This obviously isn’t a politics blog, and I haven’t written about politics here before.
But we just witnessed the most striking American political moment of my lifetime, and it occurred to me to me that the readership of this blog probably splits about half-and-half between urban liberals and rural conservatives, the split that defined this election. Feeling humbled and awed by the moment, I thought I’d see if I could spark a conversation. Please chime in if you have thoughts. Here goes.
Over the past three days, I learned something profound and surprising:
Many people from rural areas hate people like me. And for good reason.
I come from the small blue-collar city of Kenosha. I was one of the smart, ambitious kids. After high school, I left Kenosha for university and then settled in Madison, a big college town. I work for a company who only hires college-educated people from cities, and whose services help our customers improve productivity (read: fire people). And I have voted for politicians who support globalization.
In other words, I contribute to all of the trends which made non-college-educated people from rural areas so furious with our system that they chose to vote for Donald Trump this week in record numbers, including:
- Brain Drain: Taking my talents and leaving my small city.
- Not Giving Back: Doing nothing to create jobs for those without college degrees. I don’t have a single colleague without a degree.
- Productivity: My work contributes to increased productivity in manual labor tasks, and thus fewer jobs. 80% of manufacturing job losses over the past 30 years have been to robots (or productivity), not Chinese.
- Globalization: I voted for Democratic politicians who betrayed their union base back in the 80s and implemented trade deals, based on the now-debunked myth that everyone could rise from the working to the professional classes.
In a very real sense, if we were in the Hunger Games, I’d be one of the people living in the city of Panem whose work helped build make The Districts what they are. All my friends are the same. And it’s getting worse.
Yesterday I heard about a book called The Politics of Resentment, which catalogs the results of interviews with hundreds of rural folks in Wisconsin, where I live. The author found that over the past two decades there’s been a growing resentment by people who live in rural areas for people who live in cities, for the following reasons:
- We have all the money
- We take all the smart, ambitious people
- We invent things that improve productivity, which take away rural and blue collar jobs
- We vote for politicians who promote globalization, which does the same
- We are condescending to those who don’t know how to use words well or who are uncomfortable around people not like them
- We undermine things many rural folks care about like farming, religion, and patriotism
This week, that simmering anger exploded. Listening to a talk by Vance Armstrong from Ohio coal country, I learned that many rural communities are plagued by the kind of drug use, broken families, and hopelessness that we saw in black communities starting in the 80s. Lack of meaningful work and a place in society is a plague that rots communities, and people living in those communities are mad as hell.
Over breakfast in the small town of Sauk City on Wednesday, I overheard the following statement from grey-bearded man who came in for coffee:
Praise God! When I saw that Trump got elected, it moved me so much I started to cry. You know what moved me? He was elected by the non-college educated people – farmers, workers – the people who actually care about this country. I don’t know what he’s gonna do, but something’s gotta change.
I married a missionary kid born in Chile. There are some things I love about America, and others things I hate. I could leave, and take my money with me without feeling like I’d betrayed anything. I suspect that the fellow in that restaurant would find this deeply offensive. My working-class grandmother feels the same way. She gets mad at me every time I cross the border.
A recent article in the New Yorker called Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt reveals why many working class people despise her and would vote for almost anyone else. Essentially, they were betrayed. The Clintons got caught up in the George McGovern wave that swept through the Democratic party in the 70s. McGovern appealed to the values and votes of the professional glass, and snubbed the working class union base. The Clintons played a major role in this shift and bought into the ideas of Larry Summers about global trade, namely “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Over the objections of the unions they went forward with NAFTA, which set the stage for many other trade deals. In the end, those deals mostly benefited the wealthiest 1%, and to a lesser extent the professional class (they were excellent for many poor countries, but that’s beside the point). For the rural working class it was a “disaster” as Trump is wont to say. And the Clintons were in the middle of it.
The Republican party is no better, of course. They’ve always supported free trade, at least till now. But at least there was no betrayal.
Anyhow, these are the ideas that have rolled around in my head this week, and I’m left wondering what to do about it.
It’s true that I’ve wanted for years to start a business which hires non-college-educated people. I meant for Frosty Fish to be a warehousing and shipping operation, which didn’t pan out. I tried to start an aquaponics operation on a fish farm, which fell victim to business partnership issues and my own risk-aversion.
Currently I’m on the 10-year retirement plan, and one thing might do when I retire is trying to find investors and really get a business going. But I’m torn. Is it worth working 10 years to retire (in the Mr. Money Mustache tradition), or should I try and do something now?
I know that I’m ignoring major issues like race and the Supreme Court, and I’m not saying whether I think Trump will make a good President. But I really think that this working class rural vs. city professional thing may be the heart of our situation as a country right now.
What do you think? Is this Panem vs. The Districts, or did I miss the point?
I also have a specific policy proposal. What if we changed corporate taxes so that each company can claim $5,000 per employee as profit at a tax rate of 10%, but any profit above that is taxed at 50%. Complex to implement, but it would have the effect of encouraging companies to use people rather than machines.