As usual, when there is a political debacle, people are focused on the symbol and not the cause. While Kevin Williamson’s comments on working class white communities may be despicable, he made an important point, but then failed to follow through with an actual diagnosis of cause.
Williamson is speaking of the dead-end company towns of America. Once, these small towns had thriving factories; then the factories closed, and now all that is left are the people without gumption to get out of town. They live on government welfare and spend a lot of their time pursuing exciting pharmaceuticals. Williamson takes it a bit far:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.
As with all mainstream writing, to be popular he must overstate and overwrite each part of the piece, which is why it is such cluttered and motley text taken to outlandish extremes. But he makes a good point: what do you do when a community has no means of support because the one factory in town packed up for China or Mexico?
I have an even better point: Mr. Williamson, how did it get that way?
Let me tell you the story of a typical American company town. Liberals are getting ready to pounce with their statistics, which are always made-up or at the very least falsely interpreted, because idiots can convince each other that what they want to be true is true with such things. But this is an old tale.
Runoff, AR, was originally a junction town. The train stopped a few miles away, and sometimes that brought visitors to stay in the hotel, which had four rooms. There was a post office and general store in the lobby of that hotel. Somewhere else was a government surveyor’s office. Otherwise, Runoff was simply a meeting of the roads near the local farms where hardy folk scraped out an acceptable but not stunning existence.
Then came the Intercosmos Replication Company. IRC made widgets, and they were looking for a new plant. They set up shop and began hiring. The new jobs were good. They paid more than anything in the region. Soon people came from all over the state, and Runoff swelled to 12,000 people of whom many worked at the big plant in the hills. So far, a capitalism success story.
But in the years after the war, things soured. All these people pouring into the region had brought The Civilization Disease with them. Crime was up, drunken fights were frequent, and there was a real-estate bidding war on the best land in town. The new citizens were no longer happy with their pre-fab cabins, but wanted to live the real good life. Prices went up. Even more, the cost of living went up, in terms of taxes and fees.
Then government entered the picture. IRC had to file new paperwork and hire more lawyers to fight off lawsuits and anticipate federal regulations. As the company’s costs rose, it cut its budget where it could, by shaving off a few people from second shift. This energized the town. “The Company isn’t honoring its commitment. We’ll form a union!”
Next Monday morning there was a walkout. IRC was in a bad place since anyone who could get to Runoff was already there. The workers knew the company had no options. So it gave in, time and again. The union got what it wanted, and the workers got slightly better salaries, although a few noticed that the union organizers seemed to be living rather well (and had new friends with heavy moustaches and heavier accents).
Dave Bob the line foreman got really nervous at the last union meeting with management. The union went in there ready to fight, and management just folded. They agreed to everything, signed the papers, and walked out whistling. “You know guys, there is never something for nothing,” he said. “Where’s the money coming from? What are we not seeing?”
But he was drowned out by the crowd at the local bar. The good times were really here! Yes, sirree, salaries had never been higher. That new union rep from Harvard must be a total genius, I tell you. But Dave Bob noticed other changes as well: in particular, a lot of workers had moved on. They took the money and ran. And the company seemed to be not upgrading the plant much.
The next few years went swimmingly for the workers. They got more money and had to do less. A worker could spot a machine on fire and walk right on by and tell no one. It was not his job, you see, and (as the Harvard unionizer had explained) he might in fact take away a job from someone else whose title was Machine Fire Watchperson. Wouldn’t want to do that. The rep explained that the economy is zero-sum and so if the company needed more money, it just made more widgets or new types of widgets. The money rained from heaven.
Until Christmas morning the following year. That day, Dave Bob was driving past the plant and noticed that the gate was roped shut with chain and a new sign was visible on it. To his horror, this sign proclaimed the plant closed and instructed the curious to call the main office of the company, which was now in Taipei. The workers pooled their coins around the pay phone and finally got through.
“Runoff? Yes, we had a plant there,” said the Vice President they reached. “But we looked at the figures, and it was not cost effective compared to making our widgets in China and shipping them back. Wages are lower, there are no lawsuits, and there is less regulation, so everything is less expensive, which is good because our new competitors sell at half of our prices.”
The union rep came and made a fiery speech about how they could not get away with this. They would sue! His cousin with a law firm in the big city came out, and the workers put together their money and hired him, and the lawsuit was on! It sure was exciting in the town for a few days… until they figured out that the lawsuit would take a dozen years to really complete, and that the company would still save money even if it lost. The plant was never coming back.
That highway blazed with U-hauls going elsewhere. Some went to the cities, some to other towns, and a few who saved their money and had some of the cold gubbmint Social Security cash coming just headed straight to Mexico to retire. But most had nowhere to go. They had no other skills but making parts of widgets, and now the widget market was flooded. They went down to the government office and got on the dole, and they remain there ever since.
What was left in Runoff, AR, resembled that which was left when the Soviet Union fell: people who had no role other than as dependents on a larger entity. They could do simple tasks, but had to be watched with an iron fist or they would bite the hand that fed them, just as they had done in Runoff. And now the government was in panic because jobs were being outsourced by the millions.
“We’ll keep those jobs here in North America,” said the politicians, and crafted something called NAFTA. What this meant was that the USA, like the EU, was a sort of free-trade zone for partially finished products. There’s a new factory 250 miles from Runoff now, where workers take a widget engine from Japan, a widget body from Mexico and a widget light fixture from Korea and connect them together. These workers are college-educated and operate on a contract basis, so there’s no union.
Back in the hills, Runoff is as dead as doornail. The kids commit suicide as a kind of spectator sport, when they’re not snorting Adderall and Oxycontin or drinking the moonshine they make from the dubious wild potatoes that grow on the former factory dumping ground. No one much cares if they survive. Their best hope, in theory, is to leave everything they know and become more rootless people wandering around the big cities. Scary — and ugly — that fate.
This is the story that Mr. Williamson undoubtedly edited out of his story. You kill wealth when you create a force that controls it. When you leave it up to independent actors like the company and workers, they can make agreements to help each other, and while not ideal, everyone does OK. Take that away and you leave wastelands filled with people who have never known any life but dependency.
Since the cities are rotted ruins, Mr. Williamson’s U-hauls are no longer an answer. Instead, let’s look at the problem: unions have legal protection, and unions are always parasites. Never doubt that. Everywhere they go, they take from company and worker alike, and leave an industry in moribund state. Government regulations and lawsuits do the same.
If you want to help the white working classes, start by eliminating those things. Remove all legal protections for unions. Tear down all the regulations we’ve written in the last century. Stop allowing trivial slip ‘n’ fall cases to become million-dollar bonanzas. There are better ways to handle all of those things, and you leave fewer wastelands behind.