Automotive Analyst, Brett Smith
Sunday, January 29, 2017
What About Us?
“[High tech manufacturing] will ultimately mean fewer jobs… The people will have to keep learning throughout their careers. It won’t be like the old days, when you do the same thing for 40 years.”
Automotive Analyst, Brett Smith
Automotive Analyst, Brett Smith
That a massive bailout of the automotive industry under the Obama administration probably saved hundreds of thousands of jobs is the stuff of history and legend. But by the 2016 election it was a forgotten ancient history. What Michigan workers in the heart of the Rust Belt remembered is how much they used to earn, not that their jobs were saved. For them, the announced “recovery” that Democrats touted was nothing more than telling them: (a) you are lucky to have a job, (b) you need to live with downsized expectations, (c) you constantly need to accept and adapt to change, and (d) welcome to the global economy.
Dems Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with Republican George W. Bush, championed NAFTA and other international trade agreements. They called it progress in a modern world. Trade agreements always have winners and losers. Somebody just forgot to take care of the losers. Add automation and you have a real game changer. For those who own the machines… and those who don’t. Too many displaced workers will not accept Brett Smith’s assessment above. They don’t like constantly having to retrain; it’s not the system they grew up with. They want what they think they were promised: a reliable job for life.
This is a long blog, but if you don’t understand how modern economics have changed American values and expectations, you just are not going to understand what is tearing this country apart. This is not about Donald Trump… but what got Donald Trump elected.
Rolling Stone contributor, Mark Binelli, writes (January 25th) about what the world looks like from inside one Trump’s swing counties (Macomb County, Michigan), where Binelli grew up: “At least on the surface, it would seem as if the Obama administration's auto-industry bailout would have merited nothing but gratitude from Michigan voters. In downtown Detroit, vacancy rates have plummeted in the once-haunted skyscrapers, and street life is vibrant again: A new streetcar line will open this year, the city's first major public transportation investment since the mid-1980s, and the Detroit Pistons will return to Detroit from the suburbs beginning next season.
“And yet the working class has continued to struggle in both the city and places like Macomb County. As I watched the bailout take shape – while living in Detroit and reporting a book about the city – it was clear to me that the salvation of the Big Three carmakers had been structured in a manner dismayingly similar to the Wall Street bailouts, in that massive corporations received the overwhelming share of the government largesse while workers (those who'd managed to hang on to their jobs) had to accept cuts in benefits and pay. Steven Rattner, the former hedge-fund manager who headed Obama's auto-bailout team, just published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he acknowledged the grim reality that still exists for many workers: Manufacturing jobs ‘recovered weakly after the recession,’ he wrote, and fell by 60,000 in 2016; in Michigan, the number of factory jobs has dropped from 900,000 to 600,000 since 2000, a stunning figure, while real wages for those workers have gone from $28 an hour in 2003 to $20 today.”
But the Democrats are touting fighting the glass ceiling for women, making sure people can vote without barriers or encumbrances, assuring ethnic/cultural/racial minorities of equal treatment under the law, taxing the rich for their fair share to fight income inequality, working towards environmental and financial safety, supporting making education more affordable, providing universal healthcare, getting assault weapons off the street, adding infrastructure jobs, etc., etc. – all admirable goals – but no clear path to restore Rust Belt earning power or the once-assumed notion of generation-by-generation upward mobility. For most of Trump’s Democrat-to-Trump converts, that last ignored category was really all that really mattered. That Democratic administrations created international trade agreements that absolutely impacted Rust Belt earning power stung fiercely. The Dems just skipped over who got hurt the most.
“Now, in the wake of Trump's surprise victory, the white working-class voters of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan – all states Trump unexpectedly swept – have suddenly assumed a position of primacy. Left-leaning Beltway pundits have been debating whether such Trump voters should most properly be pitied (as victims of a rigged economy) or deplored (for casting a vote for a man who had run on an explicitly white-nationalist platform). On a tactical level, might a finely tooled message of economic populism, as delivered by, say, a Bernie Sanders (who defeated Clinton in the Michigan primary) or an Elizabeth Warren, resonate with such a demographic? Is any cooperation with a figure as dangerous and unprecedented as our new president tantamount to collaboration? For progressives seeking a way out of the wilderness, the answers to these questions – and to an understanding of places like Macomb County – will be key to countering Trumpism.” Binelli.
Globalization and immigration are increasingly seen as the new enemies of hard-working Americans everywhere. Unstoppable progress and modernity seemed to benefit the rich and highly-educated, while the working class were saddled with the burdens that were cast as “inevitable and irreversible.” The areas that bore the greatest burdens were not the new-cool Silicon Valley or the old-cool Wall Street but those who worked with their hands to extract resources and make stuff. The Rust Belt. So can the political erosion of the Democratic Party, erosion Donald Trump rose to seal his victor, be reversed? Binelli continues:
“Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, a longtime critic of globalization, told me, ‘Let me be clear: The major force that affected the decline of manufacturing employment is technology’ – by which he means advances in robotics that reduce the number of human employees on any given assembly line. ‘That's the long-term trend in the United States,’ Rodrik says. ‘But that doesn't mean trade was unimportant. It severely aggravated certain geographical and regional impacts’ in places like Michigan. In contrast to Europe, Rodrik continues, ‘just as the United States was opening up to trade for reasons largely of a market-fundamentalist ideology, there was no parallel expansion of the safety net – whether universalizing health insurance or creating better labor markets. All we got was paltry trade-adjustment assistance’– essentially, job-retraining programs – ‘which didn't help anyone.’
“Meanwhile, politicians from both parties shrugged their shoulders at the effects of globalization on the industrial Midwest. ‘Those jobs aren't coming back’ became a mantra, a hard truth to be delivered, something as unchangeable as death and the weather. Except the trade deals weren't acts of nature; they'd been written by global elites and they privileged certain classes of people over others. As Rodrik notes dryly, ‘We weren't negotiating trade agreements to import physicians or accountants or university professors from abroad.’
“For [Michigan Congressman, Representative Democrat David] Bonior, who supported Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign – donating money and personally going door-to-door in Michigan – the unwillingness to fight harder to save U.S. manufacturing jobs ‘was a political, thought-out decision by neoliberals, of which Bill Clinton was one. And we saw the results in November. And it was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking.’
“Enter Donald Trump, who either cunningly intuited or bumblingly stumbled onto the realization that the Democratic Party's quandary over how to reach disgruntled white working-class voters – addressing their economic concerns while rejecting their racist fears – didn't have to be a quandary at all, assuming you had no moral center. Why not just stoke both sets of grievances and see what stuck?...
“[Take typical Trump supporter, 44-year-old Chrysler worker Chris Vitale.] [Once Vitale] he started listening to Trump, he was quickly impressed. ‘The thing that was amazing to me about Trump was this guy doesn't have any connection to manufacturing,’ Vitale says, ‘but yet he seems to recognize how we get screwed in these trade deals. And the union comes and says, 'Well, he makes his ties in China!' Well, you know, it's probably because he couldn't even find a tie factory here, and by the way, that may have given him the knowledge about these trade deals. Probably asked for a tie factory here and they said, 'Are you kidding? Those are gone. You wanna know why they're gone?' Maybe he listened.’
“In the debates, Vitale watched other Republicans perk up when Trump talked about tariffs. ‘Marco Rubio's up there and he's like, 'Oh, well, a dress shirt will cost more!' ’ Vitale recalls. ‘I love that he picked the most out-of-touch example that he could! These Republicans all day long will sell you on these social issues: 'Oh, we've got to protect the rights of the unborn' and everything like that. 'But in the meantime, we don't give a shit if you live in a cardboard box and the best job you ever get is at Family Video.' ’…
“[Yale University academic Stan] Greenberg says Obama's triumphalist rhetoric about the economic recovery may have ultimately hurt Clinton more than helped her. ‘Understandably for Obama, saving global capitalism was a searing experience of his administration,’ Greenberg says. ‘But the fact that many of these working people didn't get anywhere close to where they'd been before the crisis meant they believed Democrats in general were not speaking to them.’ Greenberg's wife, Rosa DeLauro, is a U.S. representative from Connecticut, and over the years, he's watched Obama come to the working-class city of Bridgeport to wind up his base. ‘I remember him telling the crowd one year, 'We got the economy out of the ditch,' ’ Greenberg says. ‘And I could see people looking around at each other saying, 'Is he kidding? We're still in the ditch!' ’
“But there's still a strong case to be made to many of these voters from the populist left. [Warren] Gunnels, Sanders' adviser, offers a wonky, detailed list of policy prescriptions: Rewrite NAFTA; repeal and replace permanent trade relations with China; impose an ‘outsourcing tax’ on corporations; make it easier to join unions; enact a $1 trillion infrastructure-spending bill; and encourage worker-owned cooperatives. (Here, he might have something in common with Vitale, who admiringly mentioned the employee-ownership model enacted by Harley-Davidson.)
“Rodrik, too, argues in favor of a ‘class-based’ pitch to voters, rooted in ‘traditional Democratic Party policy concerns’: progressive taxation, full employment, wage-support policies. ‘And none of that has to feel like you're leaving out minorities or women or transgender people,’ he says. ‘I don't think there's a deep culture of racist attitudes that makes it easier for right-wing populists to capitalize, especially when, deep down, the grievances are economic.’
“Perhaps. One would certainly have a shot with Trump voters like Vitale, who also professes deep admiration for progressive Democrats like former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Vitale says Rick Snyder, Michigan's current Republican governor, has been ‘a disaster for the state,’ and when I bring up Trump's Carrier coup, he says, ‘You know what else I love about it? I love that the Republicans hate it.’” There is a path. It is long. It is difficult. And it requires that liberal elites within the Democratic Party bite their tongues, fund a new Democratic Party resurgence, reprioritize the relevance of their platform and allow a new left-of-center leadership to answer that question HRC skipped over in the last election: “What about us??”
I’m Peter Dekom, and if Donald Trump does not create irreversible damage to the nation as a whole, Democrats at least have to live in the political reality of the here and now.