Trump and the White Working Class

November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday.  How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question.  Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.

Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back.  The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years.  They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life.  Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday.  And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant.  They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts.  They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time.  And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money.  Got married, had kids, raised them.  Eventually, you retired.  Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company.  But that’s all gone.  Deindustrialization.  And free trade.

What happened when the jobs dried up?  People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages.  Alcoholism and addiction became more common.  Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers.  Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry.  But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills.  Then there’s health insurance and benefits.  With GE, those were all taken care of.  Waffle House doesn’t take care of them.  Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans.  But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things.  And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.

And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner).  Think about TV and the movies.  Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA.  Now?  Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous.  And besides, it’s set in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city.  America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore.  There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane.  Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA.  For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.

The United States has long been a deeply divided nation.  We like to think it’s North-South.  It’s not.  It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory?  No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class.  And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred)  And then Trumpism occurs.

Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back.  I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization.  My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988.  My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border.  And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone.  He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder.  And my mom was university-educated.  But. We lost.  And so many others.  Their anger is visceral.  Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.

But Trump cannot deliver on his promises.  If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s.  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back.  Automation, people.  The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation.  More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did.  He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.

So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again?  When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there.  But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more.  Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified.  Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader.  Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc.  I don’t feel optimistic either way.

A Response to Nicholas Kristof

February 17, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read with some bemusement Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academia in yesterday’s New York Times.  Kristof complains that professors have cloistered themselves up in some ivory tower and disdain the real world.  He says that the academy exists on a publish or perish mentality and that it encourages conformity. Perhaps due to limited space in a newspaper column, Kristof comes off sounding petulant and occasionally stuck on stereotypes of the academy that are at least twenty years out of date.

He also uses a broad-stroke brush to critique a very large, diverse institution.  But I did find his argument that academics are out of touch with reality interesting, in that it reflects an argument I saw on Facebook last week about the massive bloat on university campuses of non-academic staff, which has apparently reached a 2:1 ratio on public and 2.5:1 ratio on private campuses in the United States.  In this argument, which largely pitted professors against non-academic staff, the latter repeated this shibboleth that academics are unable to engage with the real world.

However, he does provide a jumping off point.

The academy does operate in a publish or perish paradigm, and academics who spend their time engaging with the public, rather than publishing in peer-reviewed journals, do get punished.  And it does encourage conformity, in terms of theory, models, and interpretation.  He is correct to note that “This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.”

Back in 1998, Canada’s crusty old historian, Jack Granatstein (in)famously published Who Killed Canadian History? wherein he lambasted the left for having created microstudies, feminism, and various other things that left us with histories of something Granatstein called “housekeeper’s knee”, which he dismissed pithily with a petulant “Who cares?” Granatstein, perhaps intentionally, engaged in rhetoric and anti-intellectualism in this little gem, essentially dismissing all who disagreed with him as irrelevant, as if he was the sole judge, jury, and executioner of what was a viable topic of study in Canadian history.

In the 1960s, “history from below” developed, primarily in England, around the work of brilliant minds such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and the husband-and-wife team of E.P. and Dorothy Thompson.  They wanted to know how the common person dealt with history and change.  Taking their cue, historians in the US and Canada began to conduct similar studies of the working-classes and rural communities, but with far less interesting results than the English New Left, largely because the English historians wrote well, and did not get bogged down in statistics and turgid prose.  Nonetheless, these studies in Canada and the US were essential to the development of the field.

But the real problem is that the likes of Kristof and Granatstein hearken back to a glory day in the academy that never existed.  Kristof complains that academics write horribly, and seem to go out of their way to not engage.  Many do. Because, quite simply, the academy has always worked that way.  The great works of Canadian history that Granatstein refers to are horridly boring, I used to read them when I had insomnia to put myself to sleep.  Kritof cites stats that claim that academics in the social sciences were more engaged in public debate in the 1930s and 40s than today.  That may be true, but the readership of academic journals in the 1930s and 40s was just as limited as it is today.  Hundreds of academic monographs get published to almost complete indifference, that is true today and was just as true in this supposed heyday.  The academy has always been removed from the world, as it must indeed be to some degree to escape the noise of the world.

Nonetheless, there is some truth in Kristof’s complaint.  But, he also undoes his argument by noting that historians, public policy wonks, and economists, amongst others, are very much engaged in public discussions.   About economics, he says:

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

This comes after a critique of academia for having failed to predict the Arab Spring.  I found this juxtaposition curious.  The 2008 economic meltdown was missed by the massive majority of economists.  And the ones who were sounding the alarm were just as ignored as those academics who foresaw something like the Arab Spring.

And so this brings me to my greatest critique of Nichols Kristof’s argument.  Academics can yell and scream and tilt at windmills all we want.  But without help, we are largely left standing by ourselves.   The only way for our ideas to spread into the mainstream of society is with the help of the likes of Kristof: journalists.  When I still lived in Montréal, I found myself fielding calls from the media with some frequency on a variety of topics from Griffintown to Irish history to the Montréal Canadiens.  Journalists found me, at first, through Concordia University, where I did my PhD, and then because they had contacts and colleagues who knew me.  Never once was I found through this blog (readership tended to spike after I made an appearance in the media) or through my publications.  Kristof also takes academics to task for not using Twitter and other social media for communicating with the world. Guess how many times a journalist has asked me a question on Twitter?  And this is despite the fact that several journalists follow me.  In other words, without journalists seeking me out, I had no platform upon which to speak.

Kristof ends his column with what sounds like a desperate appeal:

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

But in so doing, he is being disingenuous and shifting the blame entirely to academics and removing the role of journalists in this discussion about the relative accessibility or non-accessibility of academics.  Kristof is right to call on the academy to make greater engagement with the mainstream, but he is incorrect in assuming that without the help of journalists it will just happen spontaneously.

