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Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economyby Shane Hamilton
Trucking Country is a social history of long-haul trucking that explores the contentious politics of free-market capitalism in post-World War II America. Shane Hamilton paints an eye-opening portrait of the rural highways of the American heartland, and in doing so explains why working-class populist voters are drawn to conservative politicians/i>
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Trucking Country is a social history of long-haul trucking that explores the contentious politics of free-market capitalism in post-World War II America. Shane Hamilton paints an eye-opening portrait of the rural highways of the American heartland, and in doing so explains why working-class populist voters are drawn to conservative politicians who seemingly don't represent their financial interests.
Hamilton challenges the popular notion of "red state" conservatism as a devil's bargain between culturally conservative rural workers and economically conservative demagogues in the Republican Party. The roots of rural conservatism, Hamilton demonstrates, took hold long before the culture wars and free-market fanaticism of the 1990s. As Hamilton shows, truckers helped build an economic order that brought low-priced consumer goods to a greater number of Americans. They piloted the big rigs that linked America's factory farms and agribusiness food processors to suburban supermarkets across the country.
Trucking Country is the gripping account of truckers whose support of post-New Deal free enterprise was so virulent that it sparked violent highway blockades in the 1970s. It's the story of "bandit" drivers who inspired country songwriters and Hollywood filmmakers to celebrate the "last American cowboy," and of ordinary blue-collar workers who helped make possible the deregulatory policies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and set the stage for Wal-Mart to become America's most powerful corporation in today's low-price, low-wage economy.
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Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Joseph E. Lowndes
Peter J. Hugill
Independent trucking is for Hamilton what Kansas was for Frank--the locus that shows a part of what has gone wrong with American politics.
"With the US again engaged in a debate over the merits of regulation versus the free market, the book's academic research touches on some timely historical issues. It is also a fascinating account of the political battles over the diesel engine and the refrigerated truck, which had emerged as the new technology of the 1920s and 1930s and a threat to the dominance of the railroad distribution system for beef and milk by a few large meat packing companies and local dairies."Jonathan Birchall, Financial Times
"Trucking Country offers a finely crafted mix of cultural identity, regional tradition, economic history, legislative politics, political argument and policy transformation. Shane Hamilton uses the history and contemporary development of the trucking industry in the U.S. to reveal the social, economic and political dynamics that were instrumental in shifting the industry away from the heavy regulation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) towards deregulation, fragmentation, and free-market competition."Michael Foley, Times Higher Education
"Independent trucking is for Hamilton what Kansas was for Frankthe locus that shows a part of what has gone wrong with American politics."David Kusnet, Bookforum
"Trucking Country intervenes in [the] crowded debate over the demise of New Deal liberalism from a genuinely original vantage point: the political culture of independent long-haul truckers and the political economy shaped by the agribusiness corporations that they served."Matthew Lassiter, Democracy
"If you want to know what really drives the US economy, then this thoroughly researched and well-written book is for youand that's a big 10-4, Rubber Duck."Joe Cushnan, The Tribune (UK)
"[B]y drawing together structural, institutional, economic, and cultural analyses, Hamilton has offered a dense, textured, and complex account of his subject. Trucking Country is essential to any understanding of the decline of the New Deal and the rise of economic conservatism at the end of the twentieth century."Joseph E. Lowndes, Perspectives on Politics
"A brilliant read."Fleet Transportation Magazine
"[U]ndeniably a major achievement. Shane Hamilton has written a brilliant book that will be required reading for anyone interested ill understanding the conservative groundswell of the postwar era."Jordan Kleiman, Technology and Culture
"This is a convincing and useful book."Peter J. Hugill, Journal of American History
"[A] fascinating study of the hauling business. . . . From the 1930s through the end of the Carter administration, Hamilton's history is thoughtful, detailed, and informative."Jesse Walker, Reason
"Trucking Country is imaginative, thought-provoking, and persuasive. . . . [N]o scholarly work is more essential for understanding the transformation of Northwest Arkansas."Michael Pierce, Arkansas Historical Quarterly
