Sunday, August 04, 2013


In The New York Times, Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and a guy David Brooks likes to cite, looks at the fate of Port Clinton, Ohio (Putnam graduated from high school there in 1959). He sees a formerly egalitarian town now suffering economic bifurcation -- the rich people are richer, yetthere's a hell of a lot more poverty. I know, I know -- welcome to modern America. But Putnam wants to know why things changed.

You'd think this would be all he'd need to know:
The manufacturing foundation of Port Clinton's modest prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s began to tremble in the 1970s. The big Standard Products factory at the east end of town provided nearly 1,000 steady, good-paying blue-collar jobs in the 1950s, but the payroll was more than halved in the 1970s. After two more decades of layoffs and "give backs," the plant gates on Maple Street finally closed in 1993, leaving a barbed-wire-encircled ruin now graced with Environmental Protection Agency warnings of toxicity. But that was merely the most visible symbol of the town’s economic implosion.

Manufacturing employment in Ottawa County plummeted from 55 percent of all jobs in 1965 to 25 percent in 1995 and kept falling. By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County had not had a real raise for four decades and, in fact, is now paid roughly 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather in the early 1970s. The local population fell as P.C.H.S. graduates who could escape increasingly did. Most of the downtown shops of my youth stand empty and derelict, driven out of business by gradually shrinking paychecks and the Walmart on the outskirts of town.
But no, this isn't just about economics, according to Putnam. Ultimately, it's about our souls.
The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of "we."
Yes, that's right -- the villain of the peace is "we." Everyone is to blame, therefore no one in particular is to blame.

You see, there was a poor kid in Putnam's graduating class -- Putnam calls him "J" -- and he turned out just fine, with a college education, a steady job, and a good life. In part that's because the community helped him, Putnam says:
His dad, who had an eighth-grade education, worked two jobs to keep the family afloat — on the line at Port Clinton Manufacturing from 7 to 3, then at the canning factory from 3:30 to 11. Despite his 70-plus-hour workweek, J's dad made it to J's games. Unable to afford a car, J's family hitched rides with neighbors to church every week and ate a lot of hash. Despite their modest background, J's parents urged him to aim for college, and he chose the college-prep track at P.C.H.S., finishing in the top quarter of our class. His minister pointed him toward a downstate Lutheran institution and made a phone call to help find him financial aid. J graduated debt-free and continued on to seminary and a successful career as a Lutheran minister, coaching high school football on the side.
Well, yeah -- neighbors can be counted on to help a poor kid when a large percentage of them have the wherewithal to do so. In the 1950s and 1960s, that wasn't a problem -- jobs were plentiful. They're not plentiful now, and that, rather that "our radically shriveled sense of 'we,'" is why "R" -- a poor resident of the town today -- is suffering a different fate:
R tells a harrowing tale of loneliness, distrust and isolation. Her parents split up when she was in preschool and her mother left her alone and hungry for days. Her dad hooked up with a woman who hit R, refused to feed her and confined R to her room with baby gates. She says her only friend was a yellow mouse who lived in her apartment. Caught trafficking drugs in high school, R spent several months in a juvenile detention center and failed out of high school, finally eking out a diploma online. Her experiences left her with a deep-seated mistrust of anyone and everyone, embodied by the scars on her arms where a boyfriend injured her in the middle of the night. R wistfully recalls her stillborn baby, born when she was 14. Since breaking up with the baby's dad, who left her for someone else, and with a second fiance, who cheated on her after his release from prison, R is currently dating an older man with two infants born to different mothers -- and, despite big dreams, she is not sure how much she should hope for.
That's understandable -- she has nothing and her neighbors have nothing, or not much. Maybe the few rich elites have something, but most of the town is just scraping by. The problem isn't the lack of Leave It to Beaver neighborliness -- it's the lack of jobs.

Putnam says:
Everyone in my parents' generation thought of J as one of "our kids," but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R's existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as "our kid." Until we treat the millions of R's across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.
But when you put it this way, social decay is everyone's fault, in an equal and undifferentiated way; the villain is that one big "we."

