Sunday, June 27, 2021

Caley Horan's "Insurance Era"

Caley Horan is associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Insurance Era: Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America, and reported the following:
Page 99 hits toward the end of Chapter 3, which traces the history of insurance industry investments in urban renewal during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The page features the conclusion of a section on Lake Meadows, a large urban housing complex built in Chicago during the early 1950s by the New York Life Insurance Company. A slum clearance project, the private development displaced large numbers of Black residents from Chicago’s South Side to make room for expensive luxury apartments with lake views. The same page features the opening lines of the concluding section of the chapter, which describes the process through which life insurance companies pulled out of urban housing in order to direct their ample investment dollars toward the rapidly expanding suburbs.

Does this page convey the primary message of the book? Not really. But it does succeed in revealing one of the many (often overlooked) ways the insurance industry shaped American life during the postwar era. It does a good job introducing some of the main claims of chapter 3, too. A browsing reader who turns to page 99 will encounter the idea that insurance industry investments shaped the course of urban renewal in the postwar United States and helped entrench discriminatory patterns of development that perpetuated and deepened residential segregation based on race.

Page 99 doesn’t offer much when it comes to one of the major themes of the book: private industry’s decades long fight to turn the tide of American sentiment against public insurance programs and collective risk sharing. The page does capture something of the book’s spirit, though. Page 99 is very much in the weeds when it comes to historical detail, but it still manages to communicate big and interesting ideas. This was my great hope for the book as a whole, and I’m glad that page 99 reflects that.
Learn more about Insurance Era at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue