All the months since President Obama turned the job loss situation around in 2009 have shown steady improvement in new jobs. Unemployment has fallen and employment has risen. We are in good shape, it seems.
And yet we have a big problem with unemployment. So significant that one demographic segment has shown unexpected major increases in drug use and suicides: middle-aged white males—the Trumpsters. The phenomenon is so prominent that we can no longer pretend that African-Americans are to blame for all our addictions. Nor can we any longer pretend they are the only unemployed.
This is the conundrum: how is it possible that the employment situation can be both steadily improving and at the same time worsening enough that these men become addicted and commit suicide?
The fact is that both Trumpsters and the younger hipsters are right, but they are talking about two different populations. It is very important that the nation address the problems that afflict the middle-aged Trumpsters as well as the hipsters. As I have said here, here, and here, I think an important step is to reduce the length of the work week, as we have done in the past.
Between these two groups, the greater difficulty lies with those who haven’t been able to find stable work for decades. People, not just whites, but African-Americans also, like those Paul Theroux talked to during several years of travels through the Deep South (the title of his latest book). Although he wrote about the south, the same conditions persist in other parts of the country, particularly rural areas. In the deep south, the cities tend to be prosperous enough to support the people reasonably.
But get outside the city limits ten or twenty miles and you will find that most of the population is poor and struggling, the employment situation desperate, the infrastructure in disrepair. Factories and farms are abandoned and overgrown, with jobs shipped overseas, and demand for local agriculture and manufactured products long gone. Good people are trying to help as much as they can, getting small funding from state and federal governments, but recovery is not underway.
But in many cities themselves, besides in the South, unemployment and depressing conditions are also high.
What Donald Trump is saying, although most of it is contradictory and false, resonates with many such people, because nobody else seems to believe they are worth the trouble, and they don’t like that, or the idea that whites are moving toward less power and dominance. Nothing has improved for them for a long time, and Trump tells them he will fix everything.
But Trump lies, of course. Nothing this failed businessman could do will fix the situation, although he tells them again and again he will make everything all better. But neither does anyone else of importance have the sure answer, and very few are even thinking about it, because they dismiss these people as being uneducated and beyond help, besides which many are the wrong color. They are therefore not worth the trouble.
But their situation is serious, and thoughtful steps can be taken to improve their prospects. The global market is here to stay, but the government could enact many minor laws and regulations that would be small but progressive steps toward improving things. Theroux wrote about the collapse of fish farming, for example, under the onslaught of Asian fish farms and their cheap products that now flood the US market.
But most Asian fish farms are filthy, disease-ridden, and chemically contaminated, and the workers are poorly paid. In the US there are now some modern hygienic fish farms that provide far superior fish to the US market, and we like their products. The government could easily enough forbid diseased and chemically polluted fish from being sold, subsidize the construction of US facilities, and guarantee the price for the operators. It could encourage worker ownership, which would bring greatly improved income to fish farmers, which would have a multiplier effect in their locale.
Likewise, other efforts could bring superior US American products to market. Henry Petroski, in The Road Taken, recounts how several inferior Chinese hand tools broke in his hand the first time he used them. The US government could encourage production of superior products. This is not without precedent. For example, Detroit’s Shinola corporation broke out of shoe polish business and into several new lines that are decidedly superior products. Likewise, the Lodge Cast Iron Foundry of South Pittsburg, Tennessee has been around since 1896, but not only has not faded away with the loss of the iron industry, but is now producing cast iron cookware that beats imports in both quality and price.
In recent years our pundits have told us we can no longer rely on making things, since the Third World can make them so much cheaper. But, as my examples demonstrate, cheaper is not always better, and there is a market for superior American stuff of all kinds. Moreover, not everyone can or should go to college. Skilled work of any kind is to be admired, should be well paid, and is worth a lot to our own markets.
It would not take earth-shaking new programs to put these people on a new trajectory. But it would take more than haphazard and disinterested efforts, which we seem to be making now. We can do it, but first we have to believe that it’s important.