Tuesday, July 29, 2014

History lesson

You can never know enough history. I have lived most of my life in Los Angeles and most of my professional life has been at USC. But I still know too little about each. I got some help on both fronts reading Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.

On the USC campus, there are occasional markers commemorating the role of a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew in helping to establish the University.  USC's website fills in some of the details. I had always presumed that this was just politically correct and sanitized history. Just how inclusive was 1870s Los Angeles?

More than I thought.  On Page 5 author Frances Dinkelspiel (Hellman's great-great-grandaughter) notes ..." from the start, Jews were accepted and integrated into society. They were elected to public office, built homes alongside their Christian neighbors, and became the established mercantile elite ... It was not until the 1890s that intransigent anti-semitism gripped California."

The story of boom and bust, of tolerance and intolerance is carried through the book. There is, of course,  much more. So much that this book has landed on my "to re-read" (when?) pile.

But this California history shows once again that in times of boom, people were too busy to fall into the hole of zero-sum hatreds. Its the old story. Prosperous people or people who take seriously the prospect of prosperity are nicer and more tolerant. It's a point documented many times by Benjamin Friedman in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.
Economic growth--meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of its citizens -- more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy ... Even societies that have already made great advances in these very dimensions, for example today's Western democracies make still further progress when their standards of living rise. But when living standards decline, most societies make little if any progress towards any of these these goals, and in many places plainly retrogress. (p. 4)
Very sad that economic growth is suspect or misunderstood by those who talk the most or the loudest about tolerance, diversity, fairness, etc.