Dan Bouk. How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 328 S. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-56486-9.
Jonathan Levy. Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2014. 432 S. ISBN 978-0-674-06720-2.
Reviewed by Elisabeth Engel
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (March, 2018)
Sammelrez: American Histories of Risk
Sometimes referring to risk as the "analytically invisible" Arwen P. Mohun, Constructing the History of Risk. Foundations, Tools and Reasons Why, in: Historical Social Research 41 (2016), pp. 30–47, here p. 34. element in the historical literature on the calamities of humanity, historians have recently begun to define "the history of risk" as a subject in its own right. A key ambition of this growing cohort of books is to consider risk as a human invention, rather than a given in the human experience. Their preliminary master narrative holds that risk was the brainchild of medieval merchants in Europe who aimed to insure their maritime trade and that the concept proliferated alongside ever more elaborate attempts to influence the future in the modern era. In the past few decades, this history of risk has prompted historians to examine concepts and problems that are often hidden from public perception: insurance, finance, statistical thinking, and sciences of prediction, as well as practices of prevention, counting and measuring, gambling and speculation.
Following this trend in the research, „Freaks of Fortune" and „How Our Days Became Numbered" analyze insurance-related practices in North America. They consider the transnational history of risk, especially its passage across the Atlantic and its ties to global phenomena such as accounting and calculation, from the little studied perspective of risk’s appropriation outside of Europe. Aiming to illustrate the tensions and complexities of this process, authors Jonathan Levy and Dan Bouk draw on a diverse mix of primary sources (company records, court cases, newspaper articles, diaries, charts, photographs) and methods from social, cultural, and intellectual history. In addition, both accounts anchor their narratives in the stories of well-known as well as completely unfamiliar historical actors who shaped, worked for, used or rejected institutions of insurance. This approach distinguishes them from existing business histories of individual companies, works that focus on the institutional development of insurance, and studies that view risk through the lens of safety.
Levy and Bouk offer, instead, a picture of how the commodification of risk shaped American society and culture. Both narratives are bookended by the early underwriting practices of colonial merchants in the eighteenth century and the rise of state-run social security programs in the early twentieth century, but their emphasis is on the nineteenth century. Their studies overlap in important events in the national history of the United States, including the spread of commerce since the American Revolution, slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, the Panic of 1893, and the great merger movement. Another context that is prominent in both studies is so-called "American capitalism," with little explanation, however, of what this term means.
Although the two books traverse somewhat similar grounds, they pursue distinctive research agendas. Jonathan Levy examines nineteenth century financial instruments of risk management, including "insurance policies, savings accounts, government debt markets, mortgage-backed securities markets, bond markets, futures markets, and stock markets" (p. 4). Through these multiple lenses he aims to bring the dualism that characterized Americans’ engagement with the "economic chance-world of capitalism" (p. 4) into view. Levy argues that these financial tools, on the one side, shaped a new version of "liberal self-ownership" by granting people the liberty to assume – take, master, carry, mitigate, etc. – their personal risks. On the other side, this new possibility made them dependent upon "a new corporate financial system" (p. 13) that had its own pitfalls.
Levy constructs his narrative by juxtaposing a very interesting, yet unexplained, selection of episodes and people. In each of his chapters, the specific cases that he chooses serve to unfold the inner workings of a certain financial innovation. The common theme of all chapters is the process of "double commodification" (p. 32). The term describes the logic by which historical actors imagined risks as financial products that circulated in different realms than the objects or people that defined these risks’ value. Pursuing this idea allows Levy to keep an eye on risk as a moral double standard.
The first half of the book shares the curiosity of the "new history of capitalism" that is currently promoting a reconsideration of American slavery’s role in the rise of the financial sector. For a representative example of this argument see, Sven Beckert / Seth Rockman (eds.), Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, Philadelphia 2016. Levy traces this role by centering on the complications that the risk of emancipation posed for financial institutions. Chapter two, pivoting on marine insurance, scrutinizes the legal debates surrounding a slave mutiny on the ship Creole in 1841 to extract insurers’ understanding of freed slaves as uninsurable risks. Chapter three conceptualizes life insurance through the biography of America’s first actuary Elizur Wright (1804–1885), a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Chapter four examines the failure of the Freedman’s Bank (1865–1874) to secure the savings of former slaves due to its interactions with the ill-fated private investment bank Jay Cooke & Co. As we will see below in Dan Bouk’s analysis, it remained difficult for African Americans to insure themselves as standard risks well into the twentieth century.
Levy’s following chapters shift the focus towards the rise of the corporate financial system. Levy is interested in bringing its "systemic" risks into view, rather than – as one might expect – exploring how the system encouraged ordinary people to become less risk averse. Chapter five traces, in a very rewarding story about a German immigrant family in Kansas, how the post-Civil War secondary market for mortgages, life, and accident insurance deprived western farmers of their landed independence. Chapter six tries to cast the return of fraternal mutual aid schemes in industrial insurance, exemplified with the Ancient Order of United Workman, as a "countermovement" (p. 192) against tontines, a lottery-oriented form of life insurance. The last two chapters take the reader, to speak with Louis Hyman, "all the way to the top" Jennifer Schuessler, In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism, in: The New York Times, 06.04.2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/education/in-history-departments-its-up-with-capitalism.html (07.03.2018). into the offices of the men who ran the new world of finance. Chapter seven provides a very instructive introduction to commodity futures, a financial tool for hedging on the prices of agricultural products before they were even grown. Levy illustrates the intricacies of this immaterial trade with the Chicago Board of Trade’s war against informal bucket shops "where anyone could wager on the rise and fall of prices" (p. 232). The last chapter examines the formation of industrial trusts and related visions of a "corporate welfare capitalism" (p. 309). Here Levy focuses on the business practices of George Perkins (1862–1920), a central player in New York Life, J. P. Morgan & Co., U.S. Steel, and the Progressive Party. A brief epilogue links Perkins’ ideas to the social welfare policies of the New Deal era.
