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Big Policy: Debating the Future of Technology, Society, and Government

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Lily Geismer


Changing Liberal Values - Lily Geismer explains how the emergence of a group of high-tech suburban liberals produced a politics that emphasized meritocracy and equality of opportunity, but also a “property-value politics” focused on self-interest. Specifically, Geismer notes that these suburban liberals were progressive on issues from which they personally benefitted or that allowed abstract commitments to equality, such as environmentalism, antiwar politics, fair housing, or voluntary school integration, but tended to oppose policies that would involve costs to them or threaten property values, including tax policy, affordable housing, or two-way school integration.

Don’t Blame Us and the Transformation of Liberalism  - Lily Geismer discusses her book, Don’t Blame Us, in which she examines the transformation of American liberalism since the 1960s. Focusing on the emergence of white-collar workers in the technology industry around Boston’s Route 128 corridor, Geismer challenges assumptions about the decline of liberalism and casts new light onto the importance of suburban politics.

Suburban Liberalism versus Urban Gentrification - Lily Geismer compares contemporary urban gentrification movements to the suburban liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, she argues that although they occupy different spaces, the two movements are part of the same trend and share similar political identities around issues of property values, public education, and environmentalism. 

The METCO Program and the Problem with Individual Solutions to Structural Problems - Lily Geismer explains the development of the METCO program, which began in 1966 and is the country’s oldest and largest voluntary school busing program. Geismer argues that the program represents a classic example of an individual solution to a structural problem.

The Policy Implications of a Shifting Liberalism - Geismer concludes that the most important contribution of <em>Don’t Blame Us</em> may be to increase readers’ understanding of what their actions and choices can and cannot accomplish. She notes that choices about issues such as children’s education may actually have greater impact than more traditional political actions. In addition, she also argues that the current focus on technology as a solution to all problems should be modified with a greater emphasis on issues of equity and the creation of sustainable futures in urban areas.

The Tradeoff of Transformation - Geismer notes that this transformation had a cost, as the new suburban liberalism exhibited far less of a commitment to addressing structural inequality or to finding collective solutions to public problems.  In many respects, it actually obscured such structural issues.

Julia Ott

This interview stems from “The History of Capitalism,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2015. Click to watch full event video.


Popular Financial Investment, the State, and the History of Modern Conservatism  - Julia Ott explains how the state facilitated the rise of mass consumer investment in the early decades of the twentieth century. As a result, she argues, both liberals and conservatives came to identify with a narrative that financial markets are both too efficient and too delicate for intervention - even as the state played a central part in the development of those very markets.

The Democratization of Corporations and the Methodologies of History of Capitalism - Julia Ott describes the research process that produced her book When Wall Street Met Main Street. She notes that archival sources led her to emphasize popular narratives calling for the democratization of corporations as well as corporate efforts to reshape the public’s ideas about securities  markets - and led her to adopt a methodological mix of techniques from political, intellectual, and cultural history.

The Relationship between Agency and Constraint in the History of Capitalism - Julia Ott discusses the balance between agency and constraint that has shaped the new history of capitalism. She argues that while individuals may have little direct ability to reshape capitalism, policy choices have produced specific forms of capitalism that are subject to policy intervention.

The Potential for Change in Capitalism - Julia Ott explains how an historical analysis of American capitalism demonstrates the potential for change and the role - and nature - of agency, recognizing that capitalism is both malleable and subject to human intervention. She also compares recent reform efforts such as the Dodd-Frank bill to earlier regulatory interventions.

Comparing the Crises of 1929 and 2007 - Julia Ott discusses the similarities and differences between the financial crises of 1929 and 2007-2008. While much of the rhetoric was the same in both periods, financial reform is more difficult to achieve today because the finance industry has become structurally vital for the American economy. 

Future directions for the History of Capitalism - Julia Ott describes how the history of Capitalism field can contribute to emerging challenges in contemporary capitalism. She also suggests that increased interdisciplinary collaboration can help students become both more economically literate but also more critical in their approach to capitalism.

Louis Hyman

This interview stems from “The History of Capitalism,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2015. Click to watch full event video.


Debtor Nation - Louis Hyman explains how specific policy choices shifted consumer debt from the margins of the U.S. economy in the late nineteenth century to the center of the economy in the late twentieth century. 

Suburbia and the Redirecting of Capital - Louis Hyman argues that while there are legitimate reasons to criticize the role of public policy in the creation of suburbia, the process also provides a useful example of the state’s ability to redirect private capital for a social good - in this case, the creation of quality housing for millions of working Americans. 

The Contingency of Capitalism and the Possibility of Choice - Louis Hyman highlights one of the key contributions of the history of capitalism field: its demonstration that capitalism is not a natural feature of the world, but instead the product of specific policy choices. This insight, which has been clarified by the collapse of communism and the loss of the "utopian imaginary" of a post-capitalist future, suggests that we can make future choices as well - choices that will determine the nature of capitalism moving forward and whether it is a force for equity and human progress. 

Writing History from “the Bottom to the Top” - Louis Hyman describes his methodology of conducting history "from the bottom all the way to the top."  Hyman starts his research by looking at everyday practices and traces power to the top, instead of focusing solely on either the bottom or on a top-down investigation. According to Hyman,  this produces a very different story, and can, for example, explain not only how inequality is understood, but also how is it manifested in reality. 

The History of Consumerism versus the History of Capitalism - Louis Hyman discusses the relationship between the history of consumerism and the emerging field of the history of capitalism. The two fields have shared roots but are now following distinct trajectories. 

