft was a backslider (albeit unintentionally), and Wilson was a reflection of the Democratic party’s legislative agenda.

Arnold refers to Clifford Geertz’s “Centers, Kings, and Charisma,” in
Local Knowledge, 1983 -- would probably be worth a look sometime.

Hofstadter's Age of Reform

Richard Hofstadter
The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R.

Introducing his subject in 1955, Hofstadter says, “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4). While he admits it would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter prefers to separate out a more-or-less cultural spirit of progressivism, which he says was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation” (5). Why? Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he can cut its ties with the Populist political movement that proceeded it. And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, is at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognizes as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7). Hofstadter wants to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11). Populism leads, he says, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wants progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he calls liberalism and conservatism are presentist (in 1955), and his concerns are very much those of his own day. “The United States,” he famously begins Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23). It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age. The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20). And on some level, Hofstadter is clearly aware of this. He reminds us that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25). Hofstadter concludes too readily, I think, that farmers took on the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admits was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29). That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35). I think Hofstadter loses sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about. I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53). Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67). These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62). I guess the interpretation hangs on which conditions they wanted to reverse. When Hofstadter calls attention to Populists‘ use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hits the nail on the head, and simultaneously undermines his argument. Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting The Populist Revolt, 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel says), but to who benefited from them, and how power was being misused to achieve those results.

You just can't do it like this anymore...

Robert H. Wiebe
The Search for Order, 1877-1920

“America during the nineteenth century was a society of island communities,” Wiebe begins. (1) If you don’t agree, you really don’t have to read any further (unless this is on your Orals list), because Wiebe’s argument (like that of many contemporary historians)
depends on this prior condition. America had to be pre-commercial, traditional, and parochial, or it could not have changed into the market-oriented, modern, cosmopolitan place it became. And without this change, there would have been no displacement and anxiety, and no middle-class search for order. Ah, periodization...

It may seem like I’m being a little harsh. But I have serious reservations about not only what the author of this highly influential history was saying, but how he said it. I think this book can tell us a lot about how history used to be done,
and should not be done anymore. Wiebe says “Small-town life was America’s norm in the mid-seventies.” (2) Presumably this changed? But 60% of the American population was still rural in 1900. So when and how did it change?

The issue isn’t only the antiquated, magisterial tone of the text, which seems to say to the reader, “this is the way it was, because I say so.” It would be one thing if the author was simply presenting uncontroversial facts in an excessively authoritative way. It’s something completely different to try to float an
interpretation on nothing but a claim to superior (but unshared) knowledge. For example, consider this paragraph:

Currency posed a knottier problem of morals, with greenbacks, the paper currency issued in quantity as a war measure, creating the major complication. Silver, too scarce, had been quietly demonetized in 1873. In the boom times before the panic [of 1873], greenbacks had offered some relief from an insufficient gold currency, some encouragement to expansionists little and big who feared deflation and tight credit. More important, gold was already acquiring a vague association with fat, parasitic bondholders. Nevertheless, the impulse to recapture fundamentals proved too strong, and throughout the countryside waverers selected currency with a feel and a ring that crinkly paper could never match. In 1875 Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act. Although it was a compromise in that it did not actually retire the greenbacks, the law still represented a moral commitment to currency that citizens could recognize as safe, sound, and honorable. (6)

I think it’s taking a big step, to argue that the money controversies of the 1870s were essentially a moral battle. It’s an interesting assertion, and it would be fascinating to see the point argued with evidence from political debates, newspapers, pamphlets, letters, etc. But Wiebe doesn’t really support the claim. And the facts he does give in the paragraph are problematic. Was silver really “too scarce?” Gold and silver were discovered in the Comstock District in 1859. Production peaked in 1877, when the Comstock mines produced $14 million in gold and $21 million in silver. And was the “Crime of 1873” a “quiet demonetization” of silver? It only seems quiet, because Wiebe says it was and the average reader doesn’t know any better. How often do we suspend our disbelief, and trust the author, when we really shouldn’t?

Wiebe is vague, to the point of misleading, about who exactly were the “expansionists little and big?” Country people who wanted the money supply expanded were generally farmers and small businessmen. Their interest was not ideological, they needed easier access to cash and credit in order to do business. Their fear was not a philosophical one. Deflation meant they couldn’t get a fair price for their products that reflected what they’d put into them, and tight credit meant financial embarrassment or bankruptcy. And there was nothing vague about their association of gold with bondholders, who insisted on being paid in specie while everyone else was forced to deal in depreciating paper; or about their feelings regarding this. When Wiebe says country people were driven by an “impulse to recover fundamentals” or that they were motivated by their belief that gold coins felt more like money than “crinkly paper,” he is suggesting that they were either fanatics or fools. Again, this denigration of country people isn’t a claim Wiebe supports with evidence; he just states it as if it’s a fact.

Finally, in presenting specie resumption as a “moral commitment” and a victory for “honorable” money, Wiebe is not only ignoring the large proportion of Americans who opposed resumption (or why was a compromise over greenbacks necessary?), but he’s not even trying to get at the real issues that motivated people on both sides of the debate. He’s just paraphrasing the political rhetoric the winning side used to rationalize its position, and pretending their propaganda tells the whole story of what really happened.

