There was a very good piece in the Washington Post this weekend by Eli Saslow entitled “From Belief to Resentment in Indiana.” It tells of a working class guy in Huntington who has worked third shift at United Technologies in Huntington, Indiana. He believes in the power of hard work and maintains a middle class lifestyle for his kids as he prepares to marry his third wife but becomes politically disillusioned and resentful when UTC announces layoffs because it’s moving the line to Mexico.
“We’re getting to the point where there aren’t really any good options left,” he said. “The system is broken. Maybe its time to blow it up and start from scratch, like Trump’s been saying.”
Krystal rolled her eyes at him. “Come on. You’re a Democrat.”
“I was. But that was before we started turning into a weak country,” he said. “Pretty soon there won’t be anything left. We’ll all be flipping burgers.”
“Fine, but so what?” she said. “We just turn everything over to the guy who yells the loudest?”
Setser leaned into the table and banged it once for emphasis. “They’re throwing our work back in our face,” he said. “China is doing better. Even Mexico is doing better. Don’t you want someone to go kick ass?”
“That doesn’t really seem like you,” she said, and for a few seconds she stared back at him, as if examining someone for the first time. The spices were alphabetized on the shelves. The family schedule was printed on the wall. Theirs was a happy home, a stable home.
You said it always evens out,” she told him.
“Maybe I was wrong,” he said, but now his voice was quiet.
“You said things just have a way of working.”
“Maybe not,” he said, because with each passing day he was seeing it more clearly. The town was losing its best employer, and all around him stability was giving way to uncertainty, to resentment, to anger, to fear.
The uncertainty, resentment, anger, and fear are all very natural responses to the situation. But, while the problems are real, Trump is an astonishingly counterproductive attempt at solving that problem. Mostly when you blow something up, it doesn’t give you the opportunity to start fresh — rather, now you have to deal with your original problems plus the destruction of the explosion.
The piece also hints at the fetish the political media seems to have for the nobility of the working class white guy. When the black guy, with very real grievances and plenty of cause for uncertainty, resentment, anger, and fear — when that guy embraces, say, Malcom X because he promises some radical solutions; how sympathetic is the media coverage for that guy? But make it about the resentments and horrible political choices of a white guy and the narrative changes considerably.
Now, this is an aside, but the musing about flipping burgers and whatnot makes me think. I’m not an economist, but I have a nagging feeling we’re missing something when we insist that only manufacturing jobs can pay well and service jobs necessarily have to pay less. I’ve been immersed in Indiana history, and they spent an inordinate amount of time (as in at least a decade where this was a dominant political issue) fussing about whether to base our currency on gold alone or gold and silver together. Turns out, basing our currency on metal dug out of the ground was arbitrary and better monetary policy can be had without either. The insistence on a metal-based currency probably caused a great deal of unnecessary hardship for Americans willing and able to work but limited by an economy hamstrung by monetary policy.
So, too, I wonder if we have the balances wrong in how we protect property rights versus how we protect other kinds of rights (e.g. rights associated with labor), how we approach trade policy, and how we allocate profits from economic activity that creates value.
In any case, it strikes me as more than a little ironic that a guy like the protagonist of the Washington Post story — who is being harmed by the imbalance as between labor and capital is embracing a guy who owes his wealth, not to hard work, but to the advantages our system gives property owners.