Poisonville.

A couple of recent books have high-lighted the big changes that swept over one part of America.[1]  Charles Murray and Brian Alexander[2] have both tried to understand the situation of the folks “I left behind me” when I went East to grad school.  Murray adopted the macro-perspective, while Alexander preferred to flesh-out the story by looking at the home town he had abandoned and to which he later returned.[3]

Once upon a time Lancaster, Ohio, incarnated the prosperous, moderate, conformist America of the golden years that followed the Second World War.  No one in the Boston-Washington corridor would have thought of places like Lancaster as an American Athens.  However, some basic cultural values of the Classical Greeks also then prevailed in Middle America: moderation and self-restraint.  The wealthiest Lancastrians did not live in gated communities; most children went to the public schools; women of all social classes joined in the community initiatives.[4]

Then things went wrong.  Over the last thirty-odd years, Anchor Hocking, a glass-maker and the chief employer in town, got passed around by Wall Street investment firms and the bankruptcy courts.  Along the way Lancaster went from being a town of 29,000, of whom 5,000 worked for Anchor Hocking, to being a town of 39,000, of whom 1,000 worked for that same company.  Production down-shifted from high-skill to lower-skilled products; and workers’ commitment to quality down-shifted with it.  In the process, the company’s pension fund dried up and its’ obligations were passed to the federal insurance program; wages were held down; and the generous fringe-benefits once offered by the company were cut to the bone.  Demoralization spread among the workers.  One worker says his co-workers snort Percocet and Oxy on the job.

Brian Alexander—like everyone else, so far as I can tell—sees the modern economy as the snake in this Garden of Eden.  His rogues’ gallery includes foreign competition, Milton Friedman, the powerful bargaining of big box stores, and companies that put profits for stock-holders ahead of wages for workers.

What seems to be missing is any awareness of the rebounding of foreign economies after the Second World War, which created formidable competitors for American industry; the great labor offensive of the 1970s that led companies to shift production to “right to work” states or over-seas; the huge impact of automation on many industrial processes, which destroyed millions of jobs; the nostalgia for small shops that imposed a quaintness tax on consumers, which many sought to evade by going to Walmart; or the inadaptability of many older workers, which left them languishing in backwaters.

These changes have come in for a lot of attention because of the supposed political consequences.  That is, “Rust Belt” one-time Democrats put Donald Trump into the White House.  Now Democrats and mainstream Republicans are thrashing around trying to figure out what went wrong.  Neglect of/contempt for blue collar workers is an easy explanation.  Certainly, it has been my one.  Is it the right one?

[1] Maybe, just maybe, other people in my social group missed out on them as well?  IDK.

[2] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012); Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town (2016).  See Roger Lowenstein, “Why They Voted For Trump,.” WSJ, 18-19 February 2017.

[3] Alexander is not the first to explore these issues in this fashion.  See also https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/03/22/our-kids/

[4] Many of the early thrillers by John D. MacDonald offer glimpses of this world.  See, for example, Area of Suspicion (1954).

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