HUBRIS

My current home is a city that is very typical of the post-industrial Midwest. It was clearly a great place in the 1950s, and everything has gone straight downhill ever since. There's nothing special about it; the landscape is dotted with these places. Youngstown. Toledo. Muncie. Saginaw. Flint. Rochester. Binghamton. Scranton. Hartford. Reading. Peoria. Gary. Dayton. Rockford. If you've been to one, you've been to all of them. There are still people to be found there, but they've all fled to the suburbs. The "city" is a largely empty monument to an ancient civilization.

Accordingly, the nation's historical population centers in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest continue to shrink relative to the fast-growing states in the South and West. Much of the industry from the northern states has migrated to places like South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The rapid growth and economic expansion of the South in recent years is a source of great pride in the region. When I lived in Georgia, I noticed that the media and elected officials in particular delighted in, well, gloating about their success at the expense of higher-wage, cold winter states in the Midwest. And it is certainly true that a state like Georgia is growing by leaps and bounds while the Ohios and Michigans continue to wither away.

It is understandable that people in the South – especially the civic leaders and opinion-makers – are in a gloating mood. The giant new auto factories are being built in places like Chattanooga and Spartanburg and West Point, GA, not in Buffalo or Dearborn. But I've always wondered if the bluster is genuine or merely an attempt to drown out the nagging realization that the Rust Belt is a glimpse into their own near future.

They like to brag that the "business-friendly environment" in the Red States (Translation: luring corporate employers with tens of millions of dollars in public money and the promise of an obedient workforce that will do anything one asks for $11/hr) is driving their growth. This is certainly true. However, if the new economy has taught us anything it's that there is always someone out there willing to undercut you. There's always some other city, state, or country willing to lay more subsidies, gifts, and tax breaks at the feet of manufacturers, and to promise an even cheaper and more exploitable workforce. The system has succeeded in creating enough dispossessed, desperate people that someone will always offer to do it for less.

So when the new rapid growing cities in the Sun Belt triple in size in a single decade, you have to wonder if they realize that in 20 years we'll be looking at them the same way they currently look at Detroit. All the money Mississippi lavishes on the industries it lures in will be a distant memory and the next group of suitors will be lining up and offering to cut their own throats. These companies don't care about the cities they were born in. They certainly do not care about some Southern cesspool that paid them to come carpetbagging into town in 2002.

If you've been to any of these places and seen the explosive (and unplanned) growth in Phoenix, the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, Atlanta, Charlotte-Raleigh-Durham, Birmingham, and so on, you can't escape the feeling that everything about them is temporary. The strip mall developments, the chain restaurants, the shoebox hotels, the blocks of identical, crappy "townhomes" that look like minimum security prisons or particularly stylish college dorms – none of it is built to last. It's as if the industries know that they're not going to be here long enough to bother with creating the illusion of permanence. Garland, TX is just a rest stop on the journey from Michigan to Mexico.

Read a million smug news items about Detroit and Cleveland if it makes you feel better, folks. It's going to happen to you in twenty years, too. I'm sure you understand, being "business friendly" and all, that it's not personal. Your new corporate friends are responsible to no one but the stockholders. These new "cities" that have been created seemingly overnight will disappear just as quickly. At least up North we made buildings sturdy enough to stick around and remind us of better days. You'll never even know your strip malls and subdivisions were there.

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32 Responses to “HUBRIS”

  1. ladiesbane Says:

    Twenty years should be long enough for my (hypothetical) kid to graduate HS/college and get a real education / job in a place that's not suffering from a terminal illness.

    — So said Rio Rancho, NM, when I lived there. Albuquerque welcomed Intel and gave them jillions in tax breaks, thinking their kids would be the professionals trained in R&D by local schools infused with tax dollars and grant money from their patron. Instead, their children flip burgers for the out-of-state talent, and the sweetheart deals and tax breaks benefit…Intel.

  2. Both Sides Do It Says:

    When everything below the mason dixon line is 120 degrees in the shade all summer, they'll be back. Air conditioning energy costs are a bitch. AGW FTW!

    Rio Rancho was one of the parcels of land the Glengarry Glen Ross schmucks were trying to push. Fitting.