Dan Bouk’s account investigates a different way in which modern financial corporations influenced the lives of ordinary American people. „How Our Days Became Numbered" is interested in the "risk-making tools" developed by nineteenth and early-twentieth century life insurance as an entreé for understanding the cultural links between "Big Data" (p. xxx) and American capitalism. Bouk’s distinctive argument runs somewhat analogous to Michel Foucault’s dictum that knowledge is a form of power that cannot be controlled by its producers. His goal is to show that life insurers collected and processed massive amounts of data without ever achieving the capacity to correctly predict the death of individuals, while the same data suggested the "strengthening and reforming of human bodies" (p. xii) as a potential field for expanding company operations and profits.
Bouk develops this argument in his preface by reflecting on his primary sources. His analysis concerns the "strange books" (p. xii) – broadly construed as encompassing cultural artifacts like index cards, medical examination forms, and height-weight tables – that originated in the life insurance industry. His method is to read them as "by-products" of the effort to understand people as risks and to govern these risks in coordination with financial markets. While Bouk draws on existing research on life insurance as a financial institution (including „Freaks of Fortune"), as well as on the historiography of numeracy, aggregation, quantification, and the human sciences, he does not seek to intervene into these literatures. His major themes are the tensions, biases, and blunt manipulations that were involved in applying statistics to individuals, an ambiguity he captures under the rubric "statistical individual." An interesting sharpening of this tension would have been possible with further consideration of the first clerical workers who processed insurance data as "computers" and whose labor heralded a much broader industrialization of information in subsequent decades.
The early chapters of the book survey the techniques that life insurers developed to describe and price individual lives. Chapter one explains the method of "classing" (individualizing insurance plans based on group features like region or age) through the ill-fated efforts of Thomas Scott Lambert, founder of the American Popular Life (1866), to promote the use of biometrical factors like ancestry and family history in calculating insurance risks. Chapter two moves on to "fatalizing" (predicting life spans based on past statistics) in a fascinating account of African Americans’ resistance, and successful legal intervention, against the high rates that insurance companies demanded from members of the black race because statisticians prognosticated its extinction. Chapter three traces the production of statistical individuals within insurance companies’ bureaucratic apparatuses. Bouk, remarkably, illustrates the process with photographs of various divisions of the New-York Life Insurance Company. Chapter four, "the book’s hinge" (p. xxvii), sheds light on the abuse of "smoothing" (averaging data from different groups) as revealed by the Armstrong investigation of 1905, launched by the state of New York to inquire into the business practices of the nation’s five largest companies. Bouk’s almost comical analysis of the hearings highlights how professional actuaries operated with arcane methods of estimating averages – as opposed to precise calculation – that tended towards enhancing their companies’ income and their own salaries.
The second half of the book traces how life insurances broadened their influence in bio-political directions under the stricter regulations they faced after the Armstrong investigation. Chapter five reconstructs how leading officials of Metropolitan Life and Prudential Life shifted their companies’ focus from predicting deaths to promoting the health of their clients. By advising policyholders on hygiene, food, and fitness, and offering preventive medical checkups, Bouk argues, they paved the way for a broader acceptance of public and personal health measures, beginning with having a scale in the bathroom. Chapter six considers a cohort of insurance agents who nonetheless continued to assert and refine "the science of life insurance." In a literally poetic manner, the chapter "performs" (p. 148) their valuing of lives in four movements similarly to a piece of prose by the composer and insurer Charles Ives. Chapter seven turns to the "white data politics" (p. 185) insurers developed in the context of eugenicist thinking and new immigration restrictions. In an intriguing analysis of contradictory graphs on the mortality and intelligence of European immigrants and African Americans, he shows how insurers defined African Americans as substandard risks despite their life expectancy being statistically longer than that of Irish Americans. The conclusion and epilogue consider how life insurer’s risk-making techniques migrated further into American social security systems in the New Deal era, and from there into the variety of cards we carry today to get cash or receive discounts.
Taken together, „Freaks of Fortune" and "How Our Days Become Numbered" present us with a myriad of atypical case studies (Levy’s chapter on the Freedman’s Bank to explain the concept of savings banks; Bouk’s use of Lambert’s widely discredited biometrical approach to explain classing). Their emphasis on "nitty-gritty details" (Levy, p. 5) and "strange books" (Bouk, p. xxii) sometimes obscures the key themes of the rise of economic risk and the statistical individual. Nonetheless, both accounts are strong regarding the level of complexity they achieve. While Levy demonstrates that American people invented ever more financial tools of economic risk management, Bouk details the flipside of the process, showing how financial tools turned people into risks that were economically profitable for insurers. This way, they succeed in developing original questions from the American histories of the commodification of risk. Problems like race, agency, resistance, and personalization will hopefully inspire more studies on risk in other areas of the globe.
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Elisabeth Engel. Review of Bouk, Dan, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual and
Levy, Jonathan, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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