Monday, November 29, 2021

Hannah Farber's "Underwriters of the United States"

Hannah Farber is assistant professor of history at Columbia University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Underwriters of the United States: How Insurance Shaped the American Founding, and reported the following:
If we flip to page 99 of Underwriters of the United States, we find ourselves in Philadelphia, shortly after the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. A local insurance group has successfully persuaded the legislature of the state of Pennsylvania to grant it an incorporation, in spite of noisy complaints from its opponents. The Page 99 test works fairly well, because what follows is a transformation that is central to the book: the noisy opponents, placated with an incorporation of their own, immediately discover that collaboration is more profitable than competition. Suddenly, they become a lot quieter. The two new insurance companies amicably exchange insurance rates, collaborate on matters of policy, and begin to build relationships with other insurance companies and private insurance brokerages up and down the eastern seaboard of the new republic.

Over the following two decades, a major shift takes place: the overwhelming majority of American merchants begin buying their insurance at home instead of overseas. As a result, American insurers are able to reconstitute their staggeringly complex, wealthy, and exclusive international business inside the United States. But how "inside" the United States is this business, really? When insurers talk about their business in public, they try to have things both ways. On the one hand, they portray the insurance business as a private project of expert, cosmopolitan merchants, with which the state has no right to interfere. On the other hand, they also try to portray insurance as a civic-minded business that benefits (secures!) all Americans, and that therefore deserves public acclamation and state support.
Learn more about Underwriters of the United States at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue