No longer needed?
written by Bill:
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No doubt, the Midwest is as much a part of who I am as the receding hairline and the expanding gut.
I was born and raised
an Illinois flatlander, and in subsequent years I’ve probably traveled up and down half the roads of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana,
Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. Oh, and Michigan, if you count that goofy Upper Peninsula.
Yet, increasingly, I recognize
there are two varieties of Midwesterners: (1) those of us who still live here, and (2) those in the used-to-live-there category.
lot of them didn’t leave by choice.
They followed the money, if they could.
For more than a century the North
in general and the Upper Midwest in particular provided the industrial muscle that powered American prosperity, and the growth of
the great American middle class. It was possible, with skilled hands and a strong back, to make a very good living for a family. Sons
often followed fathers into a trade, and each generation did a little better than the last.
Now the industrial heartland
is derisively referred to as the “Rust Belt.” Places like Detroit have become the butt of a million jokes. The trend toward manufacturing
losses has accelerated this past decade. Hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs have been shed in the Great Lakes states alone.
were mostly good-paying, family-supporting jobs often held by skilled union tradesmen. As the jobs have disappeared folks have had
to make a decision: Find work for far less pay, or move away in search of a job.
The past couple years, neither option
has worked very well. Jobs are scarce at any level of pay. And you can’t move if you can’t sell your house.
So with each
passing year there are fewer and fewer industrial jobs, fewer opportunities and a workforce chained to houses with underwater mortgages.
has resulted in a whipped-dog timidity from previously proud unions. The latest example occurred at Harley-Davidson, one of the most
iconic brands in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Harley management set an offer on the table and said, essentially, no negotiations – take
it or leave it. If the union balked, Harley promised to move operations out of Wisconsin and kill the company’s two manufacturing
plants. The only way to keep Harley would be for the unions to accept fewer existing jobs with less pay and benefits, and a new class
of future employees making smaller wages and no benefits at all. The union gave the company what it wanted.
I’m a newsman
so I have followed all the trade agreements, the economic trends, the evolution of skills necessary to thrive in a fast-paced, fast-changing
Likewise, I have read many of the thinkers’ theories, such as Thomas Friedman’s “flat-Earth” notions of fitting into a global
Still, I have a hard time understanding how all Americans are supposed to adapt to an economy based on service,
technology and communication. Where do all those folks go, the ones who held down the millions of lost manufacturing jobs? And how
do they support families on $8-an-hour service-sector jobs?
In my mind, America’s economic problems are bigger than the
current recession and jobless recovery. The structural problem is a trend line away from middle-class jobs and wages, toward the cheapest
Away from being the world’s leading creator and producer of goods, to being dependent on offshore manufacturers
for basic needs.
Away from being the land of opportunity for all, to being in structural decline with a growing gap between
the haves and have-nots.
We can’t fix that with a government stimulus plan. We can’t fix it with a Walmart cheap-is-everything
strategy. We can’t fix it by beating down working folks into meek submission.
When the current troubles sort themselves
out, the structural challenge will remain. What do we do with all those people who made America great, but are being told they’re
no longer needed?