Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Maybe Americans Don't Actually Get Capitalism?

“That fact that Americans don’t just pick up and move from economically depressed areas to booming ones—like they did during the Dust Bowl—has puzzled economists for decades. One study, from the American Economic Journal, has found that low-skilled Mexican-born immigrants move in response to labor demand, yet low-skilled American-born people do not. For every 10-percentage-point decline in employment for Mexican-born low-skilled men, the population of those men dropped 5.7 percent in a community, the study found. A similar decline in local employment led to no measurable decline in the less-skilled native population.”
With presidential candidates talking about all the jobs they’re going to bring back, that quote makes for one hell of a nut graph in a damned smart article about why the policy response to NAFTA [or, insert your trade deal acronym here] doesn’t matter. You can train people for jobs all goddamn day for a goddamn year and it won’t matter at all unless those people live where the jobs for which they’re training are.

The same idea forms a huge, persistent sub-text for Strangers in the Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild (big recommend, and book review coming). The “white working class” complains about all the jobs leaving their communities, but they’re also radically pro-capitalism. That position overlooks a central premise of capitalism: creative destruction, the idea that jobs that can no longer justify their existence just sort of die, and are replaced by jobs for which demand exists.

The factory system that sustained much of the Midwest and parts of the South are no longer economically viable and, where they are viable, technological innovation means that they require fewer and fewer people to make those same processes work. And the one thing that comes through in Hochschild’s book, time and again, is her interviewees’ unwillingness to leave the bayous they love…where there are no jobs, and no potential for the same number and kinds of jobs that once sustained those communities. When those collapse, the surrounding related pieces of the local economy (e.g. grocery stores, restaurants, retail shops, etc.) all collapse with them. 

But, again, when there are no jobs where you are, and for a variety of reasons, do you have the right to continue making the choice to stay? Put another way, what’s the government’s obligation to save you? What is industry’s obligation? It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for his scandalous promises to bring parts of the country back to an arrangement that simply cannot work, but that “damned smart article” gets at where all the promises dry the hell up for both parties.

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