Sorry, but no. The people who run the economy have made it pitiless. This results from the brutal competition of capitalism that first pitted the unionized North against the "right to work" South and then pitted America against any country with dirt-cheap labor. "We," in the aggregate, aren't to blame for that. The non-rich neighbors of "R," who haven't seen their real wages go up in four decades, aren't to blame for that. They didn't create the economic system. They don't run it. The way it's run isn't their fault.


Anonymous said...

Well at least you and Mr. Putnam agree on the evidence that surrounds you, it is only the conclusions you both draw that differ.

Setting aside free markets vs. fixed markets upon which we will never agree, let me point to the main neutral characteristic that effects both of them equally, the anvil, if you like, upon which both are tested.

Everything in life - and I do mean everything - changes, it always changes, and it always will. Like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, there is no escape. Flux is a constant!

So how do you deal with it? In a free market system change is accepted, more or less, and things change accordingly because it is obvious that if you stand still you will be run over! In a fixed market, 'stasis rules OK!' But unfortunately, as every fixed market that has ever existed finds out sooner or later, change always wins.

I would suggest that the pain felt by gradual change is less than that felt by sudden, cataclysmic change. None of what I have said thus far precludes decent arrangements for workers caught in the pain of change but trying to shore up stasis is the equivalent of the Dutch boy sticking his finger in the dam.

Dark Avenger said...

No one is to blame? Hey, what's capitalism without a little creative destruction now and then ruining a community, profits should come before people, right?

Victor said...

The market was no less "free" from the late 40's, to the early-mid 70's.
The rich and corporations paid a much, much higher share of taxes than they do now.
And they were willing, because a good chunk of what they were making in this country was being sold in this country - since it took the rest of the world 20-30 some-odd years to recover from the economic after effects of WW's I & II.
We were the lone economy standing.

And the corporations and their owners/shareholders were willing to pay workers, and give them long-term secure jobs, because the people with good-paying jobs, would buy one another's products, which allowed the economy to grow and grow.

All of that growth, and stable, good-paying jobs built the strongest middle class in history.
And that middle class, no longer worried about the roof over their heads, or where they were going to work the next day, and what they were going to feed their families, noticed societal inequity - it was on the TV's in their living rooms.
And they saw the plight of black in the South, and clamored for fairness.
And they saw an ever-expanding war in Vietnam, that was chewing up their kids - who didn't want to fight some useless war in some jungle half-way 'round the planet. And the youth spoke out against it.

To be cont...

Victor said...

And the powers-that-be, saw all of that, saw other nations were now recovering from the devastation of WW II, and realized that they no longer had to depend on Americans to keep their companies afloat, and awash in profits, and they set about trying to kill that middle class here.
They didn't need it anymore. And it was getting too powerful, and demanded still more change - and not in the favor of the wealthy.

And so, since the mid-late 60's, via wedge issues like race, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia, they have 'divided,' and the have 'conquered."

Now, the middle class here is all by destroyed.
There is no guarantee of long-term, stable employment with one company - as there had been, from after WWII into Nixon's Presidency.

Do you think this was all some accident, or intentional?

I say that they have done it intentionally, since without a stable middle class that people can find a place in, people are desperate.
Many people don't have a secure home anymore - and that's if they have a job at all.
A lot of people don't have food security.
Secure pensions are the dream from a long-ago era.
People will take whatever they can get, to make it through the day, and the next one.

The America I was born into, is gone.
Dead, and buried.
The America that offered the job security that led to a strong middle class is gone.
Dead, and buried.

And it was no accident.
This was all intentional. And it was done slowly, lest it birth a revolution.

We Americans now have the greatest economic inequality since The Gilded Age.

We live in what I call, The Platinumed Age.
A rotting core, coated with a sheen of wealth for our richest people that would be the envy of Crassus, and Emperor's and Kings, and Queens, throughout history.

And there is no sense of obligation, no sense of societal responsibility, because these uber-wealthy people don't need Americans to buy their goods anymore - their market is now the whole world.
And they can take their money, and move wherever they want to.
And their market will change, as some countries grow wealthier, and some poorer - it doesn't matter, because there will always be a market somewhere.

I could spend another 100,000 words to explain what is going on.

But if people don't want to see it, don't want to accept it - or instead, deny it, then they have been propagandized into being obtuse, and hence compliant.

If people can be made to understand what has happened, then perhaps they can fight for change.

Because without fighting for change here in America, the only light at the end of the tunnel, is the last Galtian train, taking as it's last load in this country, all of the wealth that is left, to some other new country, or countries, to call home.

The wealthy can see their 'brave new world,' and guess what?
None of us has a place in it - except as low-paid, compliant lackey's.
And those will be the lucky ones.

The rest of us, can all go fuck off and die, for all anyone cares.

There is one of two choices.
Both are revolutions.
One will be violent revolution.
The other, is even more revolutionary - the rich and powerful, can come to the conclusion to share a bit of their wealth. And accept being rich, instead of wanting to be filthy disgustingly rich.

The tipping point may come soon.

The TV networks had better keep churning out enough entertaining drivel to keep the masses occupied.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Victor, splendid stuff - and please feel free to call me David, er, or anything else that comes to mind! I really do admire your passion and your eloquence but I only wish your analysis was more rigorous.

Let me try and understand you, are you suggesting that somehow the immediate post-war society of America could and should have been set in aspic, as it were? That might, just, have been possible if you had thrown up huge trade barriers to the rest of the world, although of course, they would have returned your gesture and your exports upon which many jobs depended would have dried up.

Given the latest news I would suggest that the history of Detroit is worth study. For decades after the war the fat cat owners of the huge car plants sat back and raked in the profits churning out increasingly old-fashioned cars. They placated their militant unions by sharing a considerable amount of their profits with their workforce who prospered along with them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world, well, the Japs at least, had realised that people wanted different cars and when they opened their factories in the non-unionised southern states they rapidly brought about the demise of the giant American companies and their hugely expensive behemeths - with the entirely expected result you have just witnessed in Detroit.

I might add, that whilst the car workers enjoyed their superb wages and conditions - *it was the rest of America* which paid for them! Truly was it said by a very wise man, an American, I believe, that there is no such thing as a free lunch!

Dark Avenger said...

Drivel and dreck, that's all we can expect from an apologist for the 1% like you.

Victor said...

What I'm suggesting is not to set that society in aspic.
We were the lone economy in the world, left standing.
All of Europe, Russia, North Africa, China, East and Southeast Asia, were little more than rubble.

Only the US, Canada, and Australia, outside of Central and South America (and those had their own set of problems) were left fairly intact.
And out of those, the US had by far the most industrialized society. And we did that lickety-split, too - from 1939 until the end of the war.

We had a high tax rate on the highest earners, and that allowed for further expansion under Truman and Ike - super-highways and airports were built, railroads expanded, and people moved out of the country to the city, and out of the cities into the suburbs. All of those put people to work.

What I'm calling for, is a return to the tax rates of that time - GLOBALLY!
With no place to hide money.

Somehow, the yachts built before, were large and showy enough - now, they're virtually, if not in fact, larger than cruise ships.

The rich had enough back then. They were still far richer than the working man.
But the CEO wasn't making hundreds, if not thousands, of times what the average worker made.

Higher taxes were a way to say, "Enough!"
Higher taxes allowed for the lives of the poor and middle class to be better than merely tolerable.

Our infrastructure badly needs rebuilding. There are hundreds of thousands, if no millions of jobs to repair, expand, and then maintain that infrastructure.

But that takes money. And too many cowardly politicians over the last 4-5 decades, didn't want to tell people that taxes needed to be raised.
No, in fact, quite the opposite happened.
But without the promise of jobs, and NO TRICKLING DOWN OF ANYTHING!!!

Taxes are the price people pay, for an orderly society.

Someone pretty damn smart said that, too!

Anonymous said...


"Aye, there's the rub", as that gloomy Dane muttered. What you seem to be suggesting, Victor, is an international and enforceable tax rate. Well, pigs might, I suppose, just about fly one day but it's hardly realistic, is it? Do you think that nice Mr. Putin will help you with that idea? Or any of the Asian countries desperate to keep their *genuinely* poor people in work? I don't think so.

I suspect, Victor, that you might be of my generation which is a polite way of saying - old! Today, money is mobile in a way that it never has been before - and so are people, as your Mr. Snowden has just demonstrated. Businessmen will always follow the money which, as it happens, is currently a benefit to YOU! Because fracking has managed so far to avoid the attentions of the Commissars in your EPA, the USA is about to become self-sufficient in oil and gas which is already bringing the prices down and the factories back home.

There, don't say I haven't tried to cheer you up!

Victor said...

Thanks, Duff.

And yeah - I am old.
My fightin' and protesting days are over.

Examinator said...

I'm in more than casual agreement with you.
What you missed is the effects of the creations of the rich the '29 crash and the following depression. This in turn lead to the threat behind the "New Deal" give them some equity or suffer the consequences of when the poor take it all.

Clearly history tells us that every popular revolution begins when the gap between the rich and poor becomes extreme.

There is a wealth of research that shows the link between decreasing equity (as opposed to equality) and social unrest(see our own revolution).
Clearly the mechanism is a bit more convoluted but the end game is clear.
It would seem that human greed/selfishness stops us from learning the indelible truth.
Duff is also accurate that THINGS have changed but what he chooses not to acknowledge, is that genetic based Human nature hasn't.
Evolution is predicated of gradual change of both circumstances and the organism takes a very long time.. measured in millions of years. We have changed from our hominid ancestors of 1-2 million years ago but the base (survival) conditions haven't. Those changes that have happened have been in evolutionary terms vary rapid 60000 years.
In short our technology has changed but not our emotions to cope with it ( see the lessons from 'le Enfant Miserable' and 'Lord of the Flies' i.e. civilization is learned and socially deep.

Examinator said...

Your argument(s)to me tend to ignore cause and effect. In so doing you seem to ignore the root cause.
The problem with most political ideologies is that they involve human nature but tend to ignore that in favor of effect juggling.
e.g Communism like Conservatism, Republicanism and particularly the US version of Libertarianism don't account for/ignores the previously mentioned human nature. They also tend to miss the implication of the Laws of Thermodynamics. TD doesn't say is that the the opposite and equal force MUST be a singular one.
The clear implication is that everything has the potential to effect everything else.... there are no externalities/exclusions just our ability to measure them either in singularity or combination.

Anonymous said...

@ Examinator: Yes, indeed, bloody people, why do they always get in the way and mess things up! An intellectual like Karl Marx spent all that time working out a detailed ideology on how things should be organised, you know, 'each according to his needs' and all that sort of thing but he forgot human nature which most of the time for most people entails looking out for number one!

That is why, on the whole, and with reservations, I prefer societies run on the basis of maximum liberty and a minimum of people telling me how I should, or in the worst case, how I *must*, conduct my life.
David Duff

Superfluous Man said...

Perfect intact families who conspicuously work hard, show up in the community, and ask for help often make out OK. The children of messed-up, broken, violent ne'er-do-wells are treated as if their problems are contagious.

That's in every era. Now if we'd been shown two equivalent children, decades apart---

Luigi said...

Man, do I get tired of these "authors" who come from my area pushing some sort of crazed insight that only they have. Port Clinton is like Sandusky, which is like Huron, like Lorain, like Elyria. Things change. Some employers leave, some start up and stay. Messed up poor people are everywhere, not just here and they don't have any special reason to stay indigent and screwed up, except really bad judgement skills.

Akron, just to the south and east of Port Clinton, lost all of its rubber factories. Yet, it has rebuilt. Polymers, electronics, related industries. Yes, there are lost souls there as well. The mayor of Akron, who has lots of good and bad traits, has made it a priority to get his local economy moving. Cleveland, just to the north, is following. Not everyone catches the wave at the same time, but it is possible to change the economic clime. And the only boogey man seems to be Father Time. Things change.