Read an Excerpt
TRUCKING COUNTRYTHE ROAD TO AMERICA'S WAL-MART ECONOMY
By Shane Hamilton
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFood and Power in the New Deal, 1933-42
"The city-dweller or poet who regards the cow as a symbol of bucolic serenity," declared U.S. Circuit Court judge Jerome Frank in 1941, "is indeed naïve." Presiding over an acrimonious legal battle involving the price of milk, Frank noted that the liquid gently coaxed from a cow's udder might be "indispensable to human health," but it was also responsible for "provoking as much human strife and nastiness as strong alcoholic beverages." Frank had witnessed such nastiness firsthand as a member of the "Brains Trust" in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal administration. As legal counsel for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), Frank spent much of his time shaping federal milk policies, attempting to hammer out compromises among dairy farmers, milk bottlers, deliverymen organized in labor unions, and urban consumers. Earning himself a reputation as a "brilliant wild man" and a "potent left-winger" for his work on behalf of small black and white farmers, Frank worked to craft agricultural policies that would also benefit urban workers and consumers, even if those benefits came at the expense of large farmers and food processors. Frank's prolabor and proconsumer efforts at the AAA put him at odds with the first administrator of the agency, George N. Peek, who pegged Frank as an intellectual city-boy and tried unsuccessfully to have him fired. Peek's successor, Chester C. Davis, likewise saw Frank's politics as counter to the USDA's core constituency of commercial farmers, and in February of 1935 "purged" Frank and dozens of his like-minded colleagues from the AAA. Milk politics alone did not doom Frank's career as an economic liberal within the Department of Agriculture, but his efforts to frame farm policy as an issue of concern to all Americans highlighted one of the central tensions within the New Deal.
The bitter fights surrounding the price of milk during Frank's brief tenure in the AAA represented a broader political struggle over farm and food policies during the early years of the New Deal. In response to the Great Depression, organized farmers, consumers, businessmen, and laborers all renounced laissez-faire ideology and demanded government intervention in the food economy. The New Deal policies erected in response to these conflicting demands engendered prolonged debates over the proper role of the state in regulating and administering the economy. Of particular concern was the decades-old dilemma of monopoly power in an age of mass produced and mass consumed food. Should the government break up monopolies such as the widely reviled "Milk Trust" or the "Big Four" meatpackers to protect the interests of small farmers and urban consumers? Or would action against these efficient businesses, which employed thousands of workers, actually do more harm than good in an economy reeling from underconsumption in the city and overproduction on the farm? The answers to these questions would dictate the future of New Deal economic liberalism, since government intervention in the food economy inherently affected every U.S. producer, consumer, and worker. Neither conservatives nor liberals could readily justify "free enterprise" in the farm economy at a time of worldwide economic crisis-yet neither could they agree on how the state could effectively intervene to benefit the greatest number of Americans.
From the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's term in office until the entry of the United States into World War II, antimonopoly and agrarian rhetoric clashed with the reality of farm policies that benefited large-scale farmers and powerful food processors at the expense of smaller farmers, urban workers, and consumers. Beset by conflicting demands from all of these groups, liberal New Dealers such as Jerome Frank and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace struggled to balance the concerns of workers, consumers, and small farmers with the interests of corporate agriculture. Their efforts, though only partially successful, made government regulation of private farming and food processing enterprises a central but deeply controversial aspect of New Deal political economy. As later chapters show, the expansion of long-haul trucking transformed the nature of this political question, as powerful agribusinesses relied on unregulated trucking to develop "free market" solutions to the New Dealera farm problem. To understand that transformation, however, we must first understand the roots of the farm problem and its implications for the political economy of the New Deal in an era of railroad-based transportation. Despite the economic liberalism that animated the New Deal in a time of depression, the material reality of a transportation infrastructure forged during the Gilded Age required significant compromises-particularly the acceptance of a certain degree of monopoly power within the farm and food economy.
