Glass House (part 3)

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The “1% economy”

Brian Alexander’s book Glass House is subtitled “The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.” Alexander is a journalist, not a macroeconomist, and he doesn’t attempt much analysis of the economy as a whole. Nevertheless, he seems sure that the brand of capitalism we have been practicing lately is largely responsible for Lancaster’s decline.

Alexander suggests that owners and investors have more than one route to profit: “You can increase profits by building value through research and development, creating new products, investing in plants and equipment. But that takes time….Instead, you can also increase company profit by making the same products with the same sales volumes, but cutting expenses.” Which route is chosen dramatically affects people’s lives: “If you were the target company employee, or a small town where that company was located, you might prefer to add value through investment in people, machines, and research and development, for a long-term benefit.”

I didn’t see anywhere in the book where Alexander explained how this choice is affected by the general nature of the “1% economy,” but I’ll offer a few thoughts. Two features of the 21st-century US economy thus far are extreme economic inequality and sluggish economic growth. (Some would say the two are related, although the relationship may not be simple.) The wealthy minority have a lot of capital available to invest. But very weak income growth for the majority limits their ability to spend on new products. Under those conditions, it is not surprising that a lot of capital would go to buy existing enterprises rather than create new ones; nor is it surprising that cost-cutting rather than expansion of production would be a favored route to profit. If this strategy works to make the 1% richer despite hollowing out the middle class, that only reinforces the inequality and sluggish growth, creating a vicious cycle.

Ideological responses

The workers and townspeople who are the victims of economic decline have little knowledge of macroeconomics or high finance. Without understanding the underlying causes, they react to the symptoms they see–the wage concessions, the layoffs, the family instability, the reduced commitment to work, the drug problem and the crime. They try to interpret what they see within a traditional belief system linking hard work, self-reliance, economic success and strong families. If more people are failing, well, that must be due to some mysterious decline in personal responsibility and achievement.

Like many Midwestern small towns, Lancaster, Ohio had always been at least moderately conservative. But as economic conditions deteriorated, “A significant faction within Lancaster lost its moderate conservatism. Stoked by cable news, internet videos, and right-wing politicians, they insisted that most of Lancaster’s problems had to be the natural product of an over-generous social service system that coddled lazy, irresponsible people.” Few stopped to consider what work ethic the high-flying financiers were living by when they made millions off of other people’s misfortunes.

Dependency on government was increasing in two ways: direct assistance through programs like food stamps and Medicaid (whose expansion under Obamacare Ohio chose to implement), and reliance on public money to create jobs. “Medicaid and Medicare supplied over 60 percent of the hospital’s income. The public schools were the second-largest employer in town.” Glass-maker Anchor Hocking had dropped to third. But the increasing dependency was accompanied by denial or resentment.

A certain kind of racism was entangled with popular attitudes toward the needy, but Alexander is careful to qualify it. It was more complicated than a simple prejudice against people who looked and acted different. It was more the resentment of struggling whites against any suggestion that people of color deserved more help than they did, or the idea that one group should have to bear the costs of some other group’s failures. It was easier to direct hostility across racial lines than to identify the shadowy financial interests and economic forces that were really responsible for their problems. “Somebody, they thought, was screwing them out of the good-life lottery. Somebody was screwing them. It just wasn’t who they thought.”

Political fallout

The political leaders of Lancaster and many of its higher-income residents were Republicans. Alexander describes them as having an anti-tax philosophy that kept them from raising the money to maintain the town’s infrastructure and institutions. They also had a “pro-business bias [that] blinded them to how Newell and Cerberus [new owners of the glass company] picked their pockets.”

The blue-collar workers of Lancaster were more likely to vote Democratic, if they voted at all. But they were turned off by the Party’s preoccupation with the rights of minorities like African Americans and gay people.

In 2012, Fairfield County, where Lancaster was located, voted 57% for Romney, although Ohio went narrowly for Obama. In 2016, the county went 60% for Trump, helping turn the state red again.  The great irony here is that by voting for Romney and Trump, the people of Lancaster were casting their lot with the kind of financial wheelers and dealers Alexander holds responsible for the town’s decline.

Donald Trump promised the downwardly mobile workers of towns like Lancaster to “make America great again.” What those workers couldn’t acknowledge was that “buccaneering free-market finance” had done so much to undermine that greatness. It was so much easier to blame “sin, laziness, scientists, immigrants, unions, and any number of other enemies of the American Way.” Trump cleverly combined populist anger with right-wing conservatism. The good manufacturing jobs would come back if the government would defend the borders, make tougher trade deals with other countries, and lighten the tax and regulatory burden on business. Trump shared Romney’s admiration for the wealthy as the job creators. What was missing from his critique was any suggestion that they might be investing the country’s wealth unwisely.

Alexander does not discuss the 2016 election, but I think he would agree that it does not portend a reversal of fortunes for towns like Lancaster. What I fear it does is add a layer of political exploitation to the economic exploitation that has already occurred.

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