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.

Writing Deindustrialisation

September 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about.  Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative article in The Boston Globe last weekend.  In an article about Sahro Hussan, a young Somali-American, and Muslim, woman who has created a business of avant-garde fashions for Muslim women, in Lewiston, ME, Linda Matchan, The Globe‘s reporter, writes:

Lewiston was one of the largest textile producers in New England, rolling out millions of yards in cotton fabrics every year.  In time, though, the industry struggled to compete with Southern states where production costs were lower.  Lewiston went into decline.

While there is nothing factually wrong with Matchan’s description of what happened in Lewiston (or any other industrial town across the northern portion of North America), note how any responsibility for what happened is removed from the equation.  Matchan makes it sound like this was just an entirely natural process.

Deindustrialisation wasn’t a natural process, it didn’t just happen.  The reason why the mills in Lewiston (or Lowell, Laurence, Lynn, or anywhere else) struggled wasn’t some random event.  It happened because the corporations that owned those mills decided that they were not producing enough value for share-owners.  So these corporations pulled out of places like Lewiston and moved down South.  Why?  Because production costs were too great in the North, the workers made too much (they were often unionised), and there was too much regulation of the workplace for the corporations’ preferences.  So, they were induced to pull out and move down South where workplace regulation was minimal, where workers weren’t unionised, and the corporations could make great profits.  The governments down South actively worked with these corporations to bring them South, mostly through these unregulated workplaces and tax incentives.  As a friend of mine notes, this is how the South won the Civil War.  But the South’s victory was shortlived, as soon, the corporations realised they could make even more money for their shareholders by moving overseas.

So.  Long and short, deindustrialisation wasn’t just some random process, it was a cold, calculated manoeuvre by the corporations that owned these mills, in conjunction with cynical state and local governments in the South.

Half of Québec Anglos want out. Why this isn’t news

February 25, 2014 § 8 Comments

So the CBC is reporting that 51% of Anglos and 49% of Allophones in Québec have pondered leaving in the past year (compared to 11% of francophones) But, SURPRISE, it’s not because of language.  It’s the economy, stupid.  And Québec’s is sinking apparently.  Another report I saw today said that Montréal’s economy is lagging behind the Rest of Canada’s major cities.  In the past decade, Montréal’s GDP has grown by 37 per cent.  Sounds impressive, no?  Well. not really, since the five major cities in the Rest of Canada (Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa) have seen their cumulative GPD grow 59 per cent.  As well, Montréal’s unemployment rate hovers around 8.5 per cent, compared with TVCEO’s (I think I just invented an acronym!) 6.3 per cent.  Says Jacques Ménard, chair of BMO Nesbitt Burns and President of the Bank of Montréal in Québec, “Montreal has been slowly decelerating for 15 years, and now it shows. Another 10 years of this and we will be in clear and present danger.”

A decade ago, however, Montréal had the fastest growing economy amongst Canada’s major cities, from 1999-2004, as Montréal was, for all intents and purposes, a post-conflict society.  Montréal was healing from the long constitutional battles that erupted in the 1960s and seemed to have been finally put to bed with the divisive 1995 Referendum on Québec sovereignty.  Certainly, Québec was by-and-large still represented by the separatist Bloc Québécois in Ottawa, but the Parti Québécois government of Lucien Bouchard and André Boisclair, and then the Liberals of Jean Charest, turned attention away from the ethnic nationalist debates that had divided Québec for so long.  Instead, Bouchard, Gilles Duceppe and most of the leadership of the nationalist movement began thinking in terms of civic nationalism, but the largest issue was put on the back burner.  And, as a result, Montréal recovered.

I remember walking back across downtown after Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s funeral in the spring of 2000.  As I passed Square Victoria, a little boy was pointing at a crane on the skyline, asking his father, “Ce quoi ça, Papa?”  He was about 5 or 6, and it hit me that he probably hadn’t seen a crane in downtown Montréal.  But, in the first decade of the 2000s, Montréal underwent a construction boom, and prosperity returned to the city (and it slowly began to lose its unique character, at least in the downtown core and much of the Anglophone parts of the city as global culture took hold).