The Great Depression and the Farm Problem
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 put farm prices and food costs front and center in U.S. politics, but the issue had deeper historical roots. The "farm problem" first became politically salient during the Populist movements of the 1880s and 1890s. Southern tenant farmers pressed by the credit squeeze of the crop lien system, along with northern plains farmers struggling to adjust to globalizing wheat markets, called for a strong federal government to countervail the power of the nation's "money interests"-landlords, banks, and especially railroads. Although the Populists failed to elect their presidential candidates in the 1892 and 1896 elections, they successfully put the farm problem on the nation's political agenda. Progressive reformers of the early twentieth century adapted many of the Populists' ideas as new legislation and policies, from the strengthening of the Interstate Commerce Commission to the establishment of rural producers' cooperatives to improve the leverage of farmers in agricultural markets. These policy efforts had some success in mitigating the farm problem, but even more important was the rising global demand for U.S. farm products that drove up prices in the 1910s. The period leading up to and through World War I witnessed a "golden age of agriculture" that significantly defused political agitation by farmers.
The farm problem returned to the nation's political consciousness with a vengeance in the 1920s. Huge surpluses created by production for World War I led to a postwar drop in farm prices and an agricultural depression. Congressmen from rural states in the South and West reacted by forming a "farm bloc" devoted to increasing farmer's incomes, either by limiting agricultural production, by dumping surpluses on foreign markets, or by guaranteeing farmers a "parity" price for their crops. Attempts to pass legislation such as the McNary-Haugen Bill foundered in the 1920s, however, as farm representatives from different regions of the country could not reach consensus on the proper mechanism for assuring steady farm incomes. But when the Great Depression struck in 1929, desperate farmers called urgently upon the federal government for relief. Herbert Hoover's Farm Board attempted to implement the least statist proposals of the McNary-Haugen era-particularly voluntary marketing associations to shore up farm prices-but with little success. Most farmers, as individual business owners, refused to cooperatively reduce their production to increase prices. The agricultural depression continued. As farm prices and credit structures collapsed, sending even formerly prosperous U.S. farmers deeply into debt, laissez-faire ideology lost its hold in the countryside, paving the way for heavy government intervention in the depressed rural economy.
One of the Roosevelt administration's first acts was to sign into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The legislation sought to shore up farmers' incomes through both price supports and production controls, making centralized economic planning the cornerstone of New Deal farm policy. Price supports were meant to guarantee stability in the agricultural marketplace, with the visible hand of government creating what Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace called an "ever-normal granary" through federal purchases of surplus crops. Production controls, meanwhile, would force farmers to reduce the amount of acreage planted to crops through an unprecedented extension of government power. These policies-which combined government subsidization with planned scarcity-helped raise farm incomes for many commercial farmers, but at the cost of forcing thousands of small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers off the land. Even as the AAA sought to limit farmers' production, the scientific bureaus of the USDA continued to push farmers to use pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid crops, and tractors to boost yields. Encouraged by economists such as M. L. Wilson, who helped formulate the AAA production control policies, the USDA's technological and scientific efforts from the late nineteenth century into the 1930s focused on creating giant industrial farms where commodities could be produced factory-style. New Deal farm policies reaped rewards for the Democratic Party by securing solid political support from large commercial farmers, but also pushed many small, "inefficient" farmers out of the market. The AAA consequently offended conservatives as an affront to free enterprise while liberals decried the programs for harming the most vulnerable members of rural society. As we shall see, this tension between large and small farmers, and between conservatives and liberals, would shape farm policy debates for several decades after the economic crisis of the Great Depression.
The farm problem, however, was not just a problem for farmers. The price of milk, meat, bread, and produce impacted every U.S. family trying to put food on the table during a devastating depression. The AAA's focus on taming overproduction put farm policies at odds with other New Deal economic reforms, since raising farm prices increased the cost of food for urban industrial laborers and consumers, who were also members of the emerging Democratic coalition. Even as agricultural policymakers formulated plans for slashing production of midwestern wheat crops in the spring of 1933, unemployed factory workers queued up in breadlines in the nation's largest cities. In the summer of 1933 bakers began charging eight to ten cents for loaves of bread that had previously cost five cents. Consumers around the country blamed farm policies for inflating the price of bread and flooded the offices of President Roosevelt and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace with letters demanding change. In the fall of 1933 and spring of 1934, the farm program came under heated attacks when Wallace ordered six million hogs culled and one-quarter of the southern cotton crop plowed under to increase market prices. Critics of the New Deal ridiculed the Roosevelt administration for destroying food and fiber when millions of Americans were starving and poorly clothed. The federal government appeared to be subsidizing powerful farmers and rural landlords at city dwellers' expense.
