A society that won’t pull together is likely to pull itself apart.
The collective efforts that knit together the factories and workshops of what is now called the Rust Belt also knit together the collective bargaining power of union shops, and paid off in shared benefits of retirement and health benefits, and public schools and public facilities that almost everyone used.
All that sharing flattened the pyramid of incomes somewhat, but still allowed for plenty of upward mobility, even if it was spread across a wider population. The more generally shared parameters of success encouraged a culture of shared, or collective effort.
Today, many of the factories and workshops of the Midwest are rusted out and shut down. The jobs they housed are gone, too, eliminated or reduced by new technologies and globalized investment. The men and women who had those jobs, most of them now 45 and older are scuffling. Some have found new jobs, but usually with lower rates of pay, fewer benefits and shorter tenures. Others are in premature retirement. Few of them have reasons to collect their efforts into some shared project.
And their kids, with no jobs to take, have taken a hike, moving out of the Midwest, particularly its metropolitan cities and towns for place more Post-Industrial Revolution. And each one that leaves, sets out figuring, he or she is going to have to make it on their own. In a sink or swim gig economy, collective effort only drags you down.
The ties of shared workplaces, shared aspirations, shared public institutions have been repainted to look like bondage. If you try to help the slowest camper, the bear will eat you, too.
And these days, the baddest bears of the “other” ones, the outsider competitors, and the more “other” they are, the more different in race, religion or national origin, the scarier those bears get to be.
When work is scarce and pay is paltry and the edge looks ever more dangerous, safety lies in pulling back to the familiar, to people who look, think, act and are most like you, a tighter and more exclusive circle.
This is the consciousness Donald Trump sold to the shell-shocked voters of the Rust Belt, and won 9 of 11 states. It is a mentality of continuing individual atomization and collective decline.
But, there is an alternative of new jobs built on, not killed by, new technologies and innovation, and new communities based on racial, religious and national diversity, and that alternative is on display across the Rust Belt. In the words of our guest today, John C. Austin of the University of Michigan and the Michigan Economic Center, “All of these communities are attracting and keeping highly educated populations, producing rising incomes, and maintain a diversified economic base.”
Of course, no such good news should go unquestioned, and I have at least 2 big ones:
Can this formula for civic success survive President Donald Trump’s proposed reductions in both collective taxation and spending on public projects with collective benefits?
And does this proposed Midwest makeover really spread benefits across the region or just concentrate them in a few “winner” communities, while further un-equalizing the cities and towns who can’t win the adaptation game?
John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, and as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings, created and directed the Brookings Great Lakes Economic Initiative.
He just completed 16 years elected service on the Michigan State Board of Education, serving the past 6 years as President. Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center a place for ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation. He also Lectures on the Economy at the University of Michigan. In 2015 Austin brought State leaders together to form the Michigan Higher Education Attainment Roundtable (HEART) to forge a new broadly-supported roadmap to increase the states higher education attainment rate, see www.MiTalentGoal2025.org. With MEC Austin also coined the term “Blue Economy” to describe the way our waters, and water innovation contribute to economic growth, and is leading a “Michigan Blue Economy” Initiative, to support stakeholders and the Michigan Governor’s Office to develop and implement a State Water Strategy.