Being a Midwesterner – my first 31 years were divided among Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana – deindustrialization is something I have seen in painful detail. It's not an idea or something I need to learn about in Michael Moore movies. I've seen Youngstown, Fort Wayne, Saginaw, Buffalo, Rockford, Detroit, and the dozens of others like them. To some extent they all look the same, which is logical given that their histories are so similar. They peaked in 1950, treaded water throughout the 1960s, started to suffer from foreign competition in the 1970s, turned into post-apocalyptic war zones in the 1980s (inspiring an entire genre of white suburban revenge fantasy films like Robocop and Death Wish in the process), and were dealt the final blow in the 1990s with NAFTA.
The big problem, from a brutally realistic perspective, is that these places didn't just disappear when they were declared unnecessary by the wonders of globalization and unregulated capitalism. Their hollow, crumbling shells still exist. We can still wander around their (now vacant) 1950-vintage storefronts and the neighborhoods that have long since made the transition from working-class housing to crack dens and squatters' tenements. So even though singular events – the closing of the Big Factory in a company town, the rapid decline of a key industry – signal the death of a place like Flint, the process of dying is drawn out painfully. It takes decades, not years, for the residents to admit that It is never coming back and things are never going to be the way they used to be again. After a dozen failed "revitalization" and re-development plans, everyone just sort of…gives up.
Evansville, Indiana ("E-ville" to its residents, all desperately seeking an escape) fits the classic Rust Belt model very well despite avoiding the kind of epic, media-friendly collapse suffered by Flint or East St. Louis. Its death has been a slow process. The major employers didn't disappear overnight; they slunk away one by one. Windsor. Guardian Automotive. Zenith. Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Enfamil / Mead Johnson. And now Whirlpool. Now there's pretty much nothing left. A place that was already sad has gotten even sadder. Even the service industry jobs will disappear without a middle class to blow its paychecks around town.
Until now this story is unexceptional. It's nothing new. NAFTA, Mexico, and moving vans speeding toward Guadalajara. The wrinkle in the Whirlpool tale, however, is the $19 million they just took from the Federal government as part of the "stimulus" spending. The money was awarded to develop "smart" clothing dryers that will, like, be Green or something. In a shameless example of quite literally taking the money and running, it appears that Congress's investment in Whirlpool's business is reaping great dividends for the American taxpayers in…Mexico. Now, I understand that these two things are not directly related; the grant money is to develop a quasi-new technology while the E-ville factory made standard refrigerators. Nonetheless the disconnect is striking, with the company quite literally taking the money with one hand and handing its manufacturing jobs to Mexico with the other.
Has there ever been a single piece of legislation or act of Congress that did more to fundamentally alter our society than NAFTA? Part of me says no because it merely finished a process that had already started in the 1970s. On the other hand, the speed with which it has dropped the hammer on so much of the Northeast and Midwest is shocking, leaving cities with no time to adapt or transition their economies away from manufacturing. According to President Clinton we were going to solve this problem by "re-educating" laid off workers in some vague and unspecified way for some vague and unspecified jobs with the word "tech" in their description. Alas, the process of imbuing 45 year-old factory workers with three kids and a mortgage with the skills needed for the High Tech jobs that don't exist anyway has not been a smooth one. As much as this will shock people who opposed NAFTA at the time it was debated, the only promise that this Agreement kept was sending good American jobs to the developing world (which, coincidentally, doesn't actually appear to be Developing. But that's another story.)
Congratulations, President Clinton. Your legacy is intact.