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.

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  • Yeah, NAFTA was a bad idea from a policy standpoint, but it at least it greatly strengthened Clinton's hand policitcally through the next election!

    No, wait, he got his ass kicked by the 1994 Republican wave and Newt Gingrich and spent the next six years having his sex life investigated. Well played, Bill.

    Why don't Republicans adopt brilliant strategies like "let's identify the most important parts of our electoral coalition and take giant, high-profile shits on their livelihoods"? It is a mystery.

  • Clinton marked the first time I realized Democrats didn't give a shit about the working class any more than Republicans. I've been spectacularly unsurprised to see Obama shitting on them with equal aplomb. There was never a dime's worth of difference between him and Hillary, two DLC corporatists to the core.

    That being said, must you compare Robocop to Death Wish? The former is completely subversive and anti-corporate, the latter a right-wing gun fantasy. I say this as a Michigan native and former Evansville resident.

  • God dammit, I swear I closed off that italics tag. Oh, html markup, don't ever change. I love you so.

  • 1. Now, you say on one hand that the demise of manufacturing in the rust belt was slow (you trace this progression from the 60s through the 90s) and then, on the other hand, you say this about NAFTA:

    "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."

    If so many of these manufacturing communities had been dying for decades, then I suppose there would have "been time," wouldn't there? This doesn't, of course, absolve our leaders from letting communities fail. But you can't say that it was sudden and not sudden at the same time. Globalization preceded NAFTA and I suspect there were decades before NAFTA that we should have been trying to rescue these communities. Clinton is slightly culpable, sure, but shouldn't be the scapegoat here.

    2. You have to admit that NAFTA wasn't entirely bad, insofar as protectionism is not, economically, a great long-term policy. You don't need to be a free-market fundamentalist to accept as a general premise that the free movement of goods and services across borders is economically preferable. There is a time and place for protectionism, but on the whole NAFTA was sound economic policy. As for Clinton's spurious promises of "re-educating" workers, I think he was stupid to make them because this just isn't something government does well. Which laid off workers do you train? And for what? And for how long? And do they need to be relocated? In an ideal world, the workers of these ravaged communities would have had government-provided health care and education to begin with, in addition to European-style unemployment benefits, so that during times of tumultuous restructuring their communities didn't crumble into chaos.

  • What is the end result of all this? Are the products substantially cheaper, of a high quality, standard of living increased? What has the lower 90-95% of the population gained from these agreements?

  • Follow-up: Can you quantify how many jobs were "sent to Mexico" on account of NAFTA or is your evidence merely anecdotal?

    In any case, the legacy of NAFTA is mixed and somewhat complicated. Certain American sectors, for instance, actually benefited. Mexico became a major market for American meat products, for instance (which is somewhat bittersweet for me since I would love nothing more than American factory farming to die).

  • 1. I think what Ed was saying was NAFTA provided the death blow for industry/manufacturing in the Rust Belt. Or, read the end of the first paragraph.

    2. The problem with NAFTA and its finishing blow to industry/manufacturing is many good blue collar jobs are gone (which sucks money out of the economy), many areas in the Rust Belt are economically depressed and decaying, there is no replacement for these jobs (I guess people could try heading out to California Grapes of Wrath style), the middle class (which is most of the population) has been dealt a devastating blow, the inequality of income distribution has become worse (which is bad for the economy), the American Dream is becoming unachievable for many people, and the idea that the American economy is the greatest economy ever is crumbling to an extent.

    No, NAFTA didn't create deindustrialization. But, it exacerbated it and ignored the aforementioned issues. Detroit used to be the Mecca of the American economy: what it is today says a lot about the state of the American economy.

  • Boy, it's sure refreshing to be on the other end of this again. Having two dozen people tell you you're a moron is tough, big love to Ed for doing it every day.

    On topic, the conventional wisdom that "protectionism is bad, free trade is good" may be true to a certain extent. But it kinda depends on who you are. If you're a business with enough resources to exploit the differences in labor costs between different countries, you'll probably do very well. If you're a laborer, on the other hand, you're probably gonna get fucked. I don't know which is better in economic terms, but I do know which side my bread is buttered on.

  • This is not my own but a response to an op-ed piece I read recently. Definitely food for thought.

