Monday, November 28, 2005

Trouble in the Heartland
A great piece today from the Albany Times-Union mourns the death of the U.S. auto industry--and casts light on the dire plight of the Rust Belt:

The U.S. auto industry is dead. With General Motors announcing, days before Thanksgiving, 30,000 more layoffs and nine plant closings, the Rust Belt just got the final strike of the sledgehammer. When GM finally goes down for good, all the rusted remains of that region will crumble.
Most citizens of the Rust Belt -- that center of U.S. manufacturing and a longtime Democratic stronghold -- can thank relatives who toiled in exhausting factories for their current blessings.

But for my generation, born at the end of America's Golden Age (I was born in 1975, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-energy crisis, post-labor), life in the Rust Belt has been a steady process of downward mobility. I was lucky enough to write a novel about the Rust Belt that got me out of debt and low-wage work; most of the people I write about have not been so fortunate.

In times of crisis -- natural disasters, terrorist attacks, economic collapse -- the federal government develops a relief plan. Now the Rust Belt is in serious crisis and needs relief.
My native state of Michigan leads the nation in unemployment and has a pitifully low tax base; Wisconsin, my adopted home, does not fare much better. Cities ringing the Great Lakes -- Buffalo, Cleveland, Gary, Milwaukee -- weather not only the brutal winter but scores of plant closings and thousands of lost jobs each year. The holidays get bleaker and bleaker. This year, even our beloved Green Bay Packers -- facing their worst season in memory -- seem affected by the general malaise of the region.

Christmas miracles will not occur this year. The Big Three, and all the industries that grew up alongside them, will not have amazing recoveries and send out callbacks to hundreds of laid-off workers.

This story, unfortunately, is not a new one for many of us. Policy geeks like me, particularly those of us who focus on workforce issues and macroeconomic trends, sometimes refer to this--rather bloodlessly, I have to admit--as "the transition to a post-industrial economy." This cold phrase is shorthand for a hard notion: it's no longer really possible, at least not in any systematic sense, for Americans to earn a family-supporting income by performing semi-skilled labor. The answer, we generally posit, is better education: individually, those with four-year college degrees have greater options as far as finding work, and collectively when the skill level of a local workforce rises to a certain point, that locality should have better luck in drawing high-wage employers.

(The problem with at least the second part of this argument, which we generally glide over, is that if you're well educated and/or highly skilled in a community where you can't make money putting that education or those skills to use, you're very likely to leave. "Brain drain" from communities like those in upstate New York has left an older and less education population, and helped engender a downward economic spiral. But that's not our immediate focus right now.)

What I do find exciting about this article is that its author identifies where help for the embattled Rust Belt must come: the federal government.

There are three things that only the federal government can do -- must do -- to restore American dreams to the heartland. Or else we will truly face, as Ronald Reagan said in 1981, "an economic calamity of tremendous proportions." But, with deference to old optimistic Dutch, trickle-down tax cuts aren't the answer. Tax cuts have had more than two decades to trickle down; they remain frozen at the top.

First, we must implement a system that guarantees universal health care. American industry -- from National Steel to Starbucks -- would benefit from having the burden of health insurance lifted off its back. Why else would GM be aggressively investing in nationalized-health care Canada while U.S. plants shut down? Without having to worry about health insurance for their families or their workers, a whole new generation of entrepreneurs just might take risks -- opening small businesses and inspiring innovation across the region.

Second, we must provide concrete steps for workers seeking to retrain and acquire new job skills. When George W. Bush was campaigning in blighted Ohio in 2004, this was his mantra: Retrain, retrain, retrain. It makes no sense for debt-ridden, jobless Americans to take out more student loans on an economic wing and a prayer. The government needs to subsidize community colleges in high-poverty areas so that workers can go back to school for free.

Finally, we must reinvest in the infrastructure of crumbling cities and towns. A new public works program needs to be implemented. But the states of the Rust Belt don't have the resources to pull off such a plan. Only the federal government has the resources to put thousands of Midwesterners back to work repairing roads and bridges, demolishing vacant buildings and rehabilitating the nation's urban centers so that they have usable, developable and livable spaces.

One of the debates I hope we can have as a country, in 2006 and 2008--and in which I personally hope to find a platform--is on the role of government, both at its different levels and in a philosophical sense. As people like Josh Marshall and Mark Schmitt have often observed, the years of Republican misrule and twisted priorities somewhat seem like a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you see no positive role for government in the lives of everyday citizens, you're certainly not likely to direct it toward such a role. But American government, of course, has done great things in the realms of education, public health, market regulation, safety standards, scientific advancement... the list is almost endless.

Rabid anti-government ideologues have framed this topic for far too long; before they actually succeed in diminishing the government's power to do good, by "starving the beast" and creating so many problems we literally don't know where to start, we have to start making the positive case.

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