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The economics & politics of heat waves

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BILL RADKE: Another measure of the economy comes out today
when the Federal Reserve reports on industrial production for July. Production was probably higher, because a heat wave on the East Coast kept utilities pumping out power for air conditioners.

Heat waves are always in part, a financial story, because the people they hurt the most are generally the ones who can’t afford to escape the weather. Author Edward P. Kohn has written about the economics and politics of heat waves in a new book called “Hot Time in the Old Town.” Edward, welcome to Marketplace.

EDWARD KOHN: Thank you very much.

RADKE: You’ve chronicled the heat wave of 1896, which killed more than a thousand people. It also helped a young Teddy Roosevelt become president because he stood up and said being poor in New York City shouldn’t be a death sentence.

KOHN: That’s right. There was actually an ice trust established in the city and Roosevelt set about trying to “bust the trust” by giving away free ice to the poor of the lower east side.

RADKE: And it was the poor that really got hit by these temperatures, right?

KOHN: Absolutely. The average victim was a working age male, manual laborer, an immigrant probably living in the tenement. The tenement itself was the last nail in the coffin for hundreds of New Yorkers.

RADKE: Paint a picture for us of how the poor were living, especially living, through those temperature and humidity.

KOHN: Yeah, that’s right. It’s not just that there wasn’t, of course, air conditioning or electric refrigeration, living and working conditions were so different 100 years ago. Most New Yorkers of course weren’t stock brokers and lawyers, they were manual laborers working 10 hours a day, six days a week and going home to their stifling, suffocating, squalid tenements, where doing the heat wave the temperature could easily reach 120 degrees, like living inside a pizza oven.

RADKE: Let’s forward to today, Edward. We still have heat waves, obviously. How far have we come in protecting the poorest people?

KOHN: I don’t think we’ve come very far. Look at the 1995 Chicago heat wave, killed 700 people. Look what’s happening in Russia and Moscow now. We hear a lot from Russia about the fires and we see the dramatic images of the smoke. We tend to forget that heat still remains today the number one natural disaster killer in the United States.

RADKE: The book is “Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt.” Edward P. Kohn, thank you.

KOHN: Thank you.

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