The Changing Nature of Capitalism - Louis Hyman explains why it is problematic to develop a rigid definition of capitalism that ignores its fluid boundaries. Hyman discusses the evolving, historical forms of capitalism that help it evade attempts at definition. Ultimately, though, Hyman understands the history of capitalism as being about investment and capital accumulation. Such a framework allows the field to centralize subjects such as the history of slavery, suggesting the possibility that capitalism as it exists can be changed.

Bob Moses

This interview stems from “The Life of the Law: A Symposium Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2014. Click to watch full event video.


Life in Harlem Compared to Conditions in Mississippi - Robert Moses compares his experience growing up in New York's Harlem River Homes (the first federally-funded public housing project) with conditions in the Mississippi Delta during the early 1960s.

State-Controlled Political Action and the Reluctance of Black Community Leaders to Join the Movement - Moses explains how the intimidating reality of state controlled political action effectively deterred both black and white community leaders from working with SNCC.

Robert Moses’ First Experience of Physical Violence in Mississippi - Robert Moses describes his first experience of being physically assaulted in Mississippi, and discusses limitations of the local and federal judicial response to the episode.

Andrew Morris

This interview stems from “The Politics of Disaster,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2014. Click to watch full event video.


Hurricane Camille and the Civil Rights Movement - Morris explains how Hurricane Camille and the controversy surrounding disaster relief in Mississippi is an unexamined last chapter in the Civil Rights movement.

Hurricane Camille and the Shifting Role of the President - Andrew Morris provides a historical context for understanding the increasing importance of the presidency in the wake of Hurricane Camille. Although Hurricane Camille is an important turning point in the role of the federal disaster policy, Morris explains how the changes in responsibility follow a larger trajectory in American politics.

Should We Consider Disaster Relief a Right? - In the mid-twentieth century, there was an increasing language of disaster relief as a right in the United States. This was part of a broader pattern of rights-based thinking and politics in the post-World War II U.S., which meant that as the amount of unmet disaster needs increased, Americans naturally turned to a logic of rights-based disaster relief claims.

The Central Government’s Role in Disaster Relief - Andrew Morris explains how the federal government has come to play a central role in the provision of disaster relief. This history, according to Morris, is linked to specific events, such as Hurricane Camille in 1969.

The Limits of Federalism in Disaster Policy - Andrew Morris explains how the responsibility of disaster relief has shifted from the local and state level to the federal level. This shift led to a realignment between the public and private sectors and diminished the role of organizations like the Red Cross in disaster relief.

Scott Knowles

This interview stems from “The Politics of Disaster,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2014. Click to watch full event video.


Power, Poverty, and Disasters in the United States - Poverty is the largest indicator of vulnerability in disaster situations. However, prior to Hurricane Sandy, there hadn’t been a lot of discussion around the relationship between poverty and flood insurance. Scott Knowles argues for a shift in discourse and policy, whereby we begin to think about flood insurance as part of the social safety net.

Reforming Flood Insurance - In 2012, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was passed in an attempt to reform and extend the National Flood Insurance Program. In 2014, the Grimm-Waters Insurance Affordability Act was signed to delay parts of Biggert-Waters. Scott Knowles describes the development of these reforms in the broader context of the changes to flood insurance after Hurricane Katrina.

The All Hazards Approach - Scott Knowles explains the emergence of the all hazards paradigm, how emergency management has evolved, and how it will need to adapt to a changing climate.

The Disaster Science Policy Action Gap - There is often a disjuncture, or gap, between the scientific knowledge that exists about the risks we take and the will to create policies that address those risks. Scott Knowles explains that within the last twenty years there has been a widening of this gap.

The Emergence of the National Flood Insurance Program - After World War II, coastal development increased exponentially in the United States, leading to increased prices for flood insurance. Despite decades of attempts to create a subsidized flood insurance policy, it wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson ordered a study into the science of floodplain management that the National Flood Insurance program was launched in 1969. Although it experienced a rocky start, throughout the 1970s and 1980s the demand for flood insurance skyrocketed.

The Role of Policy History - After a disaster occurs, there is often an impetus to learn lessons very quickly. However, Scott Knowles argues that we need to develop a different time scale, focusing instead on a longer memory in the wake of disasters.

Robert Smith

This interview stems from “The Life of the Law: A Symposium Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2014. Click to watch full event video.

Risa Goluboff

This interview stems from “The Life of the Law: A Symposium Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” filmed at the Miller Center in 2014. Click to watch full event video.


Brown I and Brown II and the Shifting Understanding of Race and Equality during the 1950s - Legal historian Risa Goluboff discusses the evolution of legal and political thinking about race and requirements for equality between the first and second Brown v. Board of Education cases - and explains why the passage of the Civil Rights Act finally provides real enforcement mechanisms to enforce school desegregation.

Making Title VII Work - Goluboff discusses the efforts of civil rights organizations to identify cases that would make Title VII's ban on workplace discrimination meaningful - as well as the retaliation that plaintiffs often faced. She highlights how the Act placed the federal government on the side of those who had experienced discrimination.

The Rising Tension between Race-Neutral and Race-Conscious Approaches to Equality - Legal Historian Risa Goluboff considers the increasing clash between laws that take race into account in attempting to address problems of inequality and recent Supreme Court decisions which seem to imply that any consideration of race may be illegal. 

What Would the Implications Be If the Court Declared Title VII Unconstitutional? - The Supreme Court's concern that the racial aspects of Title VII may violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause has led to stricter scrutiny of government policies that take race into account. For the most part, this has not yet extended to Title VII's other protected areas. Goluboff notes the irony that in the future, it may be easier to pursue claims against forms of discrimination other than race - a deeply frustrating outcome for those who view race as the key problem in American history.

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