  3. Sean Says:

    I moved to Sand-Land in '96. It sure as hell wasn't for the enlightened politics or sense of social justice. Hey, if you can raise your level of cog-diss high enough to filter out Jan brewer, Joe Arpaio, AND deal with the summers? You're home free, Brah…

  4. Nate Says:

    In defense of Raleigh-Durham specifically, the civic leaders in the 70s saw the numbers of educated workers coming out of the three big universities there and created the Research Triangle Park to attract biotech and tech industries with high-paying jobs that would keep those graduates in the area. And it largely worked, the Raleigh-Durham area has one of the highest percentages of PhDs in the nation and is a really pleasant place to live.

    Of course, the current GOP state government is doing everything it can to destroy that legacy so perhaps it is temporary as you say. But not necessarily for the reasons you cite here.

  5. xynzee Says:

    @ladies: "infused tax dollars". Only if you can get that part in writing. The rub being that if you expect commitment from them then the whole deal is off, and they'll go to Cesspit, Iowa who'll give 'em what they want w/o strings.

    The other thing that will be interesting to see is how the union movement may take off. Even the Walmart employees are starting to wise up to the fact that they would prefer a bit of "Astroglide" as part of the deal.

  6. Mr. Prosser Says:

    Twenty years is a long time, 25% of a life more or less. Having three careers in different geographic areas is the norm these days. Time and the climate will move the industries not just the labor costs. "In the long run, we're all dead."

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    I visited a buddy of mine that I worked with at Manhattan Cable, where he had moved to, in Chapel Hill, NC, in early 1983.

    He had a good job, a nice apartment in town, a new car, and a new motorcycle.
    The town was tiny.
    We drove up a 2-lane road to Durham, near Duke U., with a local friend of his, a young college professor at Duke, to see a band perform, whose members they knew.
    And on the way up, we stopped off for some other-worldly fried chicken. He picked up the check, and when I said, 'No, let me take care of it,' he laughed and asked how much I thought the dinner for the three of us cost?
    I figured, having lived in Queens, NYC at the time, and working in Manhattan, that it had to be about $25, not including the tip. He said the whole dinner, with sides, and sweet-tea (which I hated, btw – WAAAAY too sweet), with the tip, was about $9.
    Welcome to the South, I thought.
    This guy, who lived in a rat-hole in Queens, and couldn't afford jack-sh*t, now had a nice apartment, a new car, and a new motorcycle.
    Hmm…
    But, I stayed in NY City.

    Now, fast forward 16 years, and another friend moved down there, bought a piece of land, and built a house for his wife and 3 sons. He spent about $350,000.
    Jayzoos, I asked him, how much land did he have, and how huge was the house?
    He said, the house wasn't too big, and he barely had enough land around his house, to spit on.
    Welcome to the "New South."

    He arranged a job interview for me, and when I flew down, the Chapel Hill that I knew from the early 80's, had been transformed – from a sleepy little College Town, to something that looked like a suburb around NY City.
    Gone was the 2-lane quiet road up to Durham – in its place, was a 6-lane highway, that turned into a 4 lane one, outside of town, and the became an 8 lane road. The little fried-chicken restaurant was gone, and in its place was some shopping mall.

    I took the job, and got a nice 1-bedroom apartment in a brand-spanking new complex, for around $900 a month, and lived there for almost 4 years.

    In those 16 or so years, the whole area had completely changed.

    One Southern Good Ol' Boy at work was bitching about us Yankee's moving down there, like little Sherman's who decided to stay. I told him, he'd better watch his ass, or we Yankee's would take over the place – Oooops! Too late – we already had!!! He looked shocked, but knew I was right. We Yankees had completely changed the sleepy little area he grew up in, and enforced our Northern work-ethic, on people who grew-up taking it 'nice, and easy.'

    I worked right near Research Triangle Park (RTP), and, in the first George W. Bush Recession, I watched one massive Call Center after another one, close down. Those jobs either moved overseas, or even further South, to SC, GA, AL, and West to TN.

    So, yeah, all of those companies that moved South, making RTP seem like some Southern Silicon Valley, went looking for even cheaper space and labor, once they caused the areas they once moved to, and the locals and transport from the Norths, to cost their shareholders more than they wanted to spend

    The folks in that part of NC saw first hand, another reason why 'corporations AIN'T people, my friends' – people feel some sense of loyalty – a corporations feels none.
    To paraphrase the late, great, Sam Kinison – 'They'll move to where the cheaper labor is!'
    Always.
    So, enjoy your little boom times, "Right To Work" states – corporations will always be looking for "Right To Work For Less" states.
    Or, countries.