But in the wake of the 2008 Global Economic Meltdown, all bets are off.  Québec is now governed by a tribalist Parti Québécois, led by the incredibly uninspiring Pauline Marois (and let me be clear, despite being an Anglo, I voted for the PQ 2003, 2007, and 2008, and for the sovereigntist Québec Solidaire in 2012 and I voted for the Bloc Québécois federally in every election), who seems determined to play to her base, whipping up a frenzy amongst the “bluenecks” outside of the metropole.  And now Diane de Courcy, Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, says that if the PQ wins a majority in the election everyone knows is coming this spring, well, then we can expect Bill 101 to be toughened.  Oh boy.

I would like to point out, however, that when de Courcy says “Montreal is not a bilingual city. Quebec is not a bilingual Quebec,” she is right.  The metropole is a multilingual city at this point.  But, it is the metropole of Québec, which is, at least officially, unilingually French.

BUT: I would also like to point out that had anyone thought about polling the Allo- and Anglo- phones about their thoughts on leaving Québec at any time in the past decade, my guess is that the numbers wouldn’t be all that different.  Most diasporic groups in Montréal have connections to similar ethnic communities in other Canadian and American cities.  And Anglophones have a long tradition of driving up the 401 to Toronto and beyond, or heading to the United States (hi, there).  This is not news.

In conjunction with the depressing state of the economy in Montréal and Québec, and the struggles of thereof, it’s not surprising to see so much unrest in the province.  Usually when the economy tanks, people at least give some thought to moving.  And the years since 2008 have seen a fair amount of mobility in North America.  Since Ireland’s economy collapsed at the same time, the Irish have been leaving home in search of new opportunities.  What would make this real news is if even a fraction of those who claim to have thought about leaving did pack up and leave Québec.  Then we would see something akin to the Flight of the Anglos from Québec in the late 1970s.  Until then, this really should be filed under “Interesting, but not news.”

On Regulating Economies v. Free Market Economies

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am reading a fascinating book right now, as I plan for my courses next semester, David J. Bodenhamer’s The Revolutionary Constitutionan history of the US Constitution. Bodenhamer does a brilliant job, I think, of tracing the history of the US Constitution and its uses in American history, politics, law, culture, and life.

One thing that is continually striking me is the on-going public argument in the United States and elsewhere between regulated v. free market economies.  Maybe this is just the echo of the US election in my head.  Or it could also be a reflection of all the info I have inhaled since the economy went kaputski in 2008.  When FDR was elected in 1933, he sought to expand the state, based on Keynesian economies, to attempt to get the United States out of the Depression.  FDR felt that free market economics were what got the United States into the mess of the Depression in the first place.  And this has long been clear to me as an historian, but it is put in stark relief in Bodenhamer’s new book.

Fast forward to the present day.  The recession of 2008 and beyond was caused, to a large degree, by unregulated economies.  And yet, the right continues to argue that the free market will right all wrongs. Turns out we didn’t learn from the Depression.  We let it all happen again in the 1990s and early 2000s.  And this isn’t simply a right/left argument, either, as plenty on the left fell into this trap in the past two decades.

The problem with the free market economy is simple.  Bodenhamer writes:

In recent years a conservative attack on this New Deal constitutionalism has emerged among scholars who asserted the superiority of a private market and sought to apply a cost-benefit analysis to public regulation.  According to proponents of the so-called law and economics school, all people voluntarily make rational decisions to further their self-interest.

The problem is that people do not make rational decisions economically-speaking.  If people did, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown would never have happened.  If people did, I wouldn’t insist on drinking a latté in the morning instead of a cheaper coffee when my budget requires restructuring.  If people did, we wouldn’t be carrying around crippling amounts of debt.  The entire Enlightenment ideal of the rational behaviour of human beings has clearly been debunked.  Ideally, we act rationally in matters of economics, politics, and so on. But clearly, in reality, we do not.  If we did, the working-classes would always vote for the Democrats in the States and the NDP in Canada and Labour in England.  But they don’t.  They usually vote Republican and Conservative in Canada and England.  That is not in their rational self-interest.

Indeed, as Canada’s Prime Minister, of whom I am no fan, likes to crow: Canada survived the meltdown to a large degree due to the strict regulation of Canada’s banking industry.

So why we continue to have this argument baffles me. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that believing in the rational behaviour of the free market is, in fact, a completely irrational position and actually serves to de-bunk the arguments of these free market fantastists.

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