    "I am always interested in discussions of why the US has shed manufacturing labor, and other labor for that matter, but I'm not sure I agree with some of the reasoning of this article. As a professor myself in a major business school that actually has a strong operations/supply chain program, I think I could actually agree with the broad thesis that business schools do have something to do with this phenomenon, but the imputation that because GM sourced its strong talent from finance instead of operations seems like generalizing from the particular. It may tell us something about GM but tells us little about the American business education system or manufacturing labor trends.

    I think a better thesis tying b-school to manufacturing decline is that political categories invade the science of economics in ways that they do not in other sciences. A premier example of this is the false dichotomy of "protectionism" and "free trade" and the even more pernicuous collusion of free trade with free markets. These specious categories are hoisted on Americans, via our business schools, as if they were accurate descriptions of the economic reality. They are not. Free trade is more like protectionism than anyone gives it credit for – saliently here I would include the good folks at TNR. Meanwhile free markets have protections for labor that free trade eschews.

    TNR – please give me an article to write about this some day. ;->. But here's how it works: The 50 American states have a free market. That means employers can leave California, close the Bay Area factory and open up shop in Georgia where it's less expensive, all the while sending goods back to California where they sell for as much as they did before the corporate move – shareholders pocket the difference, California laborers are out of luck.

    BUT – workers in Georgia are equally free to decide that labor conditions in their state are inadequate and move to greener pastures, i.e.: Washington state, NY, somewhere in the sunbelt, etc. This equalizing factor prevents employers from getting to stingy with their labor policies. The relative bargaining equality elevates prosperity for everyone.

    Compare that to "free trade". Free trade means the California shops are shut down and replaced with factories in Mexico, Indonesia or China. There labor is paid at penury rates. The shareholders and management class still pocket the difference when goods are sent back to the US, but US workers can't exactly go overseas to compete for jobs and the workers overseas can't improve their bargaining position by threatening in mass to take their wares to North America.

    In this respect, what we call "free trade" is really just protectionism for employers, shareholders and the management class, all at the expense of labor.

    Good economics, looking at the empirical situation without being jaded by politicized categories would see this, but we don't have enough of that and we keep up this myth, "free trade, good; protectionism, bad."

    It's high time we had some visionary policymakers who are willing to put the brakes on free trade, but that doesn't mean rolling it back and going to protected markets, it means that we should be creating international free markets, not unlike the EU, where workers are as free to move between nation-states to seek work as they are to move within the United States.

    If Indian engineers were as free to come to the US as American employers are free to open up shop in Bangalore, there would be no "overseas outsourcing" issue. Instead Indian engineers and their families would be buying homes in American suburbs, buying cars in American lots, putting their money in American banks, paying for American doctors and other health care, paying American taxes and employing American teachers, among other VERY good things that all serve to promote local employment."

  • Indian and Chinese engineers and programmers ARE moving to the US and buying homes in the suburbs. I work with dozens of them.

  • What's the opposite of a "visionary"? Short-sight-a-tarian?

    I read dozens of books by Robert Reich and his contingent of economists and theorists in the 90s. These were all major advocates of globalization, and Reich in particular was the flag-bearer for a group that argued in favor of transforming the American economy into some variation of a value-added service economy or an "information economy", i.e. all high-tech and "knowledge" jobs, all the time. (As far as I could tell, his "service economy" was about various mall workers selling corndogs to each other on their alternating days off.)

    As a student (and an idiot), these ideas sounded GREAT! Golly, why did we want all these smelly old manufacturing jobs, anyway? And hey, this was the 90s I'm talking about here! Computer programming jobs paid big bucks! Heck, even WEB DESIGN was something you could get paid for! (Imagine that!) But then I went home on the weekends, to the Detroit area, and was infected with the niggling doubt that there was no way our country would ever succeed in re-training all the millions of factory workers, and people raised to be factory workers, so that they could be web designers.

    Looking back, it is sickening to me to really think about the fact that all those "brilliant" economists and others specifically WANTED the U.S. to shed manufacturing jobs. They didn't accidentally allow it to happen; they wanted it to happen. And their plan to replace those jobs was based on a preposterous fantasy.

    I actually have high hopes for Peak Oil. Specifically, I hope that the ever-increasing cost of transport (coupled with rising labor costs in places like China and India) will render transoceanic shipment of consumer goods so expensive that the profits generated from manufacturing in Guangdong will be eliminated. We might actually be forced to start building things in this country again, not just buying them on credit. But for that to happen, Americans are going to have to get over the idea of everyone being rich and upper class, and accept the fact that some of us are going to have less stuff than others.