In an effort to stave off a full-scale revolt against New Deal farm policy, Wallace appointed veteran trustbuster Frederic C. Howe to the office of AAA Consumers' Counsel in June 1933. An ally of Jerome Frank, Rexford Tugwell, and other urban liberals in the AAA who hoped to transform the entire agricultural economy rather than merely raise farm prices, Howe gained the authority to investigate consumer complaints against food processors, distributors, and retailers. Although Howe's actions had no direct impact on New Deal farm policies, his office energized a growing consumer movement. By publishing the Consumers' Guide, a master list of food prices in the nation's major cities, Howe hoped to "awaken public sentiment and put its power behind the drive to get more money for the farmer without gouging the consumer." Howe worked assiduously to prevent profiteering in the food economy-so assiduously, in fact, that he was included in the "great purge" of liberals from the AAA in 1935. Although Secretary of Agriculture Wallace sympathized with and encouraged Howe's antitrust harangues, AAA administrator George N. Peek believed that consumer purchasing power was outside the ambit of the farm program. As Peek put it, the AAA was part of the Department of Agriculture, not the "Department of Everything."
The split between agrarians and urban-industrial reformers within the Department of Agriculture in the early years of the New Deal was due in part to the divergent personal histories of the individual policymakers involved. Agrarian reformers-represented by farm leaders George N. Peek and Henry A. Wallace, economists M. L. Wilson and Howard R. Tolley, and sociologist Carl C. Taylor-were all born in the rural Midwest, had been educated at midwestern land-grant schools, and either began their early careers working as farm businessmen (Peek and Wallace) or as agricultural economists or rural sociologists in the USDA/land-grant college complex (Wilson, Tolley, Taylor). Wallace, for instance, was the grandson of Henry Wallace-the founder of the influential farm journal Wallace's Farmer-and the son of Henry Cantwell Wallace, who served as secretary of agriculture under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Before becoming Franklin Roosevelt's first secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace attended Iowa State College, wrote scientific articles and political editorials for Wallace's Farmer, and in 1914 founded the hybrid seed corn company that later became Pioneer Hi-Bred. Wallace was no conservative-he firmly believed the federal government could and should intervene in the agricultural economy to nurture a Jeffersonian republic of landed farmers, and furthermore believed the government should play an active role in diffusing scientific knowledge to those farmers. Wallace's politics were forged, however, in the rural Midwest, where white family farmers did not encounter the same racial tensions and extremes of poverty and wealth that plagued the farmscapes of the South and West and the industrial cores of the nation's largest cities. The urban-industrial reformers who joined the New Deal Department of Agriculture, by contrast, formed their political consciousnesses in more cosmopolitan spheres far removed from heartland agriculture. Rexford G. Tugwell, Jerome Frank, and Frederic C. Howe were all born in the urbanized Northeast, attended prestigious private colleges, and spent their early careers practicing law or teaching in Ivy League universities. Jerome Frank, for instance, was born in New York City in 1889 to German-Jewish immigrants who later moved to Chicago. At the age of sixteen Frank entered the University of Chicago, where he studied political science before entering the Law School, from which he graduated with the highest grades in that school's history. After spending several years on Wall Street practicing corporate law, Frank met Felix Frankfurter, an influential Harvard legal theorist who, like Frank, sympathized with the politically and economically disempowered members of U.S. society. Frankfurter, a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt, encouraged Frank to join the Department of Agriculture in 1933 as Rexford Tugwell's top legal aide. Frank took the job, and brought with him a host of like-minded cosmopolitan reformers, including a young Alger Hiss, Thurman Arnold, and Adlai Stevenson.
Excerpted from TRUCKING COUNTRY by Shane Hamilton Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Nelson Lichtenstein, author of "State of the Union: A Century of American Labor"
Pete Daniel, National Museum of American History
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Marc Levinson, author of "The Box"
Meet the Author
Shane Hamilton is associate professor of history and associate director of the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia. With Sarah Phillips, he is author of The Kitchen Debate and Cold War Consumer Politics.
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