  8. LK Says:

    I wonder whether there's a test case where the run actually stopped. I mean, they say Africa is the new China (since Chinese labor is no longer 8 cents an hour, or even 20), and with the amount of Chinese investment in the backwater of this 1.2B strong mud pool, "they" are probably right. But what happens when an industry reaches the point where cost-cutting just doesn't cut it anymore? What happens when, after decades (or sometimes centuries) of constant innovation trying to find cheaper ways to make the same darn thing, you've exhausted your "race to the bottom"? When you're paying dirt-low wages and ridiculous taxes, and still your customers want lower prices and your employees demand better pay? Will they still have it in them to really innovate? Will we see entire product lines and industries disappear? Will there be an inflation crisis? Or is there a "silver bullet" out of this mess?

  9. JohnR Says:

    @LK: we already know. Slavery. It's really the only economically viable choice. I'm sure we'll pick a nicer euphemism, though; the term "slavery" has unfortunately been tainted. The focus groups have likely already got the new term ready to be rolled out (if it hasn't already been).

  10. sluggo Says:

    In the long run, Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo will be fine. The own 90% of the nations' fresh water, and have no desire to share.

    See this article:

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-12-10-great-lakes-debate_x.htm

  11. Tim H. Says:

    The fig leaf will likely be debt, tuition or medical. Businesses keen to eliminate training costs will require an expensive degree for entry level work, with little hope of repayment, and Wall $treet will demand the right to place economic losers in servitude. Worse yet, every waypoint will be sold as protecting freedom.

  12. Fluttbucker Says:

    Re Sluggo's comment.
    The Northeast has the water for the moment.
    But plans are afoot to turn the Great Lakes into the Aral sea.
    We have the technology.
    At the moment, the Lake States and Canada are on the same page, blocking schemes to pump out the water.
    Soon enough, several well funded grassroots movements will pitch the benefits of shipping the abundant liquid resources to the highest bidders.
    A couple of election cycles and it's a done deal.

  13. BigHank53 Says:

    I grew up in New England, home of the industrial revolution, and the cities of Manchester, Nashua, and Lowell were filled with empty textile mills. They'd moved south for cheaper labor and land, in some cases before WWII. The mill buildings they left behind, though, are things no-one could afford to build today. Right on the river, fourteen-foot ceilings, huge windows, hardwood floors built to support cast-iron machinery. Now they're filled with colleges and breweries and art studios and luxury condos. Something tells me the leftovers from the next round of post-industrialization are not going to be as tasty….

  14. Sally's Dad Says:

    This 'race to the bottom' is pretty much self fulfilling is it not? You seek out the cheapest labor so that you can build your widget cheaper so that the people to whom you're paying jack-shit can afford to buy said widget. And the beat down goes on…

  15. Inverarity Says:

    re: BigHank53

    I live in one of those repurposed buildings, and it's terrific. It's worth pointing out, though, that revitalization takes more than sturdy old industrial stock. There are any number of Northeastern factory cities (Lawrence, MA, for example) which have had a much harder time getting their act together.

    Lowell, which was notoriously bad in the 70s, has benefited from a public-private partnership (founded by the late Paul Tsongas, among others) that has courted federal money, cultivated new businesses, and generally got folks moving in the same direction. After thirty years, the difference is startling, even though there's lots more that needs doing. But getting that sort of result requires the kind of serious long-term thinking and cooperation that's not always possible to muster, more's the pity…

  16. Mo Says:

    Wanna take best on how soon it becomes OK to import very cheap labor from other countries, to move into the abandoned 'burbs and maintain the industry for $6 an hour?

  17. Aaron Says:

    It seems pretty obvious in retrospect that a company that's willing to move its production line 2,000 miles to reduce the cost of labor/unions is going to move further south, or even out of the country, as soon as things become too expensive in the South.

    Two good books on the topic, I'd say, are Silver's "Forces of Labor," which investigates why labor issues seem to follow employers from country to country, and EP Thompson's "Making of the English Working Class," which among other things talked about how every boom in demand for labor led to new companies and machines which replaced them.

  18. KMTBerry Says:

    The poster above is right: WATER. I live in Austin Texas, a HUGE boomtown that has been booming my entire life. What does Texas NOT have? Water. Not enough water for the folks already here! A whole lotta jobs are going to move NORTH again in the next twenty years, to get out of the 120 degree heat and to have WATER.