Student Debt and the Cost of a University Education

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Post-secondary education is expensive.  That’s common knowledge.  That’s why I was out in the streets with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of my fellow citizens in Montréal last summer, protesting the then-Liberal government’s plans to halt the tuition freeze.  Québec’s tuition is the lowest in North America, if not the Western world.  And it’s a good value, as Québec’s universities compete on the Canadian, North American, and global levels.  Of course, tuition is only super cheap if you are a Quebecer, but even the out of province rates are relatively low, which is why so many Americans send their kids to McGill.

Here in the United States, education is prohibitively expensive.  One of my students last year told me he transferred from Northeastern because his education was costing well over $30,000/year.  I nearly spat my coffee out.  Even at my small state university, tuition is more expensive than it is pretty much anywhere in Canada.  Many of my students work multiple jobs to pay the bills.  One of my students in my American history class works full-time in a career-track job and then supplements his income with a part-time job to keep a roof over his head, food on his table, and his school bills paid.

Not surprisingly, student debt is also a major problem.  It has been for a long time, I might add.  I came out of my undergraduate degree owing something close to the GNP of Nicaragua to the Canadian government.  I’ll be paying that off until I retire, or something very close to it.  And that’s from Canada!  My American wife also owes what my friend Karl would call a “metric shit-tonne” of money for her education.

The average student loan debt in Canada is around $27,000.  It’s about the same in the US.  A website,, offers an interactive map for each state in the union with details on the average debt in each state and the proportion of students with debt.  In New Hampshire, the average debt is the highest, north of $32,000, and 75% of the students in the Granite State have debt.  The highest proportion of debt is in North Dakota, where 83% of students are carrying some.  I recently read another scary stat.  In Massachusetts in 1988, state student aid paid 80% of average tuition and fees.  Today, state student aid only pays 8% of the average tuition and fees.

Obviously, education costs something, it’s not free, and I’m not sure it should be.  But the reason why I was out in the streets in Montréal last summer is simple: once the freeze gets lifted, then tuition is set to the market.  And the market can always bear more than what many people can afford to pay.  And then education gets priced out of the range of many.  At my small state university, many of our students are the sons and daughters of immigrants, or they’re working-class kids, the first in their families to go to university.  Or they’re veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for a chance to get ahead.

My school also has relatively poor rankings, both in state and nationally.  But not because the students are weak. Nor because faculty are weak.  Nor is it due to student-professor ratios (most classes max out around 30), nor is it even because of a poor library.  No.  My school gets poor rankings because our students are forced to juggle so many jobs (and families and careers) to be here, so that they take longer than normal (whatever that is) to complete their degrees.  Or they’re forced to drop out.

Given our present-day economy, a university education is essential to getting a job, establishing a career and having access to all the things we want from life.  And I applaud my students as the scramble to get an education.  But I also know that if it wasn’t for student loans and what scholarships I qualified for in undergrad (and grad school), I’d still be flipping burgers at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver.  My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school.  I don’t regret it, even with the massive debt I carry.  But I also wish that education didn’t require so many sacrifices on the part of my students.

“Jobs Not Welfare” — UPDATED

October 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

In reading an issue of The Times Literary Supplement from September recently, I came across a review of an economics treatise, Ending Poverty: Jobs, Not Welfare, by Hyman P. Minsky.  The very title of the book struck me as an absurdity (as much of economic theory does, to be frank).  But then I realised that as ridiculous as Minsky’s title is, this reflects a larger problem in our society.  Welfare was never meant to replace jobs.  Ever.  That’s not the point.  Welfare was meant to provide a social safety net for workers when the economy failed, they lost their jobs, etc.  Welfare was never meant to be a permanent situation.

But the problem is that politicians, economists, and bureaucrats have, in the years since welfare states were created around the time of the Second World War, decided that welfare is a permanent state.  And, of course, someone reading this right now is going to argue that some people actually prefer to live on welfare permanently.  This is a stupid argument, to be blunt.  There are also some people who prefer to murder their fellow human beings.  This is not a reason to cut welfare.

People who complain about welfare and the cost to taxpayers (and those who claim that people on welfare are lazy, etc.) tend not to be people who have ever actually lived on welfare.  When I was a kid, my family did.  It wasn’t pretty.  Any study I’ve ever seen of poverty are very clear that it is nigh impossible to survive on welfare in any urban centre anywhere in the Western world.

Permanent welfare is NOT an option, nor should it be, nor should it ever be.  And yet, politicians and bureaucrats seem to think it is.  People on welfare don’t.  Thus, Minsky might actually have a point. Of course, Minsky, a maverick economist if ever there was one (he died in 1996), argues for massive government intervention to create jobs, not exactly an argument that’s going to make him a lot of friends in today’s neoconservative orthodoxy.

UPDATE: Brian Bixby published this last week with some factual basis to back up what I have to say here.

Why Friedrich Hayek was NOT a Conservative

July 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

I found this interesting little gem yesterday from Friedrich Hayek who, in by 1960, found himself somewhat alarmed that his The Road to Serfdom had become such a bible for right-wing laissez-faire capitalists and their supporters. Hayek subtitled the Postscript to his book, The Constitution of Liberty, “Why I’m Not a Conservative,” he writes that, amongst other things, conservatism (at least in 1960) lacked coherency in terms of countering liberalism (and other enemies).  But, perhaps more to the point, Hayek argues that conservatism was hostile to innovation and new knowledge.  It was shaky on the economic foundations of free market economics (which he himself was not all that fond of, as noted in The Road to Serfdom), and, to quote George H. Nash, “altogether too inclined to use the State for its own purposes rather than to limit this threat to liberty.”

Interesting, really.

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