There’s much more to say -- my library copy of
The Search for Order is bristling with little pink sticky-tabs. But I think I’ve captured the gist of my reaction to this book. I think Wiebe’s thesis that the changes of the Progressive Era were based partly on a middle-class search for rational principles of social order (or social control) is interesting and suggestive. Maybe my response to the book indicates a change in our (or maybe only my) standards of argument and evidence in history since 1967. Wiebe does not demonstrate anything, he does not cite any sources, and in a key section where he’s making a cultural argument, he quotes a fictional character (Dr. Leete from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) more extensively than any real person. Bellamy’s book seems very interesting, and has been on my “read someday” radar for a while now. It’s interesting that Wiebe apparently thought it was so influential that its characters were archetypes who could speak for nineteenth-century people. But I’d have been much more comfortable with that train of thought, if he would have showed some contemporary responses to the book, or even identified its popularity in terms of copies sold.

Spies among us!

Jennifer Fronc
New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era

New York Undercover, Fronc argues that Progressive social activists used private investigators to spy on Americans in a variety of settings. They went looking for information to confirm their suspicions about their fellow citizens, “produced the knowledge necessary to alter conditions,” and because they were willing to “tamper with civil liberties, cross lines, and perform tasks that would have been illegal” for government employees, “they were central to the creation of a stronger federal state during the Progressive Era and World War I, one that became increasingly repressive in the interests of a national security agenda.” Fronc distinguishes between the evangelical approach of earlier reformers and the “instrumentalist pragmatism” of these people (who she calls “social activists” to avoid using the term reform, which she says “generations of historians have used in their desire to impose organizational synthesis on the contingency and chaos” of the actual situation), who sought to “enforce their own moral codes” upon society by creating “new types of knowledge about urban neighborhoods and their residents.” Fronc demonstrates that these private, often untrained undercover investigators played an “essential creating social knowledge and constituting political authority.” And she calls attention to the problem with this: the “entire process was teleological: the predominantly middle-class social activists set the parameters of the investigations, had their concerns confirmed by their investigators’ findings and reports, and then moved to solve the problems their employees uncovered (or caused).”

Fronc’s narrative reveals interesting glimpses of the little-seen underside of early twentieth-century New York, through the reports of these investigators. She also describes the activities of the main private organizations, like the Committee of Fourteen and the People’s Institute, as well as more the “liminal and vigilante” National Civic Federation. The evolution of “moral reform” from “benevolent societies” to “preventive societies,” and then to these semi-public committees and ultimately to government agencies, is interesting and disturbing. In some cases, like the “undercover investigation of midwives,” the reader can clearly see the medical profession lobbying to “safeguard against the usurpation of the function of the physician” -- a function the physician had only recently wrested away from its traditional practitioners. But overall, Fronc says “The desire to control and regulate--rather than ‘save’ or ‘redeem’--differentiated Progressive Era activists from their predecessors.” The elite condescension contained in these programs, and their racial, ethnic, and class biases did not go completely unchallenged at the time. Fronc documents a series of letters between W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Whitin (Executive of the Committee of Fourteen), in which DuBois challenged the legality of the segregation the Committee tried to enforce on New York businesses.

Fronc also highlights aspects of the period that get less notice than they ought. She calls attention to the fact that the period of 1914-1916 saw “nearly two years of monthly bombings in munitions plants, explosions aboard ships in New York harbor, and the arrests of German, Austrian, and Italian immigrants for bomb making in their apartments.” She traces the National Civic Federation’s 1900 establishment back to its roots in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. She points out that the NCF “opposed groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which wanted the government to protect small business interests from competition at the hands of large corporations and the demands of organized labor.” And that “On August 1, 1914, ‘the day after war was declared by Germany,’ the New York City Police Department officially expanded the Italian Squad and renamed it the Anarchist and Bomb Squad.”

Surveillance was undertaken by these activist Progressives, but is this type of somewhat sinister elitism pervade only their part of Progressivism? Jane Addams is named several times in the text, but Fronc never suggests that she had any knowledge of the type of surveillance that was going on. But in the sense that some of this spying
was finding out interesting new things about people in the major cities (which is part of the reason they’re still so interesting), isn’t this exactly the type of information Addams would have been interested in, if she had known it existed?

I also wonder how far outside the major cities this type of surveillance extends? Clearly, by the time the government takes it over in WWI, they’re looking at “enemies of the state” wherever they may be. But how does that develop, outside the cities?

And aren’t the vigilantes who work with the government really manifesting the same principle that motivates the anarchists themselves? A different concept of public and private spheres? The anarchists and the vigilantes both believe it’s within their legitimate scope of activities, to take on (violent) projects in the public sphere, which will later come to be (and is still, for us) understood as the monopoly of the state. So really, in one sense, the same impulse is behind the vigilantes that ally with the government to attack outsiders, and with the outsiders who attack the organs of the state.

The best things about this are that Fronc really uses things written by her subjects to great advantage. You “hear” their voices. This is a great example for me, since I’d like to do the same thing. The other great thing is, she wasn’t even looking for the investigators. She found them by accident. That’s
so cool for those of us who spend our time in archives...