My new post on WritingtheNorthwest.com looks at the many Pacific Northwest connections in Adam Hochschild’s fascinating and sobering new book about America during and after World War I, AMERICAN MIDNIGHT.
Among the Northwest people you’ll read about are the feisty, progressive Portland doctor Marie Equi, the organizers of the 1919 Seattle General Strike, and the brave members of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) labor union.
You’ll also read about less savory characters like the immigrant-hating Washington State congressman Albert Johnson and Seattle mayor Ole Hanson, who may have been the first politician to make a career out of being avowedly anti-Communist.
Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining this website.
After a brief break over the holidays, WritingtheNorthwest.com is back, and I’m pleased to start the new year with a new feature, Three Questions and a Quote, and one of my favorite Northwest writers, Jon Raymond.
Raymond is the author of an award-winning story collection, an essay collection, and four novels, including Denial(2022), a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award in Fiction. He has also coauthored several films, including the HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “First Cow.” Most of his work is set in the Northwest.
Three Questions and a Quoteis a new, occasional feature focused on the thoughts and work of prominent Northwest writers.
You can access the entry on Raymond here, including his thoughts on Northwest writing and links to his writings and films (plus other goodies).
My latest post on WritingtheNorthwest.com is about John Okada’s NO-NO-BOY, the most beautiful and devastating novel I’ve read about the American immigrant experience.
The book’s focus is the difficult return to Seattle of a young Japanese American man who went to prison rather than serve in the US military during WWII: the hostilities he faces, the kindnesses he can’t bear, and his own feelings of guilt and shame.
Click below to read my thoughts on this amazing and eye-opening book.
Head over to WritingtheNorthwest.com to read about (and watch!) the fascinating video work of Indigenous artist Sky Hopinka, who was raised in Ferndale, WA, and went to school at Portland State University.
As part of my J. D. Ross research, I’ve been reading FDR’s May 26, 1940, fireside chat titled “On National Defense.” After making a pitch for beefing up the military in response to what was happening in Europe, he said this:
” But there is an added technique for weakening a nation at its very roots, for disrupting the entire pattern of life of a people. And it is important that we understand it.
“The method is simple. It is, first, discord, a dissemination of discord. A group –not too large — a group that may be sectional or racial or political — is encouraged to exploit its prejudices through false slogans and emotional appeals. The aim of those who deliberately egg on these groups is to create confusion of counsel, public indecision, political paralysis and eventually, a state of panic.”
The result, he said, is that people “can lose confidence in each other, and therefore lose confidence in the efficacy of their own united action. Faith and courage can yield to doubt and fear. The unity of the state can be so sapped that its strength is destroyed.”
These are important words to remember, especially as we prepare to go to the polls for an important midterm election.
I just posted a new piece on WritingtheNorthwest.com. It’s about a 1917 profile of Portland, Oregon, in the national magazine Collier’s Weekly. Called “Portland the Spinster,” the article suggests the city is run by a handful of conservative FFPs (First Families of Portland) who lord it over the later arrivals.
I love reading other people’s views of places I love, and I had some fun writing about this one. You’ll find my post here.
I thought it was going to be behind a paywall, but the WC editors have made it available to anyone. Here’s an excerpt:
One of the trickiest things to do is balance what you feel is true after all of your research with fidelity to what you actually know. Given that a biography is usually based on years of research and a memoir on years of knowing the people around you, it is easy to believe you know what your subject’s perspective on something would be even if she never stated it. The danger in this is we never truly know what a person might have thought or felt. People surprise us all the time. We even surprise ourselves.
The research I’ve been doing for my next book–a biography of early 20th-century public power advocate J. D. Ross–has made me keenly interested in United States policies toward monopolies and trusts. One little-known fact I’ve come across is that monopolistic practices by private power companies in the 1920s played a significant role in causing the Great Depression.
Although US anti-monopoly law goes back as far as the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, a key provision of which “makes illegal all attempts to monopolize any part of trade or commerce in the United States,” corporate tendencies toward industry consolidation and control have only rarely been curbed or even slowed.
As a result, most areas of the US economy are dominated today by corporate entities, against whom small business owners have difficulty competing. While it has always been rare for one company to have a true monopoly (as ALCOA did in the aluminum industry before WWII), it is increasingly common for a handful of corporations to hold near-total dominance in various areas.
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To learn more about monopolies and anti-monopoly efforts today, I recently attended a forum put on by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), an anti-monopoly group whose tagline is “Building local power to fight corporate control.”
The forum–cosponsored by another anti-monopoly group, the Open Markets Institute–took place at Open Book in Minneapolis on September 22, a day I just happened to be passing through the area. The first speaker was US Federal Trade Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya, who was appointed by President Joe Biden and sworn into his position on May 22 of this year.
In Bedoya’s speech, which you can read in its entirety here, he discussed a disturbing narrowing of the definition of “monopoly” over the past 40 years, as US administrations and Supreme Court rulings have focused increasingly on issues of “efficiency” rather than “fairness.”
According to this definition, as long as big businesses create “efficiencies” in the market, including keeping consumer prices generally low, it doesn’t matter if their practices are inherently “fair” or not to smaller competitors or even consumers.
Yet, as Bedoya pointed out, fairness has been part of anti-monopoly legislation since the beginning, while the word “efficiency” doesn’t appear in any anti-monopoly or anti-trust laws.
The result of this narrowing of definition has been a subsequent narrowing of ownership and opportunity, which, as we saw with the meatpacking troubles during the early months of Covid, can lead to drastic and unnecessary problems.
“Picture a set of 39 companies,” Bedoya said to illustrate what’s happening. “Some pharmacies, some PBMs [pharmacy benefit managers], some insurers. Twenty years ago, these were all separate. Today, those 39 companies have merged into just three vertically integrated entities. And so today, when most people fill a prescription, just one of three entities mediates what medicine they get, what they pay for it, and how they will get it – and that corporate entity makes money by making sure that prescription is filled by its own pharmacy.”
Bedoya spent a sizable portion of his speech on the ant-monopoly requirements laid out in 1936’s Robinson-Patman Act, which I encourage you to read about here. The R-P Act is almost entirely focused on preventing predatory pricing agreements that leave smaller competitors at a disadvantage. In other words, its focus is fairness. Yet it has been almost universally ignored in recent years by administrations and the courts.
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Two panel discussions followed Bedoya’s remarks. The first panel featured R. F. Buche, an independent grocery store owner in S. Dakota whose stores are exclusively on Native American reservations. Buche’s frustration with the more-favorable deals offered by large consumer-product corporations to places like Walmart and Dollar General was palpable. (One statistic he cited was that 65% of US grocery sales today come from five companies.)
Another participant on the same panel was independent bookstore owner Angela Schwesnedl, who said that there is only one wholesaler left through which she can buy new books. As a result of the consolidation in her industry, she said, independent bookstores like hers account now for only 4% of the book market.
Stu Lourey of the Minnesota Farmers Union, who was on the second panel, told the audience that a mere four plants control 85% of the meatpacking market. And Minnesota farmer Hannah Bernhardt talked about being forced to travel a ridiculous number of miles just to have her livestock butchered.
This is only a taste of of the many disturbing statistics, trends and practices presented at the forum, mostly by common people struggling to stay afloat as farmers, grocers, and small business owners.
I’ll be writing more about monopolies and trusts in future posts. Meanwhile, I encourage you to learn more about them yourself, starting with these links: