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Rustoration: How the Rust Belt Can Show America What it Really Means to be Great

Rustoration: How the Rust Belt Can Show America What it Really Means to be Great

 

By G. M. Donley

Americans sure love to vote for celebrities: Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan, Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Al Franken, and now Donald Trump. It doesn’t seem to matter how the fame was acquired—movies, music, comedy, fake sports, real sports, just being rich and publicity-hungry. Probably Lassie or Flipper could have won this last election, if it weren’t for the birth certificate issues. Lassie makes deals. Flipper tells it like it is. What more do you want in a president?

I don’t really hold it against Donald Trump. He is just another in history’s long parade of self-inflating poobahs whose wealth and privilege have insulated them from consequences of their behavior. And celebrity background doesn’t necessarily mean a person would be a disaster as president (some of those other celebrities have done okay), though it’s looking pretty alarming at the moment. The point is, he may be an unsavory person, but it’s not his fault he got elected. That responsibility lies with those who elected him.

I won’t single out the Rust Belt “white working class” voters who have gotten a lot of attention after this election, usually portrayed as simple folk left behind by progress, uneducated and suspicious of anyone who isn’t white working class. No doubt, there is a faction of blue collar voters—a small minority, I hope—who were motivated by hate and prejudice or willful ignorance, but the truly committed bigots vote in every election anyway, so bigotry didn’t make the difference this time. The WWC (and really the entire working class of all races and cultures) is just frustrated and getting desperate and looking for somebody to shake things up because no one has been really looking out for their interest since 1934 or so.

But you could still say the Rust Belt is why we’re in this situation: not just the beleaguered blue collar workers, but also the dispirited or apathetic Democratic voters who didn’t show up to vote in Rust Belt states and, most of all, the folks who are already doing well and who got behind Republicans not because they especially like Trump but because they think any Republican would support their status quo—namely protecting the advantage of the already-advantaged. There are lots of these people in the Rust Belt, many living in the homogenous, moderately upscale exurbs they have been building out for the past 50 years or so to insulate themselves from urban people. On examination, these aren’t actually principled conservatives (they believe in small government only after other taxpayers have already subsidized their suburban roads and utility lines and corporate health plans and home mortgage deductions and investment write-offs). The operative philosophy is less orthodox conservatism than: “My advantages entitle me to rig the game in my favor.” Perhaps the climate of scarcity in the Rust Belt in recent decades has led some to conclude that it is their loss if anyone below them makes any gains, an outlook that can shape everything from settlement patterns to tax codes to education policy to health care. All this behavior is perfectly natural in the context of our national “head-in-the-sand” approach to some key areas of public policy.

The scenario for the former blue-collar workers who remain has become a choice between staying around here and learning new skills and a new lifestyle, or taking your blue collar skills and moving somewhere else where those jobs are.

The Rust Belt seems to be the focus of a lot of attention at this moment in American history. That could be because this region proves to be a perfect laboratory for examining many intersections of American culture and economy: industrial and financial systems connected by transportation networks via water, rail, and road, with the cities rising in relationship to the sources of raw materials of industry and to agricultural production. Just looking at Ohio alone, we’ve got everything from Oberlin and Antioch to the KKK and the Tea Party, Rockefeller’s tomb overlooking the profoundly dysfunctional and bankrupt suburb of East Cleveland, plus cornfields, ice fishing, soul food, maple syrup, and NASA. We’ve got a good cross-sample of the American economic and cultural landscape here: old money, new entrepreneurs, big business, mom & pop shops, landscapers, engineers, farmers, truckers, sailors, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, artists, carpenters, and on and on—neither purely urban nor rural, industrial nor agricultural, with impressive cultural assets often alongside pockets of crushing poverty. The old blue-collar industrial economy has been on the downslope for a while, but manufacturing itself paradoxically is doing okay (just with many fewer employees) and academic, medical, and tech activity are thriving. Cities like Cleveland are home to a new crowd of younger people drawn by a great arts and culture scene and more craft beer than anyone could ever guzzle. The scenario for the former blue-collar workers who remain has become a choice between staying around here and learning new skills and a new lifestyle, or taking your blue collar skills and moving somewhere else where those jobs are. Too many choose neither, and they are not happy.

For many, circumstances can be paralyzing:  in particular, limited educational opportunity and the ever-looming financial disaster of health care costs can severely limit real choices. Yet this region is blessed with terrific educational institutions and world-class health care. If somebody in my family needs a sophisticated medical procedure, the Cleveland Clinic is 15 minutes away and my insurance will cover it. And yet, in neighborhoods that are also within 15 minutes of that same hospital, infant mortality rates look like something out of a Dickens novel. Nobel laureates might work within shouting distance of middle-school dropouts. Such circumstances aren’t unique to Cleveland or the Rust Belt, but they have been especially visible here, as they have not been masked by a booming overall economy with lots of population influx.

But maybe the fact that we can see it more clearly here means we are the ones who can begin to fix those problems. Just looking at education and health care for starters, what would that mean?

We must persuade the people who have enjoyed educational advantages in recent decades that education is not a zero-sum game—that bringing everyone else up … will build an even better orchestra.

Meaningful educational opportunity means that everyone who graduates high school should be prepared, either to go to college immediately, or to join the workforce thanks to smart vocational training. That’s about choosing and using the student test data we collect to make progress, not to rationalize punishment; it’s about smart but not profligate funding; it’s about endurance and steady hard work; and it’s about innovation, which could logically include ideas like school choice if the realization of the idea could be reinvented to serve students and teachers rather than cynical politicians and shady private operators.  Also, we must persuade the people who have enjoyed educational advantages in recent decades that education is not a zero-sum game—that bringing everyone else up to a higher standard won’t diminish the chances of their own children to do well, but rather will build an even better orchestra.

Educational opportunity also means continuing education throughout working years. Whether you originally train to be a machinist or bank teller or chef, you should still continue to learn about the world, read literature, keep up on science, and appreciate art and music. It makes your life richer, makes you a better citizen, and keeps your mind sharp for the inevitable retraining you will need to do as the workplace evolves. Thanks to technological advances, a given amount work in many fields can now be carried out by a fraction of the number workers it took 40 years ago. It makes absolutely no sense for the economy to go backwards and give up those productivity gains, so the response has to be a combination of worker retraining for jobs of the future and holding big corporations to meaningful ethical standards when it comes to looking after the people who work for and have worked for them. If you close a factory in the Rust Belt (or soon enough, in the Southeast or Sun Belt) because the global economy has made it obsolete, so be it. But the people who worked for you are not obsolete and it is to a great extent your job to train them for future opportunity because it was their labor that put you in the position to invest elsewhere. My grandfather was president of a construction company. He used to say a corporation has a responsibility to do more than just benefit the shareholders. It exists to produce a valuable good or service, to make a profit for its shareholders, and to provide good jobs for good people. All three. I know that sounds hokey, but it doesn’t sound wrong.

As for health care, the only responsible approach in a nation as great as ours is to think of health care as akin to national defense. Health care is not a fundamental human right any more than a standing army is, but a modern nation with the capabilities of ours is idiotic not to provide it in a comprehensive and cost-effective manner. True free markets will never work in health care because in many situations there is not and could never be any real opportunity to shop around, and because physicians are guided by a code of ethics that rules out a cost-driven decision not to provide care. Those are not free market conditions.

Then of course there’s the bizarre fantasy that not insuring people somehow saves money. Ridiculous. Everyone who doesn’t have insurance still goes to the hospital whenever they need it and somebody else pays for it. What’s the point in screaming about a new entitlement? We’ve all been paying for this for decades.

It’s time to stop screwing around with ideological stances and acknowledge that we already have taxpayer-funded medicine–we just do it in the most inhumane and economically inefficient way imaginable, requiring people to endure financial ruin, then having the taxpayers step in to cover some portion of the unpaid invoices months or years after providers have performed the service.  We’ll pay some of these bills, but everyone must be punished first. Because we spend such a frightful amount of money on this charade, no one can seriously claim fiscal conservatism, and therefore we must conclude that a big reason we perpetuate this sham is so that some ideologues don’t have to say the USA has socialized medicine. Well, then come up with another term already! How is health care substantially different from national defense? It isn’t. Is national defense socialism? Who cares? Call it what you want. In each case you have dedicated public servants working to protect individual lives and the general public good, defending the citizens so that they may exercise their freedom and contribute to the economy and to civic life as each is able. This nation could save its taxpayers a lot of money and provide meaningful additional individual liberty to hundreds of millions of American citizens by establishing a Department of Health Defense with medical staff who are state employees; and allow a private system on top of it that lets people pay more to have express service, bigger rooms, and 14 channels of ESPN.

The Rust Belt surprised everybody once by providing the margin that gave Republicans control over the government in November. Now the Rust Belt could surprise everybody again.

If such a system is unattainable at the national level because of entrenched interests and ideological myopia—or simply because this country is just too big and complicated for a “one size fits all” solution, fine, push it down to the states with federal block grants that come with a mandate to provide universal care, and let each state decide how to do that. Ohio, for one example, could gain much by establishing OhioCare that would use state funds to provide baseline health services for everyone. Individuals or employers could buy private options on top of that to reduce wait times for elective procedures and get more luxurious amenities. Doing that would meet four goals: rising to the moral imperative (and inescapable practical requirement) to take care of our own; significantly reducing the overall amount the typical Ohioan pays for health care in a given year when insurance, taxes, and related costs are all taken into account; eliminating an enormous burden of financial unpredictability for small business and self-employed people and thus spurring entrepreneurship and nurturing a business-friendly climate in Ohio; and providing a significant incentive for individuals to move to Ohio, thus reversing the decades-long trend of population decline, which would bolster state finances and guarantee Ohio doesn’t lose any more congressional representation. The same approach could benefit other Rust Belt states that similarly have struggled with population loss but already have assets like very good medical infrastructure, built-out transportation networks, property ripe for redevelopment, and ample fresh water. If conservatism means getting the most benefit out of a given investment, then that’s your plan. The main obstacle to such a frugal, sensible solution in Ohio is a heavily gerrymandered and ideologically mired legislature, but who knows, maybe a US senator or two and an independently thinking governor could dislodge a few traffic barrels. Enlist Rust Belt celebrities to lead the convoy—Oprah, Eminem, LeBron James, Anne Trubek, maybe Superman.

The Rust Belt surprised everybody once by providing the margin that gave Republicans control over the government in November. Now the Rust Belt could surprise everybody again by positioning itself for strong growth in the coming century by reimagining education and health care not as burdens to be shirked but as cost-effective public investments in our business and economic future. Shake the rust out of a long-corroded national policy machine, then restore, reconfigure, tune, and lubricate the mechanism so it performs to our benefit rather than slowing us down.

The non-stop distractions of the Trump administration could provide perfect cover for a coalition of enlightened leaders here to quietly craft and implement a new paradigm to make this part of America, with its long history of creative innovation, greater than it ever was.

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G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights, Ohio-based writer, photographer, and designer.

 

 

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