  • Elder Futhark says:


    Seems to me you are ignoring your own essay about how "Mr.B" of WWII had a LOT to do with the halcyon days of American enterprise (i.e. you can't churn out much product from a smoking hole in the ground).

    Just Clinton? No one else to blame? Ever hear of the 50% Rule? (50% is an artibrary choice, the actual numbers will vary, but 50% is good from a dramatic presentation stance). It goes like this, only 50% of the people in any (ANY) chosen profession actually learn what they are doing. The other 50% get by with simian trial-and-error with no real understanding of what they are doing. It is a testament to our peculiar insect-ape social mutation of division of labor that any competent work is ever accomplished.

    With this rule in mind, doesn't most legislation start to look like chimps knuckling symbol boards for peices of fruit?

  • "Americans are going to have to get over the idea of everyone being rich and upper class, and accept the fact that some of us are going to have less stuff than others."

    Americans are fine with this idea and have been for a long time. But nobody is willing to accept that they, personally, are among those limited to "less stuff".

  • @Nate: "Clinton marked the first time I realized Democrats didn't give a shit about the working class any more than Republicans."

    This is the core problem with American politics. All politicians are of the wealthy political class that is wholly separate from the lower classes that make up the vast, overwhelming majority of the nation. This is precisely the situation that the US Constitution was attempting to prevent when it laid out provisions that ANY citizen of appropriate age was eligible for the various offices. There were no requirements for law school education, there were no requirements that they be accomplished businessmen (as many right-wing talk radio hosts like to point out lately, that so-and-so 'has never run a business'); the only requirements to hold office in the United States of America was that someone be a citizen (in the case of the President, a US-Born citizen) and of the appropriate age.

    The present reality, of course, is vastly different. The average person has absolutely no chance whatsoever of holding office because they will be outspent by the political class. It is impossible to campaign for a political office without thousands, if not millions, of disposable dollars at hand.

    And to that end, every decision the political class makes is, of course, to benefit the wealthy political class first, all other considerations secondary. Both Republicans and Democrats will happily screw the lower classes if it leads to their own betterment, Democrats just try a little harder to buy back favor with various social programs. In this day and age, the only real difference between a US Democrat and a US Republican is which particular subsets of your freedoms they want to abridge or expand — democrats will take your economic freedom while expanding your social freedom, while republicans will expand your economic freedom while crushing your social freedom.

    Given that I hold people in higher esteem than money, my choice is clear, but it is not a choice I make without a very bad taste in my mouth.

  • Nate said:

    "That being said, must you compare Robocop to Death Wish? The former is completely subversive and anti-corporate, the latter a right-wing gun fantasy."

    If I hadn't read that comment and was asked what was the "Death Wish" series all about? I would have reflexively said "Revenge and personal vigilantism spurred on by the little guy feeling that system did not provide justice for a family member who was murdered."

    This "Avenger of Blood" thing is older than dirt. The firearm enters the picture in that it is an efficient way to hurt someone at distance where they can't easily hurt you back unless similarly armed.

    The movies would have provided the same message if Charlie Bronson's character had personally choked the sh!t out of each and every one of the bad guys.


  • anotherbozo says:

    I remember being stunned that there was no national debate about NAFTA, thought being such a sweeping agreement it deserved a fair discussion. But now I know who owns this country. They'll let us play with DADT or other soft social issues, but when it comes to corporate wants, no contest, no argument.

  • I visited a NAFTA protest when I still lived in the Pacific Northwest, and it blew my mind that both Right and Left were against it – the Right favored protectionism, and the Left wanted no agreement without provisions against child labor, unfair wage practices, unsafe workplaces, etc. for all member nations (but yeah, we’re looking at Mexico.) Some thought NAFTA might put a dent in illegal immigration, but oh well.

    Regarding the long, slow death of industry towns, I can’t be too heartbroken. I grew up in northwest Montana, and our timber industries were constantly in upheaval. Wildlife protection acts, clearcutting, cheap wood from Canada and Australia, federal money being pulled, etc., resulted in all kinds of drama,. This was complicated by people who “treasonously” pushed for greater recycling, less pollution in lumber processing, even speed limits for the freeways (slowing down the log truckers.) There was panic and fear since the 70’s, culminating in “Our Way of Life is Threatened! Loggers Face Extinction!”