  19. sluggo Says:

    'Youngstown. Toledo. Muncie. Saginaw. Flint. Rochester. Binghamton. Scranton. Hartford. Reading. Peoria. Gary. Dayton. Rockford.'

    My God! That list of towns is like watching my life flash before my eyes. I know people from nine of those cities. Most of them had moved to Chicago to get out of there.

  20. jon Says:

    http://www.kunstler.com/blog/

    So what's being said is that aside from the water, the power, the local economy, the nation's economy, worldwide economic trends, the environment, and the debt load of the average person, everything's going to be great if you really just learn to enjoy watching the destruction of dreams, ambition, and the culture around us.

    You guys save me a lawn chair, I want to watch Juggalos kill each other, too. I'll bring some beer and popcorn.

  21. mothra Says:

    Ladiesbane:

    Albuquerque and Rio Rancho are two distinct cities. Rio Rancho is a piece of shit populated and run by right wingers who sell out to the highest bidder whomever it may be. I am not sure who gave the tax breaks to Intel, but it really does employ local people. A LOT of local people. Now, whether there are any grants to schools or not is beyond me; Rio Rancho has its own school district and maybe they are collecting the benefits from Intel. But I assure you, Intel has not fucked the area up the butt.

    Now some other businesses that have gotten tax breaks? Oh yeah. Without a reach-around and KY, as a matter of fact.

    New Mexico would participate in the race to the bottom except, of course, it is already at the bottom. In everything. Businesses won't even come here for the tax breaks because our work force is so poorly educated. Yeah. I love living in a third-world country right here in the USofA

  22. Diana Says:

    Welcome to capitalism, everyone … David Riccardo called it the "iron law of wages" and even Marx believed in it (not that he liked it, just that he believed in it):
    "A doctrine imputed by Marx to the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64) and vituperatively denounced in Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). It is the idea that under capitalism wages are necessarily held at the barest level of subsistence that allows the worker just to survive in order to work and reproduce the children who will be the next generation of the working class. Marx denounces this as no more than a reworking of Malthus. Some of Marx's earlier work nevertheless gives the distinct impression that Marx also once believed in the iron law of wages…."

  23. Xynzee Says:

    @Diana: I can't remember when I heard it, maybe in HS, but it summed up your point. Capitalism, by its very nature, requires that someone is exploited.

  24. Tom in Texas Says:

    Garland, TX may not be the best example of Southern hubris. Garland has been sliding for some time as industry moved out. In Oct 2012, Navistar (used to be Internat'l Harvester) announced it was closing its plant there, which employed 900 workers. Big hit to this area. News reported assembly at that plant is being transferred to Escobedo, Mexico and Springfield, OH. Garland also courted and "won" a Bass Pro Shop about five years ago. If that deal was like most of these BPS deals, Garland has not seen any tax money, since Bass Pro has to generate a substantial base revenue before it is liable to the city for taxes. Since the economic downturn, not as much biz there, just like mostly everywhere else. Local Texas cities that might better fit reflect hubris are Plano (which is home to a number of corporate offices, not assembly plants) and McKinney or Frisco, far to the north of Dallas, which seem to have the primary advantage (in the minds of buyers) that they are . . . far to the north of Dallas.

  25. Tim Says:

    The gloating is a bit hollow anyway when the southern states are *still* trying to catch up in income and education. C'mon guys, you've had 150 years.

  26. Brian M Says:

    I was just "driving" via Google Maps streetview around Albany, NY. Yep. Somehow, Atlanta just doesn't compare.

  27. JoyfulA Says:

    All those mills that moved from New England are now long gone from the South. Nobody would think of living in what remains there.

    And for those new jobs from new industries in the South, Boeing was recruiting electricians for $10/hour. You have to wonder whether Boeing found any at that rate who could tell AC from DC.

  28. Mike the Mad Biologist Says:

    The other thing to note about the rise of the South is that it has received a massive decades-long Keynesian stimulus. I wonder how long that is politically sustainable.

  29. BethanyAnne Says:

    I guess I'm a couple of days late to this, but I watched a Richard Wolff Youtube video here, the other day. It struck me as pretty useful thinking about this race to the bottom, and beginning to offer some ideas out. When this topic sort of rolls around again, I might post the link sooner, if I can.

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