Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast

For many Americans, the question--What is a dollar worth?--may sound bizarre, if not redundant. Fluctuating international exchange rates, highly volatile crypto-currencies, counterfeit money, these are all things the average American hears about on the news, but rarely thinks about on a day-to-day basis. Even the most enthusiastic Bitcoin supporters will likely readily admit they prefer to conduct the majority of their daily transactions in a currency whose value is relatively stable, and backed by the government. And while fewer and fewer of those transactions take place using actual paper money, the fact is, the U.S. dollar remains the primary currency in which goods are quoted, traded, and payments settled across not only in the United States, but around the globe.

This was not the case two-hundred years ago when Americans were obliged to live and transact in a world filled with upwards of 10,000 unique bank notes tied to different banks of various trustworthiness. This number does not even include the plethora of counterfeit bills and countless shinplasters issued by un-regulated merchants, firms, and municipalities. In this month’s episode, our guest, Joshua Greenberg explains the incredible amount of monetary knowledge required of Americans to participate in this highly volatile and chaotic market economy. An extensive monetary knowledge was necessary not just for financiers, merchants, and others operating at a high-level of economic activity, but also those who may never have had the occasion to step foot inside a bank themselves, but, nevertheless were compelled to constantly evaluate for themselves the value and authenticity of the paper money being handed to them or risk losing out.

Direct download: Hindenburg_Final_Episode.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:05pm EDT

Today, healthcare workers account for the largest percentage of U.S. workers. Yet, their power pales in comparison to the unionized industrial workforce that preceded them, and whom it is their job now to care for. In this episode, Gabriel Winant explains how these two worlds--the post-war industrial economy and the post-industrial service economy--came together in 'Steel City, USA,' where during the late twentieth century the healthcare economy emerged to take advantage of the social hierarchies engendered by the American welfare state.

Direct download: Winant_Hindenburg_File_Final.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:27pm EDT

Despite the rising cost of tuition and a recent slump in college enrollment, many Americans continue to look to education to improve their social and economic status. Yet, more and more degrees have not led to reduced levels of inequality. Rather, quite the opposite. Inequality remains the highest its been in decades. In this episode, Cristina Groeger delves into the history of this seeming contradiction, explaining how education came to be seen as a panacea even as it paved the way for deepening inequality. Starting in the late 19th century—at time when few Americans attended college, let alone high school—she explores how schooling came to be associated with work. For some, especially women and immigrants, education offered new pathways into jobs previously held by white, native-born men. The idea that more education should be the primary means of reducing inequality, however, fails adequately account for the experience of many Americans and indeed is, Groeger argues, a dangerous policy trap. If we want a more equitable society, we should not just prescribe more time in the classroom, but fight for justice in the workplace.

Direct download: Hindenburg_Working_File_Groeger_Final.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:57pm EDT

In this episode, labor historian Ronald Schatz speaks about the National War Labor Board. Recruited by the government to help resolve union-management conflicts during World War II, many of the labor board vets went on to have long and illustrious careers negotiating conflicts in a wide-range of sectors from the steel industry to public sector unionism. Some were recruited to mitigate unrest on college and university campuses in response to student unrest. While not a traditional labor history, the history of the labor board vets is one worth paying attention to both for what it tells us about past efforts to arbitrate labor-management conflicts, and what could be in store amid future conflicts. 

Direct download: Hindenburg_File_Ron_Schatz_Final.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:38pm EDT

The history of red-lining is one increasingly well-known within and beyond the academy. In the 1930s, as part of an attempt to shore up the struggling economy by underwriting home mortgages, the government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), developed a series of guidelines and criteria for assessing the risk of lending in urban areas. HOLC criteria drew heavily on the racial logics employed by lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers. Thus, “A-rated” neighborhoods, those associated with the least risk for banks and mortgage lenders, tended to be exclusively white. While, “D”-rated areas, deemed the most-risky, included large numbers of black and/or other non-white residents. These neighborhoods were color-coded red on HOLC maps, hence the term red-lining. They were often denied home loans.

HOLC and redlining had a dramatic effect on American cities with consequences lasting to the present day. Yet, the image of the HOLC’s color-coded maps suggests a more static relationship between lending and urban America than actually existed. In today’s episode, Rebecca Marchiel tells a more complex and nuanced story of white and black community activists who engaged with the federal government and banks in an effort to expose redlining—in its multiple forms—and imprint their own “financial common sense” on banking. In doing so, she undercuts notions that the reality depicted in HOLC’s maps was set in stone by the 1960s, when residents in Chicago’s West Side first became suspicious that they had become victims of red-lining, while at the same time revealing the alternative models of financing proposed by community activists in the urban reinvestment movement.

Direct download: Hindenburg_File_Rebecca_Marchiel.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:17pm EDT

It is common these days to bemoan the amount of personal information companies like Amazon, Facebook, and other modern telecommunications goliaths collect about us. For many, this invasion of privacy exists as a necessary consequence of our growing dependence on the internet. With every click of the mouse—making it possible to have products manufactured half-way around the world delivered to our doorstep—there is a reluctant awareness of the risk that our private lives might be made public.

That sense of the potential of our private lives being made public is all the more real when we acknowledge the human beings at the center of these information networks. Our modern service economy relies on people whose jobs involve an intimate awareness of our daily lives—the Amazon delivery person who brings us toilet paper, the barista who procures for us our morning coffee and knows whether we prefer cream or almond milk; the data analyst who knows what new titillating show we’re watching  and uses that information to sell us on the latest product. Our desire for on-demand services is satisfied through these people having access to information about us, all the more so amid the ongoing pandemic. Katie Hindmarch-Watson has spent many years thinking about the human labor involved in making a service economy. In Serving a Wired World: London's Telecommunication Workers and the Making of an Information Capital, she shows how concerns about privacy and information were at the center Victorian-era London’s telecommunications industry centered around the telegraph and telephone: the internet of its day. In doing so, she takes us on a journey involving telegraph boys ensnared in homosexual scandal and wicked telephone girls suspected of interrupting connections, all the while revealing the intimate and bodied labor that made (an) information capital.

Direct download: Katie_Hindmarch-Watson_Final_Episode.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:05pm EDT

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