    All I could think is Jeez, you’ve had a generation to encourage your children to study computers or math or something that would lead to more secure employment, but instead you fought for a “way of life” that was as doomed as the crossbow industry in medieval England. Don’t say you didn’t see it coming just because you hoped it would never arrive.

    Lots of logging families used to be mining families, before we ran out of metal. Some of your cousins may be working the tourist concession at the Superfund site in Butte, but they’re not mining it anymore. Don’t blame the government. You were witness to the robber barons who ran the industry into the ground for profit over sustainability, and you thought it couldn’t happen to you, or happen before you retired, or before your kid retired, or his kid. Sorry, but you can’t shout about the ship sinking, decide to stay on board, and call it a tragedy.

  • The factories are still there, the workers are still there, its just capital that has fled from these industrial towns. Seems to me that the best way to 'revitalise' is not to lure the capitalist class back but to simply occupy the factories and turn them into co-operatives. Collectivisation of abandoned factories is not at all uncommon in South America and where it has been attempted it has succeeded not only in putting workers back to work but creating viable communities in previously dead towns.

    One of the most successful examples is FaSinPat in Argentina, a recovered factory which is now legally owned by the workers after 10 years of occupation. From its wikipedia page:

    "FaSinPat has nurtured the relationship with the surrounding community. From the start, the recovered factory donated tiles to community centers and hospital and organised cultural activities for the community on its premises. In 2005, FaSinPat voted to build a community health clinic in the impoverished Nueva España neighbourhood. The inhabitants of Nueva España had been demanding such a clinic from the provincial government for two decades; FaSinPat built it in three months.[5] Community support has been very important in protecting the recovered factory from the threats it is subjected to."


    Of course the ruling class is stronger and more cohesive in the U.S (the FaSinPat occupation occured during a time of political upheaval), and the state is almost completely subservient to the demands of Capital, so workers in Detroit would have to struggle a lot harder to occupy a factory for any length of time, but surely it is better than doing nothing?

  • @bb in GA: Fair enough. I guess I'm conflating it with the other Death Wish movies in the series. I remember one in particular that really seemed to fetishize the guns, even to my teenage sensibilities. I still say Robocop is a deliciously subversive movie for the 1980's, though.

    @RosaLux: As for NAFTA, I remember seeing an interview with a business owner who said he would move his factories down to Mexico even if he had to pay the workers MORE because of all the money he'd save by having no environmental regulations to follow. Between that and the aforementioned labor issues, it hardly seems like merely the free flow of goods across borders benefiting workers and owners alike.

  • ladiesbane, I don't think that's a valid comparison.

    You're talking about recognizing the transition from one semi-skilled industry to another. That's quite different than the transition from manual labor to computer programming.

    Everyone who can be a logger or miner can learn to work in a refrigerator factory. Not everyone who works in a refrigerator factory can be turned into a programmer, lawyer, or other suitably whiz-bang-y "Knowledge and Services Economy" job.

    Entirely different issues.

  • I was in college during the Clinton years and can attest that academia was in love with free trade agreements at the time. High minded intellectuals saw an end to "dirty jobs" that would be magically replaced with millions of high wage information economy careers that would magically create a wave of prosperity for all… and I bought into it hook, line and sinker.

    I soon realized, however, that not everyone is cut out for life behind a desk and even fewer have the intellectual ability to think like a programmer, analyst, or designer of all of these nifty IT products. The dot com boom provided a lot of opportunities for the limited few that had the inclination but as soon as the industry discovered that not everyone could learn the jobs and labor rates moved upward they began scouring the globe for those who did.

    Massive layoffs accompanied the dot com bust and a newly liberalized H1B program created an immobile underclass of IT workers. When coupled with easy access to talent in Bangalore, wages stagnated and more positions were eliminated.

    The problem with this vision of a future where no one had to get dirty or, heaven forbid, work with their hands is that there is still and will always be a need for people to do the dirty work. No problem, we'll just import illegal immigrants to do the jobs no American would do.

    Free trade agreements have to be changed to balanced trade agreements. When faced with low wage pressure from the developing world, first world labor simply cannot compete regardless of their efficiencies. Our quest for cheaper and cheaper labor will invariably end with earning destruction that will eventually trickle up the even the very wealthy who find that their cheap goods have no market.

    "Screw you, I got mine" can only last for so long.

  • @ labiesbane

    The "stable employment" you mention in computers and math is a myth. The high tech/science industries are among the least stable employment you can fins, particularly after 40.

    Industries change and disappear but the larger trend is toward economic nomadism that requires a person to continually retrain (on their own dime) until they are eventually left behind.

  • Ed, I agree that the fast transition is a problem no matter what, and that vocational rehab is pointless when no one is hiring. (Also: why train a logger to work a factory line when there is no factory within a thousand miles?) My frustration was solely with the folks I knew who saw the industry lifespan shortening, visibly but over a period of years, bemoaning it, but doing nothing to save themselves, fix the problem, get themselves out, or get their kids onto a different career track. Nope, he's gonna be a logger, just like his dad and his grandpa!

    I don't blame them for being on the rotten end of corporate profit, dwindling resources, law changes, technological advancements, job obsolescence, and other problems, but they saw it, they called it, and they did nothing. My family in Muncie, Chicago, and Knoxville were better off — one factory job is much like another — but they had the sense to jump off the tracks before the train arrived.

  • I lived in AZ back when NAFTA was in the works, and I recall one local politician describing opposition to NAFTA as a futile effort, analogous to standing on the beach and trying to push back against the rising tide. I don't recall any arguments that NAFTA would reduce illegal immigration–anyone know which individuals or groups were making such claims? The influx of cheap corn to Mexico has clearly had the opposite effect, as farmers must now leave their land in search of better economic prospects to the North.

    Here in Indiana, political forces in Evansville continue to push (with the help of every Indiana Governor) for the completion of Interstate 69 from Evansville to Indianapolis. Yet another example of people working against their own long-term economic interests, as this boondoggle will surely facilitate the flight of goods and capital away from Evansville (and elsewhere).

  • Nunya,

    I second that nomadic observation. No biotech job is safe these days, even at the largest companies. Entire departments get cleared out, pushing the good and the bad alike out the door, because of a poor quarter or a failed clinical trial. You're not even safe at a company with historically low employee turnover, since they could always get a new CEO or be acquired by another company that wants to bring its own people in (because the value of a modern biotech company is measured in intellectual property, not talent.) And since the field moves so fast, being out of work for a year can have a big impact on the marketability of your skillset.

    And sometimes you have to be literally nomadic, too. At my last job, I followed the company as it moved from Boston to San Diego to San Jose, all within the space of two and a half years. I finally jumped ship when they decided to move the operation back to Boston again. I mean, for Christ's sake, it was like working at a traveling circus.

  • @ ZenPoseur

    The labor markets are becoming less mobile because so many people are underwater on their homes and financially unable to pack up and move. If you live in a place you enjoy, you may have to downwardly adjust your standard of living but actually spread some roots in a permanent home. Maybe it's not all doom and gloom after the go-go pace of the last 30 years.

  • I wouldn't say that Robocop is a white suburban revenge fantasy. Like Verhoeven's other great film, Starship Troopers, it's a pretty satirical evisceration of corporate/govt. collusion and middle America's fascination with violence/scapegoats.

    Maybe Robocop II fits the bill. That movie sucks.

  • Duverger's Outlaw says:

    I saw someone above mention that there was an expectation that NAFTA would reduce illegal immigration; I think it was quite the contrary. Policy makers knew that it would exacerbate the problem by destroying Mexican family farms. This is precisely why the Mexican border was militarized right after NAFTA went into effect (it was far more porous before that with people going to and fro relatively freely). What a lot of people seem to be missing is that NAFTA was almost equally bad for Mexican labor. It was an investors' (or capitals') agreement that benefited certain sectors of Mexican capital, though the clear winners–as usual–was U.S. capital. Now there has been a lot written about these issues, but I would recommend that someone get their hands on a AFL-CIO position paper that was written while it was being negotiated. Of course, labors' preferences got a short shift.

  • I can't be too specific, but at a certain point in the '90s, the wheelchairs we were getting at the VA hospital where I worked – from a large company with a large Federal contract to provide wheelchairs – started being made in Mexico. There was a certain hiccup early on with quality control, but after a while, everyone but me seemed to forget that these items – purchased with taxpayer money, remember – had once been made in the United Staes by American workers.

    After all, we were saving – no, wait, they were still at the contract